With the divisional round set, let's take a quick look at the main storylines setting up for this weekend's playoffs. We'll have much more comprehensive coverage through the week, but here's a quick primer, starting with the two Saturday games.
The Broncos thrashed the Ravens, 34-17, at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium on December 16, and that game was more about the failures of Baltimore's offense than anything else. The Ravens' first eight drives: Fumble, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, interception, end of half. The Joe Facco interception was returned 98 yards for a touchdown by Denver cornerback Chris Harris, and once the Broncos got their offense warmed up, it was off to the races.
It was the same week that Ravens head coach fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and ever since then, the Ravens have been trying to get their offense on track. No such issues for the red-hot Broncos, who haven't lost a game since October 7. Peyton Manning and an improved defense have been the headlines, but don't overlook the impact of running back Knowshon Moreno, the former draft bust who's come on big in the second half of the season. Moreno racked up 115 rushing yards in that win over the Ravens, and unless Baltimore's defense looks as stout as it did against the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round, this could get out of hand fast.
Then again, as Broncos head coach John Fox noted on Monday, this is a different Ravens team.
“They had some guys missing, no question, when we played them there," Fox said. "They’ve got their inspirational leader in Ray Lewis, made his comeback yesterday and obviously will be part of their action when they come here. [Safety Bernard] Pollard didn’t play, [linebacker Dannell] Ellerbe didn’t play, so they’ve got three pretty formidable guys back on defense that they did not have in our last contest. Then offensively, more the same. [Offensive lineman Marshal] Yanda didn’t play. They totally reshuffled their offensive line. [Ed] Dickson, the tight end, didn’t play in our earlier game so this will be a completely different game, a completely different test. A lot of new faces.”
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
Saturday, Jan. 12, 8:00 p.m. ET
Candlestick Park, San Francisco, Calif.
This game could very easily hinge on the health of one player -- 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith, who suffered a torn left triceps in the team's win over the New England Patriots on Dec. 16. The 49ers' defense isn't nearly the same without Smith, and that starts with the effect on defensive end Aldon Smith, who amassed 19.5 sacks in the regular season, but none on the 49ers' last three games. If Justin Smith is good to go and Aldon Smith can make hay of the Packers' leaky offensive line, this game could be a re-run of the Week 1 matchup between the two teams, in which Aaron Rodgers was sacked three times and the 49ers won, 30-13.
One way in which the Packers are different now is that they've found a bit of a consistent running game. Rodgers was the Packers' leading rusher with 27 yards against the 49ers, and that's been through the efforts of two unexpected contributors -- former Packers back Ryan Grant, who was re-signed for the stretch run, and DaJuan Harris, who gained 100 total yards and scored a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings in the wind-card round.
Where the 49ers are different now is in their passing game, with Colin Kaepernick replacing Alex Smith at quarterback. Kaepernick's arm should be a concern for the Packers' defense, but it's his mobility that could make a difference. The Packers didn't face a read-option running quarterback until they went up against Vikings backup Joe Webb last weekend, and Webb ran for 68 yards on seven carries.
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