Projecting the Road to the Super Bowl Post Wild Card Weekend
The Divisional Playoffs are now set, but the road to the Super Bowl hasn't really altered in either conference. The AFC will still be decided in Denver and the NFC title game will still be played out in Atlanta.
How the next round of the playoffs breaks down will be an intriguing dynamic. It will feature the end for a player certainly headed for the Hall of Fame.
There will also be yet another trouncing for a team whose familiar schemes are often undermined by the best quarterbacks. The divisional round will also seen the last of the heroics from the final rookie quarterback in the postseason.
The surprise of the round could come in a game featuring a team with all the momentum, against a once-fancied contender that has recently lost its way.
Here is how the road to the Super Bowl will play out, post Wild Card Weekend.
AFC: Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos
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Ray Lewis will face Peyton Manning for the final time, when the Baltimore Ravens take on the Denver Broncos. It will be the first time Lewis has encountered Manning since the illustrious quarterback joined the Broncos.
Manning often had the Ravens' number as a member of the Indianapolis Colts. That trend will continue as the Broncos should have a little too much on both sides of the ball for the Ravens.
Baltimore's defense is healthier than it's been all season. However, they won't be able to rattle Manning the way they did rookie Andrew Luck in the Wild Card round.
Even with a diet of heavy blitzing, the Ravens still surrendered 440 yards to the Colts. That included 288 passing yards.
That's bad news, especially considering Manning plays behind a far superior offensive line. With a little extra time, Manning will dissect the Ravens secondary and build an unassailable lead.
Defensively, the Broncos are to sure to harass the streaky Joe Flacco into a few key mistakes. Von Miller should dominate and an improved run defense can contain Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.
The Ravens' toughness, experience and the motivation to send Lewis out a champion, will keep things close. However, the Broncos will always stay far enough in front and will pull away in the final quarter.
Winner: Denver Broncos
AFC: Houston Texans at New England Patriots
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The Houston Texans will want to avoid a repeat of their mauling at the hands of the New England Patriots in Week 14. However, that won't happen and the Patriots will eventually cruise to yet another AFC Championship game.
The problem for the Texans is that they are just a little predictable. That makes them tailor-made for the Patriots.
The Texans have a formula and while it succeeds, it is a familiar one. They play the same schemes on defense and offense week after week and simply challenge the opposition to stop them.
While that mindset has produced favourable results the last two seasons, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is the formula's kryptonite. He has made his reputation on taking away what the opposition does best.
When the two teams met in Week 14, that's exactly what the Patriots did. They blitzed Houston's vaunted zone-running game into irrelevance and also blanketed star wideout Andre Johnson.
On offense, Tom Brady simply relied on a hurry-up pass attack to stifle Wade Phillips' 5-2 fronts and repetitive coverages. The Texans won't surprise the Patriots the way the New York Giants did in two Super Bowls.
Phillips may tweak some of his coverage looks and add new blitzes and that could help make things closer. However, the Patriots' versatility on both sides of the ball will still prove too much.
Winner: New England Patriots
NFC: Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons
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Note to the Atlanta Falcons' coaches: Do not, under any circumstances, go conservative on offense. That has to be the fear for Falcons fans who have seen their team do just that in their last two trips to the playoffs.
Yet there's no reason to rein in quarterback Matt Ryan and his talented cast of receivers. The Falcons have the most dangerous passing attack in the league. That's thanks to the versatility and complementary styles of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.
Yes, the Seattle Seahawks and their talented secondary will present a challenge. However, Ryan and Co. need fear no defense when they are at their best.
If the Falcons turn Ryan loose, he will make enough big plays to pile the pressure on Russell Wilson. Seattle's rookie quarterback was superb against the Washington Redskins on Wild Card Weekend.
However, Wilson may not find it as easy against an opportunistic and more talented Atlanta defense. The Falcons have made more than one elite quarterback look foolish this season.
Brilliant safety William Moore leads a secondary that will pounce on any errors from Wilson. As they always do, the Seahawks will play things tough and close.
However, this will be the week Pete Carroll's team doesn't quite manage to edge in front. The Falcons will make full use of their home advantage, before hosting the conference championship.
Winner: Atlanta Falcons
NFC: Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
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Just one month ago, it was easy to pick the San Francisco 49ers over the Green Bay Packers. Yet things have changed so much since, that's it's not unreasonable to fancy a road upset.
In the most intriguing matchup of the divisional round, the stumbling 49ers will have to contend with the prolific Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay's quarterback is always a major threat and he relies on a group of receivers that looks more dominant each week.
However, the real concern for the 49ers has to be the emergence of a credible running game. DuJuan Harris has helped give the Packers the semblance of a rushing attack.
With any kind of support on the ground, Rodgers and the Packers offense are near-impossible to contain. There's also the fact that the 49ers' defense hasn't been the same since Justin Smith suffered injury in Week 15.
The usually powerful unit must back be to its best to halt the Packers' scoring machine. They will be buoyed by recent reports that Smith could return.
That could prove pivotal, as it will give San Francisco the right kind of pass rush to subdue Rodgers. If they can rush with just four, the 49ers have a smart enough secondary to limit the Packers' receivers.
They could also find success running the ball on a Green Bay defense that has struggled against power rushing attacks. The 49ers excel at outnumbering defenses at the point of attack, and their blocking schemes should free Frank Gore for big gains.
The Packers have all the momentum, but the 49ers match up well with Mike McCarthy's team. They will eventually edge a tense encounter and make the trip to Atlanta.
Winner: San Francisco 49ers
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New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
The highlight of Championship Weekend will undoubtedly be another clash between the two finest quarterbacks of their generation.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning's latest battle to decide the AFC, will end in disappointment for the three-time Super Bowl winner.
Manning will enjoy a rare playoff triumph over his nemesis. That's because the Broncos are now are more rounded team than the one that lost to the Patriots in Week 5.
Their third-ranked run defense will do a better job of shutting down Stevan Ridley. That will leave Brady at the mercy of Miller and Elvis Dumervil.
Manning, meanwhile, will avoid his usual mistakes against Bill Belichick's disciplined coverage schemes. The Broncos will win a close one and contest the Super Bowl.
Winner: Denver Broncos
San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
The 49ers will use select big plays to best the Falcons in Atlanta. Colin Kaepernick has added greater downfield potential to the offense, and that will prove pivotal.
Ryan and his offense will be left facing an early deficit, and nerves will take over. That will allow the 49ers defense to snatch some critical turnovers and seal a memorable and decisive road win.
Winner: San Francisco 49ers
Super Bowl 47: San Francisco 49ers vs. Denver Broncos
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The 49ers will again have just too much power for a talented passing offense to handle. Their stellar defense will be back to its dominant best and key a sixth Super Bowl win.
Manning and the Broncos will be the unfortunate victims. They will fail to take advantage of an early lead and consistent pressure will eventually force Manning into a series of costly errors.
San Francisco's defensive game plan will be smart and varied. Coordinator Vic Fangio will use athletes like Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to take away Manning's favoured over-the-middle throws.
Ultimately, the 49ers will use their defensive efficiency to earn another Lombardi trophy.
Winner San Francisco 49ers