As NFL matchups go, this one is a classic: unstoppable offense against impenetrable defense.
The second round of the playoffs begins Saturday in San Francisco, where one of the leagues top defenses the 49ers yielded 229 points and ranked fourth overall in yards allowed, first against the run will take on Drew Brees and the Saints record-setting attack.
If defense wins championships, as has been the theory in pro football for decades, the edge clearly belongs to the 49ers. Then again, the NFL hasnt seen an offense as prolific as the Saints.
Theyve been very consistent all year, Saints coach Sean Payton said of the NFC West champion Niners (13-3). The formula has been outstanding defense. ... Theyre the No. 1 team in taking the football away, and theyre the No. 1 team in protecting the football offensively. Those are significant numbers.
I think you can see week to week on tape their production on both sides of the ball. Youre talking about a Pro Bowl punter and a kicking game thats near the top of the league in almost every statistic. In all three phases, theyve been consistent. Theyve received great production, and as a result theyve played very well.
The 49ers have five All-Pros: linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, defensive tackle Justin Smith, who also plays a lot at end, kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee. Their offense has been so efficient that San Francisco only had 10 giveaways, which equaled the 2010 Patriots for fewest in NFL history.
Its going to be a battle, Willis said. We know that, and Im sure they know that as well. Theyre going to do what they need to do to prepare to come in to play against us, and were going to do that same (thing). Well see where the chips lay when the game is over, but were certainly going to come with everything we have. Its either win or go home.
The Saints tore through the NFL, setting NFL marks for total yards on offense (7,474) and yards passing (5,347, including sacks), with Brees shattering Dan Marinos 27-year-old record of 5,084 yards passing by throwing for 5,476.
Brees had 468 completions, breaking Peyton Mannings 2010 mark of 450, and completed 71.6 percent of his passes, breaking his own 2009 record of a 70.6 completion percentage.
Darren Sproles had an NFL-record 2,696 combined yards, easily breaking the previous mark of 2,690 set by Derrick Mason with Tennessee in 2000.
We always go into every game with an aggressive mentality, Brees said. Were going to be balanced, but within the framework of that were going to take our shots. Were going to throw the kitchen sink at everybody with our tempo, personnel groups, formations, running the ball, outside, drop-back pass, bootlegs, heavy play-action, everything. But within the framework of that, you understand, especially early on, you check it down, move on.
Also looking to move on Saturday are the AFC East champion Patriots (13-3), who will host the AFC West winners, the Denver Broncos (9-8).
On Sunday, AFC South winner Houston (11-6) is at AFC North champ Baltimore (12-4) before defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay (15-1) will host NFC East champ New York (10-7).
New England has lost its last three postseason games: the 2008 Super Bowl to the Giants, then home matchups with Baltimore and the Jets the last two Januarys. Now comes the Tim Tebow phenomenon, and its become difficult to doubt Denver with the way it has responded to tough times.
After blowing a 14-point lead and being forced to overtime by Pittsburgh, the Broncos needed all of one play a dynamic 80-yard catch-and run by Demaryius Thomas to beat the far more experienced Steelers.
The challenge is just as formidable in Foxborough.
Youre definitely at a high, youre feeling great, a lot of momentum, and thats good, Tebow said. But you really have to take that enthusiasm, that momentum into the next weeks work, using that as fuel for next week and trying to continually improve on that. I think you cant necessarily relish on it too much because the next day we have to get ready for a big game and the Patriots.
Baltimore is getting ready for its first playoff home game under coach John Harbaugh, Jims brother. The Ravens have made the playoffs as wild cards in all four seasons under Harbaugh.
They won their eight home games in 2011, including beating the Texans 29-14 in October.
We did what we had to do to get that first-week bye, defensive end Cory Redding said. We came out of the back stretch 3-1, and that was our main focus. Guys are fighting on the field with big gashes down their legs and almost bruised ribs, messed up knees and toes and ankles and hands, and yet we still fought our way.
That was the biggest thing. We got that accomplished. We got control in the AFC North accomplished, and now its time to rest, recover and get ready for the second season and winning Game 1. That was the mindset for the guys. It was a big accomplishment.
Like the Texans, the Giants are trying to accomplish a difficult feat: winning at Lambeau Field, where the Packers were 8-0, and defeating a team that beat them in early December in the Meadowlands.
New York is banking on a revived defense and an invigorated running game.
Persistence ... and the ability to ride the ups and the downs and stay together, Giants coach Tom Coughlin credited for his teams recent surge. The development of the feeling of team.