NFL Nation: Final Word NFC 2012 divisional

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In stark contrast to Ray Rice's awkward news conference in May, the Baltimore Ravens running back showed Thursday that he finally understood the weight of his actions from the alleged altercation with his then-fiancée in February.

He delivered the correct message, one the NFL failed to do last week with the two-game suspension, by not only apologizing to his wife, Janay Palmer, but also expressing a desire to become an advocate for domestic-violence causes.

Rice was compelling in his contrition, calling it the biggest mistake of his life. He stood in front of the microphone alone, without his wife standing by his side, and took full responsibility for the incident. Perhaps more importantly, Rice actually said the words "domestic violence," which weren't heard in his statement two months ago.

"My actions were inexcusable," Rice said. "That's something I have to live with the rest of my life."

Before anyone pats Rice on the back, this is what he should have said the first time when he broke his silence in May. Instead, Rice nervously fumbled through notes on his phone and apologized to team officials and his sponsors. That debacle of a news conference came across as damage control to his image.

His 17-minute news conference Thursday hit the right tones. He apologized to all women affected by domestic violence. He accepted the blame for losing the respect of fans. Rice came across as genuinely sorry.

"I let my wife down, I let my daughter down, I let my wife's parents down, I let the whole Baltimore community down," Rice said.

Rice's biggest misstep was not talking about what happened in the elevator. He was asked twice about it and declined to answer both times. His stance against domestic violence would have resonated stronger if he had explained his transgressions.

"I'll be honest: Like I said, I own my actions," Rice said. "I just don't want to keep reliving the incident. It doesn't bring any good to me. I'm just trying to move forward from it. I don't condone it. I take full responsibility for my actions. What happened that night is something that I'm going to pay for the rest of my life."

The only way Rice can move forward from this incident and show he's truly sincere is through his actions. It's not by his words. It's not by a hefty donation, which is merely a gesture. It's by proving this will remain a "one-time incident" and by supporting domestic-violence causes.

Thursday represented a small step forward for Rice. But it was an important one.

Final Word: Packers-49ers

January, 11, 2013
» NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons » AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about Saturday's Green Bay Packers-San Francisco 49ers divisional playoff game:

Tight matchup: In talking and writing about this game over the past week, it became clear that there truly is no favorite. The Packers and 49ers have the same number of advantages and disadvantages, which makes for what I think should be the most anticipated matchup of the divisional weekend. The 49ers are 2.5-point favorites at home, which basically means Las Vegas would consider this a pick 'em game on a neutral field. ESPN's panel of 14 experts is split -- seven picked the Packers and seven chose the 49ers to win. My NFC West colleague Mike Sando, who is 36-17 in picking his division's games this season, predicts a 28-24 win for the 49ers. Me? I don't make picks. Lucky meeeeeeeee!

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesAaron Rodgers has three consecutive road playoff wins -- just one shy of tying an NFL record.
Rodgers on the road: We've noted that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has three playoff victories on the road in his career, a relatively modest number that nevertheless is two away from the NFL record. And it's worth noting that Rodgers was exceptional on the road during the regular season, even by his standards. He threw 22 touchdown passes and three interceptions in those eight games -- the second-best touchdown-interception differential (+19) in road games during the Super Bowl era. Only Tom Brady (+25 in 2007) has been better. This week, we also noted that Rodgers' low interception rate over his career gives him a head start for consistent playoff success.

Smith factor: Rodgers and the Packers should get an early gauge on how close 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith is to full strength. Smith was a key part of a defense that physically overwhelmed the Packers in Week 1, but he missed the final two and a half games of the regular season because of a triceps injury -- and the 49ers defense took a notable dive in his absence. Over that stretch, the 49ers' sack rate dropped by about half and linebacker Aldon Smith didn't have a single sack. The 49ers forced a turnover about once every 57 plays without Justin Smith as opposed to once every 41 plays with him, and opponents averaged 5.1 yards per play after managing 4.5 yards per play with him on the field.

Defending Kaepernick: The 49ers' bold midseason move to promote Colin Kaepernick to their starting quarterback meets a critical judgment point this weekend. Kaepernick brings a more explosive mixture of running the read-option and throwing downfield, but his ability to handle the pressure of the postseason has not been tested. Although it was an admittedly small sample size, the Packers gave up an average of 10 yards on the six read-option plays they faced last Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings. On the other hand, you have to assume the Packers -- now at full strength with linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive back Charles Woodson on the field -- will send heavy pressure at Kaepernick. The Packers' 40-percent blitz rate during the regular season was the fourth-highest in the NFL. Kaepernick completed 57 percent of his passes against the blitz this season, ranking No. 20 in the NFL. His Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) was 59.6 against the blitz and 86.5 against four or fewer rushers.

Kicking strategy: The teams have taken different approaches with inconsistent veteran kickers this season. The Packers never considered replacing Mason Crosby, who has emerged from an extended slump to convert five consecutive attempts over his past three games. The 49ers' David Akers, meanwhile, struggled for much of the season and has missed four of his past 10 attempts. He will kick in this game only after fending off a challenge from veteran Billy Cundiff, whom the 49ers signed for an extended competition during their playoff bye week.

(Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)

Final Word: Seahawks at Falcons

January, 11, 2013
» NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons » AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Seattle Seahawks' divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome:

Banking on Wilson: Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has 11 total touchdowns (eight passing, three rushing) against one interception in the Seahawks' past five road games, counting playoffs. He has the NFL's third-highest passer rating (104.7) and second-highest Total QBR score (87.1) in road games over that span (since Week 8).

The Falcons have allowed only six touchdown passes at home all season. They have picked off 12 passes in those games. Their QBR allowed at home (32.6) was second-best in the NFL this season (playing the NFL's easiest schedule surely helped).

Though Wilson outplayed the injured Robert Griffin III during Seattle's wild-card victory at Washington, his QBR score for that game (36.7) was his lowest since Week 7. It ranked 65th out of 95 QBR scores for playoff starters since the 2008 season. The quarterbacks responsible for the 30 lower postseason QBR scores -- Griffin among them -- went 3-27 in those games. Seattle probably needs more from Wilson to beat the Falcons.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports With another 100-yard effort Sunday, Marshawn Lynch can make team history, tying Shaun Alexander for the most games with at least 100 yards in a season.
Beast Mode: Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has reached 100 yards rushing in five consecutive games and 11 times overall this season. He needs one more 100-yard game to tie the franchise record Shaun Alexander set during Seattle's 2005 Super Bowl season. Doug Martin (142), Cam Newton (116), LaRod Stephens-Howling (127), Alfred Morris (115) and Willis McGahee (113) reached 100 yards rushing against the Falcons this season. The Falcons went 3-2 in those games.

Irvin in focus: The Seahawks are counting on rookie first-round draft choice Bruce Irvin to take over for the injured Chris Clemons at the "Leo" position along the defensive line. The sack Irvin collected against Washington in the playoffs was his first since Week 14 and second in the Seahawks' past seven games. Irvin hasn't had a sack on the road since collecting two (plus a critical forced fumble) against Carolina in Week 5. Irvin has been building to this moment, however. He has played 57.3 percent of the defensive snaps since Week 14 after playing 39.5 percent of them previously this season.

Nice option to have: Increased use of option plays has helped unleash the Seahawks' ground game since a Week 13 victory at Chicago. The Seahawks are averaging 155.2 yards rushing before contact over that six-game span, up from 85 per game prior to that. The Panthers had 21 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown on option runs in a 30-28 defeat against Atlanta in Week 4. Newton then posted a season-high 97.0 QBR score against the Falcons during a 30-20 victory in Week 14. He had two touchdown passes and a 72-yard run against Atlanta in that game. Overall, the Falcons allowed 30 carries for 218 yards and two scores on plays ESPN charted as zone reads, options and option pitches.

Late-game worries: The Seahawks are riding a three-game road winning streak, but their defense hasn't been reliable during the final minutes of closely contested games away from home. That's a concern against the Falcons, who went 7-2 in one-score games this season. Ryan had four touchdown passes, zero picks and an 83.4 QBR score in the final two minutes of halves this season. That was up from 14 touchdowns with 11 picks and a 59.3 QBR score in those situations previously. Seattle's road opponents posted an 88.4 QBR score in fourth quarters this season, the highest allowed by any team this season and well above the average (55.1).

Late-game drama could be additionally nerve-wracking for Seattle given that regular kicker Steven Hauschka was placed on injured reserve with a calf injury. Veteran Ryan Longwell, 38, will be kicking in a game for the first time since the 2011 season. The Seahawks suffered a 30-28 home defeat against Atlanta last season when coach Pete Carroll opted for a 61-yard field goal try on fourth-and-8 with 13 seconds remaining. Seattle would presumably go for it if faced with a similar situation this time.

Final Word: Seahawks at Falcons

January, 11, 2013
» NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons » AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday’s game between the Seahawks and Falcons:

No. 1 doesn’t matter: The Falcons earned the NFC’s No. 1 seed, but recent history says being No. 1 doesn’t carry the clout it once did. From 1990 through 2006, No. 1 seeds were 17-0 in the divisional round of the playoffs. But the No. 1 seed has lost in four of the past five seasons, including the Falcons in 2010.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/John AmisMatt Ryan and the Falcons will try to get their passing game cranking Sunday against Seattle.
The 200 Club: Here’s a stat that might help explain why Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has yet to win a playoff game: In his three playoff starts, Ryan has yet to have a 200-yard passing game. Now, more than ever, I’m convinced it’s crucial for Ryan to come out winging the ball on Sunday.

Beware of the option: With quarterback Russell Wilson, the Seahawks use the read option at times. That’s something the Falcons have seen a fair amount of. Only four defenses had more read-option rushes against them in the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But Atlanta’s experience, mostly against Carolina’s Cam Newton, isn’t necessarily a positive. The Falcons allowed an average of 7.3 yards per rush on read-option plays.

The Triplets: The Falcons need to keep receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez on the field as much as possible. On plays when all three were on the field at the same time in the regular season, Ryan threw an interception once in every 61.9 attempts. But Ryan was picked off once in every 20 attempts when all three weren’t on the field.

No rookie jitters: Logic would say the Falcons have a huge edge because Wilson, a rookie, is coming into a loud and hostile environment. But Wilson is no ordinary rookie. He did struggle in his first five road games, throwing four touchdowns and eight interceptions. But, in his past four games on the road, including a playoff win at Washington, Wilson has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions.

Final Word: 49ers vs. Packers

January, 11, 2013
» NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons » AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about the San Francisco 49ers' divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday at Candlestick Park:

Season of change: These are not your 2011 49ers. The three players most instrumental in San Francisco's divisional victory over New Orleans last season -- Justin Smith, Alex Smith and Vernon Davis -- enter this game on different terms. Justin Smith will try to play through a triceps injury that has sidelined him for three weeks and will require surgery in the offseason. Alex Smith gave way to Colin Kaepernick as the starting quarterback in Week 11. Davis, who caught 10 passes for 292 yards and four scores in the playoffs one year ago, has six catches in his last six games. Kicker David Akers, who set an NFL record for field goals last season, struggled enough recently for the team to sign Billy Cundiff. Who are these 49ers, anyway? Tune in Saturday to find out.

[+] EnlargeJustin Smith
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports The 49ers are welcoming back Justin Smith from injury this week. Will he be near full strength?
Just in time: Justin Smith appears to be critical to the 49ers' defense. The team allowed 4.5 yards per play with him on the field and 5.1 per play without him this season. Opponents took a sack once in every 14.8 drop-backs with Smith on the field compared with once every 26.8 drop-backs without him. The 49ers forced a turnover every 41.2 plays with Smith and every 57 plays without him. Without Smith contributing at a high level, the 49ers will have a tougher time pressuring QB Aaron Rodgers with four-man rushes.

Something has to give: Rodgers had 22 touchdown passes and only three interceptions on the road this season. The 49ers' defense has allowed seven touchdown passes while picking off six passes at home. San Francisco held Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees far below their usual Total QBR scores this season. In the divisional round last season, New Orleans' Brees completed 40 of 63 passes (63.5 percent) for 462 yards and four touchdowns, with two picks and three sacks against San Francisco. His NFL passer rating (93.5) and Total QBR score (63.1) were good, but the Saints still lost.

Not much of a rush: The 49ers are facing a Packers team that went all season without producing an individual 100-yard rusher. The 1981 49ers were the last team to win a Super Bowl without having a 100-yard rusher during the regular season. The 1970 Baltimore Colts and 1966 Packers also won Super Bowls without one. 49ers RB Frank Gore hasn't hit 100 yards rushing in a game since doing so against Seattle in Week 7. He has eight 100-yard games over the past two seasons, but none after Week 8. Gore averaged 5.6 yards per rush in the playoffs last season, but he got only 29 carries in two games.

Watching for Woodson: The 49ers must watch for Packers safety Charles Woodson, who is returning from a broken collarbone. Green Bay has been about 50 percent more likely to blitz with a defensive back when Woodson is on the field. Kaepernick has completed 13 of 20 passes for 158 yards (7.9 per attempt) with no touchdowns or picks when opponents rush at least one defensive back. Former starter Alex Smith had a higher NFL passer rating (116.0 to 89.2) and QBR score (82.0 to 65.3) against DB pressure during the regular season. Smith led the NFL in completion percentage (73.0) against all forms of added pressure, completing 11 of 12 such attempts against Green Bay in Week 1. Kaepernick is at 57 percent completions against five or more pass-rushers.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.