NFL Playoff Preview: AFC Divisional Round
Ravens @ Steelers
The AFC is blessed with dream divisional matchups and it doesn’t get much better than Steelers v. Ravens. The division rivals will meet for the third time this season, having split the regular season series. The Ravens have already won in Pittsburgh this year and they’ll have to repeat the trick. It’ll be a lot tougher this time around; Big Ben wasn’t around for the Week 4 meeting in Pittsburgh, serving the last game of his suspension for extra-curricular activities. Big Ben did return for a Week 13 matchup, which the Steelers won, Roethlisberger’s sixth win in a row over the Ravens.
When you look at these two teams, you have to start, as they do, with defense. The Ravens D was increasingly dominant as the game wore on against Kansas City, holding the Chiefs to just 25 (!) yards in the second half. Baltimore forced five turnovers and the offense took advantage, scoring 10 points directly off of turnovers and adding another three after the Chiefs were stopped on 4th down at midfield. As good as this Ravens defense has been over the years, there’s no question that they’ve slowed down a bit with age. The speed of that defense, especially the front-7 is a worry for the Ravens, both in containing running backs and getting to the quarterback. The Ravens inability to get sacks, they ranked in the bottom-6 in the league in that category, could be huge against the Steelers offense, whos biggest weakness is an inability to protect the quarterback. Jamal Charles averaged over 9 yards-per-carry in the Wildcard Round and looked too fast for the Ravens to handle…only the Chiefs know why he only ran nine times. Rashard Mendenhall has been kind of hot and cold this year, but he still finished with over 1200 yards and 13 TDs. Mendenhall definitely has the ability to make plays and is the kind of quick, elusive back that could trouble the Ravens. If they are forced to bring a safety into the box to stop the run, they open themselves up to Mike Wallace, one of the fastest receivers in the game, over the top.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers had a first round bye, and their defense needed it. The Steelers limped into the playoffs with injuries to safety Troy Polamalu, linebacker Lamar Woodley with DE Aaron Smith. All of those guys are important to that defense, but having Polamalu, in particular, as healthy as possible is huge for the Steelers. Polamalu is the best safety in football and when he’s playing, his value to the Steelers cannot be overstated. For everyone out there who has any questions regarding Joe Flacco, this is the game for them to be answered, one way or the other. We’ve seen this year that to have success against the Steel Curtain, you have to be able to go through the air. Good luck running the ball against a 3-4 defense that boasts maybe the best linebacking corps in football. I think the Ravens success or failure will be on Joe Flacco’s shoulders and whether or not he can make plays with his arm.
Those of you who read my Wildcard preview, first of all I appreciate all 8 of you, second of all you know I’m not sold on this Ravens team. They beat the Chiefs soundly, but I don’t see a repeat in Pittsburgh. I just think that all of the Ravens weaknesses: not explosive on the outside on offense, can’t get to the quarterback, general old-and-slowness…they all play right into the Steelers hands. The Steelers offense has fast, young, playmakers in Mendenhall and Wallace; the Ravens aren’t fast on D. The Steelers struggle to avoid sacks, but the Ravens don’t get sacks. The Ravens don’t get big plays from their receivers; you have to go outside against the Steel Curtain. Don’t get me wrong, history and experience tells us that this game will be a war of attrition, probably settled by a single score, but I think the Steelers are the better team, have home field advantage, have the better matchup, have the better quarterback and will win this game on Saturday.
Jets @ Patriots
AFC Divisional Game #2…Bitter Divisional Rivalry #2…could it be any better? The Jets come into this game riding high after beating Peyton Manning and the Colts in Indianapolis. They’ve beaten 1b of the best quarterbacks of this generation, now they’ll have to deal with 1a.
The Jets looked pretty good against the Colts and it never really felt like they were going to lose the game. With that said, they still had to go out and win it and having Mark Sanchez lead a last minute drive to win the game is just what Jets fans will have wanted to see. For all they did well against the Colts, the Jets should be a little concerned with where they’re at right now. They had a lot of success on the ground against the Colts, Revis Island was in full effect, holding Reggie Wayne to 1 catch, Freeney and Mathis were nearly invisible and the Jets looked like the better team. What’s wrong with that? For all those good things to be true, playing against a Colts team that wasn’t really all that good this year, a Jets team that was really for real would not have needed a last second field-goal to win the game. That may sound nit-picky, but they’re not getting ready to play the rest, they’re getting ready to play the best in Bill Belichek, Tom Brady and the Patriots.
It’s funny. The Patriots feel like they’ve been around forever, while the Jets have really come to life in the last couple of seasons, but the Jets are really the veteran team in this game. Apart from the quarterbacks, the Jets have a lot more experience, which could help them in the playoff atmosphere. I think the Pats are better, but I could see a circumstance where the Jets come in warmed up after their Wildcard game and surprise the Patriots a little bit. To do that, the Jets have to keep Brady off the field, especially early. We know Brady’s not getting rattled, you can’t say the same for a lot of those guys on the Patriots sideline.
Once Brady is in rhythm, he’s almost impossible to stop and this Pats offense is one that is suited to do well against the Jets. The Jets have great corners in Revis and Cromartie, we’ve seen Revis take big-time receivers completely out of the game time after time. The thing about the Patriots is that their best receiver is whichever one is open. They can hit so many different guys in the passing game, from Deion Branch to Wes Welker, the young tight-ends and Danny Woodhead out of the backfield. They don’t have one guy that Revis can zone in on and really hurt them. If they do, it’s Wes Welker, but he’s not the kind of guy that Revis excels covering. Revis is best against the more traditional, big and fast guys, something the Pats don’t have.
I’d be really surprised if this game isn’t a lot closer than the previous meeting, but the Jets are up against it to win in New England. The Pats just look like a really complete team and I’m not sure Mark Sanchez is ready to win this game yet. Sanchez hasn’t been getting a lot of help lately either…Santonio Holmes has dropped a lot of balls recently and Dustin Keller spent more time crying for PI calls than catching passes against the Colts. Is the Jets running game and defense enough to beat the Pats? I don’t think so, I’ll take the Patriots at home in this one.