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Sports

NFL Divisional Round Preview

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NFL Divisional Round Preview

2011-01-15 07:07:421 Oct 2018 01:53 AM EST

- by Rakibul Islam, Sports Staff Writer

The first round of the NFL playoffs gave us some wild games.  Three of the four road teams won, and the only home team to win, the Seattle Seahawks, were expected to be blown out.  But that’s the beauty of the NFL.  On any given Sunday, any team has a chance to win.  Things could change in the divisional round, where the home team is generally better and well-rested.  The road teams are all strong contenders, however, and since 2002 the home team is only 20-12 in this round.  Let’s take a closer look at the matchups:

Saturday, 4:30 PM – Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers

This should prove to be a fierce, old-school battle.  These AFC North teams have built one of the hardest-hitting rivalries in football, and both of them have a defensive mindset that lends itself to close games.  Indeed, of their past seven games, only once has the deficit been more than 4 points.  Typically, one or two plays are all that separate these teams.  They split their regular-season series, with both teams winning on the road.  Baltimore’s Week 4 win has a huge asterisk however, as Pittsburgh was without QB Ben Roethlisberger.  In the week 13 rematch, a key strip-sack by S Troy Polamalu led to the winning TD pass.  Who will make the big play and emerge victorious this time? 

I’d count on the home team.  The bye week gave the banged-up Steelers a chance to heal and rest.  Polamalu and Roethlisberger were two of those key players, and now they should be at or near full strength.  The Ravens secondary shut down the Kansas City Chiefs last week, but they’ll be facing a much better QB and offense.  There will likely be one long pass to WR Mike Wallace that breaks this one open.  It will be a close battle, but as with their 2009 playoff battle, the Steelers should get the win.

The pick: Pittsburgh Steelers

Saturday, 8:00 PM – Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

If week 12 was any indicator, we’re in for a treat.  The Packers visited the Falcons that Sunday for what looked like a playoff preview.  Atlanta pulled out a 20-17 win on a late FG by K Matt Bryant, but everyone figured the two teams would meet again.  And indeed, here we are.  The Packers certainly struggled more than the Falcons did to get to this point, but they are one of the hotter teams in the NFL.  They’ve beaten 10-win teams each of the past 3 weeks, and QB Aaron Rodgers got his first playoff win against the Philadelphia Eagles.  The key component they were missing in the first game with the Falcons was a run game, as Rodgers actually led the team with 51 yards rushing.  Things could be different this time, after rookie RB James Starks exploded for 123 yards against the Eagles.  If his encore is at that level, it’ll balance out their offense and make them very difficult to stop. 

The Falcons earned the NFC’s top seed thanks to solid all-around play, but they never seemed to overwhelm or dominate anyone.  They rely on RB Michael Turner to lead their offense, but after going over 400 touches without a fumble, he has lost the ball in each of the past two games.  QB Matt Ryan is nearly unstoppable at home, but he lost to the Saints in week 16 to put a dent in his home-field mystique. 

However, having essentially begun their playoffs in week 16, could the Packers be too worn down to continue?  Atlanta got to rest last week, and Turner will be primed to pound the defense.  They’re also at home, and despite the Saints loss, Ryan is still 20-2 at the Georgia Dome.  They’ve been in plenty of close games this season, and they almost always won on a late score.  Expect another close battle, with Bryant once again saving the day.

The pick: Atlanta Falcons

Sunday, 1:00 PM – Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears

Never underestimate the power of a home crowd.  We all learned this last Saturday when the 7-9 Seahawks stunned the reigning champion New Orleans Saints.  The Qwest Field crowd is among the loudest in football and frequently causes problems for the opponent.  They certainly lived up to their image, causing 3 false starts by the Saints.  They were literally seismic on RB Marshawn Lynch’s incredible game-sealing TD run, event registering on the Richter scale.  Unfortunately, things will change this week, now that they’re traveling to Chicago. 

The Bears have been on a magic carpet ride all season, with a bunch of breaks going their way en route to the NFC North title.  QB Jay Cutler figured out OC Mike Martz’s system, and cut down on his INTs to lead the team.  WR Devin Hester got back to his return-happy ways, scoring 3 punt return TDs, and the defense is channeling the spirits of the old Bears.  The Seahawks did beat these Bears 23-20 back in week 6, but much has changed.  After Seattle sacked Cutler 6 times, the Bears solidified their leaky offensive line, introduced shorter dropbacks for Cutler, and committed more to RB Matt Forte and the running game.  With 1069 yards on the season, Forte is a much bigger threat to the Seahawks than anyone on the Saints was. 

The biggest factor though, is the location.  The Seahawks won’t have the loud Seattle crowd at their backs.  Instead, they’ll be contending with the hostile Bears fans at Soldier Field.  I was wrong picking against the Seahawks last week, but lightning doesn’t strike twice.  The Bears are on their own lucky streak, and it should carry them to the NFC title game.

The pick: Chicago Bears

Sunday, 4:30 PM – New York Jets at New England Patriots

Like the other AFC matchup, this game pits two bitter division rivals against each other.  The Jets have had a roller-coaster ride this season, filled with memorable quotes, tons of media exposure, and some offensive struggles.  Coach Rex Ryan has been a firestorm all season, but he generally has his team playing hard.  The defense hasn’t performed at their 2009 levels, but they can still shut down an offense, as we saw against the Indianapolis Colts last week.  While QB Mark Sanchez has improved from his rookie year, he’s still an inconsistent passer who will make mistakes. 

The Patriots are a team that can take advantage of those mistakes.  Despite trading WR Randy Moss in week 4, New England fielded one of the best teams in football this season.  QB Tom Brady turned in a MVP performance, with 36 TDs and just 4 INTs despite a shifting offense devoid of top-level talent.  The Patriots as a whole lost the ball just 10 times, an NFL record, while intercepting a league-high 25 passes.  Since the Cleveland Browns shut them down in a 34-14 week 9 loss, the Patriots have scored at least 31 points in each game, all victories. 

The Jets defense will have trouble with the Patriots offense, which loves to spread the field with their WRs and TEs, and doesn’t focus on one target.  Brady’s luck with INTs might come to an end, but this is still largely the same team that blew out the Jets 45-3 back in week 13.  On the road in a raucous Foxboro environment, it’s tough to envision Sanchez avoiding mistakes. 

The Jets’ only chance is to use their 4th-ranked running game to create some long drives and keep the NFL’s highest-scoring offense off the field.  If they get into a shootout, the Patriots will have the advantage.

The pick: New England Patriots

For last week's picks, check this out.

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