Putting the mild-card weekend firmly in the rearview mirror, it’s hard to not think this weekend’s divisional round of games won’t be better.
In order, we have:
Not a bad slate of games. But some players know they need to step up.
We’re not worried about Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady being ready for the playoffs because they almost always are in top form this time of year. Lewis is sure to go out guns blazing, Jim Harbaugh’s team will have two weeks’ worth of tricks up its sleeve, and the Seahawks showed what they are made of by coming back from down 14 points on the road last week.
But the pressure is rising on a few individuals. Joe Flacco needs a big performance. Colin Kaepernick’s performance — good or bad — will lead to a discussion of Harbaugh and his decision to bench Alex Smith.
Russell Wilson is playing with house money right now, but Matt Ryan has built up some debt with an 0-3 postseason mark. He and Falcons head coach Mike Smith know how much this one means to the franchise.
Let’s take a look at the 12 biggest story lines in the divisional matchups in this Playoff 12-pack:
1. It feels as if Peyton Manning and the Broncos have not played a big game in a month or more, even though they had to win games — they are up to 11 straight heading in — to clinch the AFC West, earn a first-round bye by beating the Ravens in Week 15 and then lock up the top spot in the AFC playoffs. The dominant victory in Baltimore sets up a theme that has been echoed with three of the four games this weekend, which are rematches and rematches of three fairly one-sided affairs: We know we’ll see a different team this time around. The 49ers are saying it about the Packers, the Patriots are saying it about the Texans and the Broncos are most certainly saying it about a Ravens team they thumped 34-17 in a game that was nowhere near as close as the score suggests.
2. Ray Lewis was outstanding Sunday against the Colts. He made 13 tackles and played every defensive snap (plus one as a fullback for the final kneeldown on offense — nice touch, John Harbaugh) despite a triceps injury that kept him out since Oct. 14. Manning was held in check, relatively speaking, by a Lewis-less defense in the first game, but he has beaten the Ravens nine straight times (including twice in the playoffs). They have not beaten Manning since 2001, when Lewis and the Ravens looked like a dynasty. The Broncos are 13-3 at home in the playoffs, but the Ravens are no slouches on the road in the postseason, going 7-5 with four of those road wins under Harbaugh’s watch since 2008.
3. WR Anquan Boldin was a crucial figure in the Ravens’ wild-card victory over the Colts, going up to make several big grabs in a 5-145-1 receiving day, a Ravens team record for receiving yards in the playoffs. He must be clutch again Saturday against a Broncos team that held him without a catch in Week 15. The signature moment of the game was Broncos CB Chris Harris intercepting a pass — intended for Boldin — and running back 98 yards for the knife-in-back score just before halftime. That can’t happen again for Baltimore. Boldin, 32, might not separate well, but he can outmuscle most DBs. Interestingly, that was the last interception Joe Flacco has thrown. Bet you didn’t realize that.
4. The 49ers dominated the first matchup in Week One in Green Bay, taking 10-0 and 23-7 leads, with the Packers only getting back in the game thanks to a Randall Cobb punt return that should have never happened (there was a clear block-in-the-back penalty missed). But the Packers were getting a young defense up to speed, which appears now to have happened. They steadily improved on that side of the ball against the power running of Vikings RB Adrian Peterson and will face a similar hurdle with the 49ers’ Frank Gore, who ran 16 times for 112 yards in Week One. But the most obvious change since then has been the QB switch in San Francisco, as Jim Harbaugh benched an effective but limited Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick, who has opened up the offense with his strong arm and running skills but also made it more prone to cold snaps. One other fascinating development: Both teams have developed bad kicking problems, although Mason Crosby (3-for-3 on FGs the last two weeks, including a 51-yarder) appears to have gotten his act straight. But the Niners are expected to carry two kickers — David Akers and Bill Cundiff — into Saturday’s game. Whom will they call on? Akers has been terrible pretty much since Week One, when he hit a 63-yarder at Green Bay.
5. The Vikings ran six zone-read plays against the Packers. All six were a relative success. And then they stopped. With a backup QB who runs well and can’t throw. Go figure. So it likely behooves the 49ers to at least test the Packers’ gap discipline and see if they have tightened things up in that fashion. Kaepernick has that ability to stress a defense with his legs, and give Harbaugh two weeks to come up with some plays, and he’ll have some fun. Other than last week, the Packers have hardly seen any kind of option or zone-read quarterback this season.
6. Aaron Rodgers will be facing a 49ers defense that is among the more talented, to a man, that the NFL has seen in recent seasons. But it also was a tired group heading into the bye, and one that needed DE Justin Smith to rest his injured left triceps. All signs point to Smith playing, and they need him badly. Since he went down mid-game against New England, the 49ers’ defense has looked quite tame. The pass rush has been relatively toothless and the run defense has been merely ordinary. The Packers can be vulnerable to great pass rushes with a somewhat jumbled offensive line, and getting to Rodgers often is likely the only way he won’t have at least some success against this secondary — even as talented as it is. The Green Bay receivers are peaking at the right time.
7. Is this déjà vu all over again for the Falcons? Once more they face a red-hot team in the postseason — it was the Packers two seasons ago, the Giants last year and now the Seahawks, winners of six straight games, including a 14-point comeback at Washington a week ago. You get the feeling these Seahawks now have a taste for playing on the road, whereas it once was a serious weakness, and you can’t help but note how the Falcons have played in a lot of close games in Atlanta this season. Matt Ryan, for some reason, has been tighter at home (11 TDs, nine INTs) than on the road (21 TDs, five INTs). Ryan needs this one — and he knows it. The fact that Russell Wilson has more playoff victories (one to none) than Ryan does only exacerbates that fact.
8. There might be no better positional head-to-head battle than the Falcons’ pass catchers going up against the Seahawks’ secondary. This is a Seahawks’ defense that allowed a league-low 245 points and stoned the Redskins after the first quarter, injured Robert Griffin III or not. In addition, they have not allowed more than 17 points since Week 12 and have kept most opponents this season under 20. CBs Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are big, physical and they like to incite anger in their opponents. They can get under receivers’ skins easily. Safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are instinctive playmakers capable of big hits. The Falcons scored 419 points this season, and 32 of their 46 TDs came through the air. Roddy White and Julio Jones each went over 1,100 yards, and TE Tony Gonzalez remains ageless in what appears to be his final run in the NFL. This battle will be worth the price of admission.
9. The Falcons must play better run “D” against the Seahawks than they did for the majority of the season, allowing 123 rush yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry. That won’t cut it against Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch. The Falcons’ linebackers, led by Sean Weatherspoon, must knife through gaps, get off blocks and hit Lynch in the backfield. But the Falcons also must mind Wilson and his scrambling ability, in addition to backup RB Robert Turbin. It will be a big game also for Falcons MLB Akeem Dent, who has had his ups and downs.
10. You have to start with Week 14’s battle between the Patriots and Texans because it meant so much. The Texans built it up as the most important game of their existence (seriously) and made the childish error to commemorate the event with letterman’s jackets. The Patriots treated the Texans like a JV team. New England was up 21-0 before most fans’ seats were warm and led 28-0 well into the third quarter before a few late touchdowns on both sides made it a 42-14 final. Although the Texans’ defense wasn’t terrible in the game (a few breakdowns notwithstanding) and the Patriots did get a few lucky bounces go their way, one thing was clear: Matt Schaub needs to play far, far better. He knows it. Schaub was lukewarm last week, and the coaches’ confidence in him didn’t appear to be sky-high after a pick-six to Leon Hall. This has to be Schaub’s time to fly if the Texans are to win.
11. The Texans also must find a way to slow down the TE-rrible twosome of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Hernandez beat the Texans for two TDs last time, and Gronkowski (who missed that game) appears healthy after the bye-week rest. He caught a TD in limited duty in Week 17 after suffering a broken forearm and missing five games. The Patriots are one of the few teams to scorch the Texans on third down this season. They allowed only 33 percent conversions this season despite the losses of Brian Cushing and Brice McCain in the back seven, but the Patriots converted 50 percent of their third-down chances in Week 14. Gronkowski and Wes Welker do their biggest damage on first downs, and Hernandez and Welker have been big second-down options. That leaves every option — including a revamped run game — open on third downs. That’s one big reason why Tom Brady and Co. are so dangerous.
12. You likely have read about Arian Foster and how he felt Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy disrespected him by dismissing the Texans in his early-week piece. You might also remember that the Patriots held Foster to a manageable 46 rushing yards on 15 carries, with his one TD coming with a 28-0 deficit. But Foster has come up big in all three Texans playoff games the past two seasons, notching triple digits in rushing (including 140 yards in the wild-card victory over the Bengals). It’s worth noting that the Patriots’ run defense has been very solid this season overall, but it did allow Ben Tate to rush eight times for 46 yards after halftime and have been stung by a few strong run games this season, notably the 49ers and Bills. Most of Foster’s big damage last week went to the left, so the Patriots’ rookie duo of DE Chandler Jones and LB Dont'a Hightower — who play on the defense’s right side — must be ready.