Legends are made in the postseason, and with the divisional rounnd of the NFL playoffs here, some teams and players have a chance to make names for themselves. But only four teams can advance next weekend in their quest for a Super Bowl title.
Denver vs Baltimore
Baltimore came through late last Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts to make Ray Lewis’ final home game a happy one. Now Lewis and the Ravens’ defense will be tasked with slowing down the former face of the Colts in Peyton Manning .
Manning has propelled the Broncos to 11 straight victories and a tie for the best record in the NFL this season. Baltimore, being known for its defense, will have a tough matchup this week in trying to slow down what has become one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL.
When these two teams matched up in week 15, Denver came away with an impressive 34-17 road victory. Baltimore did its best to limit Manning to just over 200 yards and one passing touchdown, but that came at the expense of the running game, as the Broncos racked up 163 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. The Ravens will try once again to limit Manning, but in order to win, they must also slow down running back Knowshon Moreno.
Offensively, the Ravens must be flawless if they hope to outscore the Broncos. In week 15, quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 254 yards and two touchdowns, but committed two costly turnovers, one being a 98-yard interception for a touchdown. Running back Ray Rice lost two fumbles in last week’s game against Indianapolis and backup Bernard Pierce saw plenty of snaps throughout the game. Baltimore has yet to prove they can limit turnovers when playing tough teams.
Too many things need to go right for the Ravens in order to win this one. Peyton Manning will be the usual All-Pro quarterback we all know and love, controlling the offense and helping the Broncos to a victory. Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller will pressure Joe Flacco into making one too many mistakes and the Broncos will advance to their first AFC Championship game since 2005.
Prediction: Broncos 27 – Ravens 17
San Francisco vs Green Bay
This looks like it will be the most exciting game of the upcoming week, featuring two of the most talented teams in the NFL. It is a classic matchup of an explosive offense against a tenacious defense. At times, the 49ers have looked like the top team in the NFL, while other times they have performed like a fringe playoff team with performances against St. Louis and Seattle coming to mind.
Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, leading the NFL in passer rating for the second straight season. In order to win, San Francisco will have to pressure Rodgers, limiting his time to make the smart decisions he so often does. It is rare for one defensive player to have such an important influence on the game, but 49ers defensive end Justin Smith is that rare of a player.
Smith missed the last two games of the season with a partially torn left tricep. When he is in the game, linebacker Aldon Smith is free from double teams and can pressure the quarterback effectively as he amassed 19.5 sacks on the season. In the two and a half games Aldon Smith has played without Justin Smith, he has failed to register a sack. If the 49ers are going to win, they need Justin Smith in the game.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, Justin Smith’s status for Saturday’s game is up in the air. Even if he does play, it is likely that he will be playing hurt and will not be as effective. If Smith were healthy, I believe the 49ers would have the defensive firepower to slow down
These two teams faced off in week one and the 49ers won 30-22, but with both squads looking vastly different, especially the 49ers since benching Alex Smith, the result of that first game has little meaning to the upcoming playoff match.
Even without Smith, the 49ers will make this a close game, as they still have the top defense in the NFL. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick will have to be an effective playmaker and limit mistakes if the 49ers want to keep up with the Packers’ productive offense. This one can go either way, but without one of its best players, the 49ers will fall just short.
Prediction: Packers 27 – 49ers 24
Atlanta vs Seattle
The Falcons finished tied for the best record in the NFL at 13-3 and only had one loss at home in a week 17 game that meant nothing for their playoff future. Seattle, meanwhile, has struggled to win on the road, with last week’s victory over the Redskins being its fourth victory in nine chances away from home. But, the Seahawks are hot right now and have won six straight games.
Seattle features Marshawn Lynch, one of the hardest runners in the league and Russell Wilson, a dangerous rookie quarterback who can rip defenses apart with his arm and legs. With a quarterback that can trick defenses using the read option, Seattle has a dangerous rushing attack with many solid weapons.
Meanwhile, Atlanta, ranked 21st in the NFL this season in rushing defense and 24th in rushing touchdowns allowed. But defense is not the specialty of the Falcons. They air the ball out as quarterback Matt Ryan has two dangerous receivers to throw to in Julio Jones and Roddy White, and the best tight end of all time in Tony Gonzalez.
The Seahawks will have their hands full trying to slow down the Falcons passing attack, but ranked sixth in the league in passing defense this season. With Atlanta’s weak running game, Seattle has an advantage over the Falcons because the Seahawks can defend the pass well and pressure the quarterback heavily.
Although the loss of defensive end Chris Clemons to injury will allow the Falcons to run the ball more successfully, Atlanta still lacks an imposing running game and can at times be one-dimensional on offense. Seattle will need a lot of things to go right to beat the Falcons, but they are the hottest team in the league right now. I’m rolling with the hot hand right now and picking Seattle to advance to the NFC title game against the Packers.
Prediction: Seahawks 23 – Falcons 21
New England vs Houston
Houston defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild card round behind a strong running game from Arian Foster and a stout defense that limited the Bengals to fewer than 200 yards from scrimmage. Even then, Houston barely won 19-13 as Cincinnati had several opportunities to score in the final minutes. Against New England, if the Texans can’t score more than 19 points, they won’t be able to pull out a close victory similar to last week.
While Houston’s defense may be strong behind possible Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, they will have to have the performance of a lifetime to defeat the Patriots. Tom Brady has a proven record of pushing his team to victory in the playoffs. Houston won’t be able to slow him down enough to live another week.
Matt Schaub will need to have a vastly improved game on Sunday if he hopes to continue playing another week. Against the Bengals, Schaub threw for over 250 yards, but had no touchdowns and gave up a pick-six. If he plays the same against the Patriots, you can expect New England to key in on Arian Foster on defense and pull away early in the game.
In week 14, New England trashed Houston with a 42-14 home victory. While this one shouldn’t be as much of a blowout, the Patriots are still too talented offensively not to win against this Houston team.
The Patriots feature a balanced offensive attack with Brady passing to a number of dangerous targets and running back Steven Ridley. Ridley was one of the most productive backs this season, finishing seventh in the NFL in rushing yards and third in rushing touchdowns. New England simply has too many weapons for Houston to slow down. I’m ready to watch Brady vs. Manning in the AFC Championship once again!
Prediction: Patriots 31 – Texans 20
A version of this article appeared on page 5 of January 8th, 2013′s print edition of the Nexus.