The Redzone: It’s deja vu all over again in the NFL...

We’ve been here before haven’t we? There are some remarkable similarities between this NFL divisional-round and previous years.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
Image: (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

THE NFL PRIDES itself on its unpredictability. Because of the draft system, teams can go from just two wins one year to the playoffs the next. However, there’s an eerily familiar feel to this year’s divisional-round.

In the NFC, three of these teams — Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons — took part in the divisional-round in 2010, with the San Francisco 49ers replacing the Chicago Bears as the fourth.

In the AFC, the final four are the exact same as last year – New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans – the first time that has happened in the NFL since the 1970 merger.

Equally predictable is the fate of the number one seeds in both conferences. Eight times in 12 seasons, a number one seed has lost in the divisional round while the other has lost in the Super Bowl. If that trend continues, neither Peyton Manning nor Matt Ryan will be lifting the Vince Lombardi trophy in February.

Baltimore Ravens @ Denver Broncos

Pop quiz time. Who was the last Ravens quarterback to beat Peyton Manning? Get it? Well, if not, it was Elvis Grbac back in 2001. Since then, Manning has nine straight wins against the Ravens including a 34-17 victory in Baltimore in week 15 this year.

However, while Manning is riding an 11 win streak, his record in the post-season is only 9-10 all time and 0-3 in in playoff games when the temperature has been below freezing at kick-off. That said, the most accurate quarterback in the league (68.6%) will look to take advantage of a Ravens pass defence ranked 16th in the NFL and giving up 228.1 yards per game.

For the Ravens, pundits may have focused on the showboating performance of Ray Lewis last weekend, but it was the play of Anquan Bolden (five catches, 145 yards and a touchdown) that has allowed them become the only team with less than 11 wins to make the final eight. A victory for the Ravens would also tie Joe Flacco with Eli Manning for the most play-off wins by a quarterback on the road (five).

Verdict: The Broncos are 8.5 point favourites for this game which, given Manning’s post-season record, seems high. I do, however, still expect them to have enough to advance to the AFC Championship game. Denver by 5.

Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers

It seems like just yesterday that the 49ers went into Lambeau Field on the opening night of the season and dismantled the Packers. However, Green Bay have traditionally gotten the better of their west coast opponents, winning five of their last six encounters with the 49ers.

San Francisco, on the other hand, are 19-9 all time when playing at home in the play-offs but were the only divisional winner not to manage three wins in a row this season, something they will have to do if they hope to win the Super Bowl this year. The fact they have Colin Kaepernick under centre should help, the second-year quarterback has yet to lose a game in Candlestick Park when starting.

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Aaron Rodgers goes into the game having not thrown an interception in his last six and continues to have a point to prove to the 49ers who chose to draft Alex Smith over him in 2005. The lack of run support continues to haunt Green Bay though and they will need to better the 45 yards they totalled against San Francisco in week one.

Verdict: This will probably end up being the closest game of the weekend and it’s impossible to tell which Packers team will turn up. With that in mind, San Francisco by three.

Seattle Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons

If a number one seed is going to continue the trend of losing in the divisional-round of the play-offs, you really can’t ask for a better candidate than the Atlanta Falcons. Despite being 56-24 in the last five regular seasons, they are 0-3 under Mike Smith in the play-offs. Indeed, in the history of the franchise, they have never won a post-season game as the number one seed.

There are those who question the bottle of quarterback Matt Ryan when it comes to the post-season and, when you look at his record of four interceptions to just three touchdowns in those three losses, it’s easy to see why. However, the Seahawks represent a good opportunity to get that elusive first victory as the Falcons have won three straight against Seattle.

Also going against the Seahawks is the loss of Chris Clemons to an ACL injury and you have to question what effect that will have on a defence that has given up just 15.3 points per game this season. However, after starting 1-5 on the road, Seattle has won its last three, averaging over 220 yards on the ground in those games.

Verdict: On one side, you’ve a quarterback who is willing to run the length of the field to throw blocks for his running back and on the other you’ve a signal-caller who has consistently failed to perform at this stage of the season. Seattle by 6.

Houston Texans @ New England Patriots

So much is being made of the fact the Patriots humiliated the Texans on Monday Night Football in Foxboro in week 14. However, while the Patriots are 8-0 in the postseason against teams they haven’t played in the regular season, they are only 8-6 against teams they have and just 3-6 since 2005.

It’s also been a long time since the Patriots won a Super Bowl. If Brady and Belichick lift the Vince Lombardi trophy this year, it will mark the longest gap between Super Bowls (eight years), since Roger Staubach and Tom Landry won it all in both 1971 and 1977.

For the Texans, they not only have to stop Tom Brady on defence but they must ensure they hand the ball to Arian Foster as often as possible on offence. Why? Well, Matt Schaub has managed just one touchdown pass in the Texans’ last five games and remember what I said last week about average quarterbacks not winning Super Bowls?

Verdict: Again, I think predictions of a blow-out in this game are wide of the mark. Houston may have stumbled into the play-offs but they’re not the terrible team they’ve been painted as of late. However, I still expect Tom Brady to pass Joe Montana for the most play-off wins as a quarterback. New England by 8.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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