Divisional Round Matchup Predictions
Ravens (11-6) @ Broncos (13-3): The Ravens last faced the Broncos in the middle of their cold streak, during which they lost four of five games. The Broncos really won the game quite easily, going up 31-3 before the Ravens put up some fourth quarter points to make their loss look a bit more respectable, 34-17. Sure, the Ravens didn't have Ray Lewis, and I think that will make a difference this weekend, but how big of a difference can he make? The Broncos scored 31 points in three quarters before turning to a conservative approach - can Ray Lewis really make, let's say, a two touchdown difference on his own? I doubt it.
In addition, the Broncos defense completely stifled Joe Flacco and the Ravens' offense. Even if Ray Lewis can turn those 34 Broncos points into 20, can the Ravens put up enough points to win?
Peyton Manning is playing the same as he ever has, and with that does come a disappointing playoff record of 9-10. However, I expect Peyton to play like the MVP-caliber player he's been all season and throw a good amount of points on the board on Saturday. As a result, there will be a lot of pressure for the Ravens' offense to keep up, which means a lot of weight will fall on Joe Flacco's shoulders. I think Flacco is a fine quarterback, but I still don't trust him to go head-to-head with someone like Peyton Manning and come out on top, unless his defense reverts to last season's form.
Broncos win 27-17.
Packers (12-5) @ 49ers (11-4-1): The 49ers have found out just how important Justin Smith is to their defense over the past three games. The Patriots racked up points on the Niners after Smith was forced from the game with a triceps injury a month ago. In the first full game without Smith, the Seahawks toasted the Niners for 176 rushing yards and 42 points. They were able to hold the Cardinals' offense in check without Smith, but that's nothing to phone home about.
Smith, however, will be back on the field this Saturday to face the Packers. It's unclear how he'll be able to handle all the attention from opposing offensive linemen fresh off a torn triceps. How ready Justin Smith is to play in this game will have a huge effect on its outcome.
Believe it or not, the Packers have found a lot of their success in running the ball the second half of the year. Over the final eight games of the regular season, the Packers averaged 108.0 rushing yards per game (dragged down by 72 yards against the Vikings - one of their two losses during that eight game stretch). I'm going to put my money on Justin Smith - one of the tougher guys in the league - coming up big and helping the 49ers lock up Green Bay's ground game. As a result, we'll see what we saw when these teams faced off in Week 1 - the weight of the world falling on Aaron Rodgers' shoulders, and seeing him come up short against a stellar defense and efficient offense.
49ers win 28-24.