NFL Playoffs 2013: Keys to Victory for Each Team in Divisional Round
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The battle for playoff survival continues for eight teams this weekend as divisional round action kicks off Saturday.
Beginning with a matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Baltimore Ravens, this weekend promises to be one of the more exciting playoff rounds in recent memory.
Two storied franchises—the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers—will square off out west, the young, aggressive Seattle Seahawks will try to clip the wings of No. 1 seed Atlanta, and the Houston Texans will try to avenge an embarrassing Week 14 loss to the New England Patriots in Foxborough.
With so many great players and coaches involved, let's take a look at the keys to victory for each team this weekend.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High
When: Saturday, Jan. 12 at 4:30 p.m. ET
The Broncos will win if... Peyton Manning keeps playing at an MVP level. The future Hall of Famer has been incredible in his comeback season, leading the Broncos to a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed. Manning is playing some of the best football of his career, but will face a veteran Ravens defense that has seen plenty of Manning over the past decade-plus.
With Terrell Suggs looking like a shell of himself and Ray Lewis and Ed Reed playing at less than 100 percent, No. 18 has a chance to punch his team's ticket to the AFC championship with another playoff victory.
The Ravens will win if... the good Joe Flacco shows up. The former first-round pick has led Baltimore to the playoffs every year since Ozzie Newsome took him with the 18th pick in 2008, but he's yet to lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl.
Flacco only completed 12 passes against the Indianapolis Colts last week, but he made them count for 282 yards and two scores. With Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil breathing down his neck, Flacco has to avoid costly turnovers and keep Manning off the field.
It's put-up-or-shut-up time for the veteran QB.
Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers
Where: Candlestick Park
When: Saturday, Jan. 12 at 8:00 p.m. ET
The 49ers will win if... their front seven dominates Green Bay's offensive line. If you don't put pressure on Aaron Rodgers, the 2011 MVP will shred your defense. Luckily the 49ers have one of the best front sevens in all of football, as Aldon Smith keys a ferocious pass rush.
Linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis should make sure the Packers don't even think about running the ball, but San Fran has to get after Rodgers and move him off the spot. Having Justin Smith back in the lineup should help, but it remains to be seen just how effective the rugged defensive end can be playing with a partially torn tendon.
The Packers will win if... they figure out how to stop the run. Adrian Peterson didn't break the single-season rushing record against Green Bay, but he came awfully close. The leading MVP candidate still managed to rush for 99 yards in last week's rematch, but the Vikings came up woefully short with Joe Webb at quarterback.
However, Green Bay can't afford to let San Francisco dictate the pace on the ground with Frank Gore. The 49ers have one of the league's best offensive lines, and they like to use the run to set up the play-action passing game. Green Bay must make Colin Kaepernick beat them with his arm and not let Gore and the run game keep Rodgers off the field.
Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons
Where: Georgia Dome
When: Sunday, Jan. 13 at 1:00 p.m. ET
The Falcons will win if... Matty Ice shows up. The former third-overall pick in 2008 has been a tremendously successful regular-season quarterback, but he is 0-3 in postseason play. In those three losses, Matt Ryan has thrown four interceptions and just three touchdowns, posting a 71.2 quarterback rating.
This season, however, the Falcons have all the pieces to compete against Seattle's physical secondary. Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez might just be the NFL's best trio of receivers, and Ryan is playing at a near-MVP level. Mike Smith needs his franchise QB to be great if the two hope to pick up their first playoff victory together.
The Seahawks will win if... they shut down the pass. It's a task easier said than done, especially with star defensive end Chris Clemons done for the season with a torn ACL, but the Seahawks are equipped to shut down the pass better than any team in the league.
With king-sized corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, hard-hitting safety Kam Chancellor and ball-hawk Earl Thomas, Seattle's secondary is elite. As long as first-round pick Bruce Irvin can pick up the slack for the consistent Clemons, the 'Hawks have the ability to take Matty Ice out of this game.
Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots
Where: Gillette Stadium
When: Sunday, Jan. 13 at 4:30 p.m. ET
The Patriots will win if... they maintain balance on offense. New England ran the ball 33 times for 130 yards against Houston in its 42-14, Week 14 blowout. Although that averages out to less than four yards per attempt, it was enough to keep the Texans off balance and open things up in the passing game for Tom Brady.
With Rob Gronkowski back, the Patriots simply have too many weapons for the Texans to stop. Mixing in bits of Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead to complement doses of Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd will prove too much for Houston to handle.
The Texans will win if... they take a page out of the New York Giants' playbook.
The reason the Giants prevailed over the Patriots in their two Super Bowl matchups was their pass rush. While the Giants employ a 4-3 scheme, the Texans have plenty of pass-rushers of their own to send after Brady.
J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the NFL and impossible to block one-on-one. Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed are two young, talented outside linebackers, and Antonio Smith might be one of the most underrated defenders in football. Put pressure on Brady, and the outcome could swing in the Texans' favor.
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