Baltimore Ravens vs Pittsburgh Penguins: PIT -3
To start with, Ed Reed returned to the team today and will be in the lineup on Saturday. Aaron Smith's status remains up in the air. If you are interested in trends, these teams are 3-3 against each other at home over the last 6 games, while PIT is 8-0 against divisional rivals in the playoffs, included 2-0 versus BAL. PIT is also 8-0 in the third game of a season against the same team. None of these factors will matter come game-day though. The real story will come from the X's and O's and the fact that PIT is rested coming off a bye.
In their last 10 games, Flacco has been sacked 34 times while PIT lead the league in sacks with 48. This area is perhaps the single biggest mismatch on the field . BAL will counter with the short passing/running game to try and expose the zone defense, but how successful will that be? We all see what someone like Tom Brady can do with that game plan, but is there a consensus regarding Flacco? Personally, I'm not a big fan of him. He has his moments and can play in this league, but he's not the guy I want with the ball and the game on the line despite what he did in week 4. Flacco and the rest of the offense will be in tough this week against a defense without many holes. Earlier in the year I would have said that PIT's defense is vulnerable against the pass, but they've improved in this area and actually hold the edge in the air this time around. PIT's defense is also great in the red zone, on third down, and second in the league in turnover differential. If BAL is going to win this game it won't be coming from long drives resulting in touchdowns. They will need to collect their points where they can and rely on their defense to do the rest. Is this formula good enough to win? Don't count on it.
BAL's defense isn't as great as they were in recent years, but they can still get the job done. They imposed their will on a rattled KC offense last week and took over the game in the second half. Unfortunately for them, they must go on the road for the fourth week in a row against an offense that isn't phased by the bright lights of the playoffs. Big Ben and Wallace will have their opportunities in the air and Mendenhall will do enough to keep the defense honest. It won't be easy for PIT once they move the ball inside the 20, but they should be able to sustain more drives and control the clock better than BAL. This could turn out to be the critical factor of the game given the age of this BAL team and how favorable the schedule is for PIT.
There is a lot of debate about how much the bye means this weekend because home teams do not have a great record against the spread in the divisional games. Yet, if it was a factor this is the type of game where we would see it manifest. As mentioned, this will be BAL's 4th straight road game while PIT is resting up. BAL has great leadership so I don't expect them to roll over and die if things aren't going their way by the second half, but their will be extremely tested given the conditions. I think the line would be -3 even if this was week 17. PIT own some advantages on both sides of the ball and get to play at home. Throw in the scheduling factor and I will gladly lay the points and roll with the Gold and Black. Prediction: Bank PIT -3.
Green Bay Packers vs Atlanta Falcons: GB +3
The night game features two more teams that are squaring off in a rematch. In the first meeting I went with ATL and it ultimately paid off. However, this is no longer the regular season and the dynamics of the playoffs will put a whole new pressure on the home team favorites this time around. In 2009, ATL beat everyone they should have beat, but lost 6 out of the 8 tough games they played. This season, they found ways to win those tough games. Now they sit as the number one seed in the NFC. Surely this reversal of play should point to a probable win on Saturday night. Yet, this is still a team that has yet to prove themselves come crunch time. In week 16 ATL had the chance to show everyone that they are indeed ready for a Super Bowl run when their the rival Saints came to town, but they couldn't elevate their game and come out with a win despite having home field advantage. They made uncharacteristic mistakes and couldn't cash in on the chances they did have. For most that game is meaningless at this time, but for me it was a big red flag. Aaron Rodgers and company will pose just as much of a threat as NO did, if not greater.
On paper, this promises to be another close affair, but ATL do not hold the same kind of mismatches that they did in week 12. In fact, ATL's ranking in key areas has come down since their last meeting with GB. Their red zone and third down defense has showed some significant weaknesses down the stretch despite their record. They haven't been as efficient on third down offense either. This is not good news when Aaron Rodgers is on the other side of the field. In two playoff games thus far, Rodgers has put up gaudy offensive numbers. Look for GB to attack ATL's defense with a lot of 4 and 5 receiver sets as they did in week 12. It proved very successful for them as ATL played a lot of three-man rush formations. It didn't seem to matter how many people were in coverage, Rodgers still found ways to drive down the field. If ATL want to try that approach again look for one-week wonder James Starks to get more carries once again.
The game plan for ATL should be similar to the one they had in week 12, too. 75% of Ryan's passes were under 10 yards in that game as they systematically picked apart the GB zone defense. When you are firing on all cylinders and playing mistake-free football this formula works like a charm. Yet, for their game-plan to work, Turner must have another big game for ATL. In their first meeting he ran for over 100 yards as they kept the sticks moving and controlled the clock. There should be opportunities for success in the run game, but I'm not sure it will be as much of a mismatch as it was earlier in the year.
The problem with this game plan is it relies too much on smart play and discipline. For most of the regular season this is exactly what ATL executed, but come playoff time, every play and every drive becomes that much more amplified. They had the luxury of going through most of the season without any big expectations as they rose to prominence. Now that they are the favorites and expected to win, the probability of mistakes and mental errors rise significantly. We saw a hint of this in week 16, and I expect a similar script to play out this weekend.
In the final analysis, both teams matchup evenly in many areas. Across the board they are pretty evenly ranked in red zone/third down offense, points from long drives, completed plays per game, turnover differential, penalties per game, and the line of scrimmage. ATL own the edge on the ground, but GB hold a significant edge in the air. Ryan has a stellar record at home, but this game is for much different stakes. I need more than home field advantage to put my faith in ATL and at the end of the day I don't think it will be enough of a factor. I picked GB to make it to the Super Bowl this year and I don't see enough reasons to change my mind at this point. Prediction: Bank GB +3.