NFL Divisional Weekend: 5 Bold Predictions

After an exhilarating finish to Wild Card Weekend, Divisional Weekend brings us some much-anticipated showdowns to determine the conference championship games.

Last week in our bold predictions column, we predicted the Panthers using their defense to get by Ryan Lindley and the Cardinals; we saw Andrew Luck dominate the Bengals en route to another first-round exit; and yes, we said Tony Romo would pull off some magical late-game heroics en route to a win.

3-1 ain’t too shabby.

Onto the Divisional Weekend where Peyton Manning meets his former club, Tom Brady faces his demons, an injured Aaron Rodgers is forced into action, and the defending champions face arguably the hottest team in the league.

These are the Patriots; stop the nonsense 

The Ravens snapped a three-game playoff losing streak against their arch-rival Pittsburgh last Saturday night by out-physicaling the Steelers and getting another signature Joe Flacco postseason performance. Next up, fittingly, is a trip to Foxborough.

Of course, home-field advantage has been the hottest topic of conversation on the frigid East Coast, largely because … it no longer exists? In the Bill Belichick era, New England is 11-1 at home in the playoffs. That stat becomes a bit more skewed when Baltimore is involved, as Belichick’s Pats are 1-2 in that same category. The Ravens have definitely been the Patriots’ kryptonite.

New England was probably hoping it wouldn’t be Baltimore rolling into town. Brady’s biggest playoff flaw has been dealing with pressure, and of the Colts, Bengals, Steelers, and Ravens, Baltimore has arguably the best front seven. Without pressure, Brady had a 113.1 passer rating this season, per Pro Football Focus. Under duress, however, that drops down to 53.4.

However, one catalyst is sure to make his presence felt. Rob Gronkowski is set to suit up this meeting. The perennial All-Pro tight end didn’t play in the 2012 AFC championship game due to injury, so that’s 82 receptions for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns Baltimore must try to find an answer for. That should be quite the task for the Ravens’ secondary, which ranked 20th in the NFL against opposing tight ends, according to Football Outsiders.

Bold prediction: For all the hoop-la about the Ravens being the one team Brady cannot defeat in the postseason, this is still the Patriots, the same team that looked dominant from Weeks 5 through 12 and earned victories over both Indianapolis and Denver in that span. The Ravens, on the other hand, sputtered against Houston and San Diego, and only made the playoffs thanks to the Chiefs win and a triumph over Connor Shaw‘s Browns. While Baltimore looked solid against Pittsburgh, the Steelers were short-handed without their top offensive player in Le’Veon Bell. The Patriots are at full strength, and I’m not confident the Ravens can handle it.

Luck gets the best of his Manning, whose playoff struggles persist

Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning have split their teams’ two meetings, with Manning getting the best of his Colts successor in the teams’ season opener. In that one, the Broncos had to withstand a furious late Colts rally for the 31-24 victory.

Through the first three months of the season, Manning was playing as his Hall of Fame resume would dictate. He boasted an NFL-best 78-percent completion rate and a league-high Total QBR (97). But from Weeks 13 through 17, his completion percentage is down to 39 and his QBR has fallen to 18, the 30th and 22nd marks, respectively, in the NFL.

During that span, the Broncos have been a run-dominated offense, but not nearly the Super Bowl-contending team they appeared to be through three-quarters of the season.

Luck received a much-needed boost from his running game and Daniel “Boom” Herron against Cincinnati last weekend. Herron generated 141 yards from scrimmage as Indianapolis cruised to a 26-10 victory. Still, Luck managed 376 yards through the air, continuing his red-hot passing streak in his playoff career. The question is whether he can continue that trend going into a hostile Mile High Stadium and a very dangerous Denver secondary.

Bold prediction: There’s just a different feel around the Broncos over the final five weeks of the season. Julius Thomas has been banged up. Emmanuel Sanders has fallen off the map. And Manning has played shaky at times, leading us all to wonder how healthy he is heading into the playoffs. The Colts were not exactly dominant during that stretch either, but as Sunday proved, Luck can turn it on whenever he needs to. Right now, it’s definitely a toss-up of which quarterback you’d rather have leading your team right now between Manning and Luck. For me, I lean toward the youngster who is on the verge of becoming a member of the elite ranks. In what might turn out to be a low-scoring affair, Luck’s knack for comebacks is shown as the Colts upset Manning’s Broncos.

Cowboys hand Rodgers, Pack their first loss at Lambeau 

This is a classic bout between the Packers, who are 8-0 on their home field, and the Cowboys, who were the NFL’s best road team with a perfect 8-0 mark. This year, Aaron Rodgers has owned the best Total QBR in the league at home (93.0), while Tony Romo has had the best Total QBR on the road (88.9). Something has got to give.

The matchup of Dallas and Green Bay features two pairs of the league’s top offensive players not at the quarterback position. DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant combined for 29 touchdowns this year, the most of any running back-wide receiver tandem. Tied for second behind those two were Eddie Lacy and Jordy Nelson, who totaled 26. So yes, expect some offense in this one.

According to ESPN, Rodgers will not be at 100 percent entering Sunday as he’s still battling a calf injury he suffered during the Detroit game Week 17. Rodgers reportedly will play through a “significantly strained” calf, which also has “a slight tear” in it. That doesn’t bode well for his current playoff woes. Since winning the Super Bowl, Rodgers’ QBR is down to 67 with a 1-3 record. He was 4-1 with an 84 QBR in his first five playoff starts.

The question is whether Romo can take advantage. Romo’s passer rating in games below 40 degrees is 86.3, 11.3 points below his career average. He’ll have to battle the elements, the Lambeau faithful and a Green Bay defense that held opponents to 20.3 points per game at home on the year.

Bold prediction: The much-maligned Romo put together a sensational third and fourth quarter of work last week against another NFC North team en route to a comeback win. The task become that much greater, though, when heading to Green Bay to take on the Packers. But there are serious questions about Rodgers and what he’ll be able to do in spite of his injured calf. After returning from the locker room in the regular-season finale, Rodgers led the Pack on a 60-yard scoring drive capped by a 13-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb. He’s had almost two weeks to rest up, while the Cowboys have continued to stay red hot. That down time makes me nervous, and the Cowboys’ have been such a solid road team I think it puts them in good position to pull off the upset. A hobbled Rodgers falls victim to the Dallas D as the Cowboys’ earn a berth in the NFC championship.

Panthers’ Cinderella run comes to a screeching halt in Seattle

The Panthers may be riding a five-game winning streak, but those defeats include the likes of sub-.500 teams in Tampa, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Cleveland, then an Arizona team trotting out its third-string quarterback. Up next is a trip to the Pacific Northwest, where the defending Super Bowl champions are back to full strength and ready to defend their crown in their own backyard.

During their win streak, the Panthers have averaged 27.6 points per game, thanks largely to the resurgence of running back Jonathan Stewart. Stewart has led the NFL in rushing over the past six weeks, and last week he eclipsed 100 yards rushing, and along with Mike Tolbert and Fozzy Whittaker, found the end zone. That re-invigorated rushing attack, which also includes Cam Newton, must now face Seattle’s defense, which held opponents to 15.9 points per game during the regular season.

The Seahawks’ defense actually got better as the season went on thanks to the presence of a healthy Kam Chancellor and Bobby Wagner. With Wagner sidelined, the team allowed quarterbacks an average passer rating of 60.3, a 4.0 yard-per-rush average and sacked opposing quarterbacks 4.7 percent of the time. With Wagner back Week 12, passer ratings are down to 37.5, yards per rush has fallen to 3.1 and the ‘Hawks D is earning a sack 7.4 percent of the time.

Offensively, Russell Wilson and Newton rank first and second in rushing touchdowns this season — Wilson with six and Newton with five. Carolina’s rush defense, however, took a hit when news broke early in the week the defense would be without Star Lotulelei, who fractured his foot and is out for the remainder of the postseason.

When these two teams met earlier in the year, Carolina had a fourth-quarter lead before Wilson threw a touchdown in the final minutes to earn the win in Charlotte. In fact, these two teams have met the past three regular seasons and the Panthers have held two fourth-quarter leads and one third-quarter lead, but lost all three games. In those games, the combined point total has averaged 23 points.

Bold prediction: Wilson is 3-0 against the Panthers, and in every game has overcome a late deficit to rally his team. I don’t think those late-game heroics will be necessary in this one as the Seahawks have been a different kind of beast during the final quarter of the season, dominating on the defensive side of the ball. No, Seattle doesn’t boast an explosive offense, and the Carolina D has been very electric during the team’s win streak, but this should be the most lopsided game of the entire weekend.

A No. 1 or 2 seed in both conference will fall

Three of the last four Super Bowl champions have played on Wild Card Weekend, so Carolina, Indianapolis, Baltimore, and Dallas — you’re on deck.

As you could read in the four picks above, we’re confident that one of the NFC’s and one of the AFC’s top two seeds will not advance to the conference championships next weekend. Who will fall victim to an upset?

Rodgers is playing at less than 100 percent, but even Rodgers at half-strength is a pretty awesome quarterback. But can he handle a Dallas team that isn’t afraid to play on the road? Brady is 1-2 against Baltimore in the playoffs, and he now has to contend with arguably the best front seven left in the AFC.

Carolina is the hottest team left in the playoffs and has held a late-game lead on Wilson and the Seahawks in each of the past three meetings. Will this game be the one where the Panthers can play a complete game? And Manning has not been his usual All-Pro self the past five weeks, as we suspect a thigh injury is slowing him down. Will he be able to battle the elements against Luck and the suddenly surging Colts?

Without question, both No. 1 seeds and both No. 2 seeds are in a vulnerable position this weekend. I suspect at least one No. 1 and one No.  2 seed will fall victim to an upset. After all, that’s why we play the games.

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