The divisional round of the 2014 NFL playoffs features four difficult games to pick, as all eight teams remaining have a shot to win it all.
The New Orleans Saints will be at CenturyLink Field to take on the Seattle Seahawks in the afternoon on Saturday, Jan. 11, with the Indianapolis Colts taking on the New England Patriots later that evening at Gillette Stadium.
Then on Sunday, Jan. 12, the San Francisco 49ers are slated to take on the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in the early game, with the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos capping off the weekend at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Now it's time to pick winners for all four games.
New Orleans at Seattle
It's going to be a wet, blustery day in Seattle when the Saints take on the Seahawks, according to Weather.com, which warns of a "potential for heavy rainfall," and predicts winds up to 24 miles per hour.
As if New Orleans needed any more obstacles to overcome in this one...
The last time these teams met up in Week 13, Seattle's top-ranked scoring defense put the clamps down on Drew Brees and the offense of the Saints. New Orleans was held to 12 first downs, 188 total yards and one touchdown, leading to a 34-7 blowout win in favor of Seattle.
With one week of relative rest as the No. 1 seed, Seattle's roster should be as healthy as it's been all year long, and Percy Harvin could even play, depending on how he practices, as reported Liz Matthews of 710 ESPN Radio in Seattle:
Carroll said today's practice is a huge factor in whether or not Harvin plays on Saturday. Needs to get through today.— Liz Mathews 710 ESPN (@Liz_Mathews) January 7, 2014
Safety Earl Thomas believes his team will win because of how it prepares, as relayed by the Seahawks on Twitter:
It's hard to argue with him on this, as Seattle lost just three games all year. Making matters worse for the Saints is the fact that the Seahawks are 15-1 at home the past two seasons.
Look for the Seahawks to dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball on their way to a resounding victory at home.
Projected Score: Seahawks win, 31-17.
Indianapolis at New England
There's a bit of rain (60 percent chance, showers) in the forecast for this matchup, too, but the Colts and Patriots won't be playing through a potentially brutal storm like the first matchup on Jan. 11.
Without the weather playing a major factor, this game will come down to which team's defense can figure out a way to shut down the opposing elite quarterback. Andrew Luck and Tom Brady are two of the best in the business.
Indy's T.Y. Hilton caught 13 passes for 224 yards and two huge touchdowns against Kansas City—the second huge game in a row for him—to help the Colts sneak past the Chiefs 45-44.
When Hilton is on fire, the Colts are nearly unstoppable on offense, which is why Ross Tucker of NBC Sports believes New England will stop at nothing to keep him in check:
Only thing I know for sure is Patriots won't let T.Y. Hilton beat them— Ross Tucker (@RossTuckerNFL) January 6, 2014
On the other side, New England will need to find a way to keep Robert Mathis from wreaking havoc on the Patriots offensive line. He racked up 19.5 sacks to lead the league during the regular season, and he came up with a huge sack and strip for a fumble against Alex Smith in the Wild Card Game.
New England will likely attempt to run the ball right at Mathis as a way to keep him from getting comfortable rushing the passer. The Patriots have been running the ball effectively all year long, and the Colts gave up 2,002 yards on the ground this past season.
Andrew Luck will keep his team close, but in the end Brady's bunch will win the day.
Projected Score: Patriots win, 31-27.
San Francisco at Carolina
There's a chance of rain for this game (40 percent, showers), but temperatures will be in the 60s, meaning weather won't be a huge factor in the outcome.
After the 49ers took down Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in sub-zero temperatures at Lambeau Field in the Wild Card Round, ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert boldly proclaimed San Francisco as the best team in football:
The 49ers are the best team in football, and if they continue to play the way they did Sunday, they will win Super Bowl XLVIII next month.
Jim Harbaugh's 49ers certainly have a shot, and they'll have a chance to prove Seifert right in a rematch with the Panthers in the early game on Sunday, Jan. 12.
What's going to happen in this game?
Carolina beat the 49ers at Candlestick Park in Week 10, but things have changed significantly for San Francisco since that time. Vernon Davis wasn't available for most of that game after suffering a concussion, and Michael Crabtree was still unavailable as he recovered from his Achilles injury.
Both talented playmakers figure to be heavily featured against the Panthers this time around. Crabtree was the best player on the field not named Colin Kaepernick against Green Bay, catching eight passes for 125 yards, and Davis caught a critical 28-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Carolina's defense is stellar and Cam Newton has improved dramatically this past season, but the Panthers won't have an answer for the 49ers—winners of seven games in a row.
Projected Score: 49ers win, 24-13.
San Diego at Denver
Denver could seriously be one-and-done in the playoffs this year, because it appears San Diego has figured out how to keep Peyton Manning in check.
In the two regular-season contests between the Chargers and Broncos, Manning's squad barely won on the scoreboard, 48-47. Even more alarming is the fact that after Manning threw his fourth touchdown pass in the first game to go up 28-6, San Diego outscored Denver 41-20.
The two teams split the season series, 1-1, and nobody should be shocked if the Chargers end up winning this game. Remember, Chargers head coach Mike McCoy was Manning's offensive coordinator in 2012 before taking the position with San Diego.
It appears he's gotten his team into a groove against Manning the past five-plus quarters. Joan Niesen of The Denver Post points out the obvious difficulty the Broncos will have if Manning struggles once again:
When the Broncos lost to the Chargers last month, Manning had an ineffective night, and the Broncos scored fewer points (20) than they did in any other game in 2013. They can't have a repeat of that kind of performance, not with their defense as shorthanded as it is.
All that said, it's hard to imagine Denver will go out in the divisional round. With two weeks to prepare—with two weeks to fix what didn't work the last time against San Diego—Manning will have his offense ready to play at its highest level.
Projected Score: Broncos win, 35-28.
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