No. 5 Baltimore Ravens at No. 2 Pittsburgh Steelers Seven-point game. A rout! These teams, playing for the eighth time in three seasons, play famously close games; the hero or goat in a stadium noted for being the Bermuda Triangle for field-goal kickers could well be one of those two men: Shaun Suisham (Pittsburgh) and Billy Cundiff (Baltimore). I'll delve into that in my Friday GamePlan column on SI.com.
Two bigger variables in this game, I believe, are the quarterbacks and the downfield passing game. I give Ben Roethlisberger, who has won his past six starts over the Ravens (most by a whisker of his increasingly mountain-man-like beard), an edge over Joe Flacco, because I think Roethlisberger has learned how to play behind his terminally shaky offensive line and get rid of the ball on time. But the downfield passing game could be an edge to the Ravens, particularly if they get Donte' Stallworth involved. He's the speed merchant in the Baltimore wideout corps, and I can't figure out why he's been stapled to the bench for almost all of the season other than the occasional reverse, which every defense knows is coming when he steps on the field. If the Ravens were smart, they'd send Stallworth deep five times Saturday, if only to stretch the Pittsburgh secondary and expose their corners. I say Roethlisberger, even pressured, makes three or four more plays than Flacco, and that's the difference here.
8 p.m. ET (NBC)
No. 6 Green Bay Packers at No. 1 Atlanta Falcons Two things tell me Saturday night's game in Atlanta between the sixth-seeded Packers and top-seeded Falcons will be different than Atlanta's 20-17 win over Green Bay, won when Matt Bryant kicked a 47-yard field goal with nine seconds left:
1. Green Bay running back James Starks was inactive that day, and the team had 11 carries for 26 yards; the Packers had a poor running game for much of the season, period.
2. Interesting nugget from Atlanta coach Mike Smith when we chatted on the Sirius NFL Radio show Tuesday. In the first meeting, the Packers ran 59 plays, and 17 were in five-wide formations. So 29 percent of their offensive plays were with five wide receivers on the field. That's amazing, and it just underlines how much of a one-man show (Aaron Rodgers' show) the Pack was six weeks ago.
How much different will this game be with the most unknown playoff star since, well, I guess since Ryan Grant in 2007? Expect Atlanta to be much stingier than Philadelphia was against Starks, who had 23 carries for 123 yards last week in the Pack's wild-card win. I like Atlanta defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux's ability to disrupt and make plays in the backfield better than anyone Philadelphia had last week. This will be a close game throughout, and Atlanta has a huge edge in conditioning, playing at home with 13 days' rest against a team on the road for the second straight week on a short week. I just like the difference Starks can make in the balance between two close teams.
Sunday, Jan. 16
1 p.m. ET (FOX)
No. 4 Seattle Seahawks at No. 2 Chicago Bears Seattle didn't play a perfect game in its 23-20 win at Soldier Field, but it was darn close. Zero sacks of Matt Hasselbeck. Zero turnovers. Six punts inside the 20-, though the game was nearly lost on an 89-yard Devin Hester punt return for touchdown. Defensively, Seattle held Chicago tight ends to one catch, and Matt Forte' to eight rushes for 11 yards. Maybe they can do it all again. Maybe Matt Hasselbeck can play like he did in the four-touchdown gem that beat the Saints last week -- a game that, in the words of NBC analyst Mike Mayock, "was the best game I've ever seen Matt Hasselbeck play." But it's hard to imaging half of those things happening again, never mind most.
The Chiçago defense didn't have linebacker Lance Briggs last time they played, and he'll be a big factor in coverage and the rush. Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije give the Bears an underrated 1-2 punch on the edges, obviously, and every time I see Seattle play, left tackle Russell Okung limps off the field like an old man. He needs two months to rest and get his ankle back up to speed, which Seattle doesn't have right now. Seattle's hope is that Jay Cutler hands them the ball three times, through interceptions or a strip-sack or two, but he has bonded well with offensive coordinator Mike Martz, and I don't expect that to happen. It was fun while it lasted, but I think the Seattle magic ends at Soldier Field.
4:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
No. 6 New York Jets at No. 1 New England Patriots Good news: Quotes won't win this game. Or lose it. I think the edge is pretty simple. Tom Brady's much more suited to playing, and winning, a cold-weather game than Mark Sanchez. I was standing in the tunnel after the Patriots' 45-3 win over the Jets on Dec. 6, the game played in 15-degree wind chill, and when Sanchez walked by, the kid from California looked like a popsicle. That night, Tom Brady completed 72 percent of his passes, with four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 148.9 passer rating. Sanchez's numbers: 52 percent, zero touchdowns, three picks, 27.8 rating. This Sunday, the temperature should be a balmy 27. I'm not saying Sanchez can't play in the cold; I'm saying his opposing number thrives in it, and Sanchez has struggled, and Sanchez is coming off a poor performance with a big late-game completion to Braylon Edwards to set up the winning field goal, indoors at Indianapolis.
I like the Patriots here for many reasons -- average margin of victory in 8-0 run at end of season: 22.0 points -- but this is a strange rivalry, and the Jets have proven they can grind it out against New England, having rushed for 104, 117, 136 and 152 against the Pats in the past four meetings. That's the Jets' hope: control the clock, give it to Shonn Greene/LaDainian Tomlinson, and limit Brady's possessions. But Brady's just playing too well, with too many places to go with the ball, to think he can be held down now.
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