NFL playoffs divisional round preview and predictions
By PAT RALPH
College Contributor Network
After the fun-filled action of wild-card weekend, the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs commences this weekend with four outstanding matchups. Let's take a look at each game, the keys to win for each team, and which teams should advance to the conference championships next weekend.
AFC: (6) Baltimore Ravens at (1) New England Patriots, Saturday 4:35 PM ET NBC
Saturday's matchup will be the fourth time in six seasons that the Ravens and Patriots have gotten together for a playoff showdown at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, with the Ravens holding a 2-1 advantage in the three previous contests. Their most recent playoff clash came two years ago when Baltimore rolled over New England by a score of 28-13 in the AFC Championship en route to winning Super Bowl XLVII. The Ravens clearly have the special formula to take down New England quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, so the AFC East-champion Patriots will no doubt be seeking some revenge in this game.
With home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and a healthy Brady having another fantastic season, the three-time Super Bowl champion Patriots are favored by most to represent the conference in Arizona at Super Bowl XLIX. While New England's passing game is one of the best in the league and will go up against a weak Baltimore secondary, the Patriots' running game has been spotty but good due to a "running back by committee" setup. A weak running game plays well into the hands of the Ravens' strong run defense. Defensively, the Patriots are one of the best at stopping the run and keeping opponents off the scoreboard when teams enter the redzone.
The key battle of this game should happen in the trenches between both teams' offensive and defensive lines. While the Patriots' offensive line does a great job at protecting Brady, the Ravens' pass rush is second-to-none as we saw last weekend in their 30-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. On the other hand, the Ravens have one of the best running games in the league behind Justin Forsett to go against the Patriots' stout run defense. The team that controls the line of scrimmage in this contest will come out on top. In addition, going up against a weaker secondary for a second straight weekend, Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco could be in for another big game.
If the Brady Bunch can expose Baltimore's weak secondary and contain the Ravens' running game, New England should be on there way back to a fourth straight AFC Championship game. However, if the Ravens can put pressure on Brady and force him into turnovers like they did to Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the wild-card round, Baltimore could overthrow another higher seed in the AFC. In addition, Flacco's big-play ability down the field should be a cause of concern for the Patriots' secondary.
NFC: (4) Carolina Panthers at (1) Seattle Seahawks, Saturday 8:15 PM ET FOX
Looking for an old-fashioned and hard-nosed defensive battle? This is the game for you. These two teams met in Week 8, when the Seahawks squeaked out a 13-9 win over the Panthers in Charlotte. Coming off a defensive clinic in a 27-14 win over the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card round, the Panthers are rolling at the right time of the year. Having won their final six games of the regular season to capture the NFC West title and top seed in the conference, the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks are also playing their best football now and are heavy favorites to return to the Super Bowl.
Along with having two of the best defenses in the league, both teams run the ball well behind their respective running backs (Jonathan Stewart of the Panthers and Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks). Therefore, the battle for the line of scrimmage will, without question, be the game within the game.
The game should be decided between two of the most-exciting young quarterbacks in the NFL: Cam Newton of the Panthers and Russell Wilson of the Seahawks. The quarterback that is able to make big plays in the contest should come out with the victory. However, one important advantage Carolina holds over Seattle is that the Panthers are almost never penalized while Seattle led the league in penalties this season. Therefore, Carolina will need to overcome the loud "12th Man" crowd at CenturyLink Field and disrupt Seattle's offensive flow.
Carolina is a fun team to watch and has had a nice run, but I just cannot see the Panthers going into the loudest and best home-field advantage in the NFL and knocking off the Seahawks on Saturday night. Unless Carolina plays the game of its life and dominates on both sides of the ball, Seattle should advance to a second straight NFC Championship game at home. When playing its best, Seattle is just in a league of its own defensively.
NFC: (3) Dallas Cowboys at (2) Green Bay Packers, Sunday 1:05 PM ET FOX
In this Sunday matinee at the Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field, "something's gotta give" as the old saying goes. The Cowboys, coming off a controversial yet dramatic 24-20 win over the Detroit Lions in the Wild Card round, are undefeated on the road this season. On the other hand, the NFC North-champion Packers are undefeated at home. Looks like one of these team's record is coming to an end this weekend.
Unlike the other NFC matchup, this game will feature two high-powered offenses led by a pair of Pro Bowl quarterbacks and wide receivers. Quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant lead the way for Dallas, while quarterback Aaron Rodgers and wide receiver Jordy Nelson orchestrate the offense for Green Bay. Not to mention, both teams feature strong running games with DeMarco Murray of the Cowboys and Eddie Lacy of the Super Bowl XLV-champion Packers.
However, Rodgers has been hampered by a strained left calf and it could limit him from providing his usual amount of offensive magic. Without Rodgers, the Packers go from being a Super Bowl contender to just another team. Therefore, the health of Rodgers could be the most important key to this contest.
Because this game will feature two fantastic offenses, the defense that is able to make stops and keep the opposing offense on the floor should come out with the win. While Green Bay is better at defending the pass, Dallas is stronger at defending the run. If Rodgers is limited and ineffective and Dallas can get the running game going, the Cowboys should move to 9-0 on the road this season and extend their win streak to six straight. However, with a healthy Rodgers and the cold home-field advantage, the Packers should capture their ninth straight home win and first playoff win in two years.
AFC: (4) Indianapolis Colts at (2) Denver Broncos, Sunday 4:40 PM ET CBS
As quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, Peyton Manning led the franchise to seven AFC South titles, nine playoff wins, two Super Bowl appearances, and a Vince Lombardi Trophy after a 29-17 Super Bowl XLI win. Now, the future Hall of Fame quarterback leads the AFC West champion Denver Broncos against his former team Sunday afternoon in a rematch from Week 1 when the defending AFC champion Broncos held off the Colts for a 31-24 home win.
Manning's successor in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck, was outstanding in the Colts' 26-10 wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals and further emphasizes the terrific matchup of signal-callers in this game. Along with two Pro Bowl quarterbacks, both teams feature a plethora of offensive weapons as an integral part of their lethal passing attacks.
However, there's a big advantage Denver has offensively over Indy. While the Colts lack a steady running game, the Broncos' rushing attack has strengthened due to the emergence of running back C.J. Anderson. In addition, the Colts' turnover issues could pose to be a problem in this contest.
The Broncos also happen to have one of the best defenses in the NFL while the Colts have had their struggles on the defensive side of the ball. If the Colts want to pull off the upset, Luck will need to outplay Manning and have a turnover-free game. On the other hand, the Broncos will need to force Luck into throwing interceptions like he has a tendency of doing. Therefore, with a superior running game and defense, the Broncos should come out on top and advance to their second straight AFC Championship game.
Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles, as well as Villanova Basketball and the New York Knicks. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph