Baltimore Ravens @ Denver Broncos
The NFL is pitching this game as the Clash of the Titans and they aren't wrong. Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis are set to meet in a battle of the legends and the prize couldn't be any greater. Denver had to come up with big bucks to get their hands on Manning and when they got him, he delivered. He has led the Broncos to 13 wins and was the main reason that two of his receivers ended up with 1,000-yard seasons.
Baltimore legend and star linebacker Ray Lewis is retiring at the end of the play-offs and would love to help pull the Ravens all the way to Super Bowl XLVII. In Week 15 the Broncos took care of business beating the Ravens 31-17 in Baltimore.This time round Denver is hosting the party at Mile High and I don't expect the guests to leave happy.
Both of these teams have huge offensive weaponry at their disposal, but I think that this game will be won on defence. Lewis is waiting to suss out Manning and Von Miller will have a similar task trying to stifle and frustrate Baltimore's Joe Flacco. At the Wild Card weekend the Ravens eventually tucked up the Colts and put them to bed in the second half. The defence was dogged with Lewis inspiring in his final home game and although Ray Rice fumbled twice, Flacco took it upon himself to deal with the situation and delivered touchdown passes to both Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta.
Boldin also set a franchise record with 145 yards on five receptions. The Broncos are one of the form teams in the whole of the NFL and didn't need to worry about the Wild Card weekend as they already secured their Division. With the weekend off they should be ready to rock come Saturday. I think they will have enough to gain control straight from kick off, with their pass rush and defence rush doing enough to smoother the Ravens at the point of attack. The Manning throw will be vital for the Broncos and he rarely fails to deliver.
Recommended Bet: Denver -9.5
Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers
Tight game expected here, but it should be a real crowd pleaser. Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick was meant to be the QB of the future for the 49ers, but he has had to come in on a permanent basis after Alex Smith suffered a concussion. He hasn't looked back since. He ended the regular season with seven touchdown passes in his last three outings.
When he is firing on all cylinders, the Niners are a hard team to beat due to the fact that the defence rarely allows the opposition more than 20 points a game. If however Kaepernick turns the ball over and can't get the precision through the air then this could get bowling shoe ugly real quick.
To say that Green Bay lucked out in their Wild Card game against Minnesota would be a tad harsh, but with Christian Ponder out and Joe Webb at QB, the Packers cruised to victory. However the 49ers will have a bit more about them this weekend and will cause more problems than the depleted Vikings did.
The Packers have improved on the ground throughout this season, but unfortunately for them San Francisco's front seven is just that much better. Aaron Rodgers' pass protection has been found wanting this season and he was sacked 51 times during the regular season. San Francisco will have noted that and expect them to play physical press coverage which would allow the pass rush just a bit more time in applying pressure to Rodgers.
The Packers allow an average of 4.5 yards per carry and with Frank Gore and company in fighting form they should slowly wear down Green Bay's defensive front. By shortening the game, winning the field-position battle and sticking on Rodgers, look for the Niners to be the team that moves on to NFC Championship final.
Recommended Bet: San Francisco -3
Seattle Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons
In the wildcard last week Seattle bested Washington, but they had a bit of fortune along the way. RG3 getting injured in the fourth quarter was a massive blow for the Skin's and they never recovered. Seattle were down 14-0 in the first quarter but then pegged back Washington in the second. The injury was a big blow to the Skin's and the Seahawks pounced on it and eventually took control to run out 24-14 winners.
They now take on Atlanta Falcons who find themselves the No.1 seed in the NFC play-offs. The Falcons have almost always had problems in past play-offs, but I don't think they can afford to pay much attention to that when they go to lace up this weekend at the Georgia Dome.
The pressure will be high for the Falcons to overcome their past play-off failure but the Seattle Seahawks will be under a lot of pressure as well with them having to travel cross-country for a win-or-bust match up.
Atlanta will be well rested and ready for battle after enjoying a bye week. The Falcons can't afford to let Matt Ryan drop back and try to hurl the ball around. Cornerback Richard Sherman is ready to pounce, as is the rest of the talented secondary that the Seahawks possess.
Marshawn Lynch will be in full 'Beast Mode' this week and should force the Falcons to over compensate in the box but even then he still won't be completed isolated. He ran for 131 yards last week and team mate and key man Russell Wilson completed 15 of 26 passes for 187 yards against the Skins. These two will be all important in helping the Seahawks deal with ATL.
The Falcons find it difficult to dig in when they are deep in the trenches unless the aerial storm really gets going. With Seattle's rush and ability to man up on Ryan's chosen receiving targets, back Seattle to get the win with Atlanta suffering yet another premature post-season exit.
Recommended Bet: Seattle +3
Houston Texans @ New England Patriots
The Texans fought hard for this match by taking out the Bengals last week in what was quite a defensive game. Arian Foster ran for 140 yards and in doing so became the first player in NFL history to have 100-yard games in each of his first three play-off games. He will need to reproduce that kind of blistering form again this week as Houston takes on the mighty New England Patriots.
The Patriots soundly beat Houston in their Week 14 meeting and to stop that from happening again is going to be an exceptionally big ask. The rewards for picking up the win in this game though will taste much sweeter for the victorious team. They will be one step closer to Super Bowl glory.
Are there any reasons to think that this game might end in a different fashion than the beat down that was handed out in Week 14? No. New England have the No.1 ranked offence in the whole of the NFL and Tom Brady will find holes in Houston's defence, which in turn would allow for the Patriots underestimated ground game. The Brady Bunch should be able to take full control of this game and be in the drivers seat throughout.
Although the Texans do have a pretty solid offensive balance, I don't think it is as complete as what there opponents are serving up and with New England dictating the tempo it should force Houston into becoming one-dimensional. Despite their play-off win in last week the Texans still look like the same shaky team that lost three of their last four regular season games. It is because of that kind of form that you can expect to see New England make its sixth AFC title game appearance in the last 10 seasons.
Recommended Bet: New England -9.5