Matchups: The Divisional RoundFriday, January 13, 2012
Houston @ Baltimore
Texans Must: Throw successfully on first down. Houston finished the regular season tied for the league lead in rushing attempts, and posted a 35:20 run-to-pass ratio in the Wild Card round. The Ravens will expect the run. The Texans can gain a step on Baltimore by using play-action fakes to set up early-down passing plays, be it of the deep variety to Andre Johnson and Jacoby Jones, or higher-percentage crossers to possession receiver Kevin Walter. It will be important for T.J. Yates to establish rhythm and confidence early on. This projects as perhaps the closest of this weekend's Divisional round affairs, and the Texans won't topple teams tougher than the Bengals without an extended period of strong performance from their rookie quarterback.
Ravens Must: Delete Houston's running game. This is where Baltimore's first-round bye will come in particularly handy. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis got a week off to rest his ailing toe, an injury that has affected both his performance and availability since Week 10. Run-stopping LE Cory Redding (ankle), ILB Dannell Ellerbe (head), and DT Arthur Jones (illness) are all recovered from late-year injuries. The Ravens fielded the AFC's toughest regular-season run defense and are now at full strength. It's an intimidating development for Wild Card round star Arian Foster, who was limited to 49 yards on 15 carries and held out of the end zone in Houston's Week 6 regular-season meeting with these same Ravens. Despite Foster's mammoth statistical line against the Bengals, he also appeared to be a step slower than usual in terms of acceleration.
X-Factor: Anquan Boldin. Boldin played the first 14 games with a torn meniscus, missing the final two after December 22 surgery. This week, Boldin declared himself the healthiest he's been all year. During the aforementioned Week 6 meeting with Houston, Boldin abused Texans top corner Johnathan Joseph for 132 yards on a season-high eight catches as Joseph shadowed him throughout the game. Boldin's return makes the Ravens' passing attack considerably more dangerous because his physicality creates mismatches in the slot while deep threats Torrey Smith and Lee Evans man the outside. The Texans will likely focus their defensive efforts on stopping Ray Rice and Baltimore's ground game, so the wideouts should all see plenty of single coverage.
Why the Ravens Will Win: Beating the Bengals in Week 17 was crucial for Baltimore because it bought them much-needed time. Team leader Lewis will have his legs back after the playoff bye, and a healthy Boldin appears to have Joseph's number. The Texans' offensive staff will likely do what it can to relieve any and all pressure from Yates, but I'm betting against a rookie quarterback visiting the Ravens far more often than not. If the Texans do pull the upset -- they're 7.5-point dogs -- it will be because Yates had easily the best game of his young pro career.
Prediction: Ravens 24, Texans 21
NY Giants @ Green Bay
Giants Must: Attack Chad Clifton. After tearing his left hamstring in October, the Packers' 35-year-old left tackle recovered slower than expected, not returning until Week 17. Clifton has played just 25 snaps since Week 5, and Sunday will mark the first time the Packers have started Clifton and RT Bryan Bulaga together since Week 2. Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jason Pierre-Paul most often lines up against left tackles and is key to the Giants' chances of containing Aaron Rodgers. Sub-package DEs Osi Umenyiora and Dave Tollefson also play Pierre-Paul's spot in certain sets, so New York can send a wave of defenders in Clifton's direction.
Packers Must: Not waste opportunities. In their Week 13 regular-season meeting with New York, Packers would-be receivers combined to drop six passes, "led" by Jermichael Finley's three. With Umenyiora and left defensive end Justin Tuck healthier, the Giants' pass rush has been souped up since. Green Bay's margin for error is likely to be slimmer against a red-hot New York team that has decisively beaten three straight tough opponents. Amid the Michael Philbin tragedy, this may come down to a matter of game preparation for Packers coach Mike McCarthy. McCarthy rested many starters in Week 17, followed by a playoff bye. When they take the field Sunday afternoon, Green Bay first-teamers will be playing together for the first time in 21 days.
X-Factor: B.J. Raji. After emerging as one of the league's most dominant nose tackles last season, Raji took a step back this year as his playing time increased. Used as an every-down player for most of the season's first half, the 337-pounder has worn down while opponents have averaged 4.67 yards per rushing attempt against Green Bay, the seventh highest average in the NFL. Surprisingly, Raji was among the Packers starters who did see a full complement of Week 17 snaps as many first-teamers rested. An impact performance will be needed from Raji if Green Bay plans to halt a Giants ground game that rushed for 172 yards in the Wild Card round.
Why the Packers Will Win: Because I picked them before the season to repeat. Just kidding. Sorta. The Giants are the NFL's hottest team north of Louisiana and pose a stiff test for the defending champs. To me, it's a talent issue. Green Bay is the most skilled and deepest team in football, and I'm going to bet on them every single chance I get -- especially at home. I think Finley will have a monster game, making up for his embarrassing Week 13 effort. Defensively, Raji will benefit from the week off. I do like the Giants to cover the 7.5-point spread.
Prediction: Packers 28, Giants 24