Seattle Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons
I would love nothing more than for the Falcons to bust through their “playoff choker” label and to give the Seahawks a much needed smack in the mouth. Seattle continued their season long trend of playing disrespectful punk football last week against Washington and got away with it because the so-called football gods apparently decided RG3 is too good for Dan Snyder. I’d love to see the Seahawks get smashed in the mouth.
Unfortunately, I don’t see it happening. Atlanta’s offense is one-dimensional; Michael Turner appears to be running on fumes and Jacquizz Rodgers does not a running game make. This will be especially true against a Seattle defense that is decent against the run.
The biggest matchup here will be that of the Seahawks vaunted (and dirty) cornerback tandem of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner taking on Atlanta’s dynamic receiving duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones. It’s hard to imagine Sherman and Browner holding these two down all game, but it’s also hard to imagine Jones and White just going nuts against this level of competition. Unfortunately for Atlanta, their offense is pretty reliant on those two being highly productive. Tony Gonzalez is still a very good red-zone target, but its hard to imagine them consistently moving the ball down the field if Jones and White are somewhat neutralized.
There’s cause for concern for Atlanta on the other side of the ball as well. John Abraham looks like he will suit up, but a 34 year-old end who has always been reliant on foot speed playing on a bum ankle isn’t necessarily a recipe for pass rushing dominance. The Falcons defense has quietly been pretty good all season, but Abraham is their best pass rusher by far. If he’s limited, it could be a huge blow to their defense, especially going against an offense that has dramatically improved throughout the year and an offensive tackle (Russell Okung) that has shut down many of the leagues top pass rushers this year.
Ultimately the Seahawks are much more balanced and happen to matchup well against the Falcons strengths. This should be enough to overcome playing on the road. Seahawks get the win.
Houston Texans @ New England Patriots
This won’t be a blowout. New England is certainly not without flaws and Houston is much better than Dan Shaughnessy thinks (Dan Shaughnessy is awful).
However, it’s hard to imagine a team quarterbacked by Matt Schaub coming into Foxboro and beating Brady’s Patriots. Schaub just looked plain bad last week, as the Texans outlasted the Bengals by leaning heavily on Arian Foster and their running game.
The problem for Houston is that New England is pretty strong against the run. Limiting the running game kills Houston; much of their passing success comes from play action. Schaub looks good when the threat of a running game neutralizes the pass rush and creates open seams for his receivers. When the run is taken away (something New England managed to do the first time these two teams played), Houston ends up looking very limited on offense. Schaub begins to press, the playbook gets limited to short, predictable passes, and things like Leon Hall’s pick-six wind up happening.
The big question for this game is injuries. Both teams have a ton of them, but New England managed to get a much needed bye week to rest thanks to these Texans losing to the Colts on the season’s final day. The Texans defense looked pretty good last week but did so going against a so-so offense and quarterback. New England thrived in their last meeting because they were able to hit the big play over the top. If Houston can prevent those kinds of plays the game will become much closer.
However, can they prevent that? Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker both played through injuries throughout the season; they both just got a week to rest up. The Gronk is back and will making matching up with the Pats that much more difficult, even though questions continue to persist about his health. The Patriots haven’t been this close to having their full ensemble of weapons since Week One; even if they aren’t all 100%, they should still be a load to stop.
In the end, there’s just too much that needs to break Houston’s way for them to steal this one on the road. Tom Brady needs to have an off day, the running game has to neutralize Vince Wilfork and create seams for Foster to exploit and Schaub has to be, well, better than he actually is. Even if a few things do break Houston’s way, Schaub hasn’t been playing well enough to capitalize. Unless that changes in a hurry, you can expect the Brady and the Pats to advance to another AFC Championship game. (I’m nervous about making this pick now because of the performance of my picks for Saturday’s game, gonna stick with my guns though).