Saturday, January 12, 2013

2012-2013 NFL Playoff Predictions - Divisional Round

So I went 3-1 last week in the Wild Card round to bring my season total to 147-80-1.  That loss was the Bengals bumbling and stumbling in Houston.  I guess I should have known better than to count on Andy Dalton (14-30, 127 yds, 0 TD, 1 INT).  I’m not sure how exactly you expect to win when you don’t target AJ Green even once in the entire first half.  Mindboggling. 

In a bit of history, this is the first time that a conference has repeated its final four from the previous year.  The AFC did that with Baltimore and Houston moving on to face Denver and New England.  The NFC side of the bracket isn’t too shabby itself as each of the remaining teams could make a viable argument for winning it all.  I think we’re in store for some exciting football this weekend, especially in the two NFC matchups.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) @ Denver Broncos (13-3)

Saturday (4:30, CBS)

He’s baaaaaack! Peyton Manning is in the playoffs again with a team that’s currently favored to get to New Orleans and win the big game.  He has come back from multiple neck surgeries, led his team to the best record in football, and will undoubtedly be one of the finalists in the MVP voting.  He isn’t doing it alone though.  Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker have flourished with Peyton, and the former looks like he’s on the verge of joining the best of the best.  Knowshon Moreno was a pleasant late season surprise, taking over the backfield when Willis McGahee sustained an MCL tear.  He went from a weekly healthy inactive to a critical, productive piece of the offense.

The defense is pulling its weight as well.  They’re among the best in the league against both the pass and run.  Denver ranked fourth in scoring defense, and only the Steelers gave up fewer yards during the regular season.  Teams continue to ignore Champ Bailey in the passing game, but they’re not having any luck on the other side either where Chris Harris and Tony Carter have combined to be a force of their own.  The duo totaled 24 PDs and 5 INTs, and Carter was statistically one of the toughest corners in the league to complete a pass against.  Oh they still get after the passer too.  Their 52 sacks were tied with the Rams for best in football.  Von Miller followed up with 11.5 sack DROY season with another 18.5 (3rd best) this season, and Elvis Dumervil tallied 11 of his own.  The cherry on top has been the play of Wesley Woodyard.  Taking over for DJ Williams, Woodyard made plays all over the field and was one of the more effective defenders in football. 

So does Baltimore stand a chance?  Sure they do, but they must control the action out of the gate, or this one could have an Alabama / Notre Dame déjà vu ring to it.  I like the Ray Rice / Bernard Pierce pairing and believe Baltimore’s fate lies in their hands.    The Ravens rode the combo for a combined 28 carries, and in all likelihood they’ll need to add another 10 totes to that total to escape Denver with a win.  You know Rice is going to bring an extra special something this week after fumbling twice last week against the Colts.  They must be able to run the football, move the chains, wind that clock, and keep Peyton on the sidelines.  No sane Raven wants to see Joe Flacco go throw for throw with the Broncos QB. 

I think the Ravens, especially on the defensive side of the ball are going to have trouble bringing the same level of emotion that they played with last week.  I’m in no way questioning the heart of these veterans, but it’s got to be tough to get as up this week as they were for Ray Lewis’ last home game.  The Broncos are rested and focused.  They beast this team once already, and I have no doubt that Peyton Manning has figured out a few more ways to attack that defense since their meeting.  That’s a week the Ravens would love to forget, as they got pushed around rather easily 34-17 on their home turf. 

Knowshon ran for 115 yards on 21 carries against this defense in week 15, and if the Ravens commit too much to the pass, he’ll gash them again.  I love Anquan Boldin, but I don’t see him having back-to-back big weeks.  I have trouble seeing any of Baltimore’s wideouts posting huge numbers; not against Bailey, Harris, and Carter.  If anyone, Dennis Pitta is likely to lead the Ravens in receiving this week.  Look for Denver to cede gains to the tight end and restrict the big plays to the Ravens receivers.  I also don’t see Flacco having a ton of time to complete passes with Miller and Dumervil in his face. 

Rice and Pierce combined for 173 on 28 carries against the Colts, but Denver held Rice and Pierce to a combined 58 yards on 17 carries in the first meeting.  I believe they do much better this week and that this one will end up closer than the experts think.  Still, Denver wins and moves on.  Thanks for the memories Ray!

Broncos 24
Ravens 20

Green Bay Packers (11-5) @ San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)
Saturday (8:00, FOX)

Here we have our second rematch from a regular season tilt, and again, the first affair was one of the one-sided variety.  San Francisco rolled into Wisconsin and pushed around the Packers.  Frank Gore had 112 yards on the ground which was his second best rushing performance of the year, and the recently replaced Alex Smith was most efficient throwing for 211 yards and 2 TDs and completing 77% of his passes.  It was a near perfect game for the Niners.  They scored on four of their five first half drives and forced the Packers to punt on six of their first seven.  Green Bay knows they can’t get into another early hole, especially in San Fran, or it’s going to be another long four quarters.

How can Green Bay avoid a repeat of that disaster?  Well for starters they at least have a semblance of a running game now with the emergence of DuJuan Harris.  The Troy Trojan totaled exactly 100 yards against a formidable Vikings defense and is the hot hand in a backfield that has him splitting carries with Ryan Grant.  It’s no secret though that Green Bay’s offense runs through Aaron Rodgers and the passing game.  They go as he goes.  Last week was the first time in a long time that all of his receivers were healthy.  Jordy Nelson is a little banged up this week, but even if he’s not able to go, Rodgers will be able to spread the field with Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, James Jones, and Jermichael Finley.  Not a lot of faces have changed, but this is definitely a different Packers team than the one that San Fran whipped in week 1. 

The Packers defense better bring its A-game as well.  In addition to a power running attack led by Gore, they have to keep a really close eye on Colin Kaepernick getting outside the pocket.  The Niners haven’t become a high flying offense under Kaepernick, but he averaged 6.6 yards on 63 carries compared to Smith’s 4.3 on 31 carries.  That’s the kind of speed and athleticism that extends drives and keeps Rodgers on the sidelines.  Michael Crabtree is loving life with his new QB.  After breaking the 100 yard barrier once and scoring three TDs with Smith under center, Crabtree totaled 100 yards three times and scored six TDs with Kaepernick.  He’s also been targeted at least eleven times in four of his last five games.  While Crabtree and Kaepernick have been on the same page, phenom TE Vernon Davis had a total of 11 targets in his last five games. 

I’ve got to think the Niners are going to try and pound away at Green Bay’s front as long as they can pick up four yards a play.  The Packers will need to put San Fran in long yardage situations and avoid letting Kaepernick use his legs to pick up first downs.  Conversely, I expect the Packers to spread the field and mix formations, specifically swapping Cobb and Jennings between slot and wide positions. 

I also really believe the Packers are going to run early right at Justin Smith.  Let’s find out just how healthy he is and how much attention he needs from the get-go.  The veteran stud defensive lineman is just a few weeks removed from a partial tear of a triceps injury.  I’m not the guy’s doctor, but you’ve got to think he’s going to be far from top form, especially when you consider Ray Lewis missed ten games with a similar injury.  If Justin Smith isn’t Justin Smith, that’s going to make things easier for the Packers and tougher for Aldon Smith.  It’s no coincidence that the second year pass rusher has registered zero sacks since the veteran was injured.  The Niners have also given up 753 yards, 66 points, and 48 first downs in the six quarters Smith’s missed.  If the Packers can get anything out of Harris in the running game it will considerably increase their chances of advancing. 

This is Kaepernick’s biggest game as a pro, while Rodgers has been there done that.  You know Dom Capers is scheming the hell out of the youngster this week, and they’re a whole different defense with a healthy Clay Matthews.  I like Green Bay’s chances of slowing down (not stopping) the run game and forcing San Fran to throw more than they’d like.  When they do, I like how the Packers stack up in the secondary, especially at corner and specifically rookie Casey Hayward.  Look for him to make a big play or two in this one.  They’re finally healthy with the return of Charles Woodson, whose impact, I believe, will come more so in the run game against Gore.  I’m a Kaepernick guy, but I think he’s going to have an untimely mistake or two. 

The Packers are the healthier team, and if the offensive line can keep their MVP upright and ahead of the chains this game could go either way.  I think this will be the most exciting matchup of the weekend and that Rodgers will show why he’s the best in the business.  Randall Cobb scores twice, and Jordy Nelson catches a back shoulder fade late in the game for the winning TD.   

Packers 27
Niners 23

Seattle Seahawks (11-5) @ Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
Sunday (1:00, FOX)

Can the Falcons finally do something in the playoffs?  They own the NFC’s #1 seed, started the season on an 8 game winning streak, and tied the Broncos for best regular season record,.  Matt Ryan took to Dirk Koetter’s offense beautifully and has enjoyed spreading it around to Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez.  All three finished the season with at least 124 targets and 79 receptions and are as dangerous as any other offensive trio remaining in the playoffs.  That’s wonderful, but if the Falcons pull another one-and-done this postseason, it’s going to be an incredibly long offseason in Atlanta

This game will feature two of the league’s best scoring defenses.  Seattle ranks 1st overall, and the Falcons are a respectable 5th.  I think the fact that Seattle’s offense has faced much stiffer, more consistent tests throughout the season will be a big plus for them in this one.  While the Seahawks face San Francisco (2), Arizona (17), and St. Louis (14) in their own division, Atlanta didn’t have nearly as tough a schedule.  From week 8 on, the highest ranked defense the Falcons faced was the Giants at #12.  They smoked those Giants, but a lot of those points came off Eli.  Here’s who they faced and where those teams ranked in scoring defense – Eagles (29), Cowboys (24), Saints (31), Cardinals (17), Bucs (23), Saints (31), Panthers (18), Giants (12), Lions (27), Bucs (23).  

There’s no question who will control the ground game.  Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson combined for 199 yards rushing against the Redskins, who had boasted a stout run defense, and held RGIII and Alfred Morris to a combined 101 rushing yards.  The Falcons finished the year 21st overall in rush defense and allowed 142 to Doug Martin in week 17.  They picture isn’t pretty on the offensive side either.  Only the Cardinals, Cowboys, and Jaguars ran for fewer yards during the regular season.  Michael Turner isn’t nearly as threatening as Morris and had just two 100 yard rushing games (barely) on the year.  I think you’ll see more Jacquizz Rodgers than Turner, but regardless, it’s obvious that Falcons offense runs through Ryan and the passing game. 

Undoubtedly the biggest injury in this contest is Seattle’s loss of pass rushing end Chris Clemons.  I don’t know if it’s the west coast thing or what, but Clemons may be the most underrated pass rusher in football.  With him out for the rest of the year Bruce Irvin now needs to be a full time player.  Will the rookie slide in seamlessly, or will Clemson absence be glaring?  For the Falcons, John Abraham sprained his ankle in the meaningless season finale against the Bucs, but he’s back at practice this week. 

I love Seattle’s defense, but I don’t think Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are going to be able to out-physical White and Jones.  As much as I don’t like the matchup for the undersized Falcons defense against Lynch and the running game, I do like the White-Jones-Gonzalez arsenal’s chances against the Seahawks defense.  Given his gimpy knee RGIII was unable to get after Seattle’s secondary much, but Brandon Browner definitely looked rusty.  I fully expect the Falcons to test him often in this matchup. I believe that if the Falcons are going to advance they must take control of the momentum early on.   

Two of Seattle’s scores last week came off turnovers, and they were trailing a highly ineffective RGIII until the fourth quarter.  Atlanta is more dynamic offensively than Washington and will vary formations to get their weapons in the best position to make plays.  I believe Atlanta is going to play this one with a ton of pride and give Seattle everything they’ve got.  Will all the travel have an impact on the Seahawks?  How badly will they miss Clemons?  Can they overcome another early multi-score deficit?

I know I picked the Seahawks last week to advance to the Conference Championship round, but I changed my mind.  They’re the popular underdog this postseason, but call me crazy.  I’m going to ride with what I expect to be a Falcons team giving maximum effort.  Koetter’s game plan works fabulously as Atlanta’s dynamic passing game puts Seattle in another early hole, one which they’re unable to escape a this time.  Ryan and company get the win and host the Packers next week for the right to go to New Orleans.

Falcons 27
Seahawks 20

Houston Texans (12-4) @ New England Patriots (12-4)
Sunday (4:30, CBS)

Our second AFC game of the weekend is another rematch of a mismatch.  New England stomped the then 11-1 Texans 42-14 in a game they owned from the outset.  Houston didn’t score until more than halfway through the third quarter, and by that time New England had 28 points.  In addition to getting out to an early lead, the Patriots did a nice job of taking away Arian Foster and the Texans running game.  The scariest part of that beating was that the Patriots did it without their biggest offensive weapon, Rob Gronkowski. That game was a mere month ago, and the Texans have been soundly beaten three of the last five times they’ve taken the field. 

They won last week, but I can’t say I was terribly impressed with the Texans in their win over the Bengals.  They scored just 19 points and finished with less than 20 for the fourth time in their last five games.  Foster had a huge game, but other than the victory, there wasn’t much to get excited about if you’re a Texans fan.  They had trouble exploiting a Bengals defense that was on the field far too much due to Andy Dalton’s complete ineptitude as a passer.  That won’t fly this week. 

New England is getting healthy at the right time.  Gronk came back in week 17, so now the Patriots have him, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Danny Woodhead, and Brandon Lloyd, in the passing game.  Against Cincinnati the Texans only had to worry about AJ Green and Jermaine Gresham.  The Patriots lit up this secondary for 296 yards and 4 TDs a month ago, will be playing at home, and have Tom Brady at QB, a bit of an upgrade over Dalton.  How can the Texans flip the script in this sequel?

It comes down to two players – Arian Foster and JJ Watt.  Foster has to at least double his 85 total yards from scrimmage in their last meeting for the Texans to have a chance in this one.  New England is going to score, and the ability for Foster to move the chains and slow the pace is going to be their best chance of limiting the Patriots scoring opportunities.  If the Texans hope to hold New England well under 42 this time, Watt has to be a big factor.  The Patriots did a tremendous job of sliding blockers his way wherever he lined up, holding him sackless.  To illustrate how fine a job New England’s offensive line did in that game, Watt had four sacks in the two games prior to that one and five sacks in the two games after it.  If I’m picking a Texan to turn things around it’s Foster.  They’re going to have to feed him the ball, and I believe he’ll be more of a factor this time.  I don’t see New England skunking them in the first half again, nor do I see Gary Kubiak abandoning the run as soon this time.  Watt on the other hand is in for another long game in my opinion.  I think the Patriots veteran front played a near perfect game against him last time, and they’re going to stick to what worked.  With the way the rest of this unit is playing, I’m not confident that someone else is suddenly going to step up. 

With one more win Brady passes Joe Montana as the winningest QB in postseason history.  A Packers/Broncos championship matchup looks like our destiny.  The Texans will again blitz and blitz and blitz, and Brady will again throw touchdowns.  Houston doesn’t look like a championship team to me.  They’re the least cohesive (from a production standpoint) team remaining in the playoffs in my opinion.  I don’t think the Texans stay establishing a dominant run game, nor do I see them turning Brady over multiple times.  Without those two things happening, Houston’s offseason starts Monday.

Patriots 34
Texans 17

Revised Predictions

Denver and New England look really strong to me.  I don’t see either Baltimore or Houston pulling off the upset, even though we’ve had a few of those in recent playoff history.  The NFC games are toss ups, but I believe that Rodgers will outplay Kaepernick with a strong performance from the Packer defense and that the Falcons will show everyone that their 13-3 record wasn’t a mirage.  All of the remaining eight teams are strong squads, but a Broncos/Patriots and Falcons/Packers championship weekend could be one for the ages.  Here’s to hoping it happens. 

AFC Conference Championship
Patriots @ Broncos – Broncos

NFC Conference Championship
Packers @ Falcons – Packers

Super Bowl XLVII
Broncos v. Packers – Packers

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