NFL Playoff Picture: Analyzing Best Matchups in AFC Divisional Round Games

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2013

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 30: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots throws a pass against the Miami Dolphins during the game at Gillette Stadium on December 30, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The AFC divisional slate features two rematches. On Saturday, the Denver Broncos take on the Baltimore Ravens. On Sunday, the New England Patriots host the Houston Texans. The top seeds, Denver and New England, won the previous encounters.

While the Broncos and Patriots are favored to emerge victorious again, there are some tremendous matchups in both games that could turn the tide. That's what makes the playoffs so exciting. The margin for error is razor-thin in a single game.

With that in mind, let's focus on the best matchup from each game of the divisional round and explore how it will impact the outcome as the AFC's final four fight for a spot in the conference championship game.


Ravens at Broncos: Ray Rice vs. Denver front seven

The formula for slowing down Peyton Manning has been the same for over a decade, and it actually has nothing to do with him. It's up to the opposing offense to control the pace to ensure he spends a lot of time on the sidelines.

For the Ravens, that means getting the ball to Rice early and often to set the tone. Baltimore's star running back gained just 38 yards on 12 carries in the first meeting. As such, it's no surprise that game turned into a Denver blowout victory.

The Broncos run defense ranked third during the regular season at barely over 90 yards against per game. Wesley Woodyard led the charge with 117 tackles. Also, don't be surprised if Mike Adams or Rahim Moore sneak into the box to make it a front eight.

If the Broncos hold the ball for nearly 40 minutes like they did in the first game, the Ravens are toast. Their offense just isn't explosive enough to succeed in that type of game. Rice needs to have a much better performance to give them a chance.


Texans at Patriots: J.J. Watt vs. Tom Brady

The Patriots offense fell into the unstoppable category at various points throughout the season, mostly due to the continued dominance of Brady. His mastery of the team's offensive scheme is a sight the behold when operating at peak efficiency, which was often in 2012.

On the flip side, fans get to watch one of the league's newest superstars. Watt registered a league-leading 20.5 sacks, and added another one against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. He needs to make sure Brady feels his presence on every snap.

It will also be interesting to see how Watt's ability to bat down passes will impact New England's passing game, which loves to utilize underneath routes. Counting the playoffs, the Wisconsin product has defended 18 passes this season.

Watt needs a monster game in order for the Texans to have a legitimate chance heading into the fourth quarter. If the Patriots can stop him from making a significant impact, they will cruise to victory just like they did the first time around.