Baltimore Ravens (10-6) @
Denver Broncos (13-3)
The Baltimore Ravens handled the Indianapolis Colts without contest last week in Maryland, but they will not have the comforts of home on Saturday, which, if history means anything, may be an issue.
Over the last two seasons, including the playoffs, the Ravens have compiled a 16-2 record at home, while just going 8-9 on the road.
One of those two home losses came less than a month ago to guess who? Yes, a 34-17 trampling in favor of the Denver Broncos. It was the most points Baltimore had given up at home in a four-quarter game since Peyton Manning and the Colts scored 44 against them in 2007. Add the fact that Denver has only lost one at home this season and is riding an NFL-high 11-game winning streak, the Ravens have one heck of a challenge ahead of them.
Peyton Manning doesn’t even need to have a great game for the Broncos to come out on top in this one. In Week 14, he had his lowest output of the year — a mere 204 yards — yet Denver showed no sign of struggle. Knowshon Moreno and the Denver rushing squad combined for 163 yards on the ground. If the pressure can be taken off of Manning like it was in that in this game, then the Broncos will have an extreme advantage over Baltimore’s defense, with or without Ray Lewis.
Offensively for the Ravens, Joe Flacco’s inconsistency at the quarterback position could be a problem against the third-ranked passing defense of the Broncos. However, taking into account Torrey Smith’s speed advantage over aging cornerback Champ Bailey, expect him to air it out and connect on a few occasions.
The Ravens have surprised more than a few teams in the playoffs in the past few seasons, and I think Flacco will deliver in this one, but there is no way Baltimore’s defense will be able to contain both Manning and Moreno.
In the end, with a high-scoring affair at stake, I’ll take the hottest team in football over a team that has won just two of its last six games.
Denver – 42
Baltimore – 28
Houston Texans (12-4) @
New England Patriots (12-4)
When I think of all the hype surrounding the New England Patriots this weekend, I think back to the 2010 playoffs. After defeating the New York Jets that year 45-3 in the regular season, they hosted them again in the divisional round, only to fall seven points short, stunning the nation.
While I don’t think the Houston Texans (lost to the Patriots 42-14 in Week 14) will follow in New York’s footsteps, I do believe they will give New England a run for its money.
The Texans need to come out Sunday as the aggressor. Try something different, such as a no-huddle offense like the Jacksonville Jaguars did against the Patriots in their near-upset in Week 16. In order to set the pace as the extreme underdog, they should start off with some trick plays to throw the shaky New England defense off guard. That will open up the playing field for Matt Schaub and Arian Foster.
For one thing, Foster will not repeat his 46-yard performance that he had in Foxboro last month. Though going up against a better rushing defense than that of the Cincinatti Bengals that he faced last week, he has the tools to run over any defense in the league. And of course, Boston columnist Dan Shaughnessy added fuel to his fire by calling this Sunday’s game another “bye week” for the Patriots.
For Tom Brady, don’t expect the four-touchdown performance he had in Week 14. Luckily for him, NFL leading sacker J.J. Watt had an off game, recording 4 tackles and no sacks, but expect him to have more of a presence in the backfield on Sunday, providing plenty of pressure on Brady.
New England has all the tools to make it to the AFC Championship game, but Houston will not make it an easy task.
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Taylor Snow can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @taylorcsnow.