The Spotter’s View: Divisional Round

NFL-2010-Playoffs-DivisionalI owe my readers an apology. The first weekend of playoff football was a big swing-and-miss for The Spotter’s View. My predictions were only 50% correct (2-2). That’s not acceptable for a prognosticator who sported a 20-2 record of post-season success over the last two playoffs. Am I slumping? Did I overlook something obvious? Have I lost my touch?

Doubt is an ugly feeling to have as the Divisional Round is set to kickoff in less than 24 hours. But that’s what I’m left with. Doubt. There are only two options left….allow the doubt to win and offer some half-hearted opinions on these four games. Or….get up off the canvas, trust my instincts and go undefeated the rest of the way! Just typing that last sentence made me feel better. Here’s The Spotter’s View on Round 2.

Baltimore RAYvens vs Denver Broncos

This is the final matchup between Ray Lewis and Peyton Manning – two of the greatest individual talents in league history. The two have faced off seven times before (including playoffs) and I was fortunate enough to witness one of them live from the Sunday Night Football booth back in 2004. What made that game so memorable was the amount of activity that took place before the snap.

Peyton has long been heralded for his antics at the line of scrimmage – audibling, hand-signaling to receivers, directing pass protection, moving his backs and even using his pre-snap phase to bluff defenses into showing their hands. We’ve seen this every weekend Manning has been under center since he arrived in the league. But there’s rarely ever more activity before the snap on the defensive side of the ball then when Lewis takes on a Manning-led offense.

“Ray Ray” has the experience, knowledge and intuition to understand the nuance of this pre-snap phase. He’ll react to Manning’s calls at the line and change his defensive scheme to counteract them. He’ll stem his defensive line late in the play-clock in the hopes of disorienting Manning’s pass pro. And – like Manning – Lewis will bluff on occasion which can be effective in creating confusion for a quarterback. It’s great theatre as the two Hall of Famers will go back and forth for another 60 minutes on Saturday. The finality of it all due to Lewis’ impending retirement and the elimination nature of playoff football only intensifies things. Football fans nation-wide should be excited about this one. I was back in 2004 and the two greats didn’t disappoint.

This time around I think Manning has the best supporting cast of his career. He has balance offensively, a great offensive line and a defense that can terrorize opposing passers. I like everything the Broncos bring to the table. This team is Super Bowl ready. They also have an uncanny ability (thanks solely to Manning) of being able to come back from huge deficits. I saw it firsthand this year as the Broncos overcame a horrendous start in San Diego erasing a 20 point Charger lead and turned it into a season defining win. No lead is safe against The Sheriff.

Throw in the home field advantage, the inconsistent Raven offense and the fact that Manning has posted a 98.6 QB rating against Lewis during their  seven previous contests and I’ll take Denver. I’m also not so secretly pulling for a Manning/Brady AFC Championship game – so there’s that.

Broncos 20 Ravens 17

Green Bay Packers vs San Francisco 49ers

Sometimes games are decided by matchups and not overall talent. I think this is one of those games. The Packers have the better QB, the better WR corps, more depth, a championship pedigree and are coming into this game playing lights out. With Aaron Rodgers at the helm, obviously this is a team that can win the title – if they can only find a way to make it out of the Bay Area this weekend. Matchup wise, the 49ers are a nightmare for Green Bay.

The major weakness for the Packers is along the offensive line. They’ve struggled to protect Rodgers all season long and have gotten here in spite of their poor play. Rodgers is that good (He’s been sacked 50 times this season and has still put up outrageous numbers).  However, in San Francisco, this front five draws two of the best pass-rushers in football – Aldon and Justin Smith – who are poised to dominate this game. These two line up next to each other and stunt regularly on passing downs. Any confusion or poor technique by the Packers line will result in a horizontal Rodgers looking upwards at a Smith brother – usually Aldon.

The 49ers also have two outstanding LBs in Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis who have the ability to shrink passing windows in the middle of the field. Not to mention the hard-hitting secondary playing behind them that can make the Packer receivers think twice about their long-term health. This is a disciplined, ferocious defense that can neutralize the versatility and depth of Green Bay’s passing attack. In fact, this might be the only team in the playoffs capable of doing that.

On the other side of the ball, the 49ers have a very creative run game that is paramount to their success. They do as good a job as anyone in the league with their volume of plays in the run game and use it as a perfect complement to their stout defense. By staying committed to the ground and pound offense, it limits the number of possessions for Rodgers – which is never a bad thing. I like the way this group of 49ers play the game. I like Harbaugh. I like how the matchups layout against arguably the best QB in the league.

The two question marks… 1. Colin Kaepernick  2. David Akers

The Good: I think Kaepernick is a gamer. I saw him during his college days at Nevada upset a much more talented Boise State team. I saw him on MNF this year put up huge numbers against a Bears defense that was suffocating up to that point.

The Bad: This is the NFL Playoffs with zero room for error. He’s facing Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson and a talented (if streaky) Packer defense that can capitalize on his lack of experience. A few designer coverages, one poor decision….it can ruin everything for the Niners.

The Bad Part 2: How many times have we seen a late field goal be the difference between a win and a loss in the Playoffs? It happens every year. You need to hit those big kicks to advance, to win titles. Last year the 49ers were undone by mistakes in the kicking game (muffed kicks) and this year it could be missed FGs. If the 49ers are to win this game and eventually become Champions….David Akers will need to come through in the clutch. He’s been erratic but I believe he’ll pull through.

49ers 26 Packers 24

Seattle Seahawks vs Atlanta Falcons

What an interesting matchup between two franchises in search of their first Super Bowl titles. The Seahawks are playing a very physical brand of football and are riding the hot hand of their rookie QB, Russell Wilson. The Falcons are the NFC’s #1 seed after an impressive regular season that featured wins over Drew Brees, Eli Manning and some guy named Peyton. The knock on Atlanta is their recent playoff history in which they’ve been embarrassed en route to an 0-3 record.

The top billing of this heavyweight prize-fight belongs on the perimeter where WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White will trade blows with CBs Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. Big, physical wideouts against tall, aggressive corners. The best tandems in the league at their respective positions. Great drama. The winner of this matchup will likely advance.

For my taste, I’ll take Jones and White. They remind me of a genetically better version of Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Faster, more explosive, stronger. These two – like Holt and Bruce – are nightmares for opposing defenses as you can’t double one without leaving the other in a favorable position. They also benefit playing alongside of QB Matt Ryan, who throws an accurate ball and does a great job of taking what the defense gives him. The other variable is TE Tony Gonzalez. The veteran pass-catcher balances the Falcons pass-attack by controlling the area between the hashes. It’s a dynamic group that can take control of this game and eliminate Seattle’s biggest strength.

Defensively, the Falcons do a better job than any team in football (save for the Redskins) of disguising their coverages. This group succeeded in fooling Brees (5 INTs in one game), Peyton (3 picks) and Eli (2 picks) this season – three Pro Bowl (and maybe HOF) quarterbacks. What will they do to a rookie playing in a loud and hostile environment? Granted, Wilson defeated the Redskins last week and has been UNBELIEVABLE throughout the season. He’s mature. He doesn’t force throws. Rarely makes mistakes. But if Atlanta can jump on the Hawks early and eliminate Wilson’s favorite crutch – a bruising run game led by Marshawn Lynch – then I can see an atypical mistake dooming Seattle.

The playoff drought won’t last forever. Ryan and this team are too good.

Falcons 31 Seahawks 20

Houston Texans vs New England Patriots

I saw New England crush the Jets in a MNF game during the 2010 season only to lose to that same Jets team a few weeks later during the playoffs. This year, I saw New England crush the Texans in a MNF game only to crush that same Texans team a few weeks later during the playoffs.

That’s right. Crush. The machine that is Brady and Belichick will not allow this team to lose after already having experienced a similar storyline a couple of years back. The Patriots – if nothing else – learn from their mistakes (unless they’re playing the Giants). This is a team that doesn’t beat itself. That plays exceptionally well at home. That understands the nature of playoff football and has the luxury of possessing both the best QB and Head Coach of this generation (maybe of all-time).

The Texans are a talented bunch – I love the undrafted Arian Foster (how did 32 teams miss on him seven times each?), I’m rooting for Andre Johnson (an all-time great running out of chances) and I’m throughly impressed by the dominance of JJ Watt. But I can’t envision a scenario in which Matt Schaub – someone who’s lost his way so bad during the last month of football – going into the Razor and knocking off a team they lost to by 500 points earlier in the year. I could be way off the mark but I don’t see it.

Brady also gets TE Rob Gronkowski back in the lineup – his favorite redzone target – and is operating with more balance offensively since the days of Corey Dillon. This Patriots team is versatile, experienced, balanced, motivated, poised and capable. The moment won’t be too big them but the same can’t be said of the letter-jacket wearing Texans – who will be consumed by it. Brady and Belichick win, going away.

Patriots 38 Texans 21

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