NFL divisional playoffs preview: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and QBs highlight second round
We're down to the NFL's version of the "Elite Eight" -- the divisional round of the playoffs. Here is a primer of those four matchups:
Baltimore (11-6) at New England (12-4), 4:35 pm ET, NBC
Winning in Foxboro won't be easy, but the Ravens may have the best chance of any remaining AFC playoff team. For one thing, Baltimore isn't lacking for confidence after last Saturday's 30-17 first-round triumph at Pittsburgh. Baltimore's 10 postseason road victories are tied with Green Bay for the most in NFL history even though the franchise didn't exist until 1996. One of those wins came in the 2012 AFC Championship Game, which will surely be revisited in the media this week because of the result and how some Ravens players celebrated the victory.
En route to the locker room, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs screamed at reporters to tell the Patriots to "have fun at the Pro Bowl" and then added, "Arrogant f******."
Suggs resisted taking another swipe at New England following the Steelers win, but he did infer the NFL wanted a Patriots-Seattle Super Bowl and that the Ravens would "try and disrupt some people's plans." To do that, Baltimore needs the same caliber of performance it had against the Steelers to topple a Patriots squad that won 10 of 11 games before resting starters in the season-ending loss against Buffalo.
Carolina (8-8-1) at Seattle (12-4), 8:15 pm ET, FOX
Don't blame the Seahawks if they're bummed that Dallas posted a 24-20 comeback victory Sunday over Detroit. The Lions would have come to Seattle had they won. Instead, the Seahawks have to face a hotter opponent that has given them fits the past two seasons. Seattle won both of those matchups in Carolina but only by margins of 12-7 (2013) and 13-9 (2014). While their schemes and personnel are markedly different, the Seahawks and Panthers share plenty of similarities.
Most notable are the run-first offensive attacks spearheaded by two of the NFL's top mobile quarterbacks (Seattle's Russell Wilson and Carolina's Cam Newton) and nasty defenses. The Seahawks became only the second team in NFL history to lead the league in fewest points allowed for three consecutive seasons. The Panthers are surrendering an average of 11.8 points in their current five-game winning streak, including Saturday's 27-16 win over Arizona that featured a self-induced Panthers safety to help run out the clock. The Seahawks have lost only two home games the last two seasons.
Dallas (13-4) at Green Bay (12-4), 1:05 pm ET, FOX
It won't exactly be the Ice Bowl redux, but the Cowboys are headed into frigid and hostile territory where the early-week forecast calls for a kickoff temperature in the high teens. The Packers have chilled the opposition at Lambeau Field all season by posting an 8-0 home record. The Cowboys, though, finished as the NFL's only team with a perfect road record. Dallas had a much tougher time in its 24-20 first-round playoff win over Detroit than the Packers did when beating the Lions by 10 points in Week 17 to clinch the NFC North.
A major key to this game will be Aaron Rodgers' health. He limped through the Lions game after aggravating a calf injury, yet still threw two touchdown passes while completing 77.3 percent of his passes. Rodgers also hasn't thrown an interception at home since Dec. 2, 2012. The Cowboys must do a better job protecting quarterback Tony Romo, who was sacked six times by the Lions. However, Romo deserves some of the blame for holding onto the football for too long against a strong Detroit pass rush until leading a second-half comeback.
Indianapolis (12-5) at Denver (12-4), 4:40 pm, CBS
This may be the game in which Peyton Manning unofficially passes the elite-quarterback torch to his successor in Indianapolis. But the Colts and Andrew Luck will have to pry that title from Manning's hand with a better performance than in the 2014 season-opener. The Colts fell behind by 21 points before a fourth-quarter rally fell short in a 31-24 loss.
Since then, Luck proceeded to break the Colts' single-season passing record once held by Manning while carrying the Indianapolis offense on his right shoulder. Luck was stellar again in Sunday's 26-10 home win over Cincinnati, completing 31 of 44 passes for 376 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Manning had another outstanding campaign in 2014 himself although questions persist about whether his arm strength will be good enough in January to lift Denver back into the Super Bowl. There is no doubt that Denver's defense is much improved from 2013. The emergence of unheralded running back C.J. Anderson has brought more balance into the Broncos offense. Denver also does enjoy a true home-field advantage with a perfect record at Sports Authority Field during the regular season.