NFL divisional round cheat sheet
Every single football fan without a 410 or 713 area code seems to want Brady vs. Manning next weekend, but I’m not quite ready to etch CBS’s dream AFC championship game in stone. I’m on an island this week, and this island is littered with crab cakes, Jim Palmer stories and Barry Levinson movie references.
This island may have some destiny on it, too.
Yes, I like the Ravens to upset the Broncos in Denver on Saturday afternoon. And it’s not even because I am blown away by Baltimore. Truthfully, I’m just not sold on Denver.
I’m not supposed to pour ice-cold water all over what the Broncos have accomplished this season. After all, Peyton Manning’s re-emergence and the silencing of his doubters has been one of football’s great stories this year. After undergoing four surgeries and missing 18 months of football, Manning was the best quarterback in the league during the 2012 regular season.
When the Broncos were 4-3, I predicted in this very column that they’d win nine straight games to finish out the year. They did. And they did so in dominant fashion, too, becoming the first team in NFL history to win 10 straight games by at least seven points. The Broncos were so overpowering over the season’s second half that it’s difficult to recall that, back in September, this was a very average team.
Denver was beaten on a Monday night in Atlanta in Week 2, handled at home by Houston in Week 4 and outcoached and outmanned by New England in Week 5. Since that Week 5 game against the Patriots -- and I hate to break this -- they haven’t really played anyone.
Outside of Baltimore and Cincinnati — two teams that were struggling mightily prior to facing Denver — the Broncos’ opponents since Week 5 had a combined record of 32-64 this season. Sweeping the NFC North or the NFC East is a major accomplishment. A statement. Beating Oakland, Kansas City, and San Diego twice each isn’t exactly sacking Rome.
The NFL did the Broncos no favors scheduling the bulk of their toughest opponents in the first five weeks of the NFL season. And though the scheduling gods would never admit to this, that was likely done intentionally. There was intrigue around Manning’s return; so much intrigue that the NFL propped Manning and the Broncos up as an unofficial “America’s Team” in the season’s first two months. They faced they four toughest opponents before Columbus Day, and they were featured on national television in each of their first seven games:
Week 1 vs. Pittsburgh — Sunday night
Week 2 vs. Atlanta — Monday night
Week 3 vs. Houston — 4 p.m. ET national CBS game
Week 4 vs. Oakland — 4 p.m. ET national CBS game
Week 5 vs. New England — 4 p.m. ET national CBS game
Week 6 vs. San Diego — Monday night
Week 7 — BYE
Week 8 vs. New Orleans — Sunday night
Since that stretch, the schedule hasn't exactly been Murderer’s Row. Yes, the Broncos blew all these teams out. And sure, Manning and the defense looked as good as they had all season against the Ravens in Week 15. But the Ravens have been tested and knocked around over the past few months. They’ve been in close games. They’ve been forced to dig deep and pull victories out. They had to beat a good Giants team in a must-win game and did. They had to beat a hot Colts team a week ago and did.
The Ravens are, without a doubt, battle tested. The Broncos? They’ve been in cruise control since October. If Saturday’s game is close in the second half, are we certain the Broncos will respond under pressure? I know Baltimore’s been through those wars this year. Denver? Eh. It feels like it’s been decades since the Broncos have faced any sort of adversity. For the first time all season, Baltimore’s actually healthy on defense, too. With the exception of Lardarius Webb and potentially linebacker Danell Ellerbe, all of the Ravens' key defensive stars will be in action, ready to go. Last Sunday’s 24-9 win over the Colts was the only game so far this season in which the Ravens have had Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Ed Reed in the lineup together. They all played well. Younger veterans Paul Kruger and Corey Graham played even better.
Baltimore isn’t supposed to win Saturday’s game in Denver. If Las Vegas sportsbooks are any sort of indication, this game’s not even supposed to be close. But I covered a Steelers team that rode a veteran’s last ride into Indianapolis and beat Peyton Manning in the 2005 divisional round. I covered a Giants team last year that waltzed into Lambeau and danced out as victors. I was in that Ravens locker room on Sunday. There was a certain unity — a certain desperation — that reminded me of both of those teams.
I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I like Baltimore on Saturday.
Who’s with me?
(Crickets ... )
That’s cool. I’ve got my crab cakes and a Brady Anderson jersey.
Wild card week record: 3-1
Overall playoff record: 3-1
Divisional round trivia question of the week: Alex Smith was the first quarterback selected in the 2005 NFL Draft. Aaron Rodgers was the second quarterback selected in the same draft. Who was the third quarterback taken?
Baltimore at Denver: For the shoddy reasons listed above, I’m taking the Ravens. Peyton Manning has won his last nine games against Baltimore, including both playoff games. Throw it all out the window. Here’s your big upset special.
The Pick: Ravens 27, Broncos 20
Green Bay at San Francisco: I’m riding the Packers all the way to the Super Bowl this year. After a somewhat surprising shaky start to the regular season, the Packers have finally found themselves and are peaking at the right time. They’re healthy across the board, with Charles Woodson, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings and Randall Cobb all making major contributions last weekend. With a younger, less experienced team, I’d be skeptical with this one being on the road in Candlestick. But this team is used to this. After all, Green Bay won three road games en route to the Lombardi Trophy just two years ago. Justin Smith is the X-factor in this one. If he’s not 100 percent and is not his usual self, I like Aaron Rodgers to get the best of an excellent San Francisco defense.
The Pick: Packers 27, 49ers 23
Seattle at Atlanta: There should be an official rule on quarterback nicknames: You shouldn’t be allowed to have one until you win a playoff game. So RG3? You’re still Robert Griffin III. For now. And Matt Ryan? You’re not “Matty Ice” or “The Matt-ador” or anything else until you do something in the month of January. Despite a 33-4 record at home in his career and a Pro Bowl nod this year, no one’s buying Ryan as a top-tier quarterback until he actually wins a game that matters. I’ve been hating on the Falcons all year long, even saying, “Show me something in January” after a 34-0 victory over the defending Super Bowl champs. Well, January is finally here. And guess what? I’m taking the Seahawks. I think Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman match up well with Julio Jones and Roddy White, and I’m just not convinced these Falcons are tough enough to win a big game yet. If Ryan wins this one, I promise I’ll refer to him as “Matty Ice” or whatever clever nickname Falcons fans want me to call him next week.
The Pick: Seahawks 29, Falcons 16
Houston at New England: Arian Foster’s over-the-top concern with what Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy had to say about the Texans threw me off a bit. The writer wrote, “All the Patriots have to do is beat the terrible Texans” in his column last Sunday. Foster then used the column as his avatar on Twitter. I don’t know. Could you imagine Tom Brady or Vince Wilfork doing that? Matt Schaub won his first career playoff start last week, but there was no indication that this team is any better than the squad that lost 42-14 at Gillette Stadium a month ago. The Patriots will win, and they’ll win big.
The Pick: Patriots 31, Texans 16
Divisional round trivia answer: Jason Campbell, taken just one pick after Aaron Rodgers, was the third quarterback chosen in the 2005 NFL Draft. The fourth? Charlie Frye out of Akron.