NFL Divisional Playoffs Preview
This should be old news to you by now, but the winning formula in today’s NFL revolves around one position: quarterback. No statistic is more telling than the current Team QB Rankings here at the Index. Take a look at the Top 10:
1. New England Patriots (Divisional round)
2. Green Bay Packers (Divisional round)
3. Denver Broncos (Divisional round)
4. Washington Redskins (Wild-Card)
5. New Orleans Saints
6. Atlanta Falcons (Divisional round)
7. San Francisco 49ers (Divisional round)
8. Seattle Seahawks (Divisional round)
9. Baltimore Ravens (Divisional round)
10. Carolina Panthers
The Houston Texans are the only surviving NFL franchise in the playoffs without Top-10 quarterback play, and even they are currently No. 13 out of 32. It’s also telling that the five worst franchises in the Team QB Rankings — the Cardinals, Chiefs, Jets, Jaguars and Eagles — went a combined 19-61 during the regular season.
It boils down to one question: Is your quarterback above or below average? Seven of the eight teams remaining in the Super Bowl hunt feature Top-10 quarterback play. This is not a fluke, either. The 2011 season finished in a similar fashion:
1. Green Bay Packers (Divisional round)
2. New England Patriots (Super Bowl)
3. New York Giants (Super Bowl champions)
4. New Orleans Saints (Divisional round)
5. Detroit Lions (Wild-Card)
6. San Francisco 49ers (NFC Championship)
7. Dallas Cowboys
8. Atlanta Falcons (Wild-Card)
9. Carolina Panthers
10. Houston Texans (Divisional round)
This week, then, becomes not just a battle between eight successful franchises, but also a battle between eight successful quarterbacks. Odds are, those who play best will find themselves in their respective conference championship games next Sunday.
(4) Baltimore Ravens @ (1) Denver Broncos
The line: Broncos by 9.5 — Kickoff Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS
Last week, I discussed Peyton Manning’s superior Raven-killing ability (9-0 in his last nine against Baltimore), and wondered if some of his fowl-dispelling moxie would rub off on Andrew Luck, his wunderkind successor. The youngster had no such fortune, however, and the Colts were run out of the Baltimore with ease in Ray Lewis’ final home game.
The national consensus is that the Broncos will steamroll the Ravens en route to a fated matchup against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots next week. I think this is a prime upset opportunity for Baltimore. Peyton will never expect victory, but all signs point toward the Broncos being fat and happy with their No. 1 seed, and already looking forward to their Super Bowl parade.
We forget that Baltimore is an incredibly talented team that was blown out by Denver just a few weeks ago. The odds of Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin, Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed taking another punishment like the one administered last month are slim to none. They know they have not bested Manning in their last nine tries. There is also the weird inclination of high seeds to immediately bite the playoff dust in recent years.
Two interceptions from Manning, along with 200 total yards from Rice should be the magic formula in this Mile High shocker.
Baltimore 34, Denver 24
(3) Green Bay Packers @ (2) San Francisco 49ers
The line: 49ers by 3 — Kickoff Saturday at 8:00 p.m. ET on FOX
If only Alex Smith was still starting for the Niners, we would (finally) have a postseason matchup between the best gun-slingers from the 2005 draft. Of course, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is in a class by himself, but Smith had been showing signs of late blooming under the brief tutelage of Jim Harbaugh.
Now, however, we are left with a Rodgers-Colin Kaepernick stand-off. Those who are picking Green Bay point to San Fran’s inexperience at the quarterback position, but look at the youngster’s already-impressive resume: namely, rolling into New England for Sunday Night Football and stomping the red-hot Patriots in front of a national television audience. The kid can handle the pressure, believe me.
The tendency for many is to break down the Niners’ 30-22 win over Green Bay from Week 1, but that’s foolish. Both squads have morphed into completely different collectives since their tilt 18 weeks ago. Sure, San Fran is still stingy on defense, but Green Bay’s running game has stepped up big time in the latter portion of the year, and their defense has been unquestionably better in the last month.
This one is a real toss-up, and has a big Packers road victory written all over it, but there is something eerily steady about Harbaugh and his team’s readiness. The 49ers won’t let the home crowd down by making Rodgers’ day in the pocket a living hell and letting Kaepernick run wild against the poor-tackling green and gold.
San Francisco 30, Green Bay 21
(5) Seattle Seahawks @ (1) Atlanta Falcons
The line: Falcons by 2.5 — Kickoff Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET on FOX
It’s not entirely unbelievable, seeing as they have a premier rival nested in New Orleans, but I think there could be some wicked voodoo hovering over the Atlanta Falcons franchise. An inspiring “loser” article from Sports Illustrated’s Thomas Lake this week took an in-depth look at the author’s 20-plus years of disappointment and heartbreak as a fan of the Dirty Birds.
Thanks to the aforementioned black magic, and coach Mike Smith’s 0-3 record in playoff games, it is certainly tough to pick Atlanta in this one. Their situation is eerily similar to 2010, when they were the No. 1 seed facing No. 6 Green Bay in what was supposed to be a big victory for the Falcons. Now, No. 5 seed Seattle comes to town riding the arm of Russell Wilson and their ferocious defensive attack.
I think the voodoo finally gets shaken off this Sunday, and the Falcons will advance to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since January of 2005, when Michael Vick was at the helm. Long story short, the Falcons need to win this one. There’s no telling what kind of organizational chaos will otherwise ensue.
Atlanta 21, Seattle 20
(3) Houston Texans @ (2) New England Patriots
The line: Patriots by 9.5 — Kickoff Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS
This game is very much like the AFC’s Saturday matchup. A heavy favorite with a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback going up against a team they’ve already slaughtered and who everyone has written off. Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy even went so far as to say, “No matter how much I study and prepare, I cannot come up with a scenario that has the Houston Texans defeating the New England Patriots Sunday night.”
In a way, he’s right. The Patriots are a solid team at home, and defeated the Texans 42-14 on the same turf just one month ago. Houston has been on a severe slide since their 11-1 start, including losses to Minnesota and Indianapolis in the final two weeks of the regular season. They do, however, have an outstanding amount of talent on their squad. And, like the Ravens, they could find themselves celebrating in the locker room at the conclusion of Sunday’s game.
It’s simply too ballsy to pick both the Ravens and the Texans this weekend, right? I would like to so badly, but that seems to be sloppy prediction work. I’ll play it safe with the Pats, but don’t be surprised if/when the Texans do the unthinkable, and Shaughnessy is sent to live far, far away from New England.
New England 20, Houston 17
Last week: 3-1 (.750)
Against the spread: 1-3 (.250)
Season record: 154-107-1 (.590)
Against the spread: 125-124-13 (.502)