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Storylines aplenty in divisional round
The bar is set low for a better on-field product in the second round of the NFL playoffs.
But from a drama standpoint, what transpired in three of the four opening contests this past weekend will be hard to beat.
There was the emotional home farewell Sunday for retiring Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. The Sunday morning hospitalization of Indianapolis offensive coordinator Bruce Arians (flu) that transferred play-calling duty to assistant Clyde Christensen, who had Andrew Luck attempt an NFL rookie playoff-record 54 passes. The grotesque-looking knee injury suffered by Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III and subsequent second-guessing of head coach Mike Shanahan for letting his prized rookie play when hurt. The negative impact a last-minute quarterback switch had on the Minnesota Vikings when Joe Webb replaced Christian Ponder (elbow) against Green Bay.
As for Houston’s 19-13 win over Cincinnati, well, there’s a good reason it was stuck in the least-enviable television timeslot.
Here’s a preview of this weekend’s four upcoming playoff matchups:
Baltimore (11-6) at Denver (13-3)
When: 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday
Reviewing Round 1: Lifted by the emotion surrounding Ray Lewis’ final home game after 17 seasons with the Ravens, Baltimore gave the future Hall of Fame linebacker a fitting sendoff with a 24-9 victory. Lewis lived up to his end of the bargain with a team-high 13 tackles in his first game since tearing a triceps in Week 6. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin sparked Baltimore’s offense in the second half with five catches for 145 yards and one touchdown. Ravens backup running back Bernard Pierce (13 carries for 103 yards) had a better day than starter Ray Rice, who lost his first two fumbles of the season. Fortunately for Baltimore, the Colts couldn’t convert either turnover into points.
Last meeting: The Broncos jumped to a 28-point lead en route to a 34-17 road victory in Week 15. Baltimore’s offense could get nothing going early, being held without a first down on its first five drives. The Ravens’ defense eventually got worn down by a Broncos attack that featured 45 runs, which is the most rushing support quarterback Peyton Manning had ever received in an NFL game. Manning did his part with an efficient 204-yard, one-touchdown effort that didn’t include a turnover.
Ravens player to watch: Rice. Failing to feed him the football consistently is one of the reasons Cam Cameron was fired as offensive coordinator in mid-December. The Ravens are at their best when Rice is logging 20-plus carries. He only had 12 attempts for 38 yards in the first matchup against Denver, although that stemmed partially from Baltimore falling so far behind midway through the third quarter. The Ravens need to get Rice on track early to minimize the pass rush on quarterback Joe Flacco.
Broncos player to watch: Outside linebacker Von Miller. His 18.5-sack season was overshadowed by bigger numbers registered by Houston’s J.J. Watt (20.5) and San Francisco’s Aldon Smith (19.5). Miller, though, earns props for being the best player on an underrated Broncos defense. The Ravens were the only one of Denver’s final nine opponents to hold Miller without a sack. But the heavy pressure Miller and his teammates applied destroyed Flacco’s rhythm while the score was still close.
Summary: On paper, this game looks as lopsided as the first Baltimore-Denver matchup. The Ravens are a much worse team away from home while the Broncos went 7-1 at Sports Authority Field. Coming off the special Lewis-fueled atmosphere against the Colts, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh must now try and prevent a letdown on the road. The Broncos also enter the playoffs as the NFL’s hottest squad with 11 consecutive victories. One of the few things that can give the Ravens hope: Manning sometimes doesn’t play as well in the playoffs as during the regular season. While he was with Indianapolis from 1998 to 2011, the Colts lost their first postseason game in seven of 11 appearances.
Green Bay (12-5) at San Francisco (11-4-1)
When: 8 p.m. ET Saturday on FOX
Reviewing Round 1: The Packers rebounded from a Week 17 loss to Minnesota with a 24-10 victory at Lambeau Field. Boosted by the surprising late scratch of Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder (elbow), Green Bay’s defense finally held running back Adrian Peterson under the century mark — albeit barely — after being gashed for 409 yards in two 2012 matchups. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was turnover-free but Green Bay’s offense sputtered in the final 1 1/2 quarters.
Last meeting: San Francisco posted a 30-22 road victory in the Week 1 opener. Running back Frank Gore paced the 49ers offense, finding success outside the tackles while rambling for 112 yards and one touchdown on 16 carries. San Francisco made the Packers one-dimensional by snuffing out the running game. That allowed the 49ers to control time of possession and tee-off on Rodgers (three sacks, one interception). The flow of the game was disrupted by shoddy work from the replacement referees used during the first three weeks of the regular season.
Packers player to watch: Running back DuJuan Harris. He has made the improbable leap from briefly working as a used-car salesman in October while waiting for another crack at the NFL to becoming a Packers starter. The diminutive Harris, who signed with Green Bay’s practice squad before being promoted in early December, has provided a spark as both a rusher and receiver. Harris produced 100 yards from scrimmage and Green Bay’s first touchdown against the Vikings. Packers running back Cedric Benson, who is now on injured reserve, gained only 18 yards on nine carries in Week 1 against San Francisco.
49ers player to watch: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Now is when we will learn whether 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh made the right call sticking with Kaepernick instead of Alex Smith, who suffered a concussion in Week 10 and was never reinserted to the starting lineup after being cleared to return. Kaepernick was 5-2 as a starter with 10 touchdown passes and three interceptions in his seven starts. He has a better arm than Smith and provides more of a rushing threat, which could be a key offensive strategy against a Packers defense that rarely faced read-option attacks in 2012. No one, though, knows how Kaepernick will respond to the pressure of starting his first playoff game.
Summary: Both teams have reason to sweat if this game comes down to a field-goal attempt. The Packers are hoping that a string of five straight FGs has lifted Mason Crosby out of a brutal season-long slump. San Francisco’s David Akers, who tied the NFL record for longest field goal with a 63-yarder against the Packers in September, is suffering complications from the sports hernia surgery he underwent during the offseason. Billy Cundiff — the goat of Baltimore’s loss in the AFC Championship Game last season — was signed last week to provide competition for Akers. The 49ers must do a better job accounting for Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who had 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries in the season-opener. Torn knee ligaments have sent two of San Francisco’s top wide receivers (Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams) to injured reserve, but Michael Crabtree has picked up the slack with a career-high 85 catches for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. The 49ers were 6-1-1 at home; Green Bay was 4-4 on the road.
Seattle (12-5) at Atlanta (13-3)
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX
Reviewing Round 1: The praise Seattle should receive for its impressive 24-14 comeback road win over Washington will be overshadowed by fallout from the Griffin-Shanahan situation. Historically a poor road team, the Seahawks weathered a 14-0 deficit and third-quarter Marshawn Lynch fumble at the goal line by running off four unanswered scores. Seattle’s Russell Wilson is now the last rookie quarterback standing after Griffin and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck were bounced out of the playoffs Sunday.
Last meeting: The Falcons toppled the Seahawks on the road, 30-28, in Week 4 of the 2011 season. Both teams have made so many significant personnel and scheme changes since then, that there isn’t too much to be culled from that matchup. For example, Tarvaris Jackson was Seattle’s starting quarterback at the time. He spent 2012 as a reserve for the Buffalo Bills.
Seahawks player to watch: Cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman loves to run his mouth. Falcons wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones have the talent to shut it. Sherman, though, is at the top of his game as an emerging shutdown defender.
Falcons player to watch: Quarterback Matt Ryan. A lack of big plays in the passing game is a major reason for Ryan’s 0-3 all-time playoff record. He failed to exceed 200 yards in those losses against the New York Giants (2011), Green Bay (2010) and Arizona (2008). In comparison, Ryan averaged a career-best 294.9 yards during the 2012 regular season. The Falcons need that production to continue with the offense having shifted away from the run-first approach once led by Michael Turner.
Summary: The better team in the trenches will likely win this game. Seattle’s rushing offense is red hot with Lynch and Wilson combining for 199 yards and one touchdown against Washington. The Falcons surrendered the fourth-highest average per rush at 4.8 yards during the regular season. Atlanta did a nice job protecting Ryan by surrendering only 28 sacks. The Seahawks have two potent pass-rushing ends in Chris Clemons and rookie Bruce Irvin but the former may have suffered a serious knee injury against the Redskins. One huge factor will be how Seattle handles the travel rigors of playing a second straight East Coast playoff game, especially with the early Sunday kickoff.
Houston (13-4) at New England (12-4)
When: 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday
Reviewing Round 1: In a rematch of a 2011 first-round playoff game, the Texans notched their second consecutive home victory over Cincinnati. Running back Arian Foster was the star of last Saturday’s 19-13 win. He rushed 32 times for 140 yards and a touchdown while adding another 34 yards on eight catches. As usual, Texans defensive J.J. Watt paced his unit by terrorizing Cincinnati’s offensive line. Watt had five tackles (two for losses), a sack and two quarterback hurries as the Bengals were held to 198 total yards. Houston controlled the clock for almost 39 minutes but the failure to score touchdowns inside the red-zone kept Cincinnati within one score until the end.
Last meeting: One of the NFL’s most highly anticipated prime-time showdowns of the regular season was a dud as New England rolled to a 42-14 home victory in Week 14. The game marked the beginning of a late-season slide that cost Houston the AFC’s top playoff seed and a first-round bye. The Patriots secured a bye and No. 2 playoff seed by virtue of winning the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Texans.
Texans player to watch: Tight end Owen Daniels. He created a coverage nightmare, especially against Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga on crossing routes, to catch a team-high nine passes for 91 yards. Daniels could provide similar problems against a Patriots defense that has struggled to defend the middle of the field on patterns down the seams. Tight end Garrett Graham and H-back James Casey also are favorite targets of quarterback Matt Schaub. The Daniels-Graham-Casey triumvirate combined for 140 of Schaub’s 262 passing yards against Cincinnati.
Patriots player to watch: Quarterback Tom Brady. The Texans had no answer for Brady earlier this season. He picked apart Houston’s defense for four touchdowns without an interception on 21-of-35 passing before ceding mop-up duty to Ryan Mallett. Brady won’t be winning NFL Most Valuable Player honors — the award is going to Peterson or Manning — but enjoyed another outstanding season with 4,827 passing yards, 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also has a 10-2 career postseason record at Gillette Stadium.
Summary: By installing Houston as an early 9.5-point underdog, oddsmakers have little faith that the Texans will provide much more of challenge than in their first game at New England. Schaub has thrown only one touchdown pass in the past five games, but his confidence should be buoyed by getting past the Bengals in the first playoff start of his nine-year NFL career. Houston’s defense must account for New England’s own impressive tight end tandem of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Hernandez had a team-high eight catches and two touchdowns against Houston in Week 14 while Gronkowski was sidelined with a broken forearm. Gronkowski returned on a limited basis in Week 17 against Miami but should have an expanded role Sunday.
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