The Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs provided many thrills, with three of the four games on schedule being decided in the final ticks. While Baltimore easily took care of business against the young Kansas City Chiefs, the other three match-ups featured upsets. Most notably, the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks eliminated Drew Brees and the defending champion New Orleans Saints. MVP candidate Michael Vick was contained by the defense of the Green Bay Packers, who used an unexpected lift from rookie running back James Starks to advance with a 21-16 victory. The Jets were lifted over the Indianapolis Colts by a stifling defensive performance and a productive day from LaDainian Tomlison on the ground.
Check out our preview for this week’s Divisional NFL Playoffs below.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Arguably the most heated and well-played rivalry in the NFL today. When the Ravens and Steelers lock up, you know you’re going to see a lot of hard-hitting action and a game that will go down to the wire. In fact, 7 of the l=the last 8 Baltimore/Pittsburgh games have been decided by 6 points or less. The last time the two teams played back in December, a 4th quarter Troy Polamalu sack and strip of quarterback Joe Flacco led to a game-winning Ben Roethlisberger drive.
Baltimore heads into this game coming off a highly impressive victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend. Their vaunted defense was able to force a relatively inexperienced Chiefs team to turn the ball over frequently en route to a 30-7 victory. Experience is an attribute certainly not lacked by Pittsburgh, and they’ll suit up Sunday having had an extra week of rest. Will that week off prove to be a factor?
On average, neither one of these teams give up a lot of points. Throughout the regular season, Baltimore’s opponents only racked up 17 points a game, while Pittsburgh only surrendered 15. A lot of that has to do with how well both teams neutralize the run. While the Ravens are only giving up an impressive 94 rushing yards a game, the Steelers led the league by a wide margin in that category, giving up a ridiculous 63 yards per outing. Seeing how both teams defend the run, this game should (and probably will) come down to what team does a better job of putting pressure on the opposing quarterback.
New York Jets vs. New England Patriots
What’s left to say about this match-up that hasn’t already been said by Rex Ryan and his team? Once again, the outspoken coach of the New York Jets has employed the “talk them out of their game” strategy against a New England Patriots team that isn’t exactly the type of group to let a war of words get in the way of the bigger picture. The Patriots have won 13 of their last 17 meetings with the Jets, including a good ol’ fashioned 45-3 whoopin’ in their Week 13 game.
Tom Brady is without a doubt the league’s Most Valuable Player this season. Arguably playing the best football of his career, Brady finished the season with 36 touchdown passes and just 4 interceptions. What put this Patriots team over the top though is the ascension of their defense. In 4 of New England’s last 5 games, opponents have been held to 7 points or less, including the previously mentioned 3 pointed surrendered to the Jets. If New England’s defense continues to make plays with Brady playing the way he is, they’ll be next to impossible to beat.
New York didn’t have the best outing last Saturday, but they found a way to pull off a win against a veteran Colts team that was poised to ride another Peyton Manning comeback to victory. The Jets were able to contain Manning, which may have helped them prepare for the looming task of defending Brady. For the Jets to win this game, quarterback Mark Sanchez needs to play well from the jump, because New England will make him pay for the type of mistakes he made against Indianapolis. Expect the Foxborough environment to play a big factor in this game as well.
Green Bay Packers vs. Atlanta Falcons
We saw a preview of this match-up back in Week 12, when the Falcons used a final-minute Matt Bryant field goal to edge the Packers 20-17. Like that game, this one will take place at the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons have played near-perfect football throughout the season. On the flip side, Green Bay has played below average football on the road, going 3-5 during the regular season before marching into Philadelphia last week to upset the Eagles.
The Packers have struggled to find a run game to complement Aaron Rodgers’ arm all season, but were able to get an unexpected 123 yards out of rookie James Starks against the Eagles. If Starks can duplicate some of than running in Saturday’s game, it’ll make Green Bay’s offense a lot less predictable and open the field for one of the best quarterbacks in the game. The Packers defense, which held Michael Vick and the Philly offense in check last week, will look to have a repeat performance against a team with just as many offensive weapons.
Green Bay fields a well-balanced defense that does a solid job of containing both the run and pass. Atlanta’s offensive line will play a critical role in this game, making sure Matt Ryan has the proper time to locate Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez without getting hit hard and often like Vick did last week. To keep the Packers’ defense true, expect a healthy dose of Michael Turner and Jason Snelling hitting the holes. Ryan is undefeated against Rodgers, but up until last week, Rodgers had never won a playoff game. Will Rodgers continue to reverse trends?
Seattle Seahawks vs Chicago Bears
The Seattle Seahawks have shown us why you can never count out a team in a ‘one-and-done’ playoff format. After landing an unlikely playoff spot with just a 7-9 regular season record, the ‘Hawks eliminated the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints last weekend after Marshawn Lynch went into “Beast Mode.” This time, there will be no “12th Man” advantage, as Seattle travels to Soldier Field to take on the Chicago Bears.
The advantage Seattle lacks on the road is somewhat made up by the fact that they’ve already won at Chicago this season. In Week 6, the Seahawks sacked Jay Cutler 6 times in their 23-20 victory over the Bears. The well-balanced effort was led by Matt Hasselbeck and receiver Mike Williams, who hooked up 10 times for 123 yards.
However, the Bears are playing much better football at this stage in the season. A large part of the reason is the elevated play of their defense, which is starting to look a little more like that “Monsters of the Midway” crew that we’ve come to expect. They’ve particularly done a great job stuffing the run, only giving up 90 yards a game. Combining the home field advantage with a defense that gives up about 8 points less each time out, the Bears should be able to make a Conference Championship Game reappearance. Seattle looks pretty good in the underdog role, though.