Players with the most to lose
1. Tom Brady, Patriots: This game means so much to the Patriots. A third straight playoff defeat at home would be devastating for Brady. He seems more driven then ever at age 34, almost like he wants another title too much. He knows the Patriots can’t be No. 1 seeds forever.
2. Ray Lewis, Ravens: He says this team is more complete than the 2000 Ravens. Terrell Suggs says this is easily the best Ravens team he’s played on. The Ravens are set up well to make another Super Bowl appearance, but this is a different role for them in the playoffs: Home favorites.
3. Joe Flacco, Ravens: If he thought the media didn’t give him credit before, try losing to a fifth-round rookie quarterback at home.
4. Charles Woodson, Packers: Woodson said it during the week. Two straight titles would put the Packers at a different level historically. This team seems very aware of how close it is to being an all-time great.
5. Sean Payton, Saints: It’s not particularly fair, but the Saints’ winning streak has left many in New Orleans feeling that anything short of a Super Bowl title this year will be a massive disappointment.
Matchups to watch
1. Jason Pierre-Paul versus Chad Clifton
Green Bay did a decent job protecting Aaron Rodgers in the first matchup against the Giants with one huge exception. Jason Pierre-Paul absolutely manhandled left tackle Marshall Newhouse all day.
Now Chad Clifton is back after taking only 25 snaps in Week 17. He hasn’t played a full game since Week 4. It’s a tall task to ask Clifton to hold up against JPP on the outside. Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga is also coming back from an injury and will be tested by New York’s pass rush.
2. Patriots tight ends versus Broncos safeties
Denver double-teamed Rob Gronkowski all day last time around, so Aaron Hernandez went off for nine catches and 129 yards. New England exposed the youth at safety and the lack of depth in Denver’s secondary last time. I doubt they found a solution in the meantime.
3. Texans offensive line versus Ravens front seven
Houston’s run blocking may be the best in football. Baltimore’s front seven led by Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata may be the toughest group in the league. The Texans didn’t get good push in Baltimore on the ground the first time these teams played. They need to win this matchup for a chance on Sunday.
4. San Francisco versus the blitz
The 49ers showed great difficulty identifying blitzing defenders in matchups against Dallas, Baltimore, and Arizona this year. They seemed to clean this up against the Steelers, but Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will test Alex Smith. The 49ers don’t have many wideouts that can win one-on-one so expect to see a lot of pressure on Smith.
5. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil versus the Patriots tackles
Patriots tackles Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer have struggled with injuries at times this year. Guard Logan Mankins also isn’t 100%. The Patriots held up fairly well the first time around, largely by getting rid of the ball quickly. If the Broncos pull off the upset Saturday night, it will be largely because Miller and Dumervil dominate.
Things I learned re-watching the regular season matchups
Packers @ Giants
1. These teams look very evenly matched. They were separated by two yards in the game. The Giants actually averaged 7.3 yards-per-play, while the Packers controlled the clock and only averaged 5.8 yards-per-play.
2. The Giants receivers won their one-on-one matchups on the outside. Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams took turns on Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. New York won the majority of the time.
3. New York hit three plays over 50 yards. The Packers had only one play over 25 yards. The Giants made Green Bay work down the field slowly, which is the best you can hope for.
Part of the reason the Giants hit big ones: Green Bay’s blitz did not get home. Zone didn’t work and man coverage didn’t work. Don’t be surprised if the Packers back off some Sunday.
4. Ultimately, Green Bay won in New York because their stars were better. Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, and Clay Matthews all made sensational plays to win the game. Rodgers completed a number of tough throws into tight windows.
5. The Giants linebackers and safeties had no answer for Jermichael Finley. He dropped a few or his day would have been enormous. The Giants’ linebackers in general are a problem in coverage.
6. The Giants were far more effective on the ground than Green Bay. They averaged over five yards-per-carry, although the Packers were missing their two inside linebackers. The Packers offensive line, meanwhile, gave up a ridiculous amount of penetration in the running game. Linval Joseph was dominated for the Giants up front. Green Bay’s running backs rushed for 57 yards on 24 carries.
7. I came away from this tape thinking the Packers will have to be at their best to win this week, even in Lambeau Field. The Giants may be the toughest matchup for Green Bay left in the field. Really.
Patriots @ Broncos
1. New England never solved the Broncos running attack. Denver averaged 8.1 yards-per-carry and totaled 252 yards on the ground. The offense slowed down in the second half, but that was because Tim Tebow had to throw too often.
2. The Broncos did a great job outflanking the Patriots defense on runs. They sealed the edge very easily, which shouldn’t happen against a Bill Belichick-coached defense.
3. Denver can’t survive stupidity. The three turnovers were bad enough, but they also made mental errors and big penalties to extend Patriots drives.
This didn’t look like a physical mismatch of a game. Denver had 218 yards in the first quarter alone, but the Broncos weren’t mentally ready for the Patriots. This is the old Patriots model: Let the other team beat itself.
4. The Broncos never solved the Patriots hurry up attack. They couldn’t get the right personnel on the field and they couldn’t just line up and cover the Patriots.
New England did a good job mitigating the Denver pass rush with quick throws, but Tom Brady’s protection also held up for the most part when he took more time.
5. Even though Tim Tebow’s numbers were solid, he really struggled throwing on third and long. Despite Tebow’s success last week, the Patriots will surely make him beat them with his arm.
Texans @ Ravens
1. The Ravens blitzed Matt Schaub with impunity. Imagine what they will do with T.J. Yates. While Andre Johnson wasn’t active for the first game, Baltimore simply wasn’t afraid of Houston beating the Ravens deep. Yates is going to need to throw in this game.
2. The Texans aren’t going to win unless they can run the ball more effectively. Arian Foster was held to 49 yards on 15 carries and was stuffed in a crucial fourth down situation. Ray Rice finished with over 100 yards and the Ravens ran effectively inside.
If the Ravens are the better running team Sunday, this game won’t be close. Baltimore’s interior offensive linemen were especially good.
3. Joe Flacco was hit a lot, with free rushers were coming at him often. The left side of his line (Bryant McKinnie, Andre Gurode) looked old and slow. Flacco delivered big plays while he was hit, but the Texans will take their chances that won’t happen again.
4. The Texans did a nice job with misdirection on their 32-yard score to Jacoby Jones. They are going to have to take advantage of Baltimore’s aggressiveness and throw against it. Yates will have to hit some big plays for Houston to stay around.
5. Baltimore hit two 50-yard plus plays, both with receivers getting behind safety Danieal Manning. Anquan Boldin beat Johnathan Joseph quite a bit in the game. I doubt Boldin is healthy enough to do the same Sunday.
6. The Texans were somewhat fortunate to keep it close in the first game. The same will be true Sunday: Houston has a lot working against them.