by Paul West
After an exciting and unpredictable Wild Card weekend in which the home teams went 1-3, the NFL Playoffs have arrived at the Divisional Series. This week includes a rematch from a recent playoff upset, and highly anticipated quarterback matchups. Three of the four games feature a point spread of a touchdown or more, but all four games hold the possibility of excitement.
Saturday, 4:35Pm EST: New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
The weekend kicks off with something of a playoff grudge match. On January 8th, 2011, the 7-9 Seahawks hosted–that’s right, hosted—the defending Super Bowl champion Saints in the Wild Card round. The Seahawks had home field advantage because they had won the weak NFC West, and the renowned energy level of their home crowd would go down in history that day. Seattle upset the Saints 41-36, and the game featured what would go down in history as “Beast Quake“–a jaw-dropping, tackle-breaking 67-yard touchdown run by Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch.
This time, it’s the Saints who are the underdog, as Seattle is favored by over a touchdown. The Saints faltered down the stretch, putting up anemic offensive numbers for several weeks in a row before rebounding in Week 17 to put themselves in the playoffs at 11-5. Meanwhile, the Seahawks went 13-3, with a point differential of +186 and a league-leading 231 points allowed. However, the Saints put things back in gear to close the season out, hammering the bottom-dwelling Tampa Bay Buccaneers 42-17.
Most recently, when these two teams faced each other in Week 13 in Seattle, the Seahawks hammered the Saints 34-7. The Saints have battled injury and inconsistency all season, with tight end Jimmy Graham battling a painful foot injury and dual-threat running back Darren Sproles spending much of the season hurt. When the Saints click, they’re one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL–but the Seahawks’ defense boasts one of the league’s best secondaries and has often substantiated their “Legion of Boom.” alias. The Seahawks’ offense is unspectacular (with the exception of the occasional video-game run by Lynch), but manages to put points in the board by combining a bruising running game with a steady passing game–all expertly managed by second-year quarterback Russell Wilson, who combines athleticism, leadership and beyond-his-years decisionmaking. Meanwhile, the Saints’ defense has shown an ability to make big plays, but is also vulnerable to giving up big strikes and big point totals.
The primary x-factor in this game is the Seahawks’ pass rush. The Seattle defense is strong from the top down, with two of the league’s best cornerbacks and a secondary that flies around and creates havoc. But quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints’ office doesn’t necessarily rely on a downfield attack. Brees likes to spread the ball around, move the pocket, spread the field and turn checkdowns and mid-range throws into big gains. Sproles seems healthy, and his presence gives the Saints’ attack the diversity of options that gives defenses headaches. But Brees’ achilles heel no matter how well he’s overcome it, is his below-average height. He has excellent pocket awareness, and is good at creating throwing lanes and firing midrange darts, but quickly collapsing pockets can drown his field vision and make it harder for him to scan for quick reads and checkdowns. Of course, lots of teams try to close Brees’ pocket quickly, and against most of them, most of the time, he shifts his way into a downfield look and makes defenses pay for wandering. But if the Seahawks’ front line can make Brees throw from behind a wall, the Saints could be on the short end of another blowout.
Prediction: 37-34, Saints
The Saints will have to click like they did in Week 17 to have a chance, because their defense will struggle to contain the Seahawks’ offense. If they pull off a victory, tight end Jimmy Graham will have to have one of his usual games as a matchup nightmare and Darren Sproles will have to stress out the defense with his dual-threat potential. Brees will have to avoid getting baited by the Seahawks’ secondary; the Seahawks’ secondary will have to avoid over-compressing against the Saints’ slice-and-dice attack, which is how the Saints set up the long ball. If it’s close, it’ll be high scoring. If it’s close, the Seahawks’ lack of explosiveness on offense might lead them to give away a possession or two, leaving room for Brees and the Saints to strike late.
Saturday, 8:15Pm EST: Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
In the Wild Card round, Andrew Luck put an early highlight on his career reel when he led the second biggest comeback in NFL history, beating the injury-riddled Kansas City Chiefs 45-44. Andrew Luck’s tendency to force the ball into traffic, and the Colts’ tendency to get behind early (both of which I anticipated in last week’s Wild Card prediction, and yes, here’s where you remind me of the scoreboard), manifested in a 28-point Chiefs lead in the second half. Andrew Luck engineered a spectacular comeback that will be talked about for decades, in which he ran, threw and dove his way to a nail-biting victory.
The problem is, that come-from-way-behind routine won’t serve them well this week. First of all, the Colts came back from double-digit deficits to win three games in the 2013-14 season; all three times, they lost the next game. But even more importantly, this game won’t be in their home stadium, nor will it be indoors. It will be in cold, windy New England, against a team with more experience and one of the best game-closing quarterbacks in the NFL. Said quarterback, the Patriots’ Tom Brady, won’t likely let Luck and the Colts get away with first-half turnovers and spotting them a couple of scores.
Of course, Andrew Luck is still dangerous, and slot receiver T.Y. Hilton is one of the NFL’s finest young slot receivers. The Patriots’ defense is underrated by many, but they have shown themselves quite liable to give up points and yards. Luck is as dangerous a dual-threat quarterback as there is in the NFL (here’s where it bears remembering that his combine numbers mirrored those of Cam Newton’s), and in the second half, he’s both fearless and extremely good. The Colts, in what is still being discussed as both a strategic move and an act of gamesmanship, have acquired former Patriot Deion Branch to fill in for the injured Darrius Heyward-Bey; this gives them another veteran wideout with playoff experience, and someone who might provide some strategic and schematic insight against his former team. On the other side of the ball, the Patriots slogged fought their way through injuries, sub-par performances and personnel upheaval to go 12-4, including 8-0 at home. Undersized slot receiver Julian Edelman, underrated no more, has emerged as one of Brady’s favorite go-to targets, combining athleticism, versatility and head-spinning elusiveness to make play after play on offense and special teams.
The x-factor to watch for will be the Colts’ running game. The Patriots were 30th in the league this season in rushing yards allowed, and if Donald Brown can have another strong game and refrain from fumbling, this will keep the Patriots’ defense from selling out to stop the passing game. This will make it easier for Hilton to attack downfield, and Luck to find dangerous secondary targets like tight end Coby Fleener. Andrew Luck’s running makes a difference as well; when he finds a lane, he can go on long jaunts and is big enough to run defenders over.
Prediction: 30-27, Colts
Patriots’ wide receiver Aaron Dobson won’t be able to play, which deprives Brady of one of his sleeper targets in the clutch. The Patriots have spent much of the year cutting things pretty close, themselves, which means this game will come down to which team can get in sync early and stay there. Luck’s dual-threat potential will be too much for the Patriots’ defense, and the Colts’ pass rush will make a couple of crucial plays. The kickers will play a role in this one.
Sunday, 1:05PM EST: San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
This game features two of the NFL’s rising stars at quarterback, in Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton. It also features two of the NFL’s most feared defenses, and perhaps their two best linebacker squadrons. This game is very well matched.
Despite being the younger of the two quarterbacks, the Niners’ Kaepernick has arguably risen to greater heights. While Newton took the world by storm with record-breaking performances in his rookie year, he was also beset by an erratic temperament and numerous disappointing outcomes. He has battled both fair and unfair criticism of his leadership skills, and has at times displayed a tendency toward pouting and narcissism. But he’s rebounded nicely this season, especially down the stretch, in which he’s led the Panthers to victories over three of the remaining playoff teams. He’s streamlining his approach, and becoming a more effective pocket passer under pressure–and he’s still got the dual-threat potential that makes him difficult to contain if the initial play breaks down. As for Kaepernick, he took over the helm midway during his first full season last year, and let the Niners all the way to within one play of a Super Bowl title. He, too, has shown his humanity of late; but he’s also proven himself able to lead through adversity, and he won’t be overwhelmed by the enormity of any moment. He has a rocket-strength arm, is as fast as most of the players on the field most of the time, and plays with fearlessness and conviction.
Of course, this same conviction can get him in trouble. In last week’s Wild Card game in Green Bay, he threw an out route on their game-winning drive that a defender got two hands on–and dropped, most likely because of the near-arctic conditions. And there are ways to beat him: when forced to stay in the pocket under extreme duress, he can force throws from time to time. Kaepernick has gone to great lengths to prove himself a capable pocket passer, but unlike other youngsters like Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck, he sometimes seems stressed out when forced to stay in the pocket exclusively–especially in pressure situations. The first-down run that capped last week’s game-winning drive was allowed by the Packers’ outside rusher abandoning his lane, giving Kaepernick a chance to pull the ball down and get around the edge. But mere seconds before, it seemed as if he was on his heels and considering a dangerous panic ball.
While both quarterbacks are dual-threat headaches for defenses, the San Francisco offense has a greater variety of weapons, as well as a superior running game. Anquan Boldin, whom the Baltimore Ravens foolishly refused to pay adequately after he helped them to a Super Bowl victory, is a proven clutch performer who makes an entire offense better. Frank Gore is one of the league’s more dangerous rushers, and wide receiver Michael Crabtree has emerged as a game-changer and one of Kaepernick’s favorites. Meanwhile, the Panthers have a less daunting array of talents–and their primary go-to receiver, and home-run threat, Steve Smith, is struggling to recover from a sprained knee.
The primary x-factor in this game will be the Panthers’ running game. Both quarterbacks are young, dynamic, and versatile threats; both defenses are pulverizing and stingy, led by linebackers that cover tons of ground and make opponents pay for mistakes. But the Niners’ aforementioned difference in offensive versatility conveys a distinct advantage, unless the Panthers’ committee of running backs can make an impact. This will especially matter between the red zones, where the ability to eat up turf will prevent the Niners’ defense from going all out to stop Cam Newton individually. Once they’re in the red zone, Cam Newton’s ability to both scoot around the corner and mow down defenders will be an advantage–as will fullback Mike Tolbert’s nose for the end zone from in close.
Prediction: 20-17, Panthers
If I could, I’d call this one a draw; when these two teams faced in Week 10, the Panthers won 10-9 in a slugfest. If Smith isn’t himself, the Panthers will be in serious trouble. But the Panthers also might have the toughest defensive front four in the league, and if they can make Kaepernick feel claustrophobic, he could give away a possession or two. The pass rush will make a difference, and Cam Newton will feed off the home crowd and put on a good show. But it won’t be easy.
Sunday, 4:40PM EST: San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
The Chargers went into the playoffs on a series of flukes, and went into last week playing with house money. The Denver Broncos rolled into the playoffs at 13-3, breaking scoring and yardage records and securing the number one seed and home field advantage throughout. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, already widely regarded as the best regular-season quarterback in history, still has something to prove as a postseason quarterback: he’s 9-11 all time in the postseason, and has been eliminated in his first game eight times. He has, of course, also won a Super Bowl championship, but the disparity between his regular season and playoff numbers has made many continue to question his legacy. On the other side of the field, Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers has had a resurgent year. He led last week’s surprising blowout of the favored Cincinnati Bengals, and he rides into the Divisional Playoff round having split the season series with the top seed.
Perhaps more interesting than Manning’s postseason career numbers is the fact that Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano seems to have his number. During his tenure in San Diego, the Chargers are 6-4 against Peyton Manning-led teams, and Manning has 21 career interceptions against the Chargers, his second most against any opponent. However he does it, Pagano seems able to put together blitzing schemes and defensive alignments that give Manning headaches and cause him to make mistakes. This could be a problem for the Broncos, even though Manning is working with perhaps the most stacked constellation of weapons he’s ever had to throw to. For the Chargers, a primary concern is the health of running back Ryan Matthews, who has battled an ankle injury and didn’t practice on Friday. If Matthews is seriously limited or can’t play, the onus will be on Rivers and the passing game to put up enough points to keep up.
The x-factor to watch for in this game will be the Denver Broncos’ defense. They are still often overlooked as one of the NFL’s toughest, and despite losing standout lineback Von Miller to season-ending knee surgery they have the potential to make game-changing plays. If the Broncos’ defense can draw a turnover or two, things could get out of hand quickly as the Chargers’ defense spends more time on the field and Peyton Manning gets more time to get in a good flow.
Prediction: 34-24, Broncos
Peyton Manning will have to rely on spreading the ball around and staying calm. If he gets into a rhythm and gets confident, and that offense gets clicking, there isn’t a defense in the league that can do anything about it. This will either be a blowout or a shootout. I’m going shootout, with the difference being a couple of key stops by the Denver defense.