Money Line Weekend – Saturday Afternoon Edition
I am going to ruin all the suspense early so I might as well do it now. Every favorite is going to win this weekend, because that’s the only way it can happen. That’s what makes this money line weekend. Some of the spreads are damn near perfect and tough to bet on but that doesn’t have to stop you from grabbing the ML on the favorite.
Why are all the favorites going to win? Because it has been setting up that way since the very first day of the NFL season. From the time the NFL announced that there would be a shortened training camp every team with a veteran roster with little turnover was granted a competitive advantage, and the four teams that were the best teams all season will be the four teams that will face off in the league championship games. The Packers return most of the team that won last years Super Bowl. The Patriots and Saints return the core of teams that 14-2 last year and won the Super Bowl two years ago respectively. The Ravens are always in a struggle with the Steelers for top team in their division but grabbed the torch early this year when they owned the Steelers in week 1 and never looked back. I wrote about this last week, I followed the theory in my picks and it didn’t steer me wrong. I see no reason to change now. Not only were these the four best teams all season (you could argue the 49ers were rated higher than the Saints early in the year but no one truly believe they were as good as they were until their week 10 victory over the Giants, and then they got demolished two weeks later against the Ravens), but besides being the best, three of the teams have one other advantage. They have the three best QB’s in the league, in what happens to be the year of the QB. I would call that somewhat of an advantage. Not just because they are the best, but because they are far and away the best. The fourth team? Well they are the only team in the league to have a top defense nearly every year for the last 13 seasons. Read that again, 13 seasons! It is unusual to have a run of more than 3 years of top of the line defense. Baltimore has kept it going for 13. If there is one team without an elite QB that deserves to be in this all-star final four it may be Baltimore.
Is this anti-climatic? I don’t think so. As fans we should be delighted, the quality of play next week should be downright exceptional. So how do I get you to read the picks after that? Well the spreads are a whole different story…
NEW ORLEANS -3.5 @ SAN FRANCISCO – 4:30 Saturday
The Saturday games are absolutely ridiculous, and we start the weekend off with by far the closest match-up off the weekend. I buy their arguments but what about the fact that the Saints have been an absolute tank since their bye week? What about the fact that Drew Brees at this moment is playing better than anyone else in the league? Teams change throughout the season. What a team is in week one is almost certainly no what that team is in week 15, or even week 12 or week 8. The Saints had an embarrassing loss in St. Louis in week 8. Sean Payton knew the loss was embarrassing and it caused him to re-evaluate his team. Since that loss the Saints have been tougher and more ruthless.
Everyone making a case for the 49ers say the same thing about the Saints. They are unstoppable at home, but when you get them outside on the grass they just aren’t the same team. Is this true? No doubt New Orleans is a fast break offense that flourishes in the dome, but I hardly think they struggle when they are outside. Let’s examine some of their individual road games.
Three times this season they score 30 or more points on the road, they went 2-1: Week 1 @ Green Bay (loss), Week 5 @ Carolina (Win), Week 15 @ Minnesota (Win). I don’t think there is much to talk about here, they lost to Green Bay but you would hardly say the grass slowed down their offense. Carolina and Minnesota have two of the worst defenses in the league and the Saints get no props for scoring on them.
Two other times they lost on the road this season (Saints were undefeated at home): Week 6 20-26 @ Tampa, Week 8 21-31 @ St. Louis. Tampa really fell apart at the end of the year. But early in the year when they still had hope they played some quality games against their division opponents, as they tend to do. Not only did they knock off the Saints but the Falcons too. This is also the game in which Sean Payton suffered his sideline injury and New Orleans struggled from that point on. The St.Louis game is a no excuses game. They lost to an inferior team. No way to defend it. But this was probably the turning point of the Saints season – since this game they have 9 straight victories.
That leaves three games left to take a closer look at:
Week 4 @ Jacksonville 24-10 win – This might not seem like an impressive game but remember that Jacksonville had one of the top defenses in the league this year, especially early in the season. The week before this game they held Carolina to 16 points (in a rain storm) but also had a four point loss to Pittsburgh and an upset win over the Ravens due to their tough defense following this game. New Orleans actually moved the ball easily on the Jacksonville defense. They led off the game with back to back TD drives. New Orleans never found the end zone again after that. Jacksonville surrendered yards but forced 5 field goal attempts, New Orleans converted only 3. Brees also kicked in 2 INT’s. Because the Jaguars were able to hold New Orleans to Field Goal attempts the game remained close. But I would hardly say the Saints offense was sputtering. They were playing one of the top defenses in he league and they were only forced to punt once all game (sound similar to any recent Saints game you remember?).
Week 10 @ Atlanta 26-23 OT win – This was the game Mike Smith the Atlanta head coach decided to go for it on 4th and 1 in his own territory in OT. When the Falcons failed to pick it up they handed the Saints the win. Before that they game was very close at OT would indicate. The Falcons shut down the New Orleans run and were able to force 5 field goal trys just like the Jacksonville game, this time the Saints missed 1. There was a close hard-hitting division game and this game might play out closest to what we will see this Saturday against the 49ers.
Week 14 @ Tennessee 22-17 win - The Saints were held in check in this one but don’t forget that this was the first game the Saints played after losing Mark Ingram for the season and they hadn’t quite turned over the main rushing duties to Pierre Thomas at that point yet. Since, they have been rolling on the ground again – finishing second only to Carolina in running efficiency. Also, while the Saints were down 10-9 entering the 4th quarter each of their first three drives that resulted in Field Goals saw the Saints drive to atleast the 11 yard line before settling. Brees also went 36 for 47 passing for 323 yards – and he got the two TD’s he needed to win the game in the end. So the Saints were hardly shut down.
In each of these 3 games Drew Brees was able to throw for over 300 yards. The offense moved the ball up and down the field, but the reason the Saints failed to score 30 was due to turnovers and the defenses ability to force Field Goals. This may be the best the defense can hope for against the Saints. This is certainly the strategy the 49ers must hope for. If they can force Field Goals the game will always be within striking distance. While these games prove the Saints can be limited on the road I hardly think you can point to the road as a shut down factor for them.
Now that we have put the road worries to rest what other trends are emerging for this game? The Saints never faced one of the top three defenses this season but they did face some good defenses, mostly early in the season, and this may account for why their offense seemed to gain steam near the end of the year. They faced the defenses ranked 4-5-6-8 and 9th. In order: The beat Jacksonville (covered this), they handled 4th ranked Chicago easily at home dropping 30. They faced 5th ranked Atlanta twice and beat them both times. Eighth ranked Houston got tuned for a 40 burger, and we saw what just happened to 9th ranked Detroit. Also they beat down the Giants hanging 49 points on them. I think this is important because this is the 3rd team they faced who on defense try to control the game with their Dline - because the Dline has the ability to dominate their D has some success even if their coverage is not great in the back-end. You could say this for Houston and you could certainly say this for Detroit and New York. In each case the result was a beat down, even if each of these games was played in the Super Dome. You cannot beat Drew Brees with just Dline pressure. He is too quick with his decisions and release, and he doesn’t mind converting on 3rd and long yardage if you do happen to get a sack. You need great coverage on his receivers too or else the Dline pressure will not amount too much. I mention this because I see San Fran as a team that has had success this year by dominating the line of scrimmage on defense, while covering up for some less than great coverage in the back-end.
On the flip side, what kind of offenses, and more importantly Quarterbacks has San Fran been forced to face? When they played Ben Roethlisberger he was injured so we will toss that game aside. The rest of the games against quality QB’s tended to come early in the season like New Orleans games, with only one exception. In week two San Fran faced Tony Romo, they were able to knock him out of the game but when he returned he shredded the San Fran D and gained an 27-24 OT victory. Two weeks later they faced Micheal Vick and got down big early giving up 23 points.. But the D rallied and didn’t give up a point late leading to a dramatic 24-23 comeback victory. Two weeks after that San Fran travelled to Detroit and were able to contain the Detroit passing attack and escape with a 25-19 victory. At midseason they beat the Giants 27-20. Manning was able to drive the Giants down to the end zone late but San Fran ended the contest with an interception. Outside of those games the majority of the San Fran opponents came from the NFC West or the AFC North so you do the math on the quarterbacks they faced. As I stated earlier, my suspicion with the San Fran D is that their dominating Dline had hidden some average coverage in the secondary. And I do expect the Dline to be a factor on Saturday, but I don’t know if that alone is enough to stop Brees.
San Fran started the year extremely hot on defense and finished third overall behind only the Ravens and Jets. But in weighted defense they finished only 6th despite some weak offensive competition. In their last 6 games San Fran is 4-2. They beat down St. Louis twice, narrowly escaped with a road victory over Seattle, lost a close road game in Arizona, beat down an injured Steelers team at home and saw their offense evaporate in a loss in Baltimore. Hardly a murderers row. The Saints on the other hand have been virtually unstoppable in the last 9 weeks. Drew Brees is playing at such a high level that I don’t know if it matters if he is at home or on the road anymore.
All this analysis is nice and all but picking this game really comes down to one question for me. I know we haven’t talked about him yet but he looms over everything in this game, the question: Can you comfortably take Alex Smith in a playoff game against the hottest QB in the league knowing you are only getting 3.5 points?
My answer is no. We have years and years of evidence with Alex Smith. Now he is supposed to win the biggest game of his life while staring across the field at Drew Brees? I don’t buy it. I also think he was aided a lot this year by one factor, he was always playing on the tougher team. Jim Harbuagh has done a phenomenal job with the 49ers, going into every game it seemed like his team was a) much tougher than the other team and b) had the better coach. Unfortunately this weekend he is playing one of the other elite coaches in the league, and there is no doubt he has one of the toughest teams in the league too. The 49ers are good, but not good enough to pull away from the Saints. So when this game gets down to the 4th quarter and the game is still close and both teams know what the other team is trying to do who is going to line up and out execute the other team? Drew Brees will.
(Two conflicting bonus notes I have no idea what to do with: 1) Huey Lewis and the News is singing the national anthem to open up this game, how does San Fran lose with Huey Lewis and the News? 2) Alex Smith apparently gets a 1 Million dollar bonus if he wins this game. This makes me want to go against him with everything I have, I don’t know if Alex smith could be Alabama for a million bucks. I am going to call these factors a wash and stick with my original prediction.)
New Orleans 31 San Fran 17