The 2014 NFL playoffs kick into high gear in the divisional round, as just eight teams remain in contention for the Lombardi Trophy.
It's not a fluke that all eight teams feature top-tier quarterbacks. The NFL has evolved from a smashmouth league into a passing league in the past 20 years, which is clearly illustrated in this year's postseason.
What may surprise you is the fact that four of the eight teams comprise the top-four scoring defenses in the league. They just so happen to be the four teams from the NFC, which means it's far more likely the two AFC games will produce high-scoring affairs.
Here's a look at the playoff schedule for the divisional round, followed by a bold prediction for each game and final predictions.
|Jan. 11||4:35 p.m.||New Orleans Saints||Seattle Seahawks||Fox|
|Jan. 11||8:15 p.m.||Indianapolis Colts||New England Patriots||CBS|
|Jan. 12||1:05 p.m.||San Francisco 49ers||Carolina Panthers||Fox|
|Jan. 12||4:40 p.m.||San Diego Chargers||Denver Broncos||CBS|
New Orleans at Seattle
The New Orleans Saints suffered their worst loss of the season in Week 13 to the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field—a 34-7 bludgeoning in which Drew Brees and his offensive attack was held to just 12 first downs, 188 total yards and one touchdown.
Think Sean Payton's squad is looking for revenge?
Brees spoke about the opportunity, as relayed by NewOrleansSaints.com:
That was not a very good performance by us. They played very well. A lot of credit (goes) to them. ... If we want to accomplish what we set out to accomplish, then we better find a way to go there and win. I was just hoping we have another opportunity and here we are with that opportunity.
That's Brees talk for, "We can't wait to kick their...."
Mother Nature doesn't appear to be on Brees' side, however. Weather will be a huge factor in this game, as there's "potential for heavy rainfall" with winds above 20 mph, according to Weather.com.
Bold Prediction: Russell Wilson Will Outplay Drew Brees...Again
Brees was unable to generate any kind of vertical passing attack against Seattle's vaunted "Legion of Boom" secondary earlier in the year, averaging just 3.87 yards per attempt. For a point of reference to just how bad that is, Blaine Gabbert's career average is 5.61 yards per attempt.
Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and the rest of Seattle's formidable defensive backfield clamped down on Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham and Co. Making matters worse, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril collapsed the pocket to make Brees' life miserable.
Seattle's defense has been resting up since Week 17's win over St. Louis. That doesn't bode well for the Saints, and you can expect Brees to be under heavy fire all game as a result.
Given the weather, you can expect Brees to struggle once again. He's never been a tremendous quarterback away from the dome (12 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2013), and he struggled against Philadelphia's defense—worst in the NFL during the regular season—throwing one touchdown and two interceptions.
On the other side, Seattle's balanced offensive attack had little trouble moving the ball against Rob Ryan's much-improved Saints defense in the first meeting, racking up 429 yards.
Russell Wilson passed for 310 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions, looking completely comfortable in the pocket—as usual—while throwing darts all over the field.
The second-year quarterback out of Wisconsin quietly put together another phenomenal season, passing for 3,357 yards with 26 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, earning a passer rating of 101.2.
He could have another weapon at his disposal this weekend, too, as Percy Harvin has been practicing, per 710 ESPN Seattle:
With Harvin, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, Wilson has plenty of ammunition to pick apart New Orleans' ailing secondary, which recently lost safety Kenny Vaccaro and will likely feature Keenan Lewis at less than 100 percent.
Final Pick: Seahawks will win, 31-17.
Indianapolis at New England
These teams didn't meet during the regular season.
The last time they played was in Week 11 of the 2012 season, when Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts were embarrassed by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots 59-24 at Gillette Stadium.
Luck threw three interceptions in the game—two of which went for defensive touchdowns—and the Patriots won the turnover battle, 4-0.
Things could be different this time around, however. Indy's young roster has grown together since that time, and this squad beat the likes of San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and Kansas City (twice) on its way to this upcoming divisional contest.
It's going to likely be a somewhat blustery day in Foxborough, Mass., with a 60 percent chance of showers and temperatures in the high 40s to low 50s. Weather shouldn't be a huge factor in this contest.
Bold Prediction: Andrew Luck and Tom Brady Will Both Exceed 300 Yards and Three Touchdowns
The Patriots know Luck has evolved since the last time they saw him.
Safety Devin McCourty talked about the quarterback's development recently, as noted by Mark Daniels of the Boston Herald:
He just keeps getting better. I think last year there still wasn’t a part of his game where you would say he’s bad at, I would just think he keeps getting better. ...
He came in as a rookie and played a lot of football. To say you’re not going to make any mistakes is impossible. Seeing him in his second year, he’s learning from those mistakes. He’s seeing what to do.
Luck has been on fire to close out the season, and he was simply brilliant in the second half of the wild-card game against Kansas City. In his last five games, including the playoffs, the second-year sensation has thrown 12 touchdowns and four interceptions—three of which occurred against the Chiefs.
He's been connecting regularly with T.Y. Hilton in the last four games, as the speedy wideout has hauled in 37 passes for 509 yards and two touchdowns.
For New England, watching Indy's defense surrender 30 first downs, 513 yards and five touchdowns to the Chiefs must have been tantalizing.
The extra time off during the bye will likely be a tremendous boon for the Patriots. Preparation and game planning expertise is this team's calling card—you can be sure they'll have an exquisite plan drawn up to expose Indianapolis' porous defense.
Brady hasn't thrown three touchdown passes since late November, but he'll shred the Colts at Gillette Stadium on Saturday, Jan. 11.
Final Pick: Patriots will win, 31-27.
San Francisco at Carolina
After beating Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card Round, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick wasted no time looking ahead to the rematch against the Carolina Panthers. "We owe 'em," Kaepernick said, as Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group reported:
The Carolina Panthers eked out a 10-9 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 10 of the 2013 season. It was a classic defensive slugfest that saw just 401 combined offensive yards, and San Francisco's offense suffered its worst outing of the season.
Thanks to an unstoppable show of pass-rushing prowess, Carolina sacked Kaepernick six times in that contest. Dwan Edwards and Charles Johnson were relentless in their pursuit of the speedy quarterback, who totaled just 107 yards in the game.
Will it be more of the same in this upcoming matchup?
Weather shouldn't be a big issues, as the forecast calls for partly-cloudy conditions with temperatures in the 40s and 50s around game time.
Bold Prediction: Cam Newton Will Be Held to Under 150 Total Yards, Kap will Shine
Kaepernick wasn't the only quarterback who struggled to make plays in the first game. Cam Newton passed for just 169 yards, completing half his passes with no touchdowns and one interception. He also added just 15 yards on the ground on eight carries.
The 49ers finished the regular season ranked No. 7 against the pass, No. 4 against the run and No. 3 in points allowed.
San Francisco's defense is playing particularly outstanding football right now, as evidenced by the team's masterful job against Rodgers at Lambeau. Rodgers—one of the best pure passers in the league—was held to just 177 yards.
Newton doesn't compare to Rodgers—yet.
Given his struggles in the first meeting, and given the way San Francisco's pass-rushers have stepped up down the home stretch, it's not crazy to think he'll struggle again. Making matters worse, receiver Steve Smith is coming back from a knee injury and could be less than 100 percent for the game.
On the other side, Kaepernick has been playing at an elite level since being crushed by Carolina. In his last eight games (including the loss to New Orleans), he's thrown 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions, rushing for another score.
His 49ers have won seven straight games, scoring an average of 26.5 points per game, going up against defensive powerhouses Seattle and Arizona along the way.
With Michael Crabtree back in action, Kaepernick's game has really taken off. The duo connected on eight passes for 125 yards against Green Bay—Crabtree's second 100-yard game in three weeks.
Bleacher Report's Tyson Langland recently highlighted the Crabtree factor for San Francisco:
With a player like No. 15 active, [Greg] Roman can afford to open up the playbook and take consistent shots down the field. Suddenly, San Francisco’s offense looks more destructive than it has at any point this season.
Nobody should expect an offensive explosion from either team in this upcoming game, but Kaepernick and the 49ers will certainly find more success than Newton and the Panthers.
Final Pick: 49ers will win, 24-13.
San Diego at Denver
These two AFC West rivals were incredibly close-matched in the two games they played during the 2013 regular season, with Denver coming ahead by just one point, 48-47, in the two contests. The Broncos won the first meeting in San Diego, 28-20, while the Chargers won in Denver just four weeks ago, 27-20.
Since Denver went up 28-6 in the third quarter of the first matchup, however, San Diego has outscored its rival 41-20 in the five-plus quarters afterward.
Chargers safety Eric Weddle summed up his team's reserved confidence heading into the pivotal playoff game, as relayed by the Associated Press, via the Sentinel & Enterprise:
It's tough to say you're confident knowing what you're going against. You don't want to take that the wrong way. Do we believe we can win? Yes. Do we know what a tough challenge it is and how great we have to play? Yeah. It's not just because it's happened in the past it's going to happen. You still have to play at a high level and do the things necessary as a team to win.
With head coach Mike McCarthy, who was Manning's offensive coordinator in Denver before taking the head-coaching position with San Diego, the Chargers may have what it takes to beat the Broncos for the second time in a row.
Thankfully, the weather appears to be cooperating for this playoff contest, with partly-cloudy skies and a 10 percent chance of rain.
Bold Prediction: Denver's Defense Will Shut Down San Diego's Rushing Attack
The catalyst for San Diego's recent run of success has been the team's running game offensively.
In particular, running back Ryan Mathews has been on fire during the team's five-game winning streak. Before leaving the wild-card game with an ankle injury, Mathews had strung together four-plus games of magnificence, rushing for 525 yards and three touchdowns.
He torched Denver for 127 yards and a touchdown back in Week 15 and was absolutely critical to the team's victory.
Unfortunately, the ankle injury that kept him out of most of the second half during San Diego's win over Cincinnati will certainly linger into this next game. For his part, Mathews is hell-bent on playing (and who can blame him?). “My mindset is I'm playing," he said, as reported by Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
But at less than 100 percent healthy, and given Denver's time off to get ready for this game, it's likely Mathews will struggle to find purchase on the ground. Bleacher Report's Gary Davenport points out that while Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown have both been solid this year, they can't compare to Mathews:
...Woodhead just isn't a "grind it out," 20 carries a game type of back. He averaged 3.6 yards on 15 carries against the Bengals last week.
That leaves Ronnie Brown, who had eight carries for 77 yards and a score against Cincy. That's the same Ronnie Brown who averaged 3.5 yards a carry this year and didn't carry the ball more than nine times in a game all season.
Without a consistent rushing attack, San Diego's Cinderella run will come to an abrupt end in Denver. Peyton Manning will play brilliantly, having had two weeks to prepare, and the Broncos will advance into the AFC Championship Game.
Final Pick: Broncos will win, 35-28.
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