Green Bay Packers (+3) @ Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan’s record at home is nothing short of stellar. An impressive regular season winning percentage means little in the playoffs.
Aaron Rodgers thrived in his first few playoff appearances. Last year Rodger’s defense failed him against Arizona. I felt this season, his running game would subvert a Packers playoff run. James Starks likely ran his way into a contract next season regardless of the outcome in Atlanta. If this guy is for real, the Packers are my favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. However, it's likely Starks caught lightening in a bottle. Starks ran his way onto the scouting report Sunday and the Falcons will not be caught off guard.
Against the Packers last week, the Eagles only gave McCoy 16 carries. The Falcons will have a much stronger commitment to the run game. Michael Turner may not set the world on fire, but he’ll keep Green Bay honest, but keeping them honest will not be enough. They’ll need an effective running game to help put points on the board.
Atlanta has been the most consistent team in the NFC. However, the Packers are peaking at the right time. Pack wins by at least a field goal.
PICK: PACKERS +3
Seattle Seahawks (+10) @ Chicago Bears
Matt Hasselbeck once took the Seahawks all the way to a Super Bowl. In the years since, he’s worn down with age and injury. He found a little of his former self last weekend. If he stays upright, gets protection, and gets a little support from Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks might just get to .500 on the year.
Unfortunately, it's not likely Matt survives the day. Peppers had a renaissance in Chicago this season and the Pro Bowler will face a rookie left tackle. Hasselbeck will not play the entire game. Either due to injury or due to ineffective play, we will have a Charlie Whitehurst sighting. Whitehurst can’t be leaned upon for big wins. He’s a career backup Seattle hopes will suddenly morph into Hasselbeck’s successor.
I don’t trust Jay Cutler at all. His arm is electric but he’s stubborn and has developed very little as a player (mentally) over his tenure in the NFL. However, I love Forte against the Seahawks and feel the Bears ground game runs all over Seattle. The Bears win and move on but Cutler’s erratic play keeps the Bears from running away with it and Seattle gets a back door cover with Chuck Whitehurst at the helm.
PICK: SEATTLE +10
New York Jets (+9) @ New England Patriots
The Jets took a beating the last time they went into Foxboro and the Patriots look like the class of the league. Revis can’t focus on just one receiver. If he takes Wes Welker or Deion Branch out of the game, it means little to the Patriots. Their emergence as an unstoppable offense hinges on their ability to go anywhere with the ball. Unlike the Eagles, who have some of the best athletes in the NFL who can engulf a defense with their speed, the Patriots have adequate athletes who play smarter than you do. They have no weak spots on offense. For the first time since Corey Dillon’s first season with the team, the Patriots have a ground game. The combination of Green-Ellis and Woodhead combined for almost 1600 rushing yards this season. Antonio Cromartie ran his mouth all week about hating Tom Brady. Cromartie may find himself feeling something worse than hate after Sunday because he’s likely to be on the wrong end of many of Tom Brady passes. Can the Jets’ pass rush get to Brady and throw him off his game? Doubtful. The Jets need to blitz to generate an effective pass rush, which means letting Brady’s receivers work in man coverage. The rookie tight end tandem of Gronkowski and Hernandez are poised for a big day against the Jet’s safeties and their nickel corner.
The Pats have invested heavily through the draft in their secondary. While they have shown promise, New England finished 30th in the NFL against the pass. If Sanchez can find a rhythm the Jets’ receivers could overwhelm the young New England secondary. However, Sanchez is far from a reliable quarterback at this point in his career. I also feel confident the Patriots will find a way to keep him guessing. Sanchez threw 3 picks in the Monday night debacle the last time these two teams met. In games where the temperature was 40 degrees or below at kickoff, Sanchez has thrown 5 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Maybe the AFC East isn’t the best place for a guy who loves playing in warm weather. With all that said, I like Holmes in this game. I don’t think the Pats can find a way to bottle him up for four quarters. No way the Jets win, the question is “Can they cover?”
I say yes. The Jets have too much confidence and speed to get run over again. They lose the game but find a way to cover.
PICK: JETS +9
Baltimore Ravens (+3) @ Pittsburgh Steelers
I have trouble coming up with anything original to say for this game. Two tough teams, good running games, great defenses, big quarterbacks, a few criminals and a million football clichés. Instead rambling on lets try something different:
Keys for the Steelers:
Mike Wallace. Hines Ward is the name but Wallace is actually the best receiver on this team. He’s scary fast and runs great routes. Ward is little more than a possession receiver and great blocker. Wallace should put the fear of God in the Ravens secondary.
Contain Ray Rice. The Ravens have 3 very good possession receivers but lack any real speed. If the Ravens struggle to get Rice going the offense will move at a snail’s pace. Flacco went into KC and won a big playoff game but can he do it in Pittsburg?
Keys For the Ravens:
Ed Reed. The Ravens secondary is not good. However, with Ed Reed is a ball-hawk that keeps teams from abusing them deep. He’ll often find a way to make at least one game changing play. If he loses focus due to the fateful loss of his brother, the Ravens will surely suffer.
Joe Flacco. I’ve written several times this year about Flacco. Say what you will about Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata but as Joe Flacco goes so goes the Ravens. He threw for two TD’s and over 250 yards against KC last week. However, he was also sacked 4 times. Can Flacco endure and throw accurately in the face of the Steeler’s pressure? All the kids at Ropewalk sure hope so.
Lock of the Week: Against all of my intuition, I am taking Joe Flacco to pull off an improbable upset win in Pittsburgh. Anquan Boldin earns some of that fat contract and Ray Rice breaks a few big ones. Joe gets hit all day but avoids the big mistakes and finds those big possession receivers moving not a snails pace but a turtles. Slow and steady wins this race.
PICK: RAVENS +3 in an outright win