With round one of the 2013 NFL playoffs done, we can look ahead to what is often an excellent slate of football games in the Divisional round. Last week’s games were a bit lackluster: the Texans managed to not play as poorly as the Bengals, the Vikings lost Ponder before the game and didn’t have a shot from there, the Ravens dominated the line of scrimmage and knocked around Luck, and we had an exiting game brewing between Seattle and Washington until RG3 blew out his knee (which turned out to easily be the most discussed moment of the weekend). In my opinion RG3 should have been pulled from that game well before he went down because his knee was clearly impacting his play and he was becoming ineffective in both running and throwing because of it. If RG3 was playing well despite the injury, I can see keeping him in there but when he isn’t playing well and is hobbled, you have to sit him.
I was 4-0 on my round one predictions but just 1-3 against the spread. I did manage to guess all of the winning teams’ point totals within 3, so apparently I need to work harder at predicting how poorly losing teams will do.
Baltimore Ravens vs Denver Broncos
Current line: Broncos -9
These teams met just four weeks ago and the Broncos walked away with a 34-17 victory in a game that was closer than the final score indicated. This game arguably has the two biggest player specific storylines of the playoffs: Peyton Manning’s comeback from neck surgeries and the final season of Ray Lewis. Despite the win last week, Baltimore didn’t look great, particularly Ray Rice who coughed up the ball twice. Denver has had an extra week off and while that’s normally an advantage for teams, Peyton is actually just 1-3 in divisional round when coming off a first round bye.
Keys to the game
For Baltimore: Protect the ball and create turnovers. Baltimore finished the year +9 in the turnover category and Denver finished -1. To state the obvious, one way to slow down a high powered offense is to limit their possessions. If Baltimore can hang on to the ball and force a few turnovers they can keep Manning on the sidelines and lean on their strong run game to grind it out against Denver.
For Denver: Get an early lead. If Denver can establish a lead early and force the Ravens to play catch up it helps to take Ray Rice out of the game and forces Flacco to drop back more than usual. Denver leads the NFL in sacks this year with 52 and Flacco has been sacked 35 times (tied for 8th most in the league). That combination could be huge for denver.
Prediction: Denver wins, 24-17
Green Bay Packers vs San Francisco 49ers
Current line: 49ers -3
These two teams met way back in week 1 and the 49ers won that game 30-22. A contrast of styles will be featured as the 49ers rely heavily on the run and on strong defense while the Packers spread things out and let Aaron Rodgers air it out and put up points. A subplot that has gained steam this week has been Rodgers grudge against the 49ers he’s had since draft day. The Packers wide receivers are finally healthy and the Packer offense versus the 49ers defense should be a great matchup.
Keys to the game
For Green Bay: Make Colin Kaepernick beat you. Colin has played well since being given the starting role for the 49ers, but he has never thrown a pass in a playoff game and his only two losses this year came in games where he had to throw more than 30 times. If the Packers can manage to slow the 49ers run game or make them play catch-up, it becomes a tall order for the young QB in his first playoff game.
For San Francisco: Cut off the short passing routes. If Rodgers has time, he’s as dangerous of a QB as there is in the game. Time, however, has not been something he’s had a lot of this year as he has been sacked a league leading 51 times this season. Green Bay throws a lot of short routes to help combat the pass rush and if the 49ers can jam and disrupt these routes it will give their pass rushers extra time to work their way through the porous Green Bay pass protection.
Prediction: Green Bay wins 27-24
Seattle Seahawks vs Atlanta Falcons
Current line: Atlanta -2.5
Atlanta had the best record in the NFC this year and is coming off the bye to face the Seahawks who had a round one win versus the Washington Redskins. Despite their record, there are a lot of doubts surrounding the Falcons based on their recent history of playoff performances. Matt Ryan is yet to win a playoff game and will have to throw against one of the best secondaries in the game. Seattle is a run heavy team but rookie QB Russell Wilson showed last week that he can move the ball through the air when needed as well. The Falcons rely on the arm of Ryan and a talented duo of receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Keys to the game
For Seattle: Lots of Lynch. There’s no better way to take the crowd out of a game and take pressure off of your (rookie) QB than to establish a run game. Lynch should be able to so against an Atlanta run defense that was ranked 21st in the league this year. Going to Lynch early and often will open up play action as well as bootleg running opportunities for Wilson.
For Atlanta: Stick to the script. It’s tempting for teams to try to out-think and and out-adjust the opponent, but getting to far away from what you used to get to the playoffs in the first place can end up doing more harm than good. Atlanta had 3 receivers finish in the top 20 in receptions and the WR duo along with Gonzalez is tough to match up with even for the best defensive units.
Prediction: Seattle wins 27-17
Houston Texans vs New England Patriots
Current line: New England -9.5
These teams met in week 14 and the Patriots dominated that matchup 42-14. Houston, outside of Arian Foster, didn’t look too impressive against the Bengals last week and one would have to assume that if their performance isn’t much better this week that -9.5 line will seem low. New England led the league in points per game this season while the Texans put up the 8th most points per game but have a stronger defense than the Patriots, anchored by the Mutombo ball swatting like J.J. Watt.
Keys to the game
For Houston: Capitalize in the red zone. Last week the Texans had to settle for field goals three different times after getting the ball within 10 yards of the end zone. That won’t work against the high scoring Patriots. The Texans have one of the best running games in the league and two big targets (Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels) to lean on in the red zone against against a sub-par Patriots secondary.
For New England: Lock up Andre Johnson. While stopping Arian Foster is an obvious key, if the Patriots can get a lead and make Houston pass the ball there is a big drop off in receiver talent after Andre Johnson. Kevin Walter is the next closest receiver in terms of receptions, and Johnson has almost triple the receptions. If the Patriots can force Schuab away from his favorite target, the Patriots defense should be able to keep the Texans offense in check.
Prediction: New England wins big, 34-17