NFL 2nd Round: Sunday Previews

Sunday’s NFL second-round games start with Houston-Baltimore (1 PM ET, CBS) and conclude with NY Giants-Green Bay (4:30 PM ET, Fox). You can scroll down one post for the previews of Saturday’s games (New Orleans-San Francisco & Denver-New England). Here’s how the Notebook sees Sunday…

Houston-Baltimore: This game reminds me a lot of the 2008 AFC playoffs when the Ravens were coming off a first-round win and going on the road to Tennessee. They pulled out a 16-13 win and made the AFC Championship Game. Now it’s Houston coming off a win and bringing a rookie quarterback on the road and hoping the run game and defense can carry him to an upset.

I’ve heard people who follow the NFL closely say that this Baltimore defense is not as good as it’s been in recent years and that the Raven D is living on past reputation. I understand where they’re coming from, but I don’t agree—or at the very least, I think it overstates the point. While it’s true Ray Lewis and Ed Reed aren’t the game-changers they used to be, the Baltimore defense still ranks 3rd in the NFL in points allowed. Terrell Suggs is a game-changer at outside linebacker with 14 sacks and they’re better on the corners then has been the case in recent seasons. I don’t think we’ll see a blown coverage down the sideline like we did last year in Pittsburgh when Ben Roethlisberger hit a bomb on 3rd-and-18 in the waning minutes to set up the winning touchdown. Furthermore, Reed and Lewis strike me as the kind of veterans who, even though they’re well past their prime, find a way to make a big play at the biggest time. It’s kind of like watching Curt Schilling or Andy Pettite go to the mound, or when an aging Larry Bird or Magic Johnson were on the floor (see video below). Dramatic moments weren’t a daily part of life anymore, but the vets could still gut it up at crunch time.

There’s going to be a tremendous battle at the line of scrimmage when Houston has the ball, because the Texans’ rush game is outstanding, with both Arian Foster and Ben Tate able to run both inside and out. If Houston can win this battle, and left tackle Duane Brown can keep Suggs from going crazy, Houston will have a chance to run a safe no-mistakes offense and then see if they can get Andre Johnson open down the field in play-action.

Houston’s defense is extremely good in their own right. As with most 3-4 defenses, they get their heat from the linebacking spots, especially Conner Barwin on the outside. One factor not to overlook is how their ends, J.J. Watts and Antonio Smith can come up with some pressure as well, a difficult thing for an end to do in a three-man front. It’s going to be important for Baltimore to get Ray Rice established and keep this aggressive defense at home. If I were the Ravens, there would be some draws, traps and other misdirection plays to keep Houston on its heels. What Baltimore can’t do is can’t overly creative with their offensive game plan and decide they have to throw the ball to win. That’s going to be tempting, because there’s a lot of pressure on the Ravens at home and teams under a lot of heat and favored solidly to win don’t necessarily like being in a dogfight. But if Baltimore gets away from Rice and tries to force things to Torrey Smith downfield, it’s going to give Houston a tremendous opportunity for the sacks and interceptions they need to win.

Baltimore is favored by 7.5, an absurdly high line. I understand T.J. Yates is a rookie quarterback on the road who’s only beaten Cincinnati (both regular season and postseason) in his career. But when you run the ball like Houston does, have a defense like they do and a game-breaking receiver like they do, you should never be that type of an underdog. The Over/Under is a low 36, so we can project out the Vegas final score as being in the 21-14 range. The total sounds right, and I see Baltimore winning, but it will be closer than the experts say.


NY Giants-Green Bay: The Giants played the Packers better than anyone outside Kansas City this year (the one game Green Bay lost) and they won the 2007 NFC title game (see a great ground-level shot of the decisive interception in that game in the video below) here in frigid conditions. Combine that with New York winning its final two games of the year to make the playoffs and then hammering Atlanta last week, and you have people believing an upset is in the works. We should note that the smart money in Las Vegas is not as taken, and the current line is Green Bay (-8), a huge number for a playoff game against a team with New York money behind it, and the Over/Under is 52.5. Will the final score be roughly 30-21 Green Bay? Let’s take a look…

Both defenses allow opposing offenses to routinely drive the field, so this game is going to be settled in the red zone, or by who can get the most big strikes over the top. The matchup of Giant receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks against the Packer corners of Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams is an absolutely huge battle. All four players have shown themselves capable of the big play and any hope New York has of an upset has to start here. No matter how well your defense plays, you are not going to stop Aaron Rodgers and if the Giants are going to put 31-35 points on the board and steal a win, Cruz and Nicks need to be seen running in space for a long time after the catch. On the flip side if notorious ballhawks Woodson and Williams get it going back the other way, that (-8) line is going to look small by early evening in Wisconsin.

When we go to the other side of the ball, it’s the interior that matters most. Green Bay must keep Rodgers upright against a pass rush where Jason Pierre-Paul, with his 16.5 sacks comes off the edge, Justin Tuck can still cause problems on the other side and Chris Canty comes up the middle. For a team that’s had pass protection problems all year, this is an awfully good front four to have to deal with. What the Packers have going for them is the extraordinary combination of Mike McCarthy’s ability to get receivers open on short notice and Rodgers pinpoint precision in finding the right one and delivering the ball. It’s asking a lot of #12, but he’s capable of winning this game even if the protection collapses, especially now that Greg Jennings is back in the lineup at wideout

The running game for both teams is a huge question mark. The Giants did a great job last week as Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw woke up the echoes of 2007. But should that wipe out an entire year of poor production on the ground?  Green Bay got its running game going for the playoffs last year, but is it asking too much for McCarthy to suddenly dial it up at the right time again. In both cases, I’m not expecting much from either team on the ground, but this is an area where the pendulum could swing to other an NYG upset or a Green Bay blowout.

But there’s no bigger X-factor in this game than Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley, a big and fast tight end who can dazzle and frustrate, sometimes within the same play. I like Finley and he’s impossible for anyone to match up with when he’s playing well—too fast for linebackers, too big for strong safeties. While New York presents an intriguing matchup that the 15-1 Packers would probably have preferred to avoid, I think Green Bay has too many playmakers. I’ll take them to win and cover, in a 35-24 final.