NFL Playoff Picture: Predicting Every Divisional Round Matchup
Now that two of the weekend's four wild-card games are completed, we look forward to the divisional round of the 2012 NFL playoffs.
Outstanding games that turned into dominant wins by the Houston Texans and the New Orleans Saints have already decided two of the divisional matchups. With two more wild-card games to be played, we'll predict who will move on to the divisional round before deciding winners of next week's lineup.
Who will move on to the NFC and AFC Championship games?
AFC: 2) Baltimore Ravens vs. 3) Houston Texans
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Despite losing their last three games to lose out on a possible No. 2 seed, the Houston Texans had a dominant win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday and will travel to Baltimore to take on the Ravens in the divisional round.
The Texans and the Ravens have already played once in Baltimore this year, the first contest swinging the way of the home team, 29-14.
The Texans looked great in their first-ever playoff game, but an away game against a tougher Baltimore team will be a much taller task. On top of that, the Texans will be playing with rookie TJ Yates as their starting quarterback, whereas Matt Schaub was the starter in the first matchup. Yates has done a very admirable job in a tough situation, but the Ravens defense is a different kind of animal than was the Bengals'.
Baltimore won't have an easy time moving the ball on the stout Texans defense, but it may be even more difficult for Houston to get anything going against the Ravens. Both teams will rely on their defenses to create turnovers and make life difficult for the opposing offense in general.
Ray Rice versus Arian Foster will be great fun to watch at running back, as both players will be carrying his respective offense, but when it's all said and done, the Ravens get it done at home.
AFC: 1) New England Patriots vs. 5) Pittsburgh Steelers
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Assuming the Steelers beat the Broncos in Denver today (which is no given), the two teams that have owned the postseason in recent years will meet early in the divisional round to decide who advances. The winner could very easily end up in the Super Bowl yet again.
This year's story will be Tom Brady versus the Steelers defense, which is no surprise. The Steelers have the top-rated scoring, total and pass defense in the league. But the Patriots are no strangers to the end zone, and their tight ends and receivers create matchup nightmares that Tom Brady can fully exploit.
The Steelers aren't without some explosion on offense as well, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger slinging the ball to receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. They will, however, be without featured back Rashard Mendenhall.
The Patriots have been uncharacteristically bad on defense this year, especially against the pass, which could play into Pittsburgh's favor. With that being said, the Steelers have underachieved on offense this season and won't be at full strength.
At the end of the day, I'll put my proverbial money on Brady and the Pats.
NFC: 2) San Francisco 49ers vs. 3) New Orleans Saints
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Coming off a big home win over the Detroit Lions that was closer than the 45-28 score indicates, the New Orleans Saints will have to get it done on the road this time. They will travel to San Francisco to take on the 49ers, arguably the biggest surprise team of the season.
The Saints will bring their high-powered attack that creates mismatches only the New England and Green Bay offenses can duplicate, and the 49ers' second-ranked scoring defense will try to stop it.
The Saints have struggled on defense this year, but theydid a decent job against a Lions' passing attack that was on a tear leading up to that point. The 49ers have a very different offense than the Lions, however. Quarterback Alex Smith is more of a game manager than a gunslinger, and while they have no targets outside of Vernon Davis that can begin to compare with Calvin Johnson, they do have a much stronger rushing attack.
Many people cite New Orleans' road losses as reason to believe they will fall short, but I'm not buying it. Their defensive strengths match up well with the Niners offense, and San Francisco's average secondary may not be able to withstand the Saints' aerial assault. I'm going with New Orleans on the road.
NFC: 1) Green Bay Packers vs. 4) New York Giants
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The outcome of the Giants-Falcons game will determine who plays the Green Bay Packers next week, and I think the Giants will come out on top. The Falcons' recent playoff history does not bode well for them, and they generally play better at home than on the road.
If the Giants win, they will have to prepare for the top scoring offense in the NFL. They do, however, have an explosive offense themselves. Both teams have struggled to run the ball but have put up gaudy numbers through the air, and both defenses have given up a lot of yards, so it's not hard to imagine a record-setting amount of yards being put up in this contest.
Quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning both already have Super Bowl rings and are two of the best in the game, and their respective receiving corps, which includes Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings (if he is healthy), James Jones, Jermichael Finley, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, rounds out an all-star cast.
The Packers have found ways to win all but one of their games this year, and the Giants have been very inconsistent. If the Giants are able to put pressure on Rodgers, however, things could get interesting, and the Giants have had one of the best pass rushes in the league.
Still, it's hard to see the Packers being downed by the 9-7 Giants at home.