After a crazy start to the 2014 NFL playoffs, four new teams will join the fun in what should be a highly entertaining divisional round. The only question is which squads will come out alive.
Three out of the four games in the opening round of the postseason were won by the road team. The only home team to win (Indianapolis Colts) had to come back from a 28-point deficit to win.
Nothing is guaranteed at this point of the year. Even those coming off a bye and with home-field advantage will not have an easy time advancing to the conference championships.
It is important to dissect each game on its own to figure out who will survive in this competitive round of the NFL playoffs.
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
Heading into the playoffs, the big concern with the New Orleans Saints had been their inability to win on the road. They were 8-0 at home this season but 3-5 on the road. Additionally, the franchise was 0-5 all time in the playoffs away from home.
However, Drew Brees and company ended that narrative with a road win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the playoffs. Still, head coach Sean Payton knows that things only get harder this week, via NewOrleansSaints.com:
Each stadium presents a different environment to some degree. For our team we have a lot of young players on this team. Going to Philadelphia is one thing. Going to Seattle is another. Each can be challenging in their own ways. Certainly noise is an issue on the road with the challenges to communication it can create. Those are all things you experience, you have to work through it and that we try to replicate here.
Seattle has gone 15-1 at home over the past two seasons, including a 34-7 win over the Saints earlier in the year. Additionally, the Seahawks have the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL, which will match up perfectly to slow down the opposing offense in this one.
New Orleans can feel happy about finally earning a road win, but it is unlikely this turns into a winning streak. While this contest will be closer than the regular-season game, the Saints simply will not be able to compete in this one.
Prediction: Seahawks 27, Saints 14
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
The Patriots finished the year 8-0 at home this season, but it seems like their never-ending run of injuries might finally catch up with them.
New England has been hurt on both sides of the ball thanks to the losses of Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and plenty others. If that was not bad enough, linebacker Brandon Spikes is the latest to go down, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Patriots announced that they have placed LB Brandon Spikes on injured reserve with a knee injury.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 6, 2014
This will be a big loss against the run, but Spikes also had a big impact in the passing game, according to ESPN Stats and Info:
Brandon Spikes played in 669 of the NE's def snaps this season. NE allowed a 44.1 QBR with him on the field, compared to 59.7 without him.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 6, 2014
The squad already gave up the seventh-most yards in the NFL this season, and the loss of Spikes will make stopping Andrew Luck even tougher.
Meanwhile, the Colts secondary knows how to play a physical brand of man defense that will prevent smaller receivers like Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola from having big games. This will allow the road team to get stops and eventually pull off the big upset over the Patriots.
Prediction: Colts 28, Patriots 27
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
Carolina put itself on the map this year with an impressive 10-9 win over the 49ers in Week 10. The defense proved it was legitimate by shutting down Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the San Francisco offense in the win.
For the most part, the Panthers match up incredibly well defensively against the 49ers with the ability to stop the run and rush the passer. However, they might not be able to account for Kaepernick if he is able to use his legs like he did on Sunday.
As ESPN's Mike Greenberg points out, this played a big role in the win over the Packers:
Difference in the game was Kaepernick's ability to run. Most of the big plays he made with his legs. #Niners— Mike Greenberg (@Espngreeny) January 6, 2014
The third-year quarterback rushed for 98 yards, including some big first downs when his team needed it. If he leaves the pocket against Carolina, his speed might be too tough to defend.
On the other hand, it is important to note that the Panthers did little offensively in the win over the 49ers, scoring only 10 points themselves. Even at home, Carolina will keep struggling to move the football against this tough defensive front.
In another low-scoring battle, the 49ers' experience in the playoffs will help them pull out a win.
Prediction: 49ers 16, Panthers 13
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
The Broncos certainly cannot be happy to face the only team to beat them in Denver all season. In Week 15, San Diego shocked the league by pulling off a 27-20 win at Sports Authority Field.
While some could call it a fluke, the truth is that the Chargers came in with a great game plan of holding possession and keeping Peyton Manning off the field. Thanks to 44 rush attempts, they controlled the ball for 38 minutes and 49 seconds of the 60-minute game.
This put more pressure on Manning to make things happen when he finally got a chance, and it led to mistakes. Of course, the squad also completely abandoned the run early in the contest.
However, now the Broncos know what is coming. They can expect a lot of running plays, which will give them an opportunity to stack the box. The key will be stopping the Chargers on third down and getting off the field, something that will be a problem, as noted by Field Yates of ESPN (subscription required):
To further build upon the theme of keeping Manning off the field (see: controlling time of possession), one can look at the Chargers' efficiency on third down in the two meetings this season.
The Chargers converted 13 of 28 third-down tries in those meetings, and no team converted more third downs throughout the course of the regular season. The ability to rely on both the passing and running game in must-have situations makes the Chargers a potent third-down attack.
Despite San Diego's previous success, the team played a near-perfect game in the last win over the Broncos. It is hard to replicate this feat in the playoffs, and the Broncos should be able to pull out a home win.
Prediction: Broncos 31, Chargers 21
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