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NFL Picks – Divisional Round

Peyton Manning is at home…but outdoors, Aaron Rodgers looks to exact revenge against an elite defense, it’s time for Matt Ryan to earn the “Matty Ice” nickname, and what can the Texans possibly do to knock off the Patriots? The best football weekend of the year is here. Enjoy. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

Last Week:  4 – 0 – 0
Playoffs:     4 – 0 – 0

Saturday, January 12 (4:30PM ET)

(4) Ravens at (1) Broncos
The Broncos are a really good football team. In fact, last time the Broncos lost… Mitt Romney was relevant, the Eagles were on top of the NFC East, and there was no imminent threat of an additional Kardashian in the world. But, regardless of Denver’s 11 game winning streak, I wouldn’t write off the Baltimore Ravens so easily.

First of all, Denver’s played only two playoff teams since getting drubbed by the Patriots on October 7th; the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens. Obviously, as proven last week, the Bengals were the worst of the 2012 playoff teams. Not a good idea to put too much stock in a victory over the Bengals. Denver’s big win over the Ravens in Week 15 ended up in a blowout, but if you didn’t watch it, the whole game was turned upside down on one play at the very end of the 1st half. Trailing 10-0, Baltimore had the ball at the Denver 4 with 1st and goal to go. Then, Joe Flacco threw an out to the sideline that was picked off and returned 98 yards for a touchdown. 17-0 Broncos. Game over. Was there still a full half to play? Sure, but teams don’t recover from situations like that. The Eagles did the same thing in Arizona in Week 3. The final score in Baltimore that day was not indicative of the Ravens performance for the first 29 minutes and 37 seconds.

Furthermore, the Ravens have more playoff experience than the Broncos. More importantly, the Ravens know how to win on the road in the postseason (except in Pittsburgh). Three years ago Baltimore clobbered the favored Patriots in New England and then nearly did it again 12 months ago. Only a dropped touchdown in the final seconds kept the Ravens from winning. Containing elite quarterbacks isn’t something that necessarily scares the Baltimore defense.

Let’s also not forget that Peyton Manning isn’t exactly Aaron Rodgers when it comes to playing on the road in the postseason. Manning sports an unimpressive 2-5 road playoff record (3-6 if you include Super Bowls). Why does that matter? Manning is at home. Right, he’s at home, but he’s also outdoors. Tell me, do you think Peyton Manning is impacted more by being on the road or being outside his comfy dome in January weather? For me, I attribute most of Manning’s playoff struggles on the road to being outside in less than ideal conditions (New England, New York, Baltimore, even San Diego was a rainy mess when the Colts lost. Only Miami was an ideal weather game.) In fact, of Manning’s two road wins, one came against the Chiefs and the other against the Ravens on an uncharacteristically warm 54 degree day in January. Is Manning likely to be overwhelmed by playing outside against a fearless defense? No, probably not, but his track record doesn’t exactly lead you to believe he’s going to light it up on Saturday afternoon, either. Check out his stats from postseason road games (*=wins, ^=against Baltimore):

Peyton Manning's stats in road playoff games

See? Very underwhelming. It’s not like the Broncos can overcome a lousy outing by Manning, either. While Knowshon Moreno has looked impressive of late, he’s not exactly the type of back you ride to a playoff victory.

So, obviously, I’m taking the Ravens. Except I’m not. I know I just spent 500 words detailing how the Broncos are slightly overrated, Peyton Manning struggles outdoors in the postseason, and how the Ravens thrive in these situations, but I can’t ignore how Peyton Manning transformed this time from a fringe playoff team banking on miraculous comebacks to a Super Bowl contender with swagger. I think the line is ludicrous but I can’t go against Manning, not this year. BRONCOS If I were Charles Barkley; Ravens +10

Saturday, January 12 (8:00PM ET)

(3) Packers at (2) 49ers
I picked the Packers to win the NFC over a month ago and I’m not abandoning that prediction now. I’m likely alone here, but this pick seems obvious to me. Aaron Rodgers or Colin Kaepernick? Uh, Rodgers, thank you. I get the logic behind backing the 49ers; their vicious defense, and that makes plenty of sense. HOWEVER, let’s not forget San Francisco surrendered over 450 passing yards to Drew Brees and then another 316 to Eli Manning the next week in last year’s playoffs. Both games were at home, too. Just a few weeks ago, Tom Brady lit up the 49er defense like a Christmas tree in the 2nd half to the tune of four consecutive touchdowns in less than 15 minutes. He finished with over 400 passing yards as well. Are we sure this 49er defense isn’t overmatched against elite quarterbacks? Because I most certainly am not.

Now add Colin Kaepernick to the equation. First playoff game. First time the home fans won’t be marveling at his speed and arm strength. Winning is all they’ll care about. That’s a lot of pressure on a kid who’s still working out the kinks at the most important position in all of professional sports. Even worse, Alex Smith, the guy that led this same team to within a muffed punt of the Super Bowl, will be over on the sidelines. If Kaepernick struggles early, do his coaches and teammates start whispering about inserting Smith? The fans absolutely will, we know that much.

If this were three years ago, I would trust the 49ers to ride Frank Gore and not ask Kaepernick to win the game through the air. But Frank Gore can’t produce 150 yards on 30 carries anymore, especially this late in the season. It’s likely Kaepernick and the 49er offense will need to keep pace with Rodgers. That’s a tough task for an all-pro quarterback let alone a young buck making his 1st career playoff start.

I said this was an obvious pick. Aaron Rodgers is why. If we’ve learned anything about Rodgers this year it’s that he’s driven, he’s self-aware, and he can move the Green Bay offense with whoever is put on the field with him. Rodgers doesn’t like losing to good defenses and he was especially upset with losing to the 49ers way back in Week 1. As he stated last week, the playoffs are where legacies are built. I trust Rodgers to come through in big games more than any other player in the NFL, and that includes Tom Brady. PACKERS If I were Charles Barkley; Packers +3

Sunday, January 13 (1:00PM ET)

(5) Seahawks at (1) Falcons
I doubt anyone has been harder on the Atlanta Falcons this season than me. I’ve called them frauds, phonies, sissies, pansies, and any other adjective that’s similar to “overrated” and “soft.” For whatever reason… maybe guilt, maybe pity… I started to come around on the 2012 Falcons at some point in December. Not because I all-of-a-sudden believed they were championship material, and certainly not because they were playing better, but because I can’t imagine a team falling apart in the playoffs for the third straight year after everyone and their mother spent the last three months predicting it. That just can’t happen, right? I mean at some point the Atlanta Falcons have to stand up for themselves and say, “enough is enough.” If the Falcons lose this game, at home, no less, wouldn’t Atlanta just completely abandon them altogether? 0-4 in four playoff appearances, including two at home as the NFC’s top seed, is a pretty damning record. Coaches would have to go. The players would be under scrutiny. Upheaval would absolutely follow.

I’ve also been hard on Matt Ryan. Despite an impressive start to a promising NFL career, I’ve never approved of the “Matty Ice” nickname. Ice doesn’t melt in January. Ryan’s playoff record? 0-3, including twice as many turnovers as touchdowns. He’s also never topped 200 yards in a postseason game. On the other hand, guess what other NFL quarterback also struggled to succeed in the playoffs in his first five seasons… that’s right… Mr. Peyton Manning. Manning’s playoff record in his first five seasons; 0-3, including a 41-0 mugging by the Jets. Even if Ryan and the Falcons go down Sunday afternoon, at least Ryan can say he got to the playoffs in four of his first five seasons. Manning couldn’t even say that.

Anyway, the point is this; Matt Ryan is simply too good to suck in the postseason forever. The Seahawks defense is big, physical, and scary, but they haven’t faced a receiving corps as big and physical as the Falcons. Roddy White and Julio Jones make up the NFL’s top receiving tandem. Tony Gonzalez is on some sort of age-defying drug. Plus, Seattle lost their top pass rusher to a torn ACL last week against the RobertGriffinSkins. While his replacement (rookie Bruce Irvin) is an impressive pass rusher in his own right, he struggles against the run. If you looked for him in last Sunday’s contest, he was the guy getting pushed seven yards off the line of scrimmage on nearly every running play. So look for the Falcons to target him in the run game.

I like the Seahawks. They’re the scariest team in the playoffs because A. their defense is outstanding and B. they have a wildcard at quarterback. Seattle very well could walk into Atlanta and trounce the Falcons and I wouldn’t bat an eye. However, I simply find it hard to believe the 2012 Falcons are bad enough to lay an egg in the postseason… again, especially after hearing every single sports pundit predict they’d bow out early. If the Falcons have any pride, they’ll win this game. FALCONS If I were Charles Barkley; Falcons -2.5

Sunday, January 13 (4:30PM ET)

(3) Texans at (2) Patriots
I’ve spent the entire week trying to formulate a reasonable argument as to how the Texans could win this game. Of course, there’s the cliché run the football, keep Brady off the field and let your defense win the game approach, but let’s be honest, the Texans can’t run the football like they could in 2011 or even earlier in 2012. Houston dominated time of possession against the Bengals but that was only because the Bengal offense was so inept. Houston’s defense is weak against the pass. Two of their four losses were lopsided defeats to Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. I’ve read reports that Brady is relatively good at throwing the football. Furthermore, the Texans can’t win if they fall behind early, and it’s hard to imagine them jumping out to an early lead in any scenario that doesn’t involve “Brady” and “will not return” in the same sentence.

Houston’s other hope of pulling an upset would come down to special teams play. Unfortunately, their best special teamer left for Baltimore in the offseason. Perhaps a coaching advantage would give Houston an edge? Please. Gary Kubiak is a poor man’s Andy Reid. It’s almost unfair he has to go into New England where the great Bill Belichick will be waiting after having two full weeks to prepare.

I’ve liked the Texans for the past two years and really thought they’d make a Super Bowl run last year before Schaub got hurt. I thought the same this year before the wheels came off shortly after Thanksgiving. Sadly, this is a team that peaked too early.

Want to know what caused Houston’s late season swoon? Their red zone offense. You won’t kick Tom Brady out of the playoffs with field goals. Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster and the rest of the Houston offense boast an ungodly 3/13 red zone conversion rate over their past four games. For you English majors, that means the Texans score touchdowns on 23% of their red zone visits. That gets you sent home early. PATRIOTS If I were Charles Barkley; Patriots -9.5

*****

Last Week: 4 – 0 – 0
Playoffs:    4 – 0 – 0

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