Friday, January 11, 2013

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round

Wild card weekend was a letdown but traditionally Divisional Round weekend is where the playoffs really pick up. On the AFC side, the oddsmakers have Baltimore and Houston as huge underdogs at Denver and New England. Manning vs. Brady is what everyone is hoping and expecting for the AFC Championship. A few times in the past when it seemed destined those two would meet in the playoffs, an upset happened, including as recently as 2010. That year the Patriots were favored against the Jets, and the Colts with Manning had already advanced to the AFC Championship, by coincidentally enough beating Baltimore. The Patriots had bludgeoned the Jets in the regular season, but then were shocked by them in the playoffs. Could Houston do the same? In the NFC, trying to pick the two games is next to impossible. The 49ers beat the Packers in Week 1 but that was so long ago, and the 49ers even have a new starting quarterback. Atlanta has their doubters as Mike Smith and Matt Ryan are 0-3 in the playoffs together, while the Seahawks are one of the hottest teams in the league. Should be a great weekend, and I hope that I at least get one of these games right against the spread after my embarrassing 0fer last weekend.

AFC Divisional Round: #4 Baltimore (11-6) at #1 Denver (13-3), Denver favored by 9

This is a rematch from Week 15, when the Broncos went to Baltimore and crushed the Ravens 34-17. That result has led many to not give the Ravens a chance in this one, but the Ravens were missing a ton of players for that game. The Ravens were without Ray Lewis, Bernard Pollard, and guard Marshall Yanda. Those three are all back now and the Ravens defense looked much better last week against Indianapolis with Pollard, Lewis, and Terrell Suggs all playing together. The Broncos have won 11 straight games and their bandwagon is becoming crowded. No one seems to care that only two of those wins came against teams with winning records, and the rest were against teams with a combined record of 39-73. It also doesn't seem to bother anyone that Peyton Manning's playoff track record isn't the greatest. Now don't get me wrong I'm not entirely down on the Broncos. I realize that Manning had an incredible season just one year after the neck surgery. I also realize that they have tremendous receivers in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, and RB Knowshon Moreno has stepped in capably ever since Willis McGahee went down. Lost in all the talk of the amazing year Manning has had, is how good their defense has been, led by LB Von Miller. The Broncos defense finished third in the NFL against both the run and the pass. A lot of times defenses will be good at one aspect but not the other, but these Broncos are consistently good. The Broncos biggest focus on defense will be slowing down Ray Rice. The Colts didn't allow Rice to do much on the ground, but he killed them a 47 yard gain off a screen pass. Champ Bailey will likely line up against Torrey Smith, though he could also cover Anquan Boldin, who is coming off a monster game. Peyton Manning has dominated the Ravens throughout his career, and if Moreno has trouble running, the pressure will be on him. The Ravens pass defense has been a weakness all season, but they are also more healthy on defense than they have been in a long time. People want to keep talking about Manning's struggles in cold weather but I think that's overstated and won't be a factor. I think this game will be close because the Ravens are healthier and more like themselves. If it was in Baltimore I might even go with the Ravens, but with it in Denver I like the Broncos to survive a tough test.

Prediction: Denver 24, Baltimore 20

NFC Divisional Round: #3 Green Bay (12-5) at #2 San Francisco (11-4-1), San Francisco favored by 3

These two go old school and bring back their playoff rivalry from the 90s. The term rivalry is sort of used loosely though, as the Packers dominated the 49ers in the playoffs. They dominated them so much, that I grew to hate the Packers almost as much as I hate the Cowboys. It's been a rough week for me with the Redskins losing, RG3's injury, and then Notre Dame getting destroyed. If the 49ers were to once again have a season end at the hands of the Packers I might cry. You could argue that these are the two best teams in the NFC. For the 49ers to win they will have to get great games from Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore. Kap is the biggest question mark, as he makes his first ever playoff start. He has won in some hostile environments since becoming the starter, so he has shown he can handle pressure. However, the playoffs are a whole other level. The Packers are pretty strong against the pass so while Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss could still make some plays, it is Frank Gore that the 49ers will need to give at least 25 carries to. The Packers allowed 118 yards rushing per game, and Gore tore up their defense in the Week 1 meeting, averaging 7 yards a carry. The other big question for San Francisco, is can their defense regain its mojo? Justin Smith is battling a torn triceps, but is expected to play. The question is can he be effective? Ever since he was hurt, Aldon Smith has completely disappeared, as he has had to fight through double teams. The Packers were one of the worst teams in the league at allowing sacks, and it is paramount that the 49ers get pressure on Aaron Rodgers consistently. They just don't need the pressure for sacks but also so that Rodgers isn't allowed to get in a rhythm and throw to his insane amount of weapons. Those are the things that will really matter in the game. Forget about the stories the media wants to pump up, like Rodgers being a fan of the Niners, or still feeling slighted that San Francisco chose Alex Smith over him. It doesn't matter that Kaepernick was a Packers fan. Those are fun little storylines, but whichever team can exert their will on the other, will win the game. It is a great offense versus a great defense, very similar to the 49ers matchup against New Orleans at this time last year. Also, the kickers in this game could have a huge impact. Both David Akers and Mason Crosby have been in season long slumps and have the most misses by a kicker this season. The 49ers brought in Billy Cundiff, who is even worse than Akers, so all indications are that Akers will be the man tomorrow night. The game could come down to his or Crosby's leg. That is an even scarier thought for 49ers fans than this being Kap's first playoff game. I think Green Bay will get their points and their yards, but the 49ers will have a bend but don't break sort of defensive effort. I think Gore will run the ball well, calming Kap and allowing him to make the plays he is capable of making. I think this game will come down to the final minute, with the 49ers defense picking off Rodgers to secure the victory.

Prediction: San Francisco 24, Green Bay 23

NFC Divisional Round: #5 Seattle (12-5) at #1 Atlanta (13-3), Atlanta favored by 2 1/2

The Seahawks are the sexy pick to win this game and I understand why. They are playing very well, while in recent history the Falcons and Matt Ryan have been horrendous in the playoffs. The Falcons are also coming off a home loss to lowly Tampa Bay where they played their starters despite the game having no consequence on the standings to them. I was planning on picking the Seahawks but then two crucial injuries occurred for them in their Wild Card win against Washington. DE Chris Clemons and K Steven Haucschka both saw their seasons end. The Seahawks signed Ryan Longwell to replace Hauschka, and Longwell hasn't kicked all season. That may prove to be huge if this game is close as I predict it will be. People have suggested the Seahawks will be fine without Clemons and someone like Bruce Irvin can just rush the passer instead. But you can't tell me losing your best pass rusher is ever something you can just brush under the table. The Falcons have been considered a team that played above their heads all season and looking at their stats it is tough to argue. They are a horrible rushing team, and their defense is mediocre to bad against both the pass and the run. The Falcons were concerned about injuries John Abraham and Dunta Robinson suffered in the loss against Tampa, but it appears both will play. They are going to need them as they have the tall task of trying to slow down "Beast Mode" Marshawn Lynch. Someone will also have to keep their eye on Russell Wilson. The Seahawks passing game can be pretty underwhelming, but Russell is great at eluding pressure and making plays on the run. One area the Falcons haven't struggled is throwing the ball. Ryan has some excellent targets in Roddy White, Julio Jones and the ageless Tony Gonzalez. The Seahawks offense struggled against a pretty crappy Redskins defense, so I am not convinced that it really matters that the Falcons have struggled defensively. I think the Falcons offensive line, which has played great all season in pass protection can keep Ryan protected and allow the Falcons to move the ball offensively. I think that the Seahawks will move the ball but stall out in the red zone and that Longwell will miss some chances. It will be by the skin of their teeth but Ryan and Smith will finally get that elusive playoff victory.

Prediction: Atlanta 20, Seattle 16

AFC Divisional Round: #3 Houston (13-4) at #2 New England (12-4), New England favored by 9 1/2

You would probably be surprised to look above and see that Houston has a better record than New England by half a game. Your surprise would come from the fact that almost no one is giving the Texans a chance in hell of winning this game. A lot of that stems from the beat down New England put on Houston earlier this year, but where it mostly comes from for me is how poorly Houston has played for a little over a month. Now they did beat the Bengals last weekend but if you watched that game it was not a victory that should inspire much confidence. The Texans defense played decently but it was more the Bengals being unable to get out of their own way on offense. Offensively, Houston moved the ball pretty well but had to keep settling for field goals. When playing the Patriots you can't settle for field goals. Houston will have to keep the game close early on and get Arian Foster involved and effective right away. That will mean finding ways to avoid Vince Wilfork. The Texans just aren't built the right way to attack the Patriots defense. New England is terrible against the pass, a problem that has plagued them for a few years now. The Texans do have Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels, but they don't have a true #2 receiver that can make teams take their focus off those guys. Defensively, the Texans need to hope that JJ Watt can make an impact early and often. He has to be in Tom Brady's grill all day and not allow Brady to throw to his insane amount of weapons. Then the Texans have to find ways to account for Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Lloyd, even Deion Branch. The Patriots offense has even added a running game this season. When he isn't fumbling Stevan Ridley is churning out yards, and then their is the little engine that could, Danny Woodhead. I don't expect this game to be the blowout it was earlier this season, but the Texans are coming in with such little momentum that it is hard to envision them winning. Sure, it might motivate them a little more to hear no one giving them a chance, but that all goes out the window once the game starts. I expect the New England offense to move the ball as they wish and the Texans not have enough offense to counter it.

Prediction: New England 31, Houston 21

Last Week Against the Spread: 0-4
Overall Against the Spread: 119-133-7

Last Week Straight Up: 2-2
Overall Straight Up: 168-91-1


Eric T said...

Denver 30, Baltimore 16

Flacco on the road combined with Denver pass rush leads to over 2 turnovers by Flacco/ravens.

Green Bay 17, San Fransisco 16

I think its a close game and the difference between Rodgers and Kaepernick is enough to overcome the SF defense. Also, I'd take the points just based on the unpredictability of each kicking game.

Seattle 27, Atlanta 17

I think Bruce Irvin has a strong game and helps the CBs cover those two stud receivers. Wilson connects with Tate/Rice for a couple of big gains and Lynch allows them to hold the ball for big chunks, keeping Ryan on the sidelines, especially in the 2nd half.

New England 27, Houston 16

I have little faith is Schaub to make plays. I think NE runs the defense into submission, keeping Watt from making game changing plays. 35+ touches for Ridley/Woodhead/Vereen. Welker converts a few 3rd downs. Also, Houston stalls in the redzone multiple times.

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