Baltimore Ravens (+9) at Denver Broncos: The Ravens seemed extra inspired last week in their win over the Indianapolis Colts. That's due in large part to the fact their franchise player, LB Ray Lewis, will be retiring at the end of this season. With last week being Lewis's final home game no matter what, the Ravens rolled. Unfortunately for Baltimore, they'll need an even bigger effort to go into Denver and upset the Broncos, who have won 11 consecutive games coming in to the postseason.
Four weeks ago, the Broncos went in to Baltimore and crushed the Ravens 34-17 in a game that wasn't even that close. Peyton Manning is definitely locked in and I don't believe the Baltimore defense will be up to the task of slowing him down. I sure as heck don't believe that the Ravens offense (which mustered only 278 total yards in the regular season matchup) can go in to Denver and do what it takes to take over the game.
Denver 35 Baltimore 14
Green Bay Packers (+3) at San Francisco 49ers: What can we take away from the 49ers' 30-22 season opening win over the Packers in Lambeau Field? Depends. For starters, Alex Smith was the San Francisco quarterback. This time around, Colin Kaepernick will be under center for the Niners, and he brings a much different dynamic to the offense with his running prowess as well as the ability to make accurate throws on the run. On the flip side, the Packers can be a very opportunistic defense when it comes to forcing turnovers. A young QB like Kaepernick can be vulnerable in that area, but in seven starts he's only turned it over four times (3 INTs, one lost fumble). Running back Frank Gore gashed the Packers defense in week one with 112 yards rushing but hasn't had a 100+ yard game since Week 7.
With Niners DT Justin Smith having missed the past two games with a triceps injury, LB Aldon Smith has seen his productivity diminish. Although he had a fine season with 19.5 sacks, he recorded none in the two games Justin Smith was out of the lineup. But now that Justin Smith is slated to return this week, this could could spell trouble for the porous offensive line of the Packers. While Rodgers did record 303 yards passing in the week one game, he needed 44 passes to reach that total. He also got no help from the running game as Green Bay recorded only 45 yards rushing (27 by Rodgers himself). However, DuJuan Harris has been a nice find for the Packers, both as a runner and pass catcher. However, he'll find the sledding very difficult in running the ball as San Francisco allowed only 3.7 yards per carry, good for third in the NFL.
To me, the home field will be the difference.
San Francisco 27 Green Bay 20
Seattle Seahawks (+2 1/2) at Atlanta Falcons: In their first five seasons as a head coach and quarterback tandem, Mike Smith and Matt Ryan have a stellar regular season record of 56-24. However, that has been tarnished by an 0-3 playoff record.
Quite simply, this game will come down to how effective the Falcons passing game can be versus that vaunted Seattle defense. Ryan has two 1,000+ yard wide receivers in Roddy White (1,351 yards and 7 TDs in 2012) and Julio Jones (1,198 and 10), as well as future Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez (930 and 8). This has made up for a lackluster run game, which averages a mere 3.7 yards per carry. Despite the Seahawks featuring two solid defensive backs in Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, their pass defense took a huge hit last week when DE Chris Clemons (11.5 sacks in 2012) tore a knee ligament last week as is out for the season. This could leave Ryan enough time to find his open receivers.
The Seahawks offense, led by QB rookie Russell Wilson, continues to make enough plays to be formidable, due in large part to RB Marshawn Lynch finishing third in the NFL in rushing yardage with 1,590. This is an excellent matchup for Seattle, as Atlanta's defense surrendered 4.8 yards per rush, which ranks near the bottom of the NFL. A good formula to keeping the Falcons' vaunted pass offense off the field? Pound Lynch continually.
Seattle 24 Atlanta 21
Houston Texans (+9 1/2) at New England Patriots: A little more than a month ago, the Patriots embarrassed the Texans 42-14 on Monday Night Football. In that game, the NFL's leading sacker, Houston's J.J. Watt, was irrelevant. If that happens this time around, the end result may be very similar. Even worse news for the Texans is that Pats' QB Tom Brady now has his favorite weapon back in the fold in TE Rob Gronkowski. Even without Gronk, Brady threw for 296 yards and 4 TDs (0 INTs) in that regular season matchup. If Houston can somehow keep this game close, perhaps RB Arian Foster can run the ball effectively to keep Brady & Co. off the field.
The X-Factor is this: Bill Belichick. The Patriots are 10-2 at home in the playoffs under coach Belichick. The bye week will also make a difference for New England.
New England 31 Houston 20
2012 Playoff Record
Straight up: 4-0
Against the Spread: 3-1