I can still make it to double digits for the playoffs, and this week sees 2 big lines in the AFC, and 2 very small ones in the NFC. 3 of the 4 games are re-matches from the regular season meaning there's an extra wrinkle in each team's gameplanning and an extra desire to win for the 3 road teams who were rather embarrassed in defeat during the regular season.
There is an awful lot of looking past this week to a potential "Fail Mary" rematch in the NFC and Brady-Manning XIV in the AFC. Is it justified?
NB: Remember, I bare no responsibility for lost money, houses etc caused by the wrongness of my predictions!
Broncos (-9.5) over Ravens
We open with the Ray Lewis Farewell Tour. After last weeks platitudes you'd be mistaken for thinking Lewis was the only player capable of anything on the defensive side for Baltimore, when really the opposite is true. Indianapolis were able to make fairly easy completions to TE Dwayne Allen against Lewis when their protection held up (which wasn't that often) and with Joel Dreessen, Jacob Tamme and Peyton Manning there's a potent threat. Denver also have the wide receivers to take advantage of Baltimore's poor cornerback play, particularly Carey Williams who has been less than reliable all season.
Despite being healthier on defense now than when these teams met in week 15, Baltimore still lack the two difference makers that would really help against Peyton Manning. Their best cornerback Lardarius Webb, who has been out since tearing his ACL in week 6 against Dallas, and a fully healthy Haloti Ngata to press the middle. While Ngata has been playing hurt all year he simply hasn't been his usual dominant self in the middle of the defensive line and the Ravens REALLY need him to be against Manning, because pressuring the middle of the pocket and preventing him stepping up is crucial.
Confidence seems fairly high in the Baltimore camp thanks to sunday's explosion from Anquan Boldin, but going against the Denver defense is a different task all together. Champ Bailey is still playing at a high level and they have the best edge rusher in the NFL in Von Miller.
Miller vs. right tackle Michael Oher is going to go a long way towards deciding what kind of day the Baltimore offense will have. Oher has allowed 8 sacks this season and will require help when Miller lines up on his side. While Miller's sack numbers have been eye popping, he also racks up pressures like no one's business. The Ravens will need to stay ahead of the chains with their running game and avoid long 3rd downs that allow Miller and his partner in crime Elvis Dumervil to pin their ears back.
If Baltimore are to try and reverse week 15's 34-17 final score (and it really wasn't as close as the scoreline says) then they'll need a big game from their special teams and they'll have to get some turnovers. Denver did a great job limiting Ray Rice but with Bernard Pierce really stepping up the the Ravens 2-headed running game should be tougher to stop. They'll also need Ray Lewis to be at the top of his pre-snap chess game to try and take away the mismatches Peyton sees in their coverage.
It's a tough ask, and I don't think the Ravens will have it in them to stop the Peyton Express. Ray Lewis' Farewell Tour ends here.
Prediction: Broncos 31 - 20 Ravens
Packers (+3) over 49ers
The toughest game to pick for me is yet again the saturday night one. This time we're in by the Bay for a week 1 rematch. If you can remember all that way back the reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers took to a sunny Lambeau field, determined to make up for a more than lackluster playoff exit. But what happened next wasn't in his script. The 49ers hurried and harrassed Rodgers all day. Sacking him 3 times, knocking him down 5 times and generally causing havoc on the frozen tundra. NaVarro Bowman and Patrick Willis dominated the game, the 49ers held Green Bay to just 2 yards a carry from Cedric Benson & walked away 30-22 winners.
An awful lot has changed since then. Not least San Francisco's QB. But included in the changes are the less than reliable kicking of both David Akers (who made a 63 yarder in week 1) and Mason Crosby, an improvement in Green Bay's running game thanks to ex-car salesman DuJuan Harris and the return of Ryan Grant and perhaps most notably of all a tricep injury to monster Justin Smith.
Since Smith went down half way through the week 15 game in New England, Aldon Smith hasn't been able to register a single sack. Reports are that Justin Smith will be on the field on saturday, wearing a brace very similar to that worn by Ray Lewis last week. His presence on the defensive line is a huge boost to an already strong defensive unit. Justin Smith is the one who calls the devastatingly effective stunts and twists on the defensive line that have opened up so many lanes for Aldon. He's also an expert at the sly hold on those stunts that prevent the offensive lineman sliding off him and closing off Aldon's lane. We all know that the best counter to a top QB is a pass rush, and the presence of Justin Smith, even at 60%, should help return that to San Francisco's defensive arsenal.
The return of Smith is countered by the return of the highly talented Packers wide receivers. Throughout the season Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have all missed time with injury and rarely been on the field at the same time together. Now that they are all healthy, it looks like Green Bay are going to be able to take San Francisco out of their base 3-4 defense and get at the soft(er) underbelly of their slot corners. One of the ways New England were able to make their roaring, if unsuccessful, comeback against San Francisco during the regular season was the use of Danny Woodhead. As a small, shifty back San Fran had a lot of difficulty locating him on shotgun runs and he was able to average 5 yards a carry. With Randall Cobb back Green Bay have their own joker in the backfield who can play hide & seek on carries as well as being a receiving threat out of the backfield.
And it's not just the WR's who are healthy. On defense Green Bay are delighted to see Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson back on the field and causing havoc against a still inexperienced Quarterback in Colin Kaepernick.
It's this inexperience that makes me pick Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers is very tough to pick against even when his offensive line continues to be questionable. There is of course the potential for San Francisco to do creative things to steal themselves another possession. We saw Jim Harbaugh call surprise on-side kicks last year and run fake punts in the Patriots game this season. The problem is if San Francisco get behind then they're in trouble. Mario Manningham's injury, along with Vernon Davis' disappearance from the offense leaves very few receiving options for the 49ers, so I'm going to take the points and roll with Rodgers and the Pack.
Green Bay 27 - 23 San Francisco
Seahawks (+2.5) over Falcons
Is there a busier bandwagon in the NFL than Seattle's & Russell Wilson's? There were plenty of "unbelievers" in the early weeks of the season, but since crushing the 49ers at home in week 16 everyone has been all over them. And with good reason. Seattle's balanced offense, strong defense and good special teams make them the most complete team in the NFL.
On the other side of this game is the NFC's #1 seed in their ultimate "show me" game. No one has believed in Atlanta all year, and with pretty good reason. They haven't had a dominant win all year, they struggled to wins over bad teams and haven't looked nearly as good as their 13-3 record suggests. Having flamed out in the playoffs the last 2 years (albeit to the eventual Superbowl champions) the talk all season has been about having to win in January. About getting the playoff monkey off their backs. Well that time is here, and unfortunately they're running into the Seahawks.
The Falcons offense this season has revolved around a deadly passing game of Matt Ryan, receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones and the ageless Tony Gonzalez. But against Seattle that might not be enough. With Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas the Seahawks have the best secondary in the league. Sherman is capable of locking down elite receivers by himself and while Browner struggled against Pierre Garcon last week that could just be rust after his 4 game suspension, but Browner has performed excellently against receivers similar to Jones & White. Because of the match ups on the outside Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas will be key parts of Atlanta's game plan, as will running the ball at rookie defensive end Bruce Irvin, who will have to take on much more responsibility in this game than he has all season.
Lost in the RG3 calamity last week in Washington was the injury to Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons. His torn ACL has shelved him for the rest of the season and will thrust "pass rush specialist" Irvin into an every-down role on Sunday. I fully expect the Falcons to target Irvin with their beautifully designed run game that includes traps and wham blocks on unsuspecting defensive ends to give cut back lanes for Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. The problem after that is that Seattle's linebackers are fast, well coached and crushingly effective in the run game. Seattle might rank a mere 12th in Football Outsiders run defense ranking, suggesting they could be taken advantage of on the ground, especially without their best edge player. But Atlanta are a horrible 29th in rush offense thanks to Michael Turner's demise into a slow, plodding back and poor push up front.
Put simply, Seattle match up really well against against Atlanta's offense. On the otherside of the ball the story isn't as kind to Atlanta's defense. They're poor against the run, and have really struggled to contain rushing quarterbacks, and while they've done well in creating interceptions, including baiting Peyton Manning into 3 in one half and picking off Drew Brees 5 times in a game, Russell Wilson has done a great job limiting turnovers. Atlanta have also struggled to generate much pressure on opposing QB's, finishing 28th in the league in sacks. Wilson has had difficulty against DB Blitzes this year so it will be interesting to see if Atlanta go down that route. One potential issue is Marshawn Lynch being held out of mid-week practices due to a foot injury. Normally resting a veteran player late in the season isn't a concern, but after the Christian Ponder mess last week you can't be too careful. Were Lynch unable to go I would probably flip my pick to Atlanta. Seattle just don't have anyone else who can do what he does in all 3 phases of running back play.
One issue of note is that Seattle had to place reliable kicker Steven Hauschka on IR and have drafted in 38 year old Ryan Longwell to take over. Longwell is a good kicker himself, and actually more successful from 50+ yards than Hauschka has been during his limited career, but it will be interesting to see what kind of trust Pete Carroll has in his kicker to try a 52 yarder on a 4th & 2. Would he decide to go for it rather than try the kick?
Personally I can't see beyond a Seattle win here, they have a much more rounded team than Atlanta, and if they can get early stops against Matt Ryan then the crowd, who have seen too many January "collapses" before may begin to turn on the Falcons and their heads will go down.
Prediction: Seattle 27 - 20 Atlanta
Patriots (-9.5) over Texans
Our final game is our 3rd rematch. In week 14 Houston came into New England with just 1 loss to their name and firmly in the drivers seat for the 1st seed in the AFC. They left with their tail between their legs having been on the end of a 42-14 drubbing and soon found themselves dropping all the way to 3rd seed.
Having gone back and watched that game over, it's almost impossible to see where Houston can make the ground up. They're still playing brutally slow run stuffers at inside linebacker, who Tom Brady mercilessly picked on all game. With the return of Rob Gronkowski that mismatch just got even bigger.
On defense the Patriots were quickly able to decypher and defeat the Houston ground attack, limiting Arian Foster to 3.1 yards a carry. That run defense, and the quick scoring of the Patriots offense, forced the game into Matt Schaub's hands, which is exactly where you don't want it to be if you're a Houston Texan.
So what's the recipe for an upset? What can Houston do to overturn that embarrassing defeat? Well really it's the same game plan the Giants have used so well. Run the ball, keep Brady on the side line and when he's on the field, hit the stuffing out of him.
Houston were very close on several occasions to picking up sacks. JJ Watt registered 3 QB hits and continually made a mockery of anyone who tried to block him one on one. With the return of pass rusher Brooks Reed, Brady should see a bit more heat coming his way on sunday night, but with Gronkowski there to act as an extra blocker if needed, Reed could find himself marginalised, leaving the burden of pass rush on Watt's shoulders. Watt has been mercilessly double teamed for the last few weeks, which has decreased his production, but that double teaming has lead to easier rushes for the likes of Connor Barwin and Reed. Should New England deploy the same tactics up front, then the protection from the running back is going to be crucial.
Personally, I find if very difficult to see Houston coming away with a win. The best way to attack New England is through the air, and Matt Schaub just isn't good enough to do that nor is their receiving corp deep enough to stretch an improved group of DB's. The memory of this time 2 years ago, when the Jets came in and upset the Patriots after being destroyed during the regular season will give Houston hope, but you can be sure that it's still fresh in Bill Belichick's memory, and he'll be drilling it into his players that this is no gimme game. The Patriots will be fired up for what could be their last home game of the year, and I expect them to come up fast and put Houston in the same kind of hole they did 4 weeks ago.
Prediction: New England 38 - 20 Houston
- Toby Durant (@TDonSport)
- The Pulling Linemen