NFL Divisional Round Predictions
After last week's slate of disappointing, boring, and knee-shattering wild card contests, NFL fans will be pleased to know that it can't possibly get any worse this week…right?
But why would it? A Mile High matchup between the greatest offensive and defensive players of their generation. A battle between two classic franchises with crazy quarterback subplots. A clash of a high-powered aerial attack and a stifling pass defense playing out on the smooth turf of the Georgia Dome. A rematch of a regular season blowout between two sneakily deadly offenses with redemption on the line.
If you're feeling a tad overwhelmed by all of the excitement and anticipation, our experts are here to sort out the Divisional Round for you, picking all four games.
Jeremy Bergman: Broncos 31, Ravens 19
Saturday in Denver around 2:30 o'clock locally, the temperature will hover around a frigid 17 degrees Fahrenheit. This will be the first time that the great Peyton Manning will play a postseason game under 20 degrees; the three postseason games that Manning's played in below freezing have all been embarrassing losses, once to the Jets and twice to the Patriots. But despite all this fuss over weather, it's easy to forget that Peyton Manning has had his most impressive season in years. And that this below-freezing playoff game will be his first at home. And that, in this below-freezing playoff game, Manning will finally have a competent top-five defense having his back on the other side of the ball. And that Joe Flacco is not Peyton Manning.
Aaron Fischman: Broncos 27, Ravens 20
The Ravens are a formidable opponent with their stellar rushing attack and the return of standout linebacker Ray Lewis, but Denver is playing far too well to be upset at home. The Broncos’ 11 straight wins include a 34-17 Week 15 win at Baltimore that was even more one-sided than the score indicates. This time, Denver will host. If the Ravens stay close early (and I think they will), Ray Rice and Bernard Piece should be able to get going. That won’t be enough, however, to outscore Denver.
Jacob Freedman: Broncos 28, Ravens 20
The last time the Broncos lost, USC football only had one loss and the MLB Division Series were just beginning. Joe Flacco will keep the Ravens from being embarrassed, but Peyton Manning is rocking and Knowshon Moreno is rolling up yards on the ground. Already a fierce squad, the emergence of the mile-high running game gives Denver the best offensive attack in the NFL. The Colts were just happy to be there last week, but these Broncos are in a title-or-bust mentality. Sorry Ray Lewis, but Baltimore needs more than some fired-up inspiration to extend your career.
Max Meyer: Broncos 34, Ravens 20
The Broncos destroyed the Ravens earlier in the season, and I don't see a reason why they can't here. Peyton Manning has always had great success against the Ravens defense. I just think that this will be Ray Lewis's last game.
Law Murray: Broncos 28, Ravens 17
Broncos QB Peyton Manning lost his first two games against ILB Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens, back in 1998 and 2001. He hasn't lost since, and even with Lewis, OLB Terrell Suggs, and FS Ed Reed in the lineup for Baltimore, the one guy the Ravens won't have is CB Lardarius Webb. I don't like the matchup of Ravens CBs Cary Williams, Corey Graham, and 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith against Broncos WRs Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (or, as they're calling themselves, "Black and Decker"). But the bigger mismatch for the Ravens is against DPOY candidate OLB Von Miller and the Broncos' top-five defense. RB Ray Rice was shut down last month, and with CB Champ Bailey shadowing WR Torrey Smith, QB Joe Flacco had nowhere to go with the ball. An inspired Ravens defense needs an inspired showing from Flacco and Rice (and some help from Pro Bowl returner Jacoby Jones) to have a shot at winning.
Matthew Tufts: Broncos 31, Ravens 16
Manning will face a unique test against a Raven defense that, while aging and in its last year with Ray Lewis, still has its experienced core intact. The cold could also be a factor in this game - Manning often struggled in cold and snowy games in locations such as Foxboro while thriving at home in a domed stadium while with Indianapolis. However, I still expect Peyton Manning to succeed. He has done so all season. The Broncos will roll to their twelfth-straight win and the AFC Championship.
Bergman: 49ers 27, Packers 24
A lot has changed since the Niners and the Packers last met in Week 1. In the first meeting, Alex Smith threw for 211 yards and two touchdowns; this week, it's highly unlikely that Smith will see the field, now a benchwarmer for Colin Kaepernick. The first time around, the Packers' leading rusher was Aaron Rodgers…with 27 yards; last week, the Packers' leading rusher wasn't Aaron Rodgers, but DuJuan Harris still only ran for 47 yards. Although Kaepernick's effect on this week's divisional round matchup will be the most analyzed, Green Bay's dependence on the air game may be the deciding factor. If the Pack can't establish a running game against the Niners' top-five run D, then Rodgers may be forced to discount-double-check down to his backs all day, as his receivers will have no room to get loose.
Fischman: 49ers 31, Packers 26
If the Packers could have recorded one more regular-season win, they would be hosting this game. In Week 1, Green Bay fell to San Francisco, 30-22. There was the “Touch-ception” game in Week 3 and then of course, the Week 17 loss to Adrian Peterson’s Vikings. There’s nothing Green Bay can do about that now. With that said, a road win is entirely possible. Expect a tight game between two teams that have gotten stronger as the season has progressed. I’m taking the 49ers because they possess the much more balanced offense. Even though Aaron Rodgers has a ton of weapons in the aerial attack, the 49ers’ pressure will be able to adequately counteract that.
Freedman: 49ers 27, Packers 24
The prime-time matchup, a showdown between the league's best group of linebackers and the league's best crew of wideouts will be the one to watch. As the Patriots showed us, the 49ers' pass defense can be torched. However, Aaron Rodgers' dominance has been evident in every game this season, and Cheeseheads should better hope Saturday isn't one of this mediocre outings. He's been limited in practice, but the return of Niners DE Justin Smith is big. As in, his presence will allow Aldon Smith to make life hell for Rodgers. Having a banged-up Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson as well as an anemic running game doesn't help the Packers' cause either. They were among the NFL's best, but they will end their season the same way they started it: A loss to San Francisco.
Meyer: Packers 31, 49ers 24
Ever since Alex Smith was selected first overall by the 49ers in the 2005 draft, Aaron Rodgers has been eagerly waiting for revenge. This playoff game, at San Francisco (where Rodgers grew up), would be a great revenge opportunity for him. Also, with Justin Smith playing hurt, the 49ers defense won't be as scary as it can be.
Murray: Packers 21, 49ers 20
49ers QB Colin Kaepernick has beaten Super-Bowl winning QBs already this season (at NO, at NE), but he was helped significantly in those games by a defense that forced Drew Brees and Tom Brady into multiple INTs. I think 49ers DE Justin Smith (triceps) is a huge variable here. If he's healthy, he makes the run defense impenetrable, while turning OLB Aldon Smith loose. You saw what the 49ers defense looked like when J. Smith left the Patriots' game: Brady went off, and the Seahawks smashed them. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers struggled against this defense in September, but even still, he hasn't thrown multiple INTs since the 2010 NFC Championship at Chicago. I'd love to see "The Catch IV" with Michael Crabtree, but I think the combination of Kaepernick ignoring TE Vernon Davis (who routinely burns the Packers) and J. Smith's questionable impact, not to mention both teams' extremely shaky kicker situation, gives the Packers the edge. Green Bay hasn't lost twice to one team in a season since 2009 vs. Minnesota.
Tufts: 49ers 24, Packers 20
Green Bay held Adrian Peterson to 99 yards and zero touchdowns on 22 carries in its win over the Vikings, proving that the Packers' defense has the potential to handle a rushing attack as strong as San Francisco's. However, the Packers have not faced a team with a defense as good the 49ers' recently. San Francisco will be able to slow Aaron Rodgers' and the Packers' strong pass game, but in the end it will all come down to Colin Kaepernick's performance. The 49ers' quarterback needs to step up in only his eighth career start - if he can mix it up and keep the Packers' defense guessing, the 49ers will find themselves playing next week.
Bergman: Seahawks 20, Falcons 17
Last week, in my postseason picks, I had the Falcons winning this game, but against the Redskins. Against Washington, Matt Ryan and the Falcons' offense would have been able to move the ball easily through the air, and RGIII would have been playing another game on a weak - or torn - knee. But against Seattle, Atlanta will be up against a stifling and arrogant (see: Richard Sherman) pass defense, a work horse running back, and a healthy, dual-threat quarterback. All year, I've been saying that Matty Ice don't lose in the Dome, but in the playoffs, Matt Ryan is more like Natty Ice, weak and underwhelming. The Packer loss in '10 still reverberates in the Georgia Dome, and I'm afraid for the Falcon faithful, the echoes may reappear in the form of three ghastly Ryan picks.
Fischman: Falcons 27, Seahawks 24
Seattle will be a trendy upset pick, but frankly I don’t see the upset materializing. Even though Seattle comes into the game red-hot, winning eight of its last nine, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is finally ready to win a playoff game. Seattle’s defense is supremely talented, but a much-improved Ryan has so many top-notch targets at his disposal. Quite impressively, Ryan’s completion rate has jumped from 61.3, a year ago, to 68.8. It would be nice if Atlanta’s running game offered some support, but it looks as if Ryan will have to do it all himself…and he is fully capable of doing just that. On paper, Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson should use the running game to impose their will on the Falcons, but my gut tells me Ryan will eke out the home win.
Freedman: Seahawks 24, Falcons 21
Michael Turner is over the hill and back again, while Jacquizz Rodgers' pinballing run style does not befit the strengths of Atlanta's offensive line. This leaves Matt Ryan to combat a Seahawk pass defense that ranks 6th in passing yardage with 18 interceptions, and is at full strength with Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman lining up at cornerback. Russell Wilson is a great story, but this Seahawks offense should and does live through Marshawn Lynch. Seattle brought a 28-year road playoff win drought last week, and with the monkey off their back, expect the ground-and-pound Seahawks to outmuscle and outplay the Falcons to continue their improbable season.
Meyer: Seahawks 24, Falcons 21
The Seahawks have traveled from Washington D.C. back to Seattle to Atlanta in the past week. However, they are the better team and Matt Ryan has yet to prove that he can win big games. Plus, isn't a Seattle-Green Bay Fail Mary sequel fate in the NFC Championship?
Murray: Falcons 26, Seahawks 24
Peyton Manning didn't win a playoff game until his sixth season; in his fifth season, Manning went to New York and lost 41-0 to the Jets. I bring that up because I can just see the vultures circling around fifth-year Falcons QB Matt Ryan right now (while at the same time, people continue to be confused by fellow 2008 first-round pick Joe Flacco's record of winning a playoff game each of his five years). I hope people don't act a fool and label Ryan a choker coming into this game, but he needs to help himself out and put the Seahawks away like he did in 2010 and 2011 up in Seattle. While the Seahawks will have the contributions of CB Richard Sherman and rookie QB Russell Wilson, the Falcons will have OC Dirk Koetter (who has unleashed Ryan and WR Julio Jones) and DC Mike Nolan (who has tortured every QB not named Cam Newton this season). This game is going to be too damn close, and with the Falcons' poor tackling, Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch might eat them alive. The Falcons only win if Ryan and his weapons show up early, often, and late. I believe they will.
Tufts: Falcons 35, Seahawks 27
The Falcons' defense has never been particularly strong this year; yet, they have gotten away with it this season because their offense is that good. A poor running game has done little to slow the Falcons' offense, led by Matt Ryan and a star-studded receiving duo featuring Roddy White and Julio Jones. Seattle's formidable rushing attack could give Atlanta's defense trouble, and if Russell Wilson plays well, this could be closer than some expect, but Matt Ryan and the Falcons will come out with the win and a ticket to the NFC Championship Game.
Bergman: Patriots 24, Texans 23
Just a month since their last meeting, New England and Houston will play to a similar result, but the contest won't be nearly as one-sided. Rare is it in this "Any Given Sunday" league will a team get embarrassed twice in the same year by the same opponent; there are too many egos and emotions on the line in the rematch. Save for last year's historic obliteration of Denver, the Patriots are 1-2 in their other three home playoff games since the Year of Cassel; Tom Brady has thrown 4 TDS and 6 INTS in those games. Clearly, the Patriots' playoff mystique is slowly dissolving as Brady's career wanes; however, the impressive way New England exploited the previously-dominant Texans on Monday night cannot be ignored. The numbers tell me Houston is ripe for an upset, but my gut tells me we'll be seeing a Brady-Manning classic on Championship Sunday.
Fischman: Patriots 38, Texans 27
The Texans aren’t playing very well. In fact, the Bengals could have bounced Houston from the playoffs last week, if they hadn’t missed so many opportunities. Houston won’t get embarrassed like they did five weeks ago, but it still won’t have an answer for the Patriots’ seemingly unstoppable offense.
Freedman: Patriots 31, Texans 14
Believe it or not, the Patriots are chugging along just as well on defense as they are on offense. The Pats have allowed more than 20 points just once in the last six weeks, with one of those weeks being their 42-14 thrashing of the visiting Texans. Houston faced a AAA quarterback last week in Andy Dalton, but will have a big league challenge on their hands with the cerebral Tom Brady. Critics point to the Patriots' 2010 divisional round loss to the Jets as a parallel, but those Jets came in after an impressive road victory over Peyton Manning's Colts, instead of a shaky home win over the worst team in the 2012 playoffs. Unless Matt Schaub plays like his adversary and the defense finds an inner fire, the Texans are going home in the Divisional Round once again.
Meyer: Patriots 28, Texans 20
I think the Texans will be a lot more competitive in their second meeting with the Patriots this season. However, a healthier Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots' playoff experience will be the difference in a closer than expected game.
Murray: Patriots 27, Texans 13
Don't think a MNF blowout in December is going to carry over. The Patriots did the Jets dirty in 2010 as well on MNF in December before losing at home to those Jets in the playoffs. That being said, the Patriots didn't even have TE Rob Gronkowski, and they played poorly enough against the 49ers and Jaguars that they won't be coming into this game with their guard down. Like the Broncos, I'm more impressed with the Patriots' defense than the QBs at this stage of the season. While I'm not expecting Patriots QB Tom Brady to put up four TDs again, he'll still be a good bet to outplay Texans QB Matt Schaub, who has only one TD pass and four INTs his last five games. If the Texans get down early again, they're in trouble, as the Texans passing offense has no consistent outside threat to complement WR Andre Johnson, TE Owen Daniels, and RB Arian Foster.
Tufts: Patriots 35, Texans 23
Tom Brady and the Patriots excel at Foxboro in the playoffs. This probably won't be a blowout the way the two teams' last matchup ended, though Houston's defense has not looked the way it did near the start of the season. Brady is experienced - don't expect to see J.J. Watt swat many passes. As far as New England's defense is concerned, if Vince Wilfork can penetrate the backfield before Arian Foster reaches the outside, they should be able to contain the star running back. Look for the Patriots to punch a ticket to yet another AFC Championship game.
Matthew Tufts 58-25
Max Meyer 62-28
Evan Budrovich 58-31
Jacob Freedman 56-34
Jeremy Bergman 55-35
Aaron Fischman 50-40
Law Murray 42-37