Ravens at Broncos
The recipe for success for the Ravens is simple; they have to control the clock, avoid turnovers, and find a way to get the ball into Ray Rice’s hands early and often and give him enough time and space to make significant gains. With all the talk about Peyton Manning, it’s the Broncos defence that makes this such a tough matchup for the Ravens. The Broncos have an excellent pass rush, and will give the inconsistent Joe Flacco fits, forcing him out of the pocket where he is most comfortable, and into low-percentage throws. Once he gets settled in, Manning will be difficult to stop, so it’s imperative that the Ravens make him play from behind and limit his opportunities. Only a perfect effort gives the Ravens any chance, and I have seen enough of Flacco over the years to believe that this won’t happen. Winner: Broncos
Packers at 49ers
Much of the conversation leading up to this game surrounds Aaron Rodgers versus the 49ers’ defence, and rightfully so. Again this season, Rodgers has proven that he plays the QB position about as well as it can be played. No team can neutralize Rodgers right now; the best the ‘niners can hope to do is limit his mobility and take away his receivers. This is the healthiest that I can remember the Pack’s receiving corps being all season, so Green Bay should be able to muster a decent offensive effort. I think that the difference in this game will be the Packers’ defence. Surprisingly, no one seems to be talking about the impact that Charles Woodson’s return has had on Green Bay’s defence. Based on what I saw last week, Woodson managed to stay in good shape while being out with a broken collarbone, and his intelligence and defensive savvy really shone through last week against the Vikings. Woodson’s presence makes the Packers’ defence a lot more flexible in terms of what it can do with its other skill players, especially Clay Matthews. Woodson excels at lining up in the slot and working in coverage against a slot receiver or TE, as a run-stopper, and as a pass-rusher, and his presence will give Matthews greater freedom to use his superior pass-rushing skills to put pressure on San Fran’s mobile QB, Colin Kaepernick. Woodson’s injury has become a blessing in disguise for the Packers; he enters the playoffs having not had any meaningful contact for the better part of two months, thus leaving the 36-year-old less worn-out than in past seasons. I don’t see the 49ers being able to score enough points to keep up in this one. That said, I’m really looking forward to this game. Winner: Packers
Seahawks at Falcons
There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offence to make a good showing in this year’s playoffs. The acquisition of WR Julio Jones to complement the wonderful Roddy White has paid huge dividends. This wideout tandem, along with ageless wonder Tony Gonzales, makes the Falcons’ passing attack extremely dangerous, capable of moving the chains efficiently and hitting big plays. Unfortunately for Atlanta, this has coincided with a severe drop-off in the efficiency of their running game, and particularly the ability of RB Michael Turner to contribute significantly. This does not bode well for the Falcons, as they face a Seahawks defence with the depth in the secondary to limit the Falcons’ effectiveness. This opens the door for Seattle’s offence to be the deciding factor. QB Russell Wilson has defied expectations by playing with a poise which belies his rookie status. There have been some questions this week as to the health of Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch, but he strikes me as the sort of player who would not necessarily be limited by a minor foot injury. Meanwhile, the Falcons are dealing with a banged-up secondary, as well as an injury to DE John Abraham. Bad timing, and a bad matchup, will sink the Falcons. Again. Winner: Seahawks
Texans at Patriots
Before the Texans had even finished dispatching the Cincinnati Bengals last week, they had already been installed as huge underdogs against the Pats this week, and the talk quickly shifted to discussions of how Houston had no chance of beating New England, based on their lackluster play of late, and with the memory of a 42-14 blowout still fresh in everyone’s mind. Perennial hack and serial opportunist Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe epitomized the media tack that followed, dredging up any kind of bullshit story to garner attention. Shaughnessy got in a couple of good slaps, referring to the Texans as “tomato cans” and saying, essentially, that the Pats, for all intents and purposes, were starting their playoff run with two byes. Courageous stand by Shaughnessy here: the Pats blow out the Texans, and he’s right; Pats win a close one, and the Texans were fueled by anger to put up a good fight due to his column; Pats lose, and he’s a jinx, or the Pats choked because they couldn’t handle the pressure he placed upon them. (There now, you don’t have to read his insufferable bombast on Monday. I scooped him.) So, what’s the real story? Tom Brady will have his unstoppable tandem of TEs, Gronk and Hernandez, plus Welker, Branch, Woodhead, and Brandon “makes at least one sideline catch per week that I’m convinced is incomplete until I see the replay” Lloyd at his disposal. As good as they are on defence, even with scary monster JJ Watt, how is Houston, or any team for that matter, supposed to counter that? Houston has good offensive balance, with talented receivers and the best (all-around) RB in football, Arian Foster (btw, I love Foster’s Twitter profile picture… the guy’s clever), but I have a difficult time imagining a scenario where, barring a major meltdown by the Pats’ offence, the Texans can score enough to keep pace. Winner: Patriots
I already have my title all ready for my Championship Sunday column: Three Men and a Baby.
Enjoy the action, folks!