The purpose of the divisional round is to trim the 2013 NFL playoff teams down to four, but its ultimate destiny may be to inject life into a postseason that felt utterly benign last weekend.
Usually the craziest of the NFL playoff weekends, the 2013 Wild Card Round felt an awfully lot like a string of disappointing regular-season matchups. Just one game (Cincinnati-Houston) was decided by fewer than 10 points, and that contest felt like both teams were taking turns trying to give each other the game.
Based on the matchups, this weekend's divisional round should bring back the playoff atmosphere we're accustomed to seeing. With that in mind, let's take a detailed look at every matchup on this weekend's slate and predict which teams will see conference championship glory.
Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos
Based on just about every metric available on the interwebs, this game looks like a pretty strong mismatch in Denver's favor.
The Broncos rank second in Football Outsiders' DVOA. The Ravens rank 10th, which is third-worst among the remaining playoff teams. Denver is also relatively healthy, while Baltimore's defense is being held together by scotch tape and shoulder braces at the moment.
More importantly, the two teams' Week 15 matchup was evidence of the talent chasm between the clubs. The Broncos were up 31-3 at the end of the third quarter before the Ravens scored two garbage-time touchdowns in the fourth quarter in what became a 34-17 Denver victory.
Obviously, we can't simply assume that Denver will dominate again because it did in the regular season. NFL history is filled with repeat matchups that looked one way in the regular season and were the complete opposite in January and February.
Ultimately, though, Baltimore will see its undoing in Denver—and it won't be (totally) Joe Flacco's fault this time.
Instead, the Broncos should come away with an easy victory thanks to how Peyton Manning and Co. match up against the Ravens' once-vaunted defense.
Terrell Suggs' play has been hampered all season by a bothersome Achilles, and it was "acting up" last week against the Colts. With Suggs struggling to rush off the left edge, Manning should be able to focus solely on keeping Paul Kruger out of the backfield. The pass-rushing specialist had 2.5 sacks on Andrew Luck last week and has been one of the few bastions of consistency for Baltimore all season.
If there's anything we've learned over the past decade-and-a-half, it's that Manning is arguably the best ever at mitigating the effect of opposing pass-rushers. This season, Manning was pressured on only 19.9 percent of his dropbacks, which is more than five percent less than any other quarterback, per Pro Football Focus.
That will be huge against a Ravens secondary decimated by injuries. Top cornerback Lardarius Webb has been out since October, leaving Cary Williams to be Baltimore's top option on the outside.
As one might expect, the results haven't been pretty. Among cornerbacks who have received 50 percent or more of their teams' snaps, Williams is tied for 63rd in Pro Football Focus' cornerback rankings and has given up the fourth-most yards of any corner in the NFL.
He'll be joined in the starting lineup by Corey Graham, who has been much improved compared to his time with the Bears. However, he's still ultimately below replacement level.
Look for Manning to coast his way to more than 300 yards passing as Denver marches on to host the AFC Championship Game.
Prediction: Broncos 31, Ravens 13
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
While Saturday's early game could be over by halftime, the Packers and 49ers should provide a thrilling nightcap.
Like Denver and Baltimore, this is a repeat of a regular-season matchup. It was a contest that San Francisco dominated for three quarters, storming out to a 23-7 lead, before two Green Bay scores made the final score (30-22) closer than the game ever was.
That matchup also came in Week 1, meaning we can just about throw it out the window. Alex Smith was still under center for the 49ers, and Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings were both their Pro Bowl selves for Aaron Rodgers' passing game.
Since then, Smith has been replaced by Colin Kaepernick, and the Packers' receiving duo has gone through arduous, injury-plagued seasons.
What do we have now? A matchup between two evenly matched teams that will ultimately be decided by the men under center.
For starters, Rodgers' success against the 49ers will ultimately come down to the health of Justin Smith.
When San Francisco's All-Pro defensive end is in the lineup, the defense is arguably the best all-around unit in football. Smith's ability to draw double-teams opens up edge-rushing specialists like Aldon Smith to wreak havoc in the backfield. It's not a coincidence that Aldon Smith failed to record a sack in the final two games of the season while Justin Smith was sidelined with a partially torn triceps.
If Justin Smith plays and performs well, Rodgers could be forced into constant check-down throws like he was in Week 1. Though he can definitely complete those and move the ball up the field, it would keep the game from becoming a track meet, which would play right into San Francisco's hands.
On the other hand, Kaepernick won't have a day at the park, either, against the Packers' trio of elite cornerbacks.
Though hampered all year by injuries, cornerback Sam Shields has been phenomenal when in the lineup. Only 21 of the 44 passes thrown his way this season were complete, and he led the NFL in coverage snaps per reception allowed, per Pro Football Focus.
The former Miami Hurricane is joined by Tramon Williams and Casey Hayward at the cornerback spots, both of whom excelled even in Shields' absence. Hayward went through the entire season without giving up a touchdown pass, and quarterbacks had an NFL-worst 31.1 QB rating when throwing in his direction.
What San Francisco must do is run heavy sets, thereby forcing one of the cornerbacks (Hayward) off the field. The Packers ranked 17th in the NFL against the run, so the 49ers should be able to move the ball up the field with Frank Gore.
Eventually, though, Kaepernick will have to make a throw late in the fourth quarter of a close game. I just don't have enough faith in him yet to justify picking the 49ers. Green Bay will win an absolute thriller at Candlestick.
Score Prediction: Packers 24, 49ers 20
Houston Texans at New England Patriots
If the Patriots' 42-14 victory over the Texans in Week 14 is any indication, we should be headed toward a Peyton Manning-Tom Brady showdown in the AFC Championship Game (assuming Denver wins). In that Monday night contest, New England scored touchdowns on its first three possessions and Houston could never recover.
From start to finish, the Patriots methodically dominated a seemingly overwhelmed Texans squad. Brady threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns, picking apart a Houston secondary that looked increasingly questionable down the stretch.
That embarrassment started a run of three losses in four weeks for the Texans, which is ultimately the reason the building will say Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
How will this game play out? Well, it's hard to see this contest going much differently from the first iteration.
As they've shown a penchant to do, the Texans will likely try to pound the ball with Arian Foster. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his three career playoff games and received a whopping 32 carries in Houston's win over Cincinnati last week.
But an offense featuring Foster plays right into the Patriots' hands. Though he should have some incremental success, New England ranked sixth in yards allowed per carry. Its longest rush allowed was a mere 31 yards.
Ostensibly, Houston would have far more success with a pass-heavy attack, but Matt Schaub has struggled down the stretch. On that basis, it seems unlikely that Gary Kubiak would put his team in the hands of Schaub, even against a weak Patriots secondary.
That means just about the only way Houston will be able to win is by controlling the ball and keeping the score low.
There's only one way that happens: Houston must create pressure against Brady. As one would expect, that onus will fall on Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt. The star defensive end finished a marvelous 2012 season with 81 tackles, 20.5 sacks and a whopping 16 passes defensed from the down lineman position.
Perhaps even more importantly, Watt is a regular fixture in the backfield, even when he's not bringing down opposing quarterbacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Watt finished the regular season with 76 pressures, which was by far the most for a 3-4 defensive lineman.
The second-best player? Houston's Antonio Smith with 47 pressures.
If the Texans are able to get pressure without all-out blitzing Brady, it could pay massive dividends. Per Steve Palazzolo of Draft-Hub.com, the Patriots' signal-caller's 47 percent completion rate was the worst in the NFL when given less than 2.5 seconds to make a pass.
Unfortunately for the Texans, they showed little ability to hit Brady in the teams' first matchup. Houston recorded only one sack, hitting Brady six times and hurrying him just four.
Look for more of the same on Sunday, as the Patriots pack their bags and head to Denver next week.
Score Prediction: Patriots 38, Texans 21
Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons
For those who are bettors, this game has been perhaps the most intriguing. Despite everyone and their great-grandmother seemingly picking Seattle, arguably the NFL's hottest team, Atlanta has actually gone from a two-point favorite to a 2.5-point favorite (per Vegas Insider).
Could we all have been wrong and Atlanta's home-field advantage means more than we know?
In a word: Nope.
Based on everything we know about these teams, the Seahawks are superior in every facet of the game. Through the first round of the postseason, Seattle ranks first in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric and ahead of Atlanta in offense, defense and special teams. Or, as they're otherwise known, everything that encompasses a football game.
Outside of overarching data-based reasons, the Seahawks are also a matchup nightmare for the Falcons, particularly on defense.
Marshawn Lynch heads into the divisional round with five straight 100-plus-yard performances under his belt. Those contests include great performances against the Redskins and 49ers, both of whom were ranked among the top five in run defense during the regular season.
The Falcons aren't a top-five run defense among teams remaining in the postseason, let alone in the NFL. They gave up 121.3 yards per game, good for 21st in the league, and rated even worse in Pro Football Focus' metrics.
Lynch should have no problem making it six straight 100-plus-yard performances, so long as Russell Wilson plays at even replacement level.
What's more, it's Atlanta's struggles running the ball that could make its life all the more difficult. Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers both averaged less than four yards per carry, thanks to an offensive line that finished 24th in adjusted line yards, per Football Outsiders.
As such, the Falcons relied heavily on Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White to carry the team through the air. They've succeeded with career-best numbers nearly across the board and actually don't get enough mention among the NFL's most explosive aerial attacks.
However, with cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman lining up across from Jones and White, the Seahawks are Atlanta's perfect foil. Seattle's dynamic duo won't be able to stop the Falcons the entire game, but they should get the job done well enough to force a below-average performance.
With no running game and a passing game playing below expectations, it could be exceedingly difficult for the Falcons to score.
Granted, one could easily point out that the Seahawks are a worse team on the road than at home. There's no denying that. However, it's also impossible to refute that they dominated the Redskins for the final three quarters of last Sunday's matchup, hobbled Robert Griffin III or not.
The game will be closer because Atlanta is playing at home, but not enough to derail Seattle's runaway train.
In the end, Seattle goes to Green Bay for a rematch of Week 3's "Fail Mary" controversy. How's that for poetic justice?
Score Prediction: Seahawks 23, Falcons 14
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