We’re now down to the cream of the crop: the four best teams from each division are only two wins away from a trip to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII. Each team has strengths that have carried them this far, but they will all need to address and try to correct their weaknesses if they hope to hoist the Lombardi Trophy Four weeks from now. Let’s take a look at a couple of key things each team will need to focus on if they don’t want their season to end too soon.
Denver Broncos (No. 1 Seed)
Blocking: With Ray Lewis back and the Ravens’ defense at (near) full strength, Denver’s front five will need to step their game up; both in the running game, and protecting quarterback Peyton Manning. The Broncos’ offensive line will need to keep pressure off of Manning and give him time to go through his progressions if they hope to win.
Passing: Despite beating the Ravens 34-17 in Week 15, Manning had a quiet day and the Broncos relied heavily on running back Knowshon Moreno. Now that Lewis will be on the field, the Broncos won’t have nearly as much success on the ground; which means they’ll have to rely more heavily on Manning to have a big day.
New England Patriots (No. 2 Seed)
Passing and Blocking: This is really very basic: Keep Watt and the Texans’ defense off of Tom Brady, and he will throw many, many touchdowns. That’s it.
Run Defense: The Patriots’ defense has gotten steadily better over the last few years and they now have a very formidable front seven. They will need to be at the top of their game on Sunday if they hope to stop the Texans. Houston will look to pound the ball with Foster, and the Patriots will have hit him early and get him to the ground if they want to win.
Houston Texans (No. 3 Seed)
Running Game: The Texans’ bread and butter all season has been their running game. Arian Foster has to be on point and have a great day for the Texans to find success. They have arguably the best play action in the NFL, but if Foster is being held ineffective it will be useless.
Pass Rush: The Texans can’t really hope to completely contain all of the Patriots’ receivers, but if J.J. Watt can get into the backfield and put pressure on Brady from the get-go, they stand a much better chance of forcing turnovers or at the worst three-and-out punts. If Brady is allowed to stand in the pocket for any extended period of time, it won’t end well for Houston.
Baltimore Ravens (No. 4 Seed)
Running Game: The Ravens need to come out of the gate pounding the ball with Ray Rice. If He can eat up yardage and break off a couple of big gains, it will allow Joe Flacco to take big shots downfield to Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Baltimore will be in trouble if Denver can shut down Rice.
Pass Rushing: This is pretty simple. If the Ravens huge, scary and hyper-talented defensive line and linebackers can get into the backfield and put pressure on Manning, it will be near impossible for Denver to find the endzone. Getting in Manning’s face and disrupting him frequently is key to a Ravens victory.