The Divisional Round of the NFL postseason is frequently the best and most exciting weekend of football all year. The eight teams playing are, for the most part, so evenly matched that anything less than a spectacular finish will be a disappointment.
However, as we know all too well, not all games and teams are created equal. There are some games that, while they look good on paper, are going to turn out to be one-sided when you put the two teams between the lines.
As we count down the final hours to the kickoff of the Divisional Round games, here are the teams that look like the biggest locks.
Denver Broncos (vs. Baltimore Ravens)
This looks like a trap game the more you hear people talk about it. Everyone expects Denver to win and win big. After all, these two teams just played four weeks ago in a game that the Broncos dominated at Baltimore.
On top of that, Joe Flacco is still the most frustratingly successful quarterback in the league. He completed just 52 percent of his passes (12 completions) against Indianapolis last week, yet had 282 yards and two touchdowns.
Ray Lewis does give the defense an emotional lift, but emotion can only carry you so far. At some point talent trumps heart and emotion.
The Broncos are probably the most complete team in the NFL right now. Their offense, led by Peyton Manning, has been spectacular. They have outscored opponents 260-131 at home this season.
Denver's defense, particularly up front, is a nightmare for opposing teams to figure out. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil combined for 29.5 of the team's 52 sacks this season.
Unless the Ravens are able to establish Ray Rice and control the clock in this game, limiting the number of times Manning can touch the ball, this game will be over before it starts.
Prediction: Broncos 31, Ravens 17
New England Patriots (vs. Houston Texans)
Think back to 2010. New England defeated the New York Jets 45-3 on Monday Night Football en route to a 14-2 record. Six weeks later, the Jets upended the Patriots in the postseason.
Fast forward to 2012, with the Patriots defeating the Texans 42-14 on Monday Night Football in Week 14. Is history going to repeat itself?
Not a chance.
That Jets team had a much better defense from top to bottom than this year's Texans. Houston's issues in the secondary, especially late in the season, have been well-documented.
Unless J.J. Watt can play the game of his life and pressure Brady to the point where he has no time to throw, it is going to be hard for the Texans to stop a New England offense that will be at full strength for the first time in what feels like forever.
Offensively, Matt Schaub looks great on a stat sheet because he can rack up yards. But he has problems getting the ball into the end zone. He has thrown just one touchdown pass in the last five games against four interceptions.
The Texans can run the ball, which will help them control the clock, but you need to be able to get something going in the passing game to stick with New England. It's going to be impossible to win if they get into the red zone and have to settle for field goals.
Prediction: Patriots 35, Texans 14
Upon Further Review...
Since this is a predictions piece, and I know the world is awaiting what I have to say about the NFC games, here are a few thoughts on them. I am not including them in the locks portion, just because I do think these will be competitive games and can make a strong case for all four teams.
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
When we look at the 49ers defense, we all get sucked in by Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, all of whom are great players. But we have seen over the last few regular-season games that the lynchpin is Justin Smith.
Smith suffered a partially torn triceps in the 49ers' win over New England. He missed most of the second half of that game, when the Patriots made that comeback to nearly win the contest, and he sat out the Seattle game when Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson picked the defense apart.
The 49ers believe Smith will play in this game, which isn't a surprise. How effective he will be is another question. This team needs the player who bull-rushed Eli Manning last year in the NFC Championship Game with an offensive lineman all over him to win this one.
Since we have no way of knowing exactly where Smith is in the healing process, not to mention how red-hot Aaron Rodgers is right now, and the fact that the Packers are as healthy as they have been in a long time, it feels like they are going to steal this game on the road.
Prediction: Packers 27, 49ers 21
Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons
It will be interesting to see how the Falcons attack Seattle early. Remember, Washington had the Seahawks on the ropes, down 14-0 very early in last week's game, before Robert Griffin III tried to play even though he could barely walk.
The Falcons have a more explosive offense than the Redskins with Julio Jones and Roddy White on the outside, not to mention a healthy quarterback.
Like Justin Smith with the 49ers, I believe the loss of defensive end Chris Clemons, who led Seattle in sacks, to a torn ACL will have a profound impact on what Pete Carroll wants to do.
Atlanta's defense isn't great as far as yardage goes, but the team steps up when it counts the most: inside the red zone. Despite ranking 24th in yards allowed, the Falcons gave up the fifth-fewest points in the league.
This is the most difficult game of the weekend to predict, but I think the Falcons end that playoff losing streak at home.
Prediction: Falcons 24, Seahawks 20
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