Ray Lewis. Ed Reed. Joe Flacco. Peyton Manning. Champ Bailey. Tom Brady. Matt Schaub. Matt Ryan. Tony Gonzalez. Aaron Rodgers. Just a handful of the names that can build on, change, or hurt their resumes this weekend.
Baltimore +9.5 @ Denver
Ray Lewis could be playing his last NFL football game. Under Joe Flacco the Ravens have won 4 playoff road games in 4 seasons, so they will not be intimidated playing away from home. The Broncos have won 11 straight games, but as a I wrote, momentum doesn’t mean as much as you think it would this time of year. Also worth noting, Denver played the 2nd easiest schedule in the NFL this season, and one of the easiest second half slates in NFL history. They did, however, dominate against it. Forget about the first meeting between the two teams, the Ravens had too many players out hurt that are back now, and their offensive line looked the best it as all year last week with Bryant McKinnie back at left tackle. Unfortunately, I don’t know if their secondary will be able to hold up against Peyton Manning and his receivers. This will be a battle, and if the Ravens can get a couple of turnovers, they can win, but I don’t like betting on turnovers.
Green Bay +2.5 @ San Francisco
I think there are two stories at play in this game. First, for the Packers, I believe their playoff life is based almost entirely on the play of QB Aaron Rodgers. AD was the MVP this year, but Rodgers is the best player in the sport. He has carried a Packers team with holes all over it this far, and if he plays great they can beat anyone. On the other side, I think it boils down 49ers DE Justin Smith. How important is he? When he was was healthy, the Niners didn’t give up more than 26 points in a game. After Justin Smith got hurt, the 49ers allowed more than 26 points in consecutive halves to the Patriots (31) and Seahawks (28). If he can’t play well, then I just think Green Bay will outscore San Francisco. And I don’t think Smith will be as effective with a torn triceps.
Seattle +2.5 @ Atlanta
This is a matchup of strengths versus strengths and weaknesses against weaknesses. The Falcons are one of the worst running teams in the league, and the Seahawks don’t play the run particularly well. The Falcons are a pass-first team, with their strength being their outside wideouts and Seattle’s corners and safeties are terrific. I’d look for Atlanta to highlight Julio Jones and Roddy White in the slot at times, and Tony Gonzalez could have a big game. With Seattle losing DE Chris Clemens it severely hampers their pass rush, but also doesn’t help them defending the run. I could see Atlanta having some success on the ground. On the other side, Atlanta is one of the worst tackling teams in the league surrendering 863 yards after contact, the second worst mark in the NFL. Marshawn Lynch could be in for a big day. One of the more underrated groups in the league is the Atlanta secondary, which will get S William Moore back this weekend. I think they’ll do a good job barring Russell Wilson scrambling long enough to get guys open. Matt Ryan is completing 73% of his passes with an 8-0 TD-INT ratio the last three games, and the key will be third down conversions. Keep drives alive, and Atlanta survives.
Houston +9.5 @ New England
I am picking the Patriots. Lets get that out of the way. But having seen the Giants, the Ravens, and Jets all beat New England in recent years, one thing stands out: out-physical them. The Pats are an underrated tough guy group. But when teams have bullied their offensive line, and got pressure up the middle in the face of Brady, who doesn’t move well (duh), and pushed their receivers around in zone defenses daring them to beat them deep, they’ve struggled and lost. Houston has some of the pieces to accomplish that. JJ Watt will do his thing, but unless Antonio Smith, Connor Barwin, Shaun Cody, Brooks Reed, and Whitney Mercilius channel their best games, I think the Texans are fighting a losing battle.