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NFL Playoff Picks: 49ers, Saints Headline Weekend's Top Plays

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NFL Playoff Picks: 49ers, Saints Headline Weekend's Top Plays
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Kaepernick and the 49ers are 6-0 with Michael Crabtree back.

With the Saints and 49ers in control of their games, Wild Card Weekend could have had a chance at featuring all four road teams winning outright, had it not been for a late comeback by Andrew Luck and the Colts.

This weekend, oddsmakers aren't expecting that to happen again, as three of the four home teams are favored by a touchdown or more.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were surely watching the Colts' huge comeback, and being the competitors they are, probably looked at each other at the conclusion of the game and said the same thing: "That's not going to happen on our home turf."

Just as well, Peyton Manning and the Broncos aren't ready to be the next home victim either—especially since the Chargers came out of Mile High Stadium with a win on December 12.

It's not to say the Colts and Chargers can't surprise this weekend, but with such veteran quarterbacks and coaches watching diligently and with revenge in mind, perhaps it's best to look elsewhere.

That leaves two games to talk about and two road teams that showed some major grit in undesirable weather last weekend.

With 67 prediction articles in the books and a record of 40-20 with seven ties, I'll put this pair of teams to the test and hope to hit the bull's-eye.  Read on for the reasons why (point spreads courtesy of www.scoresandodds.com). 

 

San Francisco (+1) at Carolina

Seeing frozen vapor coming out with every puff of heavily dressed fans' mouths in the Lambeau Field seats may have given an indication of just how cold it was on the field for the Packers-49ers wild-card game.

You never would have known it from looking at Colin Kaepernick.

If being an NFL quarterback and having tattoos all over his body isn't enough of an indication that the star quarterback isn't afraid of pain, we now know a little bit more about him.

It's not that he isn't afraid of pain.  He doesn't feel pain.

Coming out for pregame warm-ups with no sleeves, he played the entire game just the same—and without gloves.

We knew he was tough.  From the very first game of the season versus the Packers when Clay Matthews got flagged for viciously whipping him out of bounds way late, he shrugged it off and instead embraced the extra yards for his team.

"It doesn't bother me," Kaepernick said after the game. 

And why would it?  He probably didn't even feel it.

Coming off a huge win at Green Bay, the 49ers look to turn the tables on the Carolina Panthers this week after losing 10-9 to the same team back in November.

But it wasn't quite the same 49ers team.

Michael Crabtree was absent for that contest, and since his return in Week 13, the 49ers have won all six games.  It gives Kaepernick another major weapon to which to throw, which will keep opposing defenses on their heels a little bit more.  This, in turn, opens up running lanes for Frank Gore and Kaepernick.

Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis already give Kaepernick a dual threat in his receiving arsenal, and with Crabtree in the lineup, the 49ers are running on all offensive cylinders.

They'll need it against Carolina's defense, a unit that ranked second in the regular season. 

It was that same unit that flexed its muscles at Candlestick Park by sacking Kaepernick six times and holding the 49ers to a season-low 151 yards.

Here's the good news for 49ers fans: Don't expect either of those things to happen again at Carolina.

Take Denver, for example.

Like Carolina, the Broncos owned the league's second-best defense last season but took an early exit in the playoffs at the hands of the Ravens.  And like Carolina at San Francisco, Denver had defeated Baltimore 34-17 on the road earlier in the season. 

Coach John Harbaugh regrouped and found a way to beat the Broncos in his second chance, and perhaps it runs in the blood, as his brother Jim Harbaugh will have the same opportunity.

Only he isn't facing Peyton Manning. 

Cam Newton had a fine season with the Panthers—the best of his three-year careerand Charlotte is proud to host a playoff game for the first time since January 2009.

The Panthers have Steve Smith to mirror Michael Crabtree, but Smith has caught no more than six passes in a game this season.  Having been in the league for 11 years now, perhaps it's Crabtree, not Smith, with the bigger spring in his step after catching eight balls for 125 yards at Green Bay last week.

Despite a season that featured 12 wins, one must wonder if Cam and his team can handle the propensity of such a tough, experienced opponent in the playoffs, considering they defeated only three winning teams this season by a combined eight points.  The Panthers were also plus-three in turnover margin in those games, proving there's no room for error against the league's elite.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Panthers edged the 49ers in the regular season, but this is the playoffs now.

Had the refs called pass interference on the Panthers for holding Rob Gronkowski near the end of their game versus the Patriots, they may have lost that game as well.

With each team having a premier defense and running backs similar in size and stats, this game might come down to which quarterback will make bigger plays.

One thing's for sure.  After watching the 49ers defeat Green Bay in one of Lambeau Field's coldest games ever, we know they are tough.

It's going to be a fight.  And in a fight, I'm betting on the guy with tattoos who doesn't feel pain.

Take San Francisco over Carolina

 

New Orleans (+8) at Seattle

Maybe it was the change in Gatorade flavors. Or perhaps it was who they are: Sean Payton and Drew Brees.

Whatever it was, the Saints overcame frosty weather conditions and proved what a good playoff team needs to be all about—the ability to win in any environment.

They passed the cold test.  They passed the tough test.  This weekend, they'll need to pass the noise test.

Seattle, behind their "12th man" in the stands, had won 14 straight home games with Russell Wilson until the Cardinals got the best of them in December. 

They aren't unbeatable at CenturyLink Field anymore.

And this was their first home game against the Cardinals after handing them a 58-0 loss in 2012—more than double their margin of victory over the Saints in December.

From a numbers standpoint, the point spread favors the Saints.  A few weeks ago, the Seahawks were favored by just six points in the same matchup.  Because of a dominating 34-7 win, though, oddsmakers demoted the Saints to more than a touchdown underdog.

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Giving six points, the Seahawks had some value.  But now at eight points, perhaps it's time to look the other way.

With that 34-7 loss, the Saints now have revenge in mind.  They have played seven winning teams so far this season, but the Seahawks were the only one of those teams to defeat them by more than a touchdown.

Can they do it again, or will the Saints adjust and heighten the intensity now that it's playoff time?

One of the keys offensively for the Saints will be to get big plays from Jimmy Graham.  Arguably the league's best tight end, Graham was limited to three catches for 42 yards in Seattle in December.

Defensively the Saints will need a big performance from Keenan Lewis.  The cornerback is listed as probable after suffering a head injury at Philadelphia.

The unit as a whole performed well at Philadelphia, holding the league's leading rusher (LeSean McCoy) to 77 yards on 21 carries.  With Lewis in the game and covering speedy DeSean Jackson, the Eagles had trouble moving the ball.

But it's still the New Orleans Saints, and they have a quarterback who owns the highest completion percentage (67 percent) in postseason history.  And it's still a proven, winning team getting eight points.

It's true the Seahawks finished first in total defense in the regular season, while Carolina finished second, but in the last four years, only one of the eight teams that finished first or second in defense made it to the Super Bowl.  That was the 2010 Steelers, and they won their two playoff games by just seven and five points and were favored by four points in those games, not eight points.

Like the 49ers earlier in the season against Carolina, Brees passed for just 147 yards while the entire offense achieved a season-low 188 yards in their embarrassing loss at Seattle.  Actually, it was their lowest total yards in a game during the entire Drew Brees-Sean Payton era.

Although it's possible, another season-low in yardage for the Saints isn't likely to happen again this Saturday in their second chance.

Not only is their 27-point loss from December on their minds, but it wasn't too long ago when the Saints went into Seattle on Wild Card Weekend and lost as a 10-point favorite.  It was the Saints—not the 7-9 Seahawks—who were supposed to win that game.

But it was the Saints who came in complacent, while the Seahawks came out with a huge upset.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Drew Brees getting a full eight points? Hmmmm.

It is surely not too far removed from Payton's and Brees' memories. They will both get a second crack at a playoff win in Seattle, but this time they are the big underdog.

To help combat a loud crowd, Sean Payton ordered customized earpieces for their game at Seattle in December.  This time he painted the Seahawks' logo on their practice field.

At the end of the day, they just need to be tough like they were in Philadelphia. 

Rainy conditions are expected at Seattle this Saturday, but if the cold night didn't bother the Saints, a little water isn't likely too either.

Take New Orleans plus the points

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