Friday, January 10, 2014

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round

NFC Divisional Round: #6 New Orleans (12-5) at #1 Seattle (13-3), Seattle favored by 8

When these teams met a little over a month ago, the Seahawks embarrassed the Saints, winning 34-7. The game fed fuel to the notions that the Seahawks are unbeatable  at home, and the Saints are a terrible road team. The narrative has changed some since that game. The Seahawks have since lost at home to the Arizona Cardinals, who didn't make the playoffs, while the Saints went to Philadelphia last week and earned a hard fought, road playoff win. Despite that, Vegas has installed the Seahawks as 8 point favorites in the rematch. One major concern for Drew Brees and the Saints is turnovers. They buried themselves because of turnovers the first time these teams played, and they also turned the ball over a bunch last week at Philadelphia. The Eagles weren't good enough to take advantage of those turnovers, but they can't expect to have multiple turnovers this weekend and come away with a victory. It also helped that the Saints were able to successfully run the ball against the Eagles, despite the absence of Pierre Thomas. Mark Ingram rushed for 97 yards and has finally started looking like the running back we all saw at Alabama. The Saints also got some strong rushing from a guy I had never heard of until last weekend, Khiry Robinson. If Thomas is unable to go again this weekend, it will be on those two to try to run on the Seahawks seventh ranked rushing defense. Throwing on the Seahawks can be next to impossible at time, as they finished number one against the pass. I don't hide my disdain for Dick Sherman but there is no denying the man has plenty of skills. Safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas also fly all over the field and make it very had for opponents to get any consistency with their passing game. If the Saints can't get the run game going, then it is hard to envision Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, Robert Meachem, and even Jimmy Graham from going too wild. The Saints offensive line is a major part of the game to watch, not just because of the Saints need to run the ball, but of course the Saints need to give Brees as much time as possible. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was spectacular in that win against the Saints but since then he has been mediocre at best. In his last four game he has 4 touchdowns and 3 interceptions and only topped 200 yards passing in one of those games. WR Percy Harvin is set to play in this game but he has to be so rusty at this point that I can't imagine him having too great of an impact on the game. The Seahawks passing game doesn't have anyone that scares you and to me is the biggest reason the Seahawks are very beatable. No one is scared to cover Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin or Zach Miller. To me the Saints need to focus their energy on trying to not let Wilson get oustide of the pocket and also not let Marshawn Lynch destroy them like he did in the playoffs a few years ago. Of course, these things are easier said than done, but the Saints defense did a very nice job stopping LaSean McCoy from having any sort of impact last weekend. The Saints defensive line against the Seahawks offensive line should be a nice, intense battle as well. I think the Saints will put up a better showing Saturday but I am not bold enough to pick them to pull off the upset. I think Lynch will do enough on offense, as will Wilson to help the Seahawks prevail and reach their first NFC Championship game in 9 years.

Prediction: Seattle 24, New Orleans 21

AFC Divisional Round: #4 Indianapolis (12-5) at #2 New England (12-4), New England favored by 7 1/2

This game between the Colts and Patriots is the only Divisional Round matchup that isn't a regular season rematch. Some people are trying to point to their regular season meeting from last season when the Patriots obliterated the Colts in New England, but that's poppycock. That game will have zero impact on Saturday night's game. It is amazing that the Colts are even playing in this game, as they had to overcome a 38-10 second half deficit against the Chiefs last weekend. They come into this game feeling like they are playing with house money at this point. Andrew Luck had an up and down afternoon, with some terrible throws and some amazing throws. One player that was on point the entire game was WR T.Y. Hilton. It will be Patriots CB Aqib Talib's job to attempt to contain Hilton and stop him from making mince meat of the Patriots secondary. The Patriots may need to switch around Talib and also put Alfonzo Dennard on Hilton. The Colts don't really have the running game to take advantage of the Patriots biggest weakness, their 30th ranked rushing defense. Trent Richardson is a complete mess, as the only memorable thing he did last weekend was fumble the ball away without being touched. Donald Brown is able to move the ball pretty well but the Colts keep trying to split carries between him and Richardson, when really Brown should be the featured back. The Colts passing game will need to expand a bit more this week as besides Hilton only TE Coby Fleener had much of an impact. The Colts signed former Patriot Deion Branch, but I don't expect him to much of note. The Colts excelled most of this season at not turning the ball over so you have to think that last week was an aberration and they will do a much better job on Saturday. The Colts defense has typically been good against the pass but was eviscerated by Alex Smith and the Chiefs. They will have to play at a much higher level against Tom Brady or things will get very ugly. They can help their cause if they get pressure on Brady, especially their beast defensive player Robert Mathis. Mathis' strip sack of Smith last week was the turning point in that game and he could end up being a major factor Saturday night. The Patriots offense misses Rob Gronkowski, but Brady can still make things work with Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. The Colts caught a break against the Chiefs when Jamaal Charles had to leave the game early on with a concussion. Their run defense has been a problem all season, and the Patriots have many running backs they can throw at them. LaGarrette Blount is coming off an awesome game against Buffalo, while Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley also should get some carries. Ridley is really the best of the bunch but has been plagued by fumbling problems so rightfully coach Bill Belichick has some problems trusting him. The last few years there always seems to be one major upset in the Divisional Round. The Patriots are a beat up football team and have been dealing with injuries all season long. After the way the Colts won last week, I am starting to buy in that maybe they have a real playoff run in them. I expect a high scoring game, but Andrew Luck to add to his growing legend and lead the Colts to a shocking win in New England in the playoffs. Something Peyton Manning couldn't do.

Prediction: Indianapolis 34, New England 30

NFC Divisional Round: #5 San Francisco (13-4) at #2 Carolina (12-4), San Francisco favored by 2

Easily the best and most anticipated game of Divisional Round weekend. The 49ers have won seven straight games, and the Panthers have won 11 of their past 12 games. These teams met in San Francisco November 10th, and the Panthers came out on top 10-9. That win was the Panthers coming out party to the NFL that they were legit contenders in the 2013-14 season. Their defense completely shut down the 49ers offense, especially QB Colin Kaepernick, holding him under 100 yards passing and sacking him six times. There is no doubt that on Sunday this will once again be a defensive battle. On a scale of one to ten, the Panthers offense scares me at about a 3. Their whole offense just screams average to me. Cam Newton is good but is being propped up by the play of an exceptional defense. WR Steve Smith is getting older and seems to be constantly ailing. He was also upset by Ric Flair's heel turn when he abandoned the Panthers and hitched a ride with a real winning franchise like the 49ers. Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn also pretty average and not worth double teaming or being all that concerned with. The 49ers linebacking corps of NaVarro Bowman, Patrick Willis, and Ahmad Brooks should be able to contain the Panthers best receiver, tight end Greg Olsen. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart might have been imposing four years ago, but now, going up against the 49ers beast rush defense, they won't make an impact. But the Panthers defense is a whole other story. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson might be the best defensive end combo in football, combining for 26 sacks this season. The unquestioned star of the Panthers defense is LB Luke Kuechly. Kuechly is everywhere on the field, making tackles, stuffing runs, and intercepting passes. But one thing need to remember about the regular season game is that the 49ers offense was operating at far below 100%. Michael Crabtree was still out and Vernon Davis left the game early with a concussion. Both of those players should be on the field the entire game Sunday, presenting a whole new slew of problems that the Panthers aren't used to. I don't expect Kap to be able to get outside the pocket and break runs like he did against the Packers, but if Joe Staley and company give him enough time, I do think his receivers are better than the Panthers corners and will get open. This will be an old school, smash mouth football game, and points will be at a premium. The Panthers are a good team, but to attempt to beat a team as good as the 49ers twice in one season is too much to ask of a group led by a quarterback playing in his first ever playoff game. The Niners will make it eight in a row, and get one more chance at the Seahawks in Seattle.

Prediction: San Francisco 19, Carolina 16

AFC Divisional Round: #6 San Diego (10-7) at #1 Denver (13-3), Denver favored by 10

The San Diego super Chargers are riding a wave of momentum going into Denver on Sunday. Behind Philip Rivers and his bolo ties the Chargers have won five straight games and are coming off a blowout victory last weekend in Cincinnati. They are double digit underdogs to the Broncos this weekend, but have to have a lot of confidence coming into this game. Not just because of how well they have played for the last month but because they defeated the Broncos in Denver just a little over a month ago. The Chargers defense held the Broncos to two of their lowest point totals of the season in both their meetings this year. Their victory over Denver a month ago was a guide on how to beat the Broncos. They dominated time of possession, giving the Broncos offense no time on the field, and no chance to get in a rhythm. They wore out the Broncos defense with Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews, and then stud WR Keenan Allen made big plays when called upon. Manning and the Broncos have to face down their playoff ghosts. They were in an eerily similar situation last year, when they hosted the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round and were huge favorites. Manning has one of the most decorated careers in history but his playoff career is filled with disappointments and one and dones. Manning will set the tone for this game by how he plays. If he comes out firing on all cylinders and avoiding turnovers, then the Broncos offense will feed off of that. His cause will be helped if running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball do their parts as well. In the loss to the Chargers the Broncos hardly even tried to establish their ground game. It is important for them in this one that they avoid the need to constantly chuck the ball. Their offense will be better served if they gain some semblance of balance. That will open things up for Manning and his receivers, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas. Some people say that with this being the third time these teams have played and because the Chargers have former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy as their coach that the Chargers will know everything the Broncos are doing. But to me, I think this being the Broncos offense's third time going up against the Chargers will be to their benefit. No one studies an opponent like Manning and I expect that he will have cleaned up the issues he had against Denver the first two times he played them. The Chargers are playing their best football of the year, but I believe the Broncos are too good to be one and done again this year. I think the offense will do a better job being balanced and controlling possession and the Broncos defense will make big plays when need be.

Prediction: Denver 35, San Diego 24

Last Week Against the Spread: 1-2-1
Overall Against the Spread: 125-110-9

Last Week Straight Up: 1-3

Overall Straight Up: 175-84-1

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