DJ Crash

Sep 032013
 

Matt RyanGhost Rat’s note: Last season’s late comer  is back to join us in our weekly battle for supremacy and has offered up his 2013 prognostications. I must admit I was tempted to pick DJ’s winner as well, but just could’t see them getting past both the Niners and Hawks. But time will tell, and Matt Ryan and the boys in Atlanta look ready to rumble.

Here are DJ’s picks for 2013:

AFC EAST
New England115
Miami97
New York Jets412
Buffalo313
AFC NORTH
Cincinnati115
Baltimore106
Pittsburgh97
Cleveland511
AFC SOUTH
Houston124
Indianapolis97
Tennessee412
Jacksonville313
AFC WEST
Denver124
Kansas City97
San Diego610
Oakland313
NFC EAST
Dallas97
Washington97
New York Giants79
Philadelphia610
NFC NORTH
Green Bay115
Chicago106
Minnesota79
Detroit511
NFC SOUTH
Atlanta133
New Orleans97
Tampa Bay88
Carolina511
NFC WEST
San Francisco124
Seattle115
St. Louis79
Arizona79
AFC PLAYOFFS- Wildcard Round
New England over Indianapolis
Cincinnati over Baltimore
Divisional Round
Denver over Cincinnati
New England over Houston
AFC Championship
Denver over New England
NFC PLAYOFFS- Wildcard Round
Chicago over Green Bay
Seattle over Dallas
Divisional Round
Atlanta over Chicago
San Francisco over Seattle
NFC Championship
Atlanta over San Francisco
SUPER BOWL
Atlanta over Denver
NFL POST SEASON AWARDS
Most Valuable Player -Matt Ryan
Offensive Player of the YearMatt Forte
Defensive Player of the YearJJ Watt
Offensive Rookie of the YearEd Lacy
Defensive Rookie of the YearDion Jordan
Comeback Player of the YearRashard Mendenhall
Coach of the YearMarc Trestman
Jan 102013
 

Packers - 49ersIn a span of five playoff appearances between 1995 and 2001, the Green Bay Packers stood in the San Francisco 49ers path to a sixth Super Bowl Championship. On four of five occasions Green Bay emerged victorious and have had good luck in Candlestick Park where they have emerged victorious twice in three chances. Fast forward to 2013 where the 49ers, still chasing the elusive sixth world championship, are set to renew their playoff rivalry with Green Bay. This will be a rematch of Week One when San Francisco drew first blood, limiting the anemic Green Bay running game to 45 yards, and offensively received stellar performances by QB Alex Smith (20-26, 211 yards, 2 TDs) and RB Frank Gore (112 Yards, 1 TD). Much has changed since the 30-22 San Francisco victory that was never in question despite what the score may indicate. While the Niners have continued their winning ways throughout the season, Colin Kaepernick—a Wisconsin born Packer fan– has replaced Alex Smith and will be making his first playoff start. Meanwhile, the loss to the 49ers was the first loss of three that would occur in the first five weeks for Green Bay. The Packers would recover in stellar fashion behind the MVP caliber play of QB Aaron Rodgers (ironically, a Niner fan growing up) by winning 9 of their last 11 en route divisional crown and a 4th consecutive playoff appearance.

Keys for Green Bay
Despite the constant threat of being torched through the air by Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay rushing attack—and attack is a term used lightly here—is not likely to foster any type of impactful effort against the league’s number four ranked defense against the run. DuJaun Harris was superb in his 100 yard effort against the Vikings and FB John Kuhn picked up a score on the ground as well. However, there are vast differences. The X-Factor for Green Bay will be the ability for Don Barclay and the Packer offensive line to give Rodgers the time needed to work effectively against a pass defense that has been as effective against the pass as it has against the run. Given time to executive, Rodgers should enjoy some level of effectiveness to finally healthy targets Randall Cobb and Greg Jennings. Rodgers, looking to up his playoff record to 6-2, was able to pick up 279 yards through the air in the week one contest. It should be noted that Rodgers has never come back against a team above .500 in the fourth quarter in 18 tries; the Packers will need to build an early lead for Rodgers to avoid such a predicament in his first ever trip to Candlestick.

The Packers defense will need to build off their successful performance against Adrian Peterson in the Wild Card round. Peterson, who averaged over 200 yards per game against Green Bay in 2012 in two regular season games, and torched them for 199 yards in Minnesota’s playoff clinching week 17 victory, was held to 99 yards in the Packers 24-10 victory a week ago. They were also successful in limiting QB Joe Webb on the ground. While nowhere near the level of Kaepernick it was suspected that the main asset Webb could utilize was the speed element of his game—which Green Bay had no time to game plan for due to the Vikings late QB change. In Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick (5 rushing TDs in 2012), San Francisco boasts an RB that has had recent success against the Packers combined with a QB with elite speed. Additionally, LaMichael James is a handful when spelling Gore in relief. Ultimately, Green Bay will need to mirror last weeks’ effort if their 17th ranked defense is to contain the Niners 4th ranked rushing attack. To do so B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and C.J. Wilson must be effective in dealing with the physical multiple tight end and goal line type sets that San Francisco’s used in Week 1. If the Packers can limit the San Francisco running game they could find themselves trending toward their performance in their Super Bowl winning run a couple of seasons ago which was buoyed by a strong run defense throughout the playoffs. Charles Woodson and the Green Bay secondary remains the strong suit of the Packer defense, but stopping the run will go a long way toward stacking the odds against an inexperienced QB by forcing their opponents to move away from the balanced attack the 49ers favor.

Green Bay passed the test against the number 2 rushing attack in the league last week and also where able to get a look at an option style quarterback—albeit one less talented than Kaepernick—in Webb. Kaepernick, in his 5-2 run as a starter, threw 10 touchdowns against only three picks to go with his 5 rushing scored and his 7.2 yards per carry clip. The Packers struggled with Alex Smith in Week 1 and Kaepernick’s speed element makes him profoundly more difficult to game plan for. Nonetheless, if there is a weakness in Kaepernick’s game to compliment his lack of post season experience it is his propensity to put the ball on the ground. He fumbled seven times in seven starts but lost only one—the Packers will need to capitalize if Kaepernick puts the ball on the ground. Furthermore, the Packers remain solid in the secondary and will hope to benefit from mistakes that can be forced if the Packer front seven can pressure Kaepernick.

Keys for San Francisco
Whether it’s John Harbaugh firing his offensive coordinator with a month to go in the season or brother Jim replacing Alex Smith in-season despite a 21-6-1 run as a starting including last season’s post season run, no one will ever accuse the Harbaughs of following conventional wisdom. Last week, John was successful in Baltimore’s first effort of the season with the Ravens defeated the Colts 24-9. This week it is Jim’s turn to throw egg on the critics of his bold move—though his risk to a much higher degree. How Colin Kaepernick performs in his first season start will not only determine whether or not the 49ers earn a shot at an NFC Championship and Super Bowl appearance it was also validate or invalidate Harbaugh’s risky switch. So far, in the regular season, Harbaugh has been rewarded; however, with a quarterback who has been successful and won recently in the playoffs sitting idle the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Pro Bowler’s Joe Staley and Mike Iaputi will need their usual effectiveness in protection. Additionally, Gore and James will need to continue on their recent run of success on the ground. If the Niners are successful in those two key areas it will go a long way to mitigating any nerves and the overall inexperience of Kaepernick. Furthermore, Kaepernick will then be able to target Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree and pick apart the Green Bay secondary.

If you hold up the starting lineup for last year’s 49ers team and the 2012 unit you will note minimal change to the defense on paper. However, the Justin Smith that lined up on the defensive line in 2011 was perhaps the top defensive player in the league last year—making 1st Team All-Pro and 2nd Team All-Pro simultaneously. This year he enters the game after missing two weeks with a triceps injury—emotional impact only goes so far and it will only be known as the game unfolds how much of a physical impact his return will have. Smith went down against New England and the defense quickly unraveled and matters got bad as they gave up 28 unanswered points. Bad turned to ugly the following week when the Seattle scored 42 points in Smith’s absence. How effective Justin Smith is on Saturday with also impact the other Smith—Alden—whose 19.5 sacks this season were a strong derivative of the double teams faced by his namesake at on the defensive line. The Niners will need Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, NT Isaac Sopoaga, and LE Ray McDonald to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers and what will likely be a one dimensional Packer attack

With Pro Bowl Safeties Donte Whitner and FS Dashon Goldson, in addition to CB’s Tarell Brown and Carlos Rodgers (who experienced a career year in 2012), the Niners fourth ranked passing defense is healthy and matches up well with Greg Jennings and Randall Cobb. Jennings has been catching his stride lately with 3 TDs in as many games and Cobb is healthy; however, the Niners will need to keep the Packer deep threats in front of them. With the front seven likely to limit the Packer ground game, the San Francisco secondary will need to limit buy not completely ground the league’s top quarterback.

The Outcome
This is the most interesting of the three games this weekend that feature rematches of regular season lop-sided affairs. The unknown that is Kaepernick in this situation makes this game a virtual pick ‘em in the eyes of many. Questions surrounding Justin Smith’s healthy only further muddy the picture of what the outcome could be. If Smith is healthy and Kaepernick is not caught in the moment it would be hard to pick against the 49ers in a game at home against a team that is 4-4 on the road. The Packers offense will likely be rendered one dimensional against San Francisco—however, that one dimension happens to be the best player in the league. The Packers were workmanlike in taking apart the Vikings last weekend; meanwhile, the Niners have been prone to embarrassing performances on defense in the absence of Smith. Nonetheless, I am counting on Smith to return in grand fashion and Kaepernick to seize the moment. Rodgers will have a strong day but in the end will move to 0-19 when attempting to comeback against better than .500 opponents. This could be one for the ages.

San Francisco 28 Green Bay 27

Jan 092013
 

Ravens-BroncosThree of the four NFL Divisional Playoff match-ups this weekend are rematches of regular season games that were so one sided that nobody, sans the revenge seeking losers of each game, would clamor to see based on the initial result. Less than a month ago, Denver traveled to Baltimore and opened up a 31-3 lead behind Knowshon Moreno’s 115 yards en route to a 34-17 victory. For the Broncos it was their 9th straight win and also the 9th straight win for Peyton Manning against Baltimore. His mere presence at the helm snapped a 5-game losing streak for Denver in Baltimore and provided further proof that recent Bronco history must receive a separate distinction between pre-Manning and the present. For the Ravens Week 15 this marked the first performance of the Jim Caldwell offense, as Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron in the midst of what would turn out to be a 1-4 stretch to close the regular season.

Both teams arrive at this point, the Divisional round, for the second straight year-albeit under much different circumstances from a season ago. This time last year Denver was riding Tebowmania and an upset of a battered Steelers team in the Wild Card Round. This year Manning is at the helm and the offense has improved from 23rd a season ago to 4th; meanwhile, the defense has made a similar climb from 26th to 2nd. A season ago, Baltimore was the team coming off the bye and would roll into the AFC Championship and land a heartbeat away from a second Super Bowl appearance. Baltimore on the other has seen its defense fall to 17th after a myriad of injuries to Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis (who did not play vs. Denver), and company—its worst ranking since 2002 and only its second time out of the top 10 since 1998. Nonetheless, it was the defense that led the way in a 24-9 Wild Card weekend victory over the Colts to set up a rematch of December 16th—this time in Denver. Baltimore’s road to the Super Bowl in 2000 began with a 21-3 victory over Denver; they will likely need more than history on their side against this Denver team.

The Keys for Baltimore
Joe Flacco needed only 12 completions last week to tally 282 yards and two touchdowns. Baltimore handled the Indianapolis rush extremely well last week and Flacco was sacked only once. Baltimore will need to give Flacco time to use his downfield accuracy. He was able to strike downfield consistently against the Colts, particularly to Anquan Boldin. Boldin was unable to secure a single reception against Champ Bailey and the Denver secondary in the first match-up and will need a performance more reminiscent of last week’s 145 yard effort for the Ravens to find success. The type of protection provided last week was not there for Flacco in the regular season match-up (While sacked only three times he was pressured all day. Boldin and counterpart Torrey Smith combined for just 15 yards between them and their inability to get open compounded things for Flacco. The turning point in that game was when Flacco was pressured into an interception that Chris Harris returned 98 yards. Baltimore fell down too deep in that game to utilize the Bernard Pierce-Ray Rice Combo. The duo rushed for a combined 58 yards in the first meeting. Last week, the tandem rushed for 178 yards—overcoming two Ray Rice fumbles– and will be counted on to take pressure off of Flacco and maintain favorable time of possession. Baltimore will need similar output from the running game minus the fumbles, along with mistake free football from Flacco to pull out the upset.

Fairly healthy for their game against Indianapolis, Baltimore was able to notch 3 sacks and two turnovers with constant pressure on Andrew Luck. The Denver offensive line unit is much more capable than the Colts and yielded only 21 sacks; however, similar pressure will be needed for Baltimore if they are going to force Manning into a rare mistake. In the first match-up—if anything could be taken as a positive—Baltimore’s defense was able to tame Manning for the most part with the exception of a couple of long play action plays that stemmed from Moreno’s effective ground output. The Raven’s can point to Ray Lewis’ 13 tackle performance in his return and the fact that Moreno’s Week 15 performance came in Lewis absence as an indication that they have a true advantage against the Broncos running game. If Baltimore can limit the running game they can limit the play action; in conjunction with a solid pass rush they will then boil things down to their ability to match Denver in man coverage. Last week, despite all the pressure the brought, Baltimore’s secondary did yield 300 yards to Luck. The Raven’s will be counting on their defense to rush the passer similarly to last week and handle Denver in man coverage like they did in the first game. A tall order; but a necessary one if Baltimore is to spring the upset.

The Keys for Denver
Historically, Peyton Manning has had mixed results in the post season against teams he has played (5-6) and defeated in the regular season (2-3). During the regular season meeting with Baltimore he was mostly held in check as Baltimore held him to 204 yards. Incidentally, Knowshon Moreno had his finest performance in what has been mostly a shoddy performance as the starter in Willis McGahee’s absence—his ability to duplicate his 115 yard performance, or even approach it, will be tested with Ray Lewis in the lineup for this match-up. If Moreno comes close it will go a long way toward positioning Denver for a victory. Moreno’s effective running paved the way for an strong play action game that benefited Eric Decker. Decker had 8 catches for 133 yards; however, Demaryius Thomas struggled against Carly Williams and the Baltimore secondary. While Moreno will be counted on to produce on the ground, Thomas will need to step his game up on the outside with a performance more becoming of the 1400 yard receiver he has become. Denver would get a solid boost in the pass game if their line can hold up to Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger in a battle that will pit a top pass protection unit versus a strong pass rush. As stated, Manning has been sacked on 21 times this year and the battle up front has been consistently won by Denver throughout the season.

Denver’s 52 sacks ranked atop in the NFL and they have already experienced the results yielded by Joe Flacco when faced with heavy pressure—a game changing turnover and a completion percentage of 50%. Denver’s will need to continue to get the type of pressure they have gotten in their 11 game winning streak from Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, and company. Meanwhile, the secondary will need to continue its strong play–despite featuring a heavy rush and leaving their secondary in man coverage situations no team was as proficient against the pass on third down in the regular season. This trend must hold true for Denver on Saturday. The Broncos compounded Baltimore’s problems by grounding Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in Week 15 early and then forcing Flacco into a key mistake that dashed any hope of the Ravens establishing any stability on the ground. Pierce was the more effective back last week, topping over 100 yards while Rice was a mixed bag of big plays and lost fumbles, but Denver’s 3rd ranked rushing attack will need to contain both backs in order to orchestrate a repeat of Week 15.

The Outcome
It is tremendously difficult to locate a distinct advantage that Baltimore has in any key area that can be exploited to foster a victory. The return of Ray Lewis and the defensive momentum garnered against the Colts further tempered by the facts that they were playing an inexperienced Colts team, in Baltimore, which was not yet equipped experience success on the playoff stage. Denver has won 11 in a row…true momentum. Denver certainly yields a talent advantage at running back where Moreno is nowhere near the talent of the Rice/Pierce duo. Nonetheless, their run defense negates even that potential area of strength for Baltimore. It’s hard not to love the game breaking ability of Jacoby Jones and the stellar kicking of Justin Tucker but Baltimore won’t be kicking 7 field goals and returning two kicks for touchdowns.

The stagehands can lower the curtain on Ray Lewis’ career. Denver is better in all aspects and will win going away.

Denver Broncos 31-Baltimore Ravens 17

Jan 052013
 

Bengals-TexansCincinnati’s 23-17 drubbing of the Baltimore Ravens marked the completion of a 7-1 second half and allowed them to notch their first back-to-back winning seasons since the Paul Brown and Bill Johnson eras of 1975-1977 and repeat post season appearances since 81-82. More importantly, it marked the complete turnaround from a 3-5 start and earned them a return trip to Houston—the site of last season’s 31-10 playoff loss. Last season the Bengals were an upstart team with a rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, leading the way. This post season the expectations are different for the Bengals. An only slight underdog, Cincinnati has a year of seasoning under their belt, an aggressive defense, and could very easily be riding an 8 game winning streak into the playoffs. A rematch with Houston will provide a year-over-year litmus test and the 2011 goal of making the playoffs has been replaced by strong hopes that the Bengals can deliver their first playoff victory since 1990 when Sam Wyche patrolled the sidelines.

For the Houston Texans expectations coming into the season were set with all eyes on a February trip to New Orleans. 2011 saw Houston get over the hump by winning the AFC South and entering the post season for the first time. However, expectations were quickly tempered when a season ending injury limited Matt Schaub to 10 starts. A subsequent injury to backup QB Matt Leinhart gave way to TJ Yates—even further dashing Super Bowl hopes. The Yates led Texans managed to notch the first playoff victory in franchise history against the Bengals before bowing out to the Ravens. This year, fully loaded and healthy, Houston started 11-1 and appeared a virtual lock to earn some wild card weekend rest and home field advantage through the playoffs. Then, four consecutive matchups against teams currently playing in this post season led to three losses and Saturday’s once unlikely rematch. Nonetheless, Houston enters this weekend boasting both an offense and defense ranked in the league top ten.

The Keys for Cincinnati
For the second consecutive season Mike Zimmer’s defense is amongst the top 10 in the league and particularly strong against the run. However, in the first playoff game against Houston the Bengals defense was gashed for over 150 yards by Arian Foster and a Houston offense that lacked their starting quarterback and typically strong passing attack. Geno Atkins and company cannot afford such a letdown this season and must limit the production of Foster by all means necessary. If Cincinnati can limit Foster’s production and also put pressure on Matt Schaub they will find an offense that is not as dissimilar to their own despite what the numbers indicate. While the Bengals have limited downfield receiving options beyond AJ Green and Jermaine Gresham, the same can be said for Houston beyond Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. If Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and company can be effective up front versus Foster and also apply pressure then the Bengals and their talented secondary will gain advantages over all receivers not named Johnson.

BenJarvis Green-Ellis is banged up and even healthy it would be unlikely that the Bengals could gain an advantage against the Houston front seven to sustain a strong rushing attack. The key for the Bengals is for the offensive line to limit JJ Watt and the Houston pass rush long enough for Green, Gresham, and a supporting cast of supplementary receivers led by deceptively talented Andrew Hawkins to do damage in the secondary. Andre Smith must do his best to contain Watt who devastated the Bengals in last season’s matchup. If Dalton is to reverse the results of his 0 touchdown 3 interception performance in his playoff debut it will start with pass protection.

The Keys for Houston
As Houston limps into the post season the key elements to reverse the recent course of failure are very similar to the pertinent areas of focus documented for Cincinnati to pull off their own victory. If the Bengals need to hold up to Watt and win at the line of scrimmage the same can be said for Houston. Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson have accounted for 33 of the Bengals 50 sacks on the season and Schaub has found himself on the receiving end of nearly a dozen sacks in the last three games—this will need to change for Houston to be successful. The Texans zone-blocking scheme will need to find its early season success so that Foster and the running game can run the ball to protect Schaub. It will also be useful in setting up Foster both in the red zone and allow him to be successful on screens in the flat. Like the Bengals, Houston is going to be hard pressed to find a consistent third vertical threat against the talented opposing secondary—but that does not mean they will be unable to do enough to make Johnson, Daniels, and Fosters big enough threats in the passing game to be victorious.

Defensively, Houston will have to use their pressure game. Watt, quite possibly the most dominant defensive player in the NFL, leads an attack that is duly adept at getting to the quarterback and stopping the run. They must both pressure Dalton and render the already injured Green-Ellis a non-factor. If they do so the matchup of Jonathan Joseph, with some help from Danieal Manning, against Green becomes much more manageable.

The Outcome
This game has all the makings of a classic defensive battle pitting two of the NFLs finest defensive units and coordinators in Wade Phillips and Mike Zimmer against each other. Cincinnati has been superb with its season on the line—which it was from the point they fell to 3-5 until they clinched a post season spot in week 16. Andy Dalton looks more like a QB poised to take the next step than the rookie who faced the harsh reality of playoff football a year ago. However, one needs to take a deeper look at the Houston late season slump before dismissing them as a team bound to finish the season with a fizzle. In two of the three late season losses they faced mad bombers Tom Brady and Andrew Luck both of who trump Dalton’s deep passing prowess. In the other loss, one in which they contained the passing game, they were dominated by the juggernaut that is Adrian Peterson—of whom Green-Ellis is not.

Houston’s season has resembled a powerful heavyweight prizefighter that dominated early on in battle only to run seemingly out of gas late in the fight. Fortunately, they racked up enough points on the scorecard to survive to win a decision and live to fight another day. The playoffs mark a new fight and Houston should have enough in the tank to win an early round home game.

Houston Texans 21 – Cincinnati Bengals 14

Jan 042013
 

Ravens-ColtsThe disintegration of the already tenuous relationship between Joe Flacco and the Baltimore fans has continued its downward trajectory along with the Ravens record after Baltimore’s 9-2 start gave way to a 1-4 finish. Nevermind Flacco’s 54-26 record in Baltimore or that since taking over as a rookie in 2008 he has become the only QB in history to lead his team to at least one post season victory in each of his first four seasons. It has gone virtually unmentioned the Flacco has improved in every single major statistical category from 2011 to 2012; as it’s the drop in wins from last season’s 12 to 10 that has the championship thirsty city on edge. His 309 yard 2 TD performance in Baltimore’s week 16 decimation of the Giants seemingly has gone unnoticed. Perceptions couldn’t have changed more dramatically than they have for Flacco who less than a calendar year ago executed a near perfect 2 minute drive in the AFC Championship only to have the NFL gods strike down and snatch victory at the last moment. Nonetheless, for the fifth time in Flacco’s five years—and second as division champion-the Ravens are heading to the playoffs.

For the opposing side, the Colts Andrew Luck has earned in 16 games a level of adulation from the city of Indianapolis seemingly reserved for the likes of only Peyton Manning. His 7 game winning drives are the most by an NFL QB since 1970 and no rookie in this stellar class has been asked to do more downfield with so little in the backfield (there is no Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, Trent Richardson, or even Reggie Bush in the Colt lineup). Luck had dropped back nearly 650 times and only 4 QBs have been sacked more, nevertheless, Luck has nearly single-handedly resuscitated and transformed a team that was 2-14 just a year ago into an 11-5 contender.

In the 28 years that have elapsed since Robert Irsay drew the ire of the city of Baltimore by jetting for Indianapolis in a move that made economic sense and Jim Irsay drew equal ire from the city of Indianapolis by jettisoning Peyton Manning (another fiscally prudent move) much has changed. Manning brought a pair of AFC Titles and a Super Bowl to Indianapolis and Art Modell brought a team and title to Baltimore. As playoff opponents this marks the third meeting between the two franchises. The first two acts took place in Indianapolis and left much to be desired as Baltimore has managed only 12 points total. The most recent post season matchup with the two ended in a 20-3 Indy route in 2010 and marked Manning’s final victory in a Colt uniform.

The Keys for Indianapolis
Lining up for their 17th game, don’t expect wholesale differences for the Colt’s or any other team for that matter this late in the season (i.e. the Colts will not suddenly develop the ability to control the line of scrimmage or add a ground game to add balance to their attack). More than a touch of Luck will be required for the Colts to move on and they will need Luck to be every bit the quarterback that passed for more than 4,300 yards, was rivaled by only Flacco for most 20-plus yard completions, and posted 7 game winning drives.

The Colts will have their hands full handling Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs and the only hope to improve on the 104 yards per game they rushed for is if Anthony Castonzo can withstand Ngata’s pressure versus the run. Unfortunately for the Colts, RB Vick Ballard has only one carry of over 25 yards this season and Ngata spent week 17 re-charging his batteries. Factor in the return of Ray Lewis and it is likely the Colts will be at their one dimensional worst.

The Colts will have to do anything they can to factor in as many five-man routes as possible, giving Luck as many options as possible. His ability to get the ball deep has been a revelation considering the lack of a ground threat and while his tendency has been to go deep he will need check down options available. Luck’s ability to dissect the Ravens’ defense will be pertinent, and he has the perfect coaching scenario to help him identify those keys and giveaways. Chuck Pagano—prior to taking the Colts job—took a tour as defensive coordinator in Baltimore and knows their personal better than anyone.

The Colts 28-16 victory last week against Houston marked their first win over a winning team since early October and came despite being outgained by over 100 yards. Yet, Luck was able to do enough to exploit the secondary to notch the win in Pagano’s return. If Luck can continue his third down success that has masked the run deficiencies and the Colts utilize the other subtle qualities they bring into the game—namely returner Deji Karim’s recent explosiveness and Pagano’s knowledge of the opposition—they can find a way. It has been just that, the ability to find a way, which has positioned them at 11-5 despite being the only team in the post-season with a negative scoring differential.

Defensively the Colts will need to do what they can to limit Rice’s effectiveness between the tackles; if they can force him outside they can utilize what is perhaps their only asset against the run—their sideline to sideline speed. Like Luck, Joe Flacco has been victimized by a leaky offensive line. The Colts will hope to touch up Flacco and will need Vontae Davis to build on his two interception performance of last week and match up with speedster Torrey Smith.

The Keys for Baltimore
While defense has been the Baltimore calling and the names Suggs, Reed, Ngata, and Lewis still appear on the marquee a win for the Ravens will likely have to be attributed to the ability to exploit obvious weaknesses in the Colt defense. The Colts defense has allowed 137.5 rushing yards per game. While solid in pursuit, they fail to hold up well versus running backs that do damage between the tackles. Enter Ray Rice: the Ravens have won 23 of the 26 games when Rice has at least 25 carries. The Ravens will look to establish strong play by their tackles to allow Rice to control the pace of the game and effectively approach that 25 carry magic number.

In the passing game, the same group of tackles that will be key to springing Rice to a good game on the ground will have to do a better job than they have this year of protecting Flacco. When protected, Flacco can be accurate and effective and the Baltimore offense more than efficient. The Ravens thrashed the Giants for 533 yards in week 16 and, despite all the late season offensive turmoil, have averaged nearly 32 points per game at home. Baltimore has their own man from the other side in Jim Caldwell who manned the Colts sideline in both a tight Super Bowl loss and last season’s 2-14 debacle. Caldwell has spent the last month calling the plays for Baltimore and though results have been mixed he does have knowledge of Colt personnel.

There is not enough that the Colts can do to gain effectiveness against a Raven’s defense that will look to feed off of the emotional return to the lineup of Ray Lewis. While the Baltimore defense has lost a step or five they still hold enough advantages to boil things down to one focus: the ability of Ed Reed and the secondary to ground the third down passing attack that has been at the crux of Luck’s ability to bail out the Colts offense all season long.

The Outcome
The Pagano story has rightfully captured the hearts of NFL fans everywhere and has made the Colts a post season rooting favorite for fans that don’t have a horse in this race otherwise. If the sentiment of Ray Lewis potentially playing his last game at home can be trumped then it is Pagano’s remarkable return to the sideline after battling leukemia that has deserving done so. Though the luster seems to have faded from Baltimore many weeks ago it will be quite a challenge for the Colts to do what no team has done in the Flacco era and the Ravens to a winless post season.

Is Luck enough to lead a team that takes the field with 28 men playing their first postseason game? Baltimore is better on defensive and their running game foils the Colts direct weakness against the run. Furthermore, Jacoby Jones and the elite return game has the potential to exploit Indianapolis’ struggling coverage unit. This will be Ray Lewis’ last home game, but it won’t be his last game. The Ravens have too many advantages and they are at home. This week being pretty good is better than having ‘Luck’ on one’s side.

Baltimore 30 – Indianapolis 21

Jan 022013
 

15cgvike1203.jpgMinnesota Head Coach Leslie Frazier has given a high appraisal of backup quarterback Joe Webb’s ability, making it no secret that he feels Webb can be an NFL starter. So it was faith in Christian Ponder, rather than the sense he lacked depth at the QB position, that prompted Frazier to stick with Ponder through his mid-season struggles. Ponder rewarded his coach with a 234 yard 3 td performance in Week 17 at home that capped a 4-game winning streak, in which Ponder was picked off only once, and launched Minnesota into this week’s re-match at Lambeau. Ponder’s ability to relocate his early season efficiency in conjunction with Frazier’s guile and Adrian Peterson’s historic comeback season have turned around a franchise that bottomed out at 3-13 just a season ago.

For Green Bay, 2012 was more of the same from a franchise that has taken on a level of consistency and success in the McCarthy-Rodgers era. Aaron Rodgers overcame the lack of a marquee running attack and injuries to both Greg Jennings and Randall Cobb to post MVP caliber numbers. Green Bay overcame a 2-3 start, albeit a controversial loss to Seattle thrown into that mix, to win 11 of their final 13 games. Saturday brings round three of the Vikings-Packer series back to Lambeau where the Packers overcame a 14-10 halftime deficit against Minnesota on Dec. 2 and have not lost since opening day.

The Keys for Minnesota
It was Ponder’s 2 interceptions thrown to Morgan Burnett that sunk the Vikings on Dec 2nd and rendered Adrian Peterson’s 210 yard performance for naught. Fast forward to Week 17 when Peterson rushed for 199 yards but Ponder avoided turnovers and passed for three scores in the wild card clinching victory. Ponder will need to be equally as efficient if Minnesota is to win the rubber match. Additionally—it almost goes without saying—Peterson needs to continue his dominance against the Packer defense.

If Minnesota did one thing right on the other side of the ball in Week 17 it was in the pass rush where they were able to register 5 sacks. Unfortunately, the back end of the defense did not fare as well—giving up 365 yards and 34 points. Greg Jennings seems to be returning to form while Randall Cobb is likely to be available for Rodgers this week. Minnesota will need to slow down Green Bay in the secondary if they are to move on.

The Keys for the Packers
The Green Bay defense proved more than proficient at getting to the quarterback this season—ranking inside the top 5 in sacks. However, they have not fared well against the Vikings pass protections schemes and have sacked Ponder once in two games this season. Green Bay will need to put more pressure on Ponder in the second year quarterbacks playoff debut. The Packers can withstand another big performance by the NFL rushing champion as long as they make the Vikings offense one dimensional.

On the offensive side of the ball Aaron Rodgers will need to produce like Aaron Rodgers typically does. The Vikings defensive line has been able to find Rodgers, who has been able to overcome 7 sacks in the two meetings to produce stellar numbers. One has to wonder if Rodgers overcome back-to-back 5 sack performances? The Packers would be served best not to find out and would likely benefit from better pass protection and a better performance by the running game. They rushed for 72 yards in the week 17 loss versus 137 in their victory on Dec. 2nd. DuJuan Harris will likely get the chance to lead the Packers rushing attack.

Outcome
It can be argued that Minnesota has outplayed Green Bay in 6 of the 8 quarters the teams have played. Two things have held true through the two meetings: Green Bay cannot stop Peterson and Aaron Rodgers has been able to overcome Minnesota’s pressure to exploit the Vikings’ secondary. The “Wild Card” here is Ponder and whether or not he has the ability to build the performance of last week when he not only took care of the ball but he made big plays when needed. Similarly to the Colts and the Redskins, Minnesota getting to this point marks a dramatic resurrection from where they were a year ago. Win or lose, the Vikings are headed in the right direction. However, this week that direction is a return flight to Minneapolis where they can begin an off-season with designs on building on the success of 2012. Green Bay 35 – Minnesota 21

Jan 022013
 

Seahawks - RedskinsThe Seattle Seahawks can take solace in the fact that the road to the Lombardi Trophy for the past two Super bowl winners—Green Bay and New York—came less a home game for either team. Thankfully, for the rest of the NFC playoff field, the unfriendly confines of CenturyLink Field will remain out of play this post season barring a Vikings-Seahawks matchup. In 2012, Seattle defeated only one team—the Chicago Bears—with a winning record on the road. Nonetheless, other than their opponent, no team heads into the post season hotter. While Washington has won its last 7 starts, Seattle has put together wins in 7 of 8 games during a stretch that has seen them give up more than 17 points only once and score 58, 50, and 42 points in succession.

For Washington, they can look no further than the Seahawks themselves for a prime example of how a home game wild card weekend can prove to be a tremendous advantage against a team that may either match or exceed them in virtually all aspects of the game. While home cooking has not correlated to championship success in recent seasons, it did help a 7-9 Seattle team upend the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints that traveled to Seattle sporting an 11-5 record in 2010. This game is more evenly matched than that game was. Washington, the only playoff team in either conference with 3 home losses, has reversed their early season home misfortunes by winning their last 4 home games—all virtual must win occurrences.

The Keys for Seattle
Seattle’s defense relies heavily on strict gap assignment football—they will need to stay disciplined to stop the league’s number one rushing attack. Assuming they are able to contain Alfred Morris and a physically limited Robert Griffin III, Washington will attempt to exploit man coverage from the Seattle secondary. CB Brandon Browner is back from suspension and Richard Sherman had his overturned. Additionally, Safety’s Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas have been adept at stopping both the run and pass all season. Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton, the top two running QB’s to face Seattle this season, collectively scored 25 points against Seattle. Limiting the cutback lanes for Alfred Morris and Griffin and winning the one-on-one battles against the Santana Moss, Pierre Garcon, and Leonard Hankerson will be paramount factors if Seattle is to win on the road.

Washington’s three interceptions against Dallas in their division title clinching performance in Week 17 were more story of Tony Romo’s ineptitude than Washington’s prowess. Offensively, Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle rushing attack has allowed Russell Wilson to exploit the opposition all season long with the play action and to compensate for a lack of talent amongst Seahawk receivers. This will have to continue for Seattle to move on to the divisional round. Washington gave up 281.9 yards per game through the air this season which is more indicative of who they are as a defense than the three pick performance and the 18 points they held Dallas to.

The Keys for Washington
Washington held opponents to 96 yards per game rushing throughout the season. In order to win they must limit a Seattle rushing attack that averaged 161 yards per game and limit the ability of Russell Wilson to feed off the play action. While Washington’s secondary is weak, Seattle’s Achilles heel is its lack of talent at WR—limiting Seattle’s running game and taking away the play action should ground the Seattle passing attack and compensate for Washington’s inadequacy in the secondary.

Offensively, Alfred Morris will need to continue on the course of success he has been on. The rookie rushed for 1613 yards and, more importantly, he came up with a 200 yard 3 touchdown performance in Week 17 with Griffin’s ground game being limited due to injury. If Morris’ cutback game can exploit the league’s 10th ranked rushing defense—and the condition of RG III’s knee improves, the Redskins will be better equipped to deal with the Seattle blitz and physical nature of their pass defense.

The Outcome
The two quarterbacks would easily be the Rookie of the Year in virtually any season had they not come out in the same year. The feature backs are separated by 23 yards on the season. The hot streak that both teams are on is equally incredible and all things point to this game being a pick ‘em type affair. In such cases it’s easy to side with the home team. However, there is one area where these teams are not at least close to even: The Seattle defense is better, particularly against the pass, and has fared well against moving quarterbacks. Seattle 28 – Washington 20

Update: Please note this article was first published with an incorrect note that Seattle was 10-5-1. This has since been corrected.