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The keys to Divisional Round success

Eight talented teams remain in the hunt, but each has at least one weakness that can be exploited. Joe Fortenbaugh

Print This January 12, 2012, 04:24 PM EST

Nobody’s perfect.

The Green Bay Packers certainly came close to posting a 16-0 regular season record and the New Orleans Saints ripped off an impressive eight straight victories to close out the year, but each team—like the other six teams still alive in the hunt for the Vince Lombardi Trophy—isn't without its flaws.

Find your opponent’s weakness and attack.  Identify your own weaknesses and improve.

That’s how you advance in the NFL postseason.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS at SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (Saturday, 4:30pm ET)

What New Orleans needs to do:  Jump out to an early lead, force turnovers

The Saints were virtually flawless at home in 2011, going 8-0 while beating their opponents by an average of 23.3 points per game.  But the road is where New Orleans looked its most vulnerable as the Saints went 5-3 with two losses coming against inferior opponents in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams.

In all three road losses, the Saints fell behind early.  Green Bay jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead in Week 1, while the Buccaneers (20-7) and Rams (24-0) also put Drew Brees and company in a deep hole that proved too much to overcome.  Not only that, but the Saints forced just one total turnover in their three losses.

If the Saints want to make an appearance in the NFC Championship game for the second time in the last three years, they need to get after Niners quarterback Alex Smith, who threw two of his five interceptions in San Francisco’s three losses this season.  Smith posted a QB Rating of 90.7 on the season, but that number fell to just 72.4 in games where the 49ers came up short.

What San Francisco needs to do:  Control the clock, keep Brees off the field

A 13-3 regular season is sure to lose some of its shine should the 49ers fail to record at least one postseason victory. 

Drew BreesGetting into a shootout with Drew Brees and the Saints is the last thing the 49ers want to do on Saturday.

San Francisco’s average time of possession this season was 32:02 as the 49ers did an excellent job of keeping quarterback Alex Smith in manageable down and distance situations.  But in the team’s three losses, the Niners held the ball for 30:43 (vs. Dallas, overtime), 28:52 (at Baltimore) and 30:56 (at Arizona). 

On the other side of the rock, the Saints’ average time of possession in 2011 was 31:46, but in their three losses, New Orleans held the ball for only 27:06 (at Green Bay), 28:33 (at Tampa Bay) and 28:37 (at St. Louis).

Time of possession is considered by many to be a somewhat worthless stat, but the longer Brees is on the field, the more likely it is that the Saints will be scoring points.  Alex Smith threw for over 275 yards just one time this season, so a shootout with the high-flying Saints is the last thing the Niners want in their first postseason appearance since 2002.

DENVER BRONCOS at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (Saturday, 8:00pm ET)

What Denver needs to do:  Protect the football

As the biggest Divisional Round underdog, there are several things Denver will need to do well in order to escape Foxborough with a win.  But most importantly, the Broncos will need to protect the football.

Tim Tebow and company went 0-5 this season when committing three or more turnovers, but went an impressive 5-1 when giving up the ball one or fewer times.  In their wildcard round upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Broncos turned the ball over only once.

For as shaky as the Patriots defense has looked in 2011, this unit finished the season ranked third in the NFL in takeaways (34).  Ball security for the Broncos needs to be priority No. 1, considering the fact that in the first meeting between these two teams back in December, three costly Denver turnovers led to 13 points for the Patriots.

What New England needs to do:  Establish the running game, aim for 27 rushing attempts

When you think about New England’s offense, the first thing that comes to mind is Tom Brady and the Patriots’ devastating passing attack.  But the best way to keep the opposing defense honest and open up the secondary for exploitation is to establish a legitimate running game.

Tom BradyEstablishing a healthy dose of the run will go a long way to opening up the secondary for the lethal Brady.

In their 13 wins this season, the Patriots averaged 28.9 rushing attempts per game.  In fact, New England went 7-0 in games in which they ran the ball 27 or more times.  But in the Patriots’ three losses, the team averaged only 20.7 carries per game and failed to top 27 attempts in each of those three defeats.

Yes, a big second half lead means a team can focus more on the running game in order to drain the clock, but New England ran the ball an average of only 3.25 times more in the second half this season then they did in the first.  That’s not a big discrepancy for a team that finished the year ranked second in the NFL in total offensive plays per game (67.6).

HOUSTON TEXANS at BALTIMORE RAVENS (Sunday, 1:00pm ET)

What Houston needs to do:  Get after Joe Flacco early, get after Joe Flacco often

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked an average of just 1.9 times per game in 2011.  When the fourth-year signal-caller was sacked one or fewer times in an outing, the Ravens went an impressive 6-1.  Keeping Flacco clean in the pocket was a big reason why Baltimore enjoyed so much success this past year.

However, the Ravens dropped four games during the regular season and in those four contests, Flacco was taken down an average of 3.0 times per game.  Dealing with pressure is not one of the Baltimore quarterback’s strong suits, as Flacco ranked just 19th in QB Rating against the blitz in 2011 (76.34).

The Texans rode one of the league’s best defenses to their first postseason berth in franchise history and must continue to do so if they want a shot to play for the AFC Championship.  Houston finished the year ranked sixth in the league in sacks (44) and went 5-3 when bringing down the opposing quarterback at least three times.

What Baltimore needs to do:  Score 20 points

This one may sound simple enough and when you look at what the Texans have done this season, you can see why.

Ray Rice20 points from Ray Rice and the Ravens should be enough to advance to next weekend's AFC Championship game.

First off, with rookie quarterback T.J. Yates under center coupled with a heavy emphasis on the running game, Houston isn’t built for a shootout.  This is a team that plays field position football and relies heavily on their punishing ground game and stellar defense to grind out victories.

In the five games in which Houston surrendered 20 or more points, the Texans went 0-5.  In the 11 games in which Wade Phillips’ top-notch defense limited the opposition to 19 or fewer points, the team went 10-1.

In a game in which the current over/under stands at 36, 20 points should be enough for the Ravens to advance to the AFC Championship.

NEW YORK GIANTS at GREEN BAY PACKERS (Sunday, 4:30pm ET)

What New York needs to do:  Run the football

Big Blue is at their best—and absolute toughest—when they play Giant football.  That means getting after the opposing quarterback and pounding the ball between the tackles.

In their seven regular season losses, New York relied too much on the right arm of quarterback Eli Manning and averaged just 21.5 rushing attempts per game.  However, when this football team makes a serious commitment to establishing the run, they find a great deal of success.  The Giants averaged a healthy 28.8 carries per game over their nine wins and only lost one game this past season when recording more than 25 carries.

Let’s be honest here:  Beating the 15-1 Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field is going to require a near-flawless performance in all three phases of the game.  But if the Giants can get after soon-to-be-named MVP Aaron Rodgers while featuring a heavy dose of the ground and pound, the G-Men can try and force the Packers to play Giant football.  We all saw how well that worked for Atlanta last week.

Keep in mind that during their current three-game winning streak, the Giants have recorded 26, 31 and 31 carries against the Jets, Cowboys and Falcons, respectively.  In addition, the Packers surrendered an average of 4.7 yards per carry this season (7th-most in NFL), so Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw should be able to find some success early in this showdown.

What Green Bay needs to do:  The same thing they’ve done all season long:  Attack the opposing secondary

Aaron RodgersRodgers has been destroying opposing secondaries this season.

If the New York Giants have an Achilles’ heel, it most certainly lies within their secondary, which finished the 2011 regular season ranked 29th in the league against the pass.  In New York’s nine wins, the Giants surrendered an average of 263.4 passing yards per game.  In their seven losses, Big Blue was torched for an average of 292.3 passing yards per game.

If the Green Bay offensive line can keep Rodgers clean and allow the wide receivers to get down the field, the Giants could be in for a long day against an offense that averaged a ridiculous 333.4 passing yards per game at home in 2011

Hit me up on Twitter:  @JoeFortenbaugh

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