NFL Playoffs: Biggest Question Facing Each Team in the Divisional Round
After a thrilling set of games over Wild Card Weekend that saw the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers advance to the divisional round, the NFL playoffs have plenty of intrigue for this weekend's games.
Each team has issues and questions that will need to be answered on Saturday and Sunday if they want to play for a conference championship the following weekend.
Read on to see the biggest questions each contending team needs to answer in order to be victorious this weekend.
New Orleans Saints: Will They Make the Needed Adjustments This Time?
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks, Saturday 4:35 P.M. ET/3:35 P.M. New Orleans Local Time
The New Orleans Saints are due.
It's been almost three years to the date after Marshawn Lynch shocked the world—and the Saints—with an earthquake-inducing, .GIF-producing, legendary 67-yard touchdown run. Drew Brees and the Saints have been haunted by the long shadow of CenturyLink Field and its fearsome 12th Man.
Their first return to Seattle since that season-ending, inglorious 41-36 loss was a debacle. Once again, the 12th Man gained the upper hand, this time helping the Seahawks as they dominated the Saints on Monday Night Football, 34-7.
They say that three times is the charm, and Drew Brees is going to need to carry that idiom with him when he heads back out onto the field Saturday afternoon. The previous two losses were embarrassing; the first because Seattle made the playoffs as a 7-9 team, the second because the Saints looked hapless against Russell Wilson and Co.
For a team that has held opponents to less than 200 yards through the air this season, ranking second best at just 194.1 opposing passing yards per game, New Orleans got torched by Wilson when the teams met this season in Week 13. He threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns, one of only two times on the season he went for over 300 yards through the air.
The Saints have been given a second chance and needs to capitalize on the knowledge they gained in that beatdown.
Ultimately, it might have been the ignorance or refusal to acknowledge that the noise would indeed be a factor, but you can expect that the Saints will be prepared to handle the 12th Man this time around.
They will make the opposing team beat them instead of letting the crowd disrupt them. Expect Brees to kill a lot of plays on the line with hand motions and signals this time around.
The Saints should be confident coming off of a road victory against the Eagles in which they limited LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher, to just 77 yards on the ground and held DeSean Jackson to just three receptions for 53 yards.
If they are able to contain Marshawn Lynch and neutralize Percy Harvin, who played with limited snaps against Minnesota in Week 11 and then sat out for the remainder of the season, the Saints offense might be able to pull out an improbable road win.
Ultimately, the pass rush of the Saints against Seattle's offensive line will be the biggest determining factor. Russell Wilson under pressure has struggled this season, so if Rob Ryan and the defense are able to mix and disguise their formations, the young quarterback should have a tough day at the office.
Drew Brees silenced his critics with a late, game-winning drive on the road against Philadelphia and if there's one situation Wilson has struggled in this season, it's been accomplishing just that.
In close games this season when leading or trailing by seven points or less, Wilson has thrown three to five interceptions, including two picks in late-game, final-drive losses to Indianapolis and San Francisco. After beating the Saints, he went 2-2 to end the season and struggled, throwing four touchdowns against three interceptions and failing to throw for over 206 yards in his final four games.
Seattle Seahawks: Can the Defense Set Up Russell Wilson to Win?
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks, Saturday 4:35 P.M. ET/1:15 P.M. Seattle Local Time
The Legion of Boom is a force to be reckoned with.
The NFL's leading defense, anchored by Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, had 28 interceptions in 2013, making life a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
What they didn't have? A pick against the New Orleans Saints in their Week 13 matchup.
It's not to say that the defense didn't perform that day because it did—the Seahawks forced a fumble that was taken back for a touchdown and dominated Drew Brees and the offensive line. They contained the quarterback to a meager 147 yards through the air.
The Saints offense had 12 total first downs on 11 drives, with three of the chain movers coming via penalties. Whereas, the Seattle offense had a fantastic day against the normally stingy Saints defense, allowing the team to coast to a 34-7 victory.
This time around, everything suggests that it won't be that easy.
Quarterback Russell Wilson struggled mightily in his final four games of the season, throwing for just 685 yards and four touchdowns over that span. Wilson and the Seattle offense operate best when playing with a short field and, given recent trends, will need the defense to step up and deliver that to them once or twice in this game in order to have the best shot at winning.
While Brees was diminutive in the last meeting, Wilson excelled, leading three touchdown drives of 73 yards or more. However, his recent play suggests that he's going to need help from the defense in order to beat the Saints again.
After being exposed to the 12th Man in the last meeting, the Saints will make the adjustments they need to on offense to put up a fight this time around. Therefore, it's more likely that Wilson will actually need to make throws in crunch time, unless the defense is able to create late turnovers.
A shorter field should help Wilson late in the game if he is asked to lead a game-winning drive, where his ability to escape and become a dual threat will come in handy. His rushing numbers improved this season, with three games of 50 yards or more on the ground to go along with five rushing touchdowns. In the 2013 playoffs, he ran for 127 yards and a touchdown combined in his two games against the Redskins and Falcons.
Steven Hauschka could be extremely valuable in late-game situations, kicking 33-of-35 field goals this season, with a high of 53 yards. If Wilson can get them in range, a late field goal could be the difference in the game.
Indianapolis Colts: Is Andrew Luck Ready to Take the Next Step?
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots, Saturday 8:15 P.M. ET/Indianapolis Local Time
Last week, Andrew Luck showed us he can be a superstar in the NFL.
The question now is how high will Luck's star rise?
The Colts quarterback led his team to one of the most improbable victories in NFL postseason history last week in a thrilling 45-44 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The win marked the second-highest comeback the league has ever seen in the playoffs, but without Luck—both the man and that unpredictable force of chance—the Colts would be watching from the couch this week.
After throwing his third interception late in the third quarter against the Chiefs, Luck led back-to-back-to-back touchdown drives of 80, 90 and 80 yards, respectively, to pull out the victory. He threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns against a quality secondary and gained another 45 yards and a touchdown on the ground as well.
He did it all to help his team win. Scarily, he'll need to be better to win again in Foxborough this weekend.
His opponent, the New England Patriots and opposing quarterback Tom Brady, know a little something about what it takes to win in the postseason. Brady and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick are 17-7 together in the playoffs and will be hungry to get back to an AFC Championship Game that could include Peyton Manning.
If the Colts are going to be able to walk out of Gillette Stadium with a win, they're going to need their leader in Luck to play a nearly flawless game.
While the Patriots have struggled mightily on defense this year against the rush, the Colts aren't exactly fearsome in that category. They made waves around the league earlier this season by acquiring Trent Richardson from the Cleveland Browns, but he hasn't panned out with his new team.
Instead, Donald Brown has been the lead back. He only rushed for 537 yards in the regular season and went for just 55 in the pass-heavy game against Kansas City last weekend. Once again, expect the passing game to dominate the action on Saturday night.
Ultimately, the Colts will go as far in this postseason as Andrew Luck can carry them.
After going one-and-done in the 2013 playoffs, and looking like he was heading in that direction again this year, he found a different gear and showed the world his poise under pressure.
He'll need to do it again if he wants a chance at playing the man he took over for in Indianapolis for the AFC title.
New England Patriots: Can Tom Brady Trust His Receivers in Crunch Time?
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots, Saturday 8:15 P.M. ET/New England Local Time
Another year, another first round bye for the New England Patriots.
It's just the way that Tom Brady operates. It's something New England expects to do every season before competing in the playoffs. It's also part of the reason the Pats have been in the Super Bowl five times already this century.
What no one expected was for the Patriots to be where they are today with the team they've currently got on the field.
After season ending injuries to Vince Wilfork and Rob Gronkowski, and the preseason debacle over Aaron Hernandez, Brady's offense appeared to be in trouble. After all, they had a rookie-filled wideout core to go along with a rushing group that seemingly couldn't hang on to the football.
But Tom Terrific found a way and lead the Patriots to the AFC's No. 2 seed.
Andrew Luck and the Colts couldn't care less about any of that, riding high on a wave of momentum propelled by last weekend's thrilling victory over Kansas City. The Colts have now won four in a row, dating back to the regular season.
Brady is going to have to find a way to be better than his young counterpart. But where does he turn?
According to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com, Gronkowski is undergoing surgery on his torn right ACL. As he has been a major non-factor this season after missing most of it due to persistent injuries, Brady has had to find other options.
His current group of wide receivers lack the star-power or even a star name of past Patriots teams. Worse, for the large part they lack any playoff experience.
Here's a breakdown of Brady's current top five active passing options:
2013 Season: 105 REC, 1,056 YDS, 6 TDs
Postseason History: 5 games, 9 REC, 75 YDS, 2 TDs
2013 Season: 54 REC, 633 YDS, 2 TDs
Postseason History: None
Aaron Dobson (R)
2013 Season: 37 REC, 519 YDS, 4 TDs
Postseason History: None
Kenbrell Thompkins (R)
2013 Season: 32 REC, 466 YDS, 4 TDs
Postseason History: None
2013 Season: 47 REC, 427 YDS, 3 TDs
Postseason History: 2 games, 7 REC, 105 YDS, 2 TDs
While Vereen's postseason numbers are from last season, Edelman's span three years worth of effort. However, both of his touchdowns and 44 of his yards came in 2009 against Baltimore, while he wasn't used at all last postseason.
Brady will most likely lean heavily on Edelman this time around, but the lack of prior postseason history for Amendola, Dobson and Thompkins, coupled with health concerns for all of them, is troubling.
The Patriots were in the bottom half of the league on the defensive side of the ball this season and Andrew Luck looks poised to have a big day through the air. This means Brady and Co. will need to respond.
But can he trust his receivers?
As if there lack of postseason play wasn't enough, Edelman, Thompkins, Dobson and Vereen all ranked in the top 20 in dropped passes this season, resulting in the familiar and always comical Brady freakout on the sidelines.
If the drops continue this weekend however, the only people laughing will be the Colts as they waltz on to the AFC Championship Game.
San Francisco 49ers: Can Colin Kaepernick Continue His Road Success?
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers, Sunday 1:05 P.M. ET/10:05 A.M. San Francisco Local Time
With below-freezing conditions in a hostile environment, Colin Kaepernick wore no sleeves.
No glove on his throwing hand? No sweat.
The 49ers quarterback added to his young, impressive postseason resume last weekend in Green Bay, leading San Francisco down the field with his arms and his legs, converting on one third down after another to set up Phil Dawson's 33-yard game-winning field goal.
With the win, Kaepernick improved his playoff record to 2-0 on the road.
If the 49ers want to make it back to another NFC Championship Game, where Kaepernick got his first road victory last season in Atlanta, he'll need to continue his outstanding play against Carolina.
Perhaps it was all the criticism he faced by his hometown fans earlier in the season, but winning on the road has just become a part of Kaepernick's game, and his numbers are better too.
San Francisco finished 12-4 this season en route to the NFC's No. 5 seed, going 6-2 both at home and on the road. But Kaepernick's performances suggest that he plays better away from Candlestick Park.
He threw for 1,665 yards at home compared to 1,532 on the road, but every other aspect of his game in unfriendly territory has been better. His completion percentage jumped up 2.6 percent points from 57.1 at home to 59.7 away, while he threw for three more touchdowns (12) on the road than the nine he put up at home. He was also less likely to take a sack on the road, going down just 16 times compared to the 23 he had at home.
Importantly, he had a quarterback rating over five points higher on the road.
The biggest difference in Kapernick's game on the road came when he took to the ground to escape the pocket and move the chains.
Despite having just eight more rushing attempts at 50 than the 42 he had at home, Kaepernick rushed for 138 more yards on the road, totalling 331, in the regular season than he did at home. He recorded three of his four rushing touchdowns on the road as well.
In Carolina, where a crisp pass rush helped make the Panthers one of the league's elite defenses this season, Kaepernick will need to rely on his ability to escape and pick up first downs with his legs.
He did that often enough against Green Bay last weekend, going for 98 yards on the ground behind just seven carries.
While no one will confuse Carolina's rush defense with Green Bay's, it's likely that Kaepernick will trust his legs again, and often, to try to run towards another road win. In his four playoff games over the last two seasons, he's rushed for 362 yards and three touchdowns.
Carolina Panthers: Can Cam Newton Handle the Pressure?
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers, Sunday 1:05 P.M. ET/Local Time
Six days after watching his alma mater, the Auburn Tigers, fall short of winning a national championship, Cam Newton will play in his biggest game since he delivered one for them in 2011.
Now in his third year at the helm of the Carolina Panthers' offense, the 24-year-old quarterback has his team in the postseason for the first time in his career.
Behind one of the best defenses in the game, Carolina won 12 games in the regular season en route to a first round bye. Now that the divisional round is upon us however, the biggest question will be how Newton handles his first taste of postseason experience.
Unlike the other heralded young quarterbacks drafted in the last three seasons who made the postseason again this year, like Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck, Newton has no experience in the playoffs. In particular, his opponent in Kaepernick will be making his fifth postseason start on Sunday and took the 49ers to the Super Bowl last season.
No one doubts Cam's commitment in improving his game this season, as well as his leadership skills. Both have been credited to the Panthers' success, along with the excellent defensive play this year. That defense held Kaepernick and the 49ers in check in Week 10 when the Panthers went into San Francisco and beat the 49ers 10-9. Both quarterbacks struggled that day, with Newton throwing for 169 yards to Kaepernick's 91.
But with San Francisco rolling at the moment and the experience of having already faced each other, Jim Harbaugh will make the necessary adjustments to ensure the 49ers are not limited to 9 points again.
With Kaepernick's postseason success already known, can Newton handle the pressure and lead another late game drive like he has done multiple times in the regular season?
San Diego Chargers: Can Philip Rivers Outgun the Sheriff?
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos, Sunday 4:40 PM ET/1:40 P.M. San Diego Local Time
One does not simply beat Peyton Manning.
As NFL teams around the league have learned throughout the years, it's a very, very difficult thing to do. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the quarterbacks who have done it this season play for the three other remaining teams in the AFC: Andrew Luck, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers.
In the battle between Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning, both men have one once this season playing in the other's building. Both games were one-score affairs, with the Broncos winning 28-20 in San Diego and the Chargers avenging that 27-20 in Denver.
Both times, Peyton had the better day, throwing for 619 yards and six touchdowns combined, in contrast to Rivers' 384 yards and three touchdowns.
So it's not about the numbers for Rivers. It's not really about the numbers for anyone going against Peyton Manning. It's about leadership, time of possession and controlling the football for as long as possible late in the game.
That's the only way to beat him really.
The Charger defense feasted last week against Andy Dalton's playoff ineptitude but ranked 29th against the pass during the regular season, thanks in part to having to face Denver twice. The Broncos aren't much better in that category, at 27th against the pass.
Both defenses will see plenty of action in the third meeting between the teams.
If Rivers is able to hang on to the ball while keeping it out of Peyton's hands for as long as possible, the Chargers will have a legitimate chance to pull off a major upset. It's inconceivable that Peyton won't tear the Chargers defense to bits, so it's just as much Rivers' job to scoring points as it is to prevent Peyton from having the opportunity to do it more often.
Converting on third down will be key—Rivers converted 64.7 percent of his passes on third down this season.
Denver Broncos: Can Peyton Manning Get over His One-and-Done Image?
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos, Sunday 4:40 P.M. ET/2:40 P.M. Denver Local Time
It was quite possibly the greatest regular season from a quarterback in history.
5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions. Those are incredible numbers posted this season by Peyton Manning, leading the Denver Broncos to a 13-3 record, the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC and a first round bye for the second year in a row.
You know what other numbers are incredible?
The first set is Peyton's overall playoff record. It's hard to fathom, given that he's one of the best to ever play the game. Manning would have to win the Super Bowl this season just to have a record over .500 in the postseason.
The second set is his record in his first game of any playoff year, meaning that he's been through the one-and-done process EIGHT times.
Step back and take a collective breath.
We've seen this story as recently as last season, when Manning led the Broncos to another 13-3 record, the No. 1 AFC seed and first round bye, only to lose a 38-35 thriller in the divisional round to eventual champion, the Baltimore Ravens.
This year, the Broncos offense looks even more unstoppable.
The addition of Wes Welker paid dividends and he'll return from injury to play in Sunday's game. The emergence of Julius Thomas as a force at tight end was unexpected but gives Manning another toy to play with in addition to Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
At this point in Peyton's career, he's heard all of the criticism against him and his inability to win in the playoffs. He understands that the regular season accolades he has amassed mean nothing if the Broncos don't win the Super Bowl.
The mental toughness required in sports is often dismissed as secondary to the physical prowess and excellence needed, but in Peyton's case, it's front and center. If he can will the Broncos to a win and get over his mental hump, they should defeat San Diego soundly and he can then worry about a matchup against his biggest rival or his successor from Indianapolis.