Previews of all the games in the NFL’s wildcard weekend, plus take part in our Pick the Playoffs predictions game Welcome to divisional playoff weekend on the NFL Talkboard.
Previews of all the games in the NFL’s wildcard weekend, plus take part in our Pick the Playoffs predictions game
Welcome to divisional playoff weekend on the NFL Talkboard. I am sure I will not be alone in saying that this is often my favourite week of the whole season – the field having been whittled down far enough to ensure high-quality match-ups, but still allowing for four games spread across the entire weekend.
And what could round it off better than joining in our Pick the Playoffs contest? More than 50 people picked all four games correctly last weekend, so it might be a bit excessive to name check you all up here, but I will post the overall standings below the line as early as I can.
In the meantime, just a reminder that we will be live blogging all four games this weekend so be sure to check back again then. We will also have our Five Things we Learned blog up first thing on Monday.
Baltimore Ravens @ Denver Broncos
Saturday 4.30pm ET/9.30pm GMT
This game will be sold as Peyton Manning v Ray Lewis. Two of the most iconic players of their generation – each lauded for on-field leadership as well as exceptional performance – facing off one last time. Manning, 36, likely has a few years left in him but Lewis, 37, has confirmed he will retire at the end of this season.
Boil the game down to that match-up, and it’s pretty clear who has the edge. Manning has come out on top in every one of his last nine meetings with Baltimore, including playoff victories in 2007 and 2010. The first eight of those came as quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, of course, but Manning’s one game against the Ravens with Denver – in Baltimore just four weeks ago – finished 34-17 to the Broncos.
Lewis did miss that game due to a torn triceps, and his return to health – along with those of several other defensive players – should give the Ravens hope of an improved outcome. But the most important thing will be finding greater balance on offense. Running back Ray Rice got just 12 carries in week 15, leaving quarterback Joe Flacco to shoulder too much of the burden against one of the league’s best pass defenses.
Rice’s preponderance for coughing up fumbles in the postseason – his two against Indianapolis mean he is now averaging one for every 30 touches in his playoff career, compared to one for every 218 in the regular season – is a concern, but not one that Baltimore can afford to dwell on. Because if Flacco has to spend all day dropping back against a pass rush featuring Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil et al, this is going to get ugly.
Broncos to win
Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers
Saturday 8pm ET/Sunday 1am GMT
The Packers posted a resounding victory over Minnesota on wildcard weekend, though there must be some lingering frustration at their failure to beat the same opponents in week 17. Had Green Bay won that game, they would have claimed the NFC’s second seeding and thereby avoided the sort of cross-country trip which they have to make here.
They will be well aware of the challenge facing them, having lost at home to the 49ers back in week one – though much water has passed under the bridge since that day. Alex Smith is no longer starting at quarterback for the 49ers – replaced by the dynamic but inexperienced Colin Kaepernick – while the Packers have a new running back in DuJuan Harris, as well as different starters at center and right tackle.
For San Francisco the big question is how defensive end Justin Smith will hold up on his return from a torn triceps. The 49ers lost Smith in their week 15 win over the Patriots, and it was not by accident that they gave up a combined 76 points in that game and the loss to Seattle seven days later. Smith’s impact is felt not only in his own contribution but also the way he creates opportunities for others by taking up blockers on the line.
Green Bay are getting healthy at a good time, and their success in keeping Adrian Peterson under 100 yards on the ground last week bodes well before another match-up with Frank Gore. But unlike last week, they will also have to account for a real NFL quarterback this time around.
49ers to win
Seattle Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons
Sunday 1pm ET/6pm GMT
No player is under more pressure to perform this weekend than Matt Ryan, quarterback of the NFC’s top-seeded Atlanta Falcons and loser of all three playoff games he has played in his NFL career. While he was certainly not the only one at fault in defeats to Arizona, Green Bay and New York, Ryan failed to pass for even 200 yards in any of those games.
It is not only Ryan’s playoff record that leads people to doubt Atlanta. Defeats by three teams who did not even make it into the playoffs – New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Carolina – have been cited as evidence that the Falcons are not as good as their record suggests. They are mediocre running the ball and defending against the run.
Seattle, by contrast, are on a terrific tear – winning their last five regular season games before overturning a 14-0 deficit to win in Washington last week. In Marshawn Lynch they have the perfect weapon to attack the Falcons’ soft run D, and an aggressive, talented secondary will make life very difficult for Ryan should Atlanta put too much focus on the pass.
The Seahawks, playing like they have lately, are a match for anyone in the league – with an injury to top pass rusher Chris Clemons the only caveat. But it is also too easy to write Atlanta off on the basis of past playoff performance. They are a force to be reckoned with at the Georgia Dome – where Ryan has never lost consecutive games. I’m backing them to take this one by the thinnest of whiskers.
Falcons to win
Houston Texans @ New England Patriots
Sunday 4.30pm/9.30pm GMT
On 6 December 2010, the New England Patriots crushed the New York Jets 45-3 in a regular season match-up at Gillette Stadium. Six weeks later the pair faced off again at the same venue, this time in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Jets won, 28-21.
It is a story which might provide some comfort to Houston this week as they attempt to pull off a similar turnaround. Just over a month has passed since they were walloped 42-14 by the Patriots in Foxborough, and in that time Houston have lost twice more – dropping games against the Colts and Vikings and slipping from first to third seed in the AFC.
They got some things right en route to victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last week, running the ball well through Arian Foster and tightening up on defense after having shown some considerable frailty on the back end over the final weeks of the regular season. But the form of quarterback Matt Schaub gives cause for serious concern. He has thrown just one touchdown and four interceptions in his last five games.
The Patriots, by contrast, should be even stronger than last time out – with Rob Gronkowski having returned from a broken forearm. Stranger things have happened in the NFL than a Houston upset, but honestly I think this one will not even be close.
Patriots to win