This Week in: The NFL – Divisional Round

An injury to Robert Griffin III scuppered the Redskins' chances of advancing
An injury to Robert Griffin III scuppered the Redskins’ chances of advancing

In last weekend’s NFC Wild Card round playoff matchups, the Seattle Seahawks overcame an early fourteen point deficit to defeat the Redskins, 24-14, in Washington.  They were helped enormously by an injury to the home team’s quarterback, Robert Griffin III, which badly hampered the rookie’s ability to move and thus severely limited their offense.  Despite the Redskins being unable to score again after the opening 15 minutes, Seattle did not take the lead until midway through the fourth-quarter, as both teams struggled to move downfield in the first part of the second half.  In the end, RG3’s troublesome knee – which had forced him to wear a brace for the last few weeks, as well as in this encounter – gave way and with it went the hopes of the Redskins, though if he can recover from this injury in time for next season, they can expect to qualify for the playoffs on a regular basis.  The Seahawks will now face the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional Round, as the Green Bay Packers took care of business at home against the Vikings, holding Adrian Peterson to 99 yards rushing and QB Joe Webb – who was a late replacement for Christian Ponder, due to an elbow problem – to 180 yards passing, more than a third of which came on a late touchdown drive when the result was already beyond doubt.  The number 3 seed Packers now face a trip to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night, with a place in the NFC Championship game at stake.

Over in the AFC, Indianapolis’ fairy tale season came to an end, as they fell 24-9 in Baltimore – a fixture that also represented the final home appearance for the Ravens’ Ray Lewis, who is due to retire at the end of their playoff run.  It had been a close fight in the first half, with the Colts trailing 10-6 heading into the break, but two touchdown passes from Joe Flacco ensured that Baltimore would advance to face Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos; while Indianapolis can look forward to building around rookie QB for many years to come, following an impressive first season.  In the other game in the AFC – and the least entertaining of the four that were played last weekend – the Texans beat the Bengals 19-13, which marks the second year in a row that Houston has knocked out Cincinnati, while they remain winless against all other opponents in the postseason.

Weekend Preview and Predictions

Last week, 2-2; Regular Season 135-120

4. Baltimore Ravens @ 1. Denver Broncos – Saturday 4:30pm ET

The Broncos won their last 11 games of the regular season, while the Ravens stumbled into the playoffs, so this matchup is widely expected to go to the home team, who have seasoned postseason veteran, Peyton Manning at the helm.  Further evidence for Denver’s advantage is that when the two sides met in Colorado in Week 15, the Broncos prevailed 34-17 – a result that actually flattered Baltimore.  However, the Ravens have had several starters return on defense and should have a better pass rush this time around, while Denver enjoyed the second easiest regular season schedule, suggesting their record may be somewhat flattering.  In both of the AFC Divisional Round fixtures, the home sides are heavily favoured to advance, setting up another showdown between Tom Brady and Manning, who sparred frequently during his time in Indianapolis, but I think Baltimore – perhaps because they were my Super Bowl pick prior to the start of the year – will upset that and win outright in Denver this Saturday.  The Pick – Baltimore +10 over Denver

3. Green Bay Packers @ 2. San Francisco 49ers – Saturday 8:30pm ET

In one of the most tedious stories surrounding this weekend’s playoff games, there have been numerous mentions of the fact that Green Bay’s QB, Aaron Rodgers, is from California and felt slighted when he was not drafted by the 49ers – plus 22 other teams – thus is intent on proving them wrong 8 years later.  As a Packers fan, this alleged thirst for revenge by Rodgers is as interesting to me as getting a Discount Double Check – hopefully his first Super Bowl ring 2 years ago gave him all the confidence he needs, but his desire should come from wanting to win another title for Green Bay, not from a chip on his shoulder.  Whatever his motivation, Rodgers looked back to his best against the Titans in Week 16 and in putting the game out of reach versus the Vikings in the Wild Card round, though the 49ers were able to beat the Packers in their season opener.  Much has changed since then, most notably San Francisco’s quarterback, as Colin Kaepernick has replaced Alex Smith (the number 1 pick in the 2005 draft that saw Rodgers drop to Green Bay at 24).  While he adds a different dimension with his ability to through the ball deep as well as gain first downs with his feet, Kaepernick – who has only 7 NFL starts to his name – will face a tough start to life in the playoffs against a Packers defense that has got healthier and better with the return from injury of Charlie Woodson and Sam Shields, as well as Clay Matthews, who missed four games this year but is likely to spy on the San Francisco QB in the same way he did against Ben Roethlisberger in their Super Bowl victory over the Steelers.  San Francisco were 6-1-1 at home this year and are rightly favoured, but I think that with all of his receivers healthy, Rodgers will be leading his team back to the NFC game.  The Pick – Green Bay + 3 over San Francisco

5. Seattle Seahawks @ 1. Atlanta Falcons – Sunday 1:o0pm ET

In the last few weeks, NFL experts have been proclaiming the Seahawks as the best all around team in the league and they are being widely tipped to win not only on Sunday, but to go all the way to the Super Bowl – though to be fair, Bill Simmons at Grantland was a founder member of the Russell Wilson bandwagon before the season had even began.  They became a more widespread pick after a three game span during which they scored 150 points, while conceding just 30, as they narrowly missed out on winning the NFC West and claiming the number 2 seed, with Wilson also tying Peyton Manning’s record for touchdown passes by a rookie QB in the regular season.  Evidence which goes against the Seahawks includes the fact that they were 3-5 on the road this year; only made the playoffs thanks to a last second comeback against the Bears, combined with a fortuitous call against the Packers in week 2; and they are facing a Falcons team that was 7-1 at home – the only loss being in their final fixture against the Buccaneers, when they had already claimed the number 1 seed (though they did still play their starters).  Furthermore, had Robert Griffin III not got injured last Sunday, I do not think Seattle would even be playing this weekend and I think the wheels will come off of their bandwagon in Atlanta, giving Matt Ryan his first postseason win. The Pick: Atlanta -2.5 over Seattle

3. Houston Texans @ 2. New England Patriots – Sunday 4:30pm ET

As mentioned above, Houston are 2-0 against Cincinnati in the playoffs, but have no victories over any other teams in the history of the franchise.  Not that long ago, they looked a certainty to claim the number 1 seed in the AFC and home field advantage up until the Super Bowl, but heavy defeats against the Packers and Patriots, as well as losses to Minnesota and Indianapolis, saw them drop down to number 3 and they now face New England on the road.  Their best offense weapon against the Bengals was Arian Foster, who rushed for 140 yards and the Texans’ only touchdown, while Matt Schaub has not looked healthy in recent weeks.  However, that is unlikely to be enough for them to defeat the Patriots, who ended the season on a 9-1 run after being just 3-3 in the opening 6 weeks. The Pick: New England -9.5 over Houston

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