NFL Playoffs: The Divisional Round
Eight NFL teams are still on the road to the Super Bowl; only four will remain after this weekend. Here’s a preview of the NFL’s Divisional Round games:
Saturday, January 10
AFC Divisional Playoff: Baltimore (11-6) at New England (12-4)
Gillette Stadium; 4:35 p.m. (ET) on NBC
Quick Take: Two of the AFC’s most successful franchises meet in the playoffs (again). Much like the fourth sequel of a Hollywood film franchise that no one is certain they want to see, the Patriots and Ravens will meet to decide which perennial winner gets to return to the AFC title game. Baltimore owns a 2-1 edge in postseason meetings (and they would have won the third if not for Lee Evans’ end zone drop in the 2011 playoffs).
Keys to the Game
Baltimore: Pressure Tom Brady — New England has suffered some of its most devastating losses when Tom Brady has been under a heavy pass rush. Ravens defenders Haloti Ngata, Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs need to deliver sacks for Baltimore to win.
New England: Go To Gronk — Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is a nightmare match-up for a defense. His size and strength can help spur the passing and running games. The Pats must establish Gronk as a threat and look for him in the red zone.
NFC Divisional Playoff: Carolina (8-8-1) at Seattle (12-4)
CenturyLink Field; 8:15 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Quick Take: If this game seems like a mismatch, you need to pay more attention. Sure, the Seahawks can claim to be the league’s hottest team with their six-game win streak, but the Panthers have won five in a row. Carolina did lose to Seattle, 13-9 in October, but both teams have gotten much better since then.
Keys to the Game
Carolina: Cam Must Lead — The Panthers offense doesn’t scare anyone, but Cam Newton does. Carolina’s franchise quarterback must be accurate and athletic for his team to make an impact on the ‘Legion of Boom’ defense. Newton is strong enough to withstand a pass rush and fast enough to run past it, too. He must avoid the game-changing mistakes that have kept him from becoming an elite NFL quarterback.
Seattle: Play Like Champions — The Seahawks have home-field advantage and a battle-tested core of talented players. They need to out-execute Carolina to keep the young Panthers from believing they have a chance. Seattle struggled to move the ball vs. Carolina in the regular season, until Russell Wilson marched his team down the field for the game-winning drive. The Seahawks can’t let the contest get that close this time.
Sunday, January 11
NFC Divisional Playoff: Dallas (13-4) at Green Bay (12-4)
Lambeau Field; 1:05 p.m.(ET) on Fox
Quick Take: If you drink a shot of booze every time you hear a reference to the 1967 “Ice Bowl” during Sunday’s Cowboys-Packers broadcast from frigid Lambeau Field, you probably won’t see the end of the game. Forget the other three contests this weekend: this is the one every fan will be watching. Green Bay was a perfect 8-0 at home; Dallas was 8-0 on the road.
Keys to the Game
Dallas: Adjust The Game Plan — The Cowboys’ defense is still very suspect at times, but it finds a way to win games against high-powered offenses. Dallas must adjust to the Packers’ game plan like they did against Detroit, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and others. The Cowboys can bend, but they must not break.
Green Bay: Aaron Rodgers’ Health — The Packers should be able to score against Dallas if their MVP-level quarterback is healthy. Rodgers’ strained calf is a major concern; it could keep him from the rollouts and play-action fakes that make him so effective. Running back Eddie Lacy could take on an elevated importance because of Rodgers’ condition and the forecast sub-zero wind chills.
AFC Divisional Playoff: Indianapolis (12-5) at Denver (12-4)
Sports Authority Field at Mile High; 4:40 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Quick Take: It’s Peyton Manning vs. The Guy Who Replaced Him/His Old Team/Father Time. The Peyton Manning vs. Andrew Luck/the Colts/his age is familiar territory for pre-game hype. A better angle is how Indy’s defense will stop the Broncos’ suddenly powerful running attack and whether or not Andrew Luck can move the ball against a stout Denver defense. Luck and the Colts came up short in a 31-24 loss to the Broncos in Week 1.
Keys to the Game
Indianapolis: Play Mistake-Free Football — Andrew Luck had 22 turnovers in 2014, more than every other quarterback save for Jay Cutler. Luck must be perfect, because everyone already knows the Colts don’t have a running game. If the Broncos can get some easy points off Luck’s miscues, this game could be over in a hurry.
Denver: Ground and Pound — Peyton Manning might pile up some passing yards, but the Broncos’ running game — led by C.J. Anderson — should carry the load for their star QB. Teams that run well give Indy fits, and they keep Luck’s aerial attack off the field. Manning must stay away from costly mistakes that give the underdog Colts a short field and easy points.