Seattle vs. Atlanta:
RG3 wasn’t the only one to suffer a serious knee injury in last week's tilt between Washington and Seattle. Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons also tore his ACL and is out for the playoffs. This is a huge blow. Gargantuan actually, since he’s the ‘Hawks best pass rusher. Its’ their secondary that gets the lion share of praise – as it should be for such a elite group of players – but the guys who play up front for Seattle are a talented and physical group in their own right. Guys like Bobby Wagner, Alan Branch and Brandon Mebane stuff the run, disrupt short passes and generally bring a very specific brand of aggressiveness.
But Clemons is the guy who forces opposing QBs to throw passes before they’re ready or else get eaten up by his bullrush. With him out, that will allow opposing quarterbacks time to find the short hot-read or the deep ball. A scary proposition for a defense getting ready to play an Atlanta Falcons team hell-bent on justifying themselves to a NFL fan base that swears their whole style is sospechoso. Falcons QB Matt Ryan has to be secretly smiling at the idea of a consistently clean pocket. Same for Falcons WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones, not to mention Tony Gonzalez, whose ability to get open in the red zone is one of the biggest keys to the game. That said, the Seahawks secondary is the best in the league – bar none – and the ability of corners Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman to shut guys down and the everywhere-he-needs-to-be play of safety Earl Thomas gives them a shot against anyone.
Atlanta's potential scoring uptick means the Seahawks difference makers on offense (Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Russell “King” Okung and WR Sidney Rice) have to take on more of a scoring burden. Harder to do in the playoffs, but certainly not impossible for a team that averaged 25.8 points a game in the regular season and damn near dropped a 60 spot on another professional franchise just a few weeks ago. This is the hardest game to call, but I’m going with Atlanta in a high scoring affair.
Denver vs. Baltimore:
Peyton Manning has played against the Ravens defense 11 times in his career and is sporting a handsome 9-2 record. So the script is already written. This is sorta like the fourth sequel to a movie where some of the main stars start dropping off, but they keep making them anyway. Instead of Manning throwing to Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison, he has to find ways to get the rock to Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker if he wants to put heavy points on the board. He’ll be able to do just that, since this isn’t the lockdown Baltimore defense we’ve grown conditioned to seeing. Last week, they let a young and inexperienced Colts team hang with them for way too long, and complete a couple of long drives before the Ravens O put the game away.
Yep, Baltimore’s offense actually has to show up. In this era, they have the capability to inflict damage as long as we get the “good” Joe Flacco (not to mention, save Marshal Yanda, the “good” O-Line) who throws balls away. doesn’t fumble and challenges opposing defenses downfield. This is probably the best offense this franchise has ever had. Ray Rice’s exploits are well known, and coming off a game where he spit the ball up twice, he’ll look to re-establish his name. Speed wide-out Torrey Smith is nice, and entering the phase of a player's career when they start to realize that they are special. B-More's other WR, Anquan Boldin, just came off a career game and looks to be back in his Arizona Cardinals form from a few years ago.
Here’s the thing, the Broncos have the better O (not surprising) and the better D (I bet that surprised some of you) and it’s not that close. As great as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs are, the Broncos have just as many stars. Von Miller is the best defensive player in the game right now and Elvis Dumervil and the fountain of youth bottle poppin’ Champ Bailey are tremendous players in their own right. And they’re at home? Bronco’s got ‘em in a close one.
Green Bay vs. San Francisco:
Now we find out if risking everything on a QB with no playoff experience, will make a difference in whether San Francisco makes a Super Bowl run. Of course, last year they had a no-experience having QB at the helm of a team returning to the postseason for the first time in nine years, and they made it to the NFC Championship Game. So, obviously, it’s not impossible. Niners playcaller Colin Kaepernick has mostly played well – nobody’s saying he’s the new Steve Young, but he certainly hasn’t stunk up the joint – and his athleticism in the open field give the Niners O an extra appendage in which to work with. But it’s the offensive line that fuels this offense. Mike Iupati and Joe Staley are studs and when Frank Gore is blasting through the line and running up into the secondary with quickness it’s because of them. They push people around and pass block with intelligence and ability. You gotta put OT in the film room in order to come up with a game plan to trick them. The issue is, are the Niners receivers good enough? WR Michael Crabtree went up a notch about a month ago and is playing the best ball of his pro life. Will it be enough against the Packers offense?
That depends a lot on Niners DE Justin Smith’s health. Dude is sometimes simply unstoppable, and you can’t replace a guy like that. He tore his triceps less than a month ago and won’t be at full power. Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman have to have big days. As well as at least one of the San Fran corners. Otherwise, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are gonna go video game on this Niners secondary, and that’s not even counting Greg Jennings, who’s always good for about three or four dope plays a game. Remember, Aaron Rodgers is still the best player (not just QB, PLAYER) in the game and that matters in tight match-ups. Is there anyone with a ceiling on SF equivalent to Rodgers? No, there isn’t. the Packers offense will be able to move the ball on the Niners D. And I like the matchup of the Packers secondary– the immortal Charles Woodson and the occasionally great /sometimes just good enough Tramon Williams– against San Fran's ball catchers. If you can take away Vernon Davis, where exactly is Kaepernick going? I like Green Bay to blow it open in the second half.
New England vs. Houston:
It’s hard to bet against the Patriots. I can sit here all day and write whatever I want about New England, but I wouldn’t put up any money against them. That’s a fools game. Most I’d bet is one of those refrigerator magnets; I can always get another one from the bank. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are legends (stop hating and begrudgingly admit it) and the reflex response is to think that Texans head coach Gary Kubiak is on over his head.
Here’s the thing though–– the blueprint on how to beat New England is well known. If you bring pressure through the front, and don’t allow Brady vision or the ability to step up in the pocket, you can disrupt the passing game. Good thing for the Texans, they actually have ability to create this scenario. Their defensive line, lead by DE J.J Watt, puts QBs under pressure on a daily. It’s the bread and butter that Texans DC Wade Phillips builds his sandwiches with. Houston has enough high-level talent to beat the Patriots, but do they have the hunger and will they make the smart play when it’s needed? I say no. Patriots in a rout.