The second round of the NFL playoffs kicks off this weekend with 4 very intriguing matchups.
Saturday, January 12th 4:30pm: Baltimore at Denver (-9)
These two teams met back in Week 15 with the Broncos winning 34-17 at Baltimore. It was Baltimore’s third consecutive loss and also Denver’s ninth consecutive win. With the rematch in Denver, it will be critical for the Ravens to prevent the Broncos from getting an early lead and forcing them to throw. If the Ravens can keep it close in the first half then they will have a chance in this game. For the Broncos, it’s a matter of shaking off the rust from the bye week and making sure they come out and play with the same energy that led them on an 11 game winning streak to close the season and catapulted them to the #1 seed.
X Factor: Ray Rice
The first time these two teams met Ray Rice had just 38 yards rushing while Joe Flacco was forced to throw 40 times. If the Ravens are going to have success, Ray Rice needs to be a big part of their offense. Running the ball not only takes the pressure off Flacco and the defense but also keeps the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hand. Look for Baltimore to establish a run game early.
What’s at Stake:
Despite being the only quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first 5 seasons, he has no super bowl appearances to show for it. The only way to change that this year is the tall order of knocking off the #1 seed. The other storyline for the Ravens will be the possibility of this being Ray Lewis’ final game of his career. The Ravens can certainly use that as an incentive to leave it all on the field tomorrow.
Peyton Manning’s postseason mediocrity has been well documented over the years. With many people considering him as an MVP candidate and the Broncos as Super Bowl favorites, anything less than a Super Bowl title will be considered a failure for Peyton Manning. The last Denver quarterback to win a Super Bowl is the same man who convinced Peyton Manning to come to Denver last offseason. Peyton hopes great minds think alike.
I believe this game will be more competitive than the Week 15 matchup. Baltimore gets Ray Rice involved early and keeps the game close while the Broncos are still settling in after a bye week. However, in the end there are too many flaws in the Ravens secondary and Denver will pull away in the second half for a 28-17 win.
Saturday, January 12th 8 pm: Green Bay at San Francisco (-3)
These two teams opened their respective seasons at Lambeau Field in Week 1, with the 49ers coming away with a 30-22 victory. A lot has changed since then. After starting 2-3, Green Bay found its groove by winning 9 of the last 11 games and earning the #3 seed in the NFC. Meanwhile, the 49ers underwent a significant change by deciding go with Colin Kaepernick as their starting quarterback after an impressive performance against the Bears on Monday Night Football.
X Factor: Colin Kaepernick
The Kaepernick experiment has been a success for the most part so far, but nobody knows how he will perform in the playoffs. If he fails, many people will say they should have started Alex Smith because Smith led them to within a Kyle Williams fumble of a Super Bowl berth last year. If Kaepernick succeeds, head coach Jim Harbaugh looks like a genius.
What’s at stake:
After being the first 15-1 seed to ever lose their first playoff game last year, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are set out to finish the job this year. A win over the 49ers puts them one step closer to that goal. What’s at stake for the 49ers is seizing the opportunity that slipped away last year and trying to make it to their 2nd straight NFC championship. It may also be the final season for Randy Moss, who is trying to win that elusive first Super Bowl ring.
I think Green Bay comes out firing and takes an early lead. With the lack of a run game and a mediocre defense, Aaron Rodgers and his receivers will have to carry this team against a tough 49ers defense. The 49ers will ground and pound a lot with Frank Gore, but will fall behind early forcing Kaepernick to throw more as the game goes on. The 49ers having home field advantage gives them a big boost, but I think the Packers start quick and hang on for a 24-20 win.
Sunday, January 13th 1 pm: Seattle at Atlanta (-2.5)
This will be the only matchup out of the 4 that is not a rematch from the regular season. Seattle comes in on fire winning 8 of their final 10 including 3 50 point games. Russell Wilson has emerged as a solid starter, while Marshawn Lynch and the defense are among the best in the game. The Atlanta Falcons cruised throught the regular season to a 13-3 record and the #1 overall seed. Matt Ryan emerged as an MVP candidate thanks to the dual threat of Roddy White and Julio Jones wreaking havoc on defenses. The defense is solid and Tony Gonzalez continues to have another great year.
X Factors: Roddy White and Julio Jones vs. Seattle’s cornerbacks
This will certainly be a fun matchup to watch throughout this game. On the one hand you have two tall, physical wide receivers who can become deep threats on any play. On the other hand you have Seattle’s cornerbacks which are very physical and known for shutting down opposing offenses. I would not be surprised if the physicality goes overboard and several flags are thrown to keep the game under control.
What’s at stake:
There is an enormous amount at stake for Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons. They have been one and done the last two years and the pressure is mounting for Matt Ryan to lead his team deep into the postseason. A loss to the Seahawks would be a catastrophe for the Falcons. What’s at stake for Seattle is proving they can win a road playoff game. Granted they did beat Washington last week, however that was with an injured RG3 and the Seahawks were almost expected to win that game. Going to the Georgia Dome will be a whole other story.
With two good defenses, I expect this game to be relatively low scoring. Seattle will try to get the ball to Lynch and also run their share of play action and option routes with Russell Wilson. Atlanta will be looking to get off to a fast start and get Roddy White and Julio Jones going right off the bat. This game could easily go back and forth for awhile but in the end I see the Falcons finally breaking through and getting Matt Ryan his first playoff win in a 20-13 game.
Sunday, January 13th 4:30 pm: Houston at New England (-9.5)
The Texans roll into Foxborough looking to prove themselves after a humiliating 42-14 loss on Monday Night Football in Week 14. The Patriots started quickly in that game and never looked back. Of course, Patriots fans including myself will remember the 45-3 Monday night win over the Jets in 2010 only to be upset by them at home in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Patriots are trying to make sure history does not repeat itself.
X Factor: J.J. Watt
J.J. Watt has been an absolute nightmare for opposing offenses this season to the point where he was getting some serious consideration in the MVP race for awhile. However, he was nowhere to be found in the Week 14 game. The Patriots used broomsticks to simulate him swatting down passes during their practices and ultimately game planned effectively. Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips is going to have to be a little more creative on defense and take advantage of the fact that J.J. Watt will be double teamed on most plays. If J.J. Watt can’t consistently make Tom Brady uncomfortable then we very well may see another blowout.
What’s at stake:
What’s at stake for the Houston Texans is the possibilty that after starting 11-1 and having a chance to clinch home field advantage in Week 17, they could be right where they were last year with a loss in the divisional round. Expectations have become higher as this Houston team has improved a lot over the last couple of years. If anything, the Texans will be motivated by their humiliating defeat and give the Patriots everything they have because they have nothing to lose at this point since no one expects them to win. For the Patriots, what’s at stake is just another step to reaching their goal of winning the Super Bowl. That starts with taking care of the Texans at home and avoiding what would be an embarassing loss.
Many people seem to think that this game will be similar to the first meeting between these teams, and that the Texans have no chance. I’ve been around long enough to know that every game is different and independent of the past. I think Houston learns a lot from the first time and comes out much better prepared. Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, and J.J. Watt all have a better game than the first time and the Texans offense figures out how to expose the mediocre Patriots defense. I think this game could very well be an instant classic, but in the end I can’t pick against Tom Brady at home in the playoffs so I’ll take the Texans with the points but the Patriots win 34-28.
That wraps up the analysis for the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, I plan to do similar blogs for the remainder of the playoffs so be sure to check back in.
My next blog will be about my experience with the iphone 5 so tune in this weekend for that.