Home teams stood tall in the Wild Card round, winning three of the four games last weekend. Now the NFL's top four seeds get in on the playoff action, hoping to keep homefield advantage as a true advantage. There just may be some surprises in store, especially for the highest seeds of all. Let's take a look at all four of this weekend's Divisional playoff games.
Last week I went 3-1
AFC - #6 Baltimore Ravens at #1 New England Patriots
Saturday, January 10th, 3:35pm CT, NBC
This game, in my opinion, will ultimately decide this year's AFC Champion. Much has been made about Baltimore's success at Gillette Stadium, going 2-1 in their last 3 playoff games there (2 blowouts and 1 razor-thin loss). Now, this Ravens squad is much different from those teams the Patriots faced, no Ray Rice, no Ray Lewis, and no Ed Reed, but other key pieces, and most importantly, philosophy remain constant. Coach John Harbaugh, QB Joe Flacco, and defensive leaders Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata know what it takes to win these games.
Of course, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are no strangers to winning big playoff games either, and they have as strong a team as they have had since representing the AFC in Super Bowl XLVI. New England's defensive youth of recent years has matured this season, which has made this a very balanced team on offense and defense this year. This is the year for the Patriots to get back to the Super Bowl, the only issue is that the one team that stands in their way in the AFC is the team they face this weekend.
The Ravens play the Patriots much like the Jets do, the difference is that Baltimore has the talent and discipline to make the difference from an extremely close loss to actual victory. Baltimore's ability to control the clock and the tempo of the game with Justin Forsett fill be paramount for their success. Baltimore's defense and rushing attack will keep New England from reaching their fourth consecutive AFC Championship Game. Baltimore wins 27-17.
NFC - #4 Carolina Panthers at #1 Seattle Seahawks
Saturday, January 10th, 7:15pm CT, FOX
Ask just about anyone, and Seattle should absolutely steamroll Carolina in this game. The defending champs with the NFL's #1 defense and #1 rushing attack against a playoff team with a losing record, in Seattle? Take it to Vegas and bet it all on the 'Hawks. Well, I'll be the fool standing to the contrary of this position. Should the Seahawks beat the Panthers this weekend? Of course they should, easily, like 27-9, but a very strong trend tells me without question that they won't.
The last defending Super Bowl Champion to win a single playoff game the following year were the 2005 New England Patriots. It's been nearly a decade since the defending champs have been able to live up to their lofty expectations. I'm going keep riding this trend until it is no longer a trend at all, anything else would be foolish. Funnily enough, this is the one matchup that actually lends itself to statistically continuing this trend, as Carolina has played Seattle extremely close for three consecutive years. Arizona or Detroit would've stood little chance of victory outside of the strength of the trend itself.
Carolina will keep this game close by holding Marshawn Lynch to roughly 63 yards on the ground, and Luke Kuechly will look to keep Russell Wilson in check when he attempts to use his legs to pick up crucial yardage. Unlike Green Bay or New Orleans, Carolina is a bad matchup for Seattle. They just have had issues with this team that they haven't had with many others. This game is going to come down to the wire, and Carolina is going to surprise a lot of people. I haven't picked the defending champs to win their first playoff game following the title since the 2010 New Orleans Saints, and we are all too familiar with how that ended, against a team with a losing record, in Seattle.
There's a reason the defending champs have been falling flat in their first playoff games, and it come down to burdens. The burdens of expectations, interior and exterior. The battle of overconfidence, having "been there and done that". Are they as "hungry" as they were last year? It's human nature not to be. Ultimately, it's not the Panthers that will beat the Seahawks, it's Seattle's own overconfidence that will seal their fate. Ugh, I hate the Carolina Panthers. Carolina wins 13-10.
Sunday, January 11th, 12:05pm CT, FOX
Both teams enter this game with top ten offenses and completely average defenses. It is this fact that leads me to believe that this will be a very high scoring game that will come down to the 4th quarter. The storylines here are pretty obvious; Green Bay is undefeated at home this season and Dallas is undefeated on the road, so something has to give here. With DeMarco Murray, Dallas has the type of game that "travels well" and should not lose any steam even at Lambeau Field.
The narrative that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are unbeatable in Lambeau is laughably overblown, as Rodgers is actually 0-2 at home in playoff games for his career. Dallas can win this game at Lambeau, and the stars will all have a big game. Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and DeMarco Murray will shine. Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, and Eddie Lacy will roll, but I expect Clay Matthews and the Packer defense to get that one big turnover to seal this game for the home team. Aaron Rodgers finally wins his first home playoff game, and the Packers move one step closer to the Super Bowl. Green Bay wins 38-34.
Sunday, January 11th, 3:40pm CT, CBS
This game will be far closer than it has any business being due solely to Andrew Luck and the NFL's #1 passing offense. Don't be surprised to see Luck throw for 300 yards with 3 TD's, even on the road against the NFL's 9th ranked passing defense. I can see Indy trailing by as many as 3 TD's before storming back in the 4th and ultimately falling short. This game will end up being much closer than most expect it to be, despite the Broncos having the advantage at most positions.
With Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning squaring off for the third time, we will see a lot of fireworks. Defense will take a bit of a backseat as the present and future of elite quarterbacks take center stage. If the Colts can get an actual running game behind Luck next season, then they may finally move to that top level in the AFC, but for now it's still Peyton's time to chase another elusive ring. Denver wins 32-31.
We move one week closer to arguably the most exciting day in sports, NFL Conference Championship Sunday. Which of the teams will represent the NFL's final four? We'll just have to wait and see. Leave us your picks, comments, and insight below!