In the NFL's edition of the elite eight teams left in the playoffs, game planning, good coaching, and execution is crucial. The deeper into the playoffs we get, the more of a chess match it becomes between opposing coordinators and coaches. When in the film room, these matchups should be taken into consideration.
No. 5 Baltimore Ravens (13-4) @ No. 2 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
* Ravens: Their front seven vs. Steelers offensive line
Perhaps the most evident area of weakness in Pittsburgh is with its offensive line. Although slowly on the progressive route, they can still leave quarterback Ben Roethlisbereger vulnerable to blitzes, especially from the tackle positions, which causes him to step up in the pocket; Roethlisberger throws better on the run. Veteran right tackle Flozell Adams was brought in to be a stabilizing force, but has been mediocre. He will have his hands full attempting to slow down sack artist Terrell Suggs, coming off of a two sack game against Kansas City. The Steelers have gotten better protection up the middle in no small part due to center Maurkice Pouncey, but often struggle in pass protection. The Ravens experienced front seven can attack with complex blitz schemes, thus favoring them on this side of the ball.
* Steelers: Mike Wallace vs. Ed Reed and Ravens secondary
After the Steelers dealt then-suspended receiver Santonio Holmes to the Jets, Mike Wallace hastily stepped into their deep threat role. His 21 yards per catch is tops in the league among receivers with 50 plus catches. His presence opens up holes for Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller. Wallace was almost non-existent in the first clash between the defensive power houses, where the Ravens won 17-14. He showed up the next rivalry, with 76 yards, so guess who won?
Although Baltimore permitted 52 pass plays of over 20 yards in the regular season, their defensive backs are returning to good health at a timely pace. Dawan Landry and Josh Wilson both intercepted Matt Cassell passes, and aided the Ravens in making breakout receiver Dwayne Bowe a non-factor, with zero catches. Reed, despite missing six games, led the league in interceptions with eight.
PICK: Ravens 21, Steelers 18
No. 6 Green Bay Packers (11-6) @ No. 1 Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
* Packers: Roddy White v.s. Charles Woodson
Which ever side wins this clash of All-Pro on All-Pro battle should come out victorious. White's 115 catches were the most by anybody, and Woodson's reputation as a shut down corner made opposing offensive coordinators game plan to avoid him. Both were named starters to the 2011 Pro Bowl. Falcons gunslinger Matt Ryan, along with White, will find this Packers defense tough to break down, as Woodson and safety Nick Collins anchor a defense that gave up the fifth fewest yards. Opposing quarterbacks had the lowest QB rating vs the Packers than any team at 67.2.
* Falcons: Michael Turner v.s. Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk
Atlanta's Matt Ryan may be a Pro Bowl quarterback, and a large reason why the Falcons own the No. 1 seed in the NFC, but this team's primary offensive orientation is the run. Turner is a half back whose style is to lower his shoulder and get tough yards; this Green Bay linebacking core rarely allows that type of yardage. But the Falcons duo of Turner and Jason Snelling is a solid change of pace, where Snelling can get to the next level whereas Turner is more of a short yardage half back.
PICK: Falcons 29, Packers 24
No. 4 Seattle Seahawks (8-9) @ No. 2 Chicago Bears (11-5)
* Seahawks: Matt Hasselbeck vs. reality
Is Matt Hasselbeck really as good as what he showed on Saturday? Did Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' defense just break down in the noise pollution of Qwest Field? No doubt it is a difficult place to play, and that the Seahawks have a big advantage playing there. This time, however, temperatures, wind, and yes, crowd control, will be a factor working against what appears to be 2011's team of destiny. Hasselbeck went 22 for 35 with four touchdown strikes; a few of which on fake plays. The Bears red zone defense won't be as naïive or unexpecting. On Wednesday before the game, Seattle appeared to have a quarterback situation; things can change in the blink of an eye. But the Bears defense, consisting of Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, and Julius Peppers, will be a whole other beast.
* Bears: Matt Forte vs. his own streakiness
Forte finished the season hot, and he will need to bring that consistency to a frigid Soldier Field. His early struggles led him to make some beneficial adjustments, not just to himself, but Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears now legitimate offense, along with a defensive identity, were good enough to get them the second seed in the NFC. Actually, this might as well be more about Jay Cutler. He has all the raw tools, but ‘can he become a post season leader' is the question.
PICK: Bears 20, Seahawks 10
No. 6 New York Jets (12-5) @ No. 1 New England Patriots (14-2)
* Jets: Mark Sanchez v.s. Pats corners and safeties
This might as well be Mark Sanchez, v.s all who oppose him. LaDainian Tomlinson and second year back Shonn Greene bring a dependable running attack behind the league's most formidable offensive line. The Jets defense experienced no jet lag from last year's No. 1 ranked defense under head coach Rex Ryan. But it all boils down to the Jets living and dying with the "Sanchize." If Sanchez does not make two timely out route passes to Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards, the Jets loose to the Colts. Period; it does not matter that he was sloppy the whole game. If the Jets can get good performances from Jericho Cotchery and Dustin Keller, the Jets have a shot. They will need it to keep up with Tom Brady and his new receiving trio of Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and Brandon Tate. The Pats may have the best young secondary that does not get enough credit; Brandon Meriweather and Patrick Chung had concrete seasons, while Devin McCourty is a candidate for rookie of the year. Linebacker Jerod Mayo led the NFL with 174 tackles.
* Patriots: Deion Branch/Brandon Tate v.s. Antonio Cromartie
Colts receiver Pierre Garcon made Antonio Cromartie look bad last Saturday as he darted past the Jets cornerback. Indianapolis successfully exploited the man-to-man coverage and took it to the house. Cromartie has had his issues with coverage that does not include help from the safety over the top. New England did the same thing in their week 13 match up. Cromartie had one tackle in that game, while Brady flirted with perfection all evening, going 21 for 29 with 326 yards and four touchdown flings; picking on the Jets defensive back. If they can do that again, New England could make this game a no contest. If the Jets run the ball relentlessly to keep Brady, and Cromartie off the field, that would be their best chance of advancing.
PICK: Patriots 32, Jets 21