The Atlanta Falcons game against the Seattle Seahawks isn’t the only divisional-round matchup this weekend. Contrary to the steady dose of Falcons news and opinions, there are three other NFL games this weekend. I’ll take just a few minutes and breakdown each of the other three games of this round of the playoffs, in addition the Falcons game:
Denver Broncos (1) vs. Baltimore Ravens (4): You’d think that Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis are the only two players taking part in this game. Nothing could be further from the truth, but they are two of the greatest players ever at their respective positions, and they’re the heart and soul of their respective teams.
But the game boils down to much more than the performance of these two. The Broncos boast a tremendous defense that can really get after the passer as well as being stout against the run. They have Peyton Manning who can throw the heck out of the football, but they also have tremendous balance offensively, with a very good rushing attack.
Contrast that with Baltimore. They haven’t been consistently good at running the ball, and Joe Flacco has been even more inconsistent at the quarterback position. I think it’s clear that in the past, Baltimore’s defense has carried Flacco in the playoffs. But defensively, the Ravens aren’t quite what they once were. Lewis is a tremendous leader, but he’s aging and has clearly lost a step. Ed Reed hasn’t been quite the same this season. And a bigger problem is their performance up front. DT Haloti Ngata hasn’t been the same while dealing with several injuries, and OLB/pass-rushing specialist Terrell Suggs hasn’t quite the force he once was while recovering from a torn Achilles this summer. The once dominant defense isn’t great up front, opening up vulnerabilities in the secondary.
Look, Baltimore has been very good defensively in past years, and the offense has just been good enough. But Denver’s defense is outstanding, and their offense is just as good, if not better. I just don’t see a way the Ray Lewis’ career lasts another week.
Denver 34- Baltimore 20
San Francisco 49ers (2) vs. Green Bay Packers (3): This is truly the marquee matchup of the weekend. These two storied franchises meeting up is exactly what the television networks are looking for from a ratings standpoint. These are two of the most powerful franchises in NFL history.
It also is going to pit two of the contrasting styles of football in the League against each other. The 49ers run the heck out of the ball, and with Frank Gore have the ability to really jam the ball down the throats of opposing defenses. On defense, San Fran plays a stifling style. They don’t allow opponents to run the ball anywhere, forcing them to throw. They may not be the best coverage team in America, but they tackle really well, and rush the passer very well. That allows them to get opponents into 3rd & long situations, force a quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly short of a first down, and then the 9ers use their speed and tackling ability to make other teams punt. It’s just what they do, and if you watched the Week 1 matchup between these two teams, you’d see that gameplan executed to perfection.
Green Bay is somewhat lighter on defense, and much lighter on offense. The Packers like to light up the scoreboard with their passing attack, and force the other team to throw the ball to play catchup. If the other team has to throw, the Packers are well prepared. They have an outstanding secondary with great ball-hawks, and Clay Matthews is a beast pass-rusher from the outside linebacker position. But they aren’t great at defending the run, and have a tough time with teams that do. Their offense is potent, and can pass effectively even when the entire world knows they will, but are extremely vulnerable to ground-and-pound offensive attacks.
As much success as I believe the 49ers will have offensively, I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the potency of the Packers offense. That’s the true equalizer in this game. As a result, this is going to be a very close game. Field goal close. And that will be last second. This will be the game of the weekend.
San Francisco 30- Green Bay 28
Atlanta Falcons (1) vs. Seattle Seahawks (5): Whenever anyone talks about the Atlanta Falcons, nothing is said other than that they have to prove themselves in the playoffs. The comment typically sounds something like ‘Yeah they’ve had a good season, but let’s see them do something in the playoffs, where in the Thomas Dimitroff- Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era the Falcons are 0-3.’ If it sound familiar, it’s because that’s all there really is for the Falcons to do. Atlanta’s defense is very opportunistic, and epitomizes a bend-don’t-break philosophy. Offensively, they’ve become pass-first, but that’s not a bad thing with their tremendously explosive receiving corps. With the added use of screen plays and more successful shots down the field, there isn’t a blade of grass on the field the Falcons can’t utilize in their passing attack. The Falcons really resemble a Green Bay-lite. The only thing that’s missing is a playoff pedigree.
Seattle is similar to San Francisco in having an extremely physical team. But while the 49ers strength is physicality up front defensively, the Seahawks are big and physical in the secondary. They matchup really well with the Falcons receivers, but only as long as Seattle can get consistent pass-rush on Matt Ryan. Offensively, the ‘Hawks run the ball in a fashion similar to the 49ers. They do a great job play-action passing off or runs where Marshawn Lynch pounds the ball down the defense’s throat. But Seattle has a little wrinkle: they like to run a read-option run, where Russell Wilson can either hand the ball off to Lynch, or run himself/pass. They do so many good things out of the same formation, it’s really hard to stop. And the Falcons aren’t overly exceptional at stopping the run.
It’s going to be a tough matchup, perhaps even more toughly contested than the 49ers-Packers game. However, the Seahawks will be missing Chris Clemons, their primary pass-rusher. I think Ryan will have more than the average amount of time to pass, and that will give Julio Jones and Roddy White additional time to get open. Seattle’s corners are ultra-physical and strong, but they aren’t the best cover corners in the league. Give Ryan a little more time to pass, and good things will happen in this Atlanta offense.
Atlanta 27- Seattle 24
New England Patriots (2) vs. Houston Texans (3): Houston got off to the hottest of starts and looked to be rolling to the #1 seed in the AFC. They had won 11 of their first 12 games. Then came a Monday Night game against these same New England Patriots. The Texans were completely lambasted by the Pats, as they were torn apart 42-14. From that point on, Houston didn’t look like the same team. They lost their final two games of the season to finish 12-4, but they looked far from untouchable.
In recent weeks, teams have loaded the box to stuff the Texans run game. When Houston can’t run the ball, they aren’t nearly as effective. Their passing attack is contingent on using play-action. In obvious passing situations, Matt Schaub & Co. simply haven’t gotten it done. So the key is to stop Houston’s rushing attack. The other key to attacking Houston offensively is to get the ball to your slot receivers. The Texans don’t have a very outstanding nickel or dime corner, so when you get the ball to your third and fourth receivers, Houston simply looks outmanned. They just haven’t shown much ability to compete in those situations.
Tom Brady will be looking to take advantage of Houston in those situation, exactly the same way he did last time. New England likes to use their 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), on most downs. That’s because their tight ends are exceptional. They are very good blockers, they are fast, they are physical, and gain separation like no other. Houston will find themselves at an added disadvantage when trying to matchup with the Patriots third and fourth receivers. It’s just so hard to matchup, especially when Wes Welker is a primary receiver. He’s as slippery as they get.
I don’t think it will be quite as unbalanced as the last time these two teams met, but New England will emerge victorious again.
New England 38- Houston 24