Friday, January 11, 2013

Division Playoffs: We've Seen This Before...

It's the Division Round of the Playoffs...It's Like Deja Vu

It's the divisional playoff round this weekend in the NFL, and three of the four matchups are repeat matchups from the regular season.  What does it mean, exactly?  Not much.  Even teams that beat their playoff opponent by 28+ points in their regular season meeting are only 11-11 in the playoffs.  That means the mighty Patriots, my superbowl pick, only have a 50/50 chance of winning against the Texans, who they embarrassed 42-14 in week 14.  Even though we've seen 75% of these matchups before (Houston/New England, Baltimore/Denver, Green Bay/San Francisco), a reversal of fortunes may be in the cards this weekend: when it really counts.

Denver  Broncos(-9.5) vs. Baltimore Ravens: 1/12/13, 4:30pm ET 
The Broncos are really good, but not 9.5 point favorites good.  Say what you will about the Ravens, but they play up to superior opponents almost as well as they play down to inferior opponents.  By no means do I believe that the Ravens will win.  In fact, it would not surprise me if they lose by 20+ points, but my instinct tells me the Ravens will find a way to keep the game close to a one touchdown game.  If Baltimore finally realizes that they have the great neutralizer in Ray Rice (and Bernard Pierce, too) and his ability to sustain drives and keep Peyton Manning off the field...they even have a chance of keeping this to a field goal game.  Ultimately, though, Peyton Manning does not need a lot of time to torch what will be a physically and emotionally spent defense after last week's emotional win in Ray Lewis' final home game.  This is the last dance for Ray Lewis, and the Ravens season, but they make it respectable.  Broncos 30, Ravens 24

San Francisco 49ers (-3) vs. Green Bay Packers: 1/12/13, 8:30pm ET
The first time these two teams met, it was September.  A lot has changed.  This is, by far, the most difficult matchup to predict.  How much will the Justin Smith's torn triceps injury, that he will attempt to play through, hurt San Francisco's defense?  Justin Smith is arguably the most important person on the San Francisco defense.  He is an absolute monster in terms of his tenacity shown getting to the football, whether it be in the run game or in pass rush.  If Justin Smith doesn't get double teamed virtually every play, he will hurt you.  This is why Aldon Smith had a chance of taking down Michael Strahan's sack record.  Make no mistake, Justin Smith playing with one arm will affect San Francisco's effectiveness.  The question is: how much?  If the rest of the San Francisco defense can pick up the slack left by Justin Smith's one arm, then the game will rest on the turnover battle.  Speaking of which, one of the major changes since these two teams last met, is Colin Kaepernick.  If he shows the form he showed against New England's "bend but don't break" defense, then he will break Green Bay's defense like Dolf Lundgren in Rocky 4.  The key here is not turning the ball over and winning the field position battle.  It's old school, but it is what San Francisco has to do.  What makes the Niners great is that they beat you with their formations and their run schemes.  They put your defense in bad positions before the ball is even snapped.  Green Bay did contain Adrian Peterson last week, but Joe Webb was outmached at QB.  Colin Kaepernick won't be.  He's the X factor San Francisco has needed to advance to the superbowl, and it begins here: 49ers 27, Packers 23.

Atlanta Falcons (-2) vs. Seattle Seahawks: 1/13/13, 1:00pm ET
Every reasonable bone in my body says take Atlanta.  They're at home, where they perform significantly better.  It's only two points.  Two measly points.  They're on a bye, at home, and they're only giving two points.  However, I am not going to be reasonable.  Yes, I know that Seattle lost its double-digit sack leader in Chris Clemons.  But he was never going to be the real difference maker.  What sets Seattle apart are their elite, big cover corners who will be charged with blanketing Atlanta Wide Receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White.  While they may not completely shut them down, they will limit their effectiveness.  There will not be large chunk plays hit against this defense because the two primary deep threats will be covered by corners that are both 6'3+.  Throw in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas at the safety positions, and you have yourself the BEST defensive backfield going right now.  Bobby Wagner has been a revelation at linebacker and will have the responsibility of handling hall of fame tight end Tony Gonzalez (who has NEVER won a playoff game).  Another threat neutralized by the athleticism of the Seattle defense.  The only way that Atlanta wins this game is if it is able to do something no other team has done against Seattle: run the football successfully.  I don't think Michael Turner is the best running back on the Falcons, anymore.  Jacquizz Rodgers has passed him by, and the Falcons don't really know it.  Rodgers is the only player I can see giving the Seattle defense a tough time with his ability to both run and catch the football.  However, I don't think that happens.  I do see, however, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch running all over what is the softest defense left in the playoffs.  Atlanta's D is susceptible to power running, and the Seahawks can certainly do that.  Russell Wilson will also have a field day when he escapes the pocket.  Atlanta's cover 2 will break down once he breaks contain, and he will.  I really want to play it safe and take the home team coming off a bye only needing to win by a field goal, but I think Seattle is that good.  Seahawks 26, Falcons 13

New England Patriots (-9) vs. Houston Texans: 1/13/13, 4:30pm ET
Remember that stat from earlier where teams are 11-11 in the playoffs after beating the same team by 28 points in the regular season?  It's going to 12-11, and it won't be close.  Andy Dalton missed a plethora of throws last week, even a wide open touchdown pass to AJ Green.  Tom Brady won't.  I still cannot find an NFL player capable of covering Rob Gronkowski, and the Texans will provide very little resistance to Gronk one-on-one, which means there will be plenty of room for Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, and Aaron Hernandez to exploit, and they will (or Gronk still might).  The only way Houston has a chance of keeping it close is if Arian Foster goes absolutely crazy and runs all over New England, which he won't.  Bill Belichek always takes away what you're best at, and forces you to beat him with your #2,3,4,etc. options, and the Texans simply can't do that.  Matt Schaub will have to show us something he has not been able to his entire career: that he's a fearless gunslinger to any open target. Outside of Foster and Andre Johnson, there is not one threat that scares me (sorry Owen Daniels).  New England's D will find ways to turn Houston over (I expect at least two Schaub INTs) and hand Tom Brady at least seven points.  And He doesn't need help.  This one should be the biggest snoozer of the weekend.  Patriots 40, Texans 21

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