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.
Seahawks (12-5) @ Falcons (13-3): A lot of people will say that Seahawks got lucky against the Redskins, and they never would have won if Robert Griffin III was healthy. When RG3's knee was feeling good, he scored on his first two drives, but then he aggravated his injury. Personally, I thought those first two drives were a bit of a fluke anyway. That was not the Seahawks defense that I've seen in (almost) every game this season. If RG3 remained healthy, I don't think he would have kept racking up points on the league's top ranked scoring defense.
That being said, I think the Seahawks deserve the privilege to head to the city of the NFC's top team with a chance to take them down.
Part of the reason that RG3 was able to be effective against the Seahawks was because the kid simply doesn't turn over the football. Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan is also a pretty safe ball handler, but has been prone to interceptions a couple times this season. I think there's a chance he has another one of those days against the Seahawks' ridiculously physical, aggressive secondary.
Finally, the Falcons' defensive weakness is a beautiful matchup for Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks' offense. The Falcons give up 4.8 yards per carry (29th in the league), while the Seahawks gain 4.8 yards per carry (5th in the league). I expect Lynch to lead a few long, time consuming touchdown drives while Matt Ryan struggles (to a certain extent) throwing into a vicious defensive backfield.
Seahawks win 23-20.
Texans (13-4) @ Patriots (12-4): We all know the story here - these teams faced off a month ago and the Texans got embarrassed, losing 42-14. The Patriots got out to a 28-0 lead, and led by as many as 35 during the game. Tom Brady has had another MVP-caliber season and has his best receiving weapon back on the field in Rob Gronkowski. The defense has worked the bend-don't-break strategy to perfection, allowing plenty of yards but very few points, thanks to a plethora of defensive playmakers who can force turnovers.
Though the Texans got smoked on this field recently, and have not played very well since, I don't expect them to go down so easily as they did in their last bout with the Pats. They remember what happened in Foxboro a month ago, and they're furious with themselves about it. It's all added inspiration for them to step up and advance to the AFC Championship.
However, it's hard to see a team win 42-14 and not pick them to beat the same team a month later when not much has changed. I think the Texans keep us more entertained this time around, but Tom Brady will be too much for the Texans' slightly overrated defense to handle. Matt Schaub is on this team to make select plays when the team really needs him and to take care of the football. He's not the type of quarterback to sling the rock like crazy, put the team on his back, and carry them to an AFC Championship - but that's what he'll have to be asked to do on Sunday.
Patriots win 31-21.