Baltimore Ravens @ Denver Broncos
The jig is up. Ray Lewis and the Ravens got a relatively easy win last week against the overmatched Colts despite not playing particularly well themselves. Their reward is a trip to Denver to face Peyton Manning’s red-hot Broncos, a team that had no problems dispatching them less than a month ago.
Denver will not have killer drops on key third downs. Denver will not settle for field goals every time they reach the red zone. Denver will not let Anquan Boldin turn back the clock six years. Denver will capitalize on your mistakes. Denver will force you to match them, not vice-versa.
Denver is not the Colts.
Of course, there is always the possibility that Peyton Manning has a stinker. Manning’s postseason resume is less-than-stellar; he has an overall 9-10 playoff record and his one Super Bowl win was strangely more the result of a strong running game and defense. However, Baltimore doesn’t appear to have enough to capitalize on a subpar showing from Manning. Joe Flacco doesn’t inspire confidence in the offense (plus he looks just like Bert from Sesame Street) while the defense is merely a shade of its former self. They’ll fight, but Denver is too good and well-rounded on both sides of the ball. Denver gets the win and sets up an AFC Championship for the ages.
Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers
The Packers got here by easily beating a one-dimensional Vikings team (its safe to say the calls to bench Christian Ponder for Joe Webb will not be repeated next season). As a result, they’ll get a chance to avenge this years Week One loss to the Niners, albeit against a different quarterback with a less boring name and significantly more tattoos.
The “great offense against great defense” storyline will dominate the promos, but this game largely hinges on the health of stalwart defensive end Justin Smith. Coach Harbaugh is confident enough to be a weirdo about Smith’s status (although “God willing and the creak don’t rise, he’s going to play” is a distinct second to “gobble gobble turkey from jive turkey gobblers” on the goofy quote spectrum). However, just because 94 will be out there doesn’t mean the Niners will have the guy capable of doing this.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine Smith being close to the same player while playing with a triceps injury that will need to be surgically repaired in the offseason. I’ve already stated my opinion on Smith and his impact on the Niners D; with him they are dominant, without him they are vulnerable.
I simply can’t see Smith being effective enough with this injury for the Niners D to reach the extremely high level they’ll need to beat the Packers. Aaron Rodgers is in the midst of one of those unconscious streaks where he looks like he could hit 35 yard post-dig routes in stride in his sleep. Most importantly, he’s playing smart; he didn’t get impatient against the solid Vikings D and was content to take what they gave him, eventually dinking and dunking them to death. The Niners are tougher to string drives together against and Colin Kaepernick will make a few plays, but Rodgers will prove too much for the banged-up Niners.