One week deep into the NFL Playoffs, and it’s safe to say that the divisional round should feature a bit more excitement than wild card week. Up until a nail-biter on Sunday night, there was very little drama to be found as all three favorites took care of business at home prior to that.
While the Seahawks vs. Redskins game did serve to provide a little more excitement, it was quickly tarnished as Robert Griffin III went down late in the game with what was eventually diagnosed as a partially torn ACL and LCL in his right knee.
With even more on the line this week, these picks get tougher and tougher to make.
With four of 12 teams eliminated, and four more set to be sent home this week, it’s put up or shut up time for the remaining squads.
Here’s how I see this week’s matchups playing out.
Baltimore Ravens (+10) at Denver Broncos (O/U = 46)
Ray Lewis announced mid-week that the Ravens’ wild card game against Indianapolis would be his final in front of the Baltimore crowd, and then made it a game to remember. Coming off of a triceps injury that had kept him sidelined since mid-October, future Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis tallied 13 tackles to lead the team as they won the contest to advance to this round.
A quiet yet efficient game by Joe Flacco was key in the win as the quarterback avoided any turnovers while finding Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta both for touchdowns. One surprising stat from the game was Ray Rice’s two fumbles after the star back turned the ball over just once throughout the entire regular season. Fortunately for him, the Baltimore defense was able to negate the mistakes in a dominant performance.
The Broncos open up their first playoff run with Peyton Manning at the helm here as the one-seed at Mile High Stadium. After a stellar 13-3 regular season there are high hopes for this team, and a fully revitalized Manning appears ready to deliver. Denver is currently riding an 11-game win streak heading into this one, and they haven’t lost at home since September.
Along with their stellar offense, the Broncos also feature a dominant defense led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Von Miller. They gave up the second fewest yards per game of any team in the NFL in 2012, and with that type of support for such a dangerous offense it’s easy to see how they could rattle off eleven straight.
I think that the Ravens’ run ends here against a team that will likely force some mistakes, but unlike Indy, Denver will be able to capitalize on them.
Green Bay Packers (+3) at San Francisco 49ers (O/U = 45)
After losing to the Vikings in Week 17, the Packers redeemed themselves at Lambeau Field in the wild card round with a convincing 24-10 victory over that same Minnesota team. Aaron Rodgers spread the ball around masterfully, hitting 10 different receivers over the course of the game en route to a QB Rating of 104.9 for the contest.
With their defense as close to fully healthy as they have been at any point all year the Packers dominated throughout against backup Joe Webb after first stringer Christian Ponder was ruled inactive just before game time. With Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews both in action, this unit is tough to beat on every level. And with both players having sat out many games throughout the season, there should be no concern for fatigue heading deeper into the playoffs.
The Niners earned the NFC West title as well as the two-seed after changing quarterbacks from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick back in November. After Smith led this squad to the NFC Championship last season there will be a lot of pressure on Kaepernick to achieve at least the same result this season, and it will be interesting to see how the second year signal caller responds.
San Francisco gave up the second-fewest points per game through the regular season, and with Rodgers and the Packers’ offense rolling they will face a true test at home in this one. Niners linebacker/defensive end Aldon Smith finished second in the league in sacks this season while Rodgers was the most sacked quarterback over that same period. It will be crucial for Smith and the rest of the 49ers defense to disrupt Rodgers early and often if they hope to slow down the roll he has gotten onto.
I think that the experience the Packers bring into this one will be a huge advantage against the young quarterback of the 49ers, and some crucial mistakes are expected. On the other side of the ball, Rodgers' ability to fight through defensive pressure will be key as he puts up more points than the 49ers offense is able to keep up with.
Straight: Green Bay
Spread: Green Bay
Seattle Seahawks (+2.5) at Atlanta Falcons (O/U = 45.5)
The Seahawks were able to outlast a hobbled RG3 in the wild card round to advance a week further and face the one-seed Falcons in this matchup. After falling behind by two touchdowns early in the game the Seattle defense buckled down and shutout the high powered Redskins to become the only victorious road team in the opening round.
Russell Wilson has now outlasted both Griffin and Andrew Luck to become the last rookie quarterback standing, a turn of events that few may have predicted at the seasons onset. While Wilson has stepped up to the plate masterfully it is clear that the support of his top-notch defense as well as a strong rushing attack led by Marshawn Lynch has made all the difference in their current run.
With home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs the Falcons begin their trek in this one, and get a bit of a tough draw against one if the NFL’s hottest teams. The receiving attack led by Roddy White and Julio Jones has been difficult---if not impossible---for teams to stop, but with arguably the best secondary in football the Seahawks may match up with them as well as anyone.
Matt Ryan was a top-five quarterback in the league when it comes to QB Rating, and led his team to a one-loss record at home. This team has been nearly impossible to beat at home during the regular season, but an embarrassing loss on their home turf to the Giants in last season's playoffs should have Falcons fans a bit uneasy.
This is the time of year where legends are made, and while Wilson will undoubtedly need the help of top-notch cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, the Seahawks should pull the upset and head into the NFC Championship while the Wilson legend continues to grow.
Houston Texans (+9.5) at New England Patriots (O/U = 47.5)
After closing out the regular season with major disappointment, the Texans were able to rally to a victory against the Bengals last week, and head into Foxboro for a rematch against the Patriots. An embarrassing 42-14 loss to NE on Monday night in Week 15 is surely still weighing heavily on the minds of the Houston players, and often the hope of redemption can inspire some great performances.
There is no doubt that the Texans have plenty of bulletin board material leading up to this one, as it seems not much of the public or media are giving them much of a shot. Arian Foster has even revised his Twitter avatar to show a quote from a sportswriter bashing the Houston squad and giving them zero chance to emerge victorious. It will be interesting to see how this team responds to such criticism.
The Patriots closed out the season with wins in nine of their last 10 games, one of which was that spanking of the Texans. Tom Brady has been at full throttle through that period, and this New England team has rarely looked touchable. Despite a marginal defense, they have been able to succeed regularly due to their high-octane offense, which led the league with nearly 35 points per game.
There has been little to identify any drop-off in the New England offense since their demolition of Houston earlier this season, so it’s hard for me to picture a different outcome here. I’m taking the Pats at home, but it won’t be as one-sided as the last meeting.
Straight: New England