BALTIMORE at DENVER
The Broncos galloped into Baltimore in Week 15, and came away with a 34-17 victory over the Ravens. Denver finished on a high note winning their last eleven games of the season, and Baltimore hasn't beaten a Peyton Manning led team since 2001. Can the offensive coordinator for Baltimore, Jim Caldwell former head coach of the Colts and Manning, help the Ravens defense prepare for what they will see?
Denver scored 30 or more points in seven of their eight home games this season. "I've always tried to prepare every week as if it was a playoff game. That's your job, I think, as an NFL player," said Manning treating this week like any other.
When you think defense over the years, you immediately gravitate towards the Ravens but the defense in this matchup that has been stingy all year, is the Broncos. Von Miller leads the team with 18.5 sacks, and this unit is the only defense in the league that did NOT lend a 300 plus yard passer all season long. In a pass-happy league, that is more than impressive.
Manning has thrown for over 300 yards in eight postseason games, most in NFL history. With Baltimore's victory last week, Joe Flacco became the first quarterback ever to win a playoff game in his first five seasons.
It will be cold in the Mile High city on gameday, and fans of Ray Lewis should watch intently, because the linebacker who was once a Super Bowl MVP and Defensive Player of the Year will have his 17-year career come to an end. Added note: Only other player to achieve both those awards in their career, was Harvey Martin of the Dallas Cowboys.
DENVER 23 BALTIMORE 13
GREEN BAY at SAN FRANCISCO
Aaron Rodgers will return home to northern California where he grew up and played his college ball, and play against the team that chose Alex Smith over him in the 2005 draft. On the other side, 49ers starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and used to root for the Packers as a kid.
San Francisco opened the season with a victory over the Packers, at Lambeau Field, 30-22 behind then starter Alex Smith. The Packers defense did NOT face a read-option team all season long. Will travel and unfamiliarity to the 49ers offense, be the difference in the game?
With that being said, the real story for San Francisco has been the play of the defense. Aldon Smith has been virtually unstoppable, finishing the season with 19.5 sacks. That doesn't bode well for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offensive line, who gave up a league leading 51 sacks. Rodgers is lucky he's still upright, he took a beating this year. Not to pile on but more bad news or is it good news depending on who you're pulling for, 49ers defense should get Justin Smith back into the mix after sitting out for almost a month with an injury.
"I think it's just a matter of getting out there and going," Justin Smith said this week. "I think like I said you just go out there and play until you can't and be ready. I feel like I'll be ready."
Packers are 4-1 in postseason versus San Francisco. Correction, make it 5-1 after Saturday night.
GREEN BAY 34 SAN FRANCISCO 27
SEATTLE at ATLANTA
The No. 1 seed in the NFC has been listening to everyone tell them they are "playoff chokers, overrated because they can't get it done in January, just a good regular season team." And that is not changing this week. The Seahawks have become the "sexy pick" by the experts, yet again showing that people don't trust the Falcons in this spot.
Mike Smith has had double-digit win seasons all but one year, 2009 when they went 9-7, spanning over five seasons as Falcons head coach. This is the second time they have been the top seed in the conference on his watch but have yet to win a playoff game 0-3, and are 56-24 with him.
As you can tell the pressure is on and it doesn't stop at the coach. Matt Ryan, the third pick in the first round of the 2008 draft, has been hearing the same banter directed towards him.
"He knows we have to win a playoff game," wide receiver Roddy White said about his quarterback. "Everybody knows that, and not to put any pressure on him, but I just think that at this point in the season, everybody knows they have to play their best football right now."
Interesting stat about Ryan, he has NEVER lost back-to-back home games in college or the pros. Guess who lost in week 17 this year in the Georgia Dome? You guessed it, the Atlanta Falcons to the Buccaneers to end the season.
While Seattle was ecstatic over their win, against Washington, last week in the wild card game, it came at a hefty price. Seahawks stud, pass rushing defensive end, Chris Clemons, was lost with an ACL tear. To make things worse, they even lost their kicker Steven Hauschka to a calf injury, and had to sign long-time kicker Ryan Longwell this week.
Seahawks Russell Wilson is looking to become just the fifth rookie quarterback in NFL history to play in a conference championship game. I don't believe that happens.
ATLANTA 24 SEATTLE 16
HOUSTON at NEW ENGLAND
42-14 is what the Texans have read and heard all week. That was their loss to the Patriots on December 10 in Foxborough.
"We know that our effort and how we performed last time wouldn't give us a chance against anybody on the road," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said this week. "It's about right now refocusing on all the things we have to do to go down there and have a chance to be successful, and I'm sure that's what they're thinking about."
It is still hard to believe that last weeks win over Cincinnati, was the first playoff victory in his career, notched by Texans starting quarterback Matt Schaub. While he was pretty good completing 29 of his 38 passes for 262 yards and one interception that was returned for a touchdown, he'll have to be a whole lot better in this one if they plan on upsetting New England.
There is no doubt that Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is the games most disruptive force. He finished the regular season with 20.5 sacks and the team with 44 sacks, which was fifth most in the league. But Watt was not a factor the first go-around, no sacks of Brady and only two tackles in the game. Tom Brady, along with Peyton Manning, are the best in the game at knowing when to get rid of the ball. It will be very hard again for Watt and crew to disrupt Brady but if they do, they have a chance.
The other critical factor for the Texans D is finding a way to slow down the two-headed monster of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Is that possible? I don't believe so but Houston will play a lot of man coverage and will have the invidious task of trying to do so.
NEW ENGLAND 31 HOUSTON 17
Main Photo: Jonathan Daniel, Steve Dykes, Jim Rogash, Frederick Breedon / Getty Images