Now that the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs is over, the only teams that remain are the ones with serious aspirations of reaching, and winning, the Super Bowl.
College basketball calls this stage the Elite Eight, but in the NFL, it is the divisional round, with the winners from this weekend's games advancing to the conference championships.
Who will move one step closer to their ultimate goal? Let's see.
San Francisco 49ers Will Top the Carolina Panthers Behind Michael Crabtree
When two teams are so evenly matched in a game, the difference usually comes down to playmakers on both sides of the ball.
As talented as the Carolina Panthers are, a healthy San Francisco 49ers team simply has them beat when comparing offensive weapons. The biggest difference-maker is Michael Crabtree, who didn't play against the Panthers when the teams met in Week 10.
That game was a 10-9 win for the Panthers in a slugfest, there is no doubt that one big-time player could have made a difference in the outcome.
Without another consistent player opposite Anquan Boldin, the Panthers squashed the 49ers' attack and limited San Francisco to 151 yards of total offense and three field goals.
It is unlikely we'll see any team run wild against the Panthers defense, but with San Francisco almost equally as stout in that area, the 49ers won't need to put up 30 points to win.
Crabtree had eight catches for 125 yards in the bitter cold against the Green Bay Packers in last Sunday's wild-card game. After Crabtree's big-time performance, 49ers' head coach Jim Harbaugh said of his ace receiver, via Can Inman of Bay Area News Group, "The greatest catcher of all time, Michael Crabtree, catches everything."
"Everything" might be a stretch, but Crabtree's eight grabs on 13 targets were enough to make him the difference against the Packers. Against the Panthers, he'll be the biggest difference as well.
ESPN.com's Ashley Fox noted as much:
I believe Harbaugh and the Niners will be playing four Sundays from now. Crabtree is that much of a difference-maker. He is that special.
Harbaugh obviously believes it too.
Home-Field Advantage and Run Game Will Lead Seattle over New Orleans
The New Orleans Saints don't match up well with the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle's big, physical and athletic secondary doesn't allow Saints receivers to get separation, and the front four will apply just enough pressure to disturb Drew Brees' rhythm.
All those matchups—and the crowd noise—are amplified when the teams meet at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. Back in Week 13, the Seahawks demolished the Saints, 34-7, in Seattle before their deafening fans.
Russell Wilson had a nearly impeccable performance, completing 22 of 28 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns. Part of the reason that Wilson had such a strong day was because the Saints were so committed to slowing down Marshawn Lynch.
Lynch had "Beasted" the Saints in the 2011 playoffs, and ESPN's NFL Twitter feed tweeted a reminder of Lynch's past playoff exploits against the Saints in Seattle:
New Orleans seemed intent on taking away Lynch in their most recent meeting, as he was held to just 45 yards on 16 carries, but Wilson made the Saints pay for doing so.
The Saints will be forced to play the Seahawks straight up in this one, and Seattle's offensive line and Lynch will win the battle in the trenches.
The Saints' run defense was ranked just 19th in the NFL. It can be exploited, and that's especially the case at loud and raucous CenturyLink Field.
Though the Seahawks dropped their Week 16 matchup at home to the Arizona Cardinals, it is still one of the—if not the—toughest place for a visiting team to get a win.
San Diego Has the Formula to Defeat Denver Again
With an increasingly run-dominant offense, a quarterback capable of making clutch throws and a mix of coverages to take away Demaryius Thomas' big-play potential, the San Diego Chargers have what it takes to upset the Denver Broncos on the road.
The Bolts knocked off Denver, 27-20, in Week 15 and narrowly lost to their division rivals, 28-20, in Week 10. Even in that Week 10 loss, the Chargers were able to dominate the time of possession. In the two meetings combined, San Diego held on to the ball 33:44 longer than Denver.
Christopher Hansen of Bleacher Report and Andrew Siciliano of NFL Network point out a significant fact about the Chargers' ability to control the ball against Denver:
BALL CONTROL. RT @AndrewSiciliano: The Broncos two lowest yardage totals this season came vs the Chargers— Christopher Hansen (@ChrisHansenNFL) January 6, 2014
In Week 10, the Chargers were victimized by missed opportunities and big plays. Despite venturing into the Broncos' red zone four times, the Chargers came away with just two touchdowns.
Thomas had a monster game in Denver's win with seven catches for 108 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Julius Thomas was also big with a 74-yard touchdown reception.
In Week 15, the Chargers cleaned up their act. They were still dominated in the time of possession, but didn't allow a Manning pass completion over 22 yards. San Diego was still only successful 50 percent of the time in the red zone, but by limiting the Broncos' opportunities, the Chargers pulled out the must-win.
San Diego will build on its growing success against the Broncos this season. Look for the Chargers to play their best game against Denver and pull off the upset.
Bruising Run Game Will Lead New England to a Win over Indy
The New England Patriots are one of the most remarkable teams in the NFL. If you consider how much the team has had to remake itself, it is a testament to its coaching staff and quarterback Tom Brady.
These days, the Patriots depend heavily on a tough and physical running game, as opposed to a high-flying aerial attack as they had in the past.
LeGarrette Blount has emerged as one of the most important players on the team. The 27-year-old midseason acquisition is headed for free agency and is putting himself in line for a nice payday. With more touches in the final three weeks of the season, Blount has steadily increased his production down the stretch.
Blount's recent emergence included a 189-yard, two-touchdown performance in the season finale against the Buffalo Bills.
The Indianapolis Colts can't handle the run game that the Patriots will feature. The Colts were ranked 26th in the NFL against the run this season and were gashed for 157 yards by the Kansas City Chiefs in their wild-card win.
Don't expect the Pats to lose a 28-point lead—or any other advantage. New England will overpower the Colts to move one step closer to another Super Bowl berth.
All stats per Pro-Football-Reference.com
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