USA TODAY Sports
The ending of one career coincides with the revitalization of another when Ray Lewis's Ravens meet Peyton Manning's Broncos Saturday in the first of two divisional round playoff games on the day.
Some may dis Peyton Manning's alleged lack of success in cold weather. Truth be told, he didn't compile his NFL history level stats all in the friendly confines of domed environments in Indianapolis. While he doesn't share the playoff success of his main comparable, Tom Brady, he's beaten this Ravens team plenty of times in his caerer - 7-2 record, 103 rating, 18 touchdowns, five interceptions.
Baltimore would be wise to not count on a poor game from Manning.
But Denver shouldn't count on the same Ravens team they thumped 34-17 (it was 31-3 in the second half) in Week 15. In a rare meltdown by the Ravens in the final four games of the year, Baltimore was battered, multiple starters were out and it was the first week on the job for offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell - Manning's head coach at the end of his tenure in Indianapolis.
This game will be closer than many expect, but in the end, it's impossible to consider Manning something of a risk in the playoffs without considering the streaky nature of Baltimore QB Joe Flacco. Give the edge to the Ravens in terms of special teams, and a defense that was swarming before Ray Lewis returned to grab the spotlight. Denver will pull out a competitive victory and prepare to host the AFC Championship game for the first time since the 2005 season.
Word is, San Francisco's stud defensive end Justin Smith (who is unfortunately never discussed when it comes to conversations about the best defensive players in the game) will play against Green Bay's sagging offensive line. If he's able to perform around 95 percent of what he usually does, expect the 49ers front seven to be all over Packers QB Aaron Rodgers.
If Rodgers doesn't have time to throw, and the 49ers can keep him from sliding out of the pocket, the Packers' explosive offense will be dulled down quite a bit.
That's much more easily said than done. Rodgers has incredible vision and a calmness about his game that allows him to use multiple weapons down the field by buying himself time. He's not as effective stepping up into the pocket as he is jutting out to the side, but he knows how to get outside while keeping his eyes down the field.
San Francisco runs into Green Bay at the wrong time, too. The Packers got to deal with Minnesota's power running game two consecutive weeks, and the multi-layered approach to limiting Adrian Peterson was effective in the second game - last week's Wild Card playoff game. If the Packers run defense can fill lanes instead of trying to make plays in the backfield, San Francisco's offense will stall.
Packers will take a lower scoring road playoff win.
AFC Divisional round: Ravens vs. Broncos
NFC Divisional round: Packers vs. 49ers
NFC Divisional round: Seahawks vs. Falcons
AFC Divisional round: Texans vs. Patriots