Wild-card weekend wasn’t a smashing success, with the Sultan of Sides finishing with a 1-2-1 mark. Not that it matters. After a virtuoso performance during the regular season we’re left playing with house money in the playoffs.
If the opening weekend is any indicator we can safely expect great football games in the Divisional Round. Alaska’s team, the Seattle Seahawks, open play when they host the New Orleans Saints.
It’s a nervous time for a lifelong Seahawks fan. Part of what makes the NFL so riveting is the one-and-done environment engulfing each matchup. That also makes the playoffs extremely nerve-racking, especially for a young guy with too much grey hair already!
If the Saints and Seahawks played a seven-game series, I would have no reservations about the outcome. One game, against a player of Drew Brees’ caliber? Scary! Since we’re already on the subject, let’s quickly get to this week’s picks. Good luck and happy viewing!
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
@ Seattle Seahawks -8
The New Orleans Saints march into Seattle to face the top-seeded Seahawks this Saturday to open divisional round play. New Orleans snapped a three-game road losing streak last week courtesy of a 32-yard Shayne Graham field goal as time expired. The narrow 26-24 victory over the NFC East champion Philadelphia Eagles should give the visiting Saints a much needed dose of confidence as they head into what’s become a house of horrors for the franchise.
In 2011, the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks, under first year head coach Pete Carroll, upset the defending Super Bowl champion Saints in the NFC wild-card round. It was a shocking victory for a young Seahawks team.
The 41-36 win culminated with the now infamous “Beast Quake” run by Marshawn Lynch. The ensuing celebration inside Century Link Field literally caused a local seismic center to record an earthquake.
The two teams met in Seattle again for Monday Night Football of Week 13 this season. That contest wasn’t nearly as dramatic. Seattle blew the Mardi Gras beads right off New Orleans in a resounding 34-7 triumph. Seattle’s defense was dominant, holding Brees to a season-low 147 passing yards. New Orleans rushing attack couldn’t pick up the slack, mustering a measly 44 yards on 17 carries. Is there any reason to expect a different result this time? Some of Seattle’s home-field mystique has worn off after a Week 16 loss to the visiting Arizona Cardinals. The Seahawks had won 14 consecutive home games, tops in the NFL, before falling to Arizona.
NFL teams now know (knowing is different from hoping) that this Seahawks team can be beat in Seattle. That wasn’t the case a few weeks ago. Ultimately, Seattle is going to win the game, but I expect this contest to remain in doubt well into the fourth quarter.
Seattle’s top-ranked “Legion of Boom” defense, which leads the NFL in yards allowed, pass yards allowed and scoring defense, will keep Brees and the Saints prolific offense in check. Giving Russell Wilson the opportunity to lead a late game-winning drive. Seahawks win 23-20
@ New England Patriots -8
The New England Patriots await the surprising Indianapolis Colts in Saturday’s second divisional round matchup. The Colts trailed the visiting Kansas City Chiefs 38-10 early in the third quarter of last week’s playoff opener before rallying for an epic 45-44 victory.
Scientists still haven’t determined how Indianapolis pulled off the comeback. Everything that could go right did for the home side. The Colts benefited from costly Chiefs turnovers, lucky bounces, quick scores and critical injuries to key players.
Perhaps no play summarized the Colts’ second-half performance better than quarterback Andrew Luck’s fumble recovery and scoring plunge from 5 yards out. On the play, Colts running back Donald Brown had the ball knocked out of his hands near the Chiefs goal line. The ball then caromed off an Indianapolis lineman’s helmet before coming to rest in Luck’s possession.
The young quarterback then hop-scotched his way into the end zone, diving over helpless Kansas City defenders. It’s evident that no player in the NFL has a more appropriate last name than Andrew Luck. Can Indy’s good fortune last another week?
Spot Tom Brady and Darth Belichick a four-touchdown lead and the game is over, no matter how lucky Andrew Luck and Indianapolis Colts might be. This Patriots team isn’t as high-powered as recent installments but it resembles some of New England’s Super Bowl winning teams from the early 2000s.
A steady, ball-control offense featuring a strong rushing attack and short passing game paired with a capable defense. That recipe led the Patriots to three Super Bowl wins and very well could lead to a fourth victory this year.
New England may not have the horses on offense to pull away from the youthful Colts, but it’s hard to fathom Tom Terrific losing a January game in Foxboro. One troubling stat for Patriot backers, Andrew Luck is 14-2 in games decided by seven or fewer points.
Remember, the Colts are the only team to defeat the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers this year. Indianapolis has proven itself capable of knocking off the NFL’s elite. If the Colts remain within a single score late don’t be surprised if they pull off the upset. Colts win 27-21
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
@ Carolina Panthers +1
Sunday’s pair of games kicks off with the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers visiting Charlotte to battle the Carolina Panthers. The two mirror images met in Week 10 when the Panthers narrowly defeated the 49ers 10-9 in San Francisco.
49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick suffered the worst performance of his career in the contest. Kaepernick failed to throw for over 100 yards and posted a career worst 7.7 quarterback rating. His counterpart, Cam Newton, wasn’t much better, throwing for 169 yards and an interception. It’s safe to expect a similarly low-scoring affair in the rematch.
Both defenses rank in the NFL’s top five in yards allowed and scoring defense. Both enter this matchup red-hot. San Francisco has won seven consecutive games while the Panthers rebounded from a 1-3 start to finish 12-4 and claim the second seed in the NFC.
It’s little surprise that Vegas opened this game with a one-point spread. That number has moved to three in favor of the road side, despite the earlier head-to-head result, likely a nod to San Francisco’s recent playoff experience and perceived coaching advantage.
The biggest difference Sunday may be the availability of receivers Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Crabtree missed the first matchup recovering from an Achilles injury and Davis played just a handful of snaps before leaving the contest. A healthy Crabtree and Davis will make life much easier for Kaepernick and the rest of the 49ers. It’s been a Cinderella season for Cam Newton and the youthful Carolina Panthers but come Sunday the slipper won’t fit against a powerful, veteran-laden 49ers team. 49ers win 20-9
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS @ Denver Broncos -10
The weekend’s final contest matches the San Diego Super Chargers against the AFC’s top seed, the Denver Broncos. It’s been a record-setting year for Denver led by AARP member and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
Old No. 18 rewrote the NFL record book passing for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns this season. Denver’s offense set a Super Bowl era record scoring 37.9 points per game. Incredibly, the Broncos were held under 30 points just three times all year!
Sobering news for Denver supporters, San Diego was the opponent in two of those three contests. In those games the Chargers possessed the football for an astonishing 38 minutes, 26 seconds, per game. The best way to stop Manning is to keep him on the sidelines, and San Diego has mastered the concept.
Chargers head coach Mike McCoy is uniquely capable of matching Manning on the football chessboard. McCoy was Denver’s offensive coordinator last season. Chargers defenders gain additional information from veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney.
Freeney is sidelined by a season-ending injury but the longtime Manning teammate in Indianapolis has helped his current team make sense of Manning’s pre-snap theatrics. If there is a team in the AFC capable of upsetting Denver this postseason it’s the San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers proved that in Week 15 when they dealt Denver its only home loss of the season. As a Bronco and Colt Peyton Manning has lost three straight playoff games and has gone 4-6 against the Chargers in their last 10 meetings. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers is 6-2 all-time against the Broncos in Denver. The Broncos are the better team and they’re playing at home. This is a game Denver should win, but … Chargers win 31-27