Now that we’re down to the Elite Eight of the 2012 NFL Playoffs, the stakes are even higher – as in a berth in the conference championship.
Saturday’s two divisional playoff games feature four teams that faced each other in the regular season, and in the case of the opener between the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens we’re talking just last month. The top-seeded Broncos routed the Ravens, 34-17, back on December 16th in Baltimore for their ninth win in a row. This game will be played at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver starting at 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time.
Meanwhile, the nightcap between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park in San Francisco will showcase a different looking Niners squad from the one that escaped Lambeau Field with a 30-22 opening day victory on September 9th. Alex Smith was the winning quarterback in that game, but the young Colin Kaepernick has since supplanted him.
The home teams appear to have the edge on this day as both are coming off a bye, are well rested and have a defined blueprint on how to exploit the visiting teams, but anything can happen in the playoffs. Here are some critical factors to pay attention to.
Five Things To Watch:
1. What kind of an impact will the presence of Ray Lewis have on Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning – These two living legends have waged plenty of memorable battles over the years, but Lewis was on the sidelines in Baltimore for the last meeting still unsure of whether or not he had played his last game. His 13 tackles last week in the Ravens’ 24-9 Wild Card win over Indianapolis answered that question and he is no doubt eager to match wits once again with Manning, who is guiding the league’s 5th-ranked passing offense and 4th-ranked offense overall. The winner of this chess match will have a big hand in deciding which team advances to the AFC Championship.
2. How will Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick perform in his first career playoff game with Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers gunning for a second Super Bowl – Rodgers looked as sharp last week against Minnesota as he did during his near flawless postseason two years ago that culminated with a victory in Super Bowl XLV. As strong as San Francisco’s defense is, Kaepernick could feel the pressure of trying to match Rodgers score for score and that could lead to him forcing some throws. The savvy Packers veteran defensive back Charles Woodson will be counting on that, so unless Kaepernick can find success in the read option again and receives some solid run support from Frank Gore and company, he could tighten up when it matters most. And if that happens, Jim Harbaugh will get flooded with Alex Smith questions.
3. Can Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco get over the hump and figure out how not to get exploited by a dangerous Denver defense – Flacco is now 6-4 in his 10 playoff appearances and was a missed field goal away at New England from reaching his first Super Bowl last year, but he was taken to the woodshed by the Broncos in the first meeting. He had one pass intercepted and returned 98 yards the other way for a touchdown, was sacked three times, lost a fumble on a 3rd-and-1 quarterback sneak and was drilled in the chest by linebacker Von Miller just as he threw the ball on another play. This time around Denver’s defense is rested, playing in front of the home fans and is cognizant of the fact that Flacco and the Ravens will have to deal with the altitude and thin air at Mile High. Oh, and by the way, that unit finished the regular season No. 2 overall in the NFL, so it could be another long afternoon for Flacco.
4. Will Packers running back DuJuan Harris be able to find enough room against San Francisco’s stingy defense to keep that unit honest – Harris showed off an impressive burst, excellent balance and toughness last week against the Vikings, finishing with 47 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown. But that wasn’t against the likes of Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, with Justin Smith expected to return to the lineup after missing a month with a torn left triceps (the same injury that sidelined Ray Lewis). “God willing and the creek don’t rise, he’s going to play,” Harbaugh told the Contra Costa Times on Wednesday. If he indeed is back, the 6-foot-4, 285-pound defensive end could be Harris’ worst nightmare, and by default, Aaron Rodgers’ because that would free up Aldon Smith and is 19.5 sacks.
5. Which Broncos wide receiver will benefit the most from Peyton Manning’s playoff experience and revitalized right arm – There are reams and reams of film chronicling the successful postseason connections between Manning and the likes of Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Pierre Garcon and Dallas Clark. Of course all of those highlights took place when Manning was wearing an Indianapolis Colts uniform. This year he took Denver’s Demaryius Thomas (94 catches for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Eric Decker (85 for 1,064 yards and 13 touchdowns) to new heights. He also helped veteran wide receiver Brandon Stokley (45 for 544 yards and five touchdowns) find his own fountain of youth and tight ends Joel Dreesen (41 for 356 yards and five touchdowns) and Jacob Tamme (52 for 555 yards and two touchdowns) grow comfortable in their Clark-type roles. Lewis and veteran Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed will do all that they can to get everyone else on their side of the ball in position, but all it takes is for one of these five to find an opening and Manning will deliver.
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