NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round
Image: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
By: Dustin Dietz
The NFL playoffs got off to a rather dull start last weekend as only one of the four games was really truly entertaining, with the one riveting game ending in a double digit win for the Seattle Seahawks.
The one game which was decided by fewer than ten points was the AFC Wild Card rematch between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Houston Texans. Despite losing three of their final four contests in the regular season, the Texans came away victorious with a 19-13 win in a game which featured only one offensive touchdown.
In one rather ominous note for the four teams who had bye weeks last weekend (Denver, New England, Atlanta, and San Francisco), five of the last seven Super Bowl champions played during Wild Card weekend. While I still believe having an extra week of rest is what teams desire because all teams are so beaten up physically after a 16 game regular season, the seven year trend is rather alarming and gives credence to the theory teams who have been playing meaningful football for an extended period are more prepared than the teams who have been resting.
Let’s look at the upcoming games this weekend, and discuss what each team must do to advance to the conference championship game.
Seattle (12-5) @ Atlanta (13-3)
Line: Atlanta by 2
Many pundits believe Seattle is the team I discussed above which has the ability to advance to the Super Bowl after playing Wild Card weekend. The Seahawks have won six consecutive games, and they have not allowed more than 17 points in any game during the winning streak. Their defense is tenacious and physical. They can rush the passer, defend the pass, and stop the run proficiently as they proved last week by limiting the league’s top ranked run defense to 104 yards rushing. If the confident and stoic quarterback Russell Wilson can continue to limit his mistakes, and Seattle’s defense can win the turnover battle, they have a legit shot to upset the top seeded Falcons.
The Falcons lost two of their final four games and played dreadful in a Week 17 home loss to Tampa Bay. Matt Ryan is becoming one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, but Tony Romo currently has more playoff wins than Ryan does. If the Falcons are going to win this game, the defense has to limit the formidable Seattle running game led by ‘Beastmode’ Marshawn Lynch, and pressure Wilson into making rookie mistakes. I am dubious Atlanta will be able to perform well enough on D as their rush defense was ranked 21st, and they were in the bottom five of the league in sacks. The Falcons also must run the ball well to wear down the Seahawks D which allowed the fewest points in the league. Atlanta played only two games against playoff teams during the regular season, but won both games.
Prediction: Seattle – 27 Atlanta – 23
Green Bay (12-5) @ San Francisco (11-4-1)
Line: San Francisco by 2.5
After allowing the monstrous potential NFL MVP Adrian Peterson to destroy them the previous week, the Green Bay defense clamped down and allowed Peterson a miniscule 99 yards on 22 carries. 99 yards might seem like a respectable number, but if you have been paying attention to how Peterson has been running recently, holding him to under 100 yards was miraculous.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers grew up a 49ers fan and really wanted the team to select him first overall in the 2005 NFL Draft. The Niners decided to draft Alex Smith, and Rodgers would be selected by Green Bay where he was tutored by future hall of fame QB Brett Favre. If one wants to believe the narrative Rodgers would enjoy nothing more than to hurt his childhood heroes because they passed on him, then go for it.
This game is the battle between the team which lost the most starter games to injury (Green Bay), and the fewest (San Francisco). If Rodgers and Green Bay are going to advance back to the NFC Championship for the second time in three seasons, the patchwork Green Bay offensive line must protect FIGJAM Rodgers from the team tied for 11th in the NFL with 38 sacks. Green Bay allowed the second most sacks during the regular season, and gave up three last week. If Green Bay continues to permit pass rushers to assault their Pro-Bowl quarterback, they will not stand a chance against Justin Smith and Aldon Smith this week.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be making his first playoff start. The second year pro from Nevada played well during the regular season as he yielded a 98.3 quarterback rating, but San Francisco must run the football effectively with running back Frank Gore against the team ranked 17th during the regular season against the run.
San Francisco defeated Green Bay way back in Week 1 30-22 at Lambeau Field, a game in which kicker David Akers booted a NFL record tying 63 yard field goal. Akers has struggled since as he missed a league-high 13 field goals during the regular season.
Prediction: San Francisco – 24 Green Bay – 21
Baltimore (11-6) @ Denver (13-3)
Line: Denver by 9.5
Baltimore defeated Indianapolis last week 24-9 in legendary linebacker Ray Lewis final home game as the future hall of famer has announced he will be retiring when the Ravens season concludes. While I am ambivalent about Lewis and his rather nebulous past, seeing him thank the fans after the game was pretty emotional.
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has now won a playoff game in each of his five seasons in the league, but he has yet to take the Ravens to a Super Bowl. The Ravens were easily vanquished by Denver 34-17 in Week 15, and if they are to pull off a monumental upset to continue Ray Lewis playing career, a lot has to happen.
Baltimore averaged 24.9 points scored per game, but playing against the league’s fourth ranked offense, they will have to score more often. However, putting up points against the league’s second ranked defense will be very difficult. Ray Rice must run the football with success against the team with the third ranked run defense.
A key player for the Ravens will be tight end Dennis Pitta as Denver allowed the most touchdown passes to opposing tight ends during the regular season.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos are the most complete football team left in the tournament. They do everything extremely well. To go along with the before mentioned statistics, they also tied for the most sacks in the NFL with 52. The Denver offensive line also protected their crown jewel Manning by only conceding 21 sacks during the season, second fewest in the league.
Denver produced two 1,000 yards wide receivers during the regular season in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. Manning was third in the NFL in TD passes with 37, and even forgotten running back Knowshon Moreno ran the ball well when starter Willis McGahee went down with an injury late in the season.
The only way Denver can be beaten is if Baltimore can pressure Manning and prevent him from throwing the ball to his excellent wide receivers. Baltimore also has to run the football and control the clock. If they are able to do this, and win the turnover battle, they have a chance. However, I do not think any of these three things will happen.
Prediction: Denver – 35 Baltimore – 20
Houston (13-4) @ New England (13-3)
Line: New England by 9
The Patriots annihilated the Texans 42-14 in Week 14 in Foxboro, and the score was not even that close. Tom Brady and the Patriots scored the most points in the NFL with 557, and had a point differential of +226, also first in the league. New England averaged an incredible 427.9 yards per game on offense.
New England is hungry to avenge their two Super Bowl losses in the last five seasons as Tom Brady desperately wants to become only the third quarterback to win four Super Bowls (Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw). Head coach Bill Belichick is also trying to become only the second head coach to win four Super Bowls (Chuck Noll).
To be honest, I do not believe Houston has much of a chance Sunday. The Patriots have the fourth ranked passing offense, and Houston is 16th against the pass. While the Houston secondary permitted Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton to throw for a measly 127 yards last week, Dalton is not on the same planet as Brady. Brady threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns in Week 15 against Houston, and he could have done more damage had the score not gotten so out of hand.
Not only can New England pass the ball, but they can also run the ball with efficiency with 1,000 yard rusher Stevan Ridley. Ridley rushed for 90 or more yards six times during the regular season and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground.
If the Texans are going to advance to the AFC Championship for the first time in franchise history, quarterback Matt Schaub must make sure wide receiver Andre Johnson has his hands on the ball often during the game. Johnson scored only four touchdowns during the regular season, but Houston was 4-0 when Johnson reached paydirt. The offensive line must open up holes for running back Arian Foster as Foster only ran for 46 yards the last time the two teams met.
Defensive stalwart J.J. Watt and the Texans defense must find a way to knock Brady to the ground as Brady was sacked only 27 times during the regular season.
New England and Houston were the top two teams in the AFC in turnover differential with the Patriots being an amazing +41. Schaub and the Houston offense cannot be careless with the football.
One thing is certain, if Houston manages to score only one offensive touchdown and produce only 19 points like they did last week, they will be demolished.
Prediction: New England – 31 Houston – 14
Follow Dustin Dietz on Twitter @DustinDietz18