Baltimore Ravens vs New England Patriots by Justin Block
The first AFC Division Game will be between the two teams who feel like they are in a déjà vu scenario. Just like in the 2013 AFC Championship game, the Ravens will travel to Foxborough to try and beat the Patriots at home in order to advance. However a lot of trades and other changes occurred over the last 2 seasons that makes this game different than the one in 2013. The Ravens are coming into this game with Joe Flacco’s first win against the Steelers in his postseason career. The Patriots have been strong all season long like their past seasons, which makes it a game with two teams built for the playoffs and entering with momentum. Even though these teams are coming in strong, there are some key points for each team if they are to make it to the AFC Conference to beat the favored Broncos.
Before their season started, the Ravens were in the spotlight due to the Ray Rice incident that put a lot of pressure on the organization. This pressure could have been a big enough distraction for the Ravens to jeopardize their playoff hopes. The Ravens nearly missed out, but they got in thanks to the Chiefs beating the Chargers. Losing Ray Rice was thought to be a huge blow to the Ravens offense, but they did not miss a beat thanks to journeyman Justin Forsett. Forsett has been improving throughout the season, achieved some 100 yard rushing games and led all running backs with 5.4 yards per carry. This is one key factor for the Ravens if they want to beat the Patriots defense. The Ravens are a top 10 rushing team, but in their last game against the Steelers, it was mostly Joe Flacco who provided the highlights as the Steelers keyed in on Forsett and held him to 40 yards. The Ravens need to improve their run game to keep pressure off of Flacco and limit the amount of throws that he has to make. A good performance from Justin Forset is critical to the success of the Ravens in New England. The Ravens are ranked 23rd in passing defense, and this would need to do better than that to stop the Brady-Gronk combo. The Brady-Gronk combo is one of the most effective combos in the league and is on par with the other great QB-receiver combos in the NFL, like Stafford-Megatron, Romo-Dez and Manning-DT. Even if the Ravens are able to stop or limit Gronk, they still have to deal with Brandon Lafell, who has stepped up this year and acted as the deep threat wide receiver the Patriots missed since the Randy Moss days. The Ravens right now are a solid team, and they would be tough to beat if they can run on the Patriots as effectively as they have all year. The passing game is superb for the Ravens and their defense is still efficient with Terrell Suggs leading the way. The Ravens may be the hardest opponent for the Patriots to face in this postseason.
In terms of areas for improvement, the Patriots have a lot of more ground to cover. For instance, since Joe Flacco likes to throw deep ball, the Patriots secondary will have a lot of space to cover and Devin McCourty will need to make sure Torrey Smith and Steve Smith don’t get behind him. Joe Flacco has not thrown an INT in his last game against the Steelers, and he was turnover-free last time he played in Foxboro. If the Patriots want to disturb Joe Flacco’s, then they would need to pressure him in the pocket and force him to throw bad passes to lead to INTs. The Patriots pass rush needs to keep Flacco uneasy and newcomers Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner need to shut down the Raven WRs. If the Patriots defense can pressure Joe Flacco and handle Steve Smith, then the Patriots can limit the offensive threat from the Ravens. Patriots also need to establish a running game. The Patriots are ranked 18th in Rushing yards in the league and they will need to improve on this area if they want to keep the Ravens defense on their toes. The Patriots may have some spark in rushing from Jonas Gray, who had over 200 yards of rushing against the Colts and has re-emerged from Bill Belichick’s doghouse. The stifle the Ravens pass rush, the Patriots should try to run right at them with Gray or LeGarrette Blount or get around them with screen passes to Shane Vereen. The Ravens have been tough for the Patriots as of late and in the last three games, the Patriots have been 1-2 and threw 7 interceptions. Even though this is a new Ray Lewis-less Ravens defense, it still has the ability to get to the quarterback without needing to blitz, and their strong defensive line could be a problem for the Patriots soft interior offensive line. If the Patriots can establish the running game and pressure Joe Flacco into making bad throws, they could avenge their AFC title loss from two years ago.
Despite the Ravens being designed to take advantage of the Patriots weaknesses, the 2014 Patriots are much improved from their previous incarnations. They have two very good corners and a better receiving core. More importantly, they are healthy, like two years ago when they had numerous injuries to critical players like Aqib Talib. The Ravens will make this interesting though and despite having home-field advantage, New England will run into some problems, whether it be Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil grabbing sacks, Torrey and Steve Smith hauling a long ball or Justin Forsett slashing though the Pats defense. However, the Patriots are loaded up on offense and defense and Bill Belichick will take away what the Ravens do best and force them away from their game-plan. This will be a close game, and it could even head to overtime. I would have the Patriots winning 35-30.
Seattle Seahawks vs Carolina Panthers by Robert Petrosyan
When looking at the positions in which the two teams are in, the Seahawks and Panthers could not be more different. The Seattle Seahawks are the defending champions and hold home-field advantage in the NFC. Meanwhile, the Panthers are the second team to make the playoffs with a sub .500 record and were able to beat the banged up Arizona Cardinals at home in the Wild Card round. However, when looking at how these two teams play football, they become much more similar. Each team has a dominant rush offense, running quarterback and smash-mouth defense. Also, they have entered the playoffs with strong momentum after posting disappointing records in the midseason. The Seahawks finished with a six game winning streaks after starting 6-4 and the Panthers finished with a four game winning streak (five including the playoffs) after starting out 3-7-1 and looking like they’d be picking in the top eight as opposed to playing in January. Historically, Seahawks Panthers games have been close slugfests, but let’s see if the same will happen this weekend at Qwest Field.
The Carolina Panthers came out on top in the mysteriously terrible NFC South by getting hot at the right time despite a terrible start. It’s tough to explain why a division with three projected playoff teams could be so terrible. And it’s incredible how the NFL worst Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in playoff contention into December. However, it isn’t too hard to see why the Panthers surged into the playoffs. In the Panthers’ last five games, running back Jonathan Stewart has averaged 104.8 rushing yards per game. After being muddled in one of the most crowded rushing committees in the NFL, Stewart was given increased carries following DeAngelo Williams’ injury and he took that chance and ran with it (pun intended). To have a chance in Seattle, the Panthers must get Stewart established early to give the offence more flexibility. Another key cog of the rushing committee is quarterback Cam Newton. Newton is third among QBs in rushing yards and leads the Panthers in rushing touchdowns. He is a genuine dual threat quarterback, and despite a slow start, he too has gotten hot on the ground, rushing for at least fifty yards and scoring a rushing touchdown in each of his last three regular season games. As a passer, Newton was decent and mainly relied on rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin and veteran tight end Greg Olsen, each of whom have 1000 yards. However, the Panthers lack any reliable receivers beyond those two, and even Olsen and Benjamin will have a tough time getting open when covered by Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman. Speaking of defense, the Panthers defense comes in with probably the most momentum out of any of the Panthers units. Sure it was against the worn out Cardinals offense, but nevertheless, holding any playoff offense to 81 total yards has to be an impressive feat. However, trying to stop Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson is a different task altogether, and to win, linebacker Luke Kuechly must rally the defense to play at near perfection just like last week. The weak link for the Panthers has to be the offensive line. Despite Carolina’s turnaround, it’s still tough to forget the Monday Night disaster of Week 10 in which Cam was sacked nine times. The Seahawks don’t necessarily have a world beating pass rush, but with the Legion of Boom covering Carolina’s receivers, Cam Newton will need a lot of time in the pocket
to find his man, and it remains to be seen whether the Panthers’ patchwork offensive line can keep him upright. What the Panthers must do is take the pressure off of Cam Newton and use the run-heavy game-plan that has gotten them this far.
Despite a 9-1 start by division rival Arizona, Seattle was able to take the division and the NFC by dominating in the Cards twice as part of their late season revival. The Seahawks showed the world that despite some poor showings, they are still the team to beat. A large share of that credit must go to running back Marshawn Lynch. Despite being constantly dogged by rumors of release, Lynch just did his job and ran for 1306 yards while scoring 17 total touchdowns. Lynch has shown the Seahawks that he is far too critical to the team to be let go and he should play an even more important role this weekend against Carolina by getting around 20 to 25 touches. Russell Wilson takes a backseat to Marshawn Lynch in this offense, but he has set a career high with 3475 yards passing and a career low of seven interceptions. Most importantly, Wilson had a breakthrough as a runner, leading all quarterbacks with 849 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. Coach Pete Carroll may add some read option plays in order to take advantage of the Panthers offense keying in on Lynch and if Wilson has room to run, watch out! Seattle doesn’t have the most prolific passing game, but if they get into passing situations, Paul Richardson, the rookie wide receiver, might be the player to watch. He was in the shadows for most of the year, but he has blossomed as of late and could be an important part of the offense come playoff time. You can’t really talk about the Seahawks without their defense though. The Seahawks allowed the least yards and points in the NFL and their sack, fumble recovery and interception numbers have surged during their winning streak. Even without Brandon Browner, the Legion of Boom still held opposing passers to 186 yards per game and was the only unit to allow less than 200 yards per game in the air. The Panthers don’t have a very prolific or deep receiving core, so that will leave Earl Thomas free to make big plays. The one big concern for the Seahawks would have to be the rugged and close nature of previous games in this series. Carolina and Seattle match up very well with each other, and the physical teams had a score of 16-12, 12-7 and 13-9 in their last three games. While Seattle won each of the matchups, it was too close for comfort, and one untimely turnover could easily swing results the other way. With these tough and defensive teams, there will be loads of them on both sides. It is, however, worth mentioning that the last three games were in Carolina and this match will take place in Seattle with the 12th Man.
Even with home-field advantage, this will be a hard-fought game for the Seahawks just due to the style of play. Both of these teams are in the top five for time of possession and in the last three games they were in the bottom five for pass attempts. Neither Russell Wilson nor Cam Newton will be making too many throws in this game, and it will be a boring day for the receivers. Seattle receivers have always lacked targets while the Panthers receivers will struggle to do much against the Seahawks secondary. The key to the game lies on the ground, and simply put, Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson are better built for such a game than Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton. Seattle has the stronger offensive line to support its running game and has the better run defense to stop Carolina’s runners. Beast Mode and the Legion of Boom will prove to be too much for the Panthers, and while Carolina will make things tough and ugly, Seattle should still pull out the win in a low-scoring and turnover-laden game. Seattle 17 – 7 Carolina.