The NFL playoffs enter the Divisional Round this weekend and we're looking at some very interesting matchups on Saturday and Sunday. With four teams being eliminated in the Wild Card round, there are now eight teams looking to move on to the Divisional Championships next week. Every one of these games could go either way, so if you're a football fan get ready for some action as we get ready to see who makes it to Super Bowl XLVIII in New York.
This is the first time since 2010 that both six seeds (Saints and Chargers) have won in the wild card round. In 2010 Green Bay went on to win the Super Bowl, but with the Chargers and Saints looking at formidable opponents in the Divisional Round, they are going to be hard-pressed to move on. Then again both teams entered last weekend as underdogs, and they both won. But in the NFL playoffs the competition only gets tougher as the round go deeper, and as Kansas City fans can tell you anything can happen in a playoff game.
New Orleans at Seattle
Despite New Orleans finally shedding the criticism of not being able to win a playoff game on the road, Seattle is favored by more than a touchdown in this contest. The Saints are coming of the first road playoff win in franchise history after besting Philadelphia in the Wild Card round, but in Seattle they face the NFC's best team during the regular season.
It hasn't been that long since the Saints played in Seattle. On December 2, the Saints suffered the biggest loss of the season to the Seahawks, a 34-7 beating on Monday Night Football. New Orleans Coach Sean Payton told his players to remember that game because they were coming back to Seattle, and his advice has proven prescient. Now the pressure is on the Saints to prove that game was an aberration.
The Saints, in a bit of a departure from they're regular season M.O., relied heavily on the run game, led by Mark Ingram, in their win over Philadelphia. Running Back Pierre Thomas is still listed as questionable for Saturday's game, but either way the Saints will likely need to run the ball in order to get Drew Brees and the passing offense going. The Saints defense has been hit hard by injuries and those missing players could have a big impact in this game, putting extra-pressure on Brees and the offense.
Seattle has somewhat shed its aura of invincibility, but they are still the favorite to reach the Super Bowl. Extra-scary for the Saints, Seattle should have Percy Harvin back, who could have a big impact if he's healthy. Young quarterback Russell Wilson has been great his first two seasons as a starter, but this Saints game could be the biggest challenge of his career. In "Beastmode" Marshawn Lynch Seattle has one of the NFL's premier running backs and a player that can take over a game.
In the Seattle and New Orleans matchup fans will see not only two great passing attacks, but two of the best defensive teams against the pass as well. Something will have to give, and in the first game of the weekend fans should see a great show.
Indianapolis at New England
In Indianapolis at New England fans will see the only game that hasn't already happened this season. These teams' most recent meeting was in December of 2012 when the Pats got a 59-24 win. For many fans it will be reminiscent of the numerous Brady vs Manning games of the previous decade, even though the Colts are now Andrew Luck's team. The last time these teams met in the playoffs was the 2007 AFC Championship Game, which the Colts won 38-34.
The Colts are coming of an incredible win after battling back from a 28-point deficit, the second largest in playoff history, against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card round to win by one point. It was as incredible a win as you will see on the football field, and it only adds to the impressive resume of Andrew Luck. The Colts QB had perhaps the play of the season when he recovered a fumble at the one-yard line and carried the ball to the endzone for the touchdown. Luck entered the league projected to be one of the league's best, and in his first two season's he has lived up to that reputation.
In the New England Patriots, Luck and the Colts go up against Tom Brady, a quarterback that has enjoyed about as much success as you can in the NFL. This has been a trying season for New England as the team, which started the season with limited options at receiver, has been decimated by injuries again and again. But Bill Belichick and Brady continued to find a way to win and ended the season with the AFC's two seed. New England is 8-0 at home but, despite the team's impressive post-season history, features a number of players without much post-season experience.
Julian Edelman has been the Pats's best receiver in a season that saw Tom Brady's receiving options dwindle. New England running backs Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount give Belichick some power in the running game, which should give Brady some options.
The Colts come into New England as the underdog, facing the prospect of trying to beat a team that has been as close to a dynasty as the NFL has offered in decades. All dynasties crumble, but Belichick and Brady aren't ready to see it happen just yet. Can Luck precipitate the end of the Patriots unprecedented run of NFL success, or do the Pats continue their interminable quest for a fourth Super Bowl ring with a win over the Colts?
San Francisco at Carolina
San Francisco vs Carolina looks to be the marquee game of the weekend, as both teams are seen as among the NFC's best. After a tough start the Panthers went on a tear to earn the NFC's two seed with a 12-4 record, the same record San Francisco ended the season with.
Carolina is the early underdog despite the fact they are hosting a team they already beat on the road. Both teams have had huge wins this season, and both team feature dynamic play makers at the quarterback position. In Cam Newton, Panther fans have seen the young quarterback turn into an elite closer right before their eyes. Newton will be making the first playoff start of his career on Sunday and Panther fans cannot wait to see what he does. Colin Kaepernick, whose team lost to the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII, ran for almost 100 yards on seven carries against the Packers, but Carolina's defense has been among the leagues best this season.
The only game the Panthers have lost at home was to the Seahawks 12-7 in Week One. Carolina won 10-9 in San Francisco in Week 9 in early November, when they held Kaepernick to 16 yards rushing with six sacks. San Fran has not lost since its week 10 loss to New Orleans one week after losing to Carolina. Another silver lining for San Francisco fans is that Michael Crabtree, who did not play in week 9, is back in the lineup. Crabtree had 135 yards receiving, catching eight of 13 passes against Green Bay and figures to be a go-to target for Kaepernick. Niners Coach Jim Harbaugh certainly has no qualms about using Crabtree, recently proclaiming him the "best catcher ever."
San Diego at Denver
Denver is once again the AFC's One Seed with a 13-3 record and are coming of a bye week, while the Chargers needed to catch some luck after ending the season with four straight wins to grab the AFC's sixth seed.
But the Chargers were able to manhandle a talented Bengals team in the first round. They are heavy underdogs, but Denver is not taking anything for granted. In Week 14 the Chargers beat Denver 27-20, Denver's lowest offensive production of the season. And you know the Broncos haven't forgotten about last year's divisional round, when they Broncos were beaten 38-35 by the Ravens after entering the game as Super Bowl favorites.
Chargers Head Coach Mike McCoy served as John Fox's offensive coordinator in Denver last season, so he might have some insight into how to slow down Peyton Manning, who set the all-time record for yards in a season this year. He Chargers' run game has been a big part of the team's five-game winning streak, as they've rushed for more than 140 yards the past five games. This marks the first time these teams will meet in the playoffs, but Philip Rivers is 6-2 in Denver.