By Zac Bellman
Dennis Pitta vs. Broncos Linebackers
Champ Bailey and Chris Harris locked down Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin for much of the first matchup against the Ravens, but Dennis Pitta was able to find holes in the secondary to the tune of seven catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Pitta plays the slot very well for a tight end and as a result got the third most targets from Joe Flacco in the regular season. The Broncos struggled to find the right matchup to cover Pitta’s size and speed. If they dedicate their best rusher Von Miller to covering Pitta, that will give Flacco more time in the pocket. Finding the right way to cover Pitta will prove to be a challenge for the Broncos’ defense.
Peyton Manning vs. the Cold
Manning’s resume is undeniable, but one stat in the playoffs is worth noting over his career. He is 0-3 in the playoffs when the temperature at kickoff is below 40 degrees. Not only is his record unimpressive, but his touchdown to interception ratio is one to seven. The forecast in Denver is about 20 degrees, so Manning will be relying on the Broncos’ red hot eleven game winning streak to keep him warm in this contest. The cold may also create problems with his neck, although he seems fully recovered from his surgery, he may experience some stiffness. Regardless, this is one of the top quarterbacks in NFL history looking to cement his legacy with another Super Bowl title. He is also playing with more talent than some of his better teams in Indianapolis, so you still have to consider the Broncos to be the favorites. Edge: Broncos 21-14
Tom Brady vs. JJ Watt
Brady shined in a stomping of the Texans, throwing for 296 yards and four touchdowns. The Texans pass rush was nowhere to be found as Brady had all day to throw. By the end of the Patriots’ third drive it was 21-0 and there was not much hope for a comeback as the Texans pulled starters toward the end of the 42-14 blowout. In order to avoid a repeat, JJ Watt and the rest of the defensive line have to generate a strong pass rush. The Patriots were spreading the Texans out with four or five receivers on most downs, which forced the Texans to take their pass rushing linebackers out of the game so they could put in cornerbacks. With most of the defenders dropping back in coverage, it will be up to Watt and the defensive line to not only pressure Brady, but knock down passes when he tries to dump the ball off to his tight ends. This may prove to be a difficult task if the Texans only rush three or four players.
Rob Gronkowski vs. Texans Defense
As if the Texans didn’t have enough to worry about in their rematch against the Patriots, Rob Gronkowski will be back from an injury that caused him to miss the first game. Despite appearing in only 11 games this season, Gronk caught 11 touchdowns from Tom Brady. He has a nose for the end zone and a frame that makes him nearly impossible to cover and tackle once he has the ball. It will take a group effort to cover Gronkowski, linemen must deflect short passes, linebackers must bump him so he doesn’t get a clean release off the line of scrimmage, and safeties and corners must go airborne to beat him for the jump ball. This would be hard if you had only him to worry about, but with Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Aaron Hernandez also out there, it would appear that the Texans are outgunned.
Matt Schaub vs. Patriots’ Defense
The Texans can win this game without Matt Schaub throwing for 350 yards and five touchdowns, and all they need is efficiency and mistake free football from him. That means converting on third down, not taking sacks, not throwing picks, and managing the game. An interception on the second drive for Schaub set the stage for an early 14-0 hole in the first matchup of these two teams. Those types of mistakes on the road in the playoffs cannot happen. The Texans can avoid dangerous throws by loosening the coverage with runs, and then going over the top with play action. If the running game can’t get going, Schaub will have to take over the game, and a shootout with Tom Brady is the last thing the Texans want. Edge: Patriots 28-17
Seahawks Corners vs. Falcons Wide Receivers
Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman have been dominant this season, consistently wreaking havoc on passing games by taking away opponents’ top two receivers. They will have a tall order this week as they take on Roddy White and Julio Jones. The two Falcons wide outs combined for 17 of Matt Ryan’s 32 touchdowns in the regular season, and they both have big play ability, combining for 35 receptions of over twenty yards. Browner and Sherman must get physical with these receivers at the line of scrimmage to prevent them from streaking downfield. Fortunately for the Seahawks, both corners possess tall frames for their position at 6-4 and 6-3 respectively. This should allow them to contain the Falcons attack through the air.
Matt Ryan vs. the Playoff Schnied
“Matty Ice” has been ice cold is his first three playoff games, going 0-3 and not throwing for even 200 yards in any game. This is despite playing two of those games in domes where he should be most comfortable. If he were to fall to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks this week, he would become the first quarterback since the AFL-NFL merger to lose his first four playoff games. Only one Falcon player on the entire team knows what it feels like to win a playoff game in a Falcon uniform, and that is center Todd McClure. Expectations are high for this year’s Falcon team that dominated their regular season schedule much like they did two years ago. It will be up to Ryan to set the tempo on offense and lead the Falcons to the NFC Championship game. Edge: Seahawks 21-17
Clay Matthews vs. Colin Kaepernick
When the Packers played the 49ers in Week 1 of the NFL season, Alex Smith was the starting quarterback, with Kaepernick only seeing a small role in the wildcat package. This time around, Kaepernick takes the reigns as Coach Jim Harbaugh wanted a little more sizzle at the quarterback position. The trait that Kaepernick has that Alex Smith doesn’t is the speed to escape the pocket and run on any given play. He will have to do this early and often against the Packers, who will be bringing the rush to fluster him in his first playoff game. Clay Matthews was a force to be reckoned with in the wildcard round, getting two sacks and forcing a fumble to thwart a Vikings comeback attempt. He may be the only Packer’s linebacker who has the speed to chase down Kaepernick and contain him in this game. The Packers got a warm-up to facing Kaepernick last week against Joe Webb, who has a similar skill set. This experience should prove valuable in their game plan to stop Kaepernick.
Dujuan Harris vs. Patrick Willis
Another difference from the first meeting between these two teams is who the Packers have lining up at running back. In Week 1 it was Cedric Benson, who never got going in that game rushing for only 18 yards. Since then the Packers have rotated Benson, Brandon Saine, Alex Green, James Starks, and Ryan Grant through the position before giving Harris an opportunity. Injuries forced the Packers to go shopping for backs, and they found one at a used car dealership in Jacksonville, Florida. Harris is a shifty back with good hands out of the backfield that were on full display in the wildcard round. When protection broke down, Rodgers looked Harris’ way multiple times to keep drives going. It will be up to Patrick Willis to not only contain the Packer running game but cover Harris out of the backfield and take away that check down for Rodgers. Edge: Packers 24-21