Baltimore Ravens @ Denver Broncos
This game will probably be a lot closer than many expect. The Ravens have the momentum of winning the previous week while the Denver Broncos have the momentum of winning their previous eleven games. It is entirely possible that the BYE week could throw Peyton Manning off a little bit, but that still may not be enough to slow him and the offense down. If he is able to work the no huddle as he usually does, it could result in tremendous success for them. If the veteran defense is gassed by the end of the first half (in the thin air of Denver, mind you) then that could set up a huge second half where the Broncos begin to pull away on the scoreboard; much like they did in Week 15. In order to combat this, Joe Flacco and the Ravens will have to control the time of possession by feeding the ball to Ray Rice. If he ever needed a huge game to redeem himself, then this would be a perfect opportunity for him after fumbling twice last week. You also may not see as much of the no huddle given the air conditions. Plus, Denver’s corners have the ability to shut down receivers on the deep ball, a.k.a. Flacco’s favorite type of pass. The Ravens will need to stay out of second/third and longs in this game if they want a shot. With all of this being said, it is easier to say the Broncos have the advantage since they don’t have to change their style of play or be wary of particular situations. The Ravens will keep it close, but Denver should emerge from this one victorious.
Denver 26, Baltimore 20
Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers
For one of these teams, the season will end the same way it began; in this very match-up. There are a ton of differences in this game the second time around though, most notably the QB change on the San Fran side. When the Niners beat up on the Pack during Week 1 this year, they did it with Alex Smith at the helm. Now they have a much more explosive signal-caller and Green Bay has been susceptible to giving up the big play at times this year. However, in contrast to the first game these two played, the Packers’ defense is building a ton of confidence. They played well down the stretch and discounting two games against Adrian Peterson, you could consider them on fire. After seeing what their defense did to another mobile quarterback in Joe Webb last week, it is easy to say that Dom Capers will attack another one in Kaepernick in a similar way. The Niners will also try to run the ball with a plethora of different backs, all of which have completely different styles. Despite all of this, the big key in the game will be third down. Michael Crabtree has turned into one of the biggest third down-receivers in today’s game. If the Packers can contain him, they will find that they are getting off the field on third down. Having Charles Woodson back helped the Pack quite a bit last week and it will also serve them well this week. Look for this game to become a battle of field goals and big defensive plays. Normally a game like this would favor the 49ers, but on this day it will be the Green Bay Packers who take the cake. They are clearly the team that has the most momentum and as everybody knows, in the playoffs the team that has the most momentum generally wins.
Green Bay 22, San Francisco 16
Seattle Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons
Everybody knows that Matt Ryan has struggled in playoff situations during his first three tries. Also, the Seahawks come into this game on fire and are playing great defense. Everything about this game tilts towards a Seattle win. They probably do win this game, but not because of a Matt Ryan choke-job. Instead, look for the Atlanta defense to be exploited at home with a strong running game from the road team. All throughout the year, the Falcons have struggled to stop teams from running the ball against them. They would fail to make tackles upon first contact and teams with bigger backs were running all over them. Now, they are tasked with the challenge of stopping Marshawn Lynch in the playoffs… good luck with that. If beast mode can get his legs churning in a pile of bodies, he will probably find himself picking up a good eight to nine yards per clip. Obviously Mike Nolan knows this so he will probably pile players in the middle of the field and stack the box to stop the run. The only problem with that is the Seahawks have a mobile QB who will be more than happy to take the edge if it is given to him. He is also willing to throw the ball deep down the field if the opportunity presents itself. The only thing that is going against the ‘Hawks right now is the health of their kicker Steven Hauschka. They will be playing indoors on field turf, so that could prove to be really helpful. Of course, it is entirely possible for Matt Ryan to have a monster game at home, but this time around you can’t blame him for the Falcons losing. If Atlanta falls, it will be because of their defense. Look for the young rookie to take his team to the NFC Championship game on the road against another solid team.
Seattle 37, Atlanta 32
Houston Texans @ New England Patriots
Houston’s sudden problems in the red-zone are really scary. In this game, they will need to be throwing 6’s on the board, not 3’s. If the same Texan offense from earlier in the season shows up for this game, then it could turn out to be an instant classic. In the first game these two played this year, Gary Kubiak’s team was down early and they had to get away from the run in order to catch up. It is key for them to establish Arian Foster early in this one, given his recent success in the playoffs. The Texans will also have to mix up their coverage schemes quite a bit in order to confuse Tom Brady because the first time around he picked apart their man-coverage. Houston should consider blitzing a bit more with the hopes of getting Tom off balance and forcing him to make errant throws. The Texans are win-less this year in games where they fail to create a turnover. They are also 7-0 in games where they do not give the ball away themselves. So, holding on to the ball will be a big factor for them if they want to win. Meanwhile, the Patriots offense has had a full week to prepare for this game. For that reason alone, they are lethal. When Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have the #1 or #2 seed in the playoffs, they seemingly always make it to the Super Bowl. The Pats are one team that you don’t have to worry about with regards to a BYE week throwing them off. They will be well prepared for this one and should win with the strength of a throaty crowd on their side.
New England 31, Houston 20