The Thinking Man's Guide: NFL Divisional Weekend Predictions

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IJanuary 10, 2013

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 10: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots shakes hands with Andre Johnson #80 of the Houston Texans after Patriot win at Gillette Stadium on December 10, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Many people like the hype of Super Bowl Sunday, but give me the divisional round as the best week of the NFL year. I practically wrote a book on all the incredible games this round has produced over the years.

Not only do we get four games, but it’s the chance to see the teams coming off playoff wins going up against (supposedly) the four best teams from the regular season. The beauty is that you just know a huge upset is going to happen, as no divisional weekend has put all four home teams through since 2004, and that was one top-heavy season.

This week, we have the same final four teams in the AFC as last year, which has never happened before. We also have three teams that are receiving a ton of disrespect. A Brady vs. Manning AFC Championship Game is apparently in the books, as people are giving Houston and Baltimore no shot. Remember 2005 and 2007? They did not work out for Manning and Brady.

Even the team with the best record in the league, Atlanta, has few believers. But chances are, by Sunday evening, at least one team is going to shake up the final four.

Ravens at Broncos: Is it as simple as “Manning owns the Ravens”?

This is the game I may be overthinking the most this week. Can it really be just as simple as Peyton Manning owns the Ravens (nine straight wins) and Joe Flacco (struggles on the road) is not going to outscore him in Denver?

It was just in Week 15 we previewed this one with those points expressed. Sure enough, Denver easily won 34-17 in Baltimore. It was the worst home loss in the John Harbaugh/Flacco era. Denver even led 31-3 at one point, which is part of the reason Manning had a season-low 204 passing yards.

Now I keep thinking about patterns.

Like how Manning has knocked the Ravens out on a Saturday in the divisional round in 2006 and 2009, which are the two years he went to the Super Bowl, which was on CBS network, just like it is this year. Right on schedule for 2012, or so it may seem.

There is also a 2005 feel in here, which is bad news for Manning. That year, his Colts won 13 straight games by at least seven points, including a 26-7 win over the Steelers. The 2012 Broncos have won like that in 11 straight games, joining the 1942 Chicago Bears as the only three teams in history with such streaks. The first two did not win a playoff game, as the Colts lost to Pittsburgh 21-18 in the playoff rematch.

Also, the 2005 Steelers had a fan favorite in Jerome Bettis playing for a Super Bowl ring, and the Steelers delivered. This came seven years after John Elway won another Super Bowl in the 1998 season before retiring. Seven years after Bettis would be 2012, which is now Ray Lewis making it clear this is his last hurrah. Will that history repeat itself?

One pattern I refuse to worry about this week is Manning’s 9-10 playoff record. I have already written plenty about that and expect Manning to continue his streak of quality playoff starts. He can become the first quarterback ever to have his team leading in the fourth quarter of 11 consecutive playoff games, but unlike the Colts in recent years, Denver must finish.

The Broncos have not trailed in the fourth quarter in any of the last eight games, which is starting to become one of the longer streaks in NFL history.

You have to wonder how many times you can keep losing to the same guy; nine is a high number. Sure, most of those games were the Colts, but make no mistake: This is basically the Denver Colts right now.

There are reasons to like Baltimore more this time around compared to Week 15.

That was Jim Caldwell’s first game calling plays as offensive coordinator. The Ravens had their big four (Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata) together for the first time all season in the Wild Card Round. They held the Colts to a season-low nine points, and Paul Kruger also came up big. Bernard Pollard is back, and he did not play the last time.

But there are still plenty of reasons to like Denver. Its offensive line is getting healthy, and the Broncos will not struggle the way the Colts did. Denver is a better team on both sides of the ball, and Mile High has historically been a great home-field advantage.

Flacco had no turnovers on Sunday, but it is hard to trust him to repeat that on the road against the likes of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil coming at him. I like the nickname “Flaccoblivious” for a reason. Do not worry about the interceptions (which could happen if he keeps throwing jump balls) as much as the sack/fumbles.

Here’s a key factor people may not be factoring in this week: Baltimore fatigue.

Not only was it an emotional win with Lewis’ last home game on Sunday, but it was physically draining. Indianapolis ran 87 plays on offense, which is the second most in a non-overtime game in postseason history. Offenses averaged 64.2 plays per game in 2012, so think of facing 87 plays as playing about 1.36 games.

It should matter more since the Ravens are playing an early road game this Saturday in Denver’s high altitude against the game’s best no-huddle quarterback.

The Ravens are the 23rd defense to face at least 80 offensive snaps in the playoffs and win the game. Of the previous 22, five came in the season’s final championship game, while four teams were able to rest on a bye week before the Super Bowl. 

That leaves 13 playoff teams who faced at least 80 offensive snaps and played the following week. In those games, they had a 4-9 record and allowed 26.4 points per game. It is an area that could use some more research, but it is something to keep an eye on this week, especially as the game wears on.

It might have to take a Denver flop-job to lose this one, but the league’s most consistent team should be able to do enough at home to get the job done.

Lewis is a good story, but Manning is on borrowed time himself, and the opportunity to become the first quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl with two teams will likely never get better than this.

Packers at 49ers: The rematch with the biggest difference this week

While the other three games have a disrespected team, most feel pretty good about both the 49ers and Packers as Super Bowl competitors, which makes this the toughest game to pick this week. What was supposed to be last year’s NFC Championship comes a year later and a round sooner.

Even though they met in Week 1, Colin Kaepernick at quarterback instead of Alex Smith makes this the freshest rematch of the week, as he is such a wild card as a young quarterback. Saturday night will be just his eighth start.

Can a quarterback with seven regular-season starts go on a Super Bowl run?

Jeff Hostetler says yes. He had just four starts in the regular season before leading the 1990 New York Giants to the championship, and he played efficiently in those playoff games. However, Hostetler had already been in the league for seven years (compared to Kaepernick's two).

Maybe the bigger problem is that the 49ers have been a wild card of a team this season, as you never really know what to expect from them, unlike last year’s steady level of play when they were right there in every game.

Not all of the 49ers’ worst performances have been on the road, as they did lose 26-3 at home to the Giants in Week 6. Of course, the Giants smashed the Packers 38-10 too, and they did not even qualify for the postseason.

Normally, I would berate the Packers for not winning close games, but the 49ers, after six comebacks a year ago, have not won a single game after trailing in the fourth quarter this season. Sure, they came back to force a tie with the Rams, but that is not a win.

Kaepernick has the one game-winning drive in New England, but take little confidence from that. He simply completed a short pass that Michael Crabtree turned into a 38-yard touchdown. If forced to drive the offense down the field late—a la Alex Smith against the Saints in last year’s divisional game—we have almost no evidence that he will execute.

If you are still thinking about Hostetler and his dreamy mustache, he did lead a nine-point comeback to beat the Cardinals in 1990 before leading two comebacks and game-winning drives in the postseason.

You would think Aaron Rodgers has the advantage in this matchup, but he is facing the better defense, and Week 1 did not go so well for him at home with his full complement of receivers.

The final numbers look okay, but Rodgers barely avoided a Donte Whitner pick-six on his last drive, and the offense only scored 16 points. Justin Smith’s return should obviously help improve San Francisco’s defense.

It is funny how low the bar is for the running game in Green Bay these days. Some claim “they are running it now!” ever since DuJuan Harris started making some plays down the stretch.

Yet if you look at the wild-card game against Minnesota, Green Bay finished with just 29 handoffs for 64 yards (2.21 yards per carry). That’s crap. In the first half, it was 14 handoffs for 40 yards (2.86 yards per carry). The 49ers allowed the fourth-fewest rushing yards this season.

This offense lives and dies by the pass, and Rodgers is going to have to be great this week. Where he needs to do a better job is not taking bad sacks that set drives back in the down-and-distance. Sometimes checking down is the right play, as not everything has to be a big gain. Holding the ball longer is asking for trouble against the likes of Aldon Smith.

When this Green Bay offense faces the physical defenses that are not afraid to punch it in the mouth, we often see a struggle, and that is easier to do on the road, such as the loss in Seattle where the Seahawks came up with eight sacks in the first half.

The Packers (76.8) actually have a better defensive passer rating than San Francisco (78.0) and are getting healthy with the timely returns of Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson. This is bad news for Kaepernick, who did not have a good showing in his last game against a solid defense in Seattle.

But even for the more experienced Rodgers, there is this dreadful mark: 0-18 in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities against teams .500 or better.

It is vital for the Packers to play well at the start of the game and control the tempo. While you can expect to move the ball against Harbaugh’s defense, you still do not want to fall behind 14 or more points, especially if you are worried about your pass protection holding up.

Finally, if this game comes down to a clutch kick, you may want to cover your eyes no matter which team it is. David Akers (13 misses) and Mason Crosby (12 misses) have not been good this season, and that is being nice.

I could easily go either way on this one, but I am feeling the home team with the better overall defense and more balance on offense. Harbaugh will take a lot of hindsight heat for benching Smith if Kaepernick fails him miserably in this game, but it is hard to see that happening this week.

Seahawks at Falcons: This is your best chance, Atlanta

Thinking the Atlanta Falcons might open the playoffs as a home underdog, they are a small favorite over Seattle. Still, not many are willing to give the “regular-season champions” any respect this week.

But this is the time for Matt Ryan, Mike Smith and these Falcons to earn it with their first playoff win in this era. We have the team known for its great home record (33-6 when Ryan starts in the Georgia Dome) against a Seattle team also known for its home greatness, but not so hot on the road (4-5 including playoffs).

If I had a specific prediction to how this game will play out, I say the postgame recap will sound along the lines of, “Like last week, the Seahawks sputtered early, falling behind in a 14-0 hole. But unlike last week, they never dug out of it against a better offense.”

Why an early hole, you ask? The game is at 1 p.m. EST, it is a long trip from Seattle to Atlanta, and it is always interesting to look at that travel aspect. Do not be surprised to see a team that’s flat early once again.

Since Pete Carroll has become the head coach (2010), the Seahawks are 4-8 (.333) in games that have a start time of 10:00 a.m. PST. Interesting that three of the wins have been in Chicago, though the Seahawks fell behind 28-0 and lost 35-24 in Chicago in the 2010 NFC divisional game, which did start early.

Interestingly enough, Seattle’s last two losses this season were at Miami (Week 12) and Detroit (Week 8). What did those games have in common? Both started at 10:00 a.m. PST for the Seahawks. We already know Atlanta’s home-field advantage is strong, but how about this time-advantage angle?

The Falcons have the right offense for this matchup because of the talent in their receiving corps. This is why you traded up to draft Julio Jones and pair him with Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas. Washington’s receivers were getting open last week on an ugly field, but they did not have the quarterback capable of getting them the ball.

Atlanta is the only offense to score 30 points on Seattle’s defense since 2011. San Francisco and Cincinnati exceeded 30 points, but they needed return touchdowns to do so. The other four times Seattle allowed at least 24 points have all come on the road.

The Falcons won 30-28 in Seattle last year, and Jones had 11 receptions for 127 yards. White chipped in with six catches for 78 yards. Gonzalez had seven catches for 56 yards and a touchdown while Ryan had zero turnovers. It will take an effort like that again this week.

If Marshawn Lynch is “Beast Mode,” then Michael Turner is…”Altered Beast” these days? The Falcons are going to put the ball in Ryan’s hands often. While they should not abandon the run, this is not a game where Turner reclaims his status as the star of the offense. It has to be Ryan and his receivers winning the battles. A loss would put Ryan with Y.A. Tittle as the only quarterbacks to go 0-4 in the playoffs.

While everyone focuses on Ryan and Smith needing a playoff win, how about poor Gonzalez and his 0-5 record? It is about time the best tight end of this generation gets to experience a playoff win.

No offense to Seattle and its fans, but it is just tiring to hear how the Falcons do not win in the postseason. They have had three isolated chances in the last four years to win a playoff game. It did not happen, but there’s nothing they can do about that in Week 12 or any time we see this team in prime time and someone brings up “0-3” as if they can never get past that.

The Falcons have done a lot of great things in games in this Smith/Ryan era. Now is the time to get that monkey off their back and win this playoff game.

Getting the bye week, having home field and the early game, I just see an Atlanta team that will come out prepared to prove a lot of people wrong with a strong performance and a win.

Texans at Patriots: Another huge upset in the making?

This is breaking one of my rules of NFL predictions, but I am picking the Houston Texans to win this game.

When I watched the Patriots get a big 42-14 win over the Texans in Week 14, I saw a game where just about anything that could go wrong for Houston did, and that they wouldn’t mind a rematch with the Patriots. Little did I know the rematch would take place in New England with the continued slide by the Texans, but here we are.

No one can look at the first game and not conclude Houston had many opportunities not capitalized:

  • Starting the game off badly, Houston was lined up in an illegal formation on the first play from scrimmage, negating a 12-yard run by Arian Foster.
  • A bad snap threw off Matt Schaub on 3rd-and-6, but his deep pass still should have been caught by Lestar Jean.
  • Houston forced Stevan Ridley to fumble at the 4-yard line, but Kareem Jackson failed to recover the ball. Aaron Hernandez did, and he scored a touchdown one play later for a 7-0 lead.
  • Schaub threw a bad interception with the ball at the NE 21.
  • The Texans stopped New England on a 3rd-and-10, but on a pass Wes Welker was never going to catch, Danieal Manning was flagged for pass interference (26 yards) to continue the drive, which resulted in a touchdown and 21-0 deficit.
  • Houston went for it on a 4th-and-5 at the NE 33, but Kevin Walter failed to secure the catch, turning the ball over on downs.
  • Donte Stallworth caught a 63-yard touchdown when he could have been tackled around the 30.
  • Keshawn Martin dropped a 3rd-and-3 pass that led to another Houston punt.
  • To sum up the night, on the second play of the fourth quarter, J.J. Watt punches the ball out from Danny Woodhead, and it bounces right to Brandon Lloyd in the end zone for a touchdown.

The Texans have had four bad losses this season, and this was arguably the worst of them. But we are looking at a much different game with better fumble luck and without that pass interference on third down.

We should see a different game this week. Teams losing by at least four touchdowns are a respectable 11-11 in playoff rematches. It was only two years ago that the Patriots suffered the biggest rematch regression in recent playoff history, going from a 45-3 win over the Jets to a 28-21 loss.

The 28-point win leads many to believe Houston has no chance, but the Patriots, a nine-point favorite this week, are 1-7 against the spread in the playoffs since 2007. The only cover was last year against a much-overmatched Denver team with Tim Tebow.

During the NBC broadcast on Saturday, Mike Mayock made it sound like 3rd-and-long situations are a monumental task for the Houston passing game. Yeah, Schaub has converted 18-of-73 (24.7 percent) of his plays when it is 3rd-and-8 or longer this year. That certainly trails Tom Brady’s 23-of-70 (32.9 percent) conversion rate.

But it was only two years ago that Schaub was the “all stats, no wins” archetype of quarterback. That was a quick change into the “coddled winner” category he now apparently shares with the likes of Joe Flacco. Schaub threw for 4,770 yards in 2009 and tried to overcome a porous defense in 2010.

Even this season, Schaub had a game with 527 passing yards. He is no stranger to dropping back and throwing a lot. It’s just that much of the attention now goes to Foster, which allows those play-action fakes that are putting cameramen out of jobs to dominate.

But it was New England’s play fakes that dominated in Week 14, and Houston will have to adjust to that with a stronger emphasis on playing the pass. You would think that would be common sense against Brady.

The Patriots said they want to be aggressive this week, but they already were the first time. Brady threw a lot of deep passes, which is unusual for this offense. However, that is what you want from him as a defense, as it is still not a strong part of his game.

Eventually, Brady did find Stallworth with a 63-yard touchdown that night, but no worries about a repeat of that. Stallworth is on injured reserve, and it will have to be someone like Lloyd making that catch this time.

Houston obviously has some really great players with Watt and Andre Johnson, and they will have to shine this week. Watt can impact the game without filling up the sacks stat. He had that forced fumble last time, but someone has to be there to recover the ball.

There are plenty of reasons to like the Patriots this week. They have the better coach and quarterback, the home field, the experience, the head-to-head win and Rob Gronkowski (did not play first time) and have likely prepared for two weeks for Houston.

But the Patriots stopped being locks in the playoffs, even at home, years ago. They are barely over .500 since their last Super Bowl win, which seems even silly to bring up these days given the extreme roster turnover.

New England used to dominate rematches, but lately we see the opponent adjust better, as the last six playoff losses have all come in rematches. Houston had a lot more to learn from Week 14 than New England, and I think the core players will shine in this one after hearing how they have no chance to win.

The events are a bit similar to 2010, when a New England team scarier than this one played a Jets team more flawed than Houston. That game was 45-3 in December, but the Jets controlled the game and won 28-21 in a game that was not even that close.

This is a game where Schaub and Johnson can make their mark, where Foster can continue his playoff dominance and Gary Kubiak can shed some of his "conservative" tag by making balls-out gutsy calls to put a close one away this weekend.

Houston received some flak last time for calling Week 14 the biggest game in team history (this time it is) and wearing the letterman jackets. Well, now the Texans have a great chance to remind us why they were in control of the No. 1 seed all year long until Week 17. They can go into Foxboro and knock off the Patriots when it counts most.

Leaving you with something to ponder, consider that the late-Sunday afternoon slot has produced a big upset in five of the last six divisional weekends:

  • 2011 – Giants stun the 15-1 Packers at home with a 37-20 win.
  • 2010 – Patriots inexplicably lose to the Jets, 28-21, after a dominant eight-game winning streak.
  • 2009 – The Chargers won 11 straight games heading into the playoffs, but the Jets shut their offense down in a 17-14 upset.
  • 2007 – Dallas has the NFC’s No. 1 seed, but loses to the Giants after sweeping them in the regular season.
  • 2006 – This time a 10-game winning streak was no good for the Chargers as they blew another home playoff game to the Patriots.

Can the results of Saturday’s games mess with the minds of Sunday’s teams as they go to bed potentially knowing they are now a home win away from the Super Bowl? Should the Broncos lose on Saturday, New England will go to sleep Saturday night knowing they just have to get past Baltimore (again) at home to reach another Super Bowl. Maybe that has a negative impact.

Either way, it is always nice to end the weekend with a bang, and everything is set up for the Texans to deliver that on Sunday.

Final score predictions

It will be impossible for me to top last week’s success. Forget the fact that I only went 3-1 because the Colts lost; I was able to pick the other three winners and the exact number of points they would score. Came close on the opponent’s score as well.

Once again, there is no formula to speak of. It is just a lot of luck.

  • Broncos over Ravens, 23-13
  • 49ers over Packers, 31-27
  • Falcons over Seahawks, 27-17
  • Texans over Patriots, 24-21

Want a bold prediction? Should the Broncos lose on Saturday, the Patriots will lose on Sunday. As Phil Simms and Jim Nantz try to comfort one another, they will just have to deal with a Joe Flacco vs. Matt Schaub AFC Championship Game like the rest of us.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.