I went 3-1 last week. I say that less to boast (all four favorites won, so no big deal really) and more to preemptively fight any poor showing in my picks this week. As last week, I will include my predictions for the score, the line, as well as the Over/Under.
Baltimore Ravens (+9.5)
As I alluded to last week, I’m a huge Ray Lewis fan. He and Charles Woodson are the greatest defensive players I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. The defense responded like you’d expect a veteran, ball-hawking defense to respond vs a rookie QB—they dominated. They held the Colts to 9 points and forced two turnovers. While they were able to hold the team to three Field Goals, they surrendered 419 total yards, including over 150 yards on the ground to Indianapolis. The Colts were always one play away from busting open the game on several drives, but (either through poor execution or turnover) couldn’t do it. I’m not used to seeing a bend-but-don’t-break defense from the Ravens, but it was effective last week.
Joe Flacco was confounding against the Colts. He would go from looking inept in executing their gameplan, to looking like an elite QB in the same drive. Flacco may be the first QB that I can remember that throws a better deep ball than intermediate one. Flacco completed seven pass plays for over 20 yards (legitimately long passes too, only one of those was a short completion that the receiver turned into yards after catch). Ray Rice lost two fumbles on promising drives that otherwise would’ve probably resulted in points and made the final score (24-9) even more lopsided.
My favorite QB of all time is Peyton Manning. I can’t think of anything cooler than a Quarterback getting a play, calmly walking to the line of scrimmage and saying, “nah, G”. Manning has been a welcomed surprise all year; he went from people questioning if he should return at all (following several neck surgeries) to being in the thick of the MVP race. He left the only franchise he had ever known (that Colts one...the one that just lost last week) to a team that was getting over “Tebow Mania”. In that short time period, he has implemented his system of checks and Demaryius Thomas has emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber talent.
Additionally, Knowshon Moreno seamlessly took over for an injured Willis McGahee, rushing for 510 yards over the final 6 games of the season.
Defensively, this team bears a hell of a striking resemblance to that Colts squad that Peyton led to the title in 2006.
[Sidenote: Have you ever gone to look at Peyton’s numbers from that run? Despite being 2nd in the league in points scored that year and averaging a Quarterback Rating of 101 for the regular season, Manning was mediocre at best during their title campaign. He had a 69.1 Quarterback rating over that span. For context, Trent Dilfer had a 83.7 rating in the playoffs when the Ravens won their title]
They are built to play with the lead. They have two fantastic QB rushers in Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller who combined for 29.5 sacks this regular season. They gave up the 4th least amount of points this year, and didn’t allow 300 yards passing in a single game all year. Really the only question surrounding this unit is if they can continue their dominance vs good teams. The Broncos were only 2-3 vs playoff teams this year; and in those games they gave up 25.8 points per game, nearly a touchdown more than their season average.
Matchup: Soak in Ray Lewis’ last game folks. Those drives that Luck couldn’t complete and resulted in FGs will be the ones that Manning hammers home. While I’m concerned about the Broncos secondary and the long bombs they may give up with those fast and physical receivers of the Ravens, I think Flacco will succumb to the pressure late. Over/Under 46. 28-17 Broncos.
Green Bay Packers (-3)
The Packers rolled vs the Vikings. Aaron Rodgers was comfortable all game in the knowledge that the Vikings were never a threat to score without their QB. Rodgers has been sensational this year with 39 TDs and only 8 INTs. Additionally, he has the highest Quarterback rating in postseason history. It’s tempting to look at the week 1 matchup between the teams to see how he performed, but honestly both of these teams have changed drastically since then. Green Bay is a passing team that runs to close games and to alleviate the opposition’s pass rush. Despite it being largely one dimensional, the Packers are a seasoned team with weapons in the passing game. They are absurdly dangerous racking up the 5th amount of points per game despite a litany of injuries.
A lot will be written about the 49ers defense (and rightfully so) but the Packers have a talented team in their own right. They ranked 11th in points allowed per games, but did so without Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson for a large chunk of the season.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers underwent the most change of any playoff team because of the switch at QB. Colin Kaepernick took over when Alex Smith was knocked out of a game with a concussion. Since then, Kaepernick and the 49ers have gone 5-2. Despite the controversy surrounding the switch, Jim Harbaugh has never wavered from his decision. Perhaps it’s because the numbers put up by both Quarterbacks are so comparable. Smith threw a higher completion percentage, while Kaepernick threw for more yards per completion. A lower percentage of Kaepernick’s throws resulted in Interceptions, but a higher percentage of Smith’s resulted in TDs.
Despite the change in QB, the running game is the meat of the offense. The team was 4th in rush yards per game, led by Pro Bowler Frank Gore. Maybe Coach Harbaugh is so confident in his decision because it really doesn’t matter who hands the ball off from center.
The 49ers defense was imposing all year. They were able to pressure the QB while being the 4th best team against the run. Sadly their line took major hits with injuries to Justin and Aldon Smith (both are questionable for this Saturday’s game). Aldon had 19.5 sacks this year, and figured to be vital to making Rodgers’ day more comfortable.
Matchup: Of all of the weekend’s games, this is the most difficult for me to predict. I’ve liked the 49ers all season because of their makeup. They are a strong, physical team that has been consistent all year. But rookie QBs in the Playoffs historically don’t perform well, and Aldon Smith’s tricep injury makes me believe Rodgers may not face the pressure he would have otherwise. Over/Under 45. 24-20 Green Bay.
Seattle Seahawks (-3)
This team performed exactly as I thought it would last week. Russell Wilson threw the ball proficiently and Marshawn Lynch closed the door in the 4th Quarter. Wilson looked shaky on a couple of throws downfield, but it was his first postseason game in the NFL. All year his WR corps has gotten more and more reliable, and Leon Washington looked on the verge of breaking a few big returns last week vs Washington.
Despite allowing two straight TD drives, the defense was exceptional for the rest of the day. Sadly the Seahawks lost DE Chris Clemons (11.5 sacks), who would’ve been instrumental in pressuring Matt Ryan. The secondary was able coax an INT out of RG3, who only threw 5 during the regular season.
The Falcons have an array of weapons on offense. They have the most physical and athletic pair of WRs in the League. Michael Turner and upstart Jacquizz Rodgers are a quality pair of backs. Their success comes down to quality play calling, and Matt Ryan’s execution. He has been maligned for not winning a playoff game previously in his career. I like when this team establishes their run game, and makes it as capable a threat as their loaded passing offense.
Their defense is ranked 5th in points allowed. Even though the team boasts stars in Assante Samuel, Thomas Decoud and John Abraham, it’s a true team effort, and only gave up 30+ points twice this season.
I believe in Russell Wilson more than Matt Ryan. There, I said it. I know what I said earlier about rookie QBs (in reference to Colin Kaepernick) but this isn’t his first game and he already has more postseason wins than Ryan. Both the Seahawks corners and Falcons WRs are used to physically dominating their counterparts. I’m really interested to see the Falcons WR play the Seahawks physical corners. They will need another turnover from this secondary to win this game, and I think they’ll get it. 28-24 Seahawks. Over/Under 46.
Houston Texans (+9.5)
The Texans handled their business vs the Bengals. Their defense was the story as they confounded Andy Dalton and Arian Foster ran for 140 yards and a TD. The offense didn’t blow out Cincinnati, but the Bengals had a good defense. It’s hard to look at how ineffective they were against the Patriots. As I said last week, they’re monumentally talented with stars at all the offensive skill positions. Dynamic though they may be, the defense is the real star of the Texans. They are able to pressure the QB without blitzing, which is paramount in defending the pass. They were embarrassed last time they faced the Patriots, though, when they surrendered 42 points.
New England Patriots
The Defense has improved steadily all year and the regular season ended with a shutout of Miami. They rank 9th in points allowed this year, but have been run on pretty consistently. Their secondary has improved with the addition of Aqib Talib via trade earlier in the season. Devin McCourtney has come along and now the team boasts a ball-hawking secondary.
Matchup: There are numbers that suggest a team beaten by 20 points and later playing that team in the postseason have had some success (11-11). Plus the Pats drubbed the NY Jets in 2010, only to lose to them later in the playoffs. Still, I can’t bring myself to pick the Texans. Plus I believe in Brady more than Matt Schaub. 31-21 Pats. Over/Under48.5.