NFL Playoffs: Predictions for This Weekend's Divisional-Round Matchups
Baltimore at Denver, 4:30 p.m. EST
No one, it seems, can stop the surging Denver Broncos.
Peyton Manning's comeback show picked up steam in October and hasn't let up since, reeling off 11 straight victories.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens—who were one dropped pass from the Super Bowl last year—ended the year losing three out of four before righting the ship against the Indianapolis Colts on Wild Card Weekend.
That win made quarterback Joe Flacco 5-0 in first-round playoff games. He's 1-4 in the second round.
Manning is 0-3 in cold-weather playoff games in which the temperature was below 40 degrees at kickoff.
But you can forget that stat, because it is meaningless.
Manning has a year under his belt playing in Denver, playing in the cold, dealing with the swirling winds, the high altitude, the chilly conditions. Though he has not played in temps predicted today—somewhere around 20 degrees at kickoff—Manning and his newfound glove are more prepared than ever to weather the cold.
Fortunately, for Manning, he is playing a Ravens defense—a mediocre unit that has been susceptible to the big play—that is not what it used to be. Ray Lewis' return to the lineup and his imminent retirement will serve to motivate Baltimore, but will that be enough?
Manning has done what many thought was unthinkable, putting together an MVP-worthy season in which he was tied for first in completion percentage (68.6), ranked second in passer rating (105.8) and finished third in touchdowns (37). He also ranked sixth in yards (4,659).
To make matter worse for Baltimore, Manning has won nine straight against the Ravens, including two playoff wins.
Manning's counterpart, Joe Flacco, struggled against Denver last month, going 20-of-40 for 254 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Flacco and the Ravens will have to play a near-perfect game to beat Denver on the road. (Think Giants, Week 16.)
It won't happen.
Denver 20, Baltimore 17
Green Bay at San Francisco, 8 p.m. EST
This game is as close to a pick 'em as there is this weekend. It features two teams fully capable of running the table.
The big difference, though, is that one of the two teams has Aaron Rodgers lining up behind center.
And the other does not.
Rodgers has put together perhaps the best five-season run in NFL history, completing 65 percent of his passes and throwing four touchdown passes for every interception, 170 to 45, a startling ratio.
Over his last two seasons, with 84 touchdowns versus 14 interceptions, he's been even better, if that's possible.
We can talk about the 'Niners defense, which is ranked No. 4 against the run and the pass. We can talk about Frank Gore and a solid running game. We can talk about how Jim Harbaugh has saved this woebegone franchise and returned it to glory.
But it just won't matter.
The 2012 season looks an awfully lot like 2010 for the Green Bay Packers, but this year they have a defense to boot. Not a knock-your-socks-off defense, to be fair, but a middle-of-the-pack defense—and after all, how much defense do you need when you have robo-quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing to a bevy of healthy, game-changing receivers?
If the 'Niners are going to win today they have to accomplish two things: They need to shut down Air Rodgers and Co., which is virtually impossible, and they need to make Colin Kaepernick look more like Joe Montana and less like Alex Smith circa 2008.
On paper, the 'Niners should win this one handily, with a ferocious defense, a sturdy running game and a serviceable-if-not-spectacular quarterback.
But the Packers are peaking at the right time, and the 'Niners, though no one will admit it publicly, must be wondering if they made the right call in pulling Alex Smith in favor of Kaepernick.
If I give San Francisco one distinct edge, it is in coaching. I am still not sold on the Packers' Mike McCarthy, and Harbaugh, while altogether unlikable, is rarely out-coached.
Green Bay will get up early, snuffing out the 'Niners running game, and playoff football will prove too much for Kaepernick.
Green Bay 24, San Francisco 13
Seattle at Atlanta, Sunday, 1 p.m. EST
Every shred of evidence suggests that the Atlanta Falcons lose again in their first playoff game, this time to the red-hot Seattle Seahawks.
At least that's what most all the talking heads are saying.
I know it's chic to say the Falcons are paper warriors, that they have no defense, that quarterback Matt Ryan can't win when it counts, that they'll crumble under the playoff pressure.
I know the Falcons have garnered a whopping 441 yards and allowed 884 over their last two playoff games.
I know they have been outscored 72-23 in those games.
I also know the Seahawks are the fave pick to become the 2012 version of last year's Giants and the 2010's Packers.
They have a stout defense, a punishing running game, a rookie quarterback playing lights-out football and a daring coach not afraid to invent on the fly.
I know that common sense—and Jim Harbaugh—say "go with the hot hand."
But I must ignore common sense here and go with my gut.
My gut says Atlanta finally shows up here. Matt Ryan finally shows up here. The Falcons secondary, at one time one of the best in the league, finally shows up here.
This week the Falcons will chase away the ghosts of playoffs past. They will turn the prognosticators on their heads. They will prove the doubters wrong.
Russell Wilson and his Seahawks' season ends Sunday at the hands (wings?) of the Dirty Birds.
Atlanta 34, Seattle 24
Houston at New England, 4:30 p.m. EST
So, what's the reward for losing three of your last four regular-season games, including a 42-14 thrashing at the hands of the New England Patriots, and missing out on the AFC's top seed?
Well, you get to play those very same Patriots on the road again in the divisional playoffs.
The good news for the Houston Texans is that teams that suffer losses of 28 points or more in the regular season to eventual playoff opponents are 11-11 in those playoff rematches.
Brady and the league's highest-scoring offense will start Sunday's divisional matchup quietly confident. And they should.
Brady and Co. manhandled Houston in a game some saw as a potential changing of the guard.
Instead, Brady threw three touchdown passes, bolting to a 21-0 lead and taking the Texans running game out of the equation by the start of the second quarter.
Brady, who tallied 21-of-35 passes for 296 yards and four touchdowns in the blowout victory, can pass Joe Montana by winning a record 17th postseason game Sunday.
Brady and the Pats offensive line stuffed defensive-player-of-the-year candidate J.J. Watt, who led the league this season with 20.5 sacks but came away with only two tackles that night, with zero sacks.
Watt and the Texans will have plenty of motivation coming into Sunday's game.
It will be enough to keep it close but not enough to beat Brady at home.
New England 23, Houston 17
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