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NFL Playoffs Round 2: Now It’s Serious

The Divisional round is here.

The Wild Card round has come and gone, and without any real surprises. In three of the four matchups, the higher-seeded team prevailed, and while the Ravens topped Pittsburgh for the first time in their playoffs history (on the road, no less), they were ranked right behind the Steelers in Elo ratings going into that matchup, so it was hardly an upset.

But now comes the Divisional round, and the top teams in each conference are finally coming out to play. Seattle, New England, Denver, and Green Bay—four teams that are absolutely formidable opponents to have to face on the road. Seattle and Denver were of course last year’s Super Bowl participants while Green Bay carries an 8-0 home record this season. And New England? They’ve got some guy named Tom Brady playing quarterback, maybe you’ve heard of him.

So none of the visitors stand a chance then, right? Well, except that Dallas has an 8-0 road record (including a win over Seattle at CenturyLink), Indianapolis has a whiz kid QB in Andrew Luck going up against a suddenly human Peyton Manning, Baltimore has the “nobody believes in us” factor, and Carolina…well Carolina’s got nothing. Sorry Panthers fans.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

Joe Flacco

If someone asks you to name the best players in this game, you’re probably listing Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski as your top two. Darrelle Revis probably comes up third. Maybe you’ve got Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata fourth and fifth. Then Flacco. Probably. Yet despite being behind a handful of guys, this game is all about #5.

It’s no surprise that the key player in this game is a quarterback. This is a passing league, after all. But you probably expected Brady to be the key to the game, not Flacco. The thing is that as an elite player, Brady (and along with him, Gronk) is a known quantity. It’s #12. At home. In the playoffs. He’s going to have a good game.

Flacco, by comparison, is a wildcard. For all of his flaws, he has a Super Bowl victory on his resumé, and all the physical tools of a pocket passer. But are we going to get Joe Cool (5 TDs, 0 INTs, and a 75% completion [Week 6]) or Joe Schmoe (2 TDs, 3 INTs, and a 42% completion [Week 16]) this Saturday?

The Patriots have one of the top corners in the league in Darrelle Revis, and Brandon Browner on the other side is no slouch, either. It’s hard to imagine that either of Baltimore’s Smith duo (Steve Sr. and Torrey) is going to win their matchup outright. But as ESPN Stats and Info points out, Flacco is a master at drawing pass interference calls. He led the league this year, and leads the league in overall DPI calls since he came into the league in 2008. Nine of his calls this season have come on passes more than 20 yards downfield, so even if he can’t get the ball to his receivers, he might be able to pick up big chunks of yards anyway. Sometimes a single flag can change a game (see: Detroit Lions), so if Flacco can get a call or two to go his way, it could really change how this matchup plays out.

Prediction: Ravens 17, Patriots 31
The Ravens are a 6-seed and the Patriots are the class of the AFC. I expect Flacco to make a couple poor decisions early that could put his team in a hole, and trying to gunsling his way out will only make matters worse. Vegas is giving the Ravens seven points, but I could easily see this becoming a two-touchdown difference.

Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks

Bobby Wagner

Russell Wilson may be the only quarterback in history to throw for 300 yards and run for another 100 in a single game. Richard Sherman may be the (very vocal) face of the Seattle defense. But until further notice, Bobby Wagner is the key to how far this team goes, and whether they will repeat as Super Bowl champions.

Including the Week 6 home loss against Dallas where Wagner went down with an injury, the Seahawks suffered a 3-3 stretch during his absence. That six-week span included losses at non-playoff teams St. Louis and Kansas City, and narrow victories over Carolina (a team in the midst of a 7-game stretch where they did not win) and Oakland (who had failed to register their first win of the season up to that point). Since Wagner’s return, Seattle has gone 6-0 and claimed the #1 seed in the NFC.

Though Carolina has found a ground game the past few weeks in a healthy Jonathan Stewart, Seattle’s defense is 3rd in the league in opponent rushing average. That means Cam Newton is going to have to win this one with his arm, a tall order for a player who ranked 21st in the league in average passing yards per game going against the league’s #1 passing defense. Playing on the road at CenturyLink, Carolina is going to struggle mightily to score in this one.

Prediction: Panthers 6, Seahawks 17
For whatever reason, these two teams have low-scoring affairs each time they face off. The average combined score in their past three games is 23. By comparison, Seattle’s scoring average alone was 24.6 this year. While Carolina is technically a 4-seed, they had the worst record of any team in this year’s playoffs. Vegas thinks this is an 11-point game, and I agree.

Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that this game begins and ends with Aaron Rodgers, the likely MVP of the league this year. More specifically, the fate of the Packers—in this game and the rest of the postseason—rests on Rodgers’s injured left calf, which is both strained and slightly torn. The good news for the Packers is that it is his left calf (as a right-handed QB, he would need to drive off his right leg), but the bad news is that Rodgers relies on his mobility to extend plays. After re-injuring his calf in the Week 17 game against the Lions—during which he went down shortly before halftime, only to return and rally his team to a win—Rodgers said he feared he had torn his Achilles. Per doctors, there’s no chance he’ll be at 100% on Sunday, the only question is whether he’ll be closer to 95% or 50%.

Unlike the two Saturday games, this game figured to be close regardless of Rodgers’ health. Tony Romo had the league’s best passer rating (and QBR) this season, and the Dallas Cowboys were 8-0 on the road (of note, this game marks the first playoff matchup between a team with an 8-0 road record and an 8-0 home record). DeMarco Murray heads the league’s top rushing attack thanks to arguably the league’s best offensive line. That makes the Cowboys uniquely suited to the type of ball-control football that works best against the Packers—their offense can’t beat you if they don’t have the ball.

Expect to see the Cowboys try to pressure Rodgers early and force him to test that injured calf. He was visibly limping in the Detroit game, and wasn’t able to practice until Thursday of this week. While the Packers line has been solid, they’ll need to be up to the task with their quarterback so vulnerable. If Dallas can muster a few sacks and win the time of possession battle, they’ll likely earn themselves a trip to face the defending champions.

Prediction: Cowboys 34, Packers 31
While it’s easy to expect a repeat of Week 17’s heroics from Aaron Rodgers, it’s unclear how much he has really healed. The Cowboys are a much more complete team than the Lions, and have shown they won’t falter under the pressure of a hostile environment. The Packers have a myriad of offensive weapons, but the Cowboys do, too. Expect this game to be a shootout, and the team that wins might just be the one that had the ball last.

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos

Peyton Manning

The past few weeks have not been kind to Peyton Manning. In his last four outings the future Hall of Famer has a total of 3 TDs and 6 INTs. He had thrown 9 INTs total in the 12 games prior, and had thrown 3+ TDs in 8 of those 12 games. The likely culprit is a thigh injury Manning suffered during the San Diego game in Week 15. And while it’s not a perfect explanation (his struggles started the week prior), it certainly wouldn’t have helped.

Manning says he feels good physically, and the bye week offered time for him to rest his thigh. Yesterday there was some controversy over his health after an Instagram video surfaced of him practicing a couple play-action passes. This prompted David Chao, an orthopedic surgeon and former team physician for the San Diego Chargers to tweet that he was more concerned about Manning’s thigh than Rodgers’s calf on Sunday. Of course, the video is only 16 seconds of practice footage (two snaps) and Chao has maybe seen better days when it comes to dealing out medical advice, so take that with a grain of salt. For my part, Manning looks a little clumsier, especially on that second dropback than I’d expect, but you’d be hard pressed to say that’s worse than a guy who fell to the turf after his calf gave out two weeks ago.

Andrew Luck is the wildcard here, as in his short career he’s already put together 12 4th quarter comebacks/game-winning drives. The Indy offense is going to throw, throw, and throw some more both in order to keep up with the Broncos’ scoring and just because their running game is mediocre at best. Luck can probably keep the Colts in this game, but the question is whether they have the talent to really pull this one out on the road.

Prediction: Colts 24, Broncos 34
A rested Peyton Manning gets his groove back, and John Fox puts enough trust in C.J. Anderson to run down the clock late. The Broncos win the time of possession battle and make sure Luck can’t beat the old pro. Vegas is calling Denver 7 point favorites, and I expect them to beat that mark. If Manning can’t find his accuracy, though, this game could end up being an upset.

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