The divisional round of the NFL playoffs doesn't have the same level of drama as the championship round, and it doesn't bring the same melancholy that the Super Bowl does.
While there is no trophy for winning in the divisional round of the playoffs, the importance of each game is as high as any other. It's win or go home.
Of the four games being played this weekend, there are three rematches.
The New Orleans Saints will travel to face the Seattle Seahawks in CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks destroyed the Saints during Week 13 of the regular season. The Saints won't have forgotten that, but they should feel good about their chances of an upset after beating the Philadelphia Eagles last week.
Most analysts have expected the Denver Broncos to win the AFC ever since their Week 1 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. However, many of those analysts have abandoned the Broncos in favor of the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers beat the Broncos in Denver during the regular season, but they lost in San Diego, and the Broncos were able to rest last week when the Chargers faced the Cincinnati Bengals.
In Charlotte, the Carolina Panthers will host their first playoff game since the days of Jake Delhomme. Cam Newton has brought the Panthers back to the playoffs and even managed to earn them a first-round bye. Naturally, Newton must surpass Colin Kaepernick's San Francisco 49ers if his playoff journey is to continue.
Newton and Kaepernick entered the league at the same time. Both have endured their struggles as young, dual-threat starters, while Newton's Panthers were able to beat Kaepernick's 49ers in the regular season. A natural rivalry could develop between these quarterbacks, but for this weekend, they will fall into the shadow of an even bigger rivalry.
Since 2002, no teams from two different division have faced off against each other as often as the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. This rivalry was forged by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but now Manning is a Bronco, and Andrew Luck has assumed his role. Even without Manning, this is still the most notable matchup of the weekend.
Luck versus Brady will be huge, but there is a more important matchup that will help determine the outcome of the game.
T.Y. Hilton versus Bill Belichick
When the Colts last played the Patriots, Colts starting quarterback Luck struggled. Luck threw three interceptions and lost a fumble to help the Patriots to a 59-24 victory. That game came during last year's regular season, when Luck was still a rookie.
Since that point, Luck has continued to develop. He is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and showed off his talent last week during the comeback victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Luck still makes mistakes, but for the most part, he elevates the offense around him to a point that allows them to compete in the playoffs.
The major concern for the Colts in this game isn't their quarterback, it's the rest of their offense.
Injuries to Reggie Wayne, Ahmad Bradshaw and Dwayne Allen have dramatically impacted their passing offense. T.Y. Hilton has been elevated to the top of the depth chart, while Da'Rick Rogers has gone from undrafted practice squad member to starter in just a matter of weeks. Rogers surpassed the ineffective Darrius Heyward-Bey on the depth chart.
Rogers has some talent and has made a few big plays for the Colts, but he still appears to be adjusting to his role. Heyward-Bey has also been very unreliable and ineffective, which leaves Luck with just Hilton as a refined difference-maker out wide.
Tight end Coby Fleener provides some relief, and Donald Brown offers the offense a big play-threat out of the backfield, but on the whole, the Colts have a limited arsenal.
Having a limited number of weapons against a Bill Belichick-coached defense is far from ideal. Belichick has historically made a concentrated effort to take away the opposition's best weapon. Unless he doesn't believe Hilton is good enough to focus on, Belichick will certainly do the same to the young receiver.
It's not guaranteed that Belichick thinks Hilton is good enough. Against Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon during the regular season, Belichick regularly left Aqib Talib on him without much help. Talib had a terrible game and Gordon torched him repeatedly even though he didn't see the ball go his way as often as it could have.
Belichick may want to avoid limiting what his defense can do against a quarterback of the caliber of Luck. If that is the case, he won't double-team Hilton or send coverage his way. The dilemma for Belichick is created by the personnel available to him. He doesn't have a cornerback who matches up perfectly to Hilton.
Hilton is small, fast and is quick coming out of breaks in his routes. Talib is bigger and slower than Hilton. He is better suited to matching up against taller receivers who he can use his long arms against. Kyle Arrington is smaller and quicker, but his aggressiveness makes him vulnerable to a home-run hit from Hilton.
If Alfonzo Dennard was fully healthy, he would be the obvious choice. Dennard entered his second season as a starter, and he has the physical makeup and coverage skills to cover Hilton, but he has been dealing with a knee injury. That knee injury meant he played just six snaps against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17 of the regular season.
Third-round draft pick Logan Ryan has played quite a bit during his rookie season. The former Rutgers prospect has become an important player and a reliable contributor for Belichick's secondary, but it would be a stretch to ask him to cover Hilton without notable help.
Regardless of the route the Patriots take to shutting down Hilton, he has to be their priority entering the game.
Against the Chiefs last week, Hilton had 13 receptions for 224 yards and two touchdowns. That is a phenomenal performance, but it is also a complete outlier for his season. During the regular season, he had 82 receptions for 1,083 yards and five touchdowns.
Regression would be likely, but with Luck he will always have quality service, and we've seen in the past that players can get hot in the playoffs. Just last season Anquan Boldin followed a relatively quiet regular season with a dominant postseason.
Much of Hilton's time will be spent in the slot. Against the Chiefs, he scored a touchdown in the first quarter to set the offense in motion and the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. Both came from the slot.
In recent weeks, the Colts have spread their offense out more. For their first touchdown, they lined up with five players in receiver positions. Hilton was in the slot to the right, with Chiefs cornerback Dunta Robinson across from him.
At the snap, Luck immediately looks towards Hilton. Hilton takes one hard step towards the middle of the field. This draws Robinson infield and creates space for the receiver to run down the seam. Robinson's footwork isn't good; his feet are too close together as he moves inside.
Robinson does well to recover his positioning, but he has conceded space to Hilton. That space allows him to run down the seam unopposed where there is no defender to cover him.
Luck immediately recognizes this, but most importantly, he throws the ball early. This shows trust in Hilton's speed and his ability to be where he is supposed to be at the right time.
This play showed off Hilton's quickness and acceleration to create separation against defenders. Robinson didn't look to press him at the line of scrimmage, but he also didn't give him much of a cushion, so Hilton still had to create space for himself.
While that is something the Patriots will have to watch out for, the real problem with Hilton comes further down the field. Hilton is a very effective deep threat. He has been since he entered the league.
For his game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter, Hilton was again lined up in the slot. This time he aligned himself to the other side of the field. The Chiefs have a defender lined up directly across from him, but like Robinson on the last play, he is not aggressive with Hilton at the snap.
Instead, that defensive back forces Hilton to run around him at the snap.
Hilton's route requires him to run down the seam. Even though he was rerouted at the snap, he very quickly makes up the ground and gets to the deep safety. The Chiefs are playing quarters coverage. Kendrick Lewis plays the situation terribly as he moves too far towards the sideline. Once Luck sees how far away from the middle of the field he is, he begins his throwing motion.
When Luck begins to throw, Hilton is still in front of the coverage. However, he trusts his receiver's speed and lets the ball fly down the middle of the field. Luck makes an incredible throw, but it's Hilton's speed that ultimately takes him to the end zone.
The Patriots aren't as intimidating as their second seed suggests they should be. The roster is littered with absent players, while a number of key players haven't played their best football this season. Could they blow out the Colts at home? Yes. Would that be because they are a dramatically better team? No.
This game could easily be decided by just one or two big plays. For that reason, Hilton's impact will be huge.
New Orleans Saints Rushing Attack versus Seattle Seahawks Defensive Front
When the Saints last traveled to CenturyLink Field to face the Seahawks, they opened the game with a running play that lost four yards. On that play, two assignments were missed. From that point moving forward, the Saints didn't establish the run to build their offense off of it.
This put a lot of pressure on Drew Brees, and once the Seahawks took a double-digit lead, the visiting offense had no real hope of succeeding.
The Seahawks defense has no real weaknesses. They are stronger against the pass than they are against the run, so it's likely that the Saints will look to establish Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles. Even though the Seahawks aren't a dominant run defense, they still finished eighth in FootballOutsiders DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) for run defense.
Against the Philadelphia Eagles, who finished 12th in run defense DVOA, the Saints ran the ball well. Without the injured Thomas, Ingram started and finished the game with 18 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown. Khiry Robinson contributed 45 yards on eight carries, while Sproles added 29 yards from four carries.
There is a variety in the Saints backfield that will allow them to attack the Seahawks in different ways.
Thomas is the all-around back who can do everything well. Ingram is the bruising back who can break tackles on the second-level and has the burst to get there. Sproles is more of a receiver, but when the Saints create space for him, he can be very dangerous. Robinson is an undrafted rookie, but he has proven to be agile, decisive and strong enough on the field this year.
Regardless of what the statistics say, facing the Eagles in Philadelphia won't be like facing the Seahawks in Seattle.
The Seahawks have the best home-field advantage in the NFL. Their fans and players bring an intensity to the game that can be very disruptive for opposing offenses. Quieting the crowd is almost impossible, but sustaining drives early in the game could aid the journey the offense takes through the four quarters.
While Ingram appears to be the best fit to punish the Seahawks defense, the Saints will need each of their backs to be strong contributors if they are to win this game.
Knowshon Moreno/Montee Ball versus San Diego Chargers Run Defense
Simple logic would suggest that Wes Welker would be the player to watch in this game. When Welker played in the first meeting, the Broncos won. When he didn't play in the second, they lost. However, Welker had just three receptions for 21 yards against the Chargers in San Diego.
In the second meeting, Welker's absence was felt, but they lost because the offense became one-dimensional.
Knowshon Moreno carried the ball just eight times for 19 yards. He was repeatedly stopped for short gains and losses on early downs, putting the offense in a hole. In the second half, he carried the ball just once. Montee Ball was the only other back to carry the ball. He had just two carries in the second half after just one in the first half. He finished with minus-one total yards.
Peyton Manning may be the smartest quarterback to ever play the game. He can't let the Broncos offense become one-dimensional so early in the game. Even though he will likely be taking part in a shootout against the Chargers this weekend again, he must keep the offense balanced.
With Von Miller sidelined because of a torn ACL, the Broncos defense likely won't have enough pass rush to ruffle Philip Rivers. Rivers has had an outstanding season, and he has the weapons to repeat his efficient performance against the Broncos from their last meeting.
Rivers only threw for 166 yards while completing 12 of 20 pass attempts, but he threw for two touchdowns and didn't turn the ball over. With Ryan Mathews running for 127 yards and a touchdown on 29 attempts, Rivers didn't need to take over the game.
The Broncos defense will understand that the Chargers can score points in a variety of ways. This will put the pressure on the Broncos offense to be at its best.
Cam Newton versus Colin Kaepernick
In tight playoff games, the quarterback position becomes even more important. Because each mistake and each big play is even more important at this point of the season, it's almost impossible to overcome a poor display at that position.
Although many are disregarding the Panthers' regular season victory over the 49ers, this game figures to be close.
The 49ers and Panthers match up well with each other on each side of the ball. Neither has exceptional talent at the wide receiver position or in the secondary. Both have outstanding front sevens on defense, and both prefer to base their offensive success of off the run.
These similarities extend to the quarterback position.
Kaepernick has had a tough season. He has struggled to see the field and isn't developing quickly as a pure pocket passer. Newton, on the other hand, has showed a much better understanding of how to play his position. Statistically he may not have elevated much, but decision-making and situational awareness matter more at this time of the season.
Newton appears to be the better player of the duo at this point of their respective careers. However, that is neutralised because Kaepernick has a better supporting cast around him. Both teams have strong running games and good tight ends, but the 49ers have a notable advantage at the receiver position.
If Newton elevates his play to carry his offense against a very tough defense, then they have a good chance of winning. If Kaepernick can make big plays at opportune moments, then the 49ers are more likely to win.
Sometimes the game is oversimplified. Sometimes it's over-analyzed. On this occasion, it appears to be a straight-forward fight between both young quarterbacks.
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