Ravens @ Broncos

A rough way to start the weekend’s football action, as this is by far the least intriguing matchup on the card. We saw these teams play less than a month ago, and it wasn’t pretty. The Ravens hosted that matchup, and they’ll now have to go to Denver for this one. The elevation could be an issue for an aging Baltimore defense, as the team makes the trip to Mile High for the first time since 2006.

If the eyeball test isn’t enough for you, there’s this little thing about Peyton Manning owning the Ravens. Peyton began his career with a pair of losses to the Ravens (the most recent of which came in 2001), and he’s followed those up by ringing off nine straight wins against them, two of which came in the playoffs. The average margin of victory in those games was 14.0 points.

Peyton threw for 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions in those games against far better defensive units than the one he’ll face on Saturday. Most notable for our purposes is that in the last eight contests against the Ravens, Peyton’s team is 8-0 ATS. There’s no question that Baltimore’s defense has taken a step backward over the years, likely making things even easier on the middle Manning brother, and he’ll also get a little help from one of his friends. Knowshon Moreno accounted for 118 yards from scrimmage and a score on just 23 touches in the first meeting with Baltimore this year, at one point hurdling a future Hall of Famer like he was a tackling dummy.

The Ravens are good when they play at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens stink when they play anywhere else. That’s all you need to know.

Well, I guess I can elaborate on that a little. Under John Harbaugh the Ravens are 33-7 at home and 21-19 on the road. Joe Flacco struggled against the Broncos in Week 15, and he’ll have even more trouble in Denver with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil coming at him. Flacco was able to pick on a vulnerable Colts pass defense last weekend, but that won’t be the case against Champ Bailey and company.

In the first go around, Flacco completed only seven of 15 pass attempts for 78 yards by halftime, and for good measure, he also tossed a pick-six that was returned 98 yards by Chris Harris for a touchdown. Ray Rice didn’t do any better, gaining only 38 yards on 12 carries against a Denver rush defense that allowed the second-fewest yards per carry during the regular season.

A funny stat I’ve seen used by Ravens supporters this week is that the Broncos are 2-3 against playoff teams this season. Strength of schedule is always something to factor in at this time of year, but the reality in this case is that those three losses all came over the first five weeks of the season, and Manning’s first month of football after missing all of last season. The Broncos enter this game having won 11 games in a row, going 9-1-1 ATS in those contests. Nine of Denver’s 13 wins came by double digits, and I believe they are poised to walk all over the Ravens. Make sure you shop around for a good number on this game, as there are still some 9.5’s out there.

Prediction: Broncos 28, Ravens 10

The play: 3* Broncos -9.5, don’t settle for a -10!


Packers @ 49ers

The NFL’s all-Harbaugh Saturday continues with the 49ers and Packers playing in the late game. These teams met in Week 1, a game which San Francisco won 30-22, but a couple of garbage time touchdowns for the Packers hid how badly they were beaten. Remember, the replacement officials were around for that game and allowed a Randall Cobb punt return touchdown that should not have counted.

The 49ers are 14-3-1 at Candlestick Park under Jim Harbaugh. It’s easy to forget that if Kyle Williams didn’t fumble away two punts against the Giants a year ago, this team would have been in the Super Bowl. Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore have the 49er offense rolling, and Kaepernick offers up a major upgrade over Joe Webb. Both Kaepernick and Webb pose a threat to run with the ball, but Kaepernick is without question the better thrower, and he’s shown he can do it against the league’s elite quarterbacks, accounting for six total touchdowns in wins over Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

Green Bay was able to limit what Adrian Peterson was able to do last week, but there was no threat of the pass in that game, so they were able to focus in on him. Green Bay ranked 24th against the run during the regular season, allowing 4.5 yards per carry, and that’s going to be a problem against San Francisco. The 49ers ran the ball on 50.8 percent of their offensive plays during the regular season, and there’s little doubt they’ll find success on the ground in this one.

On the other side of the ball, the 49er defense should get a big boost from the return of Justin Smith. Under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the 49ers have allowed an average of just 13.9 points per home game.

Aaron Rodgers is probably the best quarterback in the league right now, but other than that, the 49ers have the Packers beat at just about every position. The Packer offensive line has had trouble keeping Rodgers upright, adding three sacks to his league-leading total last week. Don Barclay has been a disaster, and the 49ers will do all they can to make sure Aldon Smith is lined up across from him as often as possible.

It felt like DuJuan Harris had a pretty good game last week, but his numbers at the end of the game show that this team still can’t run the football. He gained only 47 yards on 17 carries for an average of 2.8 yards per carry. During the regular season the 49ers out-gained opponents by an average of 1.4 yards per carry. That’s the kind of thing that’s tough to overcome, even for a team that can sling the pigskin the way the Packers do.

In addition to the wide talent gap, the 49ers get to play this game at home, and get to do so after a week off. Rodgers will make some plays to keep the game close, but there’s just too much for Green Bay to overcome to pull off the upset.

Prediction: 49ers 24, Packers 20

The play: 3* 49ers -2.5 if I can find one by game-time, otherwise pass


Seahawks @ Falcons

I’ve been waiting all season to fade the Falcons in the playoffs, knowing that they morph into a bunch of chokers this time of year. But unfortunately they draw a team that bettors are equally eager to step up to the window for. The Seahawks have won their last six games by an average of 23.8 points, and probably bring a deeper squad to the Georgia Dome than the top-seeded Falcons.

Remember when Marshawn Lynch was unceremoniously shipped out of Buffalo? Well, since then he’s been doing things like this, and this, and this, and has just generally been one of the best rushers in football. Lynch’s future in Seattle looks bright as Russell Wilson — when he isn’t blocking for Lynch — represents a serious dual-threat at quarterback that opposing defenses have to be account for. Wilson rushed for 67 yards on eight carries last week against Washington while also throwing for a touchdown and picking up some big first downs through the air.

No one is a bigger fan of Wilson than Seattle head coach Pete Carroll, who would be wise to spend some time this week looking over tape of Cam Newton from his two games against Atlanta this season. In those contests, Newton threw for 502 yards, rushed for 202 more, and accounted for six total touchdowns. If Wilson can come anywhere near that type of production, the Seahawks will be golden, as Lynch should tear up an Atlanta rush defense that has allowed 4.5 yards per carry this season.

The Seahawks entered the playoffs at 3-5 on the road, but they’ve now won three straight road games. Rookies Wilson and linebacker Bobbie Wagner play big roles for them, so it’s not surprising that they’ve gotten better on the road as the season has progressed. Seattle has also managed to win five of their six games against playoff teams (if you count their game against Green Bay as a win).

Defensively, the team’s personnel matches up well with Atlanta’s strengths. Julio Jones and Roddy White will get to line up opposite of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor making Seattle’s defensive secondary the best in football.

Seattle’s biggest concern after last week’s game is at the defensive end position. Chris Clemons was lost for the remainder of the playoffs, and Bruce Irvin will start in his place. Irvin can get to the quarterback, but he has issues stopping the run. Unfortunately for the Falcons, their rush offense has been almost non-existent this season, with the mediocre plodder Michael Turner averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. Atlanta’s success has come through the air, where Matt Ryan, Jones, White, and Tony Gonzalez have formed the fourth most efficient passing offense in football. However, this weekend they get that imposing Seattle secondary that should give them plenty of trouble.

I would have rather seen another team make the trip to Atlanta for this game and gotten a more favorable spread, but I’ll settle for the three points with a Seahawks team that should win the game outright. Make sure to get the full three points as Atlanta has won by a field goal or less three times this season, so this is an especially important game to get that key number.

Prediction: Seahawks 24, Falcons 21

The play: 3* Seahawks +3, otherwise pass at +2.5 or less


Texans @ Patriots

If you believe Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe, then this is just the second of two bye weeks for the Patriots leading into the AFC title game. The Patriots do a great job of not providing any bulletin board material for their opponent, but Shaughnessy certainly didn’t do them any favors by riling up Arian Foster. The Patriots have had enough troubles of their own in the playoffs, going just 3-8 ATS as favorites of 4.5 or more points under Bill Belichick.

The first time these teams met, the Patriots were installed as favorites of under a touchdown. Only a month has passed since then, and the Patriots are now expected to win by double digits. A line move of multiple points over that time is crazy. The Texans have spent all week in film study trying to figure out a way to fix the issues that Tom Brady was able to exploit in Week 14. That will be the key to this game for the Texans—making the right adjustments.

Wade Phillips is the key too, and while I’m happy to see him out as Dallas’ head coach, he’s done a superb job as the Texans’ defensive coordinator. The adjustments he made a year ago during the playoffs were superb, forcing then-rookie quarterback Andy Dalton into a three-interception game without a touchdown. Before you go and explode on me in the comments section, let me say that I know Tom Brady is not Andy Dalton. I don’t think the Texans will be able to stop him altogether, but I do think the Texans have the right personnel to at least slow him down.

We all know that the Giants have set the blue print on how to slow Brady, and it starts with a terrific pass rush, which the Texans have. In the secondary, they’ll be healthier for this meeting than they were in the first meeting, and a healthy Johnathan Joseph will open up the types of calls Wade Phillips is able to make.

Brady threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season meeting between these teams, and the easy thing to do is assume he’ll do it again, because he’s Tom Brady. However, it’s worth noting that Joseph was playing in his first game back from an injury in that contest, and the Texans’ pass rush, which ranks fifth in football in sack rate (calculated by dividing number of sacks recorded into number of pass plays faced), took Brady down only once that night. For those of you who like a really good obscure stat: each of New England’s four losses this season came against a team with an above average sack rate. Here’s another: each of New England’s last six playoff losses have come against teams that they met in the regular season that year.

The Texans were not far off from claiming the top seed in the AFC, and I’m not prepared to write them off entirely in this game. A ten-point spread in today’s NFL essentially means a blowout is expected, and I don’t see that here. I’m bumping this game up to my highest rating of the weekend because I think the market has overreacted to the first meeting between these teams. I’m even going to put a little sprinkle on the money line for good measure.

Prediction: Patriots 20, Texans 17

The play: 4* Play on Texans +10 (SIA or BoDog), 0.5* Play on Texans ML +370