December 2, 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) during the first quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Ramblin' Fans NFL Divisional Round Picks and Predictions

The NFL Divisional Round of the playoffs is just around the corner, this is typically the best weekend of playoff football because there are still 4 games to watch and they involve 8 of the best teams in the NFL.  Since the games involve the best of the best, the are almost always “instant classics” that are sure to entertain whether you are a fan of those teams or not.  This year 3 out of four games in the divisional round will be a rematch of a game from the regular season, so the question is did the better team win in the first matchup?  Or has one team taken a significant step forward or backwards since their last meeting?  The only game that isn’t a rematch is the one taking place between the #1 seed Atlanta Falcons and the #5 seed Seattle Seahawks.  Before I go over each game I lets recap my record from last weekend, were I picked 3 of the games correctly only missing on the Seahawks victory over the Washington Redskins.  It looked like I would go 4-0 until the FedEx Field turf (or lack thereof) monster jumped up and bit RGIII late in the first quarter.

Ravens @ Broncos.  The Baltimore Ravens will hit the road to take on the Denver Broncos.  The Broncos are the AFC’s #1 seed and are riding the NFLs longest winning streak (11 games), in fact the last time the Broncos lost was in week 5 at New England.  The combined record of the 3 teams the Broncos lost to (Patriots, Falcons and Texans) is 37-11 with all of those losses coming during the early part of the season while Manning was still acclimating to a new offensive system and receivers.  The Ravens on the other hand are playing “win one for the Gipper” style football since Ray Lewis, their future first ballot Hall of Fame linebacker, announced his retirement the week before their wild card game.  The first time these two teams met (week 15) in Baltimore Ray Lewis was on the sidelines recovering from his torn triceps, a game that the Broncos won 34-17.  The Broncos are well rested following their bye week and have homefield advantage, they also have Peyton Manning playing some of the best football of his career.  If that wasn’t enough, they have an elite defense that finished the regular season in the top 5 in virtually every meaningful statistical category.  The Broncos appear to be the most well rounded and dangerous team in the playoffs, and there is no way I would bet against Manning,who had an MVP caliber season after missing all of last season recovering from 4 different surgeries on his neck, so I expect the Broncos to be hosting the AFC Championship game next weekend.   Broncos win 27 – 13.

Packers @ 49ers.  The San Francisco 49ers traveled to Lambeau Field to take on the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 of the NFL season, and came away with a 30-22 victory that wasn’t even as close as the final score would indicate.  A lot of things have happened to each of these teams since their week 1 showdown.  The Packers have had a rash of injuries on both defense and at receiver, with a constantly changing lineup that finally appears to be rounding back into the original starting lineup.  The 49ers made a change at quarterback following Alex Smith’s concussion during their week 10 tie with the St. Louis Rams.  Harbaugh has been heavily scrutinized since making the switch at quarterback, since Alex Smith was the NFL’s highest rated passer at the time he went down with a concussion.  Colin Kaepernick is certainly a little but more of an unknown than Smith is at quarterback, but his big play ability is the element of Smith’s game that Harbaugh apparently felt was keeping the 49ers from winning a Superbowl.  Since Week 11 when Kaepernick took over as the full time starter he and Aaron Rodgers actually have very similar statistics, including an identical win-loss record.  That is not to say I feel these quarterbacks are on the same level, as Rodgers is the leagues reigning MVP, has won a Super Bowl and also holds the all-time record for post season passer rating.  Clearly if this game turns into a track meet where the quarterbacks decide the game the advantage would rest with the Packers.  That may or may not happen, if Justin Smith is able to play at 90% (or higher) of his normal All-Pro level of play than the 49ers defense should have the upper hand.  However, if J.Smith isn’t effective on the defensive line the 49ers defense just isn’t the same, and it has shown since he left the prime-time game against the New England Patriots a few weeks ago.  J. Smith is the player that makes it all happen for the 49ers defense and he very well could be the most important player in this game.  In the end I don’t trust J. Smith to have recovered enough to be his usual disruptive self, and if he isn’t able to perform to his usual standards the reigning MVP should be able to find enough room to take his team to the NFC Championship game.   Packers win 24 – 21.

Seahawks @ Falcons. The Seahawks will try to become the first west coast team since the 1989 Rams to win consecutive east coast playoff road games.  That is a completely obscure statistic that has no bearing on this football game, except to say that it is difficult for west coast teams to go on the road across country and pickup a win against a playoff caliber opponent.  It has proven to be especially difficult for the Seahawks when they play on the east coast in the 1 pm ET slot, they have gone 1-11 over the past 5 years in such games.  I picked against the Seahawks last week largely because I thought that the road trip would catch up to them, and until RGIII became severely limited late in the 1st quarter it appeared that the Seahawks were going to get steamrolled.  Instead they took advantage of a limited Redskins offense and rallied back from 14 down to win 24-14, if they find themselves in a similar situation this weekend they probably wont be as fortunate.  Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons have the leagues second best homefield record over the past 5 seasons (since Ryan was drafted) behind only the Patriots.  Of course the record that people are most familiar with is their 0-3 playoff record with Ryan, including a one and done as the #1 seed in 2010 when they lost the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.  The Seahawks appear to be a very tough draw for the Falcons with a red hot rookie QB and  an imposing defense that is capable of shutting down even the best offenses in the NFL.  One matchup to keep your eye on is the Seahawks cornerbacks versus the Falcons superstar wide receivers, if the Seahawks can leave their cornerbacks in one on one coverage against the Falcons without getting burned it will be a long day for Ryan.  One reason to believe in the Falcons receivers ability to win on the outside is the fact that the Seahawks are a below average pass rushing defense, and that was before they lost their best pass rusher in the wild card round.  The rules of the NFL favor the offense, especially when it comes to the wide receiver vs. cornerback matchup, so if the pass rush can’t get to Ryan he will pick apart the Seattle secondary even if it is one of the best in the NFL.  If Seattle can keep the game close and rely on their powerful running game they could pull this game out in the end, but if they can’t control the tempo and keep Ryan and the explosive Falcons offense off the field it will be a long flight back to the Pacific Northwest.   Falcons win 31 – 21.

Texans @ Patriots.  The last time these two played at Gillette Stadium the New England Patriots completely dominated the Houston Texans handing them just their second loss of the season 42-14.  That game was billed as the Texans chance to prove themselves as an AFC powerhouse on national television against the AFC’s most consistent power over the past decade, the game didn’t live up to its billing as the Texans fell behind early and were down 28-0 before breaking through on the scoreboard midway through the third quarter.  It is hard to imagine that the Texans will be so thoroughly embarrassed again since they are such a talented team but the Patriots will be welcoming back Rob Gronkowski (who missed the first matchup), who is one of the most dangerous offensive players in the league.  The key to this game for the Texans is not to let the Patriots open up a double digit lead on them, the Texans are not built to play catch up as they lack explosiveness on the offensive side of the ball.  The Texans are built around their running game and play action passing, so if they fall behind like last time they will have to abandon the running game and try to throw for the win.  I don’t expect this game to be as one sided as the previous matchup, but this is still a home playoff game for Tom Brady and Bill Belicheck so it is hard to imagine that the Texans can pull off the upset.     Patriots win 28 – 24.


NFL Divisional Round


Seahawks @ Falcons


Packers @ 49ers


Texans @ Patriots


Ravens @ Broncos


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