Sunday's 1:00PM ET Game
Indianapolis @ Baltimore
Popular sentiment may posit that the Ravens backed into the playoffs after dropping four of their last five games, but it's worth noting that they smoked the Giants 33-14 two weeks ago and rested starters in Week 17. And Baltimore is getting someone special back for the first round. While it's impossible to quantify the emotional boost from Wednesday's announcement of surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer Ray Lewis' impending retirement, his return is likely to have some effect on Sunday's game. Lewis will be on the field with his teammates -- back from an 11-week triceps injury -- and claims to be "100 percent" healthy. Lewis' skills appeared to be diminishing early in the year, but he should be a run-defense upgrade with fresh legs after the layoff. ... Schematically, Baltimore has an edge on Indianapolis from the standpoint that the Colts are a decidedly vertical-passing team and border on one dimensional in that respect. Playcaller Bruce Arians' system demands that Andrew Luck make a high volume of low-percentage downfield throws, which helps explain the still largely impressive rookie's unimpressive turnover count (23), completion rate (54.1), and QB rating (76.5). The Ravens happen to have a takeaway specialist in the back end of their defense in centerfield safety Ed Reed, who butters his bread by picking off vertical throws. Although 2012 was not Reed's best season, he still intercepted four passes and has a whopping eight picks in 11 career playoff games. Baltimore is a good bet to win Sunday's turnover battle.
Luck finished his first NFL season ranked fifth in pass attempts, and coach Chuck Pagano recently acknowledged that he's playing with a "tired arm." Both the national and local media have been protective of the Golden Boy, so little was made of the comment. The numbers bear it out. Luck has completed just 78 of his last 168 passes (46.4 percent) for 1,012 yards (6.02 YPA). While he's compensated with a 4-1 record and 8:5 TD-to-INT ratio across that span, the sustainability of the latter two statistics is worth questioning. Luck could be exposed a bit by a rested Ravens defense that's especially likely to be high on energy in Lewis' return. ... Donnie Avery and dynamic rookie T.Y. Hilton are Indianapolis' purest vertical weapons, but Reggie Wayne is the sustainer on offense. A short-to-intermediate receiver at this stage of his career, 34-year-old Wayne finished the regular season ranked sixth in receptions (106), seventh in receiving yards (1,355), and fourth in first-down catches (73). It would be safe to expect Wayne to have a Wild Card game voluminous on targets and grabs. The Ravens must limit Indy's big plays in the passing game, however, and Reed should have a lot to do with it. ... A grinding, workmanlike runner, fifth-round rookie Vick Ballard is the Colts' every-down back. While Ballard is a suitable fit for Arians' power-running offense, he managed just four runs of 20-plus yards during the regular season, handling 211 rushing attempts. Among backs with at least 200 carries, only three (Shonn Greene, Mikel Leshoure, banged-up Trent Richardson) had fewer 20-yard gains. Ballard is capable of moving the chains as a complement to the passing game, but he's not quite a difference maker.
Joe Flacco's contract year didn't live up to expectations, but he did deliver Baltimore a fifth playoff berth in five seasons while posting a career-high 3,817 passing yards. Flacco was particularly sharp at home, where Sunday's Wild Card game will conveniently take place. In eight games at M&T Bank Stadium, Flacco completed 176-of-283 throws (62.2 percent) for 2,363 yards (8.35 YPA), and a 15:5 TD-to-INT ratio, with three additional touchdowns on the ground. The Colts rank 21st in pass defense and 24th in sacks, so this is a favorable matchup. ... Like Flacco, Torrey Smith opened the regular season piping hot only to fade in late fall and winter. Also like Flacco, Smith was much more productive at home, where he scored seven of his eight touchdowns and racked up 59.3 percent of his yards. Flacco would be smart to aggressively target Smith when matched up with burnable Colts left cornerback Cassius Vaughn. Baltimore needs to stay away from right corner Vontae Davis. ... Ravens slot receiver Anquan Boldin sat out Week 17 to rest a shoulder injury and practiced fully this week. Physical, 6-foot-1, 223-pound Boldin will spend most of Sunday's game in 5-foot-10, 185-pound Colts slot CB Darius Butler's coverage. Boldin turned 32 in October, but still paced Baltimore in 2012 targets, catches (65), and receiving yards (921).
Three players handle Baltimore's pass-catching load. No. 3 is tight end Dennis Pitta, coming off a breakout third NFL season. Though he lacks flashy measurables, Pitta dropped just three passes all year, securing 61 and reaching pay dirt seven times. Pitta is a reliable underneath target for Flacco, often picking up the slack when aging Boldin has down games. ... The star of Baltimore's Wild Card Round offense still figures to be do-it-all tailback Ray Rice, who closed out the regular season with 441 yards on his final 89 carries (4.96 YPC) and will be fresh after playing single-digit snaps in the Ravens' Week 17 rest game. Indianapolis ranks 29th against the run, serving up an AFC-most 5.14 yards per carry. No team in the NFL has allowed more running plays of 20-plus yards. If Rice touches the football 20 times in this game -- and he ought to -- the Ravens will win.
Score Prediction: Ravens 27, Colts 21
Sunday's 4:30PM ET Game
Seattle @ Washington
The Seahawks and Redskins play a very similar brand of offense. Quarterbacked by dual-threat playmakers, both clubs flummox defenses in the read-option game and set up shot-play downfield throws off play-action. Seattle and Washington are run-based zone-blocking teams, each finishing the season in the bottom-three in pass attempts. Stretching defenses vertically, they also both ranked in the top-three in yards per throw. The big difference between the clubs lies on defense, where the Seahawks hold a significant edge. Seattle allowed the fewest regular season points in football, and the fourth fewest yards. Despite stretch-run improvement, the Skins served up the 11th most points and fifth most yards. Not his elusive, spectacular self playing with a bulky right-knee brace, Robert Griffin III has his work cut out to generate aerial success versus Seattle's top-six pass defense. With right corner Brandon Browner back from suspension and left cornerback Richard Sherman escaping punishment altogether, the Seahawks are capable of essentially eliminating perimeter pass catchers like Pierre Garcon with physical press-man coverage. ... Playcaller Kyle Shanahan and RG3 must get creative. Seattle's defense excels at disrupting pass routes and is not vulnerable in any particular area. Washington simply will not move the ball or score points without a brilliantly designed game plan from Shanahan. Seattle has not allowed more than 17 points to an opponent since November and arguably has the best defense in the NFL right now. They're a very difficult team to play against.
Alfred Morris may be the single biggest key to the Redskins' Wild Card Round offense. Ripping right past any notion of a Rookie Wall, Morris has actually gotten better as the season moves along, amassing 1,076 yards on his last 220 carries (4.89 YPC) after averaging 4.67 yards on his initial 115 pro runs. The zone scheme consistently springs Morris into space, and he attacks oncoming defenders with tackle-breaking violence. If Griffin is to connect with Garcon, Z receiver Leonard Hankerson, or slot man Santana Moss off play-action fakes, it will be because the Seahawks are more worried about Morris gashing them. ... Despite missing six games with a torn foot tendon, Garcon led Washington in 2012 receiving yards (633) and the Skins went 9-1 whenever he appeared for a game. Although this pass game had a spread-the-wealth look during its top receiver's missed time, Garcon is unfailingly the go-to guy when healthy. Shanahan keeps Garcon constantly moving around the formation to prevent against bracket coverage and double teams. The likes of Hankerson, Moss, Josh Morgan, and tight end Logan Paulsen are role players in the Shanahan system. Hank, Morgan, and Paulsen are also impact blockers in the run game.
The Skins rallied into the postseason by ripping off seven straight victories, but Seattle has just as good an argument for being the hottest team in the game. The Seahawks have one loss since October, along the way toppling Minnesota, Chicago, and San Francisco in 42-13 blowout fashion. While quarterback Russell Wilson deserves plenty of kudos, Marshawn Lynch is the offensive lynchpin after setting career highs in rush yards (1,590) and yards per carry (5.05). Washington’s defense ranked top-five versus the run during the regular season, but Lynch holds his own against stout units, amassing 342 yards and three all-purpose touchdowns on 79 carries (4.34 YPC) in four 2012 meetings with top-ten run defenses. Lynch caught fire as Seattle installed more zone-read plays in the second half of the year, ripping off eight 100-plus-yard performances over the final ten games. The zone-read freezes opposing front-seven members, literally keeping defenses on their heels. That's great news for running backs. ... Not only did Wilson match Peyton Manning's rookie touchdown pass record (26), he added four scores on the ground and became a dynamic, dual-phase weapon as playcaller Darrell Bevell diversified the late-season offense. Particularly notable for this matchup is Wilson's performance under duress, as Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett relies heavily on blitzes to mask coverage deficiencies. According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson compiled an 11:4 TD-to-INT ratio and 96.7 passer rating when blitzed this season. For rookie comparison sake, Andrew Luck's TD-to-INT ratio when blitzed was 8:5 with a 77.6 rating.
Haslett's defense utilizes frequent single-high safety looks to support the run and bring an extra blitzer into the box. The gambling strategy paid dividends throughout Washington's win streak, but leaves the secondary vulnerable. It should be no surprise that the Redskins ranked third to last in the NFL in regular season pass defense. Seattle's best blitz beaters are Z receiver Sidney Rice, slot man Doug Baldwin, and No. 2 tight end Anthony McCoy, who quietly paces the Seahawks in yards-per-catch average. Just as he did with Dez Bryant in Washington's Week 17 play-in win over the Cowboys, Haslett figures to employ DeAngelo Hall in shadow coverage of opposing top receiver Rice. Hall played his best game of the season against Bryant, holding the red-hot wideout to an innocuous 71 yards on four catches. Hall has not always been so effective, though, and his matchup with Rice will be one to monitor as a potential difference-maker for the Seattle-Washington outcome. ... Seahawks X receiver Golden Tate will likely spend most of the Wild Card Round in Redskins right cornerback Josh Wilson's coverage, in another fierce one-on-one battle. Wilson is Washington's most consistent cover man. ... Seattle lacks game breakers at tight end, but it's notable that the position gives Haslett's defense fits. The Seahawks do make frequent use of two-tight end sets, and the Redskins allow league highs in receptions (105), yards (1,062), and touchdowns (10) to tight ends. McCoy and Zach Miller will be Seattle's X-factors in this game.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 24, Redskins 20