Evan Silva

Matchups

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Matchups: Divisional Round

Thursday, January 13, 2011


At least three of the four wild-card round games were thrillers, setting the bar high for the divisional round. This is typically the most exciting weekend of football during the NFL season, though, so expectations were already innately lofty.

Looking at this weekend's slate, I only see one game that has serious blowout potential: Jets-Pats on Sunday night. Oddly, Saturday's schedule is the most enticing. Although I clearly expect the Packers to win (I picked them as Super Bowl champs during the preseason), Green Bay-Atlanta probably has the highest scoring potential of the divisional round. Steelers-Ravens projects as the lowest-scoring affair.

4:30 ET Saturday: Ravens @ Steelers

When the Ravens Have the Ball

Facing a Steelers defense that dominates in the trenches and on both edges, the Ravens' best area to attack is the perimeter. Corner Bryant McFadden is the weak link in the Pittsburgh secondary. Bookend Ike Taylor often "shadows" No. 1 receivers, and will likely follow Anquan Boldin for most of Saturday's game. Baltimore play-caller Cam Cameron can create favorable matchups by spreading out the defense with three- and four-receiver sets, allowing quarterback Joe Flacco to pick on McFadden when he's in man coverage on Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, or Donte' Stallworth. A short passing game in which Flacco gets the football out quickly could also mitigate Steelers outside rushers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison's impact on the game.

The Steelers held Ravens tailback Ray Rice to 3.06 yards per carry and no touchdowns in two meetings this season. Rice was also a non-factor in the passing game, catching three passes for 27 yards combined. Cameron can't afford to abandon his most dynamic player again, even if the matchup is unfavorable. Though Rice is unlikely to have success inside the tackles, the Ravens can keep him dangerous by getting him the ball in space. Rice doesn't have to be the focal point of Cameron's game plan, but he must stay involved with 15-20 touches on the defensive exterior.

When the Steelers Have the Ball

Playing the most efficient football of his life, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger compiled an 11-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in final eight regular season games. It's more impressive when you consider Big Ben stayed highly aggressive, averaging 8.21 yards per throw in his last seven outings. A big reason for Pittsburgh's increasingly dangerous passing attack has been the emergence of Pro Bowl snub Mike Wallace. Clearly surpassing Hines Ward as Roethlisberger's go-to receiver, the deep threat leads the NFL in 20-plus yard receptions and the AFC in yards-per-catch average. Wallace also tied John Stallworth's franchise record with seven 100-yard games during the regular season. He'll command Baltimore's defensive attention on Saturday.

These AFC North teams split the regular season series, and for the Steelers there was a stark contrast in run-to-pass ratio in the two affairs. Pittsburgh threw 38 times compared to 24 rushes in its Week 13 win over Baltimore, but had 21 passes to 27 runs in a Week 4 loss. Though the disparity was due mostly to Roethlisberger's suspension from the first game, it's fair to believe the Steelers are better off attacking the Ravens through the air. Baltimore held Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall to 2.82 yards per carry this season, and in his career Mendenhall's average is 3.03 against the Ravens. Pittsburgh is more likely to keep the chains moving with the pass.

Coaches

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh is coming off his fourth career playoff win in six tries, but he is 2-5 all time against the Steelers. Just one of those seven games was decided by more than four points, so history says this one's going to be close. In three seasons as Ravens head coach, Harbaugh is just 12-12 in games decided by a touchdown or less. His overall record is 36-18

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's only two losses to Harbaugh have come without Ben Roethlisberger, due to injury or suspension. Tomlin is 6-0 all time against the Ravens when Big Ben starts. Tomlin also has bulletin board material after Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs showed up to practice Wednesday donning a t-shirt that flipped the bird to Pittsburgh.

X-factors

Billy Cundiff

We mentioned that scoring in Ravens-Steelers is likely to be tight. The oddsmakers agree, tabbing Pittsburgh as a three-point favorite. So if the game goes as expected, special teams could play a major role. Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff tied a league record with 40 regular season touchbacks, and including the playoffs has drilled 29 of his 32 field goal tries. Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham was signed off the street at midseason, so Baltimore has an obvious edge in this area.

Emmanuel Sanders

A third-round rookie from SMU, Sanders overtook Antwaan Randle El to be the Steelers' No. 3 receiver at midseason and played 60.8 percent of Pittsburgh's snaps in the final eight games. Hines Ward was a full-time player all along, but Sanders nearly matched the veteran in receptions and yards during the second half, also scoring one more touchdown. Sanders offers better athleticism at this stage of Ward's career, and might move past him to be Roethlisberger's No. 2 receiver on Saturday. The Ravens held Ward to just three regular season catches for 27 yards.

Prediction: Steelers 17, Ravens 14

8:00 ET Saturday: Packers @ Falcons

When the Packers Have the Ball

With an 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 67.4 completion rate in his last three games, Aaron Rodgers has Green Bay's offense clicking at the right time. Rodgers should've had a fourth touchdown in last Sunday's wild-card win over the Eagles, but James Jones dropped a perfectly placed pass after beating shutdown cornerback Asante Samuel down the right sideline. Having accounted for 395 yards against them in Week 12, Rodgers has already shown that the Falcons' pass defense is an unworthy opponent. Top receiver Greg Jennings was particularly dominant in that game, racking up 119 yards on five receptions. It's really not a matter of IF the Packers' passing game will light up the Georgia Dome. It's a matter of just how many points they'll score.

Packers rookie power back James Starks is generating a lot of media hype following a breakout, 132-yard performance in Philadelphia. The vast majority of Starks' yardage came after contact, but not to be overlooked was Green Bay's victory in the trenches. Packers center Scott Wells and right guard Josh Sitton overwhelmed the Eagles' interior. They'll have the opportunity for a repeat effort against an undersized Atlanta front four on Saturday night. The Falcons served up 4.63 yards per rushing attempt during the regular season -- the sixth worst mark in football.

When the Falcons Have the Ball

The Falcons run a ball-control offense. Atlanta ranked fifth in the NFL in regular season rushing attempts, and just 25th in yards per throw. Quarterback Matt Ryan's job is to avoid turnovers and deliver completions to Atlanta's lone play-maker in the passing game -- NFL receptions leader Roddy White. Michael Turner is the offensive centerpiece, since Week 7 averaging 23 touches a game. Turner's stretch-run dip in production may be cause for concern, however. Whereas he averaged 4.82 yards per carry in Weeks 1-12, Turner plummeted to 2.67 with two fumbles in the final five games. Ideally for the Falcons, a first-round playoff bye helped Turner get his legs back.

In addition to Turner's production slip, tight end Tony Gonzalez's worst statistical season in 12 years was a key story buried beneath 13 Falcons wins. Turning 35 next month, Gonzalez struggles to create separation, and his regular season yards-per-reception average of 9.37 was easily a career low. While Gonzo remains Ryan's top red-zone target, he won't force Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers' hand as much as the future Hall of Famer would have in years past. On paper at least, the Packers project to give the Falcons more matchup problems than vice versa.

Coaches

Mike Smith has compiled a 33-15 record in three regular seasons as Falcons coach, but lost his only previous playoff game 30-24 to the Cardinals two Januaries ago. Smith did run the defense for a 2007 Jaguars team that advanced to the divisional round. Overall as a head coach and coordinator, however, Smith is 1-3 in the postseason and has been outscored by a margin of 89-59 in the losses.

Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy improved his postseason record to 2-2 in last weekend's win over Philadelphia. 1.5-point underdogs in the wild-card round, the Packers are again projected to lose by the Vegas oddsmakers. The margin given this week is 2.5 points. McCarthy is 50-34 all time as Packers head coach, including the playoffs.

X-factors

Jordy Nelson

The Packers have a tendency to increase Nelson's snaps at the expense of James Jones in weeks following Jones' all-too-common gaffes, and his embarrassing drop in Philadelphia may necessitate more action for Nelson against the Falcons. Nelson caught all five of his pass targets for 61 yards and a score in Green Bay's Week 12 loss to Atlanta. He did a terrific job to keep the play alive on his 10-yard touchdown catch in that game, hauling in an absolute rocket from Aaron Rodgers after out-running Falcons free safety Thomas DeCoud to the left corner of the end zone.

Michael Jenkins

Jenkins' greatest strength is his downfield blocking ability, but the Falcons are going to need more from him on Saturday night. With Packers top cover corner Tramon Williams likely on Roddy White and Charles Woodson seeing his fair share of Tony Gonzalez, Jenkins could find himself one-on-one with undrafted rookie Sam Shields for much of the divisional round. While Shields has been a real find for Green Bay GM Ted Thompson, he gives up five inches and over 30 pounds to Jenkins. In order for the Falcons to beat the Packers, Jenkins must win this matchup.

Prediction: Packers 27, Falcons 20


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Evan Silva is a senior football editor for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter .
Email :Evan Silva



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