Last week's playoff games were sort of duds. There was one exciting game and the Ravens-Steelers game was fairly competitive. Otherwise, it wasn't the most exciting wild card round in the recorded history of the NFL. INCLUDING THE TRIASSIC PERIOD. I am predicting three of the four games this weekend will be exciting or at least competitive, despite the rather high lines from Vegas. So yes, that's my prediction I am making in a post about other predictions I'm making. As far as the Pick 'Em Challenge goes, Steve was perfect last week and Snarf was 3-1. It seems Bill Simmons and Peter King came in last after one week with a 1-3 record. Can Steve keep up his perfect record? Can I continue the mediocrity of 2-2 as an example shown by my favorite NFL team's mediocre .500-ish record? When will Peter King pick games with the gambling line included?
These are the lines I will be using for these divisional round games:
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots (-7.0)
Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks (-11.0)
Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers (-5.5)
Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos (-7.0)
Here are Peter's picks. (He chooses New England, Seattle, Green Bay, Denver...he didn't really outright pick the last two teams but it sounds like that's who he is picking...clearly he's trying to vex me)
Here are Bill's picks. (If you don't want to click the link, he chose Ravens (+7.0) over the Patriots, Seahawks (-11.0) over the Panthers, Cowboys (+5.5) over the Packers, Broncos (-7.0) over the Colts.
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
So last week I wrote about how the Ravens were third in the NFL in sacks, but it would be hard to sack Roethlisberger a lot, then they went and sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times. Pittsburgh killed themselves with penalties, but the win over the Steelers showed me that I shouldn't underrate the Ravens. Of course, if the Steelers had won the game then I would probably be saying the same thing about them. The Ravens are 5-4 on the road this season, including the playoffs, while the Patriots are 7-1 at home. The only loss the Patriots suffered at home was a half-assed Week 17 effort against the Bills. I have no doubt the Patriots would be 8-0 at home if they had tried harder against the Bills. Still, the Ravens have beaten the Patriots two out of three times in the playoffs when the game is in New England. The Ravens were one good defensive play by the Patriots away from making it three-for-three.
On offense, it's nearly impossible to say what strategy the Patriots will pursue. They may go with a run-heavy offense, they may go pass-heavy, but if they go run-heavy I'm wondering if they will use their bigger backs (Blount/Ridley-sort of) or their smaller backs who have more speed (Gray/Vereen). That's part of the advantage they have and why it's really pointless to try to predict an exact game plan...but I'll try anyway. I see the Patriots attacking the Ravens beaten-up secondary by going with a more pass-heavy approach, while also giving Vereen and Gray the most carries. The Steelers threw for 300+ yards on the Ravens last week, so that's still an obvious issue for them. Of course Gronkowski will get about 10-15 targets and Brandon LaFell will have Panthers fans on Twitter saying, "Why did we get rid of him again?" So pass-heavy, that's where the Patriots will go on offense in an effort to get rid of the ball quickly and stop the Ravens' pass rush.
The Ravens are obviously going to want prevent Brady from getting rid of the ball quickly and give their pass rush time to get in his face with pressure. It's easier said than done of course, but showing him some looks he hasn't seen or can't diagnose prior to the snap will be the key to getting Brady to hold the ball a little bit of extra time in order to give the pass rush a shot. I have to wonder if the Ravens will shadow Gronkowski with a safety or a corner the entire game. Of course this would put more pressure on their beaten up secondary to cover the other Patriots players. Still, Gronk's four lowest yardage totals on the season have resulted in a Patriots loss, a Patriots win by one point, a victory, and a Patriots loss. Take away Gronk and it helps the Ravens chances of winning. Again, repeat after me...easier said than done. I'll be interested to see the approach the Ravens take.
Joe Flacco has been on a roll in the playoffs of late. It helps that he has two good receivers in the Smith brothers, as well as (I think) fairly underrated Owen Daniels. The Steelers did a pretty good job of stopping Justin Forsett and I envision the Patriots using similar tactics as well. Forsett really hasn't been great over the past month, passing 100 yards only once and averaging 59.4 yards rushing per game. The Ravens are still 4-1 over those five games. The Patriots have a very good secondary, and even if it doesn't show up in the ranking of 17th in the NFL in passing yards allowed, they can match up well with the Ravens. Revis will probably be on Torrey Smith and that leaves Logan Ryan to match up with Steve Smith (or maybe the other way around). Needless to say, Gary Kubiak will want to move the Smiths around some and try to get them a more favorable matchup, perhaps in the slot. It will undoubtedly be a team affair with Forsett also catching passes out of the backfield.
I look for the Patriots to load up on Forsett and stop him from gaining big yardage. That's the big issue with Forsett. Not that he will wear you down, but he will bust a big gain. He has 40 runs of 10+ yards this season accounting for 783 of his 1266 yards on the season. The Patriots will have to stay patient and disciplined to keep Forsett in front of them. The Patriots are about average in terms of sacks on the season, but they are in the Top 10 in completion percentage allowed. I do think the Patriots are going to want to put the ball in Flacco's hands, though his splits this season depending on down-and-distance are pretty admirable. He's a lot of things, but he doesn't seem to get bothered. The Ravens have only allowed 19 sacks this year, which helps Flacco, so getting to him is crucial to avoid the upset.
This is a difficult pick only if I don't look at it on paper. The Ravens have consistently come into Gillette Stadium and played a good game against the Patriots in the playoffs. Flacco has been great in the playoffs and even when Forsett doesn't run well the Ravens are winning games. The Patriots have lost four games but only lost one game they really tried hard to win since September 29. That game was against Green Bay at Lambeau Field. I think Flacco will have a good day, but the Patriots defense will get a turnover or two and Tom Brady has a fourth quarter drive that leads the Patriots to victory. Don't worry Ravens fans, you could be the team I count out every week who makes the Super Bowl.
New England Patriots over the Baltimore Ravens (+7.0) 27-24
Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks
I too often put my logical hat on over my fan-boy hat. I'm not a good homer sometimes. Logically, I saw no way Carolina would win their division. They did. Logically, I thought they should beat the Cardinals and they did. Logically, they should have no chance in Seattle against a superior Seahawks team. They have a chance, but not much of one. This game has the potential to not be close. The Panthers benefited from a weak division, a weak first round opponent who were essentially starting a practice squad quarterback, and now they are going to play a team they haven't beaten in their last four tries, three of those tries at home. This isn't a reverse-jinx or some bullshit like that. The Seahawks are at home and they showed earlier this year they were the better team when playing in Carolina.
On paper, these two teams are very similar. They want to run the football. Seattle is very, very obviously going to run the football. They do it very well. The Panthers are missing their best defensive tackle in Star Lotulelei and the Seahawks ran the ball successful in the first game between these two teams with Lotulelei playing. Everything the Seahawks do comes off running the football, which isn't a bad thing. Interestingly, Russell Wilson has been a better road quarterback this year than a home quarterback. The Seahawks keep the game close, which is why they never have to worry about Russell Wilson slinging the ball around trying to come back. It's a nice strategy if you can do it. The Seahawks will run play-action while moving Wilson around and that's partly how the Seahawks will move the ball against Carolina. Move Wilson, move the pass rush around and it helps to keep pressure off him. This along with short passes in front of the soft zone the Panthers often run, which will help set up the running game for easy third down conversions as well. The Panthers love blitzing up the middle, so rolling Wilson out will avoid the blitz as well.
The Panthers have to stop the running game of the Seahawks. They have been gashed this year at times when their overaggressive nature has worked against them. Stop Lynch, stop Wilson's bootleg passes, don't allow them easy completions in the middle of the field and they will have a chance. In the first game they did a pretty job of this until the very end when they gave up the game-winning touchdown pass. The Panthers have a very inexperienced secondary that is going to be geared up to tackle Lynch, so the best chance they have is for Kuechly and Thomas Davis to tackle Lynch without the secondary having to be overly-concerned about Lynch running the football. That's how play-action passes deep happen.
The Panthers also want to run the football. The biggest key to this game is how the Panthers pass the football though. Newton can't miss receivers as he did against the Cardinals and Greg Olsen has to keep the Seattle linebackers occupied, which means the Panthers' offensive line has to actually protect Newton. Running the football will do no good if Newton can't connect with his receivers and the health of Philly Brown (that's how bad it is, Philly Brown is a key) is important to give the Panthers a deep threat, allowing the rest of the non-speedy receivers to have room to catch passes. Newton can't throw high to receivers and has to be absolutely on-point, which he was not in the first game between these two teams.
Seattle on defense is going to key on stopping Newton and the zone-read. The Panthers offense is predictable at times and doesn't really show too many different looks. It's just a matter of stopping the looks they do show. The Seahawks have all sorts of advantages in the secondary where they could probably put a safety on Olsen and still not have to worry about Sherman being beaten by Benjamin. Again, with Brown out the Seahawks have no deep threats to worry about and keeping Jerricho Cotchery and the rest of the Panthers receiving group in check should not be hard. Heck, it's not going to be hard to keep the Panthers receivers in check with Brown healthy. The biggest advantage for Seattle lies up front. They have a great defensive line and the Panthers have issues in protecting Newton, especially on the left side with Byron Bell (#77). Here are some of Bell's greatest hits this season at the left tackle position.
Simply not giving a fuck.
Failing to block his man three times on one play.
So yeah, that's the left tackle. Then throw in the waiver wire guy on the right side, the undrafted left guard and the rookie right guard and the strength of this game for the Seahawks lies in their pass rush. They can and will run the ball on Carolina, as well as get pressure on Newton. The Panthers have played the Seahawks close at home on three separate, recent occasions. This game is in Seattle, where the Seahawks are 7-1, and the Panthers are a fairly young team that hasn't been in a playoff environment like that which they will see on Saturday evening. The Panthers can win this game. They will not and I don't expect it to be close. The better team wins.
Seattle Seahawks (-11.0) over the Carolina Panthers 34-13
Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers
The Cowboys are 8-0 on the road and the Packers are 8-0 at home. I'm not sure if you have heard about this or not. Probably not. I don't care what anyone else says or writes, this game is going to be a lot of how Romo is judged for the next year. I know Peter King and others have written the home victory changes the narrative, but I don't believe that. I don't believe a road victory over the Packers will change the narrative on Romo permanently either, but it certainly would change it for the next year. Dallas has been very, very good this year. They have beaten the Colts and won at Seattle, as well as won seven of their last eight games. Meanwhile, the Packers only have been impressive, instead of really impressive, since beating the Patriots at Lambeau Field.
Much like it has been all season, how DeMarco Murray runs the football will be key to the Cowboys hopes to win this game. The Cowboys are 2nd to the Seahawks in rushing yards on the season and the Packers are 23rd in the NFL in rush defense. The Cowboys are going to be able to run the football on the Packers and the Packers have to stop the Cowboys from running the football in order to put pressure on Tony Romo. The best way the Packers can put pressure on Romo and stop him from relying on Murray is to score quickly and do pretty much what the Lions did last week, except keep scoring and keep putting pressure on the Cowboys to throw the ball and not run it. The Lions had the right idea, they just didn't execute it in the fourth quarter. In the same situation, the Packers probably wouldn't make the same mistake.
The Packers have become a pretty good running team with Eddie Lacy. Considering they won a Super Bowl as one of the worst rushing teams in the NFL, I can imagine what they could do with the 11th ranked rushing attack. Still, their strength obviously lies in having Aaron Rodgers and the fact he doesn't throw interceptions. He threw five this season, which is an incredibly great number. The Cowboys only had 28 sacks on the season, though they did have three last week against the Lions. Pressuring Rodgers is important and Rodgers has thrown all five of his interceptions on the season in losses. So statistically, if he throws an interception the Packers have lost, and the Cowboys have 18 interceptions on the season with 68 passes defensed (16th in the NFL). I have no idea how to get Rodgers to throw an interception. If I did, I probably wouldn't be writing here.
The Cowboys really escaped with a win last week against the Lions and I am not referring to the officiating. They allowed Romo to be sacked six times by the Lions defense that was 8th in the NFL in sacks. The Packers are 9th in the NFL in sacks, so the protection around Romo will have to be improved. Running the ball will help this, but mostly actually protecting Romo and not allowing unblocked pass rushers to come at him will help more. Romo has only thrown 9 interceptions on the season himself, so he hasn't exactly been a turnover machine. Romo has thrown 5 of his 9 interceptions in Cowboys losses. The Packers can be run on and have been pretty solid in their pass defense, but of course having Dez Bryant matching up with the Packers corners on the outside is a nice advantage to have.
Offensively, the Packers receivers have a clear advantage over the Cowboys secondary. That's true of almost every team the Packers face of course. The Cowboys only have the 26th best pass defense in the NFL and the Packers have the 8th best passing attack. The Lions were able to throw on the Cowboys last week and I have no doubt the Packers will be able to do the same this week. This is true whether Aaron Rodgers' mobility is limited or whatever is really wrong with him. I would factor Rodgers' injury in more, but he's being so coy about it I think any guess as to his condition would make me look dumber than I already look.
The Cowboys won their game last week and they have proven they can go on the road and beat good teams all season long. Winning at Lambeau Field shouldn't be too hard for them, especially since Aaron Rodgers is only 2-2 at home during his career, with his two wins being against a 8-9 Seahawks team and a Vikings team quarterbacked by Joe Webb. It's a scary place, but Romo and the Cowboys can win there. I don't know how injured Rodgers is, but I do think the Packers are going to do their best to get ahead early and stop the Cowboys from being able to control the clock and keep Rodgers on the sidelines. What I mean is they will have an aggressive game plan designed to take advantage of the Cowboys secondary and get the ball out of Rodgers hands quickly into the hands of Cobb, Nelson and whichever third receiver steps on Sunday. It's a tough pick because I can see the Cowboys winning, but I think the Packers will get pressure on Romo and complete the job the Lions failed to complete last week.
Green Bay Packers (-5.5) over the Dallas Cowboys 27-20
Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos
My pick for the Super Bowl prior to the season was Denver and New Orleans. That's a fucked prediction at this point. Because no one wants me to do this, I'll cover my preseason predictions in the AFC/NFC Championship Game predictions next week. I have to hold myself to a standard when I make fun of the predictions of others like Gregg Easterbrook. Statistically the Broncos really haven't been worse during the second half of the season as compared to the first. I will post more information in a TMQ post on Monday, but they are scoring one less point and giving up two less points during games 9-16 as compared to games 1-8. Yet, it does feel like the Broncos are regressing in some ways on offense. One other narrative I'm not sure you have heard, but did you know Peyton Manning used to be the starting quarterback for the Colts? You may not hear much about this, but Manning signed with the Broncos because the Colts had drafted Andrew Luck.
The Colts are the #1 passing team in the NFL, while the Broncos are the #4 passing team in the NFL. Of course, both teams gain their passing yardage in different ways...or at least it feels that way. Manning is more of a timing-based passer while Luck isn't quite as much. Had it not been for the two interceptions he threw in the first meeting between these two teams, then Luck may already have a win against the Broncos in Denver under his belt. He and the Colts made a furious comeback that faltered during Week 1, but it proved they could compete with the Broncos. The Colts are obviously going to try and get off to a better start then go down 24-0 and they have about the same running game they had during Week 1, so it will be on Luck's shoulders to win this game. The Colts didn't do a great job of getting T.Y. Hilton the ball in the first game, so if the Broncos choose to shadow him with Aqib Talib or Chris Harris (which I doubt, because John Fox has traditionally refused to shadow the other team's best receiver with his best corner and that's just how it is) then the Colts need to be creative in getting him the ball. Otherwise, Luck has a great number of targets in the passing game.
Defensively, there are two very, very obvious things the Colts need to do in order to win this game. Get pressure on Manning and throw his receivers off their timing in the passing game. Making Manning hold the ball longer than he wants and getting pressure in his face is how the Colts can intercept him or force Manning into bad throws. The Colts and the Broncos both had 41 sacks on the season, while the Broncos offensive line only gave up 17 sacks on the season. Manning is very, very non-mobile so moving him off his spot in the pocket is the best way to disrupt the timing of the Broncos offense. As always, easier said than done. Manning knows how to quickly get rid of the football when he feels pressure. The Colts did a good job on Demaryius Thomas in the first game and I'm assuming Vontae Davis will see a lot of Thomas. Covering Julius Thomas is what killed the Colts in the first game, so they will have to do a better job in pass coverage on him.
The Broncos see the tape. They know the Colts don't have much of a running game at all. I asked last week whether the Bengals would simply allow the Colts to run the ball and then try to stop their passing attack. Whatever their strategy was, it didn't work. The Colts had 114 yards rushing for a 4.6 yards per carry average. So the Colts are capable of running the ball better than they did in Week 1, mostly because they have given up on giving Trent Richardson touches, and have gone with Boom Herron and Zurlon Tipton (and his awesome head shot). Still, I don't see them winning this game by running the football. In theory, the Broncos have a good enough secondary to make it hard on the Colts to throw the football, plus this offseason was spent getting guys like Demarcus Ware specifically for this game. To pressure Andrew Luck and force him into making bad decisions, as he has tended to during his first two postseason road games. This game is why T.J. Ward and Demarcus Ware were signed.
Offensively, the Broncos are taking on a Colts defense that is ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of pass and rush defense. The Colts did a pretty good job stopping the Colts from running the football in the Week 1 matchup, but it's business as usual for the Broncos on offense. If Manning sees something pre-snap that leads him to audible to a run or a pass, then he will scream "Omaha" and then audible. Greg Manusky needs to vary the looks the Colts give Manning so he doesn't feel comfortable pre-snap with what he wants to do with the football. A lot of what Manning wants to do is based on timing and diagnosing the defense before the snap even occurs. Quite frankly, the Broncos don't give a shit if they run or pass to win the game. Whatever the defense wants to take away, they will attempt to do the opposite. Manning has thrown 9 of his 15 interceptions in losses this year (which this type of stat I have quoted a few times isn't surprising of course) and ball placement is crucial to the success of the passing game since Manning's arm doesn't have great velocity. Make it hard for Manning to see an open window to throw into and I think he's more likely to not take the chance on the throw.
After all the rambling, I think the Colts win this game. They lost by 7 points in Denver in Week 1 of the season. That was a long time ago, sure, but a lot went wrong and the Colts still managed to almost pull off the comeback. I think the Colts are currently a better team than the Broncos. I think the Broncos are going to have some success throwing the football, but the Colts are going to make sure the Broncos settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. Andrew Luck is going to play incredibly well and start a "Is he a Top 3 quarterback right now?" discussion. Call it a weird vibe I get, call it whatever, but I see the Colts disrupting Peyton's timing and the Colts offense is going to score 30+ points.
Indianapolis Colts (+7.0) over the Denver Broncos 34-24