NFL Playoff Bracket 2014: Divisional Round Breakdown
If the first round of the NFL playoffs taught us anything, it's that football is amazing.
Three of the four games were decided in the fourth quarter by a combined six points, two on last-second field goals. The San Diego Chargers 17-point win over the Cincinnati Bengals was the only lopsided finish all weekend. You know, the same Chargers that needed an insane amount of help in Weeks 16 and 17 to even make the playoffs.
Road teams won three of the games, with only the Indianapolis Colts winning on their own turf. Those same Colts exploded offensively against the Kansas City Chiefs in a game many expected to be a defensive struggle. That game ended with Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck proving he is more than ready for prime time by leading a 28-point, second-half comeback.
In short, this past weekend was wall-to-wall football awesomeness with all of the requisite narrative-busting surprises, excitement and fingernail-obliterating action.
If the first round taught us anything, it's that the second round has its work cut out for it.
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
Where: CenturyLink Field in Seattle
When: 4:35 p.m. ET, Jan. 11, 2014 (FOX)
What to know:
The Seattle Seahawks (13-3) are going to be heavily favored in this matchup after beating the New Orleans Saints (11-5) 34-7 in Week 13. After that game, the Seahawks—nearly unbeatable at home—earned home-field advantage in the playoffs even while going 2-2 down the final stretch.
This game, in essence, should be strength-on-strength. The Seahawks have one of the most powerful, multi-dimensional defenses in the entire league (ranked No. 1 by Pro Football Focus [subscription required]), while the Saints are known for an explosive multi-faceted offensive attack (ranked No. 3 by Pro Football Focus).
Where the Seahawks win this game, however, is by rattling Saints quarterback Drew Brees as they did in their last matchup, when they racked up six QB hits and a sack. The Seahawks defense loves to make plays off of errant passes that shouldn't have been thrown, as evidenced by its league-high 28 interceptions this season.
For New Orleans to have a chance against Seattle, Brees will need to get the ball out quickly and efficiently.
Who will win: Seattle 28, New Orleans 20
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
Where: Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
When: 8:15 p.m. ET, Jan. 11, 2014 (CBS)
What to know:
Past meets present when the Indianapolis Colts (11-5) face the New England Patriots (12-4) for what feels like the umpteenth time in the past decade. Only this time, instead of Peyton Manning at the helm, it's Colts quarterback Andrew Luck who will be trying to knock Patriots quarterback Tom Brady off of his Uggs-booted pedestal.
Both Luck and Brady are missing a lot of their supporting talent this weekend, with Luck still learning to live without receiver Reggie Wayne and Brady trying to click his heels together three times and pretend he still has receiver Wes Welker as well as tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
It truly puts the pressure on the two passers, who each need to be at their best in order to move the ball down the field.
"We know it's going to be a dogfight and looking forward to it," Luck said about the matchup, per ESPN.com's Mike Wells. "This is what the playoffs are about."
The advantage here goes to the Patriots, who have both the better team and the better passer. Luck had a fantastic first round and is going to have plenty of great playoff moments down the road. This year, though, the game goes to New England.
Who will win: New England 20, Indianapolis 13
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
Where: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
When: 1:05 p.m. ET, Jan. 12, 2014 (FOX)
What to know:
This battle of former read-option quarterbacks isn't going to break any NFL passing records, but it's sure to keep a couple of defensive coordinators up at night. The offensive play-callers in this one—Carolina's Mike Shula and San Francisco's Greg Roman—have both done a great job this year utilizing their respective quarterback's abilities as they drove toward the playoffs.
The 49ers (12-4) and the Panthers (12-4) also rely upon fantastic defenses. For San Francisco, it's a great front seven with one of the best linebacker corps in recent memory. In Carolina, it's the best young linebacker in the NFL (Luke Kuechly) with a great defensive line in front of him.
Both defenses are going to have their hands full, however, as both 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton can win on the ground and through the air. This season, Newton has been the better player, but Kaepernick has the better surrounding cast, with healthy wide receiver Michael Crabtree and a matchup nightmare in tight end Vernon Davis.
Who will win: San Francisco 20, Carolina 16
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver
When: 4:40 p.m. ET, Jan. 12, 2014 (CBS)
What to know:
The Denver Broncos (13-3) and San Diego Chargers (9-7) split their series this season, and the Broncos lost a bit of their unbeatable luster from their 6-0 start. In fact, the only three teams they lost to this season are the three teams left in the AFC playoffs—the Chargers, Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots.
In the Chargers' Week 15 win over the Broncos, San Diego's defense limited Manning to seven yards per attempt and picked him off once, but it was the Chargers offense—led by rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen (two touchdowns) and running back Ryan Mathews (127 yards and a touchdown)—that made the biggest difference.
Mathews may or may not be available for this one though. He missed last week's win over the Chiefs and hasn't practiced this week yet. For his part, Mathews says his mindset is he'll be playing.
The Chargers and head coach Mike McCoy want a balanced offense. At home, the Broncos will try to do what the Cincinnati Bengals could not do in the Wild Card Round and score early and often enough to throw the Chargers offense out of whack. If the Broncos can't do that, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has more than enough skill to pull off another wild upset on the road.
Look for Manning to shake the playoff narrative that haunts him, though, because he simply has too many weapons for the Chargers defense to match up with, and he's not going to lose to a team that handed him his last loss.
Who will win: Broncos 30, Chargers 20