The NFL Divisional Round is upon us and their are some great games happening on Saturday and Sunday.
The NFL did it right by starting out the playoff weekend with a great match-up of the Baltimore Ravens traveling to Foxboro to take on the New England Patriots. This game is interesting because the Patriots have only lost 3 home playoff games since 2003 and 2 of those losses were against the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens come in to New England as the #6 seed after barely getting that spot. They snuck into the playoffs because the San Diego Chargers lost to the Kansas City Chiefs and the Ravens beat the Cleveland Browns in the last week of the season. When the Ravens won the Super Bowl over the San Francisco 49ers in 2012, the Ravens were the #4 seed in the Playoffs and beat the Colts at home in the Wildcard. They went on to beat the Denver Broncos in Denver in Peyton Manning’s first Playoff game with the Broncos. They advanced to the AFC Championship game and beat the New England Patriots in Foxboro 28-13 to eventually go on and win their second Super Bowl in franchise history. Fast forward to 2015 and the Ravens are now on their way to the big game by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road 30-17. Joe Flacco has shown some signs of brilliance this season but has also had his fair share of bad performances. For some reason, he can flip a switch and be an elite quarterback but he will have to go through another QB in Tom Brady. In the 2014 season, Flacco threw for 3,986 yards, 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Tom Brady had another fantastic season, throwing for 4,109 yards, 33 touchdowns and only 9 interceptions. For me in this game, it will be decided by 2 phases of the game, the running game and the defense. The Ravens are 8th in the NFL in rushing yards per game with 126.2 while New England is 18th in the NFL with 107.9 rushing yards per game. The Ravens have relied on Justin Forsett who has rushed for 1,266 yards and 8 touchdowns. Keep in mind, Forsett wasn’t the starting back for Baltimore in training camp but has stepped up nicely since the Ray Rice situation. The Patriots don’t have that one running back that they rely on. Their leading rusher in yards is Jonas Gray with 412 yards, but half of those yards came in one game against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday Night Football in week 11. Who will step up? It remains to be seen. As far as defense goes, the Ravens are 23rd in the league in opposing Passing yards allowing 248.7 per game and are 4th in the NFL allowing only 88.3 yards per game rushing. The Patriots are 17th in the NFL allowing 239.8 yards per game and allow only 104.3 which is good for 9th in the league. This game kicks off at 2:35pm on NBC.
PREDICTION: Tom Brady and Joe Flacco will be fine throwing the ball but whoever can step on defense will win this game, and I think the Patriots will be able to get it done. Pats move on to AFC Championship game with a 35-24 win over Baltimore.
The other game on Saturday features the Carolina Panthers heading to the Pacific Northwest to face the defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. Cam Newton is coming off his first Playoff win in his career over the Arizona Cardinals last week 27-16. But Cam and the Panthers Offense will have their hands full as they take on the best defense in the entire NFL. The Seahawks are 1st in the league allowing only 185.6 passing yards per game and are #3 in the NFL allowing only 81.5 rushing yards per game. The Panthers offense ranks 19th in the league with 219.4 passing yards per game and 7th in the NFL with 127.3 rushing yards per game. The Panthers will be without 2nd year pro and former University of Utah Defensive Tackle Star Loutuleiei with a fractured bone in his foot. That will hurt the Panthers front 7 as they try to stop Marshawn Lynch who has rushed for 1,306 yards and 13 touchdowns during the regular season. The last time these two teams met was week 8 in Carolina and the Seahawks picked up a win in a low scoring game 13-9. This game kicks off at 6:15pm on FOX.
PREDICTION: Century Link Field (in my opinion) is the 2nd hardest place to play in the NFL (Lambeau Field being #1). The Panthers barely got into the Playoffs by winning the horrible NFC South Division. I think it will be a low scoring affair and the Super Bowl Champs return to the NFC Championship game with a 17-6 win over the Panthers.
The first game on Sunday is a showdown of 12-4 teams as the red hot Dallas Cowboys travel to the Frozen Tundra to take on the Green Bay Packers. Dallas comes into this game with a 24-20 in a controversial game but nonetheless have won their last 5 games and 7 of their last 8. The Packers come in having won 7 of their last 8 games as well. The question of this game will be how effective will Aaron Rodgers be with the calf injury? It is Aaron Rodgers! He will be just fine as long as he can sit in the pocket and throw, and not have to run which I don’t think the Cowboys defense will be able to create havoc in the pocket. Rodgers in my opinion is the MVP this season having thrown for 4.381 yards, 38 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. SERIOUSLY! That is incredible. Rodgers has also had help as 2nd year running back Eddie Lacy has rushed for 1,139 yards and 9 touchdowns. Rodgers has his two weapons to throw to in Jordy Nelson who has 98 catches for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns and Randall Cobb with 91 catches for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Cowboys have had a phenomenal season as Tony Romo has had a career season throwing for 3,705 yards, 34 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. DeMarco Murray is the leading rusher with 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns. Romo has his two targets as well in Dez Bryant who has 88 catches for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns and Jason Witten with 64 catches for 703 yards and 5 touchdowns. The Cowboys come to Lambeau Field with an 8-0 record on the road while the Packers are 8-0 in the Frozen Tundra. This is the first ever NFL Playoff game where one team is undefeated on the road playing a team that is undefeated at home. This will be fun and to me is the game of the week. If Aaron Rodgers has a regular performance (which is a great game) and the Packers defense can stop either Dez Bryant, Jason Witten or DeMarco Murray, they should be able to win this game pretty easy. The Cowboys need their 3 headed monster with Tony Romo to play fantastic games in order for the Cowboys to advance.
PREDICTION: Aaron Rodgers will have another MVP Performance and will run up the scoreboard and the Packers will advance to the NFC Championship game to face the Seattle Seahawks with a 28-14 win over the Dallas Cowboys.
The last game of the Divisional Weekend features the Indianapolis Colts heading to Mile High City to face the defending AFC Champion Denver Broncos. Another Peyton Manning vs. Andrew Luck game. These two teams met in week 1 in Denver and the Broncos jumped on the Colts before Luck and company would storm back but fall short to Denver 31-24. The Colts come in red hot winning 7 of their last 8 games and a 26-10 win over the Bengals in the Wildcard round. The Broncos come in having won 5 of their last 6 games. Andrew Luck has had a great season and was brilliant in the middle of the season but started slow and ended the season slow but has thrown 4,761 yards, 40 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Peyton Manning hasn’t had a record breaking season like 2013 but has thrown for 4,727 yards, 39 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. It isn’t 55 touchdowns and 10 interceptions but most of that is injuries to the Wide Receiving core and changing the Offensive Line around. But he does have pretty close numbers to his opponent Andrew Luck. So many think that the Colts can win this game which they can but Peyton Manning has won his fair share of Playoffs games. With Peyton sliding (very little) this season, the Broncos have been able to get it done on the ground. Most thought that with starting back Montee Ball and backup Ronnie Hillman out with injuries that Denver would not have a chance to develop a running game but they found a diamond in the rough in CJ Anderson who is a undrafted rookie from Cal. Anderson has played in 15 games for Denver and has rushed for 849 yards and 8 touchdowns and has not fumbled the ball once. If Indianapolis wants to win this game they will need to stop Anderson and make Peyton Manning throw the ball out of the pocket which has shown to be a disaster for the Broncos. If Peyton Manning can have one of his 300+ yard performances and CJ Anderson rushes for over 100 yards, Denver should win.
PREDICTION: Peyton Manning will return to himself in the comfort of Sports Authority Field and will destroy the Super Bowl dream from his former team and Denver will have another rematch with Tom Brady and the Patriots with a 31-14 win over the Colts.
Make sure you check out the “In The Trenches” podcast in the Podcast section of this site as Dave Gore, Jon Lafollette and myself break down the games this weekend and talk all things NFL.