The Playbook: Previewing this weekend's divisional round games
The quest for Super Bowl XLIX is down to the final eight teams. Chris Burke and Doug Farrar get you ready for divisional weekend with game previews, matchups to watch and predictions for all four games.
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC)
Whether or not you are a proponent of "quarterback wins" as a telling stat, it's getting hard to ignore how well Joe Flacco performs come the postseason.
One more playoff victory will move Flacco into a tie for the sixth-most all-time (11), alongside Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, both Cowboys Hall of Famers. Scoff at Flacco's total as a product of a defense-dominated Ravens franchise, if you must. Just keep this in mind: In his last five playoff games, counting a win in Pittsburgh last weekend, Flacco has thrown 13 touchdowns to zero interceptions and has posted nearly 280 yards per outing.
"Joe Flacco, what can you say? He's the best quarterback in football," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said after the wild-card win. "We'll take him any day of the week, twice on Sunday, or Saturday if that be the case."
Another Saturday game awaits this week, as the Ravens kick off the divisional round by visiting New England. Included in Flacco's recent postseason hot streak is a 28-13 AFC victory over the host Patriots back in the 2013 season; the Ravens also steamrolled New England in the 2009 playoffs, despite just four completions from Flacco (evidence for the anti-QB-wins crowd).
Tom Brady's squad struck its own blow in 2012, claiming a 23-20 win against Baltimore to book a Super Bowl trip.
Which quarterback is left standing this time could come down to ... well, which quarterback is kept standing. In other words, the battles between the offensive and defensive lines will go a long way toward deciding this one, with the Ravens fresh off a dominant five-sack showing against the Steelers.
The Patriots will try to counter the Terrell Suggs-Elvis Dumervil-Pernell McPhee combo by employing a bevy of options, starting with, of course, tight end Rob Gronkowski. Unlike the Le'Veon Bell-less Steelers, though, the Patriots also have several capable pass-catching backs to complement their superstar tight end.
To whom will Flacco turn if New England manages to limit Torrey Smith and Steve Smith outside? (The Darrelle Revis-Brandon Browner combo is capable of doing just that.) As usual, much of the Ravens' passing success will come either off play-action or on deep shots downfield.
There is far more in action here than just Flacco vs. Brady, even if that's how the narrative usually boils down. Can Baltimore spring the upset again? -- Chris Burke
Chris Burke: Patriots 27, Ravens 17
Doug Farrar: Ravens 24, Patriots 21
Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, Fox)
When these two teams met on Oct. 26, the Panthers had a 9-6 lead until Russell Wilson hit tight end Luke Willson with a 23-yard touchdown pass with 47 seconds remaining. It was the third time in three seasons that Seattle had to forge a late comeback against the Panthers, and all three games took place in Charlotte. Now, Carolina has to travel to Seattle's CenturyLink Field, and despite their status as 11-point underdogs, the Panthers should be undaunted by their top-seeded counterparts.
Like the Seahawks, the Panthers had a rough start to the season that they were able to overcome with a new emphasis on fundamentals. Like Seattle, Carolina has a resurgent ground game with running back Jonathan Stewart, who gained 409 yards on just 79 carries in December. And like Seattle, Carolina has a quarterback (Cam Newton, of course) who is able to combine read-option running with accurate passes to the short and intermediate areas of the field.
The Seahawks already had a great defense, while the Panthers are still putting things together in the secondary, where they're starting three young players in cornerbacks Bene Benwikere and Josh Norman along with safety Tre Boston. Benwikere and Boston are rookies, and it'd be fair to say that they have never seen anything like the atmosphere they'll take in on Saturday. There's also the matter of explosive plays -- the Seahawks categorize "game-altering plays" as passes of 16 or more yards and runs of 12 or more yards. Seattle leads the league in explosive plays created this season under that standard with 135, and they're allowing the fewest with 76.
The question in this game will be whether Carolina's estimable defense can stop Marshawn Lynch as a runner. Even if it can do that, it still has to account for Wilson, who gained 849 yards on the ground in the regular season. If the Panthers can do that and contain Seattle's receivers with a primarily zone-based defense, they have a shot at the upset. But this is a Seahawks team on a serious momentum surge, and the combination of that and home-field advantage just appears to be too much. -- Doug Farrar
Chris Burke: Seahawks 20, Panthers 10
Doug Farrar: Seahawks 19, Panthers 9
Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, Fox)
In Week 6 this season, the Cowboys waltzed into Seattle's impenetrable home fortress and imposed their will. DeMarco Murray ran for 115 yards and a touchdown on 28 attempts, Dallas held the ball for almost 38 minutes and its defense provided just enough stops to walk off with a 30-23 victory.
Should the NFC East champs, who went 8-0 on the road during the regular season, keep that perfect mark intact by winning at Lambeau, the formula likely will be almost identical.
"I think we have a team that’s built for [winning on the road]," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "We’ve developed a physical team over the last few years. ... I think we also have a mentally tough team. Parking lot or moon, you just go play. The best teams I’ve been around have always had that capability."
Of course, no road trip the Cowboys made this season pitted them against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense. That group finished atop the league in scoring (30.4 points per game) and averaged nearly 40 points on the way to an undefeated regular-season home campaign.
Dallas' defense has turned in an inspired effort throughout the year, finishing in the top 10 against the run and middle of the pack in both yards and points allowed in spite of a rocky offseason. Sunday presents a different challenge altogether.
Rodgers' injured calf poses a significant X-factor, both in this game and any future games Green Bay would play this postseason. The Packers saw their season flash before their eyes in Week 17 when Rodgers was carted to the locker room. He returned to help lead a victory over Detroit and plans to play in full this weekend.
Will he be the same MVP-caliber Rodgers? The Cowboys are counting on it, which means this week has been spent trying to do the impossible: devise some sort of plan to keep Rodgers in check.
"In the pocket, he's tough," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "When he gets out of the pocket? He is off the charts. He's got a great feel, his vision is downfield, I've been around where you've got guys zeroing in on him and, man, he's tough."
Can that duo pick up the slack if Rodgers has to exit early? The Packers will cross their fingers and hope they do not have to find out the answer. -- Chris Burke
Chris Burke: Packers 34, Cowboys 21
Doug Farrar: Packers 31, Cowboys 25
Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos (Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, CBS)
When these two teams met in Week 1, Peyton Manning had his new team well ahead of his old one at the half, with three touchdown passes to tight end Julius Thomas in the second quarter alone. But that 24-7 lead at the half was quickly shaved away, as Andrew Luck proved that he belonged in the spotlight just as much as Manning did. Luck was driving late for the tying touchdown, but Denver escaped its home field with a 31-24 win when rookie cornerback Bradley Roby deflected a Luck pass on fourth-and-six with 1:57 left.
The Colts are the same team they were then -- reliant to a great degree on Luck, receiver T.Y. Hilton and cornerback Vontae Davis and content to spackle around a roster that doesn't always impress. The Broncos, however, do not resemble the high-flying unit from Week 1 very much at all. As Manning's arm strength has started to fade, head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase wisely decided to put things in the hands of a running game that could handle the responsibility, with an outstanding offensive line and the efforts of running back C.J. Anderson. Manning is still able to make the occasional shot play, of course, but it's clear that it requires more effort than it did when the season began, and the consistency of those plays can be questionable.
The Colts will counter that ground attack with a defense that ranks 22nd in Football Outsiders' metrics for run-stopping defenses and is one of the weaker front sevens in short yardage and drive extension plays. Denver's run defense is amazing, but it won't matter -- the Colts haven't run the ball well at all this season and keep putting more and more on Luck's shoulders. The battle that will probably decide this game is Indy's passing game against Denver's secondary, and that doesn't favor the Colts at all. The Broncos have Aqib Talib and Chris Harris as their matching outside corners, and that's one of the league's better duos. They'll look to shut Hilton down, and if they do, there isn't much left for Luck to do -- this was made clear when Hilton missed the Week 16 loss to the Cowboys, and Luck completed 15 of 22 passes for 109 yards, no touchdowns and two picks. The week before, with Hilton on the field, Luck completed just 18 of 34 passes for 187 yards against Houston's decidedly average secondary.
Whether Manning is at his best or not is less relevant than Luck's ability to transcend his surroundings. The Broncos have built a team that can withstand a less-than-stellar quarterback performance, while the Colts wither and die without it. And it's a bad time to face Denver's defense, no matter who you are. -- Doug Farrar
Chris Burke: Broncos 30, Colts 24
Doug Farrar: Broncos 27, Colts 13
• Don't expect the Seahawks-Panthers game to be a high-scoring affair -- Seattle allowed a total of 39 points in its last six games, the fewest any team has allowed in that span since 1978. Carolina's defense has been right behind, with 43 points allowed in its last four games since a 31-13 loss to the Vikings in Week 13.
• Part of the Ravens' offensive construct is the deep ball by Joe Flacco, and it doesn't always matter that Flacco has pinpoint accuracy on those plays. Flacco has drawn 15 pass-interference penalties this season, the most by any quarterback, and 11 of those throws were underthrown. Makes sense, really -- defenders will be more aggressive on balls they believe they have a better chance to intercept, and it isn't as if officials understand what pass interference is anymore...
• There's no question that Andrew Luck will see a lot of pressure against Denver's estimable defense, especially with his own patchwork offensive line. But Luck has adapted to that reality this season. Including the Colts' wild-card win over the Bengals, Luck has completed 106 of 218 passes on 264 dropbacks under pressure, with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. Luck is tied with Jay Cutler for the most touchdown passes thrown under pressure this season.
• One of the strangest aspects to Dallas' current offense, especially given how well the Cowboys run the ball, is that Tony Romo doesn't use play action very much. He's done so on 17.4 percent of his passes this season, tied with Drew Brees for 23rd in the NFL, and he's not particularly efficient when he does, completing 56 passes in 78 attempts for 804 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions. Without play action, Romo has completed 267 passes in 388 attempts for 3,194 yards, 31 touchdowns and four interceptions, per Pro Football Focus. One reason it may not work for Romo is that when you execute play action, you turn your back to the field for a split second, and Romo may prefer to see the entire field for as long as possible. -- Doug Farrar
• Matchup to watch: Rob Gronkowski vs. Will Hill.
None of those players will be on the field Saturday, so consider this your latest reminder that the 2012 season's AFC title game has little to no bearing on this weekend.
Another massive difference: Rob Gronkowski will suit up for New England. The league's most dominant tight end caught 82 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns this season and will be a main target of Tom Brady again. Hill likely will draw the main Gronkowski assignment in coverage, for two key reasons: He's bigger than fellow safety Matt Elam (Hill stands 6-foot-1, 207pounds; Elam 5-10, 200), and Hill is more consistent in coverage. Both factors led to Hill being asked to shadow Jimmy Graham for much of Baltimore's Week 12 win over the Saints.
"You want to play against the best and [Gronkowski is] one of the best out there," Hill said, via the Ravens' website.
• Sleeper player: James Starks, RB, Packers.
Packers (and Eagles, Falcons, Bears and Steelers) fans need no reminder of Starks' shocking emergence during the team's 2010 Super Bowl run. Starks has delivered only sporadic production since then and now sits behind Eddie Lacy on the depth chart, but if we're hunting for a surprise divisional-round hero, there are worse options than Green Bay's experienced backup back.
Look no further than Starks' Week 14 work against Atlanta for evidence that he can be a handful. He scored in relief of Lacy on the Packers' first possession, then set up a second-quarter field goal by producing 40 yards on four touches.
• Rookie to watch: Paul Richardson, WR, Seattle.
"It’s really just opportunity," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said last month, when asked to explain Richardson's spike in production. "He’s better now than he was earlier in the year, of course. He’s much more comfortable with what we’re asking him to do."
That comfort level showed over the final three weeks of the season. Richardson caught 13 passes in that stretch, after posting 16 receptions in Weeks 1-14, and Russell Wilson targeted him 19 times.
Richardson and fellow rookie Kevin Norwood (four catches for 56 yards combined in Weeks 16-17) are two key reasons Seattle is not sweating its postseason passing attack. The 22-year-old Richardson could play a role even if he's shut out on offense, too -- he averaged 23.5 yards on 16 kickoff returns this season. -- Chris Burke