This may be the 3rd best weekend in the NFL season we are entering, which is the divisional round of the playoffs. Now, we get to see which teams, that played and won during wildcard weekend, can keep their momentum going and which teams, that had a first-round bye, take advantage of the time off they had or not. It seems there is always one of the "bye" teams that fumbles in the divisional round and I am here to help all of my readers and fans figure out which team it may be. With that in mind, I will go over each game and the keys to success for each team and offer a prediction pick at the end of each breakdown segment. Here goes:
1. Ravens vs. Steelers: This game represents what the playoffs are all about: physical and mental toughness, true grit and fierce competitiveness. Both teams possess all of those qualities and then some. As a matter of fact, this matchup is so even, one may think that it may take multiple overtimes to determine a winner, since there are no ties in playoff football. Both teams have excellent quarterbacks in Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger, although I give a slight edge to Pittsburgh with Roethlisberger being that he has 2 more Super Bowl rings and Super Bowl appearances than Flacco at this point in both of their budding careers. Flacco is no stranger to situations like these in terms of playing on the road in the playoffs and winning (see a previous win against Tennessee in the divisional round a couple of years ago for proof of that) and both quarterbacks have the ability to guide their teams down the field for touchdowns late in games. And, the running attacks for each team are very good. I give Baltimore the edge as far as wide receivers go, but this is a game about power and ball control and that means running the football. So, I don't expect a lot out of each passing game, especially since this is the third meeting between these 2 very proud teams. Ultimately, I believe this game comes down to Pittsburgh having home field advantage because the matchup is that even between the Ravens and the Steelers and Roethlisberger doing just enough in the passing game while taking advantage of playing in Heinz Field:
Prediction: Steelers 14, Ravens 10
2. Packers vs. Falcons: I consider this matchup to be the most intriguing of the weekend by far. Atlanta is hosting a divisional playoff game for the first time since 2004, when Michael Vick was the starting quarterback and I believe the head coach was Jim Mora Jr., if memory serves. Well, the starting quarterback now is Matt Ryan and the head coach is Mike Smith and both have done an excellent job of steering Atlanta to where they are now as a team and as a franchise, which is amazing given what happened to this team and to Vick just two years earlier. Ryan seems to get better every single year and is becoming a real winner when it comes to quarterbacking a team. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he has a number of weapons at his disposal like Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner, but Ryan is the real deal and figures to only get better with experiences like these. On the other hand, the Packers are riding high into the Georgia Dome coming off an impressive win against Vick's Philadelphia Eagles in which they had a very balanced offensive attack that featured a particularly effective running game behind James Starks, which is what makes this game so intriguing for me because if Green Bay can run the football llike that in this game, everyone knows what the passing attack can produce behind Aaron Rodgers and his corps of receivers that is very good in its own right. And, Green Bay's defense, lead by Clay Matthews Jr. and Charles Woodson, is as good as it gets. To me, this game comes down to the Packers controlling the football by running it effectively and allowing that to open up the passing attack while Green Bay takes advantage of an Atlanta secondary that can be beat down the field and, in turn, keeping that Atlanta offense on the sideline. On the flipside, it's up to Atlanta's front seven to control that running attack and then do what they do best and that's put pressure on the quarterback, which Rodgers is vulnerable to playing behind an offensive line that is improving, but still vulnerable to the pass rush. In the end, I think Green Bay continues their run as a trendy Super Bowl pick and Atlanta takes a heartbreaking defeat at home and has even more fuel to motivate them for next season because Atlanta has a great future with all the young talent they have on both sides of the ball. I just don't think they are quite ready for primetime just yet. Whereas, Green Bay, after a disappointing loss to Arizona in the wildcard round last season, continues to build on that disappointment.
Prediction: Packers 27, Falcons 20
3. Seahawks vs. Bears: This is a matchup of a 7-9 division winner in Seattle and a Chicago team that most in the media has considered a fraud all season long. Well, that fraud has home field advantage thanks to a first round bye and I really believed that Seattle peaked last weekend by taking out the defending champion, New Orleans Saints. But, for the sake of detail, I'll go ahead and break down this game anyway. I've often heard that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. With that in mind, the weak link in Seattle's chain is its running game. Yes, Marshawn Lynch had that other-wordly run last week against Nawlins, but that was anything but a stout Nawlins defense he did that against. As a matter of fact, based on the very weak attempts to get Lynch to the ground, that was a defeated defensive unit for the Saints based on what I saw. That's not going to be the case this week with the Bears at Soldier Field, where defense is pretty much their calling card. The way I see it, the only chance the Seahawks have is to try to generate turnovers against Jay Cutler and the Chicago offense as Cutler is prone to interceptions, which, by the way, is the weak link in the Bears' chain. But, based on the way things have been going for Cutler and the Bears' offense the last few weeks, I think Cutler has found a real rhythm in Mike Martz's offense and that Seattle is in trouble going into this one. In the end game, Seattle won't have the same kind of success against the Bears that they had against the Saints and that fraud of a team, Chicago, will find themselves hosting the NFC Championship Game against their bitter old rivals, the Green Bay Packers.
Prediction: Bears 27, Seahawks 10
4. Jets vs. Patriots: Let the talking end and the games begin between these two suddenly bitter rivals. It seems the Jets feel they can talk their way to a victory over the Pats, but I'm not so sure about that. Nonetheless, this matchup, like Green Bay/ Atlanta, is also intriguing in terms of the matchups and the recent histories for each team. We all know what the Pats can do on offense as they are currently the most prolific offense in the NFL according to statistics. Tom Brady is having an MVP year and will probably win that award any day now, especially given the young talent he's been helping to develop this season, particularly at the tight end position. But, there are old standbys like Wes Welker and the recently reacquired Deion Branch, who was actually the MVP of the last Super Bowl the Pats won in which they took out Donovan McNabb's Eagles. So, there's no reason to worry about that or the running game behind the tough running of BenJarvis Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, a Jets reject who is now thriving in Foxboro. New England's defense, albeit suspect at times, is getting better and why shouldn't it given that their coach is a defensive guru and the head coach of the Pats, to boot, Mr. Bill Belichick. So, I expect New England's defense to be very competitive. What will be key for the Pats defensively is controlling the Jets' running attack and putting the ball into the hands of Mark Sanchez and forcing him to make plays in the clutch. Speaking of that, Sanchez, unlike against Indianapolis last week, is going to really need to make plays in the passing game this week to help keep that vaunted Pats' offense on the sideline. The Jets ought to get good production in the running game with Shonn Green and the suddenly revitalized Ladainian Tomlinson. But, if Sanchez is as erratic this week as he was last week against the Colts, then nothing else will matter. At the end of the day, I just don't believe the Jets are emotionally or mentally ready for a Super Bowl run this season based on how distracted they seemed to be this past week, including Rex Ryan, who declared this matchup is personal for him. That's a very dangerous attitude to take into a game like this and even more dangerous to announce it in public. Not to mention the fact that Belichick is a master when it comes to taking advantage of a bye week.
Prediction: Pats 28, Jets 14
Enjoy the action this weekend. Stay tuned for my breakdowns and predictions for Conference Championship Sunday. Until next time, keep on keepin' on in the name of sports...