Atlanta @ NY Giants
Atlanta Must: Keep Matt Ryan upright. Atlanta's O-Line played better down the stretch, but part of that was due to weak opponents. In their final seven games, the Falcons faced one defense ranked higher than 19th in the league in sacks. Ryan took only eight sacks during that span after absorbing 18 in the first nine weeks. The Giants finished the regular season third in the statistic, despite 11 missed games from star ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. Osi and Tuck are healthy now, while Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jason Pierre-Paul has emerged as the club's best pass rusher. In terms of run and pass yardage rankings, the Giants' defense may appear to be vulnerable on paper. But there isn't a more fearsome pass rush left in the playoffs.
New York Must: Get Ahmad Bradshaw going. The Falcons ranked sixth in regular-season run defense, but sprung leaks during the final month. In the last four games, Panthers, Jaguars, Saints, and Bucs backs combined to rush for 398 yards on 65 carries (6.12 YPC) against Atlanta, which also lost strong-side linebacker Stephen Nicholas to a lingering knee injury. Nicholas won't play against the G-Men. Bradshaw struggled to stay healthy for much of the season, but overtook Brandon Jacobs to be New York's lead back in the last three games and is integral to the Giants' chances on Sunday. Big-play receivers Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and Mario Manningham can be deadly off play-action fakes, but need opponents to fear New York's running game to execute.
X-Factor: Giants safety Kenny Phillips. Phillips hasn't been recognized with a Pro Bowl berth in his four-year career, but he's on his way after a breakout season. In addition to setting career highs in tackles (82), pass breakups (11), and picks (4), Phillips graded out as the NFL's sixth-best safety by Pro Football Focus. Phillips spends a lot of time "in the box" supporting the run, and will be key to New York's defense of Michael Turner. In coverage, Phillips' responsibilities will likely include guarding Tony Gonzalez and providing "help" against Roddy White. A terrifically versatile, well-rounded safety, expect Phillips' name to be called often by Sunday's broadcasters.
Why the Giants will win: I think they will have more success running the ball, throwing it, and rushing the passer than Atlanta. Ryan's career home-away splits are also a bit startling when assessing the Falcons' chances. In 30 career home games, Ryan has a 26-4 record, 64.8 completion rate, 7.55 yards-per-attempt average, and 49:17 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In 32 road affairs, Ryan is 17-15, completes 58.1% of his passes, averages 6.66 YPA, and has 46 TD passes compared to 29 picks. This will be Atlanta's second game played outdoors since Week 4.
Prediction: Giants 30, Falcons 21
Pittsburgh @ Denver
Pittsburgh Must: Keep Tim Tebow confined to the pocket. Tebow has been at his most dangerous in shotgun-spread formations, from which he can break off large yardage chunks when opposing back sevens play deep to defend four receivers' "go" routes. In terms of classic rushing offense, Denver is likely to struggle. Over their final nine regular-season games, the Steelers permitted just 817 yards and two touchdowns on 232 rushing attempts (3.52 YPC). Particularly after losing Pro Bowl right guard Chris Kuper to a broken leg in Week 17, the Broncos probably won't even stay competitive Sunday without dramatically altering their ultra-conservative offensive mentality, an approach that has emphasized ball control over putting points on the scoreboard.
Denver Must: Have its best game of the season in pass coverage. Aside from Champ Bailey, every member of Denver's back end has struggled this year. 33-year-old right cornerback Andre' Goodman has been consistently picked apart by opposing passing games, rookie strong safety Quinton Carter is clearly best suited to play in the box, and David Bruton would be a special teamer-only on a team with a good secondary. Brian Dawkins won't play due to a neck injury. The Steelers have been a throw-first team all year, racking up a franchise high for pass attempts since the 2002 season. If Denver can't put pressure on Ben Roethlisberger and cover Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers are going to pour points on the Broncos.
X-Factor: Steelers tailback Isaac Redman. While much was made by the media this week of Rashard Mendenhall's torn ACL, it's conceivable that the Steelers will be better with Redman at feature back. Redman lacks home-run speed, but is a superior receiver and pass blocker than Mendenhall, better fitting Pittsburgh's new style of offense. Redman has also been an upgrade in terms of per-play production. Whereas Mendenhall averaged 4.07 yards per carry this season, Redman posted a 4.35 mark and is arguably a preferred option at the goal line with a more decisive, no-nonsense running style. Mendenhall too often danced around the line of scrimmage.
Why the Steelers will win: I don't trust Denver's offensive staff to formulate an attack for which the Steelers' defense isn't prepared. Pittsburgh also plays with more aggressiveness on both sides of the ball. Tebow's apparent loss of confidence isn't helping, either. He was tentative throwing downfield last Sunday following a four-turnover Week 16 game. This week, the Broncos' front office publicly criticized Tebow for refusing to take chances. In his previous ten starts, Denver coaches did as much as possible to minimize Tebow's impact and discourage him from "low-percentage" plays. From top to bottom, the Broncos are a divided team and organization.
Prediction: Steelers 24, Broncos 13