The second round of the NFL playoffs is upon us as each conference's first and second seeds await the wild-card winners in the divisional round.
The stories abound revolve around past contests, as three of the four games are rematches from the regular season. Only Atlanta and Seattle have not faced off this season, but I'm sure Russell Wilson gave them much to think about with his game tape against the Washington Redskins.
Will the Houston Texans avenge their earlier blowout loss to the Patriots in New England? Will the Green Bay Packers prove that they're not the team San Francisco defeated in Week 1? Will the revitalized Baltimore Ravens end Peyton Manning's comeback run?
Our experts will answer all these questions and more. On to the picks!
Our B/R Panel of Experts
Note: All betting odds are for informational purposes only and courtesy of Statfox.com. Although spreads are provided, all picks are straight up.
B/R Consensus: Broncos (Unanimous)
Vegas: Broncos (-9)
The Ravens were able to force Peyton Manning's old team into mistakes they will not get from his current team. Moreover, Von Miller is going to make life very tough for Joe Flacco and those sub-par Ravens blockers.
The Broncos will ride their 11-game winning streak into the playoffs. With home-field advantage, Peyton Manning will execute another victory.
Stopping the Broncos offense starts with stopping Peyton Manning, and the Ravens simply have not proven that they have a stingy pass defense this season. Unless the Ravens find a way to run Ray Rice down the throat of Denver's third-ranked run defense, this one could get ugly early.
Though it was a convincing, emotional win for the Ravens over the Colts last week, this Saturday's meeting with the Denver Broncos won't be as easy. They've met once before and it didn't go Baltimore's way, and it won't this week with more at stake. For a Ravens win, they'll either need to keep Peyton Manning from scoring or outperform him on offense, and I don't see them capable of doing either.
When these two teams met in Baltimore a month ago, the Broncos scored 17 points in the first half and held the Ravens to zero. Denver coasted to the victory and still scored 17 more points in the second half. The Broncos are at home, healthy and rested, and Peyton Manning has had two weeks to study.
Joe Flacco has had issues on the road and can't be trusted if the Broncos are able to get pressure on him (which is nearly certain if the Ravens fall behind). The Broncos even have plenty of playoff experience from last season, and the aging Ravens will be playing on a shorter-than-normal week.
These teams played just a few weeks ago in Baltimore and Peyton Manning lit up the Ravens. He's playing his best football right now and has owned the Ravens throughout his career.
Look closely and you'll realize that the healthier, more rested Broncos had one of the most dominant regular seasons in NFL history. This is a mismatch.
The Fighting Mannings are humming along on both sides of the ball, are at home and have already beaten the Ravens once this year. The Ravens defense isn't bad, but will have a tougher game this week. I expect Joe Flacco to fold under the pressure from the Bronco defense and for Manning to carve up this secondary.
The magical moment that was Ray Lewis’ final home game is over, and there’s no way he can do enough to help his Ravens beat the Denver Broncos. Joe Flacco is a fine playoff quarterback, but Denver is ranked second in team defense and third against the pass.
Other Picks: Nagler (Broncos); Langland (Broncos).
B/R Consensus: Packers (6-5)
Vegas: 49ers (-3)
This isn't the same Packers team from the early season. Aaron Rodgers is playing at an extremely high level, and the 49ers will struggle to stop him. For that matter, this isn't the same 49ers team. Colin Kaepernick is going to have to play out of his mind to beat the Packers, and he may not be ready for that kind of challenge.
A dominant defense meets a high-powered offense, but the Packers have no one who can stop Aldon Smith and Justin Smith crashing off the edge.
No quarterback has been sacked more than Aaron Rodgers this year; if the San Francisco pass rush can get to him, it will successfully kill drives. The Packers haven't seen a quarterback like Colin Kaepernick—though they did host and lose to the Niners in the season opener, that was with Alex Smith under center—and their inconsistent defense likely won't be able to predict and stop what he and Frank Gore will attack them with.
Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback, but he's going to have to beat a good defense, overcome his own defense and beat a good, well-rested team on the road. The 49ers likely spent most of their time studying the Packers during their bye, and Jim Harbaugh's staff is one of the best at putting his players in position to be successful. You can't count out the Packers, but the 49ers should be able to come away with a close victory.
This is a real toss-up game, and there's no reason to favor one team over the other. I'm taking the 49ers because of the home-field advantage, but if the Pack wins, I won't bat an eye.
I know this is a team sport, but in this case I'm really taking Aaron Rodgers to outduel Colin Kaepernick by a wide margin.
Not an easy game by any stretch, but this is a much different team than the one San Fran beat way back when. Although, to be fair, Colin Kaepernick makes the Niners a much different team as well.
In the end, the Packers have found some balance on the ground, and Rodgers is still Rodgers. The defense has stepped up as well, and Charles Woodson will help keep Frank Gore in check as he did against Adrian Peterson.
Back in Week 1, San Francisco started off a powerful season by beating the Green Packers by eight points and showing that Aaron Rodgers couldn’t win on his own. Green Bay has a different feel now, sparked by the diminutive DuJuan Harris at running back. Plus, Rodgers steps things up in the playoffs.
Other Picks: Nagler (Packers); Langland (Packers).
B/R Consensus: Seahawks (7-4)
Vegas: Falcons (-3)
The Seahawks are playing great football, but the Falcons have had two weeks to prepare for the zone-blocking scheme and the zone read (which both Seattle and Washington used), and Mike Smith is a good enough defensive coach to put something together. The loss of Chris Clemons will help the Falcons as well.
Asking Seattle to travel across the country twice in a row is tough—as is expecting Russell Wilson to navigate through Mike Nolan's secondary.
The Seahawks didn't really adjust to the Redskins as much as they simply dealt with a significantly damaged offense. Before that, they looked incapable of tackling running back Alfred Morris and just tired overall. They also have the physical wide receivers to deal with the Seahawks secondary.
The winless playoff streak for the Atlanta Falcons continues on for another season with the red-hot Seattle Seahawks coming to town. Dangerous on both offense and defense, the Seahawks have all the tools to pressure Matt Ryan, keep Julio Jones and Roddy White under wraps and carve up Atlanta's defense on the ground and in the air.
There aren't many teams that have the cornerbacks to slow down Julio Jones and Roddy White, but the Seahawks happen to be one of those teams. Tony Gonzalez could be Atlanta's secret weapon, but he'll need help.
The Redskins had success running the ball on the Seahawks early in the game using stretch runs, but the Falcons will not be able to exploit that weakness with Michael Turner. Mike Nolan might be able to devise a scheme to slow down Russell Wilson, but the rookie seems to figure things out quickly and has Marshawn Lynch to lean on.
The Seahawks have the best DVOA in football, and the Falcons are overrated. There's usually an upset in the divisional round, and this is the one to take.
Tough to tell which Atlanta team will show up. Seattle's more consistent, and it might simply be the better team at this point anyway.
Marshawn Lynch carried the load, and Russell Wilson didn't lose his cool against a 14-point deficit in Washington. I expect them to play well against the Falcons. The Seahawks' corners will have their hands full with the Atlanta receivers, but I think they're up to the task. Meanwhile, the Falcons defense will have no answer for the option and Lynch's brand of punishing football.
The Atlanta Falcons haven’t fared well (0-3) in Mike Smith’s four seasons at the helm, but adding two new coordinators and changing the look of both the offense and defense will lead to his first postseason victory. Seattle will run all over the Falcons with Marshawn Lynch, but Mike Nolan should be able to dial up a game plan to foil Seattle’s rookie signal-caller, Russell Wilson.
Other Picks: Nagler (Seahawks); Langland (Seahawks).
B/R Consensus: Patriots (Unanimous)
Vegas: Patriots (-9.5)
This is the same Texans team that cockily walked into Gillette Stadium last time and walked out with their letterman jackets between their legs. Marvin Lewis isn't coaching the Patriots, so Houston is going to see what a team actually prepared for the playoffs looks like. New England rolls.
My "Don't Pick Against Tom Brady" rule is in effect. Brady and Co. at home, in January, will put another beating on the Houston Texans.
Houston's defense looked sharp in the win over the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round, but the next test is Tom Brady and the New England Patriots offense, and it won't be as easy to stop them. The Texans have a similar task to the one that faces the Ravens against the Broncos—trying to keep Brady and the Patriots' run game from marching down the field while also putting up enough points on offense to build a safe lead. I just don't see that happening this week.
These two teams met on December 10, and the Patriots shredded the Texans, 42-14. The Patriots are extremely hard to beat at home in December and January. The Texans will have to do a great job defensively to stay in the game and enable them to set up their offense with the running game.
Matt Schaub is just not the quarterback who can beat Tom Brady on the road in a shootout. The Patriots will also enter the game healthier than they have in weeks and should win, but I expect a closer game this time around.
New England was better in all phases of the game in the first matchup, and there's no reason to believe Houston can compete in Foxboro.
Absolutely no reason to believe things will be any different than they were when New England spanked Houston five weeks ago at Gillette.
I haven't loved Houston the last month or so and didn't much love what they did against Cincinnati. Andy Dalton played poorly, and yet this offense couldn't put the Bengals away—on top of that, the defense was lucky Dalton overthrew A.J. Green on a late play that could have won the Bengals the game.
I think this comes down to Matt Schaub, and I'm not comfortable with that. The Pats are playing well, and Tom Brady is Tom Brady. If a mistake comes, it's happening because of Schaub.
Houston got going in the right direction with a playoff win over the Cincinnati Bengals last week, but losing three of its last four games of the regular season still makes the Texans look susceptible. New England has only lost once in its last 10 games and has more weapons on offense than just quarterback Tom Brady. Anything short of the AFC Championship Game seems unfathomable for the Pats.
Other Picks: Nagler (Patriots); Langland (Patriots).
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.