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Thursday, 8 January 2015

Divisional Weekend Picks (Ice Bowl Reloaded Edition)

Wild card weekend is behind us and it's time for the NFL's version of the Elite Eight to take the field and battle it out to see who gets one step closer to Super Bowl XLIX.

And that also means it's time for me to see if I can get one step closer to completing my first-ever winning NFL season since I've been picking games here at Football Nation.

One of these things is more important than the other.

Enough talk. Let's go.

Last week: 2-2

Post-Season Record: 2-2

Regular Season Record: 128-128

Overall Record: 130-130


Baltimore Ravens (10-7) @ New England Patriots (12-4), Saturday January 10, 4:35/3:35 Central

Line: Patriots by 7

Divisional weekend starts at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro where the Patriots will host the Ravens.

Despite sneaking into the playoffs as the AFC's #6 seed, the Ravens continued to prove their worthiness on the road with a 30-17 win in Pittsburgh last Saturday night, running John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco's record on the road in playoff games as a QB/coach tandem to 7-1.

The one loss came here in Foxboro to the Patriots, 23-20, in the 2012 AFC Championship Game, which sent the Patriots on to another Super Bowl loss to the Giants, and had it not been for Lee Evans dropping an easy game-winning touchdown catch or Billy Cundiff missing a field goal that would have forced overtime, the Ravens very well might've have won that one.

But they also have two playoff wins in Foxboro, a 33-14 win in a wild card game in 2010, and a 28-13 win in the 2013 AFC title game, a year after they lost to the Pats in this very same building.

So the smart money would probably suggest that even though the Ravens snuck in as the last playoff team into the field, they might be the team that the top-seeded Patriots LEAST wanted to see this week.

Despite the offensive production that Flacco led the Ravens to a week ago in Pittsburgh, I am not expecting him to go into this game and recreate that kind of production against a New England defense that has been better than people think this year.

Offensively for the Pats, it's not a stretch to say that they have been Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and a bunch of guys this season, but with Gronk having been fully healthy for the first time in several seasons, he's shown himself to be the most dominating force in the entire NFL, and the Ravens will have to minimize his damage (not stop it completely, because that probably can't be done), in order to have any chance in this one.

The Ravens would advance to their fifth AFC Championship game in history with a win, and would in either Denver or Indianapolis next week, while the Patriots would advance to their eleventh AFC title game appearance, and the ninth of the Brady/Belichick Era, and host the Colts-Broncos winner next week.

Prediction: New England 31, Baltimore 17


Carolina Panthers (8-8-1) @ Seattle Seahawks (12-4), Saturday, January 10, 8:15/7:15 Central

Line: Seahawks by 11

The first NFC game of the weekend takes place Saturday night at Century Link Field in Seattle when the defending champion Seahawks take on the Panthers.

This is a far more intriguing match-up than a lot of people might think, as the Panthers bring a 5-gane winning streak into this one, and seem to possess the ability to always muck the game up enough to keep it close when they play the Seahawks.

A case in point is the game earlier this year in week 8 when the Panthers hosted the Seahawks in Charlotte and lost a 13-9 decision on a late Russell Wilson touchdown pass.

The previous two meetings were similarly low-scoring, with the Seahawks winning 12-7 and 16-12, but the biggest factor working against the Panthers here is that while they kept all of those games close, they were also all home games.

In order to get the job done in the stadium with the biggest home-field advantage in the NFL, Carolina will need Cam Newton to stand on his head, and then play a lot of defense, which is basically the formula they used to defeat the punch less Cardinals at home 27-16 last week to advance to this game.

Seattle's also been doing it with defense lately, as they held their opponents to single digits in 5 of their last 6 games.

These teams have met only once before in the playoffs, a 34-14 Seahawks win in this same stadium in the 2005 NFC Championship Game that sent the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl appearance.

Seattle advances to their second straight NFC title game, third NFC Championship Game in history, and fourth total if you include their one AFC title game appearance, and would host it for the second year in a row, as well, while the Panthers will look to advance to their fourth NFC title game (and first since that loss to the Seahawks in the '05 game), and would play in either Green Bay or Arlington next week against the Cowboys/Packers winner.

Prediction: Seattle 20, Carolina 10


Dallas Cowboys (13-4) @ Green Bay Packers (12-4), Sunday, January 11, 1:00/12:00 Central

Line: Packers by 6

Sunday's schedule kicks off with the marquee match-up of the weekend, and the whole post-season to this point, when the Cowboys head to Lambeau Field to face the Packers in a playoff game for the first time since the Ice Bowl.

This game, to put it bluntly, is what the NFL playoffs are supposed to be about, and even though many circles around the NFL are refusing to let the swirl of controversy over the Cowboys' 24-20 come-from-behind home win over the Lions last week die, none of that will matter once this game kicks off, though the Cowboys best not have the kind of start they ahd a week ago, or this one could get ugly early.

What will matter, at some point, anyway, is the state of Aaron Rodgers' injured calf, and especially since it has been revealed that he has a partial tear of it in addition to a strain in the muscle.

This game might well come down to how mobile and healthy Rodgers really is, as the Cowboys' defense, no matter how improved it is from last year's unit, will not be able to stop the Packers if they are humming on all cylinders on offense.

The Cowboys' offense was unable to reproduce it's frighteningly easy December scoring average last week, but found enough of it late to score 17 second-half points and oust the Lions, and while the Green Bay defense is good, it's not quite on Detroit's level, so I expect a lot of points in this one, despite the frosty-but-not-quite-frozen conditions expected on the Tundra for this one.

These teams have met 6 times in the playoffs previously, but the Packers' Ice Bowl win was the last one they would register against the Cowboys in the post-season, as the Cowboys have won the last four playoff meetings, all at Texas Stadium, including back-to-back divisional round games in the '93 and '94 playoff seasons, and the 1995 NFC Championship Game, which was also the Cowboys' last appearance in the NFC's title tilt.

This game is so big that it has even awakened the ghosts of Cowboys playoffs past, since Irving, Texas was hit with 12 earthquakes earlier this week, with at least half of them being centered around the old stadium site.

A Dallas win sends them to their NFC-record tying fifteenth NFC Championship appearance, but first since 1995, and the would either host Carolina or visit Seattle next week, while Green Bay would do the same and head to their sixth NFC Championship Game appearance.

Prediction: Dallas 37, Green Bay 31


Indianapolis Colts (11-5) @ Denver Broncos (12-4), Sunday, January 11, 4:40/3:40 Central

Line: Broncos by 7

The final game of the divisional weekend sees the Colts head to Sports Authority Field to face the Broncos in a rematch of a 24-17 Broncos win in the first Sunday night game of the season.

And therein lies the problem with this game, since the Colts, who beat the Bengals 26-10 at home a week ago, are not known to travel well: do you base your prediction based on the Colts' historical inability to play well on the road with Andrew Luck under center, or do you base their chances on the fact they lost a one-score game in the very same building four months ago?

I haven't heard many people talk about it lately, mainly because the Broncos are coming off a bye week, but the apparent sudden lack of arm strength for Peyton Manning has to be a concern for them, since they don't have the dominant run game of the Mike Shanahan days to cover for that.

But the Colts don't particularly want to run the ball, either, which is oddly something that has afflicted them since the QB they will be going up against in this one was suiting up for them.

So what I'm saying is there should be a lot of points scored in this one, too, and especially since the Colts' defense often fails to show up on the road, but the Indy offensem with T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne stretching the field, should make enough plays to keep this one close.

Whichever team actually tries to run the ball could be the one that dictates the pace in this one.

In two prior playoff meetings, in consecutive seasons, Manning's Colts beat the Broncos in a pair of wild card games at the RCA Dome, 49-24 and 41-10 after the 2003 and 2004 seasons respectively.

The Broncos will head to their tenth AFC Championship game, and second straight, with a win here, either hosting the Ravens or visiting the Patriots next week, while the Colts would go to their sixth AFC Championship game, five of those in Indy with a win, and would also host Baltimore and travel to New England.

Prediction: Denver 38, Indianapolis 24



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