Bye bye, byes; Rest should serve favorites well

If this past weekend’s Wild Card games taught us anything, it was that rest can be the most welcome of gifts for a banged up NFL squad. In three of the games, key contributors were unable to play due to injury. The Arizona Cardinals were completely inept offensively with essentially their fourth quarterback, Ryan Lindley, under center. The Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t gain the balanced offense they had showcased all season without star running back LeVeon Bell, who got hurt in Week 17. The Cincinnati Bengals weren’t able to get quarterback Andy Dalton his first career playoff win, but he didn’t have all-world wide receiver A.J. Green or starting tight end Jermaine Gresham.

The Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers were all able to rest their injured players. Hopefully that was enough to get them through the next grueling stretch towards the Super Bowl.

I never published my picks before the Wild Card games, but I went 2-2. I lost both Saturday games (Cardinals +6.5, Steelers -3), but rebounded to win both Sunday games (Colts -4, Lions +6.5). Let’s now forecast this weekend’s Divisional Round.

Baltimore Ravens (+7) at New England Patriots

Most of these AFC matchups are rivalries of some sort, because the same teams keep getting deep every year. Baltimore knocked off its most hated opponent last week and now takes another nemesis in New England.

The story of this game will be how much time Tom Brady has in the pocket. The Ravens have a very tough pass rush, led by Terrell Suggs. New England sometimes has issues up front with its offensive line, so there should be opportunities for Baltimore to disrupt Brady’s timing.

But if Brady is given proper protection, he should be able to torch a very weak Baltimore secondary. Rob Gronkowski will get a few chances to run free and Julian Edelman is expected to return, which should provide a huge boost. I think Edelman’s impact will be enough for the Pats to prevail and cover.

The Pick: Patriots 26, Ravens 17

Carolina Panthers (+10.5) at Seattle Seahawks

Sure, Mugatu may say that Carolina is “so hot right now,” but the Panthers enter the league’s toughest road stadium as double-digit underdogs. Rightfully so, because Carolina was spectacularly awful for a good portion of the season. But as winners of five straight, Cam Newton and the Panthers find themselves one upset away from the NFC Championship Game.

Some questioned if Seattle was enduring a Super Bowl hangover at one point this year. They seem to have rehydrated and recuperated nicely because the Seahawks are back to being the odds-on favorite to repeat as champions. Russell Wilson played very well down the stretch and receiver Doug Baldwin has emerged into a more reliable threat.

Many are predicting a low-scoring affair because both have such strong defenses, but I think points will be plentiful – mostly because Carolina will be making mistakes and giving Seattle a short field. Yes, the Panthers have won five straight, but I think this one gets ugly in no time.

The Pick: Seahawks 34, Panthers 13

Dallas Cowboys (+6) at Green Bay Packers

Sunday starts off with a gem as two of the league’s most storied franchises do battle. Dallas stormed back to knock off Detroit and should be riding some momentum into Lambeau Field. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers got another week to rest that calf injury as he takes aim at a vulnerable Dallas secondary.

Playmakers are all over the field in this one as the Cowboys’ trio of Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant attempt to match up with Rodgers, Eddie Lacy and Jordie Nelson. Neither offense will be slowed for very long, so whichever defense makes the more timely stops should decide the outcome.

When Green Bay adjusted their defensive alignment mid-season, it provided an instant jolt and the team hasn’t looked back since. I think it’s a close game but Green Bay’s defense gives the Packers the edge this time around.

The Pick: Packers 30, Cowboys 27

Indianapolis Colts (+7) at Denver Broncos – The week closes with a changing of the guard. Peyton Manning takes on his former team and the league’s best young quarterback, Andrew Luck. While Denver has become much more reliant on the running game over the second half of the year, that won’t prevent a Manning vs. Luck story line from dominating the game.

The Broncos had plenty of minor injuries, so the week off should suit them quite well. Most of the team were full participants in this week’s first practices. Manning didn’t look quite himself over some of the team’s final contests, but running back C.J. Anderson gained 648 yards and eight touchdowns over the past six weeks. Anderson gives a dimension they haven’t had, but it will still be Manning, DeMaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders having to make plays to match the Colts’ strong offense.

Indianapolis may have finally found a running game with Daniel Herron, who had 56 rushing yards and a touchdown to go with 10 receptions out of the backfield in last week’s 26-10 win over the Bengals. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton needs to make a couple big plays and I suspect he will.

Luck has all the makings of an all-time great and adding a Super Bowl to his resume seems inevitable. But I don’t think this is the year.

The Pick: Broncos 27, Colts 16

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