Friday, January 9, 2015

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round

AFC Divisional Round: #6 Baltimore (11-6) at #1 New England (12-4), New England favored by 7

Last weekend the Ravens earned playoff redemption by winning a playoff game at Pittsburgh. This weekend, they travel to New England, facing a Patriots team that is looking for redemption of their own. The Ravens have won 2 of the past 3 playoff meetings between these teams in New England. The last time these teams met in the playoffs was two years ago in the AFC Championship. The Ravens defense stymied Tom Brady and embarrassed the Patriots, as they would eventually go on to win the Super Bowl.

The playoffs seem to bring out a different side of Joe Flacco. Much like Eli Manning, Flacco can look maddeningly inconsistent during the playoffs and then a switch turns on and he becomes Joe Cool come playoff time. Flacco has won six of his last seven playoff games, throwing 17 TDs and 1 INT in that span. The Ravens handled Pittsburgh last weekend and it was even more impressive because they did it without Justin Forsett having a strong game rushing. The Ravens defense shut down Pittsburgh and was largely helped by the fact that the Steelers didn't have Le'Veon Bell at their disposal. Tom Brady will have his full complement of weapons available to him this weekend.

The Patriots rushing attack is hard to prepare for because Bill Belichick will change it up from game to game. Some games he will pound the rock with Shane Vereen, others it will be Brandon Bolden, Jonas Gray or LaGarrette Blount. Gray led the Patriots in rushing this season with just 412 yards rushing, and it is clear that the Patriots only run the ball almost out of necessity to try to keep defenses honest. Against the Ravens though it may be more of a necessity because of their sack masters Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. When the Ravens have beaten the Patriots in the past it has been because of their ability to pressure Brady. Brady has a plethora of weapons to throw the ball to with Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, and Brandon LaFell. However, those options will disappear quickly if Brady doesn't have time to throw. The Patriots offensive line has come together nicely this season after a tough start, and they will need to continue that play on Saturday.

Flacco would be helped if Forsett has a better game than he had against Pittsburgh. Surprisingly, the Patriots were just 17th against the pass this year, so opportunities will be there for Flacco to find the Smith's, Steve and Torrey, as well as dependable tight end Owen Daniels. Betting against Flacco in the playoffs seems pretty foolish at this point, so I fully expect him to play well and keep the Ravens in this game.

I would be very surprised if this doesn't come right down to the wire. This is a tough game to pick a winner and I basically am using the law of averages in deciding to go with the Patriots. I can't picture Belichick and Brady losing a third home playoff game, even if Flacco and John Harbaugh have an incredible amount of playoff success. I think the game will be well played and will be won because the Patriots will execute just a little more than Baltimore. Certain Ravens fans were very mouthy after they defeated the Steelers, and I can't imagine how much junk they will talk if they beat New England. Let's hope we are all spared from having to deal with that.

Prediction: New England 27, Baltimore 23

NFC Divisional Round: #4 Carolina (8-8-1) at #1 Seattle (12-4), Seattle favored by 11

On paper this is easily the least interesting game of Divisional Round weekend. The Panthers are heavy underdogs as they go to Seattle and try to knock off the defending Super Bowl champions. Carolina has won five straight games but only last week's win against Arizona was against a team with a winning record, and Arizona gets an asterisk because they had to start Ryan Lindley. The Seahawks are on a winning streak of their own, having won six straight games. Both teams have played excellent defense during their winning streaks, and the only chance Carolina will have in this game is if their defense can force Seahawks turnovers.

These teams met in the regular season with the Seahawks just barely scraping by with a 13-9 victory in Carolina. That was a different Seattle team then, one that was in the midst of a Super Bowl hangover. During their six game winning streak Seattle has allowed double digits in points just once, 14 against Philadelphia. Their defense has turned the corner after a slow start and might be even better than last year's Super Bowl winning defense. Cam Newton will have his work cut out for him, and will need some super human efforts from Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen if the Panthers passing game is to have any success. Jonathan Stewart has been looking like the Stewart from a few years ago in recent weeks, and the pressure will be on him to deliver Saturday night. If the Panthers can't establish the run, this game will get ugly quickly.

The Seahawks offense is all about feeding the ball to RB Marshawn Lynch. Seattle was first in the league in rushing this year, with an average of 173 yards rushing per game. That was a combination of Lynch, as well as QB Russell Wilson. Wilson is spectacular at keeping plays going and making plays with his feet. He is highly frustrating to stop as a defender, because everytime you think you have him, he pulls something out of his ass at the last second. The Panthers defense has been far better, and a guy like Luke Kuechly should be able to do a pretty good job of spying Wilson. However, the Panthers defense has looked terrible at times this year too, so I am not quite sold on this recent resurrection.

No one is giving Carolina a chance in this game, including Panthers fans. Sometimes that can motivate a team to a spectacular performance and they can shock the world. This will not be one of those times. The atmosphere in Seattle, not to mention the Seahawks defense is far too talented for Carolina to pull off the upset, or even keep this game close.

Prediction: Seattle 29, Carolina 7

NFC Divisional Round: #3 Dallas (13-4) at #2 Green Bay (12-4), Green Bay favored by 6 1/2

This is the game the NFL and fans wanted to see and now we get it. Detroit almost ruined it by defeating Dallas but some shady officiating and missed calls helped the Cowboys come from behind and get the victory. The Cowboys were 8-0 on the road this year, and the Packers were 8-0 at home this year, so something will have to give on Sunday.

The Cowboys focus in this cold weather game should be to pound the ball with DeMarco Murray against the Packers 23rd ranked run defense, and then supplement with the pass to Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Jason Witten when need be. The Cowboys got behind against the Lions last weekend and the run game struggled at times but Jason Garrett did a nice job of staying patient and sticking with it. Even if Murray gets off to a slow start on Sunday, the Cowboys cannot abandon their ground game unless they get 3 or 4 touchdowns behind.

The Cowboys defense has performed much better this season than anticipated but they face their greatest challenge against the Packers offense in Lambeau. The Packers have averaged almost 40 points per game at home this season, and were held under 30 points at home just once this season. Rodgers has not thrown an interception at home all year and he should have no problem passing the ball against the Cowboys 26th ranked pass defense. Rodgers has so many weapons to throw to in Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, and even Eddie Lacy out of the backfield. The Cowboys have been good at stopping the run this season, but I don't think they have had to face a lumbering back like Lacy this season. Lacy usually is only taken down if you throw two or three guys at him, which can really wear on a defense.

The Packers defense can't just fully concentrate on Murray though, because Tony Romo has been superb this season. Romo did take some silly sacks in last week's game against Detroit but he showed a lot of moxie in bringing Dallas back to a victory. He avoided the critical mistake that has plagued him throughout his career and that has been a theme for him all season long. He has to continue to play within what the game gives him and not try to do too much hero ball. He will also have to keep his eyes on Clay Matthews, as Matthews has had a ton of success against Dallas in the past, and I am sure Dom Capers will blitz him a few times in this game.

Games don't always live up to the hype but I think this one will. These are two evenly matched teams with balanced offenses, and defenses that have some strengths but enough weaknesses that I expect a lot of scoring, even in the frigid temperatures. Rodgers is dealing with a strained left calf but I think the week off last week will serve him well and the injury won't be an issue on Sunday. I think that Rodgers will outplay Romo just enough to send Green Bay back to the NFC Championship for the first time since the 2010-11 season.

Prediction: Green Bay 30, Dallas 27

AFC Divisional Round: #4 Indianapolis (12-5) at #2 Denver (12-4), Denver favored by 7

Luck vs. Manning happens in the playoffs for the first time. The home team has taken the previous two matchups, with Manning and the Broncos defeating Luck and the Colts in Week 1, 31-24. The final score makes the game seem a little closer than it actually was, as Denver jumped out to 24-0 and 31-7 leads. Broncos TE Julius Thomas had his way with the Colts defense, scoring 3 touchdowns.

The Broncos are confident that they can win the Super Bowl this season because they are a more balanced team. Instead of relying entirely on their offense, off-season acquisitions of Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware have paid huge dividends. The Broncos rank second against the rush and ninth against the pass. Von Miller led the Broncos in sacks with 14, while Ware contributed 10, showing he still has plenty left in the tank. Even offensively, the Broncos are a little different. They have become far less reliant on Peyton Manning to make everything happen with his arm, thanks to the emergence of RB C.J. Anderson. Anderson averages almost 5 yards a carry and has been a consistent contributor when called upon. Some questions have been coming in over Manning's arm strength again as he struggled down the stretch. Any fatigue he was feeling should be helped by the bye the Broncos earned. The Colts pass defense is better than their run defense, especially with premier cornerback Vontae Davis, but even if Davis can slow down Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas can still make plenty of plays. He has mostly disappeared this season but even Wes Welker could contribute some receiving yards out of the slot position.

The Colts are a one dimensional team that has to fully rely on Andrew Luck. Luck can make some incredible plays and his latest one was a touchdown pass to Donte Moncrief last week as he was being sacked. Against a Bengals offense that was limited that is likely enough, but the Colts aren't going to be holding the Broncos to 10 points. Also, unlike the Bengals, the Broncos are able to rush the quarterback, so Luck is going to have his hands full all game trying to find time to throw. T.Y. Hilton struggled last week, dropping a few passes, and with Reggie Wayne barely being a presence at this point, Hilton has to play much better on Sunday. Daniel Herron received the bulk of the carries last week over an ill Trent Richardson. Even if Richardson feels better, if the Colts do try to run they would be better served giving the ball to Herron, as with Richardson all you get is 3 yards and immediately tackled.

The Colts have only beaten one good team all season, the Bengals. When facing any other good teams they were usually embarrassed as their defense couldn't keep up. I expect that to mostly be the case on Sunday. I think Luck will keep Indianapolis in the game through sheer will, but I have no faith in the Colts defense to make enough stops of Manning. I don't think they will force turnovers and I don't think that all the sudden in January the Colts will find the magic potion that helps them beat a very good team. It will be a Brady vs. Manning rematch in the AFC Championship, this time in New England.

Prediction: Denver 30, Indianapolis 21

Last Week Against the Spread: 1-3
Overall Against the Spread: 127-128-4

Last Week Straight Up: 3-1
Overall Straight Up: 178-81-1

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