NFL Divisional Playoffs 2013: Every Team's Biggest Key to Victory

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJanuary 8, 2014

NFL Divisional Playoffs 2013: Every Team's Biggest Key to Victory

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    Seattle's Pete Carroll and Denver's John Fox embrace being their conference's No. 1 seeds.
    Seattle's Pete Carroll and Denver's John Fox embrace being their conference's No. 1 seeds.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    Eight teams in the NFL still have a chance to claim victory in Super Bowl XLVIII.

    It adds up to eight clubs and eight different game plans.

    So here’s a look at what each team might do or may want to do if it has any notions of advancing to next Sunday’s conference championship game.

    Some of these suggestions may be obvious. With so much on the line, there’s no time to be cute.

    However, planning and executing are sometimes two different things. What looked like a good idea at the time may turn out to be a halftime adjustment from the other team away from being a disaster.

    It’s worth noting that the win-loss records of all eight teams include playoffs for the four clubs that already have a postseason win under the belt.

    Enjoy the weekend.

New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Key to victory: Russell Up Some Pressure

    It’s safe to say that we’ll be seeing a lot of highlights this week of Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch running over the New Orleans Saints in the 2010 Wild Card Game.

    However, what happened to Sean Payton’s team six weeks ago in the Pacific Northwest was far more devastating.

    In Seattle’s 34-7 victory back in Week 13, the New Orleans pass rush sacked Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson just once. Meanwhile, the second-year signal-caller completed 73.3 percent of his throws (22 of 30) for 310 yards and three scores in the convincing win.

    Keep in mind that this was a Saints team that wound up totaling 49 sacks during the regular season, including three or more sacks in 11 of its 16 outings.

    In last week’s wild-card win over the Philadelphia Eagles, Rob Ryan’s defense sacked Nick Foles just twice. But defensive end Cameron Jordan and company were still able to pressure the second-year quarterback because they held the Birds to just 80 yards rushing.

    So can the Saints do to the league’s No. 4 running attack what they did to the NFL’s top-ranked running game, resulting in heat on Wilson?

    They better.

Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Key to Victory: Hit Brady a Bunch

    What are the odds the Indianapolis Colts give up 44 points for a second straight week and win a playoff game?

    It’s certainly not likely, Andrew Luck or no Andrew Luck. The league’s 20th-ranked defense in 2013, which gave up 513 total yards in last week’s wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs, better plan on playing a lot better against the New England Patriots this Saturday night.

    That means not only stopping Bill Belichick’s formidable running game but putting plenty of heat on quarterback Tom Brady.

    Chances are outside linebacker Robert Mathis will be the one to get to the three-time Super Bowl champion. During the regular season, he led the NFL with 19.5 sacks, nearly one half of the team’s total (42) in 2013, and totaled eight forced fumbles. And in last week’s rousing win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Mathis forced another fumble when he sacked quarterback Alex Smith.

    It’s worth noting that Brady was sacked 40 times in 2013, the second-highest total of his stellar career. In his first season as a starter in 2001, Brady was sacked 41 times.

    Can Chuck Pagano’s team take advantage of the Patriots’ shaky defense? Why not? But can Mathis and company make life easier for the offense by forcing Brady into a few costly turnovers?

    Don’t bet against it.

San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Key to Victory: Catching On

    Three seasons into the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco, the 49ers have become quite acclimated to winning.

    Since 2011, the Niners are a combined 36-11-1 in the regular season and are 4-2 in the playoffs. Two of their four postseason victories have come on the road at Atlanta and at Green Bay.

    What’s the point? The Niners are a playoff-proven team, and that gives them a little edge in this matchup against a Carolina Panthers team making its first playoff appearance since 2008.

    It’s also a team that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes (19 turnovers in 17 games, including playoffs). In fact, in 48 regular-season games under Harbaugh, the 49ers have committed only 44 turnovers.

    They also benefit greatly from the presence of wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who missed the majority of the season with an Achilles injury. He returned in December and caught 19 passes for 284 yards and a score in the team’s final five games. His rapport with quarterback Colin Kaepernick is hard to ignore.

    Last week versus the Green Bay Packers, the former first-round pick was targeted a game-high 13 times and responded with eight receptions for 125 yards. In last year’s three playoff games, Crabtree totaled 20 catches for 285 yards and three touchdowns.

    It’s also very important to note that the talented wide receiver was not around for the teams’ first meeting this season, a 10-9 loss by the 49ers at San Francisco.

    Carolina’s defense gave up just 21 touchdowns this season, but 17 of those came through the air. Hence, Crabtree and Kaepernick will be more than anxious to test Ron Rivera’s pass defense this Sunday.

San Diego Chargers (10-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3)

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Key to Victory: Keep Away

    How interesting is it that the Denver Broncos scored an NFL record 606 points in 2013, averaging 37.9 points per game? Round that off, and you are basically talking 38 points per contest.

    So what’s in a number? The San Diego Chargers split their two meetings with the AFC West champions this year. In the first game, the Bolts came up short, 28-20, despite owning the football for 38:03.

    Five weeks later at Denver, the Chargers handed John Fox’s club its lone loss at home, 27-20. They held the ball for 38:49.

    See a pattern? And is it any wonder that the Broncos were held to under 30 points in just three games this season, and two of those came against the Chargers?

    Last week at Cincinnati, the opportunistic Bolts came up with four takeaways in their 27-10 win over the Bengals. Although they wound up losing the time of possession battle overall by just over a minute, they also ran the ball 40 times for 196 yards (58 coming on one carry) against the league’s fifth-ranked rushing defense.

    In the two meetings with the Broncos this season, the Chargers ran 35 and 44 times, respectively. They also played turnover-free football in each contest.

    This third encounter between these clubs may be a lot more interesting than many may think.

Seattle Seahawks (13-3) vs. New Orleans Saints (12-5)

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Key to Victory: Repeat Performance

    Cue The Osmonds. “One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch…”

    Just like one loss in two seasons at home doesn’t take away from what the Seattle Seahawks have built in the Pacific Northwest.

    Flash back to three weeks ago when the Arizona Cardinals handed Pete Carroll’s team a 17-10 loss at CenturyLink Field (Week 16). Despite four interceptions by Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, the Seahawks couldn’t get it done as they were limited to 192 yards of total offense, and Russell Wilson was sacked four times.

    Of course, there were 15 home wins over the last two seasons in which the Seahawks almost doubled the opposition (325-168) on the scoreboard. In Seattle’s 34-7 win over the New Orleans Saints back in Week 13, Wilson and Co. rolled up 429 total yards on 69 plays (38 rushing, 31 passing) and held Sean Payton’s club to 188 yards of offense.

    So what do the Seahawks need to do this time around to oust the Saints in the playoffs for the second time in four years?

    By all accounts, Carroll and his team seem to have the proper formula. Will it be that simple this time around? It’s hard to tell. But if you’re going to keep an aggressive defense on its heels, a balanced attack is a pretty good game plan.

New England Patriots (12-4) vs. Indianapolis Colts (12-5)

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    Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

    Key to Victory: Ridley…Believe It or Not

    There’s no surprise that the New England Patriots are back in the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season and the 11th time since 2001.

    It may surprise some people to know that for the second straight year, the Pats finished in the top 10 in the NFL in rushing. And that has to concern the Indianapolis Colts, who finished 26th in rushing defense this season.

    “They run the ball for almost 130 yards per game and 255 on average through the air," said Colts’ head Coach Pagano to Stephen Holder via USA Today Sports. “We know how potent that offense is…”

    It is indeed. New England finished seventh overall in the league in total offense, ninth in rushing and 10th in passing. And despite all their issues this past season, only the Denver Broncos (606) and Chicago Bears (445) scored more points than the Patriots (444) in 2013.

    Pagano added, “You can't go in and say you've just got to get after Tom (Brady) and get him off the spot and put pressure on him and try to frustrate him from a schematic standpoint. They are balanced.”

    In last week’s rousing 45-44 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, the Colts allowed 150 yards on the ground despite not facing Jamaal Charles for most of the afternoon.

    This week, they figure to see plenty of Patriots running back Stevan Ridley, who ran for 773 yards and seven scores, edging out teammate LeGarrette Blount (who also rushed for seven touchdowns) by one yard (772). Ridley’s ball-security issues have been well-documented as he lost all four fumbles he managed this season. But he, along with Blount, may be too much for the Indianapolis defense to handle.

    And it’s hard to come back from any deficit, be it Andrew Luck or any quarterback, when you don’t have the football.

Carolina Panthers (12-4) vs. San Francisco 49ers (13-4)

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Key to Victory: Cam He Get It Done?

    Back in Week 10, the Carolina Panthers put the league on notice with a one-point victory over the defending NFC champions.

    Ron Rivera’s club went to San Francisco and handed the 49ers a 10-9 setback. In that meeting, the Niners managed just 151 yards of total offense and didn’t score a touchdown. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick completed just 11 of 22 passes for 91 yards, was picked off once and was sacked six times.

    While a win is a win, it wasn’t all good news for the Panthers. Carolina managed only 250 total yards on the afternoon. The 49ers defense was impressive as well, sacking quarterback Cam Newton three times, limiting him to 169 yards passing and a 50 percent completion rate (16-of-32).

    The third-year quarterback may have to up his game if the Panthers are going to grab their first playoff win since 2005. In three of his last four outings, he’s been limited to fewer than 200 yards passing. Over that span, he has been sacked 12 times.

    Carolina won three of those games, but in this meeting with the playoff-proven 49ers, the reigning NFC South champions may need a lot more than a mere 10 points.

Denver Broncos (13-3) vs. San Diego Chargers (10-7)

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Key to Victory: Why Fly When You Can Drive?

    Bored with hearing how Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has trouble winning the big game?

    Do you have his 9-11 playoff win-loss record engrained in your brain?

    Tired of hearing how the prolific signal-caller has lost his last three postseason games?

    Manning probably shares in your angst.

    But the one-time Indianapolis Colts legend now Broncos quarterback would certainly love to silence those critics that like to focus on what he hasn’t done instead of what he has accomplished.

    This season, Manning threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, both NFL single-season records. However, he also committed more than half (16) of his club’s 26 turnovers in 2013.

    Here’s also something worth noting. In Manning’s 20 career playoff starts, his team was held to fewer than 100 yards rushing 13 times. In 11 of those 20 contests, his club ran the ball fewer than 25 times.

    During the Colts’ playoff run in 2006, the team managed at least 30 rushing plays in each game and at least 100 yards on the ground in each of those victories.

    Manning threw just three touchdown passes compared to seven interceptions in those four postseason games, and still managed to get a ring via a victory in Super Bowl XLI.

    In the name of Terrell Davis, now would be a good time for the Broncos to emphasize running back Knowshon Moreno, rookie Montee Ball and a Denver ground attack that averaged 117.1 yards per game during the regular season.