Little more could have been asked for with regard to the exciting opening slate of 2013-14 NFL playoff games, which sets the stage for this week's divisional round.
The finalists for each conference will be determined. Those who won their Wild Card Round showdowns will look to keep the momentum up against the top-tier teams that will be well-rested coming off a bye.
Given that three out of four lower seeds managed road victories in the first round, there is bound to be at least one big upset as the remaining eight clubs square off.
It's still early in the week and injuries to certain players could change the complexion of some of these games, but below are predictions for each contest in the divisional round.
|NFL Divisional Round Schedule|
|AFC Divisional Round||Date||Time (ET)||TV|
|Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots||Sat., Jan. 11||8:10 p.m.||CBS|
|San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos||Sun., Jan. 12||4:40 p.m.||CBS|
|NFC Divisional Round|
|New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks||Sat., Jan. 11||4:35 p.m.||Fox|
|San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers||Sun., Jan. 12||1:05 p.m.||Fox|
New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks
Despite a perfect home record and an 11-win season, New Orleans will hit the road for the second straight week as the NFC's No. 6 seed to take on arguably the most complete team in the NFL.
CenturyLink Field is a venue opponents dread because of the crowd noise as it is, and it doesn't help that the Seahawks are exceptional in all phases of the game. These two teams met in Week 13 in Seattle, where the hosts pummeled the Saints 34-7.
In this playoff atmosphere, it's unlikely the outcome will be so lopsided. But that dominance is impossible to ignore, because New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is facing a far more difficult matchup than the Philadelphia defense he threw two interceptions against in the Saints' 26-24 win over the Eagles.
Brees was brilliant for the most part. He'll need to continue building on that without any mistakes if the Saints are meant to have a chance, because he threw for only 147 yards on 38 attempts in Week 13.
There is no shortage of confidence coming from Brees, though, per USA Today's Jarrett Bell:
There's a reason they're the No. 1 seed. There's a reason that the road to the championship goes through Seattle, because they're a heck of a football team. They know how to win, they know how to win at home.
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.
The pressure is on Seattle to live up to expectations, too. QB Russell Wilson shredded the Saints last time around in accounting for 357 total yards and three touchdowns. Living up to that standard will be a tall task for the diminutive, dynamic signal-caller.
At the same time, Wilson isn't the focal point of the Seahawks offense. Running back Marshawn Lynch drives an elite, physical rushing attack and will seek to avenge a disappointing effort (16 carries, 45 yards) in the prior meeting.
Plus, wide receiver Percy Harvin could make a huge difference. Back on Dec. 30, Harvin tweeted that he'd be ready to go for the team's playoff opener:
Whether it's with Harvin or not, Seattle has a defense that has shut down Brees before and should be able to do so again in advancing to the NFC Championship Game.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, Saints 17
Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots
What more can be said about Andrew Luck? It's safe to say the 2012 No. 1 overall pick is living up to the hype in Indy as the successor to one of the best QBs to ever play the game (more on him later).
Luck led one of the most miraculous comebacks in NFL history in defeating the Kansas City Chiefs 45-44 this past Saturday. It was Luck's mistakes that set up the Chiefs for all of their second-half scores, but his brilliance and determination was what got the Colts that win.
ESPN's Mike Greenberg weighed in on what this means for Luck's legacy moving forward:
One could say the second-year star did a lot of growing up very fast—precisely what was needed ahead of a trip to Gillette Stadium to face the Patriots.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are absolute fixtures in the postseason, and Brady's performance this season with a patchwork supporting cast was nothing short of sensational. Brady discussed the demanding nature of the 2013 campaign and how he's helped bring along some of the newer players, per The Boston Globe's Shalise Manza Young:
It takes a lot of mental and physical energy for all of us, for many months of the year, to get to this point. The days off you try to conserve as much energy as you can, and after you have a weekend like this, we’ve earned a bye, you have to try to take advantage of it. Those are the things I try to talk about to the younger players, like this isn’t the time to plan your trip to Jamaica. This is still football season and we’re working hard to try to win this next game. That’s what we’ve got to do. Whatever you need to do to put yourself in this position, I think that’s where maybe some leadership of veteran players can come in handy because you say, "Guys, we’ve got a great opportunity and we have to do everything we can to take advantage of it."
Then again, Luck did something similar when Reggie Wayne was lost in the middle of the year. What this game may come down to is out of the quarterbacks' hands.
Both teams rank near the bottom of the league in rush defense, so whoever can set the tone up front should be in good shape.
The Colts are unfortunately getting nothing out of Trent Richardson, and the Patriots are deep with the likes of the physical LeGarrette Blount and versatile pass-catching back Shane Vereen.
Belichick and counterpart Chuck Pagano are outstanding coaches and will both be well-prepared for any scenario. It's just not quite Indianapolis' time to take that next step.
However, all the Patriots seem to do is win these types of games. History is also on their side, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Look for New England to pull out a close victory and for this to drive Luck and Co. all offseason to an even deeper run in 2014.
Prediction: Patriots 38, Colts 27
San Francisco 49ers vs. Carolina Panthers
When Niners QB Colin Kaepernick led his team to a spot in last year's Super Bowl, he played in warm weather and a dome along the way.
In the bitter cold of Lambeau Field, Kaepernick once again devastated Green Bay's defense and orchestrated a game-winning drive to send San Francisco to Charlotte.
The elements aren't expected to be much of a factor at the moment, with the current forecast from Wunderground.com suggesting temperatures in the upper 50s with minimal winds and less than a 50 percent chance of rain.
San Francisco's vaunted defense has to be used to an athlete of Cam Newton's caliber due to its practice experience against Kaepernick, but Newton's power, clutch factor and swagger have elevated his game in his third season.
Newton feels the Panthers—who have an elite defense of their own and a QB with a knack for pulling out games late—are unbeatable when they are at their best, per the WCCB Charlotte's Kelli Bartik:
Carolina got the better of this matchup in San Francisco in Week 10, where the score was 10-9. Both Kaepernick and Newton have made strides since then, making this showdown as even as any on the upcoming slate.
Experience is definitely on the Niners' side, but something has to be said about home-field advantage in this instance. If the Panthers can beat their vaunted foe in San Francisco, what's to stop them from doing so at Bank of America Stadium?
Anchored by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in the linebacker corps along with a great defensive line featuring ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, this defense has the athleticism to contain Kaepernick, spy him and stuff the Niners' running game.
All of this points to a Panthers victory and a Week 1 revenge game in Seattle for a shot at a Super Bowl berth.
Prediction: Panthers 20, 49ers 17
San Diego Chargers vs. Denver Broncos
Balance will be the key for Denver to avoid falling victim to a Chargers upset for the second consecutive time, so running back Knowshon Moreno must be more of a focus.
After what might have been the best regular season of quarterback play in NFL history, it would be a shame to see Broncos legend Peyton Manning bow out early in the postseason yet again.
The rival AFC West visitors had an excellent formula to stop the Broncos in Week 15's 27-20 triumph, possessing the ball for 38:49 thanks to the physical style of workhorse back Ryan Mathews.
Unfortunately, the former first-round pick could be lost for the Sunday, Jan. 12, rematch in Denver because he exited this past week's 27-10 win in Cincinnati with a nagging ankle injury. Mathews contends that he'll play against the Broncos, per the Union-Times' Michael Gehlken.
"My mindset is I'm playing,” said Mathews. “We keep fighting. Coach (Mike) McCoy says it all the time. It's the next man up. We're all ready."
The Chargers still managed 196 yards on the ground on 40 carries against the Bengals' top-five rush defense, which doesn't bode well for Denver.
As tempting as it is to go with the upset here due to San Diego's surge, its recent success at Mile High and McCoy's familiarity with the Broncos having coached there last season, Manning won't let it happen.
Not much time remains for Manning to add a second Super Bowl ring, and he has to feel that sense of urgency. That will lead to a signature performance versus a leaky Charger defense and a rather decisive win for the home team.
Prediction: Broncos 41, Chargers 31