Divisional Playoff Weekend Preview: Pats and Broncos Walk, NFC Up For Grabs

This is the best weekend of football.  Not only are we down to eight teams, but we also still have four games, as opposed to next week’s two.  It’s quantity, it’s quality, and it’s awesome.  The NFC games are so close I’m having a hard time picking a winner.  The AFC games on the other hand, seem like no brainers.  Let’s take a look at the keys to victory for each underdog team.

AFC

Houston Texans @ New England Patriots

Texans Keys to Victory:

Can Schaub make a few big plays downfield?

Can Schaub make a few big plays downfield?

This Texans team limped out of their first round game against an above-average Bengals team.  By limped, I mean Andy Dalton connects on just one of those two long passes to A.J. Green (both of which he over threw), and 20 points is probably enough to win this ballgame.  The Texans have no downfield passing game, which really limits their ability to win, because if there is one thing the Pats have been susceptible to, it’s the big play downfield.  If they could somehow get Andre Johnson to go deep (maybe once a quarter), this could be a great chance to break the Pats over the top.

As good as the Texans’ running game is (or was before they decided to stop being the Week 1-11 Texans), the Patriots defense is as good at stopping it.  But this will be essential to executing a winning game plan.  The teams that have historically beaten the Patriots have been able to control the clock, make a few big plays, keep pressure on Brady, and run the ball with consistency.  If the Texans can do these things, they’ll keep it closer than predicted.

Baltimore Ravens @ Denver Broncos 

Ravens Keys to Victory:

Michael Oher, Mr. Blind side, has moved to Right Tackle, a much better place for him to protect Flacco.

Michael Oher, Mr. Blind Side, has moved to Right Tackle, a much better place for him to protect Flacco.

Finding a flaw in this Broncos line up is like finding New York Giants bar in Southie.  If it is even possible, it’s probably disguised or in a backroom where there is a password to get in.  The first time these two teams met was Week 15, and it was not even close.  The Broncos absolutely destroyed the Ravens and let two garbage touchdowns in to make the score seem somewhat passable.  I’m pretty sure my coverage got changed to a different game in the third quarter.

If there was a silver lining from that game, it was that Dennis Pitta (Ravens, TE) caught two late touchdowns.  There’s no doubt that the defense was slacking off a bit down the stretch, but the Broncos have statistically struggled against tight ends.  An aging Keith Brooking cannot keep up with these speedy TE’s and this is where there may be a chink in the armor.

The Ravens are going to have to do what most teams who win on the road in the playoffs do: make a few big plays, force some key turnovers, and don’t turn the ball over themselves.  That means you, Ray Rice…

NFC

Seattle Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons

Sherman and Browner make a formidable tag team of defensive backs.

Sherman and Browner make a formidable tag team of defensive backs.

Seahawks Keys to Victory:

This one’s kind of cheap in my eyes, because if there is a lower seed that’s most likely to win their game, it’s the Seahawks.  They played a great three quarters of football in Washington, and now have a road win under their belts.  This will go really far for Russell Wilson who clearly entered the Wild Card game with some jitters.  He settled down and really played a fine game.  The Falcons may have the best receiver combo in the league in Jones and White, but the Seahawks defensive backs have been smothering, and will have to continue to do so in this one.

The Atlanta defense statistically is one of the worst remaining in the playoffs.  They rank 23rd against the pass and 21st against the run.  Marshawn Lynch will be feasting on this defense, while Russell Wilson makes some big plays.  I’m not sure Atlanta will survive this storm.

Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers

Packers Keys to Victory:

This game has been the most debated match up of the week, and for good reason.  I think I’ve flopped on my pick a few times, and still haven’t settled on it.  There are two main factors in a Packer win.  Firstly, Colin Kaepernick has yet to start a playoff game.  It’s incredibly hard to tell how someone is going to react to a moment as big as this for the first time.  Russell Wilson looked shell-shocked at first in his game, if Colin reacts the same way, it could be too late for the 49ers.

Secondly, the 49ers defense will be playing with Justin Smith, who has been a monster at defensive tackle for this team all season.  This sounds like fantastic news but he has torn triceps, and just how effective he can be, will largely determine how this teams defensive front will play.  Aldon Smith, who was closing in on Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record, has not recorded a single sack since Justin Smith got hurt.  If this 49ers team cannot get pressure on Aaron Rodgers, it will be a very long day for their secondary.  With the full compliment of Packers receivers back in the game, who knows what damage they could do.

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About Patrick Fenn

Director of Content and Community for Spogo, an interactive and rewarding second-screen experience for sports fans.

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