By, Matthew Budkofsky
Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
The Ravens were the only team that was able to go on to the road and get a win this past weekend. Baltimore surprised many people, myself included, by taking down the Pittsburgh Steelers in convincing fashion with a 30-17 victory. Next up for the Ravens is a date with golden boy Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
The Patriots are one of the league’s most balanced teams in football. They are also one of the best at home, posting a 7-1 record in Foxboro this season. Tom Brady has enjoyed the resurgence of Rob Gronkowski, and has even turned guys like Brandon LaFell into legitimate offensive weapons. LeGarrette Blount has completely turned his season around and now averages roughly 56 rushing yards per game since joining New England. That average is up from 24 yards per game that he was averaging in Pittsburgh and he has also already scored more touchdowns in Foxboro (3) than he scored in Pittsburgh (2). His success aside, the Pats will be surely be tested against a stingy Ravens defense that has been heating up over the past month.
The Ravens are fresh off a great win against a huge rival. That can’t mean too much though, as they now have to turn around and try and defeat Bill Belichick’s Patriots. The Ravens will depend on the big play abilities of everyone named Smith to help put points on the board, but those plays should be tough to come by while going up against Pro-Bowl cornerback, Darrelle Revis. Baltimore has now allowed less than 4.0 yards per carry throughout the regular season for 19 straight seasons. That’s insane! John Harbaugh has no shortage of confidence heading into this one, as he referred to Joe Flacco as, “the best QB in football.” Flacco has thrown for 13 TD’s and 0 INT in his last 5 playoff games, so don’t think John Harbaugh is so out of line.
Prediction: I think that the bye gives the Patriots a serious advantage here, and the balanced attack on offense, paired with the stifling defense will be too much for the Ravens to overcome. I am taking the Patriots to win 27-16.
Carolina Panthers @ Seattle Seahawks
Cam Newton and the Panthers will head to Century Link Field to take on the defending champion Seahawks. For those who love great defense, this is the game for you, as you will get to see 2 of the leagues best face off in what should be a pretty low scoring game.
The Panthers are red hot, and are playing some of the best defense in football right now. Last week, they allowed the Cardinals to gain just 78 yards. The Cardinals averaged less than 2 yards per play, and never seemed to have a chance to win the game. The Panthers will need to clean things up to have a chance this week. Cam Newton was 18-32 with 198 yards, 2 TD’s and 1 INT. Cam did not look very good throughout the game, as he missed wide open throws and couldn’t find open receivers. Newton will need to play his best game of the season to give his team a chance to compete because the Legion of Boom only gives you so many opportunities to beat them.
The Seattle Seahawks are a very interesting team. Like it or not, they have one of the best defenses the NFL has ever seen. Yes they took a step back this year, but I think that is largely due to injuries. Seattle got healthy at the right time, and has since rattled off 6 straight wins, and 9 wins in their last 10 games. The Seahawks also own Carolina of late. The Seahawks are 6-1 in their last 7 games, including a 13-9 victory earlier this season. Russell Wilson is also a very special talent. He leads all QB’s in rushing yards by a mile, and has rushed for the most yards on 3rd downs than anyone in the league.
Prediction: It will be a struggle to move the ball, but I have to give the edge to the champs. All of the 12’s will propel the Hawks to a 17-10 victory.
Dallas Cowboys @ Green Bay Packers
Two of the leagues most storied franchises will face off in Lambeau Field on Sunday afternoon. The Packers are undefeated at home, while the Cowboys are undefeated on the road this year, so something has to give. This will be the first meeting between these two in the post season since the “Ice Bowl” where the Pack beat the Cowboys 21-17.
The Packers are virtually unbeatable at home. Aaron Rodgers has made it almost 2 full seasons without throwing an INT in Lambeau, but his health is up in the air thanks to a bad calf. Green Bay is lead by the dynamic duo of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb and is backed up by power back Eddie Lacy. Their performance hinders on the health of Aaron Rodgers, because if he is not 100% I don’t see Matt Flynn leading them to a win over the Cowboys. Most games Green Bay has played this season at home has been over at half time, and the Packers have even put up 50+ points twice. If the Cowboys can keep it close, they could have a chance.
The Cowboys survived a scare from the Detroit Lions this past week. Demarco Murray was limited, as was Dez Bryant to a degree, but Terrance Williams stole the show and Tony Romo finally had his signature playoff moment. This is a tough matchup for the Cowboys, who have not played a game in below freezing weather yet this year. The defense is going to have to step up and try and slow down the high octane Green Bay offense.
Prediction: I’m worried that the Packers best football is behind them and the Cowboys best football is in front of them. I think this game is going to be a lot closer than a lot of people think, but ultimately the Packers will prevail 34-31.
Indianapolis Colts @ Denver Broncos
For the final game of the weekend, Peyton Manning will get to face off against his former team led by the guy who replaced him. The inconsistent Colts will take on a Denver team that is searching for its identity.
Denver made some big moves this offseason, acquiring guys like Demarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, and Emmanuel Sanders to help get them the Super Bowl championship Peyton Manning so desperately craves. Sanders has filled the void left by Eric Decker and has been even better. The Broncos lost Eric Decker to the Jets this season and lost a guy who just had 87 catches for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns. Sanders has come in and posted 101 catches for 1,404 yards and 9 TD’s.
Over the last 4 games of the season, Peyton Manning has only managed 3 TD’s and has thrown 6 INT’s, including 4 in one game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Yet the Broncos have still managed to win games handily thanks to CJ Anderson. Manning’s struggles are still definitely a cause for concern for Broncos fans. Are we finally seeing the end of Manning’s career? Is Julius Thomas 100% healthy? Is Wes Welker as good as gone? All of these questions linger and will need to be answered by the end of this game.
The Colts are hard to get a read on. Andrew Luck finished up his regular season struggling, and with TY Hilton not completely healthy, the Colts didn’t look like they had much of a chance. With a defense that has missed Robert Mathis and a nonexistent run game, a lot of the Colts games consistently rest upon Luck’s shoulders. Luck will be facing a very stout pass defense and will need some kind of help from his supporting cast to get out of Denver with a win. But the Broncos have looked vulnerable at times, and I think the Colts are ready for this challenge.
Prediction: I think the Colts are going to pull of the upset and put an abrupt end to Manning’s season. I think Luck really has his breakout game and cements himself amongst the leagues elite with a 24-20 win.