Divisional round weekend: CSN's picks


Divisional round weekend: CSN's picks

By Ray Didinger

Breaking down the NFL's Divisional Roundweekend:

4:30 p.m. CBS

If you like old-fashioned, blood-and-guts football, this is the game for you. The Ravens and Steelers have a genuine rivalry, a real dislike for each other, primarily because they are so similar. They play twice every season in the AFC North, so there are no secrets or tricks. It's all about socking the other guy in the mouth for 60 minutes.

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They play close, low-scoring games six of the last seven have been decided by four points or fewer and there is no reason to expect this to be any different. But the Steelers have two big things going for them: they are playing at home and they will have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. The Ravens last three victories in the series came when Big Ben did not play.

Baltimores defense, led by middle linebacker Ray Lewis, is very good, but Pittsburghs defense is better. It allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season, led the league in sacks (48) and allowed an average of just 62.8 yards rushing per game, the lowest figure since the 16-game schedule was adopted in 1978.

Didinger's pick: Steelers 17, Ravens 13

GREEN BAY (11-6) at ATLANTA (13-3)
8 p.m. FOX

The Falcons are the No. 1 seed in the NFC and they have a formidable home-field advantage, but the Packers come into this game with momentum and confidence. While the Falcons coasted down the stretch, the Packers played three elimination games to get here. They had to defeat the Giants and Chicago to get into the playoffs then they had to win last Sunday in Philadelphia to advance to the divisional round.

Checkoutpredictionmachine.com for analysis and forecast of the Packers-Falconsgame

The Falcons defeated the Packers in the Georgia Dome in Week 12, but it was a close game (20-17) decided on a late field goal by Matt Bryant. The Packers are playing better now than they were then. Linebacker Clay Matthews, their defensive catalyst, played on a bad leg in that game and did not register a sack. He is healthy now. Also, the Packers are better because they found a running game in rookie James Sparks who ripped through the Eagles for 123 yards in the wild card game.

The best way to slow down the Green Bay offense is to put a heavy rush on quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but the Falcons arent a great pass rushing team (31 sacks). A key match up is defensive end John Abraham, Atlantas best pass rusher, working against the rookie tackle Brian Bulaga.

Didinger's pick: Packers 30, Falcons 24


SEATTLE (8-9) at CHICAGO (11-5)
1 p.m. FOX

This is the weekend's "no-respect" matchup. No one believes the Seahawks, a team with a losing record, are still alive in the final eight and few people outside Chicago believe in the Bears despite their No. 2 seed in the conference. But they are going to play anyway so well see what happens.

Checkoutpredictionmachine.com for analysis and forecast of the Seahawks-Bearsgame

The Seahawks defeated the Bears in Chicago in Week 6, 23-20, but that was when Mike Martz, the offensive coordinator, was calling plays like he was on a sugar high. He made Andy Reid look like Woody Hayes. In that game, Martz called 45 passes and just 14 runs and the Seattle defense teed off on quarterback Jay Cutler, sacking him six times. Martz has come to his sense since then and now mixes in enough runs by Matt Forte to keep the offense somewhat in balance and the Bears are a much better team.

Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is coming off perhaps the best game of his career, throwing four touchdown passes in an unlikely 41-36 upset of New Orleans in the wild card round. Wide receiver Mike Williams had a monster game (10 catches, 123 yards) in the regular season win over the Bears. Can the Seahawks surprise us two weeks in a row? Not likely.

Didinger's pick: Bears 27, Seahawks 17

N.Y. JETS (12-5) at NEW ENGLAND (14-2)
4:30 p.m. CBS

Another matchup of bitter division rivals, this one with the verbal spice added by Jets coach Rex Ryan who this season talked enough trash to turn Staten Island into a landfill. Ryan has been talking Super Bowl for months and on Sunday, he faces his biggest hurdle when he meets the Patriots, the team with the best record in football.

Clickhere to see who predictionmachine.com picks to win the Patriots-Jets game,with complete statisticalbreakdown

The two teams split their regular season meetings. The Jets won at home in Week 2, 28-14, as they intercepted Tom Brady twice (two of just four interceptions Brady threw all season). But since then the Patriots have reinvented themselves, trading away Randy Moss and turning the offense over to some youthful no-names (Danny Woodhead, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez) and trusty veterans (Wes Welker and Deion Branch).

This Patriots defense isnt as good as the ones coach Bill Belichick assembled during their earlier Super Bowl runs, it is younger and more prone to breakdowns, but with the way the offense is playing (averaging 32.4 points per game during the regular season) it almost doesnt matter.

The Jets are looking for revenge for the 45-3 embarrassment the Patriots inflicted on them last month on Monday Night Football, but I dont see it happening.

Didinger's pick:Patriots 30, Jets 20

Report: Cavs. Pacers, Nuggets discuss deal involving George, Love

Report: Cavs. Pacers, Nuggets discuss deal involving George, Love

Don’t count the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the Paul George sweepstakes just yet.

According to ESPN’s Marc Stein and Chris Haynes, the Cavaliers are still working on a way to get George with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Ohio.

The latest rumor involves a three way deal being discussed between the Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, and Denver Nuggets. According to Hayes, the deal would send George and Kenenth Faried to Cleveland and Kevin Love to Denver.

Presumably, Indiana would end up with good picks and a few young assets.

Click here for the complete story.

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

David Harris is expected to be a savvy middle linebacker who will line up his teammates when they help. He's expected to provide some level of leadership, even in his first year in New England, as an accomplished-but-hungry 33-year-old who has not yet reached a Super Bowl. 

What Harris is not expected to do is improve the Patriots pass rush. He was in on one sack in 900 snaps last season.  

But in a roundabout way he might. 

MORE: How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

There are dominos to fall now that Harris has been added to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. How much will Harris play, and whose playing time will he cut into? Those questions don't yet have answers, but one of the more intriguing elements of the Harris acquisition is how he will benefit Dont'a Hightower's game.

If Harris can pick up the Patriots defense quickly -- and all indications are that there should be few issues there -- he could take some of the all-important communication responsibilities off of Hightower's shoulders. 

Ever since taking the reins from Jerod Mayo as the team's signal-caller, Hightower has had to be on top of all requisite pre-snap checks and last-second alignment changes. It's a critical role, and one that Hightower performs well, but those duties place some added stress on the player wearing the green dot. Perhaps if part of that load can be heaped onto Harris' plate, that might allow Hightower to feel as though he's been freed up to focus on his individual assignments.

Harris' presence might also impact where on the field Hightower is used. Hightower may be the most versatile piece on a Patriots defense loaded with them, but with Harris in the middle, Hightower could end up playing more on the edge, where he's proven he can make a major impact (see: Super Bowl LI).

For Belichick and his staff, having the ability to use one of their best pass-rushers -- and one of the most efficient rushers league-wide, per Pro Football Focus -- on the edge more frequently has to be an enticing byproduct of the move to sign Harris. Especially since there are some question marks among the team's end-of-the-line defenders behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. 

We'll have to wait for training camp before we have an idea of how exactly Harris fits in with the Patriots defense. But the effect he'll have on his new teammates, and Hightower in particular, will be fascinating to track.