If you weren’t scarred by watching the first 30 minutes of the BCS Championship Game, please read on. Rest assured, there is still highly competitive football yet to be played this winter…
Unlike the massacre in Miami, the NFL will not disappoint this weekend. It seemingly never does (although last Saturday’s games in Houston and Green Bay made my football-watching crew at the apartment look for other, um, options on pay-per-view).
Anyway, before I go off on a tangent, let’s count down from three-to-one what makes this weekend the greatest of the NFL season:
3) The Saturday format: A 4:30 PM (EST) start for the first game, followed by an 8:00 PM kickoff for the second. Simply genius! What else is there to do on a Saturday night in the middle of dreary January but get over-served and absorb seven hours of football?
2) The Wild Card non-descripts are out of the way: With all due respect to Cincinnati, your team is more boring than a Nick Saban press conference. Seriously, the Bengals end up playing the tightest game of the day (19-13 final in Houston) and it still had a final-preseason-game-on-my-local-WB-affiliate-feel-to-it. Having golf guy Dan Hicks and the ubiquitous Mike Mayock on the call didn’t exactly help matters, either. Let’s also thank the football Gods that the Kirk Cousins-led Redskins and Joe Webb-led Vikings are gone as well (we would have taken Andrew Luck and the Colts this weekend, but it may be more fun to instead witness the media cry over the end of Ray Lewis’ career).
1) Great QBs on display this weekend: And by great, we mean two of the top five of all time in Brady and the elder Manning. Rodgers may also enter that pantheon after a few more years of work, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
So who’s going to win? Funny you asked…
Saturday, 4:30 PM EST, CBS
Lost in the praise of Lewis in Baltimore’s win over the Colts was how elastic the Ravens D was that day: 152 yards rushing (5.1 yards per carry) allowed, 288 yards through the air, 440 yards total. Of course, the home team came up big when it counted (only 9 points surrendered) and forced some key turnovers to counter its own by Ray Rice, but it’s still troubling considering the opponent this week.
The difference here, of course, is Manning. Three reasons for the lopsided pick:
Those field goals Indy was forced to settle for/miss last week? Peyton likely turns those into touchdowns.
That game-clinching interception Luck threw? Ain’t happening with the likely MVP…
Manning is 8-1 lifetime against the Ravens, including a 34-17 beatdown in Baltimore four weeks ago…a game that wasn’t even that close (31-3 going into the 4th quarter).
The mountain air, the Ravens having won their Super Bowl for Ray-Ray last week, and the ENTIRE country outside of Maryland rooting for a Manning-Brady rematch?
Too much to overcome…
Broncos in a walk…
Saturday, 8:00 PM EST, FOX
Green Bay was presented a gift in the Wild Card round last week in the form of the aforementioned Mr. Webb, who apparently is also auditioning for the T-Wolves if all of those bounce-passes were any indication.
Who has the best chance to be upset this weekend?
Aaron Rodgers will get his yards, of course. But the Packer running game is still a concern, as five backs ran for a total of 76 yards last week despite nursing a big lead for most of the game (2.8 yards/carry). During the Pack’s Super Bowl run two years ago, James Starks was effective enough to make the passing game explosive via play-action by Rodgers. In 2013, the Packers run game isn’t scaring anyone, particularly a disciplined defense like San Francisco’s.
Colin Kaepernick is playing in his first playoff game, but no matter. San Fran’s running attack (4th overall, 155 yds/game) will set the tone, as the Packers have shown little ability to stop the run (17th overall).
Jim Harbaugh’s club went into Lambeau and manhandled the Pack in Week 1. Not much has changed since (outside of SF’s upgrade to Kaepernick). And with this game being played at Candlestick (one loss at home in the regular season, Pack 4-4 on the road)–the pick here is for the red and gold to advance to their second straight NFC Championship game.
Sunday, 1:00 PM EST, FOX
The Seahawks bandwagon is getting awfully crowded, with more than a few experts now picking Seattle to represent the NFC in New Orleans.
While Pete Carroll’s club is hot, possesses a violent runner in Marshawn Lynch (as perfectly characterized by FOX’s Howie Long) and has an opportunistic defense, they simply aren’t as talented as the Falcons.
What about Atlanta’s glass jaw in January? Don’t they always lose games like this in the Matt Ryan era?
True, but that has to come to an end sometime…and with the Seahawks forced to make cross-country trips two weeks in a row, and having to play a 1:00 PM EST game, no less (Seattle’s record in early East Coast games since 2005 is 14-22), it may be a bit to ask even of a team with such momentum.
RG-Knee’s injury/Mike Shanahan’s tactical error helped the Seahawks climb out of a 14-0 deficit in Washington. Don’t expect Atlanta to allow this to happen with a healthy Matt Ryan and a core of receivers (Julio Jones, Roddy White, ageless Tony Gonzalez), especially in the Georgia Dome (Ryan: 33-6 in home starts).
The pressure on the Falcons to finally win a big game in January is high, but Matty Ice will avoid being Matty Melt this time around.
Seattle–a nice story, a scary team, but still one year away.
Sunday, 4:30 PM EST, CBS
Houston puts up a better fight this time around. Then again, it can’t get any worse than the Monday Night Massacre in Foxborough in early December…a game the Pats jumped out to a 28-0 lead before ESPN even had time to introduce the Texan defense.
Some point to the Pats 45-3 regular season win/28-21 playoff loss to the Jets two years ago as an example of Houston having a chance here. But the Pats are now well aware of taking their opponent lightly as a lesson from that season, and don’t plan on allowing that to happen again…particularly with Rob Gronkowski available for this rematch (out Week 14 with a broken forearm).
If the visitors have any chance here, it will come down to Arian Foster being far more effective this time around (15 carries, 46 yards in December). His 140 yards against Cincy gives him 425 rushing yards for his career in January…the most ever in a player’s first three postseason games (according to the Elias Sports Bureau). Playing from behind obviously negated Foster’s output against the Pats in Round one, but saying you’ll stop Tom Brady early and actually doing so are two entirely different things. J.J. Watt (zero sacks in first visit) is obviously the key to that effort.
One other factor: Stevan Ridley is the best running threat the Pats have had since the days of Corey Dillon (when they actually, you know, won championships). This balance only helps in making Brady almost impossible to stop, particularly with both tight ends available to him, and Brandon Lloyd finally coming of age in New England.
Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. It also doesn’t put Houston in the AFC Championship Game.
Got predictions of your own? Share them in the comments section or send them to Joe Concha by following him on Twitter @ConchSports.