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

Develin stays on top of tight end techniques in case he's next man up


Develin stays on top of tight end techniques in case he's next man up

FOXBORO -- Once the Patriots traded AJ Derby to the Broncos for a fifth-round pick earlier this week, they were left with just two tight ends on their roster. While those two tight ends -- Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett -- have played as two of the best tight ends in football this season, it's a position group that has been considerably thinned. 

Until coach Bill Belichick adds another player at that spot, James Develin would be the logical "next man up." A position group unto himself as the team's lone active fullback -- the other fullback in the locker room is practice-squad player Glenn Gronkowski -- Develin meets with Patriots tight ends and coach Brian Daboll on a daily basis because the fullback and tight-end responsibilities in the Patriots offense are similar, particularly in the run game.

As much time as he spends with that group, Develin tries to absorb what he can when it comes to the nuances of the position. 

"I always kind of try to prepare, obviously, for my fullback role, but then in any other role that I might be called upon for," Develin said on Thursday. "A couple years ago, we had a bunch of injuries during the offseason program, during OTAs, and I filled in a little bit at tight end. I try to keep myself familiar with all those techniques and that tight end role so if the day were to come where I needed to go out there and do it, I'd be able to go out there and do it."

When the Patriots began the season relying more on the run, Develin was called upon to play a relatively significant role in the offense. He averaged 21.3 snaps per game through the first three games of the season, but that number has fallen to 13.6 since Tom Brady's return from a four-game suspension. Still, his role can be a critical one. 

The Patriots' running game faltered last season after both Blount and Dion Lewis went down with season-ending injuries. Having Develin in the mix as an extra blocker would not have guaranteed a more efficient attack, but it may have helped the team's running-game woes late in the year. 

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels now has the luxury of bringing Develin onto the field when he wants some added muscle for his blocking schemes, and should the Patriots need a tight end in a pinch, Develin could do that too.

"A lot of times, especially in the blocking game, really the only difference [between fullback and tight end] is that I'm five yards off the ball in the backfield and they're up on the line," Develin said. "The angles are a little bit different. But a lot of times the assignment is typcially the same thing. It's just the technique of getting there and the angles that you take.

"Then in the passing game, as a tight end, there's just a lot more routes and stuff like that. I try to work on that to help me as a fullback to be a little bit better in space . . . It's a sybiotic relationship." 

As it is, Develin will line up occasionally outside. Though not a threat as a receiver in that spot in the same way that Gronkowski or Bennett would be, he understands some of the different looks tight ends have to be comfortable with.

If an emergency arose and he was asked to fill that role, he wouldn't hesitate.

"There's a little bit of carry-over depending on what we're doing or whatever play we have called where I'll line up on the line," he said. "But that's kind of what a fullback has to do. You kind of have to be able to be thrown into whatever position on the field that you gotta do and you gotta just do your job."

Older, wiser Gronk: 'When the journey is over... you need to get down'


Older, wiser Gronk: 'When the journey is over... you need to get down'

FOXBORO -- The move did not require Olympic-caliber speed or other-worldly quickness. There was a subtle head fake, a foot in the ground, a shoulder turn. All of a sudden, Rob Gronkowski was wide open in the middle of the field and reeling in a Tom Brady pass for 37 yards in the fourth quarter of last weekend's win over the Steelers. 

Bill Belichick raved about the play on days after the fact. What Gronkowski did to safety Robert Golden was a thing of beauty in the eyes of the coach.

"This really is a good look at Rob’s route-running ability," Belichick said. "Rob comes in on Golden and takes it down the middle, like he’s going to run a crossing pattern or over route, and gives him a good move here and bends it back out. The receivers clear out the corners. That’s a lot of space there."

Gronkowski's move, combined with the steady diet of crossing routes teams have seen from the Patriots in recent weeks, helped set up the play that led to LeGarrette Blount's second touchdown of the day. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end was like a power pitcher who had been throwing fastballs for six innings and then pulled the string with a change-up in the seventh. Golden was helpless. 

"The number of times we’ve run Rob on over routes, and to come back and counter it -- it looks like Golden is trying to guess on the route and undercut it a little bit. Rob comes back away from it and turns it into a big play and sets up our last touchdown. Really a well-executed play by Rob.

“Sometimes you think it’s all size and strength, but as a technique route runner, he’s very good, too."

A quick mid-route shimmy. A look in one direction before heading in another. A nudge -- sometimes picking up a flag, sometimes not. They're all elements of route-running that Gronkowski has added to his tool belt over the course of his seven years with the Patriots. Considered the team's resident frat boy, it's sometimes hard to remember that he's one of the longest-tenured players on the team, a captain, and that he's picked up his share veteran tricks along the way.  

"I’ve definitely had to work it out plenty since I’ve been here," Gronkowski said of his route-running. "To be successful in this organization and this offense you just got to be working on it big time. It’s not just you just come in and you have it. From day one I remember I could barely even get open but just learning from Tom, from all my coaches here, it definitely helps out going out and focusing on your route detail. 

"Sometimes, necessarily, you don’t have to be the best skilled player out on the field to get open. It’s just learning the game of football, how to get open, what move to make is definitely all part of it."

Getting open is only part of it.

What he does with the football in his hands to run away from defenders is something that comes naturally. What hasn't always clicked for Gronkowski is how to finish. He has a tendency to want to impose his will on opponents at the ends of plays, running them over and leaving them behind, or embarrassing them and their loved ones by dragging them for inordinate amounts of time as he churns forward for extra yards. 

But in recent years, he's accepted that not every play needs to end with an exclamation point. He has come to understand that oftentimes a simple period will do.

Take his 37-yard catch against the Steelers, for example. When he got near the sideline and faced down a Pittsburgh defensive back, instead of trying to trample him to get to the goal line, he lowered his pads, shielded his legs, and went down.

"You always got to protect yourself whenever you can," he said. "You know, when the journey is done, if you’re running the ball, just get down and don’t take that extra shot. You can always show your toughness, you can have five guys take you down, but really that’s sometimes not the case. 

"You really want to show that you just want to get down, you want to preserve your body for the next play when the journey is done and you’re not going to get any more yards."

More often than not, it's the prudent choice. Mature, even. 

"It started coming in the last few years," Gronkowski said. "I remember a couple times my rookie year I'd just try and ‘Boom!' I remember I’d be like, ‘Oh, that one hurt.’ It hurt to go one more inch. 

"Definitely, when the journey is over and you know you gave it all -- you’re not going to be able to carry five guys, sometimes not even two guys -- whenever you just feel like you need to get down, you need to get down. It’s a physical game. Every play is going to be physical so save it for the next one."

Spoken like a savvy veteran.