I will start in New England with the Patriots and Ravens will play for the second time in three years in the playoffs. The last time these two teams met, the Pats lost in Foxboro as Baltimore continued its run to the Super Bowl. This time around will be very different though. This New England defense resembles nothing that it did two years ago. There are a couple of holdovers but the biggest additions include corners Brandon Browner and Darelle Revis. Those two alone allow Bill Belichick to pressure the quarterback without safety help for his corners. Joe Flacco has been on a quite a run of late in the playoffs but it will end in Foxboro. Belichick will be sending pressure Flacco's way all game long and he will emphasize shutting down the Ravens rushing attack as Pittsburgh did a week ago. I think Brady will exorcise some demons and key on a Baltimore secondary that struggled throughout the regular season. Look for Tim Wright and Rob Gronkowski to have big games. The Ravens are a talented enough team to keep the game close but I think New England will pull away late and win 27-14.
Flipping to the NFC now, many are calling this a mirror image game. Seattle and Carolina play very similar styles of football relying heavily on the defense to make plays and the offense to kill the clock with an explosive running game. At the helm, both squads have talented, mobile quarterbacks, who can give defensive coordinators nightmares when trying to game plan against them. The Panthers have been on a hot streak entering the playoffs and continued it last week with a commanding win over Arizona. The score was closer than the game ever seemed. Seattle had the week off and should be ready for the former Heisman winner. Saturday's game will be very scrappy and I expect some turnovers. Seattle had the best defense in the league and Carolina's was no slouch either ranking tenth. The first half will be a lot shifting momentum with both teams exchanging field goals. The Panthers might be the underdog but this team came close to upending Seattle earlier this season. This game will go down to the wire and I think in the end Russell Wilson's ability to make plays outside the pocket will be too much for Carolina to handle. In this defensive battle will be low scoring and finish 19-13, Seahawks on top. When all is said and done, Seattle should be set to host its second straight NFC Championship game.
Dallas will travel north to take on Green Bay in the other NFC divisional round game to travels to Seattle. This should be an exciting game to watch. The Cowboys will need to start fast in this one if they have any hopes of surviving until the next round. They fell behind early and were lucky to escape with a win over Detroit. This game could be much easier for Dallas though than was initially thought if Aaron Rodgers is truly not at 100% with a serious calf injury. However, Rodgers was clearly hobbled in his game against Detroit two weeks ago and still led the Packers to a victory. Yet, the key to this game will be the Packers’ defensive front. The Lions laid out the blueprint to beat the Cowboys last week getting after Tony Romo and limiting Demarco Murray's ability to break long runs. Romo was sacked six times, Murray averaged less than four yards per carry and it was clear Dallas struggled. I think Green Bay will come out with a plan early to get after Romo. Meanwhile, Dallas' defense ranked in the bottom quarter of the league for passing yards allowed. I think Rodgers gets the Packers out to an early lead that the Cowboys, as good as they can be, are unable to overcome. Green Bay wins 34-28.
The last game pits two quarterbacks desperate for a playoff win. Peyton Manning's career is winding down and his critics have always pointed out Manning's struggles in the playoffs. On the other hand, Andrew Luck has burst onto the scene and has be called a great quarterback but the doubters still have yet to see Luck take his team past the divisional round of the playoffs. When the Colts visit the Broncos, we should see two offenses heading in completely different directions. Indy has struggled running the ball all year and Denver's defense ranked second during the regular season for rushing yards allowed. This game will fall squarely on the shoulders of the former Stanford quarterback if Indianapolis is going to stand a chance in this game. Luck has the ability to put up incredible numbers but he has also been turnover prone of late. He will need to play mistake free to give the Colts a chance. For Denver though, this game will be about running the football. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase completely restructured Denver's offense down the stretch this season to rely heavily on the running game, taking the weight off Manning. The Broncos will want to keep the ball out of Luck's hands as much as possible and simply wear the Colts defense out with C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. This approach should make also negate the Colts pass rush, which registered an impressive 41 sacks this season. This should be an interesting game but in the end, I think the quarterback of the present holds off the quarterback of the future. Broncos win 31-21.
So my prediction is that we will see the Packers travel to Seattle and another round of Brady versus Manning in the conference championship. Let me know if you think I completely overlooked something or you have a different idea of how next weekend will look. Keep an eye for next week’s predictions as well. Enjoy all of these great matchups this weekend.