By Jeff Risdon
Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos: I’ll keep this one simple. Which team has the better quarterback? Which team has the better offensive line? Which team has the better pass rush? Which team has the better secondary? Which team has better relative health? Which team has the better run defense? Which team commits more than two fewer penalties per game? Which team has better special teams coverage units? Which team has home field advantage?
The answer to every one of those questions is the Denver Broncos. Baltimore’s only real hope is that Jacoby Jones returns the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and they follow that up with Cary Williams picking off a rusty Peyton Manning and taking it to the house. And that’s not entirely unfeasible, merely quite unlikely. Cheer up Ravens fans, you got your triumphant vengeance last weekend and reveled in the home finale of the greatest Raven ever, Ray Lewis. Hold onto those fond memories as you watch your beloved team go down in flames.
Broncos 31, Ravens 13
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers: The Saturday Night special is indeed a special game. It’s also the hardest of the games to forecast, because it’s very hard to ascertain who is going to play better on this given Saturday.
Green Bay is the hottest team in the NFC right now, and they are getting healthier at the right time. They easily dispatched the overmatched, QB-handicapped Vikings last week, allowing them to stay sharp without having to exhaust great physical or emotional energy. The Godgers form of Aaron Rodgers is back, and the unexpected boost to the running game by DuJuan Harris has eased the pressure off Rodgers to need to be perfect to move the offense. Having Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson back and near 100 percent makes their defense much more complete, and playmakers win playoff games.
The complicating issue is that San Francisco has some pretty formidable playmakers of their own on both sides of the ball. Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman are fantastic inside backers, while the Niners can bring pressure on Rodgers from Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. Nine different Niners intercepted a pass this season, and four hit double-digits in passes defended. The San Francisco defense is a well-oiled machine, only it’s a torture machine for opponents.
On the other side of the ball, Colin Kaepernick brings a playmaking dynamic that makes the Niners offense more dangerous. It has breathed vitality into Michael Crabtree, reminding everyone why he was so coveted as a top 10 pick. It makes their running game with Frank Gore more effective, because Kaepernick is such a great runner himself; his 6.6 yards per carry and five touchdowns are both better than Cam Newton.
All those factors make this a real tossup. Turnovers and key penalties will probably decide the game, and if you can tell me how those are going to play out I’ll send you $500 to take to Vegas and give you 25 percent of the winnings. I give the slight edge to Green Bay because Rodgers has been to this rodeo before while Kaepernick is a playoff virgin, and because Green Bay has the deeper stable of offensive weapons that can make plays on their own.
Packers 30, Niners 28
Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons: This is the game that the Falcons have been waiting for. This is their chance to show the world they are not the same old Falcons, the Dirty Birds that have bombed in all their recent playoffs ventures. This is why they made the dramatic trade for Julio Jones and rebuilt the defense to be younger, faster, and more aggressive. This is a different Matt Ryan, more confident and more accurate. This is where they show they have learned from their past mistakes and can bring their “A” game in the postseason. Or so Mike Smith and their legion of fans desperately hope.
Well, Falcons fans, I think this is your moment in the sun. Seemingly nobody believes in you, and I get why. The Packers and Giants games were quite spectacular failures in very dramatic and divergent fashions; the Green Bay game exposed the defense as fraudulently inept, while the offense was the goat in last year’s New York state of mind-numbing loss. The 13-3 record in the regular season is tainted in many minds by so many narrow wins over bad teams, and the season-ending loss at home to a Tampa Bay team that had lost five in a row solidified the image that the Falcons are overrated paper tigers.
But I believe. Even though Seattle is a very good team that is capable in its own right of winning this Super Bowl this year, I believe the Falcons are the better team. I believe this a game where Sean Weatherspoon spies on Russell Wilson effectively, and the talented, underrated young safety tandem of William Moore and Thom DeCoud makes a big impact against Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin. I believe playing at home will help draw critical penalties on Seattle’s physical but grabby corners. I believe Testicles, the God of Football, will not allow the greatest tight end in NFL history to retire having never won a playoff game, and I do believe this is Tony Gonzalez’s swan song. Just like Ray Lewis inspired his teammates for one last great win, I believe Gonzalez has that impact on the Falcons. But most of all, I believe the Falcons are due.
Atlanta 24, Seattle 20
Houston Texans at New England Patriots: Conventional wisdom says that the Patriots will wallop the visiting Texans just as they did a few weeks ago, when Houston showed up for Monday Night Football in their letterman jackets and got sent home like a JV squad.
I don’t see a repeat of that 42-14 massacre. Houston learned a lot from that game, and I think they will apply the hard lessons in this rematch. They were coasting over inferior teams at the time and weren’t physically or mentally prepared for the challenge at hand. Now they understand what it means to travel to Foxboro in an important game under the spotlight. The pass defense had no idea what they were in for with Brady and all those targets, and he dissected them like a science teacher with a fat frog and ultra-sharp scalpel. Vince Wilfork and the Patriots defensive front completely outclassed the Texans OL.
This time around, I think the Patriots will find a much more prepared, more humble Houston team. That doesn’t mean the Texans are going to win, however. New England still holds too many favorable matchups, notably Brady against the Texans back end. Houston’s secondary relies heavily on the front to generate pressure and disrupt timing, and JJ Watt does that better than anyone. But even the fantastic Watt, who just had arguably the greatest season by any defensive end in NFL history, can only do so much. Kareem Jackson, Johnathan Joseph, and Brandon Harris are going to have to raise their level of play far beyond where they’ve been the last 6 weeks. I just don’t see Houston holding New England to fewer than 33 points.
Therefore the burden is on the Texans offense to outscore New England. Good luck with that, Gary Kubiak. This game will be a prime example of why the Texans most pressing need heading into the offseason is a viable threat at wide receiver to balance Andre Johnson. Kevin Walter is a #4 receiver on a good passing team but he’s been the unchallenged #2 in Houston for years now. Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham are good tight ends, but not dynamic threats. Matt Schaub is not the kind of quarterback that is going to make his receivers great either, unlike the guy wearing the Patriot on his helmet. Depending on Arian Foster to go crazy for 150+ yards and 2+ TDs is not a viable plan of attack. I also really like how Aqib Talib matches up with Johnson, providing the Patriots a physical lift in the secondary and vastly improving their safety situation by moving Devin McCourty there. It would help if the Texans could get great production from their return game, but their best return men are playing in Denver (Trindon Holliday) and Baltimore (Jacoby Jones). Houston will put up a valiant fight and keep it closer, but New England is just too formidable to conquer.
Patriots 34, Texans 23
San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons