Sunday's 1:00PM ET Game
Seattle @ Atlanta
A primary concern for Seattle's defense in this matchup is generating pressure. The Seahawks lost sack leader Chris Clemons to a season-ending knee injury in last week's win at Washington, and their pass rush was struggling before that. Seattle has managed ten combined sacks in its last eight games, including just three the past three weeks. Matt Ryan is capable of picking apart any defense from a clean pocket. Absorbing only four sacks over the final three regular-season games, Ryan completed 76-of-104 passes (73.1 percent) for 787 yards (7.57 YPA), and an 8:0 TD-to-INT ratio. ... At the same time, working in the Seahawks' favor is the physical corner duo of LCB Richard Sherman and RCB Brandon Browner, who will match up with Roddy White and Julio Jones. Browner limited Redskins go-to receiver Pierre Garcon to 50 scoreless yards on four catches in the Wild Card Round, and no other Washington wideout cleared 30 yards. Based on where they lined up on the field for most of 2012, Jones can expect to square off with Browner often Sunday while Sherman sticks to White. ... Because Seattle fields the premier cornerback tandem in this year's playoffs, it's fair to argue that Pete Carroll's club matches up with Atlanta's pass-first offense better than any team left in the postseason. Tony Gonzalez would seemingly be the Falcons' best way to attack a Seahawks defense that can shut down the perimeter. Perhaps the first-round playoff bye will rejuvenate 36-year-old Gonzalez, but he struggled to get open down the stretch, averaging 44.7 yards over Atlanta's final seven games. He averaged 68.6 in the first nine.
Atlanta is the most disciplined team in the NFL, setting league records this season for penalties accepted and penalty yardage. Mike Smith's club also finished top-five in turnover margin. This team doesn't make many mistakes. ... On the other hand, Smith's playoff history is abominable. He's 0-3 lifetime in the postseason with a combined scoring margin of 102-47. Smith's Falcons have been blown out 48-21 and 24-2 in their last two playoff tries. ... Although the Seahawks' run defense was a bit up and down this season, it shut down the Redskins' No. 1-ranked rush offense for the final three quarters of the Wild Card Round. After allowing 61 first-quarter rushing yards at Washington, the Seahawks settled down and permitted 43 yards over the final three frames. Offensively, rushing offense is Atlanta's weakness. The Falcons finished the season 29th in both rush yards per game (87.3) and yards per carry (3.69). Turning 31 next month, lead back Michael Turner needs outstanding blocking to be sprung for successful runs, and Seattle's defensive team speed is capable of bottling up scatback Jacquizz Rodgers. If the Seahawks' front seven plays as stoutly as it did for most of the Redskins game, it can render Atlanta's offense one dimensional.
There is a perception that Russell Wilson struggles on the road, and that was true early in the season. But he made major strides over the course of 2012, posting a 2:7 TD-to-INT ratio in his initial four away games before improving to 8:1 in the past five. The home-away factor still works in Atlanta's favor, but not nearly to the extent it might have before. ... Despite the improvement of Wilson and recognition he's received as a serious Rookie of the Year contender, the Seahawks' offensive backbone is the run game. Playcaller Darrell Bevell hasn't strayed from it all year. After finishing the season third in rushing offense, Wilson and Marshawn Lynch poured 28 combined attempts for 199 yards (7.11 YPC) and a touchdown on Washington's top-five run defense in the Wild Card victory. Seattle imposes its will on the ground, and it's the one area in which Bevell and Carroll own a decided edge on Atlanta. The Falcons' front seven is easily moved in the run game, ranking 21st in regular-season run defense and 29th in yards per carry allowed (4.80). A poor tackling team, Atlanta surrendered 863 rush yards after contact in 2012, the second highest total in all of football.
Seattle's 24-14 Wild Card win over Washington looks rather convincing on paper, but it could've been much more so. Wilson flat missed two would-be touchdown bombs on throws downfield, and No. 2 tight end Anthony McCoy dropped another potential score. The Seahawks must make good on those kinds of opportunities in order to knock off 13-3 Atlanta. ... Look for Sidney Rice to run most of his pass patterns Sunday against Falcons LCB Asante Samuel, while Golden Tate takes on RCB Dunta Robinson. Atlanta's backend matches up well with Seattle's receivers. Tate's bread and butter is run after catch, and Robinson is arguably the premier tackling cornerback in football. Getting open against Samuel is a struggle in and of itself, and some teams discourage their quarterbacks from challenging him at all because Samuel is such a proficient jumper of routes. Unless one somehow catches a break -- like an Atlanta blown coverage -- neither Rice nor Tate seems likely to have a particularly big game. ... In-line tight end Zach Miller stepped up for a team-high 48 yards on four receptions against the Redskins, while Doug Baldwin and fullback Michael Robinson combined for four more grabs, 62 yards, and a touchdown. Robinson, Baldwin, Miller, and the aforementioned McCoy are complementary players in Bevell's offense, but they are capable of efficient football when opportunities arise. If Rice and Tate struggle to get open, as predicted here, a big play from explosive slot man Baldwin could be the difference in this game.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 24, Falcons 23
Sunday's 4:30PM ET Game
Houston @ New England
Three of this year's Divisional Round games are regular-season rematches. The Pats' Week 14, 42-14 evisceration of the Texans might be most difficult to forget. While the result isn't necessarily indicative of things to come, it seems to have had a lasting effect on the mindset and subsequent performance of Matt Schaub. Whereas Schaub opened the season with a 7.41 yards-per-attempt average and 21:9 TD-to-INT ratio in 12 games before the New England loss, he’s regressed to one touchdown, four interceptions, and a 7.15 YPA in five games since. Schaub has been tentative and hesitant, struggling each time out. A light must suddenly flip on for Schaub if Houston is going to stay competitive on the scoreboard in Foxboro. His recent play suggests the odds are stacked heavily against it. ... The Patriots' defensive coverage strategy appears pretty predictable for this game. They'll shadow Aqib Talib with Andre Johnson while impressive rookie corner Alfonzo Dennard matches up with the Z receiver rotation of Kevin Walter and DeVier Posey. During his funk, Schaub has been all too willing to settle for checkdown-type completions to Owen Daniels, Arian Foster, Garrett Graham, and James Casey. New England figures to be willing to surrender those so long as Johnson doesn't get behind the secondary. The Texans simply don't have enough explosive weapons to keep pace with the Patriots' juggernaut offense unless Houston's defense plays its best game all year and Foster absolutely goes off on the ground.
Bill Belichick has a famous knack for eliminating his opponent's most potent skill-position player, and his defense executed when New England held Foster to 46 yards on 15 runs (3.07 YPC) in Week 14. The Pats played top-nine regular-season run defense, permitting under 4.0 yards per carry, so clogging lanes and setting the edge comes natural to Belichick's group. Even better for the Patriots' chances of limiting Foster's impact would be grabbing an early lead and putting the game in overwhelmed Schaub's hands. ... Run-based and theoretically defensive-minded, the Texans are a rhythm team whose effectiveness is compromised when its rhythm is thwarted. The Pats can pound its enemy into submission with a power-zone run game, spread out defenses and attack college-style, or run the speed-no-huddle, limiting substitutions and tiring out an opponent. There isn't an offense in the league better equipped to throw an adversary off its game and take away its rhythm. From that perspective, this game is a mismatch heavily favoring the Patriots.
The Pats dismantled the Texans in the Week 14 game, and they did it without Rob Gronkowski. Not only is Gronkowski an unstoppable red-zone receiver, his run blocking reached new heights when healthy in 2012. To say Gronk's presence is worth seven points per game would probably be conservative. He's going to be an every-down player in the Divisional Round, and that's great news for Tom Brady and Stevan Ridley. It should worry the heck out of Houston. ... As alluded to in last week's Wild Card Matchups piece, the Texans' most glaring defensive weakness is inside linebacker play. The Bengals made a fruitless attempt to attack coverage-liability ILBs Barrett Ruud and Bradie James by targeting Jermaine Gresham on seven pass plays. Gresham, vastly inferior to Gronk and Aaron Hernandez, generated a pathetic seven yards on those seven targets, dropping three balls. The Pats likely took note of the Bengals' mishaps in their game-plan preparation, and where they occurred on the field. Hernandez, Gronkowski, and slot receiver Wes Welker can make good on the opportunities Gresham and Andy Dalton missed. ... Brady shredded Houston for four touchdowns, no picks, and 296 yards on 35 throws (8.46 YPA) in the aforementioned Week 14 beatdown. Texans slot cornerback Brandon Harris was Brady's primary whipping boy.
Although LE J.J. Watt came away from the Texans-Patriots regular-season game with four tackles, three QB hits, and a forced fumble, the Pats held Watt sack-less and generally neutralized him with double and triple teams. In the meantime, the Texans have failed to find a pass rusher capable of distracting extra attention from Watt. He's been their lone consistently high-impact defender all season long, and New England has displayed an ability to strategize so that Watt doesn't ruin their offense. ... Houston defends inside runners like Stevan Ridley more effectively than backs who get out in space, but Ridley has proven a reliable chain-mover and is sure to have some impact on Sunday's game, even if he doesn't break off any long runs. Ridley may not be the centerpiece of playcaller Josh McDaniels' Divisional Round game plan, but he'll be called on to generate three yards and a cloud of dust and execute in short-yardage and goal-line situations. ... Brandon Lloyd might be the likeliest Patriots pass catcher to draw single coverage against Houston, squaring off with CB Johnathan Joseph on the outside. Quiet for most of the season, Lloyd came on a bit down the stretch and at the very least will occupy the Texans' best cornerback's coverage. Houston's defense is more vulnerable underneath and down the seam.
Score Prediction: Patriots 28, Texans 17