Saturday's 4:30PM ET Game
Baltimore @ Denver
The Broncos are 13-3 all time in home playoff games. But how big of an effect does Denver's thin air have on opponents, really? "When I played there," ex-Eagles safety Brian Dawkins recalled this week, "... our trainer tried to tell us, 'It's a mind thing. The altitude is a mind thing. Don't think about it.' But when I got out there and we started playing and we got behind -- and that's the key -- it's not a mind thing. It's a lung thing. The lungs don't get enough oxygen." Combine home-field advantage with Peyton Manning's hurry-up offense, and there's reason to believe this game could get out of hand quickly if the Ravens play anything like they did against the Broncos in Week 15. Baltimore was at home for that one, yet still allowed Denver to grab a 17-0 first-half lead en route to a dominant 34-17 victory. ... Manning is masterful at identifying advantageous matchups, and he attacked Ravens RCB Cary Williams relentlessly in the aforementioned meeting. Z receiver Eric Decker was the beneficiary, securing eight passes for 133 yards and a touchdown. On the score, Decker blew by Williams' jam as Manning play-actioned to Knowshon Moreno and found Decker open deep behind Williams from 51 yards out. ... Demaryius Thomas was quiet in the Week 15 matchup (four catches, 13 yards), but he's Manning's hottest receiver with a team-high 16 grabs for 224 yards and two touchdowns in Denver's last two games. In the Ravens' nickel package, special teamer Chykie Brown plays left corner with Corey Graham covering the slot, in the old Lardarius Webb role. Brown is playing extensively only due to injuries and is just as vulnerable as Williams in coverage. Both Denver wideouts can have big Divisional Round games.
Since starting running back Willis McGahee tore his MCL in November, Moreno has admirably stepped into the Joseph Addai role in Manning's offense. An underwhelming talent -- much like Addai -- Moreno has cleared 4.0 yards per carry in just one of his last five starts. But he's an asset in pass protection and has displayed reliable workhorse capability by handling 25 touches per game without a fumble since the McGahee injury. Although Moreno is unlikely to break off big plays in the run game, he is a chain-moving grinder willing to work for hard yards between the tackles. Moreno was the unsung hero of Denver's Week 15 win over Baltimore, heating up the Ravens for 115 yards and a touchdown on 21 attempts (5.48 YPC). ... Slot receiver Brandon Stokley and tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen are role players in the Manning attack; essentially checkdown receivers for whom plays are rarely designed. Sure-handed Stokley finished the regular season with just two drops on 58 targets. Tamme is a "move" tight end who often aligns in the slot. Dreessen is Denver's in-line tight end. He's an impact run blocker and caught five touchdown passes in 2012, four of which came inside the opponent's ten-yard line.
Perhaps the biggest key to Denver's Week 15 dominance of Baltimore was slot corner Chris Harris' elimination of slot receiver Anquan Boldin. In addition to returning a 98-yard pick six, Harris held Boldin catch-less on six targets, frustrating the veteran to the point that Boldin was penalized for unnecessary roughness in the second half. It was Boldin’s first game without a reception since '05. Look for the Broncos to employ the same strategy this weekend. ... While Harris tracked Boldin on virtually every Week 15 passing down, Denver used Champ Bailey to shadow deep threat Torrey Smith. Before exiting with a third-quarter concussion, Smith managed one catch for 14 yards on three targets. Bailey has been a legit shutdown corner this season, and the Broncos' first-round bye should freshen the 34-year-old's legs for Saturday's game. ... Will Joe Flacco have open receivers in the Divisional Round? The odds appear to be against it. Flacco tends to hold onto the ball too long, make poor decisions, and simply not move the offense when Smith and Boldin don't get separation. Indecisive quarterbacking would be bad news for Baltimore against a Denver defense that led the NFL in sacks and has a pass rusher in Von Miller who is capable of single-handedly ruining an offense. This is a very difficult matchup for the Ravens' pass game.
During the regular season, the Broncos allowed the most touchdowns and seventh most receiving yards in the league to tight ends. If Denver's second-ranked defense has one soft spot, it's coverage over the middle and down the seam. Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta capitalized for seven catches, 125 yards, and two touchdowns in the Week 15 game, securing the first score on a deep seam route and the second with a trio of broken tackles after a quick curl, taking Flacco's short pass 61 yards to the house. Beyond Ray Rice, Pitta is the likeliest Ravens skill-position player to give Denver trouble. ... In large part because Baltimore fell behind so fast, Rice was bottled up and underutilized en route to 41 yards on 15 touches (2.73 average) in the Week 15 Ravens-Broncos game. Playcaller Jim Caldwell has been committed to featuring Rice in Baltimore's two meaningful games since, and he's responded with 275 total yards and a touchdown against the Giants and Colts. As is always the case for running backs, critical to keeping Rice involved is a competitive effort both on the field and scoreboard. The Ravens can't afford to let Denver grab a commanding first-half lead. ... It seems like a long shot, but if Baltimore is the early aggressor in this game, No. 2 back Bernard Pierce has flashed ability to be an X-factor and impact player. Pierce has 387 yards on his last 61 carries (6.34 YPC), and he hasn’t fumbled once on 128 rookie-year touches.
Score Prediction: Broncos 30, Ravens 23
Saturday's 8:00PM ET Game
Green Bay @ San Francisco
49ers defensive end Justin Smith is expected to return for the Divisional Round from a partially torn triceps in his left arm. Smith suffered the tear on Dec. 16 and will be just over three weeks removed from the injury on Saturday night. His effectiveness is a big question mark. Although Smith's 2012 numbers don't jump off the stat sheet, he's a critical puzzle piece on the 49ers' defense, attracting double teams for Aldon Smith to essentially rush quarterbacks unblocked off right end. It's no coincidence that Aldon is sack-less during the nine quarters Justin has missed. The Aldon-Justin tag-team combo is the Niners' primary means of generating pass rush, so there are big implications from this injury as San Francisco attempts to contain scorching-hot Aaron Rodgers. ... Rodgers has completed 102 of his last 149 passes (68.5 percent) for 1,310 yards (8.79 YPA), 11 scores, and no interceptions. He hasn't been picked off in 177 throws. The 49ers' top-four run defense is capable of shutting down Green Bay's DuJuan Harris-led ground game, but putting breaks on Rodgers' aerial assault may be impossible if San Francisco coordinator Vic Fangio can't bring any heat. There may not be an aspect of Pack-Niners that has a greater impact on the game's outcome than Justin Smith's ability or inability to play effectively through his arm tear.
Fangio's defense doesn't mix coverages much. It's a straightaway scheme that jams receivers on the perimeter, is immovable up front, and closes at inside linebacker as if Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis were shot out of a cannon. Carlos Rogers will cover the slot on all nickel downs, with Chris Culliver at left corner and Tarell Brown on the right. A matchup to watch is Randall Cobb versus Rogers in the slot. Cobb is cat-quick and Rogers doesn't move as well, so the Packers would be smart to attack there early and often. When Green Bay hosted San Francisco in Week 1, Rodgers went 9-of-9 for 77 yards throwing to Cobb. ... One potential disadvantage for Green Bay's passing game is injuries to Jordy Nelson (ankle) and Jermichael Finley (hamstring), each of whom played limited snaps in the Wild Card Round. Nelson was ineffective aside from two catches on one late first-half drive. Finley will draw Willis and strong safety Donte Whitner in coverage, and their physicality will make life hard on Green Bay's mentally unreliable tight end. ... Greg Jennings enters the Divisional Round as Rodgers' hottest weapon with team highs in receptions (19), receiving yards (226), and touchdowns (3) the past three weeks. Jennings plays both in the slot and outside, roaming around the formation depending on personnel groupings. ... James Jones, who led the NFL in regular season receiving scores (14), was a late-game near-hero in the Week 1 loss to San Francisco, ripping off a 49-yard catch and ten-yard TD in the fourth quarter.
The 49ers finished the season 11-4-1. There is a noticeable trend in their non-wins, as virtually all occurred when the opponent successfully ran on San Francisco's normally stout front. Marshawn Lynch (26-111-1), Ahmad Bradshaw (27-116-1), Steven Jackson (29-101-1), and Adrian Peterson (25-86) each tagged the Niners for consistent chain-moving gains for four quarters; they didn't just rack up stats in clock-killing mode. Scatback DuJuan Harris is serviceable when play design springs him into space, but ultimately Green Bay lacks a runner capable of posing the kinds of problems Lynch, Peterson, S-Jax, and Bradshaw did. ... The final score (30-22) of the Week 1 Pack-Niners game suggests a competitive battle, but that wasn't the case. The 49ers held a 23-7 lead until a pair of fourth-quarter Packers touchdowns, including one on a 75-yard Cobb punt return. Where San Francisco's offense really dominated was in the trenches, overwhelming Green Bay's defense en route to 170 yards and a touchdown on 26 combined carries (6.54 YPC) by Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, and then-package player Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick has since replaced Alex Smith at quarterback and Hunter is gone to injured reserve, but Gore is still playing at a high level and will be fresh after a first-round bye. Green Bay finished the regular season a middling 17th in run defense, allowing the seventh most yards per carry in the league (4.53). Offensive line play and run game are the biggest advantages San Francisco has on Green Bay.
Kaepernick has had ups and downs through seven starts, but far more "ups" while exhibiting big-time playmaking ability with a howitzer arm and game-breaking speed. Perhaps most impressive is Kaepernick's resiliency, bouncing back from adversity. After Seattle's defense shut down San Francisco's offense in Week 16, Kaepernick rebounded to light up Arizona's top-five pass defense in the regular season finale for two touchdowns and 276 yards on 28 attempts (9.9 YPA) without a turnover. Quietly, it may have been Kaepernick's best game of the season. The Niners won't struggle to move the ball on Green Bay's defense, and Kaepernick's dual-threat talents will play a big role. ... Michael Crabtree is playing the best football of his life -- coach Jim Harbaugh does an outstanding job of scheming Crabtree open as his featured pass option -- but the Niners could really use an injection of Vernon Davis. Although he compensates somewhat as a butt-kicking blocker, Davis has been a passing-game afterthought since early in the season, clearing 40 receiving yards once over his last 11 games. Green Bay allowed the second-fewest yards and seventh-fewest receptions to tight ends in 2012, so the on-paper matchup suggests breaking out in this particular game won't be easy. ... With Mario Manningham (knee) done for the season, expect to see Randy Moss and raw rookie A.J. Jenkins line up at outside receiver for the majority of Saturday night's game. Crabtree will take on Packers rookie Casey Hayward in the slot, while Moss and Jenkins deal with LCB Tramon Williams and RCB Sam Shields, respectively. A big play out of Moss or Jenkins could be the difference in what projects as a high-scoring, close affair.
Score Prediction: 49ers 34, Packers 30