NFL-2015 playoff preview

Divisional round

 

Baltimore Ravens (6) at New England Patriots (1)

The Ravens are seemingly the only organization who has the Pats' number in the playoffs at Gillette Stadium, winning two of their three match-ups. This must internally worry Tom Brady & Bill Belichick more than most weeks of preparation, despite their postseason experience and what they would be willing to admit. However, the last time the Ravens beat New England, on route to their second Super Bowl, it was without the Patriots' main offensive weapon, TE Rob Gronkowski. That will not be the case today; despite how well rookie LB CJ Mosley and veteran Daryl Smith have been playing, The Gronk is a whole different species of Beast than what the Baltimore defense has been defending lately. Baltimore's safeties must be in the moment in coverage to account for Gronk, as well as speedy utility man Julian Edelman and red zone targets like Brandon LaFell and secondary tight end Tim Wright. Baltimore gets back a wide load in the middle who should be rested and excitable in returning rookie DT Timmy Jernigan to compliment Haloti Ngata and the mammoth Brandon Williams inside, so Brady will need to be protected and decisive against a great front seven. Will New England's offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer be up to the challenge of slowing down pass-rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil? Those are key personnel match-ups that will explain a lot about this game's decision.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco has proven to be a performer in the playoffs, particularly on the road in hostile territories in cold weather climates. He will finally get back his starting blindside (no pun intended) left tackle Eugene Monroe, who is a welcomed return that changes the entire complexion of the Baltimore attack. Pro Bowler Marshall Yanda seems likely to move back to his native guard position, despite playing more than admirable at right tackle last week (edit: James Hurst will again start at LT, keeping Yanda at RT). Wide receivers Torrey and Steve Smith played admirable last week in Pittsburgh, providing Flacco with both chain-moving downs and big play scoring ones to boot. The issue here is that they are facing an extremely well-coached defense who are probably even better than their statistics suggest with potential game-altering players like athletic savant OLB Jamie Collins and bruiser inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

It is very possible that Brandon Browner could match Steve Smith's physicality and render him ineffective. We all know what kind of player Darrelle Revis can be but then again, Torrey Smith has abused the likes of many quality cornerbacks so that should be fun to monitor. While the Ravens have a balanced offense, Belichick's impression should be up for the challenge to play gritty and despite future Hall of Fame nose tackle showing to be in the twilight of his career, this could be one he shows some vintage dirty work. We shall see what kind of game plan offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak  has to attack them. Justin Forsett has been remarkable in this scheme but against New England, it may be a little too finesse. Another player to keep an eye on is Pats safety Devin McCourty who is a free agent this offseason and hopes to receive a new and improved contract.

The Ravens have had some amazing moments in this stadium against one of the all-time great NFL success stories. It's superlative what they accomplished in 2008 and 2012 but this an era without Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and a prime Ray Rice to repeat their good fortunes. A younger defense must now face Tom Brady's uncanny football IQ throwing passes to Gronk and a group better than what they've trotted out in previous campaigns. Abundant credit to coach John Harbaugh's ability to have his guys ready to go in big time moments but this is a task that doesn't favor him this season. If Baltimore were to go 3-1 while Bob Kraft sat in his personal suite, it would be an accomplishment of a Herculean order. It is unlikely that will transpire with the rosters of both of this year's clubs.

ROC Prediction- NE over BAL

How high can Wilson continue to fly?

Carolina Panthers (4) at (1) Seattle Seahawks 

The Panthers are lucky to even be in the position they are. Then again,  there isn't anything lucky about having to run into the loudest buzz saw around in the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. Especially the way they are playing now. Cam Newton was erratic  to say the least last week, sailing passes over his receivers' heads and missing on some pretty basic stuff. That simply won't fly in Seattle with Pete Carroll's bunch who fly around the ball, play disciplined and feed over the energy they receive in Seattle. For Carolina to have even a shot into the fourth quarter, Newton will have to have the game of his life. I'm totally aware that the Seahawks eeked out a game they may or may have won Week 8 against these Panthers but that was a much different version of the defending Super Bowl  Champs who went through a mild period of malaise, even looking mediocre at times. That is in the rearview mirror as the Seahawks look like the only viable option to repeat as Super Bowl victors since the Patriots of the early '00s.

Those who believed so in the summertime (myself included) are now seeing the 'Hawks playing at their most efficient and composed since they hoisted the Lombardi. Having a decent running game from DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert & Jonathan Stewart will not surmise to much against a defense who gets great support from its defensive line and linebackers and trot out SS Kam Chancellor for support; Carolina's offensive line isn't stellar as it is. Newton really doesn't have much help in the passing game sans rookie standout Kelvin Benjamin who will be shadowed over the top with S Earl thomas and Chancellor and man coverage from Richard Sherman, play-calling pending. Outside of that, the only threat Carolina has is TE Greg Olsen, a sure-handed vet but not exactly a track star.

QB Russell Wilson has been marvelous in his young career at home; a punctual playmaker who makes just enough bigtime throws to win playoff games with the support of his defense and a strong running game. RB Marshawn Lynch dictates the flow and tempo of the offense with power running and timely catches behind an offensive line who know their scheme and responsibilities well. They don't boast much at receiver but every great quarterback can facilitate to his guys so if Russell Wilson wants to be near the top at the position he must continue to spread to ball to Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson and speedy tight end Luke Willson, a breakout security blanket as of late. Carolina finished the season 10th in total defense but that will be a deceptive projection without the big man in the middle, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, whose season is over. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly can only do so much in an environment that puts the entire team at a disadvantage. Ron Rivera hasn't inspired the type of confidence this season to think his team can pull off an upset of this magnitude. Seattle takes this one at home, probably rather convincingly.

ROC Prediction: SEA over CAR

The game's best versus NFL Hollywood at Lambeau

Dallas Cowboys (3) vs Green Bay Packers (2) 

The game has changed a lot since the Ice Bowl in 1967 but a couple things remain constant for this Divisional round showdown-it is being played at Lambeau Field and one team will have to out-physical the other eventually. We know the prowess that both QBs: Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers come equipped with when they throw the football but this isn't about them. It's about who will outlast the other in the trenches; who will have a better ground attack to supplement a healthy dose of pass attempts from two of the NFC's best QBs? Who will beat their man more on the outside? Which player can stay active in the second half to stifle the shots thrown the Pro Bowl talent in this game- Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jason Witten, etc.? Which pack of guard dogs up front will bulldoze the opposing front 7 better to give top backs DeMarco Murray and Eddie Lacy their chance to gash the other team? Certainly that is a lot of questions but they will be answered soon enough in Green Bay being played in a cool twenty degrees Fahrenheit of the early afternoon.

The Packers are a better test for a Cowboys team, who, frankly were mistakenly gifted some very questionable and timely officiating in last week's win against Detroit. Tony Romo capped off a game-winning drive with a strike to Terrence Williams, who will hope to have even a portion of that same success on the road in Wisconsin. The Packers will need great games from their defensive backfield, with heavy run support from the safeties to contain Murray and his large group of blockers up front. Cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields will need to play disciplined against a fast lumbering target like Bryant and an improvisational QB like the slippery, quick releasing Romo. A big wildcard is how defensive coordinator Dom Capers chooses to position his rookie safety, HaHa Clinton Dix to fulfill his responsibilities coupled with his running mate Morgan Burnett. Cowboys right tackle Doug Free will likely miss the game, making it interesting to keep an eye on Clay Matthews and how big of an impact he will have on getting to Romo and tracking Murray in the flats as well as inside. The Cowboys have a great unit up front regardless, it's now time to showcase the quality of their depth. The Packers need to use down lineman like Brandon Williams and Nick Perry and stay in their technique and see if future Hall Of Fame pass-rusher Julius Peppers can work his experience to create plays for his defense.

The health of Aaron Rodgers' calf muscle will dictate the comfort of his offense, both in extending plays and general base mechanics of the quarterback position. Ron Marinelli's defense continues to overachieve but if you were to hedge your bets on Rodgers and the chemistry he has with his receiving corps. against the likes of defensive backs Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and safeties like Barry Church, give me the G-Force every time, especially at Lambeau. The 'Boys will roll out a potent offense and Romo can be a dangerous player but Mike McCarthy's green and gold bunch should be able to outlast Dallas. They just need to play stout up front and have their secondary ready to stay zoned in on their assignments.

ROC Prediction: GB over DAL

 

 

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos 

Chuck Pagano's Colts did an admirable job protecting home field advantage last week against Cincinnati so they steam ahead into Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium and play the rested AFC West Champion Denver Broncos. Andrew Luck did his part in securing another playoff win but now he goes head to head with the man he replaced in blue and white. Peyton Manning does not have many more chances to win his second Super Bowl before his career awaits enshrinement in Canton and he must still have a bitter taste in his mouth from how last year's Super Bowl unfolded. Number 18 knows he doesn't have many more opportunities left but luckily, he is loaded with talent to put up points in a hurry with Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker. The 2014-2015 version of The Four Horsemen. CJ Anderson will likely the get the bulk of the carries yet The Colts did an ok job containing the Hill-Bernard combo of the Bengals last week. However, it's a whole new animal to face Denver and their faithful when Peyton has the comfort of his own patrons.

Indianapolis trots out their own stable of targets for Luck in which he likes to spread it around to. He has multiple security blanket options underneath with Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. The young and the experienced are both represened with wide receivers Donte Moncrief and the crafty Reggie Wayne. Big play threat TY Hilton is ever capable of a speedy reception over the top of the secondary. How accessible that will be today against the standout duo of Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib is far more ambiguous heading into the game. Luck has seen more than his share of pressures this season and DEN pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware present experience, length, explosion and strength. 'Pot Roast' Terrence Knighton is a space-eater that accomplishes multiple tasks when he's on his game. In the near future though,

Andrew Luck will dominate the playoffs and reveal tangibly why football experts think he is one of the game's greatest prospects. The ultimate glory will come if he can avoid turnovers and feel comfortable in his offensive line's pocket. Will that be this week? With all the money and desperation Denver showed pumping into defensive upgrades T.J. Ward and Ware, it seems the matchup once again favors the home team. This quarterback matchup may present an Insant Classic; it may be one for the history books. These are two ultra-competitors at very different points of their career yet both with further accolades to prove. Ultimately, another chapter of Manning-Brady seems inevitable.

ROC Prediction: DEN over IND