01/10/2013 03:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

NFL Playoffs Divisional Round: Key Matchups And Who Has The Most To Prove

While the NFL's Wild Card weekend didn't produce the greatest of matchups, the divisional round features Russell Wilson and red-hot Seattle -- winners of seven of its last eight -- storming into Atlanta, who went 7-1 at home this year. Then there's the Week 1 rematch between Super Bowl XLV MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the San Francisco 49ers, now led by second-year QB Colin Kaepernick, who's making just his eighth career start.

In the AFC, Baltimore's Ray Lewis -- officially on his farewell tour -- gets the pleasure of defending Peyton Manning and a Denver team that hasn't lost since Oct. 15. Meanwhile, the Texans are heading back to Foxborough, where New England hammered them 42-14 in Week 14.

All in all, no team with nine wins or fewer made the playoffs this season, which hasn't happened since 2005. Here are the key matchups and players with the most to prove this weekend.


Key Matchup: Seahawks running game vs. Falcons defense

Seattle ran the ball on 55 percent of its plays during the regular season, the highest percentage in the NFL. The Falcons ranked in the bottom third against the run during the regular season, despite featuring a relatively athletic front four.

For the Seahawks, it's all about the read-option. Seahawks rookie QB Russell Wilson and RB Marshawn Lynch have provided a terrific 1-2 punch, highlighted by Seattle's 224 yards against Washington, who had been stout in that department. Wilson, who's really matured as a passer, has also improved noticeably in the running game. Over the past nine games, he's run for 420 yards.

The key for Atlanta will be to use its hyperactive safeties, William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, to support the box and Atlanta's four-man front. Of course, that exposes the back line of the pass defense to Wilson, who loves play-action.

Most to Prove: It has to be Atlanta QB Matt Ryan and head coach Mike Smith, who together have gone 0-3 in the playoffs, losing by a total of 55 points. Even in the raucous Georgia Dome, it's going to be tough sledding: the Seahawks won their last five regular-season games, including victories over Chicago and San Francisco.

The Pick: Seahawks 27, Falcons 20


Key Matchup: Texans DE J.J. Watt vs. Pats offensive line

Watt has become the most dominant defender in the league. He is a sensational pass rusher, surprisingly formidable against the run and leads the NFL in batted passes. Houston features the second-ranked defense in the AFC, but facing Patriots QB Tom Brady, who lit them up for 42 points in Week 14, is a whole lot different than facing QB Andy Dalton of the Bengals. New England doesn't have the dominant line it did during the mini-dynasty, but it's still a solid group. Watt will face a slew of double-teams and will have to stunt and twist his way to get to Brady. In Week 14, he was virtually a non-factor, failing to record a sack or apply significant pressure.

nfl playoffs
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub is trying to win his second-ever postseason start.

Most to Prove: Texans QB Matt Schaub. After a marvelous start to the season, Schaub has become ordinary under center and at times just plain awful. The two-time Pro Bowler and his struggling offense were booed off the field at Reliant Stadium during the Bengals game and understandably so. Including the New England game in Week 14, Schaub's now thrown four interceptions and one touchdown over a five-game stretch.

The Pick: Patriots 35, Texans 13


Key Matchup: San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick vs. Packers defense

If the 49ers want to win this game, the onus is on QB Colin Kaepernick to keep pace with the considerably more experienced Aaron Rodgers. For Green Bay, the ability of LB Clay Matthews to create havoc off the edge is huge, as is the recently improved health of its secondary, including Charles Woodson at safety and Sam Shields at corner. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers loves to blitz, especially young quarterbacks -- and Kapernick's efficiency dips significantly against blitzes.

Most to Prove : Colin Kaepernick. He ranks third in Total QBR (76.8) behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, yet when you consider that Alex Smith would be starting right now had he not gotten injured, the pressure has mounted. While Kaepernick provides great elusiveness and a much greater running threat than the agile Smith, Kaepernick's youth and shaky decision-making has people questioning head coach Jim Harbaugh's decision at times. Should the young QB lose his first playoff game -- and at home -- things will get much worse.

The Pick: Packers 24, 49ers 23


Key Matchup: Denver QB Peyton Manning vs. Baltimore secondary

Manning has won nine consecutive starts against the Ravens, including a 34-17 beatdown in Week 15. And now without its best corner in Lardarius Webb, Baltimore doesn't have elite coverage ability on the perimeter. Ed Reed will surely make a couple of big plays, but if Steelers' third-string QB Charlie Batch can carve you up, then Manning might as well be sitting down to a Thanksgiving turkey. He has two excellent young wide-outs in the explosive Demaryius Thomas and consistent Eric Decker, both of whom had over 1,000 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns this season. If the Ravens defensive line can create a push and allow LB Ray Lewis to disrupt Manning's timing, perhaps it can slow down the Broncos' aerial attack. But stopping it completely is out of the question.

Most to Prove: Ravens QB Joe Flacco. Despite becoming the first quarterback ever to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons, Flacco has been questioned incessantly by Ravens fans for being soft and immobile. Should he put together a dud in Denver, it's very possible that Baltimore will not resign him, at least not long term, since he could become an unrestricted free agent in March. The Broncos feature a dominant pass rusher in Von Miller and the always dangerous Champ Bailey in its secondary. Much as in Week 15 when Denver limited Flacco to 1 of 14 attempts on third and fourth downs, he will be under duress all game and forced to make quick decisions. This could get ugly.

The Pick: Broncos 34, Ravens 17

Email me at or ask me questions about anything sports-related at @Schultz_Report.