The buzz word for this week’s Divisional Round games is rematch. Only the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons are facing each other for the first time this year. The other three games between the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots and Houston Texans, and Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers are between opponents with plenty of game footage to dissect from their prior meeting. So naturally, the games should be simple to preview and pick…right? Wrong. As most football fans know, a result during the regular season has no direct connection to the playoffs. Call it complacence, over-confidence, or heightened preparation on the part of the opposition, there are many examples of regular season winners coming out flat footed in the rematch. With that in mind, let us proceed.
A Look Back
Before we begin, there are a couple of loose ends to tie up from last weekend in the Wild-Card Round and the implications of the results for this weekend and beyond.
The first game, between the Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals, went much like I said it would in the preview. Cincinnati’s offense came out flatfooted and in the first quarter only mustered 19 yards of total offense. Houston’s defense came out firing and limited Andy Dalton to a beyond anemic -17 yards during that same quarter. You are not reading that number wrong. Negative 17 yards. Watching the game, I could not figure out if that was due to incompetence on the part of Dalton or due to the superb defensive effort put forward by Houston, especially J.J. Watt. Sorry Texans’ fans, I’m going to have to go with offensive incompetence. Dalton simply was not making good reads or throws and Houston benefited greatly. In fact, the biggest defensive play of the first half was Cincinnati’s cornerback Leon Hall’s interception return for a touchdown.
Houston’s offense was frankly just as incompetent against a weaker defense. At the end of the first half, they had yet to score a touchdown. In fact, at halftime, it seemed as though, if Dalton could get his act together, Cincinnati had a really good shot at winning the game. In the end, this falls on Matt Schaub’s shoulders. He needs to play much better this weekend against the Patriots or they will lose.
The second game, between the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, went much like I said it would too. The Packers got some offensive momentum and ran away with the game. I was given an assist when Joe Webb was forced to start at quarterback for the Vikings instead of Christian Ponder. I don’t think Ponder would have helped the Vikings much but starting a quarterback who had only thrown passes in practice all season long is not a plus. In the beginning, it looked as if it might turn out alright for the Vikings when Webb ran for 17 yards and a first down on the opening drive. However, he could not muster any magic through the air the entire night and did not do much more with his feet either. In the end, Aaron Rodgers didn’t need to play like an MVP but he did anyway and the Packers earned a date with San Francisco this weekend.
The game between the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens didn’t go anything like I said it would in my preview. In my defense, Ray Lewis announced his retirement after I wrote that section of the article and made the pick and, if events unfolded differently, I probably would have picked the Ravens. However, I will own up to my mistake and admit that I was proven wrong. So, where did I go wrong? Well, to start, the Ravens’ defense turned in one of its greatest performances this season. They managed to keep the Colts out of the end-zone and consistently had Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck scrambling and hurrying. Lewis turned out to be the spark they desperately needed. Their offense was still sub-par, however. Going into Denver they need to cut down on their turnovers (two Ray Rice fumbles) and, although they did fine in the passing game, Joe Flacco is not going to have the time nor be able to make the same throws against the Broncos’ defense.
Finally, the game between the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins was probably the most exciting game of the entire weekend. On the opening drive, Redskins’ quarterback Robert Griffin III constructed a masterful 80 yard drive for a touchdown. Then, again, on the second drive he led them on a beautiful 54 yard drive for another touchdown. So after the first quarter, the score was Redskins 14 and Seahawks 0. It looked like the Redskins were going to run away with the game. Seattle’s offense was listless and their celebrated defense seemed to have no answers. But, after those two amazing opening drives, Washington couldn’t muster any more points or a drive that went for more than 24 yards. Meanwhile, Seattle began chipping away at the Redskins’ lead and finally pulled away in the 4th quarter. Many people will point to RGIII’s knee injury that he further aggravated during the game. However, I don’t think it would have made that much of a difference. Sure the Redskins had pummeled the Seahawks’ defense on their first two drives. After that, the Seahawks shut them down just like they have been doing to teams all season. Reports say that RGIII tore both his LCL and ACL in the game which will hopefully not derail his promising career.
All in all, I went 3-1 with my picks last week, only guessing wrong on the result for the game between the Colts and Ravens. Not bad for a rookie. Also, my bracket did not get completely busted as the only match-up I didn’t predict for this round was the Ravens vs. the Broncos.
The first game this weekend, between the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens, is also likely to be the least interesting one. Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning has been on a tear recently. Granted, in recent weeks, the Broncos have faced pushovers like Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns, and Oakland Raiders. However, the fact remains that they are on an 11 game winning streak. During that winning streak, they also beat these very same Ravens. In fact, that game was played a mere three weeks ago which means that the result is fresh in the mind of both the Broncos and the Ravens. This was more than a defeat for the Ravens. It was a demoralizing beat down. This wasn’t even Manning’s best game and they still won 34-17. The score makes that game seem a lot closer than it was. After three quarters the score was 31-3. The Ravens’ couldn’t get anything going in the running game so the burden fell completely on Flacco’s shoulders. This time with home-field advantage for the Broncos, I don’t like the Ravens’ chances. Prediction: Broncos 28 – Ravens 10.
Good news is that after that snoozer, we will be treated to a potentially great game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers. In Week 1, these two teams met and the 49ers bettered the Packers in Lambeau Field 30-22. This current matchup is compelling for two reasons. Number one, we have two teams that have momentum. The 49ers come in to this game after going 5-2-1 over the last two months of the season, including a signature win over the New England Patriots in Foxborough. Their sophomore quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, has provided a spark to the offense that was not present with Alex Smith in as quarterback. He has more big play potential and, as long as he limits the turnovers, he is much more dynamic. The defense is still the juggernaut it was last year, although it has been inconsistent over the last couple weeks of the season. Michael Crabtree has been their leading receiver and the addition of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham has helped divert attention away from him. However, Manningham will be inactive this weekend, so tight end Vernon Davis is going to have to pick up more of the load than he has this year.
Green Bay is fresh off their dominating performance against Minnesota and, as a result, comes in with a lot of positive momentum. Their record over the last two months of the season is 6-2, very close to the 49ers record over that time. However, that’s where the similarities between these two clubs end. San Francisco’s success is determined by their defense. Green Bay’s success falls squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. If he has an off game, there is no running game to bail him out. With a revitalized 49ers’ offensive attack that averages 24.8 points a game, the Packers’ defense might not be able to help. However, Green Bay effectively shut down Adrian Peterson last week, so stopping 49ers’ running back Frank Gore shouldn’t be too tall an order. That being said, if this turns out to be a defensive struggle, the 49ers will win. Ultimately, I believe in Rodgers and I believe in the Packers. I picked them to make the Super Bowl and I stand by that pick. In the end, the Packers team that lost in Week 1 is a shell of the team that is playing now. The Green Bay offense is clicking on all cylinders and the 49ers are likely rusty following their first round bye. Prediction: Packers 31 – 49ers 27.
Sunday brings about another interesting match-up between two teams that have completely different identities: the Seattle Seahawks vs. the Atlanta Falcons. The Seahawks are coming off a difficult game against the Redskins and they didn’t emerge unscathed. Their defense lost a huge pass rushing and run stopping threat in Chris Clemons. However, Seattle’s defense is stacked so they should get over that fairly quickly. One thing they need to avoid this week in order to be successful is a slow start on defense like they had last week against the Redskins. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is quickly establishing himself as one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL and he will burn Seattle if they come out flatfooted again. Furthermore, Russell Wilson has to continue playing like he did last week. He is not going to burn Atlanta passing or running the ball individually. He has to maintain the unpredictability that comes with being a dual threat. The read-option attack that he does better than almost anyone in the league needs to be in tip-top shape for this game.
The Atlanta Falcons remind me of the Houston Texans (more on them later). They started off incredibly hot but cooled off significantly at the end of the season. However, their fall from grace hasn’t been nearly as pronounced as the Texans’ fall. A lot of this can be attributed to the fact that, during their hot streak, Atlanta won many close games. So, nobody saw them on quite the same level as the Texans. Even in the last stretch of the season, they still managed to eke out close games, although they did lose a couple to suspect teams (New Orleans, Carolina, and Tampa Bay). When I look at this team, I get the feeling that I am looking at a much better version of the Tim Tebow-led Broncos from last year. A team that makes a lot of mistakes but seems to come through at the end of games. That being said, Matt Ryan has been nothing short of spectacular this year and any team led by him has a chance in any game. However, I think their streak of good luck comes to an end this weekend. Seattle should squeeze out the win at the end of this game and the Falcons will go into another off-season wondering what they have to do to win a playoff game. Prediction: Seahawks 21 – Falcons 14.
The final game this weekend is between the Houston Texans and the New England Patriots. These teams met on December 10th and the result was not expected. The entire week prior to the game, the match-up was being hyped up in the press. The Patriots had been the flag bearer for the AFC for the previous decade. The Texans were a young franchise who looked to unseat them. At the time, the Texans were the #1 seed in the AFC and, although they had come off of a couple sub-par performances against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions, they were still the undisputed top team in the AFC. Then, the Patriots embarrassed them on national television. The final score was 42-14. The Patriots may as well have won 100-0 because to the Texans and their fans it certainly felt like they lost that badly. Ever since that loss, the Texans have not been the same team. They were demolished at home in their game against the Vikings in Week 16. Last week against the Bengals, they couldn’t get anything going in the passing game. Defensively, they are still good but not the dominating group we once thought they were. Bottom line is that defensive end J.J. Watt needs to be more disruptive in the passing game. In the December match-up, he didn’t live up to his nickname “JJ Swatt” which he earned due to his ability to bat down passes at the line of scrimmage. In fact, he didn’t have a single pass defense in that game. So he needs to step up and carry this defense.
On the Patriots side, there is plenty of reason for optimism. Their quarterback, Tom Brady, is still playing at MVP level. Heading into Week 15, he had the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the NFL. He dropped off slightly in the final weeks of the season but should be ready to step up for the playoffs. The entire offensive attack will receive a shot in the arm from the return of Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski from a broken arm. He actually returned during the season finale against the Miami Dolphins but was, by most descriptions, a shell of his former self. He was favoring that arm for most of game and had to wear a bulky cast. The bye week that the team earned should do wonders for his confidence and I expect him to be at full strength for this game. The match-up problems he creates for defenses cannot be understated. The Patriots’ defense has been criticized all year for sloppy pass protection. They did construct a viable pass rush in the off-season with the addition of rookie defensive end Chandler Jones and the improvement of another defensive end, Rob Ninkovich. The secondary has been suspect all year, however. The acquisition of cornerback Aquib Talib provided the defense with a spark that had not been present all year. He could be suffering from a hip injury this weekend, so that is a situation to monitor.
All in all, this game has the makings of another blowout. The Texans have more question marks surrounding them than the Riddler and the Patriots should be well rested and focused after their bye week. That is exactly why I’m predicting that this game go down to the wire. As a fan of the Patriots, their loss in the Divisional Round two years ago against the Jets is still fresh in my mind. The Patriots pounded the Jets in the regular season that year much worse than they pounded the Texans this year and then lost fairly decisively to those same Jets in the playoffs. However, I think this game turns out differently but will be a greater struggle than most think. I predict a 4th quarter game winning drive by Tom Brady after a defensive struggle. Prediction: Patriots 24 – Texans 20.
Just so you realize what it is exactly that you just read, I am predicting a Brady-Manning showdown in the AFC Championship game and a Packers-Seahawks rematch in the NFC Championship game. Who predicted that at the beginning of the year? On the one hand, we could possibly have another chapter in the historic rivalry between Brady and Manning and what could be the last time these two meet in the playoffs. On the other hand, we have a rematch of the Week 3 game in which a controversial call on a game winning touchdown effectively ended the train wreck that was the replacement referees. Out of all the story lines, I believe this combination is definitely the best. However, in the NFL nothing is certain so stay glued to the TV this weekend! Check back next week for a recap of the Divisional Round and my analysis of the Conference Championship Round!
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