The 2013-14 NFL playoffs have gotten off to an incredible start, with three of last week's four games coming down to the wire. Now, the divisional round is on deck, and the elite teams of the regular season will take the field for the first time this postseason.
There is pressure on the best of the best to live up to the hype, while the wild-card clubs don't have as much to lose in traveling to take on their favored foes.
No matter how the rest of the upcoming scenes play out, this year's bracket looks excellent and should create one of the best NFL finishes in recent memory:
Below is a look at the schedule for the remainder of the postseason as it stands along with predictions for each divisional-round clash.
|Indianapolis at New England||Jan. 11||8:15 p.m.||CBS|
|San Diego at Denver||Jan. 12||4:40 p.m.||CBS|
|AFC Championship Game||Jan. 19||3:00 p.m.||CBS|
|New Orleans at Seattle||Jan. 11||4:35 p.m.||FOX|
|San Francisco at Carolina||Jan. 12||1:05 p.m.||FOX|
|NFC Championship Game||Jan. 19||6:30 p.m.||FOX|
|Super Bowl Game||Feb. 2||6:30 p.m.||FOX|
New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks
One would presume that drawing on previous positive experience would be a viable strategy for the Seahawks, who are preparing for the Siants coming off a bye as the no. 1 seed in the NFC.
Head coach Pete Carroll is thinking along different, less conventional lines, though. Carroll told his team to disregard Seattle's 34-7 whooping of New Orleans at CenturyLink Field in Week 13, per ESPN.com's Terry Blount on Monday, Jan. 6:
We start all over again. It has nothing to do with what happened before. We don't care about that. Obviously, we learned and gained information for the game, as they did, but we start from scratch. We will take a look at what's happened since we played them and what they've done. But it would be a mistake to try to call it based on what's happened in the past.
As against the grain as that seems, it might actually help the Seahawks avoid any sort of complacency or lethargy facing a vengeance-seeking Saints squad with a Super Bowl MVP in Drew Brees under center.
Brees has to do battle with a deep defensive front, a swarming linebacker corps and probably the best secondary in the league, dubbed the Legion of Boom. It didn't go so well last time, to say the least.
Star middle linebacker Bobby Wagner discussed how Seattle takes pride in jumping on its opposition early, per the Los Angeles Times' Sam Farmer:
Every game, you want to go out there and set the tone. You don't want a team on its opening drive to get in a rhythm, get comfortable. As soon as they get comfortable, you've got to really work on that. So the main thing we do is we try to knock them off rhythm from the moment they walk into the stadium.
The Saints have to account for Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson both on the ground and through the air in addition to the physicality running back Marshawn Lynch brings to the point of attack.
Since the very physical Seahawks are well-rested, look for them to come out firing on all cylinders and put New Orleans in a hole Brees will ultimately fall short in rallying the Saints out of.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, Saints 20
Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots
The Patriots defense should be very afraid of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who overcame three interceptions and a 28-point deficit to lead his team to victory in the Wild Card Round.
Luck has lived up to the hype in every way imaginable since being drafted No. 1 overall in 2012—summarized by this gutsy play, which spurred Indy's win over Kansas City:
But winning in Foxboro is going to be no easy task for the underdog Colts. Even if New England's defense is shaky, as long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are in the fold, the Pats have an excellent chance to beat anyone.
Much like the situation Luck is in, Brady has a limited number of receivers he can truly count on, yet he's made it work to the point that his team has the AFC's No. 2 seed.
That speaks volumes. Although Luck did an amazing job rescuing his team against the Chiefs and should keep this one interesting, the experience of the Patriots will win out.
New England will find a way to stop T.Y. Hilton from going off like he did last week for 224 yards receiving. Ross Tucker of NBC Sports agrees with this notion, as the Patriots are known for taking away what opponents do best:
Only thing I know for sure is Patriots won't let T.Y. Hilton beat them— Ross Tucker (@RossTuckerNFL) January 6, 2014
The limitation of Hilton should force Luck into enough mistakes that it will be too much for the Colts to overcome.
Brady will do enough with his limited supporting cast, lean on a superior stable of running backs, pull out a tight victory and advance to the conference title game.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Colts 23
San Francisco 49ers vs. Carolina Panthers
All eyes will be on Cam Newton as he takes the field for his inaugural playoff appearance in his third season.
It will help Newton immensely if venerated veteran receiver Steve Smith can return to the lineup and be effective after two weeks of resting his injured knee. Smith says he will play Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, per ESPN.com's David Newton:
It's not about, "Can I go?" It's how confident do I feel when I am going? I will play Sunday. It's about how much of that do I don't worry about the knee. That's when the confidence increases...Just got to build up that muscle memory. Had that fluid [in the knee]. The injury caused some kind of trauma in there, so just trying to work through that. I should be fine for Sunday, though.
It's not the most ringing endorsement from the self-confident Smith, but even having him as a diversion will help his QB.
The other dual-threat signal-caller is Colin Kaepernick, who happens to already have three playoff victories under his belt in which he's played extremely well.
San Francisco is attempting to go to its third NFC Championship Game in as many years under head coach Jim Harbaugh, and it's hard to argue the Niners won't do so.
When these two teams met in Week 10, Michael Crabtree didn't play and Vernon Davis was hurt. They're back in full swing now, and that changes how much the defense can focus on Kaepernick as a runner.
As athletic as Carolina is in the front seven, Kaepernick has the weapons now to open up more lanes and should take better advantage of the Panthers secondary than he did in throwing for a season-low 91 yards last time out.
Newton has proved doubters wrong all season long, as have the Panthers in winning the NFC South, but the run comes to an end here. Like the Colts, however, this young, promising bunch will build resolve toward the future.
Prediction: 49ers 20, Panthers 17
San Diego Chargers vs. Denver Broncos
The combined score in the two meetings these teams had in the regular season was 48-47 in favor of the Broncos, but the Chargers got the upper hand in the last battle at Mile High, winning 27-20 in Week 15.
Head coach Mike McCoy and his staff devised a sensational game plan that kept the ball away from Denver's historically prolific offense led by legendary QB Peyton Manning. Something similar will be necessary to pull off another upset in this raised-stakes grudge match.
The NFL on ESPN's official Twitter account provides an interesting statistic, showcasing San Diego's grit on the road against quality opponents this season:
The Chargers are 4-0 on the road this season against teams with winning records.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 7, 2014
Which QB is under the most pressure to succeed in the divisional round?
Philip Rivers has avoided the mistakes that plagued him and his team the past two seasons and has flourished under McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. With more balance and less pressure on Rivers to get it done, the Chargers look as dangerous as ever.
Their 29th-ranked pass defense looked good shutting down Cincinnati and Andy Dalton, but doing so against the likes of Manning and his plethora of weapons is an entirely different matter.
Manning is 37 and doesn't have much time to add another Super Bowl to his otherwise impeccable resume. He won't let the Chargers beat him twice in four games on his home field, especially after a one-and-done exit last year to the eventual Lombardi Trophy-winning Baltimore Ravens.
Look for a signature Manning performance and for the Broncos to get a lot out of Knowshon Moreno to create their own balanced attack and beat San Diego in convincing fashion.
Prediction: Broncos 41, Chargers 27