Predictions for 2014 NFL Divisional Playoffs
Forget about the NCAA tournament. Don't talk to me about the baseball playoffs. The best weekend in sports each and every year, hands down, is the divisional round of the NFL postseason. And it's just about here.
Only eight teams remain in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy, and four thrilling matchups await.
Saturday's contests feature New Orleans at Seattle and Indianapolis at New England, while Sunday gives us San Francisco at Carolina and San Diego at Denver. We couldn't ask for a better slate of games.
The quarterback matchups alone are worth the price of admission. Drew Brees vs. Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck vs. Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick vs. Cam Newton and Philip Rivers vs. Peyton Manning? Where do I sign?
Here are my predictions for the 2014 NFL Divisional Playoffs.
Seattle Will Beat New Orleans, 27-16
Saturday afternoon's divisional round showdown between the Saints and Seahawks in Seattle is a rematch of Week 13's Monday Night Football affair, which the Seahawks won in dominant fashion, 34-7.
That game was one of seven home triumphs that the Seahawks experienced in the regular season, and the team possesses arguably the best home-field advantage in the NFL. Conversely, the Saints went 3-5 on the road this year, and while they did win on Wild Card Weekend in Philadelphia, getting the job done at CenturyLink Field is another prospect entirely.
The Seahawks have won five straight home playoff games, including 2010's victory over the Saints that featured running back Marshawn Lynch's famed "BeastQuake" touchdown carry. Because of that game and Week 13's contest, coach Sean Payton and the Saints will surely be out for payback.
But garnering revenge against a talented and deep Seahawks team is easier said than done, especially in Seattle. Saints quarterback Drew Brees hasn't been as good on the road this year, tossing only 12 touchdown passes against nine interceptions in the regular season. And while he led his team to victory last week in Philadelphia, he played a pedestrian game, throwing for 250 yards to go along with one touchdown pass and two interceptions.
The Saints won last week on the strength of their run game. They compiled 36 carries for 185 yards and dominated the Eagles at the line of scrimmage. There's no way that will happen against the Seahawks' No. 1-ranked defense.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is silky smooth and cool under pressure and plays his best when the lights are brightest. He seems immune to the critical mistake. With heavy rain and wind expected in Seattle on Saturday, the Seahawks will lean on Lynch to move the chains and pulverize the Saints front.
The bottom line is that the Seahawks are the better team, and they're playing at home. They'll win and host the NFC Championship Game next Sunday.
Percy Harvin Will Make an Impact
Another factor working in the Seahawks' favor is the return of dynamic, playmaking wide receiver Percy Harvin to the lineup. Per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, Harvin will suit up for Saturday's divisional round matchup against the Saints.
While a nagging hip injury limited him to only one game and one catch this season, there's no doubting his ability when healthy. He's a game-changer who is capable of breaking off a huge play at any time, whether as a receiver, rusher or kick returner.
Don't believe me? Check out this column from Bleacher Report's Keith Myers, who detailed the impact that Harvin will have on Saturday's game.
Coach Pete Carroll is jacked up to have Harvin back in the lineup, telling Terry Blount of ESPN.com:
It's been a long, long haul for a guy that's such a great competitor. We've been so close so many times to taking this step. We just waited it out as long as we could. The couple weeks we gained [with the first-round bye last week] made a difference. Percy stuck to it and never backed off the process of the rehab. We're anxious to add him to the mix.
The inclement weather in the Pacific Northwest won't matter. The fact that his snaps will be limited won't matter, either.
The bottom line is that Harvin is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. He'll make at least one game-changing play when the Seahawks defeat the Saints.
New England Will Beat Indianapolis, 27-21
The Indianapolis Colts are coming off the second-largest comeback in postseason history, overcoming a 28-point second-half deficit to beat the Chiefs. The dramatic win set up a divisional round showdown at Gillette Stadium against coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck ascended into rarefied air with his performance last week against Kansas City, but his counterpart on Saturday night has occupied that space for more than a decade. While Luck is coming off his first playoff win, Brady already has three Super Bowl titles under his belt, albeit none since 2004.
The Patriots have overcome a number of injuries to key players this season in what might be the best coaching job of Belichick's career. They find themselves hosting a divisional round playoff game despite losing defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, tight end Rob Gronkowski, linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes and tackle Sebastian Vollmer for the season.
Luck connected with receiver T.Y. Hilton early and often in the victory over Kansas City, as Hilton compiled 224 yards through the air. For reasons known only to them, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton refused to double-team Hilton, and you can be sure that Belichick won't make the same mistake.
With the Patriots keying in on Hilton, the onus will be on Luck to find offense elsewhere, and that will be a tall order against a team that went 8-0 at home this season. Plus, Brady and the offense have been licking their chops all week after watching Alex Smith and the Chiefs eviscerate the Colts defense. If the Chiefs put up 44 points on Indianapolis, just imagine what the Patriots are capable of.
The Colts are capable of keeping it close thanks to the greatness of Luck, but the Patriots will be too much for them to overcome. It won't be a blowout, but the Patriots will win and advance to the AFC Championship Game.
The Patriots Rushing Attack Will Steamroll the Colts Defense
The New England Patriots feature a four-headed rushing attack, with backs LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden taking turns toting the rock. The team finished the season with the league's ninth-ranked rushing attack, averaging 4.4 yards per carry.
On Saturday, Blount and company will devastate the Colts defensive front, keying a Patriots victory.
Indy hasn't been able to stop the run all season, finishing with the 26th-ranked rush defense in the league and allowing 4.5 yards per carry. Last week against Kansas City, the Colts allowed 150 yards on the ground, and that was largely without Chiefs star running back Jamaal Charles on the field, as he suffered a concussion early in the game.
B/R's lead AFC East writer Erik Frenz highlighted the Patriots' advantage in rushing the football.
Blount has led the charge recently in the backfield, offering up a 189-yard outburst in Week 17's win over Buffalo. Speaking of the four-headed rushing attack, he recently told Howard Ulman of The Associated Press:
It wears and tears on the defense. They get tired of hitting backs like me, like Rid, like Brandon. And they get tired of chasing Shane around. So I feel like if you do that to them for a while, sooner or later they’re going to crack.
Blount will lead the charge, while Ridley and Bolden supplement. Vereen will catch passes out of the backfield and present a matchup nightmare for the Colts.
The Patriots will collect more than 150 yards on the ground as they defeat the Colts and move on to the AFC Championship Game.
San Francisco Will Beat Carolina, 20-10
Perhaps the most anticipated game of the divisional round will take place on Sunday afternoon in Carolina, when the Panthers host the San Francisco 49ers. There's no question that the contest features the two best defenses, and it should be a violent, hard-hitting affair.
The 49ers are on a roll, having won seven consecutive games including last Sunday's thriller over the Packers at Lambeau Field. The offense is clicking with receiver Michael Crabtree back in the lineup, and the defense is as stout as ever.
The Panthers are coming off a fantastic regular season, winning 11 of their final 12 games after starting the season 1-3. Coach Ron Rivera did a spectacular job. He eschewed his conservative approach and embraced the "Riverboat Ron" persona, rolling the dice on fourth downs and coming up aces. Quarterback Cam Newton stepped up and played outstanding football, and the defense was tremendous throughout.
One of the Panthers' victories came in San Francisco, as they beat the 49ers in Week 10, 10-9. The Panthers sacked 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick six times in that game and held their offense in check in one of the most physical games of the year.
But San Francisco was without Crabtree in that game, and tight end Vernon Davis left with an injury. Plus, pass-rushing linebacker Aldon Smith only played 12 snaps as he eased back into the lineup following a stint in rehab.
With Crabtree and Davis back and healthy and Smith terrorizing opposing quarterbacks once more, the 49ers are a completely different outfit than they were in Week 10. Kaepernick ascended to a new level last week against the Packers, leading his team on a late, game-winning drive that was nothing short of majestic.
When it comes down to it, who do you trust more: Rivera and Newton, or 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Kaepernick? Harbaugh has led the 49ers to three straight appearances in the divisional round, and Kaepernick has more experience than Newton. It's a no-brainer.
The game will be close, but the 49ers will score a late touchdown to pull away and book their third consecutive appearance in the NFC Championship Game.
49ers Will Score a Defensive Touchdown
The San Francisco 49ers finished the regular season with the league's fifth-ranked defense, and with points sure to be at a premium in Sunday's divisional round contest in Carolina, the unit will have to play its best football of the season to claim a win.
The defense will get the job done in a major way. In fact, the team will score a defensive touchdown on its way to victory.
San Francisco star linebacker NaVorro Bowman knows that the team has to stop Panthers quarterback Cam Newton from beating them with his legs. He told Matthew Barrows of The Sacramento Bee:
That’s everyone’s job. It starts up front and those guys doing their job. And then if he gets away from those guys, it trickles down. But he’s a guy that has to be paid attention to when it comes to his scrambling. So for us as a defense, we have to keep that in mind the whole game.
Bowman will key a marvelous 49ers defensive effort that will hold the Panthers to only 10 points. And in the closing moments, with Carolina needing a score to tie the game, the 49ers will score on defense to help secure the victory and move San Francisco to its third consecutive NFC Championship Game.
Denver Will Beat San Diego, 30-27
The last game of the divisional round will be played on Sunday afternoon in Denver, when the Broncos host the red-hot San Diego Chargers in what's sure to be a fascinating affair.
The Chargers are playing great football, winning five consecutive games since their 5-7 start. Coach Mike McCoy's team has been in do-or-die mode for more than a month and has risen to the occasion each and every week. While quarterback Philip Rivers has gotten much of the accolades, much credit should also goes to the team's rejuvenated rushing attack, which has averaged 39 carries per game since Week 13.
While San Diego scratched, fought and clawed its way into the postseason, the Broncos breezed through the regular campaign, finishing 13-3 to claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Quarterback Peyton Manning led an offensive juggernaut, as he compiled the greatest statistical season by a signal-caller in NFL history, throwing for an absurd 55 touchdown passes.
But the Broncos had their two worst offensive outputs of the season against the Chargers. San Diego held Denver to less than 400 yards of total offense twice this year.
In Week 15, the Chargers rolled into Denver and suffocated the Broncos with their run game and defense and emerged with a 27-20 victory. In fact, in the two games against Denver, the Chargers averaged 38 minutes in time of possession. Keeping the ball out of Manning's hands is a winning formula for beating the Broncos.
Plus, McCoy knows Manning well, having served as his offensive coordinator last season in Denver. Even though Vegas has installed the Broncos as heavy favorites, all the facts speak to a close game on Sunday. Anyone anticipating a blowout should read this piece from B/R lead AFC West writer Chris Hansen.
While the game will be close, Manning and the Broncos will come out on top. In the Week 15 game, they were without receiver Wes Welker, who is one of Manning's security blankets on third down. Having Welker in the lineup will be a major boon to the offense.
Plus, they know how critical this game is, especially after losing last year to Baltimore in the divisional round. This game means too much to them, and they're playing at home.
It will be closer than many expect, but the Broncos will emerge victorious and host the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game next Sunday.
Peyton Manning Will Lead Late Drive, Broncos Will Win on Last-Second Field Goal
Sunday's divisional round game against the Chargers is critical for Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
If the Broncos lose, his epic regular season won't be worth a damn. His 55 touchdown passes will be a small consolation prize for another one-and-done playoff appearance.
He is 1-4 in playoff games following a bye week, which is easily the worst record of any quarterback in that situation since 1970. That's not good. Last year, he put together a virtuoso regular season only to have his club fall to eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore in the divisional round.
Manning spoke to Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com earlier this week about using last season's loss to the Ravens as motivation:
I think we've kind of used that throughout the season. We talked about that going into the month of April, with our weightlifting and our offseason training, about using that to fuel you, to make you do an extra set of sprints or an extra set of squads, whatever it may be. We've used it on the practice field. I don't think that you just get to this week and you start thinking about it. I think you always want to have something to try to drive you, fuel you and make you better than the year before. I feel like we've done that and, like I said, we're excited to be at this place right now.
There's too much at stake for him to come up empty. There's no doubt that this will be a close game, and the Chargers will score late to tie it up.
But Manning will come up aces when it matters most, leading the Broncos down the field on what will prove to be the game-winning drive, which will end with a Matt Prater field goal as time expires. The last-second kick will lift them to victory and propel them into next Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
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