Baltimore Ravens v. Tennessee Titans (-3)
#6 Baltimore Ravens
OFFENSE: It is no surprise that the defense continues to be the straw that stirs the drink for the Ravens but the offense continues to do a good job of not losing the game. Flacco was less than impressive in the win against the Dolphins but who cares? The most important stat for him is interceptions, as in zero. Little else is required of him in order for the Ravens to be in the game. Of course, he is afforded this luxury because the running game is hitting on all cylinders. McClain and McGahee were not exactly overwhelming against the Dolphins but they did run with passion that kept the Dolphins on their heels. The offense will need to be a little more dynamic than they were against the Dolphins if they expect to beat the Titans.
DEFENSE: The defense is playing as well as any defense I have seen in recent years (including the Bears of 2006). The Ravens have been very impressive in December especially against the Steelers on Dec. 14th (and they lost that game!) You cannot talk about the defense without talking about Ed Reed. It is really amazing what happens when you put an undersized wide receiver with a chip on his shoulder at free safety. There are football coaches around the country who would love to have Ed Reed talk to their wide receivers about the joys (and glory) of playing on defense. Reed is a difference maker and he plays at his highest level in tight games.
#1 Tennessee Titans
OFFENSE: Similar to the Ravens offense, the Titans offense doesn’t exactly overwhelm with star or fire power (besides Vince Young … never mind). Kerry Collins has done a very good job as the leader this year. He still throws a very good ball and he rarely is the reason a team loses a game. However, he is not the type of guy who will carry the team so the running game will remain paramount to the Titans success. As a result, the Titans will continue to rely on Chris Johnson to get the job done as one of the most impressive rookie running back in recent memory. His “back-up” is LenDale White who is nothing short of one of the biggest head cases in the history of the NFL but credit Jeff Fisher with getting White to play with more passion than many thought possible. The combination of Smash and Dash gives the Titans all the offensive weapons needed to reach the conference finals
DEFENSE: The most important note of this game for the Titans is the return of Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch. These two anchor an impressive defensive line which will be critical to the success of the Titans in the playoffs. There is no reason not to think the Titans will not continue their upper echelon rush defense in the playoffs. However, the rank near the bottom in the league at defending the pass which could come back to haunt them sooner rather than later.
Ravens v. Titans Matchup
Ravens on offense: The Ravens are going to have a really hard time scoring on the Titans. Flacco is going to be asked to more than he has all season because the Titans will have eight men in the box on most plays and the return of Haynesworth will only make things more difficult. It will be a long day for the Ravens if they cannot establish some kind of passing game to Derrick Mason and Todd Heap early on. Everyone is familiar with the concept of establishing the run to set up the pass – well – look for the Ravens to do the opposite.
Titans on offense: The Titans need to run the ball effectively to win this game. The potential loss of center Kevin Mawae could be huge for the run game and the pass coverage. The Ravens have been running the 3-4 for some time and they have been exceptional stopping the run all year. Chris Johnson has never played this much football in his life. Will he show signs of wear and tear or will the week off have him as good as ever?
Prediction: After the controversial end of the Steelers-Ravens game on Dec. 14, it just seems like the two are destined to play again. While I am very concerned about the play of Joe Flacco, I just think the Ravens defense goes 2001 Super Bowl on Kerry Collins and the Titans and wins the game in a close one.
Baltimore: 17 – Titans: 13
San Diego Chargers v. Pittsburgh Steelers (-6)
#4 San Diego Chargers
OFFENSE: The Chargers offense is very simple. Rivers is good not great and really needs a big performance from his running back in-order to be effective. Since LaDainian Tomlinson is hurt, Darren Sproles will need to have another huge game for the Chargers to have any chance at all. The reality for the Chargers offense is their best player when they have the ball is the punter, Mike Scifres. I fear for them on Sunday.
DEFENSE: Except for a brain fart by Antonio Cromartie, the defense was exceptional last week. The punter gave them numerous advantages but the defense stopped Peyton Manning – not the field position. They will need to duplicate their effort this time around if they have any chance of success.
#2 Pittsburgh Steelers
OFFENSE: The Steelers offense is not exactly overwhelming. They are ranked either in the middle or the bottom of the league in almost every important category. Of course, they have had numerous injuries at running back which has forced Ben Roethlisberger to win games on his own. That’s not exactly the ideal situation for a team that is built to run the ball down your throat then throwing the ball to keep you honest. Everyone seems to be healthy and the week off should really help this team.
DEFENSE: If defense wins championships then the Steelers should win the Super Bowl. They are first in the league in points allowed, yard and passing yards. However, the Steelers really struggled stopping the run … they were second in the league by allowing 80.2 yards per game on the ground. These numbers are impressive on their own but when you take in to account that they had to play the NFC East and played almost every tough team in the AFC – you have to realize this team is THE most dominant defense in the NFL.
Chargers v. Steelers Matchup
Chargers on offense: The Chargers need an all-pro performance from their offensive line in order to score more than 7 points in this game. I really don’t see how the Chargers move the ball any other way.
Steelers on offense: The Steelers will force the run and until it is established. The Chargers job is to keep it from becoming established and force Big Ben to throw the ball to win the game. Besides last week, the Chargers secondary has been dreadful this year against the pass so it could be a blessing in disguise for the Steelers if they have to throw the ball than they would like to.
Prediction: THIS GAME WILL BE A BLOWOUT!!!! While you will hear a thousand analysts tell you how the Chargers have a chance because they are on a roll, please remember that I told you on Monday that this game was the first lock of 2009. The Steelers are rested, motivated and hungry. Too many things have to go right just for the Chargers to score more than 10 points let alone cover a spread of 6 points. Did I mention the game is in Pittsburgh and the forecast is a high of 24 degrees and snow showers!? To be clear, the Steelers will win this game by a lot more than 6 points.
San Diego: 6 – Steelers: 24