All four contests are a rematch of regular season matchups, including both AFC games pitting bitter division rivals. Last weekend was a blast if you're an NFL fan, as three of the four wildcard games came down to the final minute.
What we do know for sure is we will have a new Super Bowl matchup as both participants from SB XLIV (Saints and Colts) were eliminated last weekend. Personally, that seems to be par for the course for me in that I predicted New Orleans to repeat as champs. In fact I was 0 for 4 in my prognostications last weekend, causing fans of teams still alive to respectfully request I not pick their favorite squad.
So with apologies to certain NFL fans, here are this week's predictions:
Baltimore Ravens (+3 ½) at Pittsburgh Steelers: There isn't a lot of mystery amongst these division rivals, as they will face off for the eighth time in the past three years. This season, the road team won both contests, with both games being decided by three points. One caveat is that Baltimore's late 17-14 win in Week 4 was against a Steelers team without QB Ben Roethlisberger.
In my opinion, you can pretty much throw stats out the window in this game. When you have such a hard-nosed rivalry as this, it comes down to execution. I believe Roethlisberger will fare better against the Ravens defense than will Baltimore QB Joe Flacco taking on the vaunted Steelers D. I expect the Steelers will put the nail in it late with a pick six, like they did in the 2008 AFC title game versus Baltimore.
Pittsburgh 24 Baltimore 16
Green Bay Packers (+2 ½) at Atlanta Falcons: In the three seasons Matt Ryan has been the Falcons quarterback, Atlanta is 20-4 at home. One of those wins came against Green Bay in Week 12 by a score of 20-17. However, I felt the Pack clearly outplayed Atlanta on that day but could not overcome two missed opportunities to score touchdowns. A first quarter drive got them inside Atlanta's 5-yard line but only yielded a field goal. Later on, Aaron Rodgers fumbled inside the one-yard line, which cost Green Bay another TD.
The Packers defense has been outstanding in three consecutive must win games and I believe they will hold the Atlanta passing game in check. However, they cannot allow bruising RB Michael Turner to rush for more than 100 yards, like he did Week 12. I believe Rodgers will continue his stellar play. So the question remains is will unheralded Packers RB James Starks put up a similar performance to the 123 yards he gained last weekend at Philly? If so, the Pack wins handily. While the Atlanta Falcons are a nice story, their defense is pretty ordinary and that won't be good enough this game.
Green Bay 27 Atlanta 21
Seattle Seahawks (+10) at Chicago Bears: Seattle won the regular season meeting in Week six at Chicago, 23-20. In that game, Bears QB Jay Cutler was sacked six times as his offensive line was in the midst of its worst stretch of play. And while the Bears O-line still isn't a brick wall, it has steadily improved over the past month of the season.
If recent history is any indication, the Bears might be in trouble. Since 2003, first-time starting quarterbacks are 5-20 in the playoffs. This will be Cutler's first playoff game, so it will be interesting to see how he fares. I believe he'll have enough to overcome a porous Seahawks defense. Meanwhile, I don't see the Seattle offense having a lot of success against a tough Bears defense, especially in what is sure to be frigid conditions at Soldier Field.
Chicago 31 Seattle 17
New York Jets (+9) at New England Patriots: I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the Patriots will not win by 42, like they did vs. the Jets on a Monday night six weeks ago.
I'm still utterly amazed how the Pats won 14 regular season games without any real superstars on that team other than QB Tom Brady. And that is the issue which faces the Jets defense in that there is not one key receiver or running back they can take away and thus hamper New England's offensive production. In my mind, the only chance the Jets have is if Mark Sanchez has a career game. The Pats defense ranks near the bottom of the NFL in yards allowed, so they can be had. However, I just don't have much faith that Sanchez is the guy to make them pay.
New England 28 New York 14
Straight up: 0-4
Against the Spread: 0-4