Running the numbers on Saturday’s NFL Divisional Playoff games

Tim Tebow.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, time to talk about this weekend’s NFL playoff games, divisional-weekend edition.

Saturday’s action has NFC third seed New Orleans headed out west to take on No. 2 seed San Francisco; while quite possibly the game with the most buzz of the entire weekend will be the prime-time rematch featuring the AFC No. 4 seed Denver Broncos visiting the top-seeded New England Patriots.

Starting the weekend’s action, the visiting Saints are 3.5 point favorites over the 49ers, and it’s easy to see why: The Saints’ NFL-best pass attack against a Niner pass defense that is middle of the pack at best. However, while the New Orleans ground game is only slightly less successful, the Niners have the top run defense in the league.

Saints QB Drew Brees set several single season passing records this year, throwing for nearly 5500 yards and 46 touchdowns while giving up just 14 interceptions. Brees’s favorite receiver target in the regular season was Jimmy Graham, with 99 receptions for 1,310 yards and 11 TDs; followed by Marques Colston (80 catches/1143 yards) and Lance Moore (52 catches/627 yards), who each accounted for another eight scores. Darren Sproles collected 603 rushing yards to lead the team in that area, and added another 710 yards in receptions, which placed him third on the team in receiving. Sproles contributed just two rushing TDs; Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram had five rushing TDs each to lead the team.

For the Niners, the offense revolves around quarterback Alex Smith, who had arguably the best year of his pro career, throwing for over 3100 yards and 17 scores, against just five INTs. The Niners relied heavily on their ground game, which was led by Frank Gore, who rushed for just over 1200 yards in 2011, averaging 4.3 yards per carry while finding the end zone eight times. In terms of receiving yardage, Michael Crabtree was the Niners leader, gaining 874 yards on 72 receptions, while Vernon Davis led San Francisco receivers in TDs with six.

The second game on Saturday gives us the rematch of the Patriots and Broncos, featuring quarterbacks Tom Brady and the aforementioned Tebow. The Pats broke the Broncos’ six game winning streak in Week 15; although Tebow and his Bronco mates got off to a fast start in that game, the Patriots forced several turnovers from which Tebow and Co. were unable to recover, losing by a 41-23 count in Denver.

Anyone who has been following football this year knows what the Broncos have done: Started out 1-4, benched season starting QB Kyle Orton for Tebow; then went 7-4 under Tebow’s leadership to finish the season, including several stunning come from behind rallies. As a team, the Broncos were next to last in the league in passing, but #1 in rushing, and also relied on a defense that just seemed to come up with the right play at the right time.

Tebow threw for 1729 yards and 12 touchdowns while allowing six interceptions; and was second on the Broncos in rushing, with 660 yards (5.4 yards/carry) and led the team with six rushing TDs. Running back Willis McGahee fell just one yard shy of 1200 yards rushing in the regular season, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and scoring four times. Tebow’s favorite receiving targets have been Demaryius Thomas (32 catches/551 yards/4 TDs) and Eric Decker (44 catches/612 yards/8 TDs) – both of whom have nine catches of 20-plus yards for the season.

New England’s pass offense ranked second only to the Saints in the NFL this past season – not only did the Saints’ Brees eclipse Dan Marino’s 1984 record of 5,084 yards for passing yardage, but Brady did as well, amassing 5,235 yards and accounting for 39 passing TDs against 12 interceptions. Wes Welker (122 catches/1,569 yards/9 TDs) and Rob Gronkowski (90 catches/1,327 yards/17 TDs) were Brady’s favorite passing targets; while BenJarvus Green-Ellis, with 667 yards, was the team leader in rushing.

Statistics courtesy ESPN.com.

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