After four exciting Wild Card match-ups, two of which were higher seed upsets, the NFL Playoffs roll on to the Divisional Round where the big boys of the two Conferences emerge from their byes. In the NFC, the Green Bay Packers took their much needed rest and welcome the Dallas Cowboys, who are coming off a controversial comeback victory against the Detroit Lions. The teams play at 1:05 p.m. Eastern time on FOX.
Packer fans have been holding their collective breathe since Week 17 when QB Aaron Rodger left the game with an apparent calf injury. Rodgers’ injury is being called a strain, but pundits expect it to be a major factor in the outcome of Sunday's game. In order to keep Rodgers from re-aggravating the injury or making it worse, the coaches will likely game-plan a scheme that limits Rodgers from too much movement. Expect a larger-than-usual sample of plays from the pistol and shotgun formations.
Hurt or healthy, Rodgers has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league, leading an offense that is 26.7 percent more efficient than the league average, says Football Outsiders. His 38 touchdowns to only 5 interceptions is the best ratio in the league, and he has thrown 25 touchdowns and zero interceptions at home this season.
Coming off a very shaky comeback win, the Cowboys will counter the Packers with an offense that has been hot for the majority of the second half of the season. In the second half of their Detroit game, QB Tony Romo turned it on, scoring 17 unanswered points and registering seven plays or more on three of the team’s four second-half drives.
To beat Green Bay, the Cowboys will have to get a stronger performance out of running back DeMarco Murray, who was limited to just 3.9 yard per carry against the stingy Detroit front seven. If Murray and Romo control the clock and maintain long scoring drives, the Cowboys can keep the game close. However, as long as Rodgers stays healthy, the Packers offense at home will be too much for the Cowboys to handle.
Broncos vs. Colts
In the final AFC Divisional Round playoff game on Sunday, Peyton Manning welcomes his old team back to Denver and the Mile High Stadium at 4:40 p.m. Eastern time Sunday on CBS.
In their Wild Card win, the Indianapolis Colts offense in the hands of Andrew Luck was stellar, amassing almost 500 yards of offense. Luck controlled the game, throwing for 376 yards on 70.5 percent completion percentage, with his one touchdown coming on a must-see scramble and heave.
It is no secret that as Luck goes, the Colts go. The third-year quarterback operates a one-dimensional offense that ranked 1st in passing yards and 22nd in rushing. By Football Outsiders’ team efficiency metrics, the Colts propensity to pass has hurt their overall efficiency, and their 1st ranked passing attack by yards dips to 13th by efficiency, while their 22nd ranked run game drops to 27th.
Meanwhile, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos have made creating a steady offensive balance a key for the 2015 season, and finished the regular season 4th in passing yards and 15th in rushing, 3rd and 7th respectively by efficiency.
In the second half of the season, the team ran the ball more (31 more rushes) and gained more yards (279 more yards), all leading to more production and a healthier running game, one that generated five more 20+ yard plays and gained 0.7 more yards per carry in their last eight games.
While the Broncos offensive balance looks good, it came at the expense of Manning’s rhythm and the offense’s firepower. In the second half of his season, Manning was 2.9 percent less accurate, threw for 44.4 yards less per game, and threw twice the amount of interceptions. All of this culminated in a Denver offense which averaged only 24.8 points per game in the second half compared to 30.6 in the first.
The stout Denver front will surely stifle any Indianapolis running game, but will have to get pressure on Luck to shorten drives and force mistakes. It will be interesting to see if the Broncos choose to maintain their balance in this game, or if they hand the ball to Manning and let him make plays. In either case, expect Denver to come out of this game with a victory at home in chilly Mile High.