Baltimore Ravens (+7) at New England Patriots: Bill Belichick has a 12-3 home postseason record as New England's head coach. However, 2 of those 3 losses came courtesy of this weekend's opponent, the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens were impressive last week in their first ever postseason win in Pittsburgh's Heinz Field (0-3 prior). While Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger carved up the Ravens' defense, Baltimore stood strong in the red zone, holding Pittsburgh to three first half field goals as they approached that area of the field. Baltimore's D also forced three turnovers. However, they'll be hard pressed to duplicate that effort in this game as the Patriots turned the ball over a league low 13 times during the regular season. In fact, the Pats turned it over once or not at all in 12 of 16 games.
Of the four games this weekend, many believe this is the contest most ripe for an upset. But not me. Since all-world TE Rob Gronkowski is actually healthy this postseason, I'm thinking he's going to be the X factor in every playoff game the Pats play this cycle.
New England 31 Baltimore 17
Carolina Panthers (+11) at Seattle Seahawks: This is a matchup of two of the NFL's stingiest defenses with the Panthers having the 10th best unit in terms of total yardage while the Seahawks are once again the league's top defense.
Even though the Panthers went winless over a seven game stretch earlier in the season (0-6-1), they've been in playoff mode since week 14, winning their final four games of the year to claim their second consecutive NFC South title. Through the first 11 games, the Panthers vaunted defense was banged up, thus allowing an average of 374 yards per game. But over the last 5 contests of the season, they allowed merely 265 yards per. They saved their best performance for last week by holding the Arizona Cardinals to a downright paltry 78 total yards.
The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks also had a strong finish, winning 9 of their final 10 games and only once allowing an opposing offense to rack up more than 300 yards total. And since Seattle has home field throughout the NFC playoffs, they are looking pretty strong to make a run at a repeat championship.
One area where the Panthers are vulnerable is run defense, where they rank near the bottom by allowing 4.5 yards per carry. This plays well into the hands of Seattle RB Marshawn Lynch, who averages 4.7 yards per rush.
When these two clubs met in week 8, Seattle went to Charlotte, NC and came out with a hard fought 13-9 victory. I sense a similar gritty game this time around.
Seattle 17 Carolina 10
Dallas Cowboys (+5-1/2) at Green Bay Packers: In the 2014 regular season, the Cowboys were undefeated on the road. The Packers were unbeaten at home. Something's gotta give.
If Packers QB Aaron Rodgers were 100%, I say the Pack wins handily. Unfortunately for Green Bay, Rodgers has a slight tear in his calf muscle, which limits his being able throw on the run. I don't know if there's a quarterback in all the NFL who does it better. Rodgers is still a top 5 QB even at 90% healthy. But what if he's only at, say, 50%? All of a sudden the Cowboys have a fighting chance.
Regardless, Dallas will look to limit the number of snaps Rodgers takes in the game. Having the NFL's leading rusher in DeMarco Murray (1,845 yards) certainly helps, especially against the league's 23rd ranked run defense. The Packers defense also has the unenviable task of trying to slow down WR Dez Bryant, who led the NFL with 16 touchdown receptions.
One way or another, this game will demonstrate why Rodgers in the league's most valuable player. I say that he'll have just enough against a pass defense ranked number 26 in terms of yards allowed.
Green Bay 31 Dallas 28
Indianapolis Colts (+7) at Denver Broncos: This is a rematch of week one of this regular season, a 31-24 Denver win.
The Colts have a terrific passing game led by QB Andrew Luck. However, their run game is average at best and the defense has been lit up by some of the more high powered offenses this season (five different games they allowed 425 total yards or more, including 500+ twice).
Denver QB Peyton Manning struggled the final five regular season games, throwing 5 touchdowns, 6 interceptions and averaging a pedestrian 233 yards passing. His 60.7% completion percentage during that stretch is well below his career average of 65.5%. Despite all that, Denver still won 4 of those final 5 games, thanks in large part to a defense that finished third in the NFL in total yards allowed.
This bye week for the Broncos was huge. I believe that will be the biggest difference, especially for Manning.
Denver 35 Indianapolis 20
2014 Postseason record:
Straight up: 2-2
Against the spread: 1-3