The Seahawks’ challenge definitely looks tougher this time around, but before we get to that, let’s ponder one big what-if in a year where rookie QBs have astounded. If Denver and New England win their home games, we get graybeards Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game. All will then be right with the football universe, and we can all feel younger—pretending it’s, well, at least 2006.
I’m rooting for the older guys. That includes 29-year-old Aaron Rodgers. But win or lose, their presence adds drama to the scenarios. Here goes nothing.
Saturday, January 12
Baltimore (11-6) at Denver (13-3)
Who was impressed by Joe Flacco’s performance in last week’s Ravens victory over the Colts? Me neither. But he did average 23.5 yards per completion and he didn’t throw an interception. He was also bulwarked by 172 rushing yards, including 103 by Bernard Pierce. (Who? [A rookie out of Temple!]) Furthermore, Anquan Boldin certainly looked like the great receiver he can be, now that he's out from under the shadow of Larry Fitzgerald. The numbers reveal a balanced attack, but it still took the Ravens a while to slough off the hustling but inconsistent Colts, who racked up 152 rushing yards of their own, plus 267 net passing yards. The Ravens also committed nine penalties. So we don’t mean to rain on their parade, but they bring some underlying questions to the venue in Denver. The Broncos are rejuvenated under Manning, and not only offensively. The defense is fourth in the NFL in points allowed and the team second in point differential per game, including a 34-17 beatdown of the Ravens in Baltimore just three weeks ago. The Denver running game is a little suspect but the committee approach has provided adequate yardage to set up Manning’s aerial wizardry (68.6%; 37 TDs; only 11 INTs). Ray-Ray’s last dance? We certainly hope so, but it probably won’t be a romp.
Prediction: Broncos 28, Ravens 17
Green Bay (12-5) at San Francisco (11-4-1)
Last year’s Packers were 15-1 when the Giants invaded Lambeau Field and put a major hurt on ‘em, 37-20. Then the Giants went on to San Francisco and earned a Super Bowl berth knocking off the 49ers, 20-17. Well, the Giants aren’t around now, leaving these two to duke it out for old-school NFC supremacy. The Packers have their moments where they look like their dominant 2010 selves. Rodgers is as strong as ever under center (67.2%-39-8), and without a marquee runner, the rushing game still gained 1,702 yards. But on defense the Pack still seem suspect. The Vikings team they beat in the wild card round had nothing left in the tank after snagging their playoff berth. They also didn’t have a quarterback to speak of. The Niners counter with mobile second-year phenom QB Colin Kaepernick, good receivers and productive RB Frank Gore, plus the second-best NFL defense in points allowed. This should be a battle, though, and the fact is that the Niners still have some things to prove, even though they did beat the Packers in Week 1 in Green Bay (and, later on, also the Patriots on the road). Will Kaepernick perform in the big game?
Prediction: Packers 28, 49ers 26
Sunday, January 13
Seattle (12-5) at Atlanta (13-3)
As good as the Falcons have looked this year, there still are pundits out there who wonder if it’s somewhat of a mirage. Their QB, Matt Ryan, has impressive numbers that match up with all the elite signal callers. The receiving corps—White, Gonzalez, Jones—is stellar. Yet the running game has proven to be weak, only 3.7 YPA and less than 1,400 yards teamwide. So if there’s an opening for the hyperactive Seahawks, it’s stuffing the run and then getting after Ryan, though he was sacked only 28 times this season. Again, the ‘Hawks have an aggressive secondary, and if they give young defensive-line Turks like Bruce Irvin some time, they could get to Ryan. Then there’s the question of rookie Seattle QB Russell Wilson going on the road again in a playoff situation. And can RB Marshawn Lynch put two great games together in a row? For all their triumph against the Redskins last week, the Seahawks also got beat up, losing two key players, DL Chris Clemons and kicker Steven Hauschka, the latter replaced by longtime veteran Ryan Longwell, 38, who was inactive this year but whose numbers are really excellent in a 15-year career. Longwell was sitting at home in Florida with his 83.2% career FG percentage, then won a competitive tryout on Tuesday. It’s hard not to wonder what criss-crossing the country twice in a little over a week will do to the Seahawks’ energy, and the task ahead of them, while do-able, looks fraught with peril. They have the talent to pull off the upset, but the big plays will have to go their way. (Parting stat: The Falcons’ home margin of victory in 2012 was 7.5 points.)
Prediction: Falcons 23, Seahawks 20
Houston (13-4) at New England (12-4)
Is there anyone east of the Mississippi who thinks the Texans can win this game? They did what they had to do last week versus the Bengals, but the early season juggernaut has yet to reappear. QB Matt Schaub really needs to reestablish his preeminence. Failing that, then it’s all up to RB Arian Foster, and it’s a lot to ask him to go to Foxborough and singlehandedly conquer a Bill Belichick defense. Especially when the Texans already tried to do that on Dec. 10 and got spanked 42-14. Pats QB Brady leads the #1 scoring offense in the league, and the defense, which bends often enough, ended up a surprisingly high ninth in points allowed. In other words, it’s business as usual in New England, this despite the fact that almost 20 players have been designated as physically “questionable.” (Does anyone think they won’t all show up?) Unless J. J. Watt knocks Tom Terrific unconscious, Houston is sunk.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Texans 17
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