2014 NFL Divisional Playoffs: The Complete Guide to Every Game
Three rematches from the regular season and a playoff matchup we practically expected to see anyway—that's what we're left with in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
How do you think the Denver Broncos feel, with the three teams that beat them this season also the three teams left in the AFC? They'll preach "redemption" or how they won't make the same mistakes twice. Still, it would be little surprise if there's a sneaking feeling that they've got a bit of an uphill climb toward the Super Bowl. It's a far cry from being the far and away favorites they were months ago.
What about the New Orleans Saints? They have to head to Seattle—the home of their most embarrassing week of the season. Just as they were hoping to be considered among the NFL's elite again, the Seahawks pantsed them and the rails came off. Head coach Sean Payton and company will be looking to prove they've got their road groove back as they head back to the Pacific Northwest.
The Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots didn't play this season, but they're so used to seeing each other in the playoffs that the Colts fans might have saved parking spots from the last time. Both quarterbacks will have a lot to prove, but it's difficult not to like Tom Brady in Foxborough at playoff time.
The San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers end up with a home and home as the 49ers dropped a game in San Francisco earlier this year and now try to get revenge against a team built eerily similar to their own.
These teams all know one another, but how well do you know them? Click ahead to find out everything you need to know.
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
Where: CenturyLink Field in Seattle
When: 4:35 p.m. ET, Jan. 11, 2014 (FOX)
Key Matchup When New Orleans Has the Ball: Jimmy Graham (TE Saints) vs. Seattle Back-Seven
The last time these two teams matched up, Graham was held to three catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. The defender who spent most of the time on him, however, was linebacker K.J. Wright. Wright won't be playing thanks to a broken foot, and Seattle will have to come up with a different game plan.
On paper, it seems easy. Seattle has a great safety tandem in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas and they love big cornerbacks. But against Drew Brees, a top passer who loves to spread the field out, it was definitely helpful to have a linebacker who could slow down Graham and still allow shell coverage over the top.
Key Matchup When Seattle Has the Ball: Max Unger (C Seahawks) vs. Brodrick Bunkley (NT Saints)
The Seahawks are going to want to run the ball. It didn't really work out for them last time around, as quarterback Russell Wilson was their leading rusher with 47 yards. A big piece of that puzzle for the Saints was linebacker Curtis Lofton, but nose tackles Brodrick Bunkley and John Jenkins are the pivot point around which the Saints defense rolls.
This is a "pull up your britches" game for Unger. He's been one of the best centers in football for a while, but this may have been his worst year. He needs to win consistently at the point of attack or this game could be a lot tougher than the Seahawks and Saints' last.
Who will win: Seattle 28, New Orleans 20
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
Where: Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
When: 8:15 p.m. ET, Jan. 11, 2014 (CBS)
Key Matchup When Indianapolis Has the Ball: T.Y. Hilton (WR Colts) vs. Aqib Talib (CB Patriots)
Both of these teams wish their passing attacks were as polished and well-manned as they had planned going into the season. Without receiver Reggie Wayne, the Colts are missing not only their best offensive playmaker and deep threat, but also their most reliable. For quarterback Andrew Luck, that means needing to be perfect. It also means relying on Hilton to break a few big gains as he did against the Chiefs when he totaled 224 yards and two touchdowns.
For the Patriots, that makes shutting down Hilton a pretty big key to this game. Hilton has the speed to take the top off any coverage, but Talib has the physicality to throw him off of his game. If Hilton struggles, Luck will likely struggle as well.
Key Matchup When New England Has the Ball: Nate Solder (LT Patriots) vs. Robert Mathis (OLB Colts)
Few defenders have been more impactful this year than Colts linebacker Robert Mathis. He is a pass-rusher's pass-rusher, with a wide variety of moves to confuse even the most polished of pass-protectors. Oh, and he's also a fantastic athlete with a withering presence.
In short, he's going to get his.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will need to get the ball out quickly if he wants to avoid Mathis all day, but he'll need some help from his left tackle as well. Solder is a great athlete and quickly ascending the ladder of best blindside protectors in the NFL, but he can get caught off-balance at times, and Mathis surely knows this.
Who will win: New England 20, Indianapolis 13
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
Where: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
When: 1:05 p.m. ET, Jan. 12, 2014 (FOX)
Key Matchup When San Francisco Has the Ball: Colin Kaepernick (QB 49ers) vs. Luke Kuechly (LB Panthers)
The 49ers beat Green Bay in part because the Packers have a traditionally built 3-4 defense where the linebackers are selected and groomed to pin their ears back and attack pocket passers. Against the Panthers' stout defense, with a fantastic defensive line and a great flow linebacker like Luke Kuechly, life will be a little more difficult.
The 49ers will try to win by passing against the Panthers' questionable secondary, but Kaepernick will rely on his running when he needs to. As long as Kuechly does what he does best, the Panthers should be fine.
Key Matchup When Carolina Has the Ball: Steve Smith (WR Panthers) vs. The Poor Sap Who Gets to Cover Him
The Panthers have been improving as a passing offense this season. Quarterback Cam Newton isn't really the story, as he's been far more consistently great over the years than critics will ever allow. No, the story is actually the rest of the offense stepping up and maturing in coordinator Mike Shula's scheme.
Receiver Steve Smith has been battling some knee issues but is preparing to play in this game. The 49ers' secondary isn't much to write home about anyway, but cornerback Carlos Rogers is a big part of what they can do right. He's dealing with a hamstring injury, and the shuffling around of cornerbacks in his absence could leave Smith lined up with someone like Perrish Cox.
The Panthers will look to exploit mismatches like that time and again. Win or lose, look for the veteran receiver to have a big game.
Who will win: San Francisco 20, Carolina 16
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver
When: 4:40 p.m. ET, Jan. 12, 2014 (CBS)
Key Matchup When San Diego Has the Ball: Keenan Allen (WR Chargers) vs. Chris Harris Jr. (CB Broncos)
Bolts receiver Keenan Allen has rookie of the year bona fides this season after falling deeply in the draft last spring. One of the biggest reasons he's becoming a household name (at least in the homes that love fantasy football) is his penchant for big plays. The last time the Broncos hosted the Chargers, Allen only had two catches, but both were touchdowns.
The Broncos will look to counter the Chargers best receiver with their best cornerback, and that means hoping that Chris Harris (5'10") won't get into many jump ball situations with Allen (6'2").
Key Matchup When Denver Has the Ball: Peyton Manning (QB Broncos) vs. Eric Weddle (S Chargers)
The Broncos are built around quarterback Peyton Manning, so it's trite to say that they'll only get as far as he takes them. (Seriously though, what top quarterback can't that be said about?) However, it is worthwhile to note that Chargers safety Eric Weddle presents a unique challenge for quarterbacks as he may be the best (and smartest) playmaking safety against the pass in the entire NFL.
There's tons of narratives you can listen to about Manning and cold weather or Manning and playoff football. In the end, though, it's going to be Manning against a defense that's already taken him down a peg this season. If Weddle gets his hands on a few passes, the Broncos could find themselves with an early playoff exit.
Who will win: Broncos 30, Chargers 20