One week closer to the Super Bowl and it feels so good. Here are the previews for each game this weekend.
Baltimore Ravens @ Denver Broncos
This game kicks off the Divisional rounds this weekend. It’s an intriguing matchup that puts Peyton Manning against a re-energized Ravens defense since the return of their leader, Ray Lewis, last week. These two teams met in week 15 and Manning led his team to a 34-17 win. Manning had a remarkable season especially considering the obstacles he had to overcome to play this season. He had four neck surgeries and missed all of the 2011 season. He led his team to an AFC best 13-3 record and the AFC North division Championship. The key for the Broncos will be how well they can run the ball. Willis McGahee will be out this weekend, but if the Broncos find a way to win he can return next week for the AFC Championship game. That puts most of the running load on Knowshon Moreno and Lance Ball. They are both good backs, but a little inconsistent against good run defenses. The Ravens ranked 20th in the league in run defense. Since big Haloti Ngata will still patrol the middle, I think they’ll find a way to stop, or contain, the Broncos’ running backs. That puts more pressure on Manning (not like that’s a bad thing) to win this game. If the Ravens want a W it lies solely in the hands of one man…Joe Flacco. Flacco can do some good things and some boneheaded things. He can make all the throws, but sometimes, in crucial situations, he makes those throws to a person not wearing a purple jersey. He’s had success in past playoffs, but can he do it again to extend Ray Lewis’ career at least one more game? I don’t think so. I have the Broncos winning this one 31-24.
Houston Texans @ New England Patriots
This is a rematch that the Texans may not want to look at as a rematch. When these teams met in week 14, the Patriots put quite the beating on them, winning 42-14. The Texans, mainly Matt Schaub, came out flat and the Patriots took full advantage of it. Even with that, the Texans are hoping they can do what the 2010 New York Jets did to the Pats. After a blowout loss to the Patriots (45-3) in the regular season, there was a rematch between the Jets and Patriots in the divisional round, much like this game. The Jets beat the Patriots 28-21. It also provided us with possibly one of the greatest sound bites in NFL history from Bart Scott http://youtu.be/QJshw2Axsqc (click for video). Will the Texans have the same luck? I sure wouldn’t mind it, but I don’t think so. The Patriots are a pass first, high scoring offense. The Texans struggle against the pass. Not only that, the Texans’ offense hasn’t been as good as it was at the beginning of the season because Schaub has struggled. Houston’s best shot is a heavy dose of Arian Foster and using him to set up the pass. If the Patriots jump out early, and I think they will, that could present a problem for my plan of a lot of Foster carries. I have the Patriots 35-13.
Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers
This is probably the most anticipated game of the week across the nation. Many people thought this may be the NFC Championship this year. We get it a week earlier. Great offense vs great defense. There’s only one problem. San Fran’s best attribute is their run defense and Green Bay has NO run game. So that means Aaron Rodgers will have to try to exploit the Niners’ pass defense. While they ranked 4th in the league in run defense when these two teams met in week 1 of the regular season, Rodgers threw for 303 yards, 2 TDs and completed 68% of his passes. With most of GB’s receivers now being healthy, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Colin Kaepernick will be playing in his first playoff game. If the Niners want to win, he’ll need to play big and keep up with the high scoring Packers. The Niners aren’t a team built to comeback if a team jumps out on them early in the game. This has been proven twice this season, against the Giants week 6 (26-3) and the Seahawks (42-13) week 16. These two teams jumped out to big leads and the 49ers seemed to start looking to the next game. If they do that this week, there won’t be a next week. If the Niners at least keep pace, which I believe they will, they should win. I have them 28-24 over the Packers.
Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons
This is my most anticipated game this week, for obvious reasons. This is a big weekend for the dirty birds and their quarterback, Matt Ryan. Since entering the league in 2008, Ryan has made the playoffs 4 out of 5 years. In each of the previous 3 times, he has lost to the eventual NFC representative in the Super Bowl (Cardinals ’08, Packers ’10 and Giants ’11) and 2 went on to win the whole thing. Ryan is hoping to shake those demons off and lead his team to their first playoff win since 2004. Standing in their way are the Seahawks. Their pass defense is looking to keep Ryan’s playoff woes intact, which ranked 6th in the league. The Falcons ranked 6th in passing offense. So this matchup is strength on strength. Atlanta has two BIG receivers in Julio Jones (6’3 220 lbs.) and Roddy White (6’0 212 lbs.) going against two BIG corners for Seattle in Brandon Browner (6’4 221 lbs.) and Robert Sherman (6’3 195 lbs). This has the makings of a great battle on the outside. For the Falcons to win, it may have to come inside the hashes with future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas in the slot, and the running backs (M. Turner, J. Rodgers & J. Snelling). This is where the Seahawks will probably be vulnerable with so much focus on White and Jones. Russel Wilson is the only rookie QB left in the playoffs. If he wants to continue, he’ll have to score points in bunches on one of the stingiest defenses in the league. They may have ranked 24th in total defense but they ranked 5th in the league in scoring defense. Marshawn Lynch will be key for the Seahawks. If he gets it going, it may be tough for the Falcons. LB Sean Weatherspoon has a plan saying, “to get him down we have to get to him early [in the backfield]”. If the Falcons can do that, they should win this game. I have them winning 31-17.