Game One: Baltimore Ravens (12-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
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Saturday, Jan. 15th 4:30 pm ET
The Baltimore Ravens are coming off an absolutely dominant performance in the AFC Wild Card round after defeating the Kansas City Chiefs 30-7.
The Ravens suffocating defense showed up yet again. They forced five turnovers against the Chiefs, a team that ranked fifth in turnover ratio over the 2010 season. The Ravens themselves only turned the ball over once, on a Joe Flacco fumble.
The Ravens defense will need to be just as dominant if they want to walk into Heinz Field and have a shot against one of the best teams in the NFL.
The Steelers defense may be even more dominating than the Ravens defense. Joe Flacco will need to have his head on a swivel and control the ball if he wants a chance against the Steelers.
Flacco completed 25 of 34 passes for 265 yards against the Chiefs. He was very efficient, not throwing an interception while tossing two touchdown passes.
The running game was also very solid, with Willis McGahee and Ray Rice combining for 27 carries, 111 yards, and a touchdown.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will be ready for the Ravens, a divisional rival they have played twice already this season. Ironically, both teams won on the road in the series this season.
The Steelers are built on their defense. They boast the top rushing defense in the NFL only allowing 62.8 yards a game. They also have one of the better pass defenses in the league allowing only 214 yards a game through the air.
Ben Roethlisberger has had one of his best seasons in 2010. Despite missing the first four games to suspension he has thrown for 3,200 yards, 17 touchdowns and a 97.0 passer rating.
Much of the success through the air has been due to the emergence of wide receiver Mike Wallace. The second year pro has speed comparable to Desean Jackson of the Eagles. He caught 60 balls for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. He adds a big play ability that the Steelers haven't been able to boast during their recent playoff runs.
The running game for the Steelers is a typical ground and pound game. Rashard Mendenhall put up Pro Bowl numbers, despite being overlooked for the All Pro honors. He ran the ball 325 times for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010.
War Within the War
Ed Reed led the NFL with 8 interceptions this season while only playing 10 games. He is a ball hawk and if Big Ben wants to get the ball to Mike Wallace he is going to have to beat Ed Reed.
Whoever wins this battle could win the war, as one big play can make the difference in what looks to be a defensive game.
Game Two: Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
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Saturday, Jan. 15th 8:00 pm ET
The Green Bay Packers come off a 21-16 win in Philadelphia on the road. The Packers come off a game where they were led by the running game with James Starks taking a featured role in the backfield to the tune of 123 yards on 23 carries.
The Packers had been known for their passing arsenal, led by Aaron Rodgers and Pro Bowler Greg Jennings. The ability to run the ball had evaded them all season after Ryan Grant was injured in week one. The Packers ranked 24th in the NFL in the rush.
Can Starks have a repeat performance against Atlanta? That will be a determining factor in the Packers potential Super Bowl run.
The Packers defense was able to contain Michael Vick in the Wild Card weekend. Players like Clay Matthews and BJ Raji were able to limit the effectiveness of the Pro Bowl starting QB. Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson were able to shut down Desean Jackson after he returned from an apparent knee injury in the first quarter.
The Packers will still need to look for their play-maker wide receivers, and rely on Rodgers to get the ball to them. James Jones and Jordy Nelson will need to be more of a factor than they were against the Eagles, with Jones dropping a sure touchdown as time expired in the first half.
The Atlanta Falcons enter this NFC Divisional showdown as the top ranked team in the NFC following a season in which they won 13 games.
Matt Ryan has continued to develop into one of the top quarterbacks in the NFC, making the Pro Bowl for his first time this season. In his third season in the league after being drafted third overall in the 2008 NFL Draft, Ryan threw for 3,705 yards, 28 touchdowns, and only nine interceptions.
Ryan leads a balanced offensive attack. Through the air, the Falcons ranked 15th in the league at 223 yards a game. The bulk of the passing attack goes through the All Pro wide receiver Roddy White. White caught 115 passes for 1,389 yards and ten touchdowns.
The Falcons boast a very good running game as well, led by All Pro running back Michael Turner. Turner is a bruising back who ran 334 times for 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The Falcons also boast one of the better NFC defenses. They are a top 10 defense in the NFL versus the run at only 106 yards per game.
The Falcons played the Packers in week 12 this year at home. The game was a well played, close contest. Rodgers tied the game in the final moments of the fourth quarter on a fourth and goal touchdown pass. Ryan was able to put his team in field goal range, where Matt Bryant was able to hit a game winning field goal as time expired. The Falcons won the game 20-17.
The game will be played in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, where Ryan and the Falcons are nearly unbeatable with a career 19-2 record when Ryan starts.
War Within the War
This game will be won and lost on the Packers ability to stop the run. The Packers gave up some of the worst yards per rush in the NFL. Michael Turner will need to be shut down by the likes of BJ Raji and Cullen Jenkins so Ryan will have to try and beat the fifth ranked pass defense. If the Packers can force Ryan to throw often, the Packers could have a shot at an upset.
Game Three: Seattle Seahawks (7-9) at Chicago Bears (11-5)
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Sunday, Jan. 16th 1:00 pm ET
The Seattle Seahawks come into Soldier Field after one of the biggest playoff upsets in recent memory. The 10.5 point underdogs knocked off the defending champion New Orleans Saints 41-36.
Matt Hasselbeck, a quarterback who has already brought the Seahawks to the Super Bowl, had his best career postseason game. He threw for 272 yards and four touchdowns in the victory.
Hasselbeck will need to be just as sharp if the Seahawks want a chance of winning against the NFC North Champion Chicago Bears. The Seahawks rank only 19th in the NFL in passing yardage per game, and are relying on the likes of Mike Williams to haul in passes.
The running game, even with one of the best post season runs I've ever seen from Marshawn Lynch, still leaves much to be desired. The Seahawks own the second worst statistical running game in the NFL, averaging only 89 yards per game.
The defense of the Seahawks ranks in the bottom third in the NFL as well. The team averages 368 yards per game against. 27th worst passing defense and the 21st ranked rushing defense shows why the Saints were able to put up 36 points against them even with their top two running backs on the injured reserve list.
The Chicago Bears were kind of an afterthought early in the season, with much of the talk going to the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers in the NFC North. After 16 games, the Bears came out on top to many peoples' surprise.
The Bears defense has had a resurgence this season. Bringing in Julius Peppers and staying healthy all season has paid big dividends for the monsters of the midway. They ranked second in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing only 90 yards a game. The pass defense, is solid, ranking 20th in the league in yards against at 224 yards per game.
A lot of the success can be credited to Mike Martz's handling of Jay Cutler this season. Early in the season, the Bears looked a little lost on offense, but have become much more confident as the year went on.
Cutler threw an NFL worst 26 interceptions in 2009. Under Martz's offense this season Cutler has thrown for 3,274 yards, 23 touchdowns, and cut his interceptions to 16.
The Bears have had a resurgent year from third-year running back Matt Forte. After an injury riddled sophomore season, he had over 1,600 all purpose yards and nine touchdowns on the season.
War Within the War
The Seahawks will be forced to pass the ball if they want a chance at winning this game. Julius Peppers will be matched up against rookie left tackle Russell Okung for the Seahawks. If Okung can't stop the pass rush, Hasselbeck could be in for a long day of looking at the clouds over Chicago.
Game Four: New York Jets (11-5) at New England Patriots (14-2)
Sunday, Jan. 16th 4:30 pm ET
The New York Jets brought in LaDainian Tomlinson and Santonio Holmes in the offseason for one reason: Beat the Indianapolis Colts. Mission accomplished. Their reward: A visit to the NFL's best team, the New England Patriots.
The Jets went into Indianapolis and beat Peyton Manning and the Colts. They were led by a great game on the ground with 169 yards, with Tomlinson leading the way. Tomlinson rushed 16 times for 82 yards and two touchdowns.
The ground game was needed in order to take down the Colts, as the Mark Sanchez-led passing game was shut down pretty well. Sanchez passed for only 189 yards and no touchdowns to go with an interception.
The passing game did come through in crunch time. Sanchez found Braylon Edwards late in the game to set up a game winning field goal from Nick Folk.
The defense for the Jets has been great all season. The Jets ranked third in the NFL against the rush, and sixth overall against the pass. The Darrell Revis-led secondary will have their hands full against the best quarterback in the NFL, Tom Brady.
The New England Patriots have been the best team in the NFL since being blown out in Cleveland in week nine. Since the loss, the Patriots have gone 8-0, and outscored their opponents 299 to 125.
The Patriots are led by, of course, Brady. The likely NFL MVP has thrown for 3,900 yards to go with 36 touchdowns to only four interceptions. Since the departure of Randy Moss, Tom Brady has run a more methodical offense to perfection.
The running game for the Patriots may be the best they have had since 2004. Benjarvus Green-Ellis has had a breakthrough season as the Patriots featured back, and heads the ninth ranked rushing attack in football.
The Patriots defense has been just good enough all season. The Patriots rank 11th against the rush at 108 yards per game, but the secondary has been torched for most of the season, giving up 258 yards a game and ranking 30th overall.
War Within the War
Tom Brady has pretty much been flawless this season. He will need to avoid Revis, and avoid giving up the ball. Look for Brady to attack the middle of the field to under routes to receivers like Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski. If the linebackers can't stop Brady from picking them apart, look for the Patriots to pull away.