NFL Divisional Playoffs 2014: Matchups That Will Decide Outcome of Each Game

R. Cory SmithSenior Writer IJanuary 6, 2014

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 02: Quarterback Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks runs with the ball as outside linebacker David Hawthorne #57 of the New Orleans Saints defends during a game at CenturyLink Field on December 2, 2013 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Every team in the NFL playoffs typically has more strengths than weaknesses, which is why a squad makes it to the postseason in the first place. This season, there are teams with great offenses, great defenses or, in some cases, both.

Heading into the divisional round of the playoffs, only eight teams remain vying for a chance to move on to the NFC and AFC Championship Games before playing in the Super Bowl. Of those remaining teams, three are rematches from exciting regular-season matchups, so they are guaranteed to be closely contested.

The later into the postseason the games get, more importance is put into matchups of offenses and defenses that can dictate which team advances and which one goes home. With four divisional round games kicking off this weekend, here are the biggest matchups to watch for.


Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson vs. New Orleans Saints pass defense

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 02: Quarterback Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks looks to pass against the New Orleans Saints during a game at CenturyLink Field on December 2, 2013 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

In their last matchup, Russell Wilson absolutely gutted the New Orleans Saints secondary.

The second-year quarterback finished the game going 22-of-30 for 310 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Adding insult to injury, he was also the leading rusher with 47 yards on eight attempts, including a key 15-yard rush.

As if stopping Wilson wasn't already a daunting task, the Saints might have to deal with another dynamic playmaker as Percy Harvin could take the field, according to NBC Sports:

The reason for this matchup being labelled as Wilson vs. the entire Saints pass defense is because it also includes the pass rush. Ranking fourth in the NFL in the regular season with 49 sacks on the season, New Orleans is more than capable of rushing the passer but wasn't effective in Seattle.

New Orleans' pass defense finished the regular season just behind the Seattle Seahawks for second in the NFL in yards allowed and only surrendered a total of 20 touchdowns. But if the unit fails to show up once again in Seattle, things could once again go south quickly.


Indianapolis Colts' T.Y. Hilton vs. New England Patriots secondary

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 04:  T.Y. Hilton #13 of the Indianapolis Colts catches the game winning touchdown pass during the NFL Wild Card Playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 4, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Phot
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

T.Y. Hilton has been on fire in his last two games. Facing off with a New England Patriots secondary that ranks 18th in passing yards allowed per game could spell trouble for the heavily favored Patriots.

In Week 17 and the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, Hilton has put together two straight performances of 150-plus receiving yards and scored two touchdowns against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Hilton discussed a conversation that he had with coach Chuck Pagano prior to the waning moments of the game when he caught a game-winning 64-yard touchdown, according to Mike Chappell of The Indianapolis Star:

Before we broke the huddle coming off the sideline, coach (Chuck) Pagano told me, 'Go win the game for us.' We got in the huddle. Me and Andrew started talking. He called the play and said, 'Man, just run. Just run.' I knew how they were playing me. I took an outside release, got up on the safety, got his hips turned and Andrew let it go. I used my speed and got past both of them.

Though the Patriots are playing at home in the divisional round of the playoffs as the No. 2 seed, their pass defense has been a clear weakness. With a good pass rush that ranks fifth in the NFL and first among AFC playoff teams, New England will need to get to Andrew Luck early and often.

But if the Pats are not able to shut down Hilton, the Indianapolis Colts could be looking at yet another showdown with either Philip Rivers or Peyton Manning.


San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick vs. Carolina Panthers defense

Unlike the last two matchups, this one features a dynamic quarterback who didn't exactly have the most success against the opposing defense in their last contest.

Colin Kaepernick has been electric during his career in the playoffs and continued the dominance in the Wild Card Round against the Green Bay Packers, throwing for 227 yards and a touchdown while rushing for an additional 98 yards.

But against the Carolina Panthers, Kaepernick struggled, to say the least. Going just 11-of-22 with 91 passing yards, an interception and only 16 rushing yards, Kaepernick looked like a shell of himself against the Panthers defense.

Kaepernick hasn't forgotten the last time the 49ers met with the Panthers and said they want to exact some revenge this weekend, according to ESPN:

If the 49ers plan to move forward against the Panthers, they will once again need Kaepernick to dominate in the playoffs both in the passing game and on the ground. If he can't, Cam Newton and the Panthers defense will likely be looking at just one more win before a trip to the Super Bowl.


Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning vs. San Diego Chargers pass defense

Nov 10, 2013; San Diego, CA, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) calls plays at the line during the second half against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. The Broncos won 28-20. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

When talking about the Denver Broncos, Peyton Manning is always going to be mentioned. The 16-year quarterback passed for a record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns during 2013 and appears to be on a mission toward winning one more Super Bowl before hanging up his cleats in the not-too-distant future.

But his opponent in the divisional round is a familiar one, and not in a good sense. As NFL AM points out, Manning has faced the Chargers twice in the playoffs, both as a member of the Colts, and came away winless each time:

Then there's the two times the teams played one another this season. In the first game, Manning romped the Chargers to the tune of 330 passing yards and four touchdowns as the Broncos pulled out a 28-20 win in Week 10.

But the second game the two played went a little differently. Manning was held to 289 passing yards and two touchdowns in the 27-20 loss. While those numbers seem normal for any other quarterback, Manning has been held to just two touchdowns and less than 300 yards in only four games this season.

With the Chargers' magical run moving into the divisional round, shutting down Manning will be the top priority for a pass defense that ranks 29th in the NFL. But if Rivers and the Chargers offense can keep Manning off the field as they did in the second matchup, the task becomes a lot easier for the defense.