Now that the aptly named Wild Card Round has come and gone, just eight teams remain in the quest for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. That number will be cut to four by Sunday night, and it's certainly possible that the divisional matchups will be even more exciting and closely contested.
All four games on tap are of great interest to football fans, and they could potentially go either way depending upon how things break. Parity was the hallmark of the 2013 NFL regular season, and it has already been a major factor during the 2014 playoffs.
Here is a full listing of when and where to catch every divisional-round game as well as predictions for all four postseason clashes this weekend.
|NFL Divisional Round Schedule|
|Away Team||Home Team||Date||Time (ET)||Channel|
|New Orleans Saints||Seattle Seahawks||Saturday, Jan. 11||4:35 p.m.||FOX|
|Indianapolis Colts||New England Patriots||Saturday, Jan. 11||8:15 p.m.||CBS|
|San Francisco 49ers||Carolina Panthers||Sunday, Jan. 12||1:05 p.m.||FOX|
|San Diego Chargers||Denver Broncos||Sunday, Jan. 12||4:40 p.m.||CBS|
New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks
Few observers gave the New Orleans Saints much of a chance to get to this point, but they slayed their road demons in the Wild Card Round by outlasting the Philadelphia Eagles in enemy territory. That victory gave the Saints some credibility away from the Superdome, but the challenge they will face in the divisional round is in a completely different stratosphere as they will take on the Seattle Seahawks.
The Saints already had a crack at the Seahawks in Seattle this season, and it didn't go well. New Orleans was drubbed by a score of 34-7 in what was unquestionably its worst effort of the season. Saints quarterback Drew Brees and the offense couldn't get anything going, and it won't get any easier due to the Seahawks' elite defense and a playoff atmosphere. Also, Brees has traditionally struggled on the road when compared to his home excellence in recent years, according to NFL Stats:
This isn't the first time that New Orleans has faced Seattle on the road in the playoffs. The Saints were a heavily favored road team in 2010, but they were shocked by the Seahawks 41-36. The roles are reversed this time around with most expecting Seattle to win, so the pressure has actually shifted. The Saints will perform much better in this game than they did against the Seahawks several weeks ago, but they'll ultimately fall just short.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, Saints 21
Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots
The rivalry between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots has arguably been the best in the NFL over the past decade, divisional feuds notwithstanding. It has taken a backseat over the past couple of years, though, due to Peyton Manning making the move to the Denver Broncos. The rivalry was always built upon Manning vs. Tom Brady, but there's a new sheriff in town for the Colts.
Andrew Luck is already doing some special things in his NFL season, and there is no reason why he can't become Brady's chief rival in a quarterback sense. Most probably agree that Luck is the next Brady or Manning anyway, and it would be a huge feather in his cap to knock off a future Hall of Famer like Brady in his second NFL campaign. If Luck manages to do that, then he will find himself in rarefied air, per ESPN Stats & Info:
It's amazing that the Colts have made it this far considering the fact that they faced a 28-point deficit against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card Round. Luck made his fair share of mistakes in that game, but he ultimately made huge plays when his team needed him most. Beating the Patriots on the road in the playoffs seems like a near impossible task for any team, but the Colts will ultimately benefit from injuries finally taking their toll on New England.
Prediction: Colts 28, Patriots 27
San Francisco 49ers vs. Carolina Panthers
In yet another regular-season rematch, the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers will do battle on Sunday. The Panthers grinded out a 10-9 over the Niners on the road earlier in the year, and that is when people truly started to take Carolina seriously as a contender in the NFC. The Panthers went on to capture the NFC South crown as well as the No. 2 seed in the NFC, so they will host the 49ers in this pivotal contest.
Defense will obviously be the main focus after the manner in which their first meeting played out, but the quarterbacks will be a focal point as well.
Panthers signal-caller Cam Newton has really come into his own, but this will be his first postseason start. It isn't as if he'll be able to ease into things, either, as he'll have to face one of the league's best defenses and the defending NFC champions. The playoffs are old hat to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick at this point; however, he struggled mightily against the Panthers in their first matchup, according to NFL on ESPN:
If Kaepernick lays another egg like that, then the Niners simply have no hope of prevailing on the road. With that said, Kap has elevated his game during the playoffs over the past two seasons, and he did it again last week against the Green Bay Packers. The Seahawks and 49ers have seemingly been on a collision course all season long, and San Francisco will hold up its end of the bargain.
Prediction: 49ers 20, Panthers 10
San Diego Chargers vs. Denver Broncos
Most teams found it quite difficult to solve the Denver Broncos this season, but the San Diego Chargers were one of three who were able to. The Bolts dropped their first meeting against Denver, but they bounced back with a surprising Thursday night win later in the season. San Diego played a ball-control style spearheaded by running back Ryan Mathews, and they were extremely successful in keeping Manning and Co. off the field.
If the Chargers are going to upset the Broncos again, then they need to do something similar. San Diego employed a run-heavy attack against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round, and it worked to perfection as Mathews, Danny Woodhead and even Ronnie Brown kept the Bengals defense on the field for long stretches. In addition to that, the Chargers have the history of Manning's playoff struggles against San Diego on their side, per Numbers Never Lie.
With that said, things are much different for Manning now than they were back when he was with the Colts. Things will also be different in this game than they were in the previous meeting between these two teams since wide receiver Wes Welker sat that game out. He is now back in the fold, and he gives Denver's offense an added dimension. The Broncos simply have too many weapons, and the Chargers won't be able to overcome them in a valiant effort.
Prediction: Broncos 38, Chargers 27
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