Arguably the best weekend of the NFL playoffs is the divisional playoff round. That is because teams that were on the bye see their first playoff action, while teams that won last week have a chance to continue their momentum. Many classic games have happened during this round, from the Immaculate Reception to the Chargers Dolphins marathon, to last year’s Saints 49ers thriller. What can we expect this year? Here are my picks.
Baltimore at Denver
This is a battle between the Ravens stifling defence, against the Broncos high-powered offence. This will also be hyped as Ray Lewis vs. Peyton Manning. Two old war horses hoping for one last ring, before they ride off into the sunset. While Lewis has stated this will be his last season, Manning has made no such proclamation, and I’m 99.9% certain that Peyton will return in 2013.
However, it could very well be decided when the Ravens have the football with the Broncos on the defensive. The Ravens will need to utilize the running of Ray Rice to keep Peyton and company off the field. It won’t be easy. The Broncos, led by linebackers Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard are ranked third in run defence, giving up an average of 91.1 yards per game on the ground.
If Baltimore can’t get the running game going, it will be up to quarterback Joe Flacco to move the ball down the field with his arm. In all fairness, Flacco had a decent game in the Ravens wildcard win over Indianapolis, going 12 out of 23 for 282 yards and 2 touchdowns. The key was that Flacco took care of the football, by not throwing an interception. Receiver Anquan Boldin had a huge game last week for Baltimore, catching 5 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown. But Boldin will be in tough this week as All-Pro corner Champ Bailey will be covering him like a blanket this week. It could be up to the likes of Dennis Pitta and Torrey Smith to bail out Flacco in the passing game.
The other issue in the passing game for Baltimore is that the offensive line must keep an eye out for Miller. The third year pro out of Texas A&M enjoyed a brilliant season with the Broncos, finishing third in the NFL with 18.5 sacks. Then there is defensive end Elvis Dumervil who recorded 11 sacks this season. These two are a terror to offensive backfields. If the Ravens can’t contain the pair of pass rushers, it will be a long game for Baltimore.
If the Ravens offence can’t move the football, it will put more pressure on the defence, which means Peyton will get a chance to shine. After missing the entire 2012 season due to neck surgery, Manning had an MVP calibre season, completing 68.6% of his pass attempts for 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns to only 11 interceptions for a QB rating of 105.8. In other words, Peyton didn’t lose a step. If there is a flaw in Peyton’s storied career, it’s his playoff record which is surprisingly mediocre. Despite a Super Bowl win in the 2006 season, Manning is only 9-10 in postseason games. Granted, this will be his first playoff game as a member of the Broncos, but there is a hint of doubt about Manning in the playoffs. The good news for Manning is he’s 2-0 against the Ravens in the postseason.
The receivers definitely benefitted from Manning’s presence. Demaryius Thomas had a terrific season, tabulating 94 receptions for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns. Eric Decker also enjoyed a fruitful year, recording 85 receptions for 1,064 yards and 13 touchdowns. In the regular season meeting between the two clubs, Decker had an outstanding game, hauling in 8 receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown.
The running game will be without Willis McGahee who is on injured reserve with a knee injury, but Knowshon Moreno will be ready to pick up the slack. While not putting up great numbers, Moreno did play very well in McGahee’s absence and will be called upon to balance out the Denver attack.
The Ravens defence is led by Lewis but the likes of Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Bernard Pollard must be ready as well. While the Ravens did shut down Andrew Luck last week, shutting down Peyton Manning is an entirely different story. Does the aging Ravens D have one more run left in them?
While the Ravens will have emotion on their side, the Broncos will have home field and a psychological edge. In Week 15 at Baltimore, the Broncos came into town and doubled up the Ravens 34-17. Granted Ray Lewis wasn’t in the game, but the loss did smart for Baltimore. I also wonder if Baltimore can get their emotions up for a second straight week. The home crowd definitely helped Baltimore last week, as they said goodbye to Lewis but they will be going into hostile territory this week. I think this will be the last game of the career of Ray Lewis. Denver wins.
Green Bay at San Francisco
This has classic written all over it. Two teams that don’t like each other and franchises with rich playoff history. The Packers scored a relatively easy win over Minnesota last week, while the 49ers sat at home enjoying their bye week.
The key matchup is the Packers offence against the stingy 49ers defence. Aaron Rodgers will lead the Pack attack and is hoping to have better results than in Week 1 when Green Bay fell to the 49ers. Rodgers will have to be aware of Aldon Smith at all time. The All-Pro defensive end was second in the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2012. The Packers offensive line has struggled containing the pass rush, and if they don’t shore up the trenches, Smith could have a field day in the Green Bay backfield.
It would help the Packers if they got their running game going. DuJuan Harris had 47 yards rushing against Minnesota last week, which led the team. Harris signed with the Packers late in the season and is still trying to integrate himself into the offence. A strong game by Harris could quell the 49ers pass rush, and give Rodgers more options in play-action passing plays.
Tight end Jermichael Finley is listed as questionable with a nagging hamstring problem. With Finley not 100%, look for wideouts James Jones and Jordy Nelson to be focal points of the passing game. Nelson is dealing with an ankle issue but should be ready to go. Look for Greg Jennings to play a pivotal role as well. Despite battling injuries all season, Jennings is ready to go and could be a major factor for Green Bay.
It won’t be easy for Green Bay though. The 49ers have the second ranked defence in the NFL, and shut down the Packers in Week 1. Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Dashon Goldson are all over the field, raising havoc along the way. They give offensive coordinators nightmares with the chaos they create.
The 49ers went through a significant change at quarterback midway through the season. Coach Jim Harbaugh decided to go with Colin Kaepernick ahead of Alex Smith to great results. The 49ers went 5-2 with Kaepernick behind centre, and led San Francisco to the NFC West title. The sophomore signal caller completed 62.4% of his pass attempts for 1,814 yards, 10 touchdowns to 3 interceptions for a QB rating of 98.3. Kaepernick is a mobile quarterback with a fairly strong arm. His ability to scramble will cause problems for the Packers.
Frank Gore led the 49ers with 1,254 yards rushing, and will be called upon to control the game. The Packers do struggle against the run, as was proven in last year’s playoff loss to the New York Giants. It also should be noted that Packers linebacker Clay Matthews Jr. is listed as questionable with a knee injury. This could spell doom and gloom for Green Bay.
Another potential nightmare for Green Bay is Randy Moss. The famed Packer killer is desperate for his first Super Bowl ring, and would love to torment the Packers yet again. While Moss didn’t put up great numbers this season, he will be eager to shed his reputation as a playoff choker. Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis will also be key targets for Kaepernick. Crabtree had an excellent season, recording 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and 9 touchdowns. Davis production dipped this season but could be a huge factor for San Francisco in the playoffs.
The Packers secondary is the key to their defence. Cornerback Casey Hayward led the team with 6 interceptions. But Charles Woodson is the straw that stirs the drink. Woodson’s move from corner to strong safety was cause for concern for Packer fans, but Woodson remains valuable to the Packers cause.
Many people are projecting a Packers win. Sports Illustrated as gone as far in saying that the Packers will win the Super Bowl. I don’t see it that way. I still believe in the adage that defence wins championships. The Packers are too inconsistent on the defensive side of the football. While Kaepernick lacks experience, the 49ers can and will run the ball against Green Bay. Rodgers will put up numbers, but the lack of a running game will make Green Bay one-dimensional. San Francisco wins.
Seattle at Atlanta
No team is riding more momentum than the Seattle Seahawks. No team is under more scrutiny than the Atlanta Falcons. These circumstances make this matchup very interesting.
The Seahawks spotted Washington 14 points last week, then scored the next 24 points on their way to their first road playoff victory since 1983. The Falcons are looking for their first playoff win since 2004, when Michael Vick was leading the Dirty Birds.
Russell Wilson has been the surprise story of the NFL. The third round pick out of Wisconsin, continues to enjoy success in the show. In his first playoff game last week, Wilson completed 15 out of 26 pass attempts for 187 yards and a touchdown. Wilson also contributed 67 yards on the ground. His composure was evident last week, as he led Seattle to a come from behind victory in a hostile environment. If he can remain healthy, the future is very bright for him and the Seahawks.
Running back Marshawn Lynch is questionable thanks to a foot injury he suffered in last week’s game. Despite the pain, Lynch ran for 132 yards on 20 carries and scored a touchdown. The beast who loves Skittles is hoping to be ready for Sunday.
The main targets in the passing game will be Sidney Rice and Golden Tate. Neither had a major impact last week, but the expectations rise this week. With the Falcons defence gearing up to stop the run, Rice and Tate will be called upon to find openings in the secondary and come up with vital receptions. Both have speed and can stretch defences with their big play ability. Expect one, or both receivers to have an impact, if Seattle is going to win.
The Falcons employ a bend but don’t break philosophy on defence, which can be very dangerous. Defensive end John Abraham led the team with 10 sacks, but is nursing an ankle injury suffered in the final game of the regular season. Abraham is expected to play, but just how effective he will be, remains to be seen. Asante Samuel is the ultimate all or nothing cornerback. His 5 interceptions were second on the team, but he is known to get burned on the big play. Samuel better keep control of his gambling instincts in this one. Whether he lines up against Tate or Rice, Samuel is in for a long game, if he gambles too much.
There is plenty of pressure on Matt Ryan heading into this game. While Ryan has enjoyed considerable success in the regular season, his playoff record is atrocious. Ryan is 0-3 in the postseason with a QB rating of 71.2. Falcon fans are hoping Ryan can reverse the trend this postseason, and he will have to if the Falcons are to finally find some playoff success.
Running back Michael Turner did not have his best season, gaining 800 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns this season. There has been talk that Turner is hurt and that has affected his play. However, Turner claims he’s healthy and ready to go. He’ll need to be fit against the swarming Seahawks.
The Falcons receivers are the strength of the offence. Roddy White had a career season, making 92 receptions for 1,351 yards and 7 touchdowns. Julio Jones is growing into a superstar before our eyes. The Alabama grad made 79 receptions for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns. Tight end Tony Gonzalez has the most motivation of any Falcon. The 16 year veteran is still very productive, catching 93 passes for 930 yards and 8 touchdowns. Gonzalez has never won a playoff game in his long career, and is itching for a shot at the Super Bowl. This is supposed to be his final season, so expect Gonzalez to be an emotional factor for Atlanta like Ray Lewis was for Baltimore.
The Seahawks pass defence is led by two physical, nasty corners. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner take no prisoners, when the ball is thrown their way. Both like to get in the face of opposing receivers, and both are avid trash talkers. It should be a great matchup with these two corners battling the Falcon receivers.
The Falcons need to win this game just for their sanity. All the pressure is on Atlanta, and it could weigh on them too much. Seattle has been playing lights out since early December and are feeling mighty good about themselves. It comes down to this. I don’t trust Atlanta at this point. Seattle wins.
Houston at New England
A rematch of their Week 14 clash in which the Patriots clobbered the Texans 42-14 on a Monday night in Foxboro. Houston went on a tailspin after that while New England went on a roll. The Texans did defeat Cincinnati last week in the wildcard round, but looked less than impressive in doing so.
There are still questions about quarterback Matt Schaub’s ability to win the big one. This will be the second playoff start in Schaub’s career and his first on the road. In their earlier contest, Schaub didn’t have his best game, completing 19 out of 32 passes for 232 yards and an interception. If Schaub can’t improve those numbers, it won’t be Houston’s day.
For Houston to be successful, Arian Foster will need to come up large. When Foster rushes for 100+ yards, the Texans are 8-0, including last week’s playoff win over the Bengals, where Foster gained 140 yards on 32 carries, while scoring the lone Texans touchdown. It is especially vital for Foster to have a big game. If Foster’s running can keep the Patriots offence off the field, Houston has a chance.
Receiver Andre Johnson enjoyed a Pro Bowl season, but was contained by Cincinnati last week. Johnson’s size and strength will pose problems for an undersized Patriots secondary. Expect the Pats to use zone coverages, to counteract the physical prowess of Johnson. Tight end Owen Daniels is questionable due to a shoulder injury suffered last week. If Daniels can’t play, this will be a huge loss for Houston, as it will limit their options in the passing game.
The Patriots do have injuries on the defensive side, causing much shuffling and change for Bill Belichick. Linebacker Jerod Mayo is listed as questionable with an elbow injury. Mayo led the team with 87 tackles, and is the leader of the Patriots defence. If he can’t go, it could be a devastating loss for New England. Cornerback Devin McCourty led the Pats with 5 interceptions, and could be asked to keep an eye on Andre Johnson throughout.
Then there is Tom Brady. Mr. Everything for New England enjoyed another stellar season, completing 63% of his pass attempts for 4,827 yards, 34 touchdowns to 8 interceptions, for a QB rating of 98.7. Brady’s playoff reputation is well-known, but he is hungry for his fourth Super Bowl ring. It has been 9 years since New England last hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy, and Brady is anxious to get his hands on the trophy yet again.
Brady will welcome back tight end Rob Gronkowski back into the lineup. The man known as Gronk missed the last 5 games of the regular season with a broken forearm. Prior to the injury, Gronkowski caught 55 passes for 790 yards and 11 touchdowns. The question is, has the forearm healed enough for Gronkowski to be effective? Wes Welker led the Pats with 118 receptions for 1,354 yards and 6 touchdowns. However, Welker is listed as questionable with an ankle injury. The Patriots are hoping the bye week provided the rest that Welker needed.
The running game was greatly improved in 2012 thanks to Stevan Ridley. The LSU grad gained 1,263 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground, giving New England a balanced attack. With the weather usually a factor in Foxboro this time of year, Ridley could be the final piece of the New England championship puzzle.
The Patriots must beware of J.J. Watt. The Texans defensive end led the NFL with 20.5 sacks and is adept at raising hell in opposition’s backfields. Watt was held in check in their first meeting, but he will be looking for revenge on Sunday.
This might be closer than the oddsmakers suggest. The Patriots are 9.5 point favourites, thanks mainly to their 42-14 rout of the Texans in December. However, New England has numerous injuries, and a week off could make them rusty. That being said, the Texans weren’t great last week against Cincinnati and I don’t have confidence in them traveling to Foxboro and getting the win. They may beat the spread, but New England is moving on. New England wins.
You can follow me on Twitter @jstar1973