NFL Gridiron Guide: Broncos, Packers, Falcons and Patriots are the picks

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers celebrates after Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers celebrates after fullback John Kuhn scored on a 3-yard touchdown run in the second quarter of an NFC wild-card game against the Minnesota Vikings. (Jan. 5, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty

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John Boell Newsday sports writer John Boell

Boell has worked in the Newsday sports department in various capacities since 1999. In 2010, he became Newsday's ...

It doesn't get much better than the NFL divisional playoffs. It's the pro football version of the Elite Eight, and it begins Saturday. This is easily one of my favorite sports weekends.

By the way, does anything look familiar as far as the playoffs this season?

It should. Six of the eight teams that reached the divisional playoffs a year ago made a repeat trip, including the entire AFC, joined by San Francisco and Green Bay from the NFC (only the Giants and New Orleans missed this year's postseason).

The two AFC games are 9 1/2-point spreads, while the NFC games are much closer.

There's a strong possibility we'll see Tom Brady and Peyton Manning renew their playoff rivalry in the AFC Championship Game.

In the NFC, could it be Seattle vs. Green Bay, this time at Lambeau Field with "real" officials? Fail Mary II? The Inaccurate Reception Deux? How about The Do-Over? OK, I'll stop. Now, let's get this playoff party started already!

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Here's a closer look at the matchups:

 

RAVENS (11-6) at BRONCOS (13-3), 4:30 p.m.

Broncos by 9 1/2; O/U: 46

TV: Ch. 2; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)

The Broncos have the NFL's longest win streak with 11 straight and are 8-3 against the spread (ATS) in those games. The AFC's top seed beat the Ravens in Baltimore, 34-17, a month ago in a game that wasn't as close (31-3 after three quarters) as the final score. The talk around Denver this season revolves around QB Peyton Manning, and for good reason. But as good as he has been in the regular season, he's had less success in the playoffs with a 9-10 record (all with Indy). However, he is 7-2 all-time vs. the Ravens with a 103 QB rating, 18 TDs and 5 INTs. The Ravens are 9-4 ATS in their last 13 road playoff games, but just 1-5 ATS in their last six divisional playoff games. Baltimore wants LB Ray Lewis' "last ride" to continue, but Denver's defense is better. On offense, Broncos WRs Demaryius Thomas (1,434 yards, 10 TDs) and Eric Decker (1,064 yards, 13 TDs) will be too much to handle. Cue the postgame shot of Manning and Lewis, two of the best players of their era.

THE PICK: Broncos

 

PACKERS (12-5) at 49ERS (11-4-1), 8 p.m.

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49ers by 3; O/U: 45

TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)

These two met way back in Week 1 as San Francisco traveled to Lambeau and produced an impressive 30-22 win behind a 20-for-26, two-touchdown performance from some guy named Alex Smith, then the 49ers starting QB. A lot has changed since then. San Fran coach Jim Harbaugh made Colin Kaepernick the starter after Smith went down with an injury on Nov. 11. The Niners are 5-2 (4-3 ATS) with Kaepernick under center. After the Packers struggled to a 2-3 start* (see: intro), they have won 10 of their last 12 and are 9-3 ATS. Green Bay is 5-2-1 ATS in its last eight divisional playoff games. Plus, the Packers continue to get healthier, especially with the return of defensive back Charles Woodson. Key matchup: Can Green Bay's offensive line keep Aaron Rodgers upright and give him time and space. If they can, I believe the Packers not only cover, but they win.

THE PICK: Packers

 

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SEAHAWKS (12-5) at FALCONS (13-3), 1 p.m.

Falcons by 2 1/2; O/U: 46

TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)

I can't remember a team that has had more pressure to win a playoff game the last decade than Atlanta. The Falcons are 0-3 in the playoffs under QB Matt Ryan and coach Mike Smith. Ryan, nicknamed "Matty Ice," has been ice cold in the playoffs, including last year's 24-2 loss to the Giants. Has there ever been a less heralded, underwhelming, more shaky 13-3 team in NFL history? I think not. The Falcons closed the regular season 3-4-1 ATS in their last eight games. Seattle has won its last six and eight of its last nine overall (7-2 ATS). I went back and forth on this game. There are a few factors that make me lean toward the favorite. Ryan (32 TDs, 4,719 yards this season) is a ridiculous 33-4 all-time at the Georgia Dome. Also, Seattle losing defensive end Chris Clemons (knee) and his 11 sacks will hurt the pass rush and give Ryan more time. Hot-lanta celebrates its first playoff win since Jan. 15, 2005.

THE PICK: Falcons

 

TEXANS (13-4) at PATRIOTS (12-4), 4:30 p.m.

Patriots by 9 1/2; O/U: 47 1/2

TV: Ch. 2; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)