NFC Divisional Playoffs: Who Advances to the Conference Championship?
By Joey Levitt on January 09, 2013
One week after the chalk held serve in Wild Card weekend, the NFC divisional playoffs features the rightful four teams eyeing advancement to the Conference Championships.
Green Bay pounded the Christian Ponder-less Vikings, while Seattle, despite being the No. 5 seed, stifled a hobbled Robert Griffin III and the underdog Redskins.
The Packers now travel to San Francisco for a rematch with the 49ers. The Seahawks continue their road trip to the NFC’s top-ranked Atlanta Falcons.
Will the extra week off help or hurt the Falcons and 49ers? And will the road teams pull off the first upsets of the 2012 NFL playoffs?
Let’s break down each matchup and predict the winners of the divisional round.
Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers
The Packers bring their No. 5 scoring offense against the 49ers’ No. 3 scoring defense.
Aaron Rodgers ranks second in the NFL with 40 touchdown passes. Averaging 2.5 per game is nothing short of remarkable, even in this pass-happy NFL. He spreads defenses out wide and picks them apart with six dynamic weapons.
James Jones and his 14 TDs lead the offensive attack. Slot receiver Randall Cobb is an 80-catch game-breaker, while 6’3’’ wideout Jordy Nelson serves as the certifiable deep threat.
All three of those receivers caught at least seven TDs.
DuJuan Harris has also provided some balance to the Packers 27.1-point scoring offense.
The second-year running back hasn’t lit up opposing defenses by any means. But his 31 carries in the past two games have made Rodgers’ play-action passes just that much more effective.
San Francisco counters with a defense that surrendered a meager 17.1 points per game, including the fifth-fewest passing TDs (19).
It is a unit that just doesn’t condone the big play. It ranks No. 3 overall with 38 passing plays of 20-plus yards allowed, not to mention limiting the opposition to only seven plays of 40-plus yards.
Cornerback Tarell Brown has not given up a TD all year and Chris Culliver is one of the few corners in the league holding quarterbacks to a sub-50 completion percentage. Safety Dashon Goldson, for his part, ensures that QBs don’t beat them over top.
Making all that possible is, of course, the 49ers’ front seven.
It is comprised of All-World defensive tackle Justin Smith and Pro-Bowl linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith. They control the line of scrimmage, stop the run, get after the quarterback and limit any ball movement underneath.
Yet, the 49ers defense is not without weakness.
Justin Smith will play Saturday with a partially torn triceps tendon in his left arm. His reduced capacity detracts from this unit as a whole because Smith is the one that makes everything happen.
He occupies multiple offensive linemen and would-be blockers in the trenches. This enables Aldon to get his sacks and facilitates the linebackers’ shutdown play of the opponent’s run game. It goes without saying that 49ers must have J. Smith on the field.
Also, cornerback Carlos Rogers is vulnerable against speedy slot receivers. Said wideouts burned him repeatedly to the tune of three touchdowns, a 70.1 completion percentage allowed and multiple instances of coverage breakdowns.
The Packers’ Cobb—and his nine TDs and 462 yards after the catch—could materialize as the perfect weapon.
But will it?
San Francisco’s offensive line will cement its reputation as the NFL’s most dominant run-blocking unit. Joe Staley and co will control nose tackle B.J. Raji and inside linebacker A.J. Hawk at the point of attack. They’ll seal off Clay Matthews and take advantage of Dezman Moses and Erik Walden on the outside.
The 49ers will win time of possession and keep Rodgers off the field by using their No. 4-ranked rushing attack. Frank Gore will steadily pound the rock with 20-plus carries. LaMichael James and quarterback Colin Kaepernick will follow suit in the pistol formation by each breaking off a big run to the outside.
(Remember: only the Vikings have more 20-plus yard runs than the 49ers’ 17. And only five teams have given up more than the Packers’ 13.)
The running game combined with Kaepernick’s athleticism will mitigate the damage done by Matthews, Moses and Green Bay’s pass rush.
Michael Crabtree will also go for 100-plus yards and a TD, as the former embattled wideout realizes his status as a legitimate NFL receiver. Kaepernick’s underrated prowess as a pocket passer will be on full display.
The 49ers’ fourth-best rushing defense, in turn, will smother any attempt the Packers make at running the ball. Justin Smith will play well enough for Aldon to register one of his patented multi-sack games and take Rodgers off his spot. Count on the always-overlooked Ahmad Brooks to apply consistent pressure as well.
Rodgers’ two TD throws will be the product of a bend, but not break defense.
49ers 24, Packers 20
Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons
The dynamics of this game are closely aligned with the opening NFC matchup—except in reverse.
In this case, the home-team Falcons feature the prolific aerial assault with their No. 6 passing offense. Like the Packers, they also score over 26 points per game, despite lacking a reliable ground attack (87.3 yards per contest; No. 29).
Seattle, on the other hand, resembles the 49ers with its dominant rushing offense and overall defense. The Seahawks rush for 161.2 yards per game (No. 3) and lead the league defensively with a rather intimidating 15.3 points allowed.
Quarterback Matt Ryan heads the offense for the 13-3 Falcons. The man otherwise known as “Matty Ice” enjoyed a career-year in 2012 with over 4,700 yards, 32 touchdowns and a 99.1 efficiency rating.
New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter galvanized Ryan’s ascension by implementing an offensive system that took full advantage of existing personnel.
Roddy White and Julio Jones form the NFL’s most physically imposing duo at wide receiver. They consistently overpower defensive backs with their 210-pound frames and overall strength. With size, speed (yes, speed) and duct tape for hands, they combined for over 2,500 yards, 17 TDs and 35 plays of 20 yards or more.
Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez gives the Falcons yet another dominant threat in the passing game. He totaled an unsightly 93 catches for 930 yards and eight TDs. He is one of Ryan’s favorite targets.
And, to be sure, running back Michael Turner brings a goal-line power dynamic for Atlanta. He and his seemingly 247 pounds of brute muscle reached end-zone pay dirt 10 times in 2012.
It’s fair to say that Seattle has no intention of seeing that number rise any higher, though.
The Seahawks surrendered all of eight rushing TDs on the season, including zero last week to Alfred Morris and Washington’s league-best run game. Run-stuffing linebacker Bobby Wagner and 311-pound defensive tackle Brandon Mebane were the primary contributors.
The NFL obliged them with a No. 4 ranking in that category during the regular season.
Concerning pass defense, the Seahawks’ No. 6 ranking belies the sheer dominance of this group.
It surrendered just 40 plays of 20-plus yards (No. 5), five plays of 40-plus yards (No. 3), a QB rating of 71.8 (No. 3) and only 15 TDs, good for second-fewest in the league.
In other words, the Seahawks are really proficient at saying no to opposing quarterbacks, wide receivers and any other would-be targets in the passing game.
Leading that contingent for Seattle is every starting member of its secondary. Strong safety Kam Chancellor and cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner all stand 6’3’’ or taller. Along with hard-hitting free safety Earl Thomas, this group is unrivaled when it comes to physicality and shutdown capabilities.
RGIII’s diminished capacity notwithstanding, Seattle’s defensive backs made a mockery of Washington’s receivers after the first quarter in their Wild Card dogfight. Sherman and co held them to under 100 yards and zero TDs for the game. And in highlight-reel fashion, Thomas went sideline-to-sideline for a leaping INT deep down the field.
Will the formidable duo for Atlanta fare any better?
Ryan and the Falcons offense have not faced a pass defense of Seattle’s caliber this year. The only time in which they squared off against a comparable unit, the Cardinals picked off Ryan five times, and kept White, Jones and Gonzalez out of the end zone.
(Mind you, this meltdown occurred at the Georgia Dome.)
But again, the Seahawks secondary is a different animal. Sherman has reduced opposing QBs to a 47.1 completion percentage and a 41.1 efficiency rating. He and Browner also own a combined 11 interceptions (with the latter missing four games to boot).
Furthermore, Chancellor and linebacker K.J. Wright have given up just one TD. That speaks to how often they shut down the other team’s tight ends.
So, as dangerous as the Falcons are in the passing game, we just don’t like their chances against the cornerback-safety-linebacker contingent for Seattle. And even with leading sack artist Chris Clemons out with a torn ACL, the Seahawks’ Bruce Irvin demonstrated last week how quickly he can take over a game as a pass-rusher.
Finally, running back Marshawn Lynch will pound Atlanta into submission when it matters most. He gained nearly seven yards per carry and totaled 132 yards and a score against the Redskins’ fifth-ranked unit. Quarterback Russell Wilson added another 67.
That does not bode well for the Falcons.
Ranking 22nd against the run, the Falcons have surrendered the fifth-most TDs (17) and third-most gains of 20 or more yards (16). They also hold the dubious distinction of allowing the most big-plays on the ground—that being eight runs of 40 or more yards.
Lynch will go totally “Beast Mode.”
In the end, we like Seattle’s defense, Lynch, Wilson and the rookie QB’s 1-0 playoff record against the Falcons’ porous run D and Ryan’s 0-3 mark in the postseason.
It will be a fairly low scoring affair, but one that will end in favor of the Seahawks.
Seahawks 21, Falcons 17
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