NFL Divisional Round Sunday Preview

Houston Texans (11-6) @ Baltimore Ravens (13-3), Sun @ 6pm

The Houston Texans travel to Baltimore Sunday evening to face the Ravens. The match pits two of the league’s best defenses against each other in a repeat of their week six match-up, which saw the Ravens win 29-14. The Texans produced a scintillating defensive performance to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals 31-10 last week, with Houston forcing three interceptions and sacking Andy Dalton four times.

The Ravens are favoured by a touchdown with the bookies, but the sides are well matched and the game should be closely contested. Both teams are built on stingy defense and a quality running game, especially since the Texans lost Matt Schaub to a season ending injury. The Texans stumbled into the playoffs on the back of three losses, but the Ravens also suffered from an inconsistent streak. Despite an impressive season, the Ravens surprisingly lost to the Tennessee Titans (9-7), Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11) and Seattle Seahawks (7-9). Another poor performance from Flacco and co. is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Offensively, the Texans are hugely reliant on running backs Arian Foster, who finished fifth in the NFL with 1,224 yards despite missing three games, and Ben Tate. Houston have lost their two top quarterbacks this season to injury in Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart and are now relying on rookie T.J. Yates. Outside of Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels, the Texans lack legitimate receiving threats and Houston could struggle to pass effectively against the NFL’s fourth ranked pass defense.

The Ravens only have the 15th best offense in the NFL, but Baltimore possess more game changers than the Schaub-less Texans. Ray Rice has become one of the NFL’s best all-round running backs, totalling 15 touchdowns and 2,068 yards from scrimmage. Anquan Boldin is a reliable possession wide receiver, while rookie receiver Torrey Smith scored seven touchdowns this year and his speed offers a home run option. Joe Flacco has yet to prove he can be more than a game manager in the NFL, but if he produces a decent performance the Ravens should narrowly defeat the Texans.

Key Stats:
Baltimore at Home: 18-1 in last 19 matches
Rushing Yards: Ravens Defense (2nd) vs Texans Offense (2nd)
Rushing Yards: Ray Rice (2nd – 1,364 yards), Arian Foster (5th – 1,224 yards)
Points Defense: Ravens (3rd), Texans (4th)
Quarterback Rating: Joe Flacco (80.9), T.J. Yates (80.7)

The Odds: Baltimore Ravens (-7.5)

Prediction: In a tight encounter, the Ravens will narrowly beat the Texans by less than a touchdown.

New York Giants @ Green Bay Packers, Sun @ 9.30pm

The weekend ends with a rematch of the week 13 encounter between the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers, and the New York Giants. On that occasion, the Giants almost challenged the Packers’ then undefeated record when Eli Manning drove the field and tied the scores with 62 seconds remaining. MVP elect Aaron Rodgers responded with completions of 24, 27 and 18 yards to put the Packers in field goal range. Mason Crosby’s 31 yards field goal won the match for Green Bay as time expired.

The Packers are heavily favoured to beat the Giants again and reach a third NFC Championship Game in five seasons. Green Bay looked unbeatable for most of the season and were set for an undefeated regular season before the Kansas City Chiefs earned a shock 19-14 victory in week 15. Rodgers produced one of the best seasons in NFL history and should score heavily against a weak and injury plagued Giants secondary. Wide receiver Greg Jennings should return from injury to join Jermichael Finley and Jordy Nelson, who had 15 touchdowns in the regular season (3rd NFL), as dangerous receiving options for Rodgers.

The 2011 Giants are being compared their 2007 version, who narrowly lost to the unbeaten New England Patriots in the season finale before defeating the Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Giants are again on a good run of form at the right time, but their defense and running game are inferior to the Giants’ Super Bowl winning team. New York have the league’s worst rushing offense, while the pass defense is ranked 29th against the pass. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 155 yards against the Atlanta Falcons last week, however, and the Giants will need the threat of a running game to open up opportunities in the Packers 32nd ranked pass defense.

The Giants offensive strength is the passing game, which should match up well with a Packers defense that gave up the most passing yards in NFL history. Eli Manning is much improved this season and benefits from an impressive stable of receivers that includes Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham. Cruz has been star man this season, amassing 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns, but Nicks and Manningham have combined for 183 yards and three touchdowns against the Falcons.

New York have been tipped for a shock victory in some quarters, but Tom Coughlin’s charges could struggle to keep pace with Rodgers’ dynamic offense. The Giants will rely on their pass rush, which has accumulated 48 sacks this year (3rd NFL), to disrupt Rodgers. The quarterback’s mobility could limit the effectiveness of Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, however.

Key Stats:
Green Bay at Home: 19-1 in last 20 matches.
Passing Yards: Packers Offense (3rd) vs Giants Defense (29th)
Passing Yards: Giants Offense (5th) vs Packers Defense (32nd)
Sacks: Giants Defense (48 – Joint 3rd) vs Packers Defense (41 – Joint 21st)
Interceptions: Packers Defense (31 – 1st) vs Giants Offense (16 – joint 19th)

The Odds: Green Bay Packers (-7.5)

Prediction: If the Giants can produce a solid rushing game, New York have enough playmakers to shock the reigning Super Bowl champions. The Packers should win in a high-scoring match, however.

Click here for the latest odds to win the premiership from Betfair


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