If the first round of the NFL playoffs was any indication, the divisional games will be something special. Each battle will be close, but it will come down to which side can get the advantage in key areas.
The San Diego Chargers beat the Cincinnati Bengals because they earned a plus-four advantage in turnover margin. The San Francisco 49ers held Aaron Rodgers in check to throw for only 177 yards on a cold day to limit the Green Bay Packers offense.
These key stats were the difference in the Wild Card Round. In the next set of games, there will be a few more things to look for as each team tries to advance to the conference championship.
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
Key Stat: Seahawks 30-Yard Plays (Over/Under 1.5)
The Seahawks run a relatively conservative offense based around the running ability of Marshawn Lynch. However, every once in a while, they will beat a defense with a pass deep.
When these teams played in Week 13, Russell Wilson completed passes of 33 yards, 52 yards and 60 yards. New Orleans cannot let this happen again.
This does not mean that the Saints should play prevent defense all game and let the opposing offense do whatever they want underneath. However, the defensive backs have to be aware of the possibility of a deep shot on every play. This ability to focus will go a long way.
Against the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans did a good job of shutting down Riley Cooper and DeSean Jackson, with the exception of one long pass to Jackson. The team needs to do this again while covering Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin.
Otherwise, Seattle will not only get the points to win, but the momentum from big plays might be too tough to overcome.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
Key Stat: Patriots Rushing Yards (Over/Under 140)
As good as Tom Brady has been throughout his career, this year's Patriots are a better team when they are able to run the ball with consistency.
New England ended the regular season as the No. 9 rushing attack in football, thanks in part to a 267-yard effort in Week 17 against the Buffalo Bills. LeGarrette Blount has been especially impressive down the stretch with 265 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the final two games.
Unsurprisingly, the Patriots were able to score plenty of points in these contests. Blount is helping to not only control the game, but finish off drives with touchdowns instead of field goals as well.
Meanwhile, stopping the run has been a weakness for the Colts all year as one of only eight teams to allow over 2,000 yards on the ground this season. They allowed at least 100 rushing yards in each of their five losses this season.
If Jamaal Charles did not get hurt early on last game, Indianapolis might have had a harder time coming back to win.
The Colts cannot count on an injury once again, which means they better stop the Patriots rushing attack in this game.
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
Key Stat: Panthers Sacks (Over/Under 3)
Throughout most of the season, the 49ers did a good job of protecting Colin Kaepernick. The team allowed 39 sacks to rank 11th in the league.
However, the quarterback could not get free against the Carolina Panthers in Week 10 and ended up being sacked six times in a 10-9 loss. This was a theme for the defense all season as it led the NFL with 60 on the year.
Still, Kaepernick showed in the win over the Green Bay Packers that he is capable of avoiding pressure and making things happen with his legs, as noted by Fox Sports:
Colin Kaepernick was the top rusher of Wild Card weekend. Not the top rushing QB. The top rusher.— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 6, 2014
The quarterback scrambled for 98 rushing yards in the win, most of which came off scrambles when the defense crashed into the pocket. Against Carolina, he will once again need to be active with his legs to get away from Greg Hardy and company.
After scoring only nine points the last time these teams played, the 49ers will be looking for much more offense in this game.
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
Key Stat: Chargers Time of Possession (Over/Under 35 minutes)
The Chargers figured out the one spot where Peyton Manning cannot hurt them: the sidelines.
San Diego became the only team to beat the Broncos on the road this season when it won 27-20 in Week 15. In that contest, Denver only had 21 minutes and 11 seconds of possession. Things were not much better the first time these teams played either, as the Broncos once again had the ball for less than 22 minutes.
This is accomplished with a conservative, run-heavy approach by the Chargers to go with a league-leading conversion rate on third down. Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard discussed the key factor in the upcoming game, via DenverBroncos.com:
Get off the field on third down. They had 175 yards on the ground but we didn’t get off the field on third down. They were like 50 percent and that was the key. Anytime you play a good running team if you’re not off the field on third down then they can just continue to keep running the ball and control the clock. That was the big thing -- getting off the field on third down.
While the Chargers defense is not among the best in the league, it is good enough to keep Manning in check for about a third of a game. This is why it comes down to the Denver defense to make sure it ends drives quickly and gets the ball back to the offense.
Denver can score quickly, but it will take more than a few chances to run up the score in this game.
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