In what was one of the wilder Wild-Card weekends (I couldn't resist) in recent memory, the Seattle Seahawks improved their winning percentage to 0.471 ("What do you call the person who graduated medical school with the lowest G.P.A? A doctor" -Matt Hasselbeck after the game) in Saturday's early game. Later that night, Nick Folk did his best Adam Vinatieri impression to help the New York Jets defeat the Colts in a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game.
On Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens booked a date in Pittsburgh behind a suffocating defense that forced the Chiefs into five turnovers. Also, Mike Vick's whirlwind season with the Philadelphia Eagles came to an end as a last-minute interception cost them the game against the Packers.
Looking forward to next weekend's games, here are the key players and predictions for each Divisional match up.
In what has become the most heated rivalry in the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens will travel to Heinz Field on Saturday to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. With Pittsburgh having allowed the fewest points in the league this season at 14.5 ppg and the Ravens not too far behind with 16.9ppg, this game promises to be another defensive battle, something we've become accustomed to seeing when these two teams face off.
Key Players: Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed
Just as he did when the Ravens had their AFC Championship run in 2008, Ed Reed led the league this season with eight interceptions. Despite missing two games, Troy Polamalu was right behind him with seven picks of his own. In a game that may be decided on defensive touchdowns rather than offensive production, look out for these two play-making safeties to have a significant impact on the outcome.
The two AFC North Rivals split their head-to-head meetings this season, albeit Roethlisberger was in the midst of serving a four-game suspension for their first matchup in Pittsburgh. As per usual in this series, both games were tight, low-scoring affairs. However, I'm going to give the slight edge to Pittsburgh, not only because they lead Baltimore in practically every offensive and defensive category statistically, but also because they have a slight edge at the quarterback position (Roethlisberger and Flacco have had almost identical seasons, but Roethlisberger has proven himself in the playoffs) and they have home-field advantage. For these reasons, I'm picking the Steelers to (barely) defeat the Ravens in a typical defensive struggle.
The Packers are coming off an impressive victory against the Eagles in Philadelphia, one in which their much-criticized running game led the way, thanks to James Starks' (I'd never heard of him either) remarkable 123 rushing yards. Green Bay's defense also impressed, holding Michael Vick to 33 yards on the ground. The Falcons have won nine of their last ten games, including a 20-17 victory over the Packers in Week 12.
Key Players: James Starks and Tony Gonzalez
Starks played in only three games all season for the Packers, rushing for a combined 101 yards. As previously stated, he surpassed that total on Saturday. Needless to say, if Starks can reproduce his unexpected performance, the Cheeseheads' offense becomes considerably more dynamic.
Gonzalez was virtually invisible in the Falcons' loss to New Orleans two weeks ago (two catches for 12 yards). For the Falcons to progress, the Hall of Fame tight end will need to supplement Roddy White another uneventful outing. When Gonzalez has three or more receptions, the Falcons are undefeated.
In a game that looks to be as tightly matched as any, I'm going with the team that has the momentum. So often in the playoffs, a Wild Card team gets hot at the right time and goes on to win a string of road games to make the Super Bowl. This year, it seems as though that team could very well be the Green Bay Packers.
Following a shock victory over the New Orleans Saints, the 8-9 Seattle Seahawks travel to Soldier Field looking to keep the Cinderella story alive. The Bears meanwhile, are back in the playoffs for the first time since their 2006 Super Bowl Run, despite being ranked 30th in the league in total offense and 20th in passing yards allowed. Their staple is without doubt, their rushing defense, which is ranked second in the league. This poses a dreadful match up for the Seahawks, whose rushing offense is ranked 31st.
Key Players: Marshawn Lynch and Julius Peppers
Marshawn Lynch's 69-yard touchdown run against the Saints this past weekend was up there with any other run in postseason history. Against a Bears' defense that's as good against the run as any, a big game from Lynch will be necessary if the Seahawks are to crack .500 in time for the NFC Championship Game.
Julius Peppers has forced three fumbles and has recorded eight sacks for the season. If he can disrupt Matt Hasselbeck in the pocket and not allow him to have the kind of passing day that he had against the Saints' defense (272 yds, 4 TD), the Seahawks will undoubtedly have difficulty putting points on the board.
The Seahawks' victory this weekend really should not have come as an enormous surprise to people. We knew that New Orleans was not the team they were last year and that Seattle's boisterous home crowd would play a significant role in the game for a squad that would be pumped up to silence the critics who dismissed their entry into the playoffs. However, in Soldier Field, without the 12th man, I think the magic wears off against the Bears' defense and the Seahawks take the loss in a relatively close game.
The Jets arrive in Foxboro this weekend, brimming with confidence after going into Lucas Oil Stadium and coming out with a victory over the Colts. Although the Jets did post an impressive victory over New England in Week 2, Tom Brady and the Patriots have improved beyond measure since that juncture. They have gone 13-1 since that first meeting in September, including a 45-3 annihilation of the Jets last month, in which Brady threw for four touchdowns and 326 yards against the Jets' defense.
Key Players: Santonio Holmes and Wes Welker
Santonio Holmes has been relatively quiet for the Jets of late, averaging only 4.2 receptions and 45.8 yards over the last five games. If the Super Bowl XLIII MVP can break free for some big gains against a Patriots secondary that is ranked 30th in yards allowed, the Jets will feel much better about their chances of making their second straight AFC Championship Game.
Wes Welker is the key to the Patriots' balanced passing attack. In their only two losses this season, Welker had significantly below average games, posting 38 yards against the Jets and 36 against the Browns. If Welker has one of his better games, the chances are the Patriots will come away with the victory.
As opposed to the 2007 version of themselves, these Patriots are clicking at the right time, having won their last eight games to end the regular season. Tom Brady is hungry for a fourth ring, and is arguably the MVP of the league. In a shootout with Brady, Sanchez inevitably won't be able to keep up, and the Patriots will pull away in the second half to win comfortably.