While the Arizona Cardinals continue their search for a new head coach, the best overall weekend of the NFL season kicks off on Saturday when the Baltimore Ravens face the Denver Broncos in the Mile High City to commence the NFL Divisional Playoff round. All four games will hopefully be better than the lackluster quartet of contests last weekend. They usually are in this round. Here are my predictions for Ravens vs. Broncos; Packers vs. 49ers; Seahawks vs. Falcons and Texans vs. Patriots:
AFC: Denver 27, Baltimore 17: This looks like it will be the final game for future Hall-of-Fame linebacker Ray Lewis. The Ravens routed the Colts last week and face the top-seeded Broncos in one of the toughest venues to play, Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver. Peyton Manning may be the Comeback Player of the Year and MVP. What a season. The Ravens are vulnerable in the secondary (except for Ed Reed) and Manning has two of the best receivers in the league in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, who have combined for 23 touchdowns this season. Look for Von Miller (18.5 sacks)and company to dial up the pressure on Joe Flacco. Ray Rice will need to step up and avoid the fumbling issues he had against Indianapolis. Denver advances to host the AFC Championship game next week.
NFC: Packers 24, 49ers 21 (OT): Going with the upset here. This is a rematch of the Week One battle in Green Bay won by the Niners. Aaron Rodgers has the best collective group of wide receivers in the league in James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and a now healthy Greg Jennings. He'll need to get some help though from running backs Ryan Grant, Alex Green, John Kuhn and DuJuan Harris to keep the Niners honest. The second-seeded 49ers ranked second in the league in defense, allowing just 17.1 PPG. Two keys for San Francisco: 1) how will young quarterback Colin Kaepernick fare in his first playoff start and 2) how well will DE/DT Justin Smith play after missing the final two games of the regular season with a partially torn left triceps muscle? This one should be a dandy. Mason Crosby wins it for the Pack with a field goal in overtime.
NFC: Seahawks 20, Falcons 16: Seattle is red hot and will be facing a top-seeded Falcons contingent with enormous pressure on them to win a playoff game. They've lost four straight playoff games, including the last three under current head coach Mike Smith. In 2010, they lost to Green Bay as the number one seed at home. Can Matt Ryan handle the pressure? He has three top receivers in Roddy White, Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez (who has never won a playoff game). Ryan will be facing the top defense in the NFL – the Seahawks allowed just 15.3 PPG this season – and held the Redskins to 14 points last week. Russell Wilson is a dynamic quarterback while Marshawn Lynch, the third leading rusher in the league, is coming off a superb 132-yard rushing effort vs. Washington. Seattle lost their sack leader, Chris Clemons, to a torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee vs. the Redskins and he'll be missed. However, the Seahawks will still stifle Ryan enough to advance to the NFC Championship.
AFC: Patriots 31, Texans 20: Houston has not been the same since losing a 42-14 decision to the Patriots on Dec. 10. They edged the Bengals, 19-13 in the wild card round last Saturday but did not look impressive in doing so. The Texans need an excellent performance from quarterback Matt Schaub if they are to have a chance in springing an upset in this first postseason meeting between the clubs. Expect a lot of Arian Foster, who led the NFL in red zone rushing this season (15 touchdowns). Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels are dangerous targets and defensively the Texans boast the NFL's sack leader in defensive end J.J.Watt (20.5 sacks). The Patriots are led of course by future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady and the best slot receiver in the game in Wes Welker. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is close to 100 percent healthy after missing a month with a forearm injury. He did not play in their first meeting on Dec. 10. He is one of Brady's favorite weapons and the Texans also have to account for Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and running back Steven Ridley (1263 yards, 12 TD). New England simply has too much firepower and can Schaub be trusted in a big spot? I don't think so.
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