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NFL Predictions | AFC/NFC Divisional Playoff Round: NFL Football, NFL
By Massimo Russo: Co-Editor Silver and Blue Report & Hook’em Report

NFL, Dallas Cowboys, Cowboys, Massimo Russo For the first time since their historic “Ice Bowl” that was played 47 years ago, the Cowboys and Packers will square off in the NFL playoffs at Lambeau Field. Plus, the surging Panthers will look to shock the world against defending champion Seattle, while the Ravens and Patriots will meet at Foxboro. And rounding out all the AFC/NFC divisional round action, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning will go toe-to-toe in a QB duel at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

AFC/NFC Divisional Playoff Round
Saturday, January 10
AFC Divisional Playoff 4:35 PM ET – TV: NBC
(6) Baltimore Ravens 11-6 @ (1) New England Patriots 12-4
In New England’s losses of their recent postseason trips that stopped them from capturing the Lombardi Trophy, Tom Brady faced defensive schemes that were able to pressure him. In both of their Super Bowl matchups (2007 and 2011) with the Patriots, the Giants got after Brady from all angles – the same with Baltimore during their 2012 title run. Some players are missing from that Ravens defense, but the strategy and good deal of talent remains within Baltimore’s defense to disrupt the timing of top-level passing attacks. In their win over Pittsburgh to advance to the divisional round, Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees deployed some exotic blitzes towards Ben Roethlisberger, sacking him 5 times and forcing him into mistakes – a strategy that kept Pittsburgh’s offense out of rhythm. The lack of a running game surely ups Baltimore’s ability to harass the pocket, and without Le’Veon Bell’s presence, Pittsburgh’s offense became one-dimensional.

Terrell Suggs, Pernell McPhee, Elvis Dumervil, Haloti Ngata and Brandon Williams are Pees’ viable tools up front to generate havoc, and for New England to slow them, their ground attack, spread formations and extra-sets are going to be imperative to sustain drives and mitigate Baltimore from getting after Brady. When the Patriots have found success on the ground, they’ve done it by utilizing double tight end sets and having fullback James Develin lined up in the backfield as a lead-blocker for running backs LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray to run behind. Look for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to use these alignments at the point of attack, and X-Factor Shane Vereen as a flanker while motioning him around in the backfield to keep Baltimore’s back seven patrolling him. Vereen has proven to be a dangerous option in the passing game — drawing rushers away from the line of scrimmage, and he could find himself matched up on a linebacker against Baltimore’s base-packages, or a defensive back, favoring him when the Ravens are in Dime or Nickel.

Halting Brady’s best target in tight end Rob Gronkowksi will be Baltimore’s most difficult challenge, and I’m expecting Pees to place safety Will Hill, who’s been used against premier tight ends before. Against New Orleans in Week 12, Hill’s physicality at the line of scrimmage contained Jimmy Graham to just 47 yards receiving, highlighted by an interception return for a touchdown on an intended pass to the bona fide tight end. For Hill and the rest of Baltimore’s susceptible secondary to win their man-on-man battles – it’s going to be up to Pees’ front to get into the backfield to pressure Brady up the middle, limiting him from being able to step up in the pocket to deliver the football — and to flush him outside the hash-marks. Brady isn’t the most mobile of quarterbacks, but if New England’s ground game produces, Brady will be able to work off the play-action game — keeping him in good standards to find Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola on passing downs.

In offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s system, Baltimore’s zone-stretch run concepts are what New England’s defense needs to keep from functioning. The Ravens run the football towards the edges often, and it’s going to be vital for New England linebacker Jamie Collins to hit his gaps and run sideline-to-sideline to contain Justin Forsett from getting into the second level of New England’s defense. When Forsett and the Ravens’ running game is effective on zone-runs, it sets up the moving pocket, play-action elements for the betterment of Joe Flacco to get the football to receivers Torrey Smith and Steve Smith Sr. for big plays. Getting the play-action going for Flacco can also isolate New England’s linebackers, and if isolated, tight end Owen Daniels will be able to get behind them for Flacco to connect with in the middle of the field. Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner are dynamite in defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s man-based defense at cornerback. Revis and Browner can hang with the best of them, and they’ll press Flacco’s threats on the outside. Keeping both Smith’s lined up in the same spots will only help New England’s stout secondary against the pass, so moving receivers around, deploying stack-sets and using some motioning should be part of Kubiak’s offensive plan. Baltimore’s defensive front can ruin a game for any offense, but I’m favoring New England to do enough on the ground, forcing Baltimore’s safeties down in the box, and for Brady to take advantage of favorable singled up matchups.
Pick: Patriots 31, Ravens 23                

NFC Divisional Playoff 8:15 PM ET – TV: FOX
(4) Carolina Panthers 8-8-1 @ (1) Seattle Seahawks 12-4
It’s just about identical when examining these two, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The Panthers and Seahawks may have a distance in separation in the win and loss column, but the physical style of play on both sides of the ball makes this an intriguing bout. It’s an option-on-option square off, and which defense could contain the ground game best and limit option and play-fakes most. Carolina lost a big part of their defensive line when Star Lotulelei broke his foot against the Cardinals last week in the Wild-Card round. Still, Carolina has some important pieces on defense that could control the zone-read concepts of Seattle’s offense that’s centralized around the mobility of Russell Wilson. To situate his unit to minimize Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch from gashing Carolina’s defense on the ground, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s zone-based scheme may need to take a step into the avenue of stacking the box often. However, McDermott needs to choose wisely when sending extra rushers towards the best quarterback in football when it comes to eluding the rush and making plays with his feet.

Not to say that sending pressure needs to be taken out of the equation, but most imperatively, Carolina’s linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, who are outstanding against the run and able to cut off the angles, need to spy on Wilson and chase him down while being forces to limit Lynch from breaking tackles for large runs. Bene Benwikere and Josh Norman have been solid in coverage for a revamped Carolina secondary, but if the front of McDermott’s defense allows the play-fakes to operate in strong fashion, the boot-game could catch Carolina’s linebackers and safeties out of position, putting Wilson in position to improvise and throw on the run – a trait of Wilson’s game that works best for Seattle’s aerial attack. Seattle’s receivers Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson, Ricardo Lockette and Kevin Norwood aren’t game-breaking pass-catchers in offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s system, but that doesn’t make the playbook shortened to spread opposing defenses out. Seattle has used spread alignments, and don’t be surprised to see them lined up in empty-back 5-receiver sets, forcing Carolina’s defense to play more coverage-based concepts. Running vertical routes and sending tight ends (Luke Willson, Cooper Helfet and Tony Moeaki) down the seams will place Carolina’s back seven with their backs turned on Wilson, giving the speedy quarterback the luxury to take off with his feet.

Carolina’s read-option ground game has been stellar with a healthy Jonathan Stewart leading the backfield of offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s triple-threat, multidimensional scheme. Shula’s offense doesn’t take many shots over the top, and other than Kelvin Benjamin, there isn’t enough ammunition in the passing game to present any major challenges for Seattle safety Early Thomas – the best center fielder in the game. Seattle’s defensive coordinator Dan Quinn should waste no time on deploying stacked boxes with strong safety Kam Chancellor in his linebacker/defensive end role up at the line of scrimmage. Chancellor, along with his counterparts at linebacker (Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Bruce Irvin) will be the integral players of Seattle’s defense to stymie Carolina’s rushing attack from being productive. On the edge to contain Newton on the option and to jam tight end Greg Olsen off the snap, Chancellor will be the deciphering element of Quinn’s defense. Richard Sherman and company in the secondary should be able to keep everything in front of them, using their man-to-man zone-concepts, and funneling Carolina’s receivers towards the middle of the field. To help better protect Newton and neutralize Seattle’s mean front, Shula’s offense will roll with double tight end sets as extra blockers on non-option running plays. Ultimately, in order for Newton to find passing lanes, Carolina needs to establish the run and keep Newton out of third and longs. This matchup has all the implications to be a physical hard fought slugfest, and in that case, Seattle gets the upper hand to deliver the knockout punch in the final quarter. Unless Newton makes a decent amount of plays with feet and is able to stretch Seattle’s defense, Seattle will host next Sunday’s NFC title game at CenturyLink Field.
Pick: Seahawks 23, Panthers 13

Sunday, January 11
NFC Divisional Playoff 1:05 PM ET – TV: FOX
(3) Dallas Cowboys 13-4 @ (2) Green Bay Packers 12-4
Let me start this “Classic Ice Bowl II” matchup off with an astonishing stretch the Packers have gotten from quarterback play. As you all know, Aaron Rodgers is arguably the games best signal-caller, and during his last 16 starts at Lambeau Field, including the playoffs – Rodgers has thrown a wowing 38 touchdown passes to 0 interceptions. Yikes, Rod Marinelli, your defense has its work cut out for them. Not to take away the credit of Marinelli upping the attitude, adjustments in scheme and play coordinating the Cowboys’ defense, but what’s helped their overachieving unit after being putrid a year ago is having one of the best ground attacks to give their defense a breather — keeping opposing offenses on the sidelines. And it’s no secret – DeMarco Murray and the Cowboys’ top-notch offensive line needs to bring their boxing gloves to the Frozen Tundra.

Green Bay’s defensive front doesn’t present the same talent as Detroit’s on being able to rely on their base-sets to stuff the run and get after Tony Romo, but in Dom Capers’ scheme – his linebackers (Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk, Sam Barrington, Mike Neal and Nick Perry) are the primary factors of being able to neutralize Murray and put Romo behind in the down and distance. Rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has improved Green Bay’s secondary as a trust-worthy center fielder when Capers has deployed single-high looks on the deep end of his defense. Rolling with a lone safety means having less defenders against the pass and extra rushers at the line of scrimmage, and When Romo has faced blitzing fronts, his proficiency has floundered. Capers knows better to not have Murray and Dallas’ rushing attack be the setting stone against his group, and to keep Romo from staying upright and getting the play-action pass going – stacking the box will be vital for Green Bay’s chances to keep Murray from gashing their defense. Strong safety Morgan Burnett has been a solid asset as an in the box safety, contributing against the run – much to do with having Clinton Dix being able to hover over the top to defend the deep-ball, and you can bank on Capers having Burnett be his X-factor to keep Murray from getting into the second level of Green Bay’s defense.

To combat Capers’ pressure-front-looks – look for Dallas’ offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to align his offense in three-receiver sets. These formations were able to get Murray his best production against Detroit’s defense, and to force Green Bay’s defense into Nickel packages — the same approach would be ideal to give Murray better running lanes on zone runs when drawing Green Bay’s defenders into focusing in coverage. Slot receiver Cole Beasley and tight end Jason Witten have been dynamite middle options for Romo on third down in Dallas’ five-game winning streak. And with most of the attention Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams will be getting on the outside, manned by Tramon Williams and Sam Shields – watch Romo check off Green Bay’s defensive backs on the boundary and then go to the middle to find Witten and Beasley. That’s been the difference with Romo this season – being better at checking off safeties and being able to dictate open receivers, rather than extending plays before his back issues. Time in the pocket will help Romo keep the chains moving, and only pressure to disrupt his timing will help Green Bay’s defense get off the field on third down.

Despite a slight tear in left calf, Rodgers will get the go, but how effective he’ll be remains to be seen. With that in mind, I’d expect offensive coordinator Tom Clements to lean more on power back Eddie Lacy to try to establish the run. Doing so will keep Marinelli’s defense with more box defenders, forcing man-on-man battles — giving Rodgers’ precise route-running receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb favorable opportunities in open space. Nobody is better on double moves on the outside than Nelson, and if Green Bay catches Dallas in more single-deep-safety looks, the deep-post-route opportunities for Rodgers to connect with Nelson will open up. Safety help over the top from Dallas’ J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church will be imperative to diminish vertical attacks from Rodgers – helping cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick’s assignments on Nelson and Cobb, but making Green Bay’s offense one-dimensional by negating the run won’t be an easy task for Marinelli’s defense to keep Rodgers’ lethal-threats on the underneath routes. Running wide formations helps Nelson and Green Bay’s receivers on slants and quick screens – therefore, tackling in space will be vital for Dallas’ defense. Due to Rodgers’ ailing calf and potential of not being able to use his feet at maximum strength – it would be wise for Marinelli to use some overloaded fronts to flush Rodgers outside the pocket to throw on the run, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some blitzes sent towards Rodgers. All in all, this is the same Rodgers that left early in the NFC North title game and came back to score two touchdowns (1 throwing and rushing) against Detroit’s aggressive defense. Dallas can win this game, and cold weather climates help heavy running football teams, but what’s being overshadowed is Green Bay’s improved offensive line that’s kept Rodgers clean. Though Dallas’ defense has improved, their pass-rush is inconsistent, and as long as Rodgers is healthy enough to chuck the pigskin – it’s hard to image Green Bay’s offense spiraling downward at home. However, going against them Cowboys has come back to bite me this season, so I’m not penciling in a Green Bay win.
Pick: Packers 30, Cowboys 24

AFC Divisional Playoff 4:40 PM ET – TV: CBS                 
(4) Indianapolis Colts 12-5 @ (2) Denver Broncos 12-4
These teams faced each other to kick start their season in Week 1, and in that contest, the Broncos were victorious by a score of 31-24. Julius Thomas was a healthy camper then — catching 7 passes from Peyton Manning on 8 targets for over 100 yards receiving, scoring 3 touchdowns against Indianapolis’ defense. In the later stages of the season, an ankle-injury has slowed Denver’s talented tight end, and his production has dropped mightily when limited to just 50.4 percent of offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s play-selections. Though Thomas has been practicing this week, it appears that his ankle has yet to fully heel. Since the Broncos have gone astray from utilizing Thomas as a heavy-passing-option, Gase has formulated a run-first-attacking-offense – leaning on running back C.J. Anderson in big-sets with tight end Virgil Green as an extra blocker on running downs.  Ronnie Hillman returned from a foot sprain in Week 17, and with his shifty and speedy traits in the fold — the Broncos now have a combination of power and speed to control the tempo and keep the play-action pass working to their advantage.

Indianapolis’ front isn’t equipped with enough difference-makers on their defensive line, and any pressure they generate stems from defensive coordinator Greg Manusky’s blitzing scheme. In some cases when facing an offense that sports a wide-range of receiving threats, defensive coaches would keep their safeties deep in coverage to bracket the deep-ball, but in this matchup – Indianapolis won’t be able to mitigate Denver’s ground attack on base-defensive alignments. Deploying stacked fronts and keeping cornerbacks Greg Toler and Vontae Davis in man-coverage against Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, two deadly receivers on the boundary for Manning should be an objective for Manusky. Indianapolis’ linebackers (D’Qwell Jackson, Jerrell Freeman, Bjoern Werner and Erik Walden) are the keys for Manusky on pressure concepts to get after Manning and hold Denver’s backs to a minimum. Feeding the backs will go on the 20 plus carry-meter, but Gase’s playbook ranges from many formations – and when the Broncos elect to pass – look for him to move Thomas and Sanders in the slot to form better matchups against Indianapolis’ secondary.

It’s all about going through the air in Pep Hamilton’s system, and going up against Denver’s stout run defense — don’t expect Indianapolis to muster much on the ground from Daniel Herron and undrafted rookie Zurlon Tipton. On many occasions, Denver’s defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio would throw strong safety T.J. Ward in the box as a run-stopper, but with the lack of a threatening running game – keeping his safeties back more would be ideal against Andrew Luck, who on more than half of his passes, have been vertical-attempts. Indianapolis’ offensive line has been the weak-link of their offense, and the trench-play-arrow is pointing upward in favor of Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams, DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller – all viable-factors of Denver’s front seven to pressure the middle and edges. Luck has been able to withstand hits and improvise from the pocket, but with a slew of passes, the better the opportunities will be for Del Rio’s opportunistic defense to generate turnovers. Chris Harris Jr. will be responsible for keeping T.Y. Hilton, Luck’s lethal vertical target underneath, mitigating the speedy receiver from making over the top catches.

Aqib Talib is one the games most physical defensive backs to disrupt routes off the snap, and it’s going to be interesting to see if Del Rio places him on one of Luck’s seam-route-running tight ends in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen — knowing his linebackers are susceptible in covering the middle. Denver’s linebackers have fared much better defending the run, and to get them out of their strengths, look for Hamilton to use his backs in the screen-game, forcing Denver’s linebackers to defend the pass. Plus, I’d expect some slants and crossing routes to get Denver’s pass-defenders moving horizontally – a better concept for Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks and Donte Moncrief to be able to get separation against Denver’s highly-talented secondary. This matchup boils down to balance and pressure, and the Broncos have better things going for them in terms of formula on offense and play-makers on the defensive side of the ball. Being able to run the ball effectively and chew up clock, keeps your defense fresh and the oppositions offense on the sideline, and the Broncos should be able to carry that recipe to cook Indianapolis’ subpar defense.
Pick: Broncos 34, Colts 24

You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and @SilverBlueRpt

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