Wild Card Weekend brought smash-mouth football and some incredible performances from a few of the NFL's top stars. The divisional round next weekend should be even better.
Teams with bye weeks during the opening weekend of the playoffs should be fresh and ready to go against squads that went through hard-fought games to get to this position. With extra time to prepare and get healthy, one would think that the NFL's top teams have the advantage.
But something can be said for momentum. Momentum has proven itself crucial time and time again. Will it teach us a lesson yet again in 2015?
We won't know until kickoff next weekend. We only have predictions until then. Continue on to see a few early guesses on what will go down in the second week of the NFL postseason.
|2015 NFL Playoff Schedule, Divisional Round|
|Ravens vs. Patriots||Saturday, Jan. 10||Gillette Stadium||NBC, 4:35 p.m. ET||Ravens, 24-21|
|Panthers vs. Seahawks||Saturday, Jan. 10||CenturyLink Field||Fox, 8:15 p.m. ET||Seahawks, 28-13|
|Cowboys vs. Packers||Sunday, Jan. 11||Lambeau Field||Fox, 1:05 p.m. ET||Packers, 30-28|
|Colts vs. Broncos||Sunday, Jan. 11||Sports Authority Field at Mile High||CBS, 4:40 p.m. ET||Broncos, 34-24|
Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots
The first upset of the playoffs happened in the second game, as the Baltimore Ravens were able to march into Heinz Field and deliver a decisive victory over the favored Pittsburgh Steelers.
It's a familiar sight for Ravens fans, as Joe Flacco has proven how unflappable he is in clutch situations time and time again. ESPN Stats & Info pointed out just how incredible he has been in his past five playoff contests:
Flacco isn't necessarily the flashiest of quarterbacks, but he simply knows how to get the job done when it's all on the line. He does nothing extraordinarily—except maybe throw the deep ball—as his athleticism is just OK and his accuracy wavers from time to time.
But he knows how to lead in the playoffs, as Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman recognized: "But make no mistake: There is a fighter underneath the cool exterior, and we are seeing the Playoff Joe back in action. Flacco is back in all of his boring awesomeness, and the Ravens are officially the Patriots' worst nightmare."
Tom Brady and the Patriots should certainly be worried about the suddenly potent Ravens. All it takes is one win to gain serious momentum, and Baltimore already has it.
If you recall, the Ravens defeated the Patriots in the 2012 AFC Championship Game en route to a Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers. New England was heavily favored, yet Flacco's quiet brilliance allowed his team to persevere.
Of course, there's a reason the Patriots received a bye in the opening round. They finished the year at 12-4, good enough for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Brady had another Brady-esque year, and the defense ranked 13th in football in terms of total yards allowed per game.
Nobody would be surprised if the Patriots won, but the general feeling is that spectators would be even more surprised if the Ravens lost. That's how reliable Baltimore is in the playoffs.
"We’ve got a lot of confidence right now," Ravens tight end Owen Daniels told Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com. "There weren’t a lot of people who thought we’d come in here [to Pittsburgh] and get the job done. But we believe in each other and we’re going to keep that belief going."
Sometimes, all it takes is confidence.
It may seem to be a stretch to pick against the No. 1 seed in the conference in favor of the No. 6 seed that barely got into the postseason, but the Ravens' win over the Steelers was extremely convincing.
All aboard the Flacco Express.
Prediction: Ravens 24, Patriots 21
Panthers vs. Seahawks
The Panthers are on an impressive run, having won five games in a row after improbably making the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record. They won a hard-fought game over the Arizona Cardinals, who admittedly played far better against Carolina than expected.
While Carolina's recent successes make it a real threat in the NFC, the success of the Seattle Seahawks since Oct. 26 make them the clear favorites in the conference. Since that date, Seattle is 9-1. The team that began that streak? The Panthers.
That Panthers team is a far cry from the one Seattle will go toe-to-toe with this weekend, but the Seahawks are still poised to run away with this one. Seahawks wide receiver Paul Richardson went on Bleacher Report Radio to speak about how his team's mentality has changed since that meeting:
Russell Wilson may not have the fiercest weapons in the passing game, but he and Marshawn Lynch have devastated defenses on the ground. The two combined for 2,155 rushing yards this season, and teams haven't figured out a way to keep Wilson contained in the pocket.
Wilson has made highlight after highlight by running the bootleg draw play, yet defenses still can't stop it. Look for a steady dose of the same play against Carolina.
Of course, the key to this game is the maturity and experience of the Seahawks. They've been here before. Wilson and head coach Pete Carroll know how to keep their team poised under the big lights, as Football Outsiders' Scott Kacsmar proved with this stat:
Cam Newton will have to play out of his mind against the Legion of Boom and the pass-rushers of the Seattle defense to even give his team a chance. He was just so-so against Arizona (198 yards, two touchdowns, one interception), as he left many throws up and couldn't find consistency with his receivers in the middle of the field.
Everything must click against the Seahawks—and that goes for every opponent Seattle will play moving forward. A repeat is certainly in the cards for the hottest team in football.
Prediction: Seahawks 28, Panthers 13
Follow Kenny DeJohn on Twitter: @kennydejohn