NFL Playoffs 2014: Early Picks for Divisional-Round Matchups

Tim Keeney@@t_keenContributor IJanuary 7, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 10:  Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers streches during a timeout of their game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on November 10, 2013 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Alright, divisional round, let's see what you've got for an encore. 

The opening weekend of the NFL playoffs put on an electrifying show, as the Indianapolis Colts got things started with an instant-classic comeback win against the Kansas City Chiefs, while Philadelphia and New Orleans as well as San Francisco and Green Bay also produced thrilling battles. 

Really, only Cincinnati vs. San Diego came up short on the scintillating scale, but even that matchup was hardly uneventful. 

With the league's top division winners thrown into the mix this weekend, it's going to continue to be must-see action. 

Here's a gander at my picks, along with a closer look at the two games with the closest spreads, per Covers. 

2014 NFL Divisional Round Picks
GameDateTime (ET)TVPick
New Orleans Saints at Seattle SeahawksSat, Jan. 114:35 p.m.FOXSeahawks
Indianapolis Colts at New England PatriotsSat, Jan. 118:15 p.m.CBSPatriots
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina PanthersSun, Jan. 121:05 p.m.FOXPanthers
San Diego Chargers at Denver BroncosSun, Jan. 124:40 p.m.CBSBroncos


Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 18:  Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts shakes hands with Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots following their game on November 18, 2012 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Ima
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The focus of this one, of course, will be on the quarterbacks. Tom Brady is one of the most successful—from both a team and individual perspective—players to ever line up behind center, while Andrew Luck has lived up to the impossible hype in his first two NFL seasons.

Making things even more compelling, both have had remarkably similar starts to their careers, as ESPN Stats & Info notes:

In addition to the talent at quarterback, both teams face significant questions on the defensive side of the ball. 

The Colts, who finished the regular season 21st in the NFL in yards per pass allowed (7.4) and 17th in interceptions (15), are coming off a game in which they allowed Alex Smith to torch them for 378 passing yards, four scores and zero turnovers. 

On the other side of the ball, the Pats, who are already missing Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo, are now without hard-hitting Brandon Spikes, who was placed on the IR with a knee injury.

According to Pro Football Focus, via The Boston Globe's Shalise Manza Young, Spikes was graded as the No. 6 inside linebacker overall and No. 1 against the run. Of course, his worth goes beyond the numbers, as Dont'a Hightower pointed out, via's Mary Paoletti:

"Intimidation. Fire," Dont'a Hightower said Tuesday. "He just brings that spark to the defense that a lot of people don't. If somebody needs to say something, it's usually Spikes. It's not a captain, a 15-year-old vet. It's usually him."

It's a brutal loss for New England, which was already giving up a healthy 4.5 yards per carry, and if Donald Brown gets going on the ground, Andrew Luck will be even more difficult to contain as part of a balanced offense. 

All things considered, we're headed for a shootout, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if the team that got the ball last ended up winning. 

In what should be a tightly contested battle, I'll take the experience under center in Brady and one of the best head coaches in the league in Bill Belichick, who will have had two weeks to draw up a game plan. 


San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers

These teams, of course, met at Candlestick Park in early November, and it was the Panthers escaping with an impressive, hard-nosed 10-9 victory. 

In that contest, though, the Niners were without both Vernon Davis, who left in the second quarter with a concussion, and Michael Crabtree. Colin Kaepernick threw for 91 yards and an interception, while the leading receiver was Mario Manningham, who hasn't caught a pass since December 15. 

The Panthers defense, easily one of the best in the league, deserves credit for that performance, but it will be facing a much different unit this time around. With Crabtree in the lineup, the Niners are averaging just over 361 total yards per contest (compared to 273.9 without him) and are 6-0 with wins over the St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers. 

GREEN BAY, WI - JANUARY 05:  Michael Crabtree #15 of the San Fransico 49ers moves around Morgan Burnett #42 of the Green Bay Packers during an NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Lambeau Field on January 5, 2014 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The 49ers defeated the P
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

That being said, don't immediately dismiss Carolina. Frank Gore tallied 5.1 yards per carry in that first matchup, and it's unlikely he is that efficient again versus a defense that allowed just 4.0 YPC and 86.9 rushing yards per contest during the regular season. 

San Francisco has arguably the best linebacker corps in the league, but Carolina isn't far behind, as and CSN Bay Area's John Middlekauff claims:

Not only will Gore be held in check, but Kaepernick won't be able to find as much space to run the ball as he did at Lambeau last weekend. The third-year QB will have to beat the Panthers with his arm, which could be an incredibly uncomfortable task against the league's top pass rush.

This one is a complete coin flip in my book. Both teams are white-hot, San Francisco has the better offense and you can't go wrong with either unit on defense. 

I'm going to change this pick at least 12 times in the next several days, but for now, I'll take the Panthers at home.