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I was on vacation last week, so I provided just a bare bones set of NFL playoff predictions. Technically, my picks went 4-0 on Wildcard Weekend, but that doesn’t count for much when you pick the favorite in every game. With a little more time on my hands, here’s an in-depth preview of Saturday’s games. Tomorrow I’ll be previewing Sunday’s action.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) (+9.5) at Denver Broncos (13-3), Saturday 4:30PM ET

Manning looks for to win another Super Bowl

Manning points to his glove dealer.

Most of the signs in this game point squarely in the favor of Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Baltimore has wildly underachieved on the road the last few seasons, and in Denver does not seem like the optimal place for that trend to reverse itself. From 2002 to 2010, Manning went 8-0 against the Ravens, including a 2-0 mark in playoff games. If you double his numbers in those games (to approximate a 16-game season), Manning would have thrown for 4,044 yards and 28 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions, while averaging 7.8 Y/A and 7.9 AY/A to go with a 65.6% completion rate and a 97.7 passer rating. Manning was similarly lethal in Denver’s win over the Ravens in Baltimore earlier this year.

Manning started wearing a glove on his right hand during the final two weeks of the season, and will likely wear a glove on his hand throughout the playoffs (although presumably not in the Super Bowl). One side effect of his neck surgeries is that Manning’s grip on the ball is less secure, particularly in cold weather (when the ball may be harder and slicker). The expected temperature on Saturday in Denver is 19 degrees, which would make it the coldest meaningful game of Manning’s career.1 In fact, I only count five meaningful regular season games in Manning’s history where the temperature was below 30 degrees: in 1999 in Cleveland, in 2000 in Green Bay and against the Jets, and in 2002 and 2004 against the Broncos. Of course, Manning also famously lost consecutive playoff games in Foxboro in freezing conditions in 2003 and 2004. But in general, Manning’s played perfectly fine in cold-weather games, and even had an extremely impressive win at Mile High Stadium in frigid conditions in 2002.

So what should we expect? Denver has a big edge in NY/A (7.4 to 6.3) and in ANY/A (7.8 to 6.2). Okay, you already know Peyton Manning was a much better quarterback than Joe Flacco, but now you’ve got some numbers to look at. What about on defense? The Broncos have all-world outside linebacker Von Miller, who broke the record for sacks by a 4-3 outside linebacker this year. Between Manning and Miller, Denver is outstanding in net sack rate. Denver actually led the NFL in NY/A allowed at 5.2, and allowed just 4.9 ANY/A as well, while the Ravens allowed 6.1 NY/A and 5.7 ANY/A to opposing quarterbacks. Sure, Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, and Haloti Ngata are probably healthier now than they’ve been all year, but it’s hard to argue that Baltimore’s defense is better than Denver’s. And we know their passing offense isn’t better. Factor in the Ravens’ road struggles, and this game seems like the most lopsided matchup of the weekend.

I’m sure some out there believe that the Ravens could win the game if Ray Rice dominates, and that’s certainly true. The question is, why would we think he would have a great game? I’m not talking about his fumble woes — Rice simply has not been great this season. According to Advanced NFL Stats, he ranks 29th in success rate and 13th in expected points added, and he averaged 4.4 yards per carry this year, a hair below his career average. Rice rushed for 1,143 yards and caught 61 passes for 478 yards in 2012, but all three marks represent the lowest numbers he’s produced since his rookie year. Rice is an excellent running back, but I don’t envision him taking over the game on Saturday. Burke ranks the Broncos 7th in defensive rush success rate, and Denver finished in the top three in rushing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed, and yards per carry allowed. I think it’s best not to over think this one.

Prediction: Denver 31, Baltimore 13

Green Bay Packers (11-5) (+2.5) at San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1), Saturday, 8:00PM ET

Like most people, I struggle to get a handle on this one. Aaron Rodgers is at the point in his career where no one ever feels strongly betting against him, especially when going up against a young quarterback. On the other hand, Colin Kaepernick has been pretty outstanding in limited action. Consider:

  • The former Nevada star was six attempts short of throwing the 224 passes needed to qualify in the passing rate categories. What if the cut-off was instead 218 passes? Kaepernick would have ranked 1st in yards per attempt and AY/A, and trailed only Manning in NY/A and ANY/A.
  • ESPN ranked Kaepernick 3rd in Total QBR, a rate statistic that does not have the same cut-off requirement.
  • On 58 third or fourth down plays where the 49ers needed to gain at least 5 yards, Kaepernick picked up the first down 20 times — and gained over 400 yards on those plays. That 34.5% ratio places him slightly above league average and not far behind Aaron Rodgers (7th, 37.4%). More interestingly, he ranked second to only Drew Brees in yards per plays (combined rushing and passing) in those situations. He’s a home-run hitter.

Kaepernick looks to lead the 49ers to the SB

Reads New York Daily News, thinks 'and people thought my tattoos were bad.'

But the 49ers are still viewed as a defensive team, and appropriately so. After 12 weeks, San Francisco lead the league in points allowed, and their defense ranked in the top three in both first downs allowed and Pro-Football-Reference’s Expected Points Added statistic (and the run defense ranked in the top four in yards, yards per carry and touchdowns allowed). The pass defense fell off slightly, but San Francisco finished the year 3rd in NY/A, 4th in ANY/A, and 7th in PFR’s EPA; the rush defense remained in the top four in all three rushing metrics.

San Francisco also ranked in the top 4 in rushing yards, yards per carry, and PFR’s EPA metric. In other words, this is as complete a team as there is in the NFL. I’ve been beating the LaMichael James drum all year, but he had his best game in week 17 and could produce a big play on Saturday night. Kaepernick will scare off some fans, but hey, so did Alex Smith. Unfortunately, I think the Kaepernick/Smith drama took away from just how talented this team is: Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, and Navorro Bowman had outstanding years as usual, and the secondary featuring Tarell Brown, Dashon Goldson, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner is one of the more underrated units in the NFL (and nickel back Chris Culliver had a fantastic year, too). The wildcard is Justin Smith’s health, but San Francisco is an extremely talented and very well-coached team. Suffice it to say, there’s a reason I picked the 49ers to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

But I won’t sit here and say I’m confident about it, simply because of the presence of Aaron Rodgers. He had a down year this season, but don’t forget that Greg Jennings started only five games this year due to injury while Jordy Nelson was limited to just ten starts. Except for James Jones, every key Packers receiver was injured in 2012, but Green Bay is operating at close to full strength now. Incredibly, Rodgers still threw 39 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions, but he dropped from 8.2 NY/A in 2011 to just 6.6 this year. If he can play like it’s 2011 — and with a full set of receivers2, perhaps he can — then the Packers would have a puncher’s chance against any team. But even though rookie Casey Hayward has helped turn around the Green Bay pass defense, I simply think San Francisco is the better team and the home team.

Prediction: San Francisco 31, Green Bay 24

  1. In week 17 of the 2009 season, a meaningless game for the Colts, Manning started in Buffalo when the temperature at kickoff was 11 degrees. []
  2. Technically, Jermichael Finley, Driver, Nelson, and Randall Cobb are on the injury report, but all three are probable. []
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