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Patrick Willis and the San Francisco defense are an intimidating group that’s known for laying bone-crushing hits on their opponents. Will Willis and gang get the best of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers prolific passing game?
AFC/NFC Divisional Playoff Round
Saturday, January 12
AFC Divisional Playoff 4:30 PM ET – TV: CBS
Baltimore Ravens (4) 11-6 @ Denver Broncos (1) 13-3
When both NFL teams played each other on Dec. 16, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice only gained 38-yards on 13-carries and only had 3-catches for 3-yards. Those numbers need an extreme boost this time around if the Ravens are going to pull off the upset on the road to advance to the conference championship. You’d think Peyton Manning had over 300-yards passing and a few touchdown passes in game the Broncos won 34-17, but that wasn’t the case. Manning only had 1-touchdown pass and 204-yards passing. Knowshon Moreno did most of the damage on the ground rushing for 115-yards on 21-carries, averaging 5.5-yards per carry. So not only does Ray Rice need to be extremely effective, the defense needs to do a much better job at stopping the run and provide pressure on Manning. Although receiver Eric Decker was the bright star for the Broncos passing game in their win over Baltimore during the regular season, Demaryius Thomas still remains Peyton Manning’s most dangerous target to exploit defenses with. Ravens safety Ed Reed will play a vital role on covering the deep pass, but it is very difficult defending an offense that has five players that caught more than 40-balls this season. Look for Peyton Manning to work the Ravens defense with favorable matchups with his tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen against Baltimore’s linebackers that will force the Ravens defense to bring extra help in coverage that could have the safety cheat. That factor, along with an effective running game should open up the deep pass for Manning to take advantage of a suspect Ravens secondary. A message for Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees: You better manufacture ways to get after Peyton. If you can’t do this, it’ll be a long, long day for your defense. Pick: Broncos 34, Ravens 24.
NFC Divisional Playoff 8:00 PM ET – TV: FOX
Green Bay Packers (3) 12-5 @ San Francisco 49ers (2) 11-4-1
We get another matchup to end the night with two teams that played each other during the regular season. The 49ers defense is dynamite at stopping the run, getting after the quarterback and creating turnovers. In their meeting in the season opener, the Packers ran for a slim 45-yards and I don’t expect anything better this time around. Green Bay’s offense is based on the pass, a passing game that is arguably the best in the game behind quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ arm. The key for Green Bay’s offense will be finding a way to formulate favorable one-on-one matchups. 49ers linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are mostly known for stuffing the run, but are also great in covering tight ends and running backs coming out of the backfield to catch. The backend of the 49ers defense also sports lots of speed with Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. All four of them are solid in pass coverage and opportunistic always going for the strip and interception. Rodgers is going to have to buy himself time in the pocket by eluding the rush from the Smith brothers, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, two bull-dogs at the line of scrimmage. Improvising throws is a must from Rodgers for the Packers offense to make any noise against a nasty 49ers defense. And although the 49ers will have a different quarterback throwing the football than they had in the season opener with Colin Kaepernick under center, I don’t expect them to change things up offensively much. They’ll continue to feed the rock to bruising running back Frank Gore setting up third and shorts, giving Kaepernick high-percentage passing downs. This time Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers will find a way to turn his best defensive weapon Clay Matthews loose, but he’ll find out getting after a mobile quarterback will be much more difficult than trying to get after the non-mobile Alex Smith. Pick: 49ers 31, Packers 20.
Sunday, January 13
NFC Divisional Playoff 1:00 PM ET – TV: FOX
Seattle Seahawks (5) 12-5 @ Atlanta Falcons (1) 13-3
I look for weaknesses when looking into these matchups. The weakness that stands out most to me is Falcons running back Michael Turner that hasn’t done much for the running game as of late. Having said that, the Falcons offense still possesses one of the better efficient groups at moving the chains on third down because of getting positive yardage on early downs. Receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez are a headache for any defense to prepare for because of their ability to stretch the field for quarterback Matt Ryan to connect with. Seattle’s secondary is immaculate and perhaps the best in the business that features Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Seattle’s defense is also solid at stopping the run and tackling, not letting offenses gain lots of yards on the ground or after the catch. They force the opposition to move the football methodically eliminating big plays. Atlanta’s big plays come from the passing game, but they’ll need Michael Turner to be the bruising back that he used to be to work Seattle’s ball-hawking defense. Seattle’s defense is without a doubt the strength of their team, but the offense got better down the stretch, particularly in the passing game. Marshawn Lynch continues to gash defenses behind a physical offensive line that run-blocks at a high level and gives rookie quarterback Russell Wilson enough time in the pocket to find an open receiver downfield or use his feet with his mobile ability to escape the rush. Atlanta’s defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s defense is a solid unit as well at stopping the run and in pass-coverage. They key for his defense is limiting Marshawn Lynch on the ground from making big plays and keeping Russell Wilson in the pocket, limiting him from escaping the pocket making big plays with his feet. Atlanta’s defensive end John Abraham (ankle) needs to come ready to play and harass Wilson, but I wonder how effective he’ll be with an ankle that limited him in practice this week. Abraham is questionable, but I expect him to play. I don’t think he’ll be super-charged enough to slow down the elusive Wilson and I like Seattle’s running game to continue its “Beast-Mode” ways. Pick: Seahawks 21, Falcons 17.
AFC Divisional Playoff 4:30 PM ET – TV: CBS
Houston Texans (3) 13-4 @ New England Patriots (2) 12-4
In Houston’s blowout loss to New England on Dec. 10, running back Arian Foster only rushed for 46-yards on 15-carries. That won’t get it done for Foster’s squad to pull off the upset. It’s no secret that you have to keep Brady and the Patriots high-powered offense off the field as much as you can by establishing an effective running game controlling the tempo. In last week’s wild-card playoff win over Cincinnati, Foster had 40-touches, 32-carries for 140-yards and 8-catches for 34-yards. Texans coach Gary Kubiak knows Foster needs to get another heavy workload to establish an effective running game to keep quarterback Matt Schaub out of long down and distance situations. The Patriots kept Schaub under duress in their meeting in week 14. Schaub was never comfortable in the pocket and was hurried 24-times although he was only sacked twice. As a defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips has always found ways to get after the quarterback, but his coverage schemes have been exploited when going up against talented passing offenses. Texans defensive end J.J Watt needs to be buzzing in Brady’s ear throughout the game. If Watt doesn’t get to Brady early on, Phillips will need to manufacture pressure on Brady by blitzing, but New England’s offensive line is one of the best at picking up the blitz, mainly from Brady recognizing them at the line of scrimmage. If Brady knows what you’re in before the snap, you’re dead-meat. You have to be able as a coordinator to formulate a game plan that uses disguised blitz packages to keep Brady thinking for most of the game, and I don’t like Phillips will work his magic against New England’s prolific passing attack. So much needs to go Houston’s way and I think things don’t go their way as they’ll lose the turnover battle once again. This team, I feel, burned their bridges when they lost out on having a first round bye. Pick: Patriots 38, Texans 24.