The Divisional Playoff Preview


The Divisional Playoff Preview

Three weeks from Sunday, two teams will take the field in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII.

Which teams? New England and Green Bay, and the Patriots will win by a touchdown, but

As of today, there are eight squads still alive for the Lombardi Trophy. Eight teams preparing for this weeks game, and thinking: Holy crap. Were only two wins away from the Super Bowl. It doesnt matter how they got here, either. It doesnt matter if theyve won 11 straight, or lost three of five. It doesnt matter if their quarterback's a future Hall of Famer or has a future holding a clipboard.

Once you make it this far, the past is worthless. The future is all that matters.

And in the words of Leon Powe: Anythings Possible.

So lets take a look at this weekends games, in chronological order:

The Game: Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos

The Time: Saturday, 4:30 pm (CBS)

The Spread: Broncos (-10)

The last time the Ravens were double digit underdogs? December 23, 2007, at Seattle. Final score: Seahawks 27, Ravens 6.

(Although this time they should benefit from the absence of Troy Smith).

The Conditions: It's expected to be 21 degrees at kick off, with a 20 percent chance of precipitation.

One overlooked aspect of Peyton Manning's time with the Colts is that he played his home games in a dome. That means, come playoff time, he usually had the luxury of being indoors. In fact, Manning has only played in three career playoff games where the temperature was less than 40 degrees at kick off.

His record in those games? 0-3.

The Stakes: The Ravens are playing to extend Ray Lewis career, and if Manning really believes in his Broncos, hell put his legacy where his mouth is (?):

Im talking a Retirement Match Peyton vs. Ray, the loser goes home . . . FOR-EV-ER.

OK, maybe not. But I don't think we should underestimate how much the Lewis narrative has inspired this Ravens team. "Win One For Ray" beat "ChuckStrong." That's a serious statement.

The Nickname: Black and Decker

That's what Broncos receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas are calling themselves, and I love it. It's a great nickname for arguably the best receiving duo in the conference. Seriously, who's better? Decker and Thomas were one of four tandems to respectively go over 1,000 yards this season. The others were Jason WittenDez Bryant, Lance MooreMarques Colston and Julio JonesRoddy White, meaning that Black and Decker were the only ones to do it in the AFC. (Only counting receivers, so Welker and healthy Gronk don't count)

The Ravens actually held Thomas to four catches and only 13 yards when these two teams played last month. But naturally, Decker was on the other side, racking up eight catches for 133 yards and a touchdown in the Broncos big win. Containing both, or even just one of these guys, will key any Ravens success.

The Streak: Manning's beaten the Ravens nine straight times, including twice in the playoffs. It's been so long since he's lost to Baltimore that the last time it happened, Rod Woodson, Elvis Grbac and Shannon Sharpe were all actives for the Ravens. (And so was Ray Lewis).

The Pick: I'll take the Ravens vs. the spread, but the Broncos vs. the Ravens.

In the end, the difference will be Von Miller, who is now what Ray Lewis used to be a total game-changer on defense and a guy who's bound to make an enormous play at the biggest moment. And I doubt Joe Flacco will do much to get in the way of that plan.

Final Score: Broncos 30, Ravens 24

The Game: Green Bay Packer at San Francisco 49ers
The Time: Saturday, 8:30 pm (FOX)

The Spread: San Francisco (-3)

Home field is worth three points, so Vegas thinks this match-up is pretty even. And I think I'm going to agree with Vegas, which I know is crazy they have miserable track. But this time, just call it a hunch.

The Conditions: Partly cloudy, with a kick off temperature of 48 degrees.

Wind will be about 5-10 MPH out of the northwest, which isn't much, but still enough to screw with David Akers.

The Traitors: Aaron Rodgers grew up in Northern California, rooting for the 49ers. Colin Kaepernick was born in Milwaukee and grew up rooting for the Packers. On Sunday, they'll both be a psychological mess.

Or not at all. But it's a fun storyline. This will be Rodgers first ever game in San Francisco, which is kind of hard to believe, but no less true. He's faced the Niners three times (2-1) but all three were played in Green Bay.

The Match-Up: San Francisco pass rush vs. Green Bay offensive line.

The Packers allowed the second most sacks in the league this year. San Francisco's Alton Smith picked up the second most sacks. So that's not a great combo for Green Bay. Especially with All-Pro tackle Justin Smith set to return after missing the last two games with partially torn triceps.

Asked about Smith's status this week, Jim Harbaugh said: "God willing and the creek don't rise, he's going to play." Which is both awesome and terrifying in the most Harbaughian way possible.

The Match-up No. 2: I can't imagine a better confidence builder for a defense than holding Adrian Peterson under 100 yards, and that's exactly what the Packers did last weekend. Sure, Peterson finished with 99, but it doesn't matter. UNDER 100. Green Bay can remind themselves of that all week. And if they find similar success against Frank Gore, they'll put more pressure on Kaepernick to win the game on his own.

Gore rushed for 1214 yards this year, which is the second best total of his career, and his best since 2006. But in two career playoff games, Gore's yet to break 100 yards or find the end zone.

Speaking of end zone woes, what happened to Vernon Davis? Over the first six games of the season, he had 23 catches for 337 yards and four touchdowns. Over the last six games of the season? Six for 61 yards and no touchdowns.

Seems like a casualty of the Kaepernick decision, but to Davis' credit he managed to stay positive and help the team in different ways. Still, hearing him talk about it makes you want to cry:

"It is a different feeling for me because it's been a tough season as far as just the feeling of being involved," Davis said. "To me, it's not a bad thing, because it's something I had to get used to this year. Each and every season in the past, I'm used to helping the team in ways where I'm just catching balls and things like that. This year's been a little bit different. It just feels different going into these playoffs, as far as my role and things like that. It's not a bad thing, I'm not mad at it. That's just how it is sometimes. It takes a little getting used to."

The Pick: With a full compliment of receivers Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb finally at Aaron Rodgers' fingertips, I'm hitching my wagon to No. 12 and praying that it won't slow him down.

Final Score: Green Bay 24, San Francisco 21

(Also hoping that corny line won't prevent you from reading on.)

The Game: Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons

The Time: Sunday, 1 pm (FOX)

The Spread: Atlanta (-2.5)

The line opened at (-2), so the movement suggests that more money is being placed on the Falcons. I've actually spoken to a lot of people who like Atlanta this week, but the funny thing is that nine times of out ten the reason has been "because everyone else is picking Seattle."

The Conditions: Domey.
For what it's worth, the Seahawks were 0-2 in domes this year, and neither opponent Lions, Rams was all that impressive.

This is also Seattle's first time playing in Atlanta since that unforgettable duel between Chris Redman and Seneca Wallace in December of 2007.

The Burden: The Falcons have lost four straight playoff games. Matt Ryan is 0-3 on his career. In the five years since Mike Smith took over as head coach, Atlanta is 65-23 in the regular season, but still has zero success to show for it. That pressure can weigh on a team, both collectively and individually. Meanwhile, Russell Wilson rolls into town with a playoff win already under his belt, a road win at that. So, at the end of the day, with the season on the line, which side is going to feel it more? The quarterback and coach facing another year's worth of nay-sayers and criticism, or the rookie QB, who's already overachieved, with nothing left to lose?

The Hole: Despite their impressive overall defense, the Seahawks don't specialize in getting to the quarterback. In fact, they tied with Buffalo for 18th in the league with only 36 sacks. (Note: Atlanta ranked 28, with only 29 sacks). But on Sunday, Seattle's sack leader Chris Clemons (11.5), will be sidelined with a torn ACL, and while it seems like only a matter of time before players will be able bounce right back from that kind of injury, for now Clemons' absence leaves a huge void in the Seattle attack, and makes life a little easier on Matt Ryan.

The Pick: Before RGIII re-re-re-injured himself last week, it sure looked like the Seahawks were doomed. The Redskins were moving the ball with ease, Marshawn Lynch was stuck in neutral; it was a blowout in the making. But as the Washington offense stalled, Lynch got comfortable and in turn, that simplified things for Wilson. (Stat burst: Over his last nine games this season, Wilson threw 17 TDs and just two INTs and had the best passer rating 116.9 in the entire NFL.)

Against Atlanta, I think Seattle will pick up right where they left off, and as his been the case all year Lynch will be the difference. The Falcons gave up 4.8 yards a carry this year, that was third worst in the NFL. They also gave up 123.2 yards a game, which ranked 21st.

Lynch will have his way, and few big plays by the Seattle secondary will put them over the top.

Final Score: Seattle 34, Atlanta 31.

The Game: Houston Texans at New England Patriots
The Time: Sunday, 4:30 pm (CBS)

The Spread: New England (-9.5)

For comparison, the Pats were favored by seven points in last year's AFC Championship against the Ravens. They were by 14 points in the round before against the Broncos, and an eerily similar 9.5 against Sanchez and Sexy Rexy the year before.

New England was favored by 5.5 when these two team met in Week 14.
The Conditions: The forecast calls for a balmy 54 degrees at kick off, with mostly cloudy skies and a 30 percent chance of precipitation.

There's a 100 percent chance that it won't be snow.

The Tone: I thought one of the biggest plays in the Patriots win over Houston was an illegal procedure penalty on the very first snap of the game.

In real time, the play had resulted in an almost effortless 12-yard run by Arian Foster, and before seeing the flag, I remember thinking to myself, "Oh God. He might run for 200 yards today." Or something like that. The point is that the play was called back, the Texans went three and out, and the rout was on.

I still wonder if things might have been different had the Texans picked up that quick first down, built off the momentum and been given a chance to establish their offense. And heading into Sunday's game, there's no question how essential it will be for the Patriots to make an early statement and stop Houston from finding any kind of rhythm.

As bad as Matt Schaub has looked lately, he still has a few ridiculous weapons in his arsenal, players who can change a game in spite of their struggling QB.

Not to mention, are you really that confident in the Patriots defense? Obviously, you feel better than you did two months ago, but if this game comes down to the wire, the sight of Foster, Andre Johnson and even Owen Daniels will leave you cramping.

The Match-Up: Watt vs. Gronk
In retrospect, the worst thing about Rob Gronkowski missing the last Texans game was that we missed out on seeing him and JJ Watt face off. I'm actually a little nervous for what's going to happen the first time these guys collide. Can the world handle it? Either way, let's just hope that Gronk leads with his left forearm.

In all seriousness, Watt didn't put up big numbers in that Week 14 loss, but he was close to making a few big plays, and definitely let Brady know that he was there. The addition of Gronk should help in keeping Watt at bay, but it's hard to believe that he'll go two full games without making an impact.

The Reminder: Let's not forget how absolutely dominant Vince Wilfork was last time against Houston. No doubt the Texans spent a lot of time focusing on Big Vince this week, which might open the door for someone else to make a few big plays. I'm predicting Justin Francis, plus you know Rob Ninkovich will somehow find a way to leave his mark.

The Pick: I know that there are a few idiots down in Houston who think that this is going to be a cakewalk for the Texans, but I'm not buying it.

Final Score: New England 35, Texans 24

With that, go ahead and mark your calendars for next week:

New England at Denver and Seattle at Green Bay

Or more likely:

Baltimore at Houston and San Francisco at Atlanta

Enjoy the games.
Rich can be reached at Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Former Patriot Mike Vrabel named head coach of the Tennessee Titans


Former Patriot Mike Vrabel named head coach of the Tennessee Titans

The Titans job was rumored to be the first pick of Josh McDaniels, but as details have come to light, that is not the case.

The Tennessee Titans have agreed to hire former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel as their Head Coach tonight.

The team publicly announced the hire tonight across all of their social media platforms.

Vrabel won the Super Bowl with the Patriots three times in the early years of the New England dynasty. 

Despite having limited experience as a coach, he has attracted much attention in this past offseason for openings across the NFL. He has just one season's experience as a coordinator. 

Vrabel steps in to fill the role of Mike Mularkey, who was fired just one night after many believed he was receiving an extension. Despite the rumor of the extension, Mularkey and the Titans agreed to part ways just one day later.


Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?


Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?

FOXBORO -- We've hit on Tom Brady's hand. Over and over. And over again. We've also dissected just how good this Jaguars defense really is, and how Rob Gronkowski might be able to exploit it

But what about the games within the game? What about the so-called bit players who could make a significant impact in the AFC Championship Game? 

It seems to happen every year in the biggest games. No one predicted James White would put together an MVP-level performance in Super Bowl LI. No one saw Malcolm Butler coming - least of all Russell Wilson - in Super Bowl XLIX. And who would have guessed that Marquis Flowers, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise would've had key roles in helping the Patriots dominate the Divisional Round against the Titans?

Let's try to get out ahead of those storylines before the Jaguars and Patriots meet at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Here are five of our under-the-radar keys to the game: 

1) James Develin's incorporation into the game plan could seemingly pop up out of nowhere like a neck roll.
But if you've been following along this week, you know that it would be a good idea for the Patriots try to throw out of formations that employ their fullback. If Josh McDaniels figures out a way to keep Jacksonville's base defense on the field, that should give Brady all kinds of room to throw. That means getting Develin onto the field with Dion Lewis. It could also mean having Dwayne Allen (or Jacob Hollister) on the field with Rob Gronkowski. Two-back sets and two-tight end sets should have the same effect: The Jaguars will respond by leaving an extra linebacker and an extra defensive tackle on the field. (In all likelihood, run-stuffing linebacker Paul Posluszny would remain, as would defensive tackle Marcel Dareus. In sub situations, those players are more likely to come off, bringing nickel corner Aaron Colvin and pass-rusher Dante Fowler on.) That bigger stop-the-run grouping makes the Jaguars slower. When they're slower, they're less-equipped to defend the pass. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars allowed a quarterback rating of 99 and an average of 9.6 yards per attempt against offensive groupings with two backs, two tight ends, or both. Against three-receiver sets, they're much more effective, allowing a rating of 73 and an average-yards-per-attempt of just 4.9. One issue with Develin's usage could be - wait for it - Brady's hand. If it's clear Brady can't take snaps from under center, then the Patriots will either simply have to huddle up with Develin in the mix and align in some sort of spread look when they break, which they've done in the past. Or they could concede the threat of running behind Develin is non-existent if Brady can't get under center, and then you may simply see more two-tight end looks. Using tempo with this bigger personnel could also be wise. If the Patriots get defenders on the field they want to throw against, they could prevent the Jags from subbing by hurrying to the line of scrimmage. 

2) Joe Thuney's ability to handle power rushes on the interior could determine how smoothly the Patriots offense runs.
The Jaguars front is their biggest threat to Tom Brady. Jacksonville's coverage players are talented, but there should be windows to throw. If Brady doesn't have time to find the windows because of a dogged pass-rush, though, it won't matter. Thuney could be the key. Why? Calais Campbell, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, has seen 58 percent of his pass-rushing snaps come from the defensive right, according to Pro Football Focus. If that continues, he'll see his fair share of Nate Solder and -- in sub situations when he kicks inside -- Thuney on the offensive left. Along with the vastly underrated Yannick Ngakoue (12 sacks and a league-high six forced fumbles, but he's not a Pro Bowler or All-Pro), who rushes off the defensive right 77.5 percent of the time, Campbell helps form as imposing a duo as Thuney and Solder have faced all season. Campbell is the real-life response to the blue beings in James Cameron's "Avatar." He's 6-foot-8, with 36-inch arms, and if he can extend on Thuney, that's a one-on-one matchup that doesn't favor the Patriots. Thuney, who carries around a green notebook full of secrets to help him on game days, has been solid of late. He hasn't allowed a sack or a quarterback hit in his last three games, but he'll have to put together one of his cleanest performances of the season to keep Brady upright Sunday.  

3) Johnson Bademosi will have big shoes to fill in the kicking game. 
When Jonathan Jones suffered a season-ending injury against the Titans, that should thrust Bademosi - who was a healthy scratch last week -- back into the mix as a kick-coverage player and reserve corner for the Patriots. The Jaguars have a talented return man in Jaydon Mickens, and as a gunner, it could be on Bademosi's shoulders to make sure that the Patriots don't allow Mickens to make a game-changing play. With the focus on Matthew Slater, that should leave Bademosi with some one-on-one matchups to win on the outside. Why, you ask, is this important? The Jaguars are not a threat to consistently string together scoring drives offensively, so -- aside from scoring defensively, which they've been known to do -- they may need to exploit a breakdown in the kicking game in order to have a shot. "Mickens," Bill Belichick told this week, "as a returner, very explosive player...He's very, very explosive in the open field...They're a very explosive special teams unit."

4) For the second consecutive week, Marquis Flowers could play an important role in the defensive game plan.
His two best games with the Patriots have come against mobile quarterbacks, and Blake Bortles -- though not as athletic as Tyrod Taylor or Marcus Mariota -- would qualify. The Jaguars quarterback has recorded 123 yards rushing on 15 carries (an average of 8.2 yards per run) in two playoff games this season, and against the Bills in the Wild-Card Round, he actually ran for more yards (88) than he picked up through the air (87). Flowers has shown a knack for being able to mirror passers as he spies them from the second level, and it would come as no surprise if he was asked to do so again this weekend. The Patriots are a man coverage team. If you've watched closely, you've noticed they've played less true Cover-2 this season than they have in some others, partly because their corners are better-suited for man-to-man assignments than covering zones. By deploying Flowers (or Kyle Van Noy or someone else) as a spy, that allows Patriots defensive backs to play man-to-man on the back end. Without a spy, that would typically require more true zone in the secondary so that defensive backs could have their eyes in the backfield and spot when a quarterback takes off. If Flowers is tapped to spy again this weekend, he allows his teammates in coverage to play their game: Lock-down man-to-man.

5) Let's stick with the Patriots linebackers for this final key.
Discipline at the second level will be of vital importance against the Jaguars. Matt Patricia's unit should have little trouble stopping the run. It's a numbers game in the box, and if the Patriots commit enough resources to stoning Leonard Fournette, they should have success. Especially with the way Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown, Ricky Jean Francois and Trey Flowers have been playing of late. But the Jaguars are adept at using an opponent's aggressiveness against them. Whichever Patriots are at the linebacker level -- whether it's Elandon Roberts, Van Noy or Patrick Chung -- will have to be sure they read their keys and remain patient. Leaving Bortles wide-open throwing lanes is one of the few ways the Jaguars will be able to create chunk plays on Sunday, and if the Patriots are too eager to step up and fill lanes against the run, they could open themselves up to be stunned by the 23rd-rated quarterback in the NFL this season. The Jaguars passed on three of their first four plays from scrimmage against the Steelers in the Divisional Round. They picked up 53 yards on those three throws due in large part to Bortles' use of play-action.