The 2014 NFL playoffs are saturated with quality and have the feel of a slow build toward an epic ending.
Fans surely remember Wild Card Weekend, which gave them one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history as the Indianapolis Colts moved past the Kansas City Chiefs despite a 28-point second-half deficit.
Those Colts were a victim on the divisional round's opening night, as Tom Brady advanced to his eighth conference title game in 13 seasons (12 if one removes his year missed with an injury) and became the first to throw for more than 6,000 yards in his postseason career during the 43-22 win.
In the other Jan. 11 matchup, the New Orleans Saints fell at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks on the road for the second time this year, although a late push almost made for an alternate ending.
Like the above games, one matchup will reign supreme during the Jan. 12 slate of action. Sort of like LeGarrette Blount's four rushing touchdowns to lead the Patriots over the Colts—except that one was impossible to predict.
|Round||Date (Time)||Visitor (Seed)||Home (Seed)||Broadcast/Stream Info|
|Divisional||Jan. 12 (1:05 p.m. EST)||San Francisco 49ers (5)||Carolina Panthers (2)||Fox|
|Divisional||Jan. 12 (4:40 p.m. EST)||San Diego Chargers (6)||Denver Broncos (1)||CBS|
|AFC Championship||Jan. 19 (TBA)||TBA||TBA||CBS|
|NFC Championship||Jan. 19 (TBA)||TBA||TBA||Fox|
|Super Bowl XLVIII||Feb. 2 (6:30 p.m. EST)||TBA||TBA||Fox|
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
Frank Gore vs. Carolina Rush Defense
At this point, the Carolina Panthers are a well-known commodity. Led by linebacker Luke Kuechly, the defense allowed an average of just 15.1 points during the regular season—just one team did it better.
So it should come as no surprise that the Panthers held the San Francisco 49ers to 151 total yards in a Week 10, 10-9 victory.
In that contest, Carolina held 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to 91 passing yards (a career worst) and sacked him six times (a career high).
One man who was able to find success in that game was veteran running back Frank Gore, but he has been a bit inconsistent as of late:
|WC @ GB||20||66||3.3||10||1|
|Week 17 @ ARI||13||14||1.1||8||0|
|Week 16 vs. ATL||21||97||4.6||17||1|
|Week 15 @ TB||22||86||3.9||13||0|
|Week 14 vs. SEA||17||110||6.5||51||0|
Gore sounds ready for the contest, though, per the 49ers' Twitter account:
Gore may be the lone producer once again in the face of an elite defense, this time in a hostile environment. His 82 rushing yards wound up being only the third time the Panthers defense had allowed an opposing back to breach the 80-yard mark on the season.
Should Carolina shut down Gore, it will flush Kaepernick into a one-dimensional attack that is bound for failure.
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
Philip Rivers vs. Denver Pass Defense
Denver is not exactly known for its pass defense, which ranked just outside of the bottom five in the regular season with an average of 254.4 yards surrendered per game.
This rarely mattered thanks to quarterback Peyton Manning, but it did come into play against one team—the San Diego Chargers.
San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers is in the middle of a comeback story worthy of a feature film thanks to the arrival of head coach Mike McCoy, who has the veteran quarterback improved in all areas, as ESPN documents:
A visual look at the improvements Chargers QB Philip Rivers has made from 2012 to 2013, using Total QBR as a guide pic.twitter.com/eRyU8WZxoY— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 8, 2014
Rivers threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions in two games against the Denver defense in the regular season, with the most recent outcome being a 27-20 victory in Week 15.
But perhaps most impressive of all is the fact Rivers posted a 12-of-16 line for 128 yards and a score in a 27-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round. Former NFL quarterback and analyst Phil Simms was impressed with the performance, per Mike Klis of The Denver Post:
He just knows how to play his part in the game. And what greater example do you need than last week? Sixteen throws, he's one of the few guys who cannot throw it a lot, still stay in rhythm, still do his job when he's called upon. That's pretty rare for quarterbacks nowadays. Because most quarterbacks need 40 throws to get their thing going. Philip Rivers can do it with 16 or he can do it with 40.
Denver better pray Rivers does not attempt 40 passes.
Winners of five straight, the Chargers are one of the NFL's hottest teams behind the arm of Rivers. San Diego has already won in Denver once this year. If the Broncos defense cannot find an answer to Rivers, Manning will yet again be making an early exit from the postseason.