NFL: Divisional Round Weekend Playbook

RUNNING ROOM: Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks are primed to take advantage of a soft run defense in Atlanta on Sunday

BY THOMAS DRANCE

Last week Indianapolis’ Luck ran out; tragedy befell the most engaging, exciting NFL rookie in a generation; Joe Webb made us all laugh; and only the hardest of hardcore football fans watched the entirety of Texans v. Bengals. Also I went four for four in my Wild-Card round (most of them were layups though) piece last week!

This week I have listed the games in order of “how excited I am to watch them”, starting with my lowest level of excitement to the final game being that which I’m most excited to watch in its entirety this weekend.

Houston Texans at New England Patriots (-9.5, 47.5)
Sunday 1:30PM
I like the Texans, I really do, but I think they’re in for a long game on Sunday afternoon in Foxboro.

While they looked like a juggernaut for much of the year, the Texans faded down the stretch this season. That fade included a series of games which featured a 42-14 gutting against this very polished Patriots team in Foxboro in week 14. While Houston managed to beat the Bengals last week, I mean, the Bengals had an injured Green-Ellis (who still managed to average yards at a nice clip per carry) and also Andy Dalton under center. The Patriots, with their loaded roster including Brady, Welker, Ridley, Woodhead and company are a completely different animal. Like basically everyone else, I expect the Patriots to whomp Houston’s club on Sunday.

The Patriots have an offense capable of overwhelming just about any opponent, obviously, but Belichek and co. have done well this season to control games between the tackles in a way they haven’t in years. The Patriots now boast both a fearsome run game and a capable run defense. It’s a major reason why the Texans will have so much trouble matching up against the Pats.

New England’s big Achilles heel is that, their secondary is pretty weak, so you can put up points and keep up with them through four quarters if your passing offense is good enough. The Texans are a slightly above average passing offense, but they’re going to be leaning hard of Matt Schaub if they have any hope of pulling out Sunday’s game. I don’t think Matt Schaub is a choker or anything, he’s a capable NFL starting quarterback (top-15 for sure), but top-15 isn’t going to cut it this weekend – especially when the other team has Tom Brady.

Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos (-9.5, 46)
Saturday 1:30PM
The Broncos took a while to gel – they were 2-3 after week five – with their three losses coming against three quality teams in the Atlanta Falcons, the Houston Texans and the New England Patriots (all clubs that are still around in the playoff picture). But they haven’t lost a game since, though they mostly beat up on cupcake AFC West opponents during their run, and go into their first playoff game this weekend against the Baltimore Ravens looking like one of the most balanced teams in football.

This season the Broncos boasted the second best offense (though their rushing attack was only a tick above league average), thanks to Peyton Manning finding the fountain of youth and shoulder health. Four of their receivers caught over 40 passes, a credit to Manning’s ability to spread the ball around. Defensively, they’re in the top-five against both the rush and the pass, and haven’t given up more than 24 points since their week five loss to the best offense in football.

The Ravens appear to me to be over-matched, even though the news of their demise as an elite defense has been over-rated in my view. They probably have the advantage running the football, but that’s about it, and I don’t see it being enough against Manning and the Broncos at home. I really don’t think this one will be close.

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers (-3, 44.5)
Saturday 5PM
The AFC is the less competitive conference. I’m not sure that it’s that much weaker overall – they do boast a couple of legitimate juggernauts in the Patriots and the Broncos, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those teams won the Super Bowl – but it’s more top-heavy which, is why I think the AFC games will be relatively boring this week. Two blowouts in the AFC, two tight games in the NFC – that’s how I see this weekend unfolding.

The game between the Packers and the 49ers might be the most even matchup this weekend. By the advanced metrics the Packers have the slightly better offense (because of their dynamite passing game), but the 49ers are more balanced and have a distinct advantage running the ball. Ultimately that’s why I think San Francisco will pull this one out: I expect their superior defense, and running game will allow them to control the clock and keep Aaron Rodgers off the field as much as possible.

When you employ a guy like Rodgers, you always have a fighting shot though. I expect a close, high-scoring game on Sunday between these two teams and I think San Francisco will pull it out by a nose.

Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons (-3, 45.5)
Sunday, 10AM
I’ve been looking forward to picking against the Falcons since, like, week eight of the regular season. From their reliance on big plays, to the complete evaporation of their running game, to their ludicrous record in tight games – the Falcons appear poised for an early exit from the postseason.

Frankly, there’s no better team to do it to them than the Seahawks. The Falcons were the 20th best rushing defense in the league, and with Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson – the Seahawks are well poised to exploit that. The Seahawks have their collection of massive cornerbacks and safeties too, which will help against the likes of Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.

About the only place I see the Falcons matching up well against Seattle in the quarterback matchup. Russell Wilson has transformed from a coddled rookie who struggled to throw over the middle because of his height, to a wily, media darling over the course of this season. Its been good fun to watch, but he’s not the top-5 NFL quarterback that Matt Ryan is. Ryan’s playoff record aside – of all the reasons to doubt the Falcons, this is by far the worst one – Atlanta has a quarterback good enough to singlehandedly win this game. I don’t think it’ll happen – Ryan just doesn’t have enough help and Marshawn Lynch is going to be way, way too much for Atlanta’s front-seven – but it’s enough of an advantage that I think the Falcons will keep it close.