Russell Wilson is having an incredible rookie season for the Seattle Seahawks.
A low NFL draft pick last year, Wilson has risen the ranks to become the starting quarterback and the face of an 11-5 team that is two steps away from the Super Bowl.
The next stop for Wilson and company is Georgia, where they face the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, 13 January, at 12noon on Fox. The Seahawks, the fifth seed, are underdogs against the top-ranked 13-3 Falcons, who were 7-1 at home during the regular season.
Atlanta had a resurgent year on offence, thanks to an efficient pass attack featuring hurler Matt Ryan. On the other hand, the Falcons have not played in two weeks while Seattle is fresh off a convincing 24-14 wild card victory over the Washington Redskins.
Atlanta has talent and home field advantage and a playoff breakthrough is long overdue. However, the odds are that the Seahawks’ run game and stout defence will travel well and lead to a 10-point upset.
The rest of the divisional round match-ups figure to be intriguing. The other National Football Conference contest pits the 11-4-1 San Francisco Niners, the second seed, against the 11-5 Green Bay Packers, the third seed, on Saturday, 12 January, at 8pm on Fox.
Super Bowl favourites heading into the season, both sides have lived up to that billing. San Fran have a stout defence and quarterback flexibility with Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith while Green Bay have an offensive attack, behind hurler Aaron Rodgers, that few clubs can slow down.
Green Bay are on a high after thrashing their division rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, 24-10 in the wild card round last week. Clay Matthews had the defence looking good in limiting Minnesota’s star runner, Adrian Peterson.
The Packer defence will be challenged to stop another potent run attack in the Niners and Frank Gore. With Green Bay being inconsistent against the run, expect Gore to rack up yards as San Fran’s grinds out a six-point victory.
Over in the American Football Conference, Saturday sees the top-ranked Denver Broncos, 13-3, hosting the 10-6 Baltimore Ravens, the fourth seed, at 4.30pm on CBS. Denver, behind the legendary Peyton Manning, are the NFL’s hottest team with 11 straight wins.
The Broncos have a lot going for them. The defence, while underrated, is solid under veteran leader Champ Bailey and the run game is capable behind Knowshon Moreno.
Baltimore are fresh off a 24-9 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts last week that saw stellar play from hurler Joe Flacco and linebacker Ray Lewis, back after injury to motivate his side in his final postseason.
While the Ravens are feeding off emotion, the Broncos have the ability to thwart a deep run. Odds are Denver can dominate on both sides of the ball and win by 12 points.
On Sunday, the second seed New England Patriots, 12-4, host the 12-4 Houston Texans, the third seed, at 4.30pm on CBS. Aside from home-field advantage, New England are favourites after thrashing Houston 42-14 early last month.
Tom Brady has the Patriots offence rolling. Toss in a revamped defence and New England have the makings of another Super Bowl run. Meanwhile, Matt Schaub’s Texans limped into the playoffs but held off the Cincinnati Bengals 19-13 in the wild card round.
Beating Brady requires an offence that can keep pace with his scoring rate. Houston is far from dynamic with the ball so expect the Pats to roll on by at least 14 points.