After witnessing a wild wildcard weekend that featured a Seattle surprise and an Arrowhead beatdown it’s only fitting that I echo perhaps my favorite Vince Lombardi quote, “Confidence is contagious, so is lack of confidence.”
It’s a new round though, and there are four electrifying games on tap that feature plenty of storylines.
Which 12-4 AFC North team will rein king in the rubber match of the year? Who will be the calmer quarterback inside the Georgia Dome? How sloppy will the quarterback play be when the Seahawks roll in to Soldier Field? And have the Jets put the 45-3 December thrashing behind them, or will the inevitable MVP Tom Brady tear them apart once more?
Baltimore at Pittsburgh (Saturday 3:30 CST CBS)
On paper the Steelers look to be in the driver’s seat. They won the late season meeting, and are 20-12 all-time against their division foe. However, after watching the Ravens dominate the line of scrimmage for 41+ minutes last week I’m convinced that paper stats and previous playoff history won’t mean a damn thing this Saturday. This game will be won by the more physical team.
Regular season numbers
Points per game: Ravens — 22.3 (T-16th), Steelers — 23.4 (12th).
Total Off. Yards per game: Ravens — 322.9 (22nd), Steelers — 345.3 (14th).
Penalties: Ravens — 90 (T-10th), Steelers — 100 (T-19th).
Points per game allowed: Ravens — 16.9 (3rd), Steelers — 14.5 (1st).
Takeaway/Giveaway: Ravens — +7 (9th), Steelers — +17 (2nd).
Keys to victory
– Ray Rice has to not only make his presence felt catching passes out of the backfield, but he has to recognize opportunities where protecting Joe Flacco‘s blindside is neccessary, especially against the fierce Steelers 3-4 defense, which has a knack for forcing turnovers.
– Nose tackles Kelly Gregg and Terrence Cody have to get enough push up the middle on running plays to force the Steelers to become one-dimensional. Ed Reed will have to keep everything in front of him, and take control of the secondary without taking too many risks.
– The defense must force turnovers and get inside Joe Flacco‘s head. The Steelers will not be able to run or pass up and down the field against the red hot Ravens defense.
– The offensive line has to control the line of scrimmage, especially on third downs. In their last meeting against the Ravens the Steelers were an insufficient 4 for 13 on perhaps the most crucial down (third) because they struggled in the trenches.
Ravens LT Michael Oher vs. Steelers OLB James Harrison — After seeing how many times Oher mixed it up with Chief linebackers Jovan Belcher and Tamba Hali in the Ravens wildcard win, combined with the intense level that Harrison plays at all the time, I think this could be the match-up of the week in all four games combined. What makes things even more interesting is the fact that Harrison hasn’t recorded a sack against the Ravens since early in the 2008 season, seven Baltimore-Pittsburgh showdowns ago.
Final Score Prediction
Baltimore — 20, Pittsburgh — 17
Green Bay at Atlanta (Saturday 6:30 CST FOX)
According to the
Merriam Dictionary the definition of “composed” is: free from agitation. This week’s match-up between the Packers and Falcons will feature two quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan, who define this tranquil word. But it’s the playoffs and emotions will be higher than ever. Can both quarterbacks stay calm in the pocket? Or will turbulence disturb their rhythm and cause instability within their respective offense?
Regular season numbers
Points per game: Packers — 24.3 (10th), Falcons — 25.9 (5th).
Total Off. Yards per game: Packers — 358.1 (9th), Falcons — 341.1 (16th).
Penalties: Packers — 78 (T-3rd), Falcons — 58 (1st).
Points per game allowed: Packers — 15.0 (2nd), Falcons — 18.0 (5th).
Takeaway/Giveaway: Packers — +10 (4th), Falcons — +14 (3rd).
Keys to victory
– Packers receivers will need to have those receiving gloves strapped tight. Falcon defenders allowed a fourth worst 364 receptions to receivers during the regular season, but at the same time allowed a fourth best 38 receptions of 20+ yards. In other words, the Falcons will limit the big plays and make Aaron Rodgers dink and dunk.
– Sam Shields and Tramon Williams will need to hold their own on the outside against Roddy White and Michael Jenkins so that Charles Woodson can play spy again and support against the run. I suspect Woodson will also be responsible for putting a blanket on tight end Tony Gonzalez on third downs and in certain red-zone situations.
– Mike McCarthy has to continue to utilize Brandon Jackson, James Starks, and John Kuhn to keep the Falcons defense on their heels. As much as Packer fans want Starks to be the featured back, a healthy balance using all three in certain situations is going to be the right recipe, especially if the Packers want to hit a few big plays down the field on play-action.
– Matt Ryan. The Falcons quarterback is a lifetime 20-2 at home and has thrown just 12 interceptions to 32 touchdowns. If he plays a smart football game, and doesn’t try and do too much, the Falcons should win, or if nothing else stay close.
– Defensive end Kroy Biermann must hold contain on the outside and not let Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers roll to his right to buy time. If Biermann over-pursues to the inside Rodgers will eat up the Falcons secondary.
– Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey must find creative ways to move top wide receiver Roddy White around, so he doesn’t get locked down by Packers top cornerback Tramon Williams. White must make a few big plays to keep the rushing attack potent.
Packers RB James Starks vs. Falcons RB Michael Turner — Blinded by the amazing Marshawn Lynch run Packer fans promptly were found belly-aching on message boards and on-air radio shows before even seeing James Starks provide much steadier and impressive overall production against the Eagles. Starks will face a stiffer challenge this week though, when he tries to out-run the Falcons’ Michael Turner to a NFC Championship. Turner is a horse to bring down, as the Packers experienced when they allowed him to average 4.8 yards per carry in Week 12. Furthermore, in the last two seasons when he has come off a bye week Turner has totaled 204 yards and five touchdowns.
Final Score Prediction
Green Bay — 24, Atlanta — 20