Thursday, January 10, 2013

NFL Divisional Round Preview

One Playoff round down. Next up is the Divisional round. I went 4-0 with my picks last week.

To touch quickly on Robert Griffin's injury: I think it is a damn shame what happened. I do think Griffin will be ready for next year. AP did it and I can see Griffin doing it as well. As far as what Mike Shanahan's role was, I don't think we will ever know. Dr. James Andrews and Shanahan apparently had different views on how healthy Griffin was. Once the offense started slowing down in the first half, I probably would have pulled Griffin. Griffin was of no help to the Skins offense once the knee started bothering him. I hope RG3 recovers, because he is a joy to watch on the field.

Now, onto the Preview. Same format as last week.

Baltimore Ravens vs Denver Broncos

1. Will Broncos Roll Again?
When these two teams met in Week 15, it was all Denver. The Broncos won the game 34-17 and it was never really that close. Baltimore had one chance to get into the game late in the first half, but Joe Flacco was intercepted by Chris Harris and it was returned 98 yards for a TD. That pretty much ended all of Baltimore's hopes. Baltimore only mustered 12 first downs and converted 1-12 third downs. Ray Rice only carried the ball 12 times for 28 yards. On defense, Baltimore allowed 163 rushing yards to Denver. The game was a complete mis-match from the opening kickoff. Baltimore, of course, was without Ray Lewis. But would he have even made that much of a difference?

2. Establishing The Run Game
While I have come to never really trust weather reports, you have to take into consideration what is being called for in Denver Saturday: Snow and low temperatures. That could mean that the running game will be very important for both teams. Yes, even Peyton Manning struggles in the snow and he has done that in the Playoffs at Foxboro. We all know how good Ray Rice can be, but lets not under estimate the Broncos Knowshon Moreno. Since taking over the starting gig in Week 12, Moreno has averaged around 87 yards a game. He had 115 yards against Baltimore in Week 15. If Moreno can keep pace with Rice, the Broncos chances improve even more.

3. Peyton's Success vs Baltimore
Peyton Manning has won his last nine games against the Ravens, including two post season games. He does, however, only have four multi TD games in that stretch and has never thrown for over 300 yards during the streak. Manning's defenses have come up big during the win streak. No defense has allowed over 20 points during this nine game win streak. The good news for Peyton is that his defense is again playing at a high level for him. The Broncos were the hottest team coming into the Playoffs, not losing a game since Week 5. While Peyton has had success in the post-season, he can also try to do too much. Peyton needs to rely on his teammates to help carry the load, and I think he will.

Just like last week, you know the Ravens will play all out for Ray Lewis. The emotion level won't be as high playing on the road, but the team will definitely rally around him. But once again, Joe Flacco may be the key for Baltimore. If he can put together a good road performance, Baltimore has a shot. But I think Denver is just playing too well right now. Peyton Manning is playing like the Peyton of old, and the defense has looked good during every game of their impressive winning streak. Even with the weather conditions expected to be bad, I still think Denver pulls this one out. Joe Flacco can't keep up with Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense, even in a low scoring weather game.

Denver 24  Baltimore 10

Green Bay Packers vs San Francisco 49ers
1. Will The Real 49ers Please Stand Up?
I know everyone is hot for the 49ers and Colin Kapernick. The read-option is the new IT thing in the NFL. But as a team, the 49ers have been very hit or miss the last couple of weeks. Even in their recent wins they haven't looked great. They jumped out to a 34-3 lead against New England before blowing that lead and recovering late for a win. They looked terrible in Week 16 against the Seahawks. The offense was bad and the defense could not stop Seattle. They even struggled in the first half against Arizona in Week 17. In the Playoffs, the 49ers need to play a complete game to win. If you slip up in one quarter, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will make you pay.

2. A Test For The Packers D
Green Bay did a good job last week against the Vikings shutting down Adrian Peterson. But in a way, they also had a pass because Joe Webb threw the ball as well as a Pop Warner QB. Colin Kapernick is a duel threat at QB. He throws a pretty good deep ball and can take off with his legs if the play breaks down. But the Packers defense seems to be finally getting healthy. Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson are both back from injury. Matthews was a disruptive force against the Vikes. Woodson also played well. Green Bay's defense has struggled at times this season but they haven't been as healthy as they are now and should be up to the test.

3. Shaky Field Goal Kickers
Both of these teams have kickers that aren't exactly lighting up the place in recent games. David Akers was one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL last year, but he only went 29 of 42 this year kicking. Akers has been playing so bad that the team signed Billy Cundiff. Of course, Cundiff has his own noted problems with kicking in the Playoffs. As I noted last week, Mason Crosby has also struggled this year. He seems to have put it together a little bit as of late, but you never know with field goal kickers. Once again, if it comes down to a field goal kick, will these two kickers be reliable?

Both NFC games are very tough to predict. With San Francisco, you have a very good defense that is up to the challenge of stopping the Packers pass attack. On offense, Colin Kapernick can play like Robert Griffin or Russell Wilson, but he could also hit a wall in his first Playoff appearance. He just hasn't been that reliable. Even with the great defense of the 49ers, I don't expect the Packers offense to struggle. Aaron Rodgers will make plays and find the open WR he wants to find. The question will be whether the Packers defense can play as good as they did last week. I think with the talent they have, the Packers can make the 49ers a one dimensional passing team. And if the 49ers can't get the run game going and rely solely on Colin Kapernick to win them this game, I don't like their chances. I think the Packers pull off an upset here and win a close one against in San Francisco.

Green Bay 27  San Francisco 24

Seattle Seahawks vs Atlanta Falcons
1. Is It Finally Matt Ryan's Time?
Despite all of Matt Ryan's regular season success, a QB's career is often defined on how well he does during the Playoffs. And for Matt Ryan, his success in the Playoffs has not been great. Ryan is 0-3 in the Playoffs, throwing 3 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Ryan has also failed to throw for over 200 yards in any of those games. And being the #1 overall seed doesn't mean anything either. Ryan and the Falcons were the #1 seed back in 2010 when they were whooped by the Packers at home 48-21. The Packers were a Wild Card teams and riding a hot streak going into the Playoffs, similar to what the Seahawks are doing now.

2. Can Anyone Stop Seattle?
For a quarter last week it looked like the answer to this question was yes. Seattle was down 14-0 and looked like they were ready to get run out of Washington. The defense couldn't stop RG3 and the offense could not get anything going. I don't know if it was the injury to RG3 or just something that woke the Seahawks up, but they finally turned it around in the second quarter. Even though they didn't take the lead until the second half, Seattle took over the game well before that. Seattle once again has to travel east for this game, and you do have to wonder if travel will get to them. Going from Seattle to Washington D.C., then back to Seattle and back to Atlanta. That is a lot of travel for one team. Seattle also lost leading pass rusher Chris Clemons to a torn ACL. But this is still a strong Seahawks team.

3. The Falcons WRs vs The Seahawks CBs
I think out of all the match-ups in the four games this week, this one will go the farthest in determining the winner of a game. On Atlanta, you have the best WR combo in the NFL in Julio Jones and Roddy White. All those two did is combine for 2,449 yards and 17 TDs. They find ways to get open and are just as hungry as Matt Ryan to win their first Playoff game. On Seattle's side, you have cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Sherman is one of the biggest trash talkers in the league and his act is really starting to grow tired on me. But Sherman backs up his act. He had 8 interceptions and 24 passes defended. Whichever side wins this match-up will win this game.

I think this is the toughest game to pick of the week. Initially I wanted to go with Seattle. They have just been playing so well as of late. Atlanta has noted struggles in the Playoffs and you just had to think that it was going to come back and bite them again this year against a hot Seattle team. But the Falcons have probably put together the best team that they have had since Matt Ryan has been there. He has two great WRs, his defense is better than it has been and he has Michael Turner with a great compliment in Jacquizz Rodgers. But can the Falcons defense stop the read-option and Russell Wilson? No one has seemed to have the answer to it yet. But I really think the travel can have an impact on a team. I'm still not sold on it, but I'm going with the Falcons in a close game. If the Seahawks get behind again, I don't think Atlanta will be as forgiving as Washington. I just think this is an Atlanta team that knows it has to win.

Atlanta 30  Seattle 24

Houston Texans vs New England Patriots
1. A Repeat of Week of Week 14?
The Texans were a one loss team headed into their Week 14 match-up in Foxboro. But they did not look like a one loss team there. They were absolutely destroyed by the Patriots. The score was 28-0 before Houston put points on the board in the 3rd quarter. Obviously, Houston can't fall that far behind this time around. Last game they failed to get Arian Foster going. He only had 46 yards on 15 carries. The Texans need to establish the run game early on and keep Tom Brady and the Patriots offense off the field. Points will be the key for the Texans this game. Against Cincinnati, Houston settled for too many field goals. That won't work against New England.

2. Too Many Weapons To Stop?
Whenever you play New England, you always have to worry about who to stop. But the problem is if you focus on trying to shut down one guy, Tom Brady will just go to his other options. You can bet Rob Gronkowski will be a focal point with him returning from injury. The duel threat of Gronk and Aaron Hernandez is enough in and of itself, but then you have the always shift Wes Welker at WR. And the Pats always have a secondary guy that steps up in the Playoffs that you have never heard of. With the Texans defense as banged up as it is, you have to wonder how Houston plans on stopping all of these options. They couldn't do it in Week 14, and the Pats didn't have Rob Gronkowski that week. The Patriots offense is a finally tuned athletic machine that takes the right combination of luck, skill and prayer to stop.

3. Getting to Tom Brady
I always say that if you want a shot to beat New England, you have to get to Tom Brady. And that can be a very difficult task. J.J. Watt can bat down as many passes as he wants, eventually Tom Brady will get to ball to his WRs. Watt needs to be able to get in Brady's face and pressure him. Brady was one of the least sacked QBs in the NFL this year, and part of the success he has is from his offensive line giving him the time to find his secondary options. If you can't get to Brady, you don't win the game.

I don't think this will be as big a blowout as the first game, but I don't think the Texans win here either. New England has too many options to stop. If the Bengals had a better offensive game plan, they could have easily won last week. Houston settled for too many field goals on offense for my liking. If Houston wants to have any chance, they need to get to Tom Brady and also get the ground game going with Arian Foster. But Houston's offense isn't good enough to hang with the Patriots. New England wins.

New England 38  Houston 24

Enjoy the Playoffs. Once again, will be tweeting during games this week.

Until Next Time,
Justin C
Follow Me On Twitter @JCWonka

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