AFC/NFC Divisional Playoff Preview


BY NEAL MALONE

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (+10) AT CHICAGO BEARS – Soldier Field, 1 PM ET, Sun.

BREAKDOWN: There are endless storylines heading into Sunday’s matchup between the Seahawks and Bears. Instead of listing them off and writing for days about how unlikely and ridiculous it is that these two teams are playing for a spot in the NFC Championship Game, I’m going to focus on a few of the main points heading into Sunday.

Breaks.  Luck.  Good Fortune.  Whatever you want to call it – the Bears have had it all year long.  From the Calvin Johnson “completing the process of the catch” debacle in Week 1 to the privilage of playing third-string starting quarterbacks THREE times this season, the Football Gods have been smiling down at the Bears.  But that was just in the regular season.

Now, Lovie Smith and Co. have the opportunity to host the Seahawks, one of the league’s worst road teams,  in the NFC Divsional Round of the playoffs.  It goes without saying that the Bears meeting the Seahawks this Sunday, rather than the Eagles or Saints, required a highly unlikely scenario to come to fruition.  But apparently those Football Gods I mentioned weren’t exactly finished helping the Monsters of the Midway – which brings us to their opponent.

It was only 10 days ago when the Charlie Whitehurst-led Seahawks held off the St. Louis Rams at Qwest Field to clinch the NFC West Division Championship – and what a great game it was.  Oh wait, not exactly.  As much as I’d love to talk about how enthralling that 16-6 Seattle win was, the main point is that they earned their spot in the playoffs.

You may not have believed they deserved a postseason spot at the time, but after watching them dismantle the New Orleans Saints defense on the ground and through the air, it’s clear that even the mediocre can make something happen in the playoffs if they put their minds to it.

Should the Bears be scared?  I don’t know…it’s hard to say.  On one hand, the Seahawks won’t have their raucous home crowd behind them.  In fact, they’ll play in front of a raucous crowd on Sunday – the only thing is it’ll be a Soldier Field home crowd and they’ll be vigorously rooting against them.

But after seeing brute strength from Marshawn Lynch on the ground and unflappable poise from Matt Hasslebeck in the pocket, the Bears defense will certainly have to be on high alert.  One thing is for sure – this isn’t the same team the Bears faced in Week 6 at Soldier Field.  The Seahawks won that game 23-20.

BOTTOM LINE: It would be hard to believe the Seahawks could come into Soldier Field twice this season and leave with a win both times.  The Bears have drastically improved on offense since their Week 6 loss to Seattle, with Jay Cutler beginning to come into his own near the end of the season.  First career playoff game or not, if Jay Cutler plays within Mike Martz’s offense and doesn’t try to force anything, the Bears will be fine – not to mention the Chicago defense is far superior to that of the New Orleans Saints, who gave up 41 points to the Seahawks last week.

PREDICTION: Bears 31, Seahawks 21

GREEN BAY PACKERS (+2.5) AT ATLANTA FALCONS – Georgia Dome, 8 PM ET, Sat.

BREAKDOWN: Facing a healthy Aaron Rodgers has been a scary proposition for defenses over the course of the last several weeks.  Toss in a new-found running game and you’ve got a very scary Packers offense.

Rodgers was incredibly efficient in the Pack’s wild-card win over the Eagles in Philly last week.  He only threw for 180 yards, but he had three TD passes without an interception.  Only 180 yards, you say?  Well, that was because he finally had some help on the ground – and it came from an unlikely source.  James Starks, who appeared in just three regular season games, ran for 123 yards on 23 carries, giving Green Bay a rare 100-yard rushing performance since the injury to Ryan Grant.

All this talk about the Packers and I still haven’t talked about Clay Matthews, Trumond Williams, or the rest of the Packers defense.  Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers had an amazing gameplan, which contained Michael Vick and limited the impact of LeSean McCoy.  When a big play was needed at the end of the game, Williams made it, picking off Vick in the end zone to clinch a trip to the Divisional Round.

It was a great road win for Green Bay, but now they head to a place that has been just plain cruel to it’s visitors.  Matt Ryan’s ridiculous record at the Georgia Dome got a reality check in Week 16 against the Saints, but it still gives the Falcons incredible odds.  The poised, experienced offensive combination of Ryan, Roddy White, Michael Turner, and Tony Gonzalez will most likely prove tough to deal with from the Packers’ standpoint.

The Falcons defense is also worth mentioning.  They’ll allow you to move the ball and put up some points, but they rarely give up a lot.  The Falcons are 10th in the league in rushing defense, so if they can stop the run and force the Green Bay offense back into a one-dimensional unit, then you may start to see Aaron Rodgers force a few throws.

Keep in mind, the Packers won’t be able to use their “cold weather” advantage on Saturday because the game will be played in a dome.  The Packers are always a team that competes well in the elements and the Falcons are probably the exact opposite, but Mike McCarthy’s team won’t have Mother Nature on their side.  Look for the noise of the home crowd in the dome environment potentially get into the heads of the Packers’ players.

BOTTOM LINE: If Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk can set a tone early with a few sacks or hits on the quarterback through blitz packages, I can see Matt Ryan getting out of sync with his receivers.  Green Bay blitzes so much that if they execute correctly, it can completely get to the opposing quarterback’s head and neutralize their skill set (like Michael Vick last week).  Also, look for Aaron Rodgers to take some shots down the field to guys like Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and Jordy Nelson.  Their running game was good last week, but who knows how much help Rodgers will have in front of the dome crowd from an unproven James Starks.

PREDICTION: Packers 27, Falcons 24

BALTIMORE RAVENS (+3) AT PITTSBURGH STEELERS – Heinz Field, 4:30 PM ET, Sat.

BREAKDOWN: How ’bout this for a football game? When you talk about tough, smashmouth NFL teams, look no further than the Ravens and Steelers.  Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed for the Ravens.  James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley for the Steelers – and that’s just naming a few defensive players from each team.

The season series between these two teams suggests that it’s going to be a good, old-fashioned dogfight (not an intentional Vick reference).  Each team came away with three-point road wins at the other’s stadium.  Neither were high-scoring and with these two defensive units, you wouldn’t expect anything else.

Sure, Joe Flacco has Ray Rice to hand the ball off to and T.J. Houshmanzadeh and Anquan Boldin as receiving targets, but to think they’re going to blow up Dick LeBeau’s well-established 3-4 defense is a little unrealistic.  The same goes for the Steelers, who boast some of the toughest offensive guys in the league in Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, and Hines Ward.  I just don’t see them picking apart a defense that is led by the always-wise and experienced Ray Lewis.

It’s hard to speculate what to expect from the Steelers this weekend – of course outside of the usual, grind-it-out performance they’ve become famous for over the last several years.  But on the Ravens side, the NFL nation got a pretty good idea of where their level of play is at the moment when they crushed the Chiefs in Kansas City last weekend.  Look, Arrowhead Stadium isn’t an easy place to play by any stretch of the imagination, but the Ravens took the crowd out of it and simply dominated.  They forced turnover after turnover against Matt Cassel, letting the defense create the opportunities for the offense.

While the Ravens easily took care of business in the wild-card round on the road, don’t overlook the Steelers (not that you were going to anyways).  The Ben Roethlisberger Era can be justly characterized as one full of “ugly wins.”  But the key word is W-I-N – that’s what the Steelers do.  No matter how banged-up their team is or how workmanlike their performances may seem, you can never count out the guys from Pittsburgh, winners of two of the last five Super Bowls.

BOTTOM LINE: As crazy as this NFL season has been, you can pretty much count on this game being close.  Each defense is too mentally and physically tough for it to heavily swing in one team’s favor.  You know Roethlisberger will probably produce a few big plays, but what I’m interested in is what the Pittsburgh running game can do in this game.  The Steelers offensive line can be dominant at times, especially behind left guard Chris Kemoeatu.  If Mendenhall can produce a big day on the ground, I give the Steelers the advantage at home.

PREDICTION: Steelers 23, Ravens 20

NEW YORK JETS (+8.5) AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS – Gillette Stadium, 4:30 PM ET, Sun.

BREAKDOWN: Going into a road game in the playoffs against Tom Brady, I’m pretty sure it’s not the brightest idea in the world to call him an asshole – but Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie did it anyway.  I guess one could say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when you’re referring to Jets players and coaches.  Sure, Rex Ryan didn’t take it as far as Cromartie, but he’s been gabbing since day one in New York, and his big mouth seems to be spewing word vomit more and more as time goes on.

Let’s just get one thing straight – Tom Brady is the best quarterback in the NFL.  Sorry, Peyton Manning fans.  The guy has three Super Bowl rings and seems to have opposing defenses figured out each and every week, no matter what kind of defensive strategies they try to throw his way.  Brady has also openly used the fact that he was a 6th-round draft pick as motivation to prove everyone wrong throughout his NFL career – and he’s obviously done that and more.

So, I’ll ask again – why exactly would you want to piss him off EVEN MORE at this point in the season?  Brady thrives on competitive jabs like the ones from Cromartie and Ryan.

All things aside for a moment, you have to give the Ryan and the Jets credit.  Going into Indianapolis against #18 in the playoffs is tough and they emerged victorious, showing a lot of team character on the way.  They have had their backs against the wall several times this season as well as last season and yet they’ve shown the ability to persevere and win playoff games.

Unfortunately for the Jets, “the buck stops here.”  “All good things must come to an end.”  Whatever cheesy phrase you want to use – what I mean is IT’S OVER.

By intangibles and mere principle alone, the Patriots will beat the Jets.  Remember, this is without even considering X’s and O’s.  But since I brought it up, let’s discuss….

The Patriots actually have a running game unlike the Colts.  The Law Firm a.k.a. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been running over kids since his mid-season emergence as the starting running back.  His running style has been the perfect compliment to Brady’s precision passing attack, which involves the always-productive Wes Welker, the reborn Deion Branch, and two trusty rookie tight ends in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.  The balance of the Patriots offense will cause major problems for the Jets, who surrendered 45 points to the Pats in Week 13 and 38 points to the Bears in Week 16.

While Darrell Revis continues to maintain his status as a shutdown corner, Antonio Cromartie has emerged as anything but one.  Cromartie was torched by Jay Cutler in Chicago and was to blame for Manning’s 57-yard TD pass to Pierre Garcon last weekend.  Add Cromartie’s struggles to the “unkind” words he had for Brady this week, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster with the Patriots quarterback as the smiling chef.

As for the Jets’ offense, they’ll have to do better than 17 points.  Now, I’m not saying the Patriots defense is miles better than that of the Colts, but there is a noticeable difference.  I’m expecting Brady and the New England offense to put up over 30 points, so Mark Sanchez is going to have to find a way to score early and often.  The Jets showed signs of offensive prowess against a more than decent Bears defense, putting up 34 points in their late-season loss at Soldier Field.  It’s that type of performance they’ll need if there going to have to keep up with the Pats.

BOTTOM LINE: The Jets may be talking a big game, but I’d say their trash talk is more of a sign of nervousness than anything.  They’ve added fuel to Brady-Belichick fire and in the playoffs, I don’t see how that is a good thing for a Patriots opponent.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jets put up a fight because they do seem to have an undying swagger that can’t really be explained.  But in the end New England at home will be too much for New York, no matter how much they talk before the kickoff.

PREDICTION: Patriots 37, Jets 20

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