The AFC has its best two divisions on display this weekend. The AFC North and East are the only two remaining division in the AFC Championship race, and really it is no surprise. The Patriots, Steelers, and Ravens have been three of the more consistent teams in the entire NFL this past decade, and coming into this one they are all still hot. All three teams have sprinkled young talent here and there to keep their prolonged winning ways intact. The Jets have had a very up and down decade, but Rex Ryan has begun to lift them up to high standards the past two years. We will see both divisions battle it out for the proverbial rubber game in the Jets at the Patriots and the Ravens at the Steelers. The NFC is a far less interesting show. In one corner we have, unfortunately, the Seattle Seahawks going on the road to Soldier field in Chicago and in the other there stands the bout between the #1 seeded Atlanta Falcons hosting the hot Green Bay Packers. Lets get too it.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
The first game of the week is by far the most intriguing in my opinion. The rubber match against arguably the two toughest teams in the league from the two toughest cities in the States. I’ve always loved the war analogy as it pertains to football, and apply it to two teams like this just gets me pumped. James Harrison, poster boy for the ludicrous anti-“hard hitting” platform, against Ray Lewis, the guy who will walk up to and tell you he is going to dominate you to your face… and then do it. Then we have Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, the two best safeties in the NFL today (and theres no debate about it). These men are both complete stand up guys who dont speak up all that often, but my lord is their play loud. Both missed time this season due to injuries, and yet both players not only made the Pro Bowl roster, they start on it. These are but the most prominent defensive presences in this game, but lets not forget the warriors of Haloti Ngata, Casey Hampton, Dwan Landry, Ike Taylor, Terrell Suggs, James Farrior. The Steelers linebacking core, I mean lets be serious, all four of them could start for the Pro Bowl and you would hear little complaint. If these players don’t scream out war, I don’t know what does. These men are truly out to knock the other team flat on its back. These defenses came to battle for a third time, and this time its more important than ever. It is so exciting because these two teams epitomize the old school football persona. Their defenses hit hard and they are built from the trenches out. Both teams have great guys at the nose in Ngata and Hampton. Both teams have young and up incoming stars on the offensive line in Pouncey and Oher. Honestly, these teams are so similar its hard to say which has the better anything. Joe Flacco vs Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall vs Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin vs Mike Wallace, Todd Heap vs Heath Miller. I honestly don’t know who I would pick and choose from that lot. There are but three things that could give either team the edge in this game and determine the winner. The first is turnovers, who can win that battle? The answer is both, it just comes down to who capitalizes on them and gets them at opportune times. Let’s not forget Reed led the league in interceptions despite playing in only ten games (Polamalu is second by one with 14 games played). Next is the weaknesses of both teams. The Steelers have a leaky offensive line, and a battered one at that. The Ravens have a suspect cornerback corp. Which team is better suited to take advantage of the other’s weakness? Honestly? Both. The Ravens have Suggs, one of the best sack artists, and Ngata, one of the best penetrating nose tackles, to throw at that Steelers offensive line. Yes, Big Ben is known for his mobility and avoiding sacks… but how long can he last against these men? Then the Steelers have deep threat burner Mike Wallace to force the issue with the Ravens secondary that features Josh Wilson and Chris Carr. Let us delve deeper though. While both teams have ways to attack each other’s weakness, it is the Ravens that have the advantage. Yes, the Steeler’s Mike Wallace is a dangerous player against the likes of Josh Wilson, but lets take into account the Steelers O-line getting pushed around by the pass rush of the Ravens. Making Big Ben think on his feet will limit how often he can test the Ravens’ corners and could even be forced into a mistake in the form of the ever opportunistic Ed Reed. So the edge is to the Ravens, right? Yes and no. Logic says the Ravens should be victors Saturday, but lets not forget what happened in the last meeting of the North. Polamalu came up with the huge strip sack late in the game to help the Steelers to a 13-10 win. Troy is a wildcard, and quite frankly he defies logic. I still don’t know how he timed that snap so 100% to just leap over both lines to sack Kerry Collins on a QB sneak. If Troy can come up with the right play at the right time once again, the Steelers will head to the AFC championship bout, otherwise, this is the Ravens game to win. Watch out Joe Flacco.
Prediction: Ravens 17 – Steelers 14
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
Is this really the Falcons year? Is Matt Ryan (I hate the nickname Matty Ice by the way) ready to lead this team to a Super Bowl? I can’t imagine he even knows, as much as he might think he can. Thats why eventually, Ryan will have a ring on that throwing hand of his. When is the real issue. The Falcons hit the ground running this year… figuratively. Michael Turner isn’t the big time back he was during Matt Ryan’s rookie campaign. The man is a bruiser, and I will always love backs like that. There is an obvious downside to being the guy that lowers his shoulder. The body wears down, quickly. Turner has been nicked up a lot over the years, and honestly, I think his play has diminished to a degree. He is still an above average back, but not quite the back he once was coming out of Tomlinson’s shadow. That okay though, because Matt Ryan and Roddy White have stepped up, in a big way. Those two put on a show this season, showing amazing chemistry. Atlanta is here now because of the performance of those two men. How will Ryan hold up against Clay Matthews when not even Mike Vick could escape him? How will White do against one of the better secondaries in the league that was able to contain the explosive DeSean Jackson? I’d say about as well as they did last time when Ryan threw for under 200 yards and White accounted for only 49 of them. The Falcons still won that game 20-17, proving they can win in other ways. It was the ineptness of the Packer running game that allowed the Falcons to come away with the win. If James Starks can show just a margin of what he did last week against the Eagles, the Packers will avenge their week 12 loss and remain hot.
Prediction: Packers 24 – Falcons 13
Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears
Well, didnt the Seahawks make the world look stupid last week. Can they do it again? Absolutely not. The Bears defense are monsters again and its time for Pete Carroll to go home. Mike Martz will scheme the hell out of anything Carroll will cook up on defense and Cutler will have one of his good days. Hassellbeck will suddenly realize that he is old and still very bald as he fails to get anything going against a motivated Brian Urlacher who realizes that his career needs that Super Bowl win, soon.
Prediction: Bears 27 – Seahawks 3
New York Jets at New England Patriots
Well my lord are the Patriots not the hottest team in all of sports right now? They have beaten every playoff team left save the Seahawks (7-9…). They demolished the Jets 45-3 in their last meeting. Plus they are at home, in the cold, after a bye, with a bulletin board chalk full of Rex motivating them? How could they lose? Well… how did they lose the first time? It is actually quite simple, Rex Ryan built his defense to play against New England’s offense… at the time. Rex knew how to defeat the Patriots offense with Randy Moss. He saw the 2007 Super Bowl, as Strahan, Tuck, and Umenyori used there talents to rattle Brady. So he went out and assembled his pass rushers. He saw Randy Moss go deep, beating his man. So he made Revis into an island and brought over Cromartie from San Diego. This Jets defense is built to beat the Patriots offense… the old one. I honestly believe, though I have no proof, that Bill Belichick traded Randy Moss for this reason. It wasn’t because he was declining, although I am positive that was a factor. The Patriots traded Moss to revolutionize their offense after their defeat to the Jets. Belichick transformed his offense into one that the Jets just arnt built for. The passing game is all about short, efficient passes in AR (After Randy). This eliminates the effectiveness of the patented Rex Ryan blitz. The plethora of receiving options makes Revis taking out just one man (doesnt matter who) irrelevant. Finally, they Jets have no one that can cover the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Oh, and did I mention the Patriots have their first 1000 yard rusher since Corey Dillion? This offense is tailor made to beat the Jets defense. Bill Belichick turned the tables on Rex Ryan this season, and the pure domination in the last bout showed by just how much. Ryan can run his mouth all he wants this week, but his team is in over their head.
Prediction: Patriots 31 – Jets 24