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NFL: Packers And Cowboys Square Off In Exciting Divisional Round

football

We have arrived at the divisional round of the playoffs, with the final four in each division playing for a chance to advance to the conference decider. The four best teams in the NFL return to the fray this weekend, having had bye weeks for the wild card round. We can expect the standard of football to go through the roof this weekend then, with the Super Bowl hovering in the background. This is the time of year when the best players come to the fore when they are most needed.  Let’s look ahead to a mouth-watering weekend in the NFL.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

The New England Patriots ascended to the comfortable surroundings atop the AFC Conference, ensuring them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Bill Belichick’s team are one of the most formidable home sides in all of football, going 7-1 at Foxboro this season, with the only loss coming in week seventeen against the Buffalo Bills when top seeding had already been guaranteed. The Patriots underwent some early season struggles as the offensive line was unsettled and Rob Gronkowski was hurt, but since a mauling by the Kansas City Chiefs in week four, Tom Brady has led his team to a 10-2 record. With the protection now settled and steady and Gronkowski re-establishing himself as one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL, the Patriots have become a completely different beast. For the first time in a number of years, Brady is backed by a stellar defense, which could be the difference maker if they are to return to the Super Bowl. With Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jamie Collins and Darrell Revis all making significant contributions, the Patriots can stake a claim to being the most balanced team in either conference. That pass protection will be tested this weekend, and an ability to run the ball early could make the Patriots difficult to topple.

The Baltimore Ravens are the only wild card team still standing, and their prestige and calibre ensures that season records and previous form mean little going into this one. Joe Flacco was devastatingly accurate in taking down the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend, with tremendous pressure forcing Ben Roethlisberger into a litany of errant throws. The battle in the trenches will be big, with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil’s ability to get home to protect the secondary key. Flacco will be faced with some exotic defensive looks, with Bill Belichick’s ability to confound quarterbacks second to none. Justin Forsett was unable to get anything going last weekend, and he is facing an even more dominant defense this time out. Still, the run game will be required to make some gains for the Ravens to progress. Does Steve Smith Sr. have another big performance in him? He’s just the kind of receiver to be licking his lips at the prospect of taking on Darrell Revis all day, in a battle of future Hall of Famers.

Verdict: New England

Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks are another team who have rebounded from mid-season struggles to finish strongly and top the NFC. Playing in front of the Twelfth Man was an ideal platform on which the Seahawks built their 2013 Super Bowl run, and the return of key men from that victory like Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor towards the end of the regular season have transformed the fortunes of this side. The Seahawks defense is the best in the NFL by almost any metric, and they are battle hardened over recent years. The Legion of Boom has made it nigh on impossible to put a score on Seattle, but the tremendous pressure up front has a huge role in making the secondary so formidable. The offense has also grown stronger and stronger, with the mid-season change of philosophy after the Percy Harvin trade meaning a new scheme was effectively learned on the fly, with Marshawn Lynch returning to the fore and leading the way. Russell Wilson has looked much more composed, and the Seahawks have found ways to expose opposing defenses time and again. It’s hard to envision anyone taking the NFC crown away from Seattle right now.

The Carolina Panthers put the Arizona Cardinals out of their misery in the wild card round, and their reward for that was one of the most daunting challenges in football, travelling to Seattle. The Panthers revival has been largely down to the run game, but they may find every yard they make is hard earned this weekend. With only two real targets in the passing game in rookie Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, efficiency and strong defense will be pre-requisites for the Panthers’ success. The Seahawks have struggled covering tight ends in spots this season, with Antonio Gates just one such player who gashed them for big gains in the regular season. The Panthers are the ultimate underdog this weekend, and they will fancy their chances of exposing the Seahawks.

Verdict: Seattle

Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers

The Green Bay Packers have been one of the hottest teams around in 2014, with Aaron Rodgers the presumed MVP. Having home field advantage will be big for the Packers here, who went 8-0 at Lambeau Field this season. Rodgers was tossing touchdown pass after touchdown pass as they blew out a number of opponents, with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb securing plenty of bonuses for scoring them. Eddie Lacy has been used relatively sparingly, so he should be quite fresh for the post-season. But make no mistake – this offense lives and dies with Aaron Rodgers. The defense has spruced itself up significantly with some mid-season re-shuffles, most notably shifting Clay Matthews to inside linebacker, shoring up the heart of the defense. Matthews still racked up 11 sacks while also defending a career high nine passes, as he became one of best all-round linebackers in the game. How he and his defensive front deal with DeMarco Murray will be key to this game.

The Dallas Cowboys squeaked past the Detroit Lions last weekend on the back of some contentious refereeing, but still had to show great heart to rally back from 14-0 down, finally take the lead with just two minutes left and still hold on for the win. Murray made 75 yards against one of the meanest run-stuffing defensive fronts in football, and still seems to have some gas left in the tank despite a long regular season that culminated with hand surgery. Tony Romo was sluggish and heavily pressured against the Lions, but rallied well in the second half. Dez Bryant really only made one play all day, and will need to come up with a few big catches if they are to emerge triumphantly from Lambeau. Detroit was able to expose the soft spots in the defense early on and, although they re-adjusted well, it seems like Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb will have fun on Sunday. The Cowboys are 8-0 on the road though, so this one is shaping up to be one of the great playoff games of recent times.

Verdict: Green Bay

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos are probably the Super Bowl contender with the most question marks hanging above them. Peyton Manning has long had a reputation for January struggles, and his underwhelming arm strength over the last number of weeks does not inspire confidence. Whether it is injury or the effects of Father Time, Manning has underthrown several receivers down the stretch. He has had two weeks to recover ahead of this game though, so he may well come out and blow us all away. With Ronnie Hillman returning to add another dynamic body in the backfield, it is possible the Broncos go run-first, exploiting further space for the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders later on. Julius Thomas scored three touchdowns the last time these sides squared off, and how he is marshalled here will be very interesting. Denver matches up well against this defense, but that is very much dependant on their quarterback getting back into a groove.

The Indianapolis Colts dispatched the Cincinnati Bengals with great ease in the wild card round, but they face a different beast here. Andrew Luck is a young phenom at the quarterback position, but he is burdened with carrying an offense with poor protection and no run game. One running back can run but fumbles frequently, while the other simply can’t find holes. The Denver defensive front will be able to focus on hunting Luck, and the formidable figures rushing the quarterback are more than capable of finding him. With a limited defense to boot, Luck will need to conjure some of his trademark magic on connections with TY Hilton if the Colts are to stay in this one. If the defense can generate some turnovers though, they could find themselves in a strong position to pull off an upset. Mistake-free football is the name of the game for the Colts.

Verdict: Denver

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