Looking Ahead to the Divisional Round Playoffs: Who's Looking Super?
The NFL's Wild Card Weekend of the playoffs is in the books, and several playoff stories ended this weekend.
Cincinnati's offensive duo, Andy Dalton and AJ Green, fell to the Houston Texans for the second year in a row. Adrian Peterson's MVP-Caliber season ended abruptly when the Green Bay Packers finally slowed him down. The Chuckstrong Colts fell short against the emotionally charged Ravens, as Ray Lewis continues his last tour before retirement. Finally, the Redskins buckled after Robert Griffin III's knee gave out and lost to the Seahawks.
It seems a prudent time to look at next week's matchups and make predictions as to what will happen next week.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos
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Following Ray Lewis' triceps injury in Week 6, the Ravens looked vulnerable, stumbling to a 10-6 record. Lewis' return alone revitalized the Ravens, but his recent decision to retire has motivated the Baltimore Ravens further.
The Ravens defense did not allow a touchdown against the Colts and sealed the deal with an interception in the waning minutes. In addition, Joe Flacco looked sharp, throwing two touchdowns and no interceptions. The only Raven who did not meet expectations was Ray Rice, who fumbled twice.
The Ravens head to Denver next weekend to take on the top-seeded Broncos. The Broncos improved significantly this season with Peyton Manning replacing Tim Tebow at quarterback. However, they struggled against playoff teams. Their three losses came to the Atlanta Falcons, the Houston Texans and the New England Patriots, all teams still in contention.
The Broncos beat the Ravens in Week 15, but that was without Ray Lewis and the motivation his retirement has sparked. In addition, John Fox's teams do not always take advantage of bye weeks. In his coaching career, Fox's teams are 7-5 following a bye week. While Fox is 2-0 after a bye week as the Broncos coach, his Panthers teams also had the talent to compete after bye weeks and failed to do so on a consistent basis.
While it is unlikely Joe Flacco will do as well this week, it is also unlikely Ray Rice will fumble twice. The two will likely balance out, giving the Ravens the offense they need to support their defense. The Broncos will be a tough out, but the ultra-motivated Ravens will push through the AFC Championship Game for a familiar matchup.
Prediction: Ravens 27, Broncos 17
Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots
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The Houston Texans fought in the trenches for a win against the Cincinnati Bengals this week.
Although their offense did not click on all cylinders, the Texans defense played well, keeping Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in check. Arian Foster ran for 140 yards and a touchdown, cementing the Texans' place in the divisional round. His stellar performance made up for the Texans' sub-par passing game.
On the defensive side of the ball, Johnathan Joseph returned to his ball-hawking ways, picking off Andy Dalton and limiting A.J. Green. As a unit, the Texans defense held the Bengals to less than 200 yards total offense.
However, they face a much tougher test next weekend when they travel to New England to face the Patriots. Bill Belichick has a knack for refocusing his teams coming off a bye week, especially in the playoffs, compiling a 5-1 record when his teams get a first-round bye. The Patriots will be ready and rested for the Texans next weekend.
While injuries will not be a problem for the Texans, they will need to play better than they did the last time these teams met to beat the Patriots. The Patriots steamrolled the Texans 42-14 in Week 14. It is safe to say Arian Foster will get more than 15 caries in this game, but it remains to be seen if that will translate into more success for the Texans.
The Patriots have the ninth-ranked run defense and held Foster in check during their last meeting. If the Texans cannot get the running game going, it seems unlikely Matt Schaub will be able outscore the Patriots' high-powered offense, particularly with tight end Rob Gronkowski back from injury.
While the Texans will undoubtedly put up more of a fight this time around, the Patriots will again emerge victorious at Gillette Stadium, setting up a repeat of last year's AFC Championship Game against the Ravens.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Texans 24
Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons
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The Seattle Seahawks appeared to be in trouble several times against the Washington Redskins, but after RG3's knee buckled in the second half, the Seahawks punched their ticket to the divisional round.
Following a scorching-hot December in which they averaged 38.6 PPG and held opponents to 12 PPG, the Seahawks were largely considered the hottest team coming into the playoffs. However, these Seahawks looked more vulnerable than they have in recent weeks, surrendering two first-quarter touchdowns to RG3 and the Redskins, even though RG3 was playing on one-and-a-half knees.
The Seahawks did battle back in the second quarter for a 14-13 halftime line, but they looked less sharp against an unheralded Redskins defense. In addition, the Seahawks caught several breaks in this game: Marshawn Lynch recovered Russell Wilson's second-quarter fumble and turned it into a big gain that set up a Russell Wilson TD. In addition, Marshawn Lynch fumbled at the goal line in the third quarter, but the Redskins could not capitalize on the mistake. Finally, and most importantly, the Seahawks forced two key turnovers and capitalized on them.
The Seahawks' victory leads them to Atlanta next week, where they will face Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons. They will do so, however, without leading pass-rusher Chris Clemons, who had 11.5 sacks this year before suffering what could be a torn ACL in the Washington game.
If the Seahawks do not have Clemons on the field, their defense will undoubtedly take a hit, and they need every bit they can get against Atlanta's powerful passing offense. Although Matt Ryan has struggled in the playoffs, the Seahawks are an opponent of whom Ryan can take advantage.
It seems the Seahawks' hot streak came a bit too early in the season, and they are cooling off in the playoffs, which is not a good sign. They likely will not get as many breaks as they did in the Washington game, and the Falcons, hungry for their first playoff win with Matt Ryan under center, will look to capitalize.
The Seahawks will test the Falcons, but in the end, Chris Clemons' absence and the Seahawks' waning hot streak will lead to the Seahawks demise.
Prediction: Falcons 28, Seahawks 24
Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers
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After Adrian Peterson nearly broke the rushing record against them in Week 17, the Packers stuffed AD and the Christian Ponder-less Vikings in the Wild Card Round. While they got some help from backup QB Joe Webb, the Packers defense carried them into the divisional round of the playoffs.
On offense, the hero was not former MVP Aaron Rodgers; it was fullback John Kuhn, who banged in one touchdown on the ground and caught Rodgers' only touchdown pass of the day. Rodgers still looked sharp, sporting a 104.9 QB rating, even though the Vikings put pressure on him for most of the game. The Packers defense also forced three turnovers, which kept the game under control when the offense was sluggish.
This brings us to the most contentious game of the divisional round, in which the Green Bay Packers travel to Candlestick to take on the San Francisco 49ers.
Although the 49ers defense is among the best in the league, the Packers offense is getting healthy at the right time. Although they did not click last week, the Packers averaged 34 PPG in the last four weeks of the season. Therefore, it appears unlikely Aaron Rodgers will have just one touchdown, even if he turns the ball over once or twice.
The 49ers and Packers did play earlier this season in Week 2, a contest which the 49ers won 30-22, but both these teams have changed since that contest. As stated before, the Packers are healthy; however, the same cannot be said of the 49ers.
Defensive anchor Justin Smith hurt his triceps and missed the last few weeks of action. During that stretch, the 49ers lost badly to the Seahawks, and Aldon Smith, who was threatening the sacks record with 19.5, has not had a sack since Justin Smith went down.
Although Rodgers' offensive line is still shaky, the 49ers may not be able to exploit it if their defensive line is not at full strength. Justin Smith has said he will play this week, but his injury may limit him and, by extension, Aldon Smith. If the 49ers cannot get pressure on Rodgers, it may be a long day for the 49ers.
On the offensive side of the ball, the 49ers are dangerous with Colin Kaepernick at QB, but Frank Gore, the focal point of their offense, has been sub-par in recent weeks. The last time Gore topped 100 yards was in Week 8, and the 49ers need Gore to have a big game to take the pressure off Kaepernick in his first playoff game.
This will be an all-out brawl, with both defenses getting physical and both offenses getting frustrated. Rodgers and the Packers, however, will squeak out a hard-fought win against the 49ers.
Prediction: Packers 24, 49ers 20