Six teams return to the Divisional round of the NFL Playoffs from those that played last year, which is the most since the current format was adapted. It’s also rather odd that three of the four games this weekend happen to be rematches of games we saw earlier in the season. The winners of the previous games have the luxury of being the home teams this weekend, and all are favored. Lucky them.
Meanwhile, Atlanta gets to face the hottest team in football. Some would say they can never catch any breaks. Let’s break the action.
Baltimore -9.5 over DENVER
There are a couple things to consider about this game given what transpired the first time these two faced off. For starters, the Ravens were nursing quite a few injuries in the first go-around. Linebackers Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe, safety Bernard Pollard, offensive guard Marshall Yanda, and tight end Ed Dickson all missed out in Week 15. That should definitely make a difference to what Baltimore can do on both sides of the ball. The other thing worth noting is that the Ravens were still in the game at 10-0 when Joe Flacco threw a pick-six as his team was driving for a touchdown. Ten-to-7 soon became 17-0 and the Ravens were well on their way to being done and dusted.
While those two items should help Baltimore be more competitive this week, their biggest issue is a secondary that doesn’t have any help on the way other than Pollard. The Ravens’ cornerbacks are a bit of a disaster and they won’t be able to get as good a pass rush on Peyton Manning as they did on Andrew Luck and the highly mediocre Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line. The Broncos have also done an exceptional job at pulling away in recent victories. I’m slightly torn as to whether or not they’ll be able to do the same this weekend because the Ravens are obviously better than any opponent the Broncos in recent memory. I think the Broncos win, but I’ll take the points.
SAN FRANCISCO -2.5 over Green Bay
The Packers are easily the public choice in this game. Their high-powered offense is fun to watch and they have their superstar quarterback who everyone enjoys to watch play. Of all the NFC teams left, the Packers are the one most people are hoping makes the Super Bowl because the other three teams don’t provide the same excitement. The returns of Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson have energized the defense to be the attacking force many were expecting. They also disposed of the Vikings rather easily last week.
But this is the same 49ers team that was so close to the Super Bowl last year except for one major change – Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco’s offense was incredibly anemic when it mattered against the Giants last year. They couldn’t move the ball at all with Alex Smith at the helm, so the change needed to be made to Kaepernick, who has proved he’s more electrifying offensively than Smith will ever be. The same defense is still in place for the 49ers. All signs point to Justin Smith suiting up, which will make them the ever-frightening force that will be enough to take Green Bay down.
Seattle +2.5 over ATLANTA
As with Seattle’s game last week, this week is the toughest one to predict. It took their offense a couple drives to get going last week and that could be an issue if it happens again. The running game should find success rather easily against the 21st-rated Atlanta rush defense. Their biggest issue, however, comes on defense, where the Seahawks are not missing star Chris Clemons. Clemons’ impact is both run and pass defense, but rookie Bruce Irvin should be able to cover in pass defense and thankfully Atlanta’s running game isn’t much to be feared.
Last time the Falcons were in this situation as a playoff home team coming off a bye week was two years ago. You should remember that Green Bay blew them right off the field. Seattle’s not capable of bringing the same offensive firepower that Green Bay did, but they do have one thing that will frustrate the hell out of Atlanta –- physical cornerbacks. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner play an incredibly physical game in coverage and they are certainly capable of defending Roddy White and Julio Jones. (It definitely helps that Browner got some rust off his game last week because he looked like he needed to get back on Adderall at times.) It’ll be a close game, but I’ll take the QB who actually knows how to win playoff games (Russell Wilson) as opposed to the one who’s lost all three he’s played in (Matt Ryan).
NEW ENGLAND -9.5 over Houston
The end of the football weekend may or may not be exciting. Of all the rematches from earlier in the season, this would seem the most likely to repeat itself. Houston’s offense isn’t built to come from behind. They need to either have the lead or not trailing by double-digit points so they can hand the ball off to Arian Foster, like they did 32 times last week. They only have one explosive receiver and teams can scheme against Andre Johnson to force Kevin Walter and Owen Daniels beat them. Matt Schaub also proved again last week that he’s capable of keeping both teams in the game as he provided the only touchdown Cincinnati was able to muster on an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
The Texans’ secondary is one that can be exposed as we saw in the first game against the Patriots as well as multiple games at the end of the season. The defense in general looked like it had a spark last week, but the Bengals offense is rather mundane. We know the Patriots have many more weapons than the Bengals do. I’m not convinced one game is enough to believe in after what we saw before that, especially given the opponent. It may not be as easy for the Patriots as it was in Week 14, but it will be easy enough.
Last Week: 2-2