After the NFL's crazy Wild Card Round, four teams have been eliminated from postseason play, and the divisional round matchups have been set.
And if the rest of the playoffs resemble the first batch of games, then football fans are going to be treated to a veritable feast of football goodness the rest of the way.
Getting things started off with a boom, the Indianapolis Colts advanced in the first game of Wild Card Weekend, as Andrew Luck led an unbelievable 28-point comeback to win by one point over the Kansas City Chiefs, 45-44.
Andrew Luck leads the Colts to a 45-44 victory over the Chiefs after trailing by 28 points in an all-time classic! pic.twitter.com/fNXY7KUzgX— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 5, 2014
Then, during the night game on Jan. 4, the New Orleans Saints finally won a road playoff game under Sean Payton, beating the Philadelphia Eagles 26-24 on a cold night in Philly to advance into the divisional round.
The San Diego Chargers won their game over the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-10, during the early game on Sunday, Jan. 5, forcing Andy Dalton into three turnovers.
In the final game of Wild Card Weekend, Colin Kaepernick put together a masterful game to lead the San Francisco 49ers over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, winning on a last-second field goal, 23-20.
With all four games decided, here's a look at all four games for the NFL's divisional round, which begins on Saturday, Jan. 11, followed by a closer look and final predictions.
|Jan. 11||4:35 p.m.||New Orleans Saints||Seattle Seahawks||Fox|
|Jan. 11||8:15 p.m.||Indianapolis Colts||New England Patriots||CBS|
|Jan. 12||1:05 p.m.||San Francisco 49ers||Carolina Panthers||Fox|
|Jan. 12||4:40 p.m.||San Diego Chargers||Denver Broncos||CBS|
Saturday, Jan. 11, at 4:35 p.m. ET: New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Who you got?
After finally winning the first road playoff game under Payton against Philadelphia in the Wild Card Round, the Saints will head to the Pacific Northwest. It'll be the team's second crack at the Seattle Seahawks, which destroyed New Orleans in Week 13 at CenturyLink Field, 34-7.
The Seahawks had the luxury of resting up during the Wild Card Round, and the team expects dynamic receiver Percy Harvin to play, as reported by 710 AM in Seattle:
Percy Harvin is expected to practice Thursday with the intention of playing in the next game, according to coach Pete Carroll.— Danny 710ESPNSeattle (@BrocknDanny) December 30, 2013
This isn't an ideal scenario for the Saints, because in addition to this team's road woes (traditionally), Seattle is darn-near unbeatable at home, going 15-1 at "The Link" since the start of 2012.
Brees knows his team will need its best game to beat the Seahawks, as reported by John DeShazier of NewOrleansSaints.com:
Having another crack at them, obviously, I look forward to this week of preparation. I look forward to the plan that we're going to put together. They're a great football team. We're going to need our best effort to beat these guys, but if there's a team that can do it, I believe that's us.
You wouldn't expect to hear anything else from a competitor, but the Saints won't advance past Seattle.
The Seahawks will make life miserable for Brees by shutting down Graham and dominating the line of scrimmage on both running and passing plays. The Seahawks will once again feature a balanced and potent offensive attack, beating New Orleans soundly on both sides of the ball.
Projected Score: Seahawks win, 31-17.
Saturday, Jan. 11, at 8:15 p.m. ET: Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
The old guard versus the new.
Tom Brady versus Andrew Luck, and Bill Belichick versus Chuck Pagano.
This game should be epic.
After Indy's improbable come-from-behind win over Kansas City, it's clear Luck has the stuff to take the Colts deep into the payoffs.
The 2013 NFL sack leader, Robert Mathis, summed it up thusly, as relayed by Don Banks of Sports Illustrated: "He has the stuff that makes legends. That was a legendary performance he put on today. We jump on his back and he just leads us to wherever we need to go."
But New England won't go down easy, as clearly illustrated by the team's 12-4 record, despite losing key starters on both sides of the ball—most notably defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The Colts struggled badly to defend Kansas City's passing attack in the Wild Card Round, allowing Alex Smith to pass for 378 yards and four touchdowns—without the benefit of playing with Jamaal Charles, who missed most of the game with a concussion.
New England's ability to scheme and game-plan will ultimately be the difference in the game, and Brady will outplay Luck to lead his Patriots into the next round.
Projected Score: Patriots win, 31-27.
Sunday, Jan. 12, at 1:05 p.m. ET: San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
The 49ers will likely be happy to be playing in the southern half of the United States after playing in the frigid conditions of Lambeau Field, but the game won't be any easier to win than the close contest against the Packers in the Wild Card Round.
The Carolina Panthers already beat the 49ers once this season—a 10-9 slobberknocker in which Carolina's defense outlasted San Francisco's...at Candlestick.
However, before Panthers fans get too excited about their team's chances of winning, they might be wise to consider the 49ers were playing without Michael Crabtree, who was still out with his Achilles injury, and without Vernon Davis, who suffered a concussion in that game.
Repeat performance for Carolina, or San Francisco victory?
Needless to say, San Francisco's offense is much tougher to stop with those star playmakers in the lineup. Carolina's defense will find a whole new offense coming into Bank of America Stadium than the one it dominated back in the middle of November.
On the other side, Carolina will need to score more than 10 points if it has any hope of winning this game. It's not going to be easy, however, because San Francisco's defense is among the best in the league at keeping offenses in check, as Green Bay's 20-point total in the Wild Card Round clearly illustrates.
Perhaps the best chance Carolina has of winning lies with its defense, which will give San Francisco's offense a huge test, as Scott Fowler of The Charlotte Observer points out:
Carolina will never allow Kaepernick to have that much time in the pocket, because the Panthers' pass rush is so much better than Green Bay's. Greg Hardy ... has been almost unblockable in his past two games and will be a huge key.
If the Panthers can stuff Frank Gore and keep Kaepernick in the pocket on passing downs, then they will have an excellent chance of winning the game. Don't expect that to happen, though, because the 49ers have been moving the ball on offense with regularity down the home stretch.
Projected Score: 49ers win, 24-13.
Sunday, Jan. 12, at 4:40 p.m. ET: San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
Don't look now, but Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers are heating up just in time for an improbable Super Bowl run. They took the first step by beating up on the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Jan. 5.
Rivers has been ridiculously good during the team's current five-game winning streak, throwing 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller pointed to the upcoming battle between the Chargers quarterback and the only other signal-caller hotter than him:
There's only one QB playing better football than Philip Rivers right now...and they'll go head-to-head next week.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 5, 2014
Denver remains a heavy betting favorite to win the Super Bowl, but let's not forget the Chargers took down the Broncos in Denver just four weeks ago on Thursday Night Football—a game both teams desperately wanted to win.
Joan Niesen of The Denver Post points out what went wrong for the Broncos in that game while looking ahead to the upcoming divisional round clash:
When the Broncos lost to the Chargers last month, Manning had an ineffective night, and the Broncos scored fewer points (20) than they did in any other game in 2013. They can't have a repeat of that kind of performance, not with their defense as shorthanded as it is.
Which team will win?
As Nielsen points out, Denver's defense is "shorthanded." Von Miller's knee injury puts an already-mediocre defense in a tough spot heading into the playoffs, and the Chargers could give this unit some real problems.
That said, with two weeks to rest up and prepare for this upcoming game, Manning and the Broncos will be ready for the red-hot Chargers.
Projected Score: Broncos win, 35-28.
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