NFL Playoffs Divisional Round: 5 Storylines to Watch in Saturday's Games
The second round of the NFL playoffs brings teams one step closer to the ultimate goal of making it to the Super Bowl. The 2012 divisional round kicks off on Saturday with two interesting rematches from the regular season.
Both games contain interesting storylines to keep an eye on.
The two road teams, Baltimore and Green Bay, head into the games as underdogs and look to make up for regular-season home losses to their respective opponents.
In the early game, Peyton Manning, who missed all of last year with a neck injury, will look to guide the Denver Broncos to the AFC Championship Game. Though the Ravens struggled against the Broncos this year, they have been playing better as of late and are primed to stage an upset.
The first part of the divisional round ends with the San Francisco 49ers playing host to the Green Bay Packers. The 49ers are a much different team than the one that beat the Packers to start the year. Head coach Jim Harbaugh decided to switch quarterbacks during the season and has stuck with the young Colin Kaepernick.
The NFL playoffs represent one of the most exciting times in all of sports. This year should be no different. There's always a surprise outcome that few saw coming.
Could that be the case on Saturday?
1. Will Peyton Manning Continue His Dominance vs. the Ravens?
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
The Baltimore Ravens can't be happy about seeing Peyton Manning in the divisional round of the playoffs. Manning has a career record of 9-2 against Baltimore, including 2-0 in the playoffs. Both postseason wins came while he was a member of the Indianapolis Colts.
To make matters worse for the Ravens, Manning is having a great comeback season, and his new team is the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
In 11 total games against Baltimore, the veteran signal-caller has thrown for 2,893 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
These same two teams met in Maryland less than a month ago. The Broncos came out with a decisive 34-17 victory. Manning actually didn't have a great game, throwing for just 204 yards, his lowest total of the season. He was able to connect with Eric Decker, however, for a touchdown, and he avoided any interceptions.
Though the Ravens were able to control the All-Pro quarterback in their last meeting, he was still able to come out victorious.
Look for Manning to enter this matchup with confidence, as he tries to rack up his 10th win against the AFC North champion.
2. How Many Carries will Ray Rice Get?
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Much of the talk around the Ravens during the 2012 season has revolved around Ray Rice's carries. The star running back's 257 carries this season are his lowest since 2009. In five of Baltimore's losses, Rice carried the ball less than 20 times. (It should be noted that coach John Harbaugh pulled his starters early in the Week 17 loss to the Bengals).
The poor output of the offense and the controversy surrounding Rice's involvement in the offense ultimately led to the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron after a Week 14 loss to the Washington Redskins.
New offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell showed in Week 16 against the Giants that he is committed to feeding the ball to Rice. The back recorded 24 carries, his second-highest amount of the year, for 107 yards.
Chances are, if Baltimore hopes to be successful at Denver, Rice must be heavily involved in the offense. The durable back has shown on numerous occasions that he has the ability to break a big play at any moment.
In the last meeting with the Broncos, Rice was never able to get going. He finished that game with only 12 carries for a measly 38 yards.
Look for Caldwell to lean on the running game early on to try to keep Peyton Manning and the Broncos defense of the field.
3. Will Age Catch Up to the Ravens Defense in the High Altitude?
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
For years, the Ravens have been defined by their defense. Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata make up the core of the squad that has been counted on for the past several seasons. As recently as 2011, their defense ranked third in the NFL in total defense.
Things changed on that side of the ball this season. Age seems to have finally crept up on some of the main contributors. Lewis appeared in just six regular-season games, and Suggs was only available for eight. Ngata, a force up front, had to miss two games due to injury.
Baltimore's defense definitely had its struggles in 2012. It finished ranked 17th in total defense, allowing 351 yards per game.
Now, after a long and grueling season, the Ravens D has to make a cross-country road trip and play in one of the toughest environments in all of football. There's no question that the high altitude in Denver affects anyone not ready for it.
Throw in the fact that the opposing team runs an up-tempo offense led by one of the best quarterbacks ever, and the Ravens could struggle on defense.
Keep an eye on this unit, especially as the game wears on. There may be several guys sucking oxygen and struggling to catch the Denver offense.
4. Can Green Bay Avenge a Week 1 Loss to San Francisco?
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Heading into the divisional round, the Green Bay Packers need to look back no further than four months ago when their opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, handed them a season-opening 30-22 loss.
Of course, four months is an eternity in the NFL, and both teams have things that are now different. Most notably, San Francisco will be playing with a different quarterback.
In the Week 1 game, the 49ers were led by quarterback Alex Smith, who threw for 211 yards and two touchdowns. This time around it will be Colin Kaepernick running the show.
Running back Frank Gore slashed the Packers' defense for 112 yards and a touchdown in their first meeting.
Green Bay will look to produce a different outcome in this game. The Packers have been on a roll as of late, winning nine of their last 11 games. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 303 yards with two touchdowns and a pick in Week 1, is coming off a Wild-Card playoff game that saw him throw for 274 yards and a score.
Losing at home was certainly not the way the Packers wanted to begin the 2012 season. Losing on the road to the same team during the playoffs would leave a bitter taste in the mouths of all involved.
Green Bay should come out motivated and ready to seek revenge on Saturday night.
5. Colin Kaepernick Makes His First Career Playoff Start
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be making his first postseason start when the 49ers host the Packers on Saturday. The second-year signal-caller out of Nevada, who took the job from previous starter Alex Smith, has started seven straight games this year with a record of 5-2.
For the season, Kaepernick has thrown for 1,814 yards with 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He has also proved the ability to do damage with his legs, rushing for 415 yards and five touchdowns.
Green Bay should present a solid challenge. The Packers boast an experienced defense that ranked 11th in total defense and 11th against the pass in 2012. All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews and Co. will look to make things difficult on the young quarterback.
Kaepernick played well in his last outing, a 27-13 Week 17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. In that game, he threw for 276 yards with two touchdowns.
How will Kaepernick handle the pressure of staring at home against a proven champion in the playoffs? The answer to that question will be worth watching on Saturday night.