Last week’s Wild Card Playoff round was just as crazy and interesting to watch as promised. The first game between Indy and KC was a wild one, with (as I predicted, at least, the comeback part) the Colts coming roaring back from a 28 point deficit to humiliate a Chiefs team that put a hurting on Indianapolis (even without Jamaal Charles) in the first half. Andrew Luck is starting to cement himself as the most elite quarterback of his draft class, and perhaps is destined to be the NFL’s best someday soon. Following that game, New Orleans went into frigid Philadelphia and behind journeyman kicker Shayne Graham’s leg, the Saints found a few rounds of birdshot left and shot down the Eagles and their playoff hopes in the final seconds. On Sunday. we saw Andy Dalton post his best postseason QB rating yet out of three total games (at a 67.0 rating, yikes) and the Bengals get destroyed by San Diego despite the flurries and the fact that Philip Rivers is still under center. And finally, in what seems to be proof that cold weather isn’t as much as a factor as I thought, San Francisco went into the negative wind chill temps of Lambeau Field and pulled out a close win over Green Bay.
This weekend promises more balmy temperatures (even in Foxboro, Massachusetts) compared to last week, and also throws the teams with first round byes into play, making things a little bit more interesting.
Saturday, January 11th Games
New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks, 4:35 PM EST
According to popular consensus, most people though that the Saints would win last week. With Drew Brees at the helm and a better tested coaching staff and roster, New Orleans held the slight advantage over Philadelphia. Typically, Saints football is thought to be Brees throwing for four scores and the defense doing just enough to ensure that the don’t get outscored. Last Saturday though, perhaps everyone not nicknamed “The Wolfman” was surprised as Brees threw two pretty bad picks, and the defense and running game stepped up and came through to produce a win for the Saints. New Orleans also exorcised the demons of playing on the road in the playoffs, going into frigid Philly and shutting down rushing champion Lesean McCoy. It seemed though, that the Eagles lost the game more than the Saints won it, as some key mistakes and overt conservativity of Nick Foles doomed the Philly offense. If the Saints are going to advance to the NFC Championship game, they will have to keep their turnovers down (3 against the Eagles was almost too many), and have an aerial attack that was missing when these two teams met earlier this season in a Seattle blowout.
The Seahawks have been one of, if not the favorite to win the NFC since the start of the season. With a healthy Percy Harvin alongside weapons Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch leading the way on offense, Seattle plays punishing defense on the other side of the ball which paves the way to victory. By giving up the second fewest PPG on the season built on giving up the fewest offensive yards, Seattle’s defense is the reason this team wins, and is even capable of scoring by themselves by leading the league in INTs with 28, and forcing the fourth most fumbles with 15. Add in an offense that scores the second most points in the NFL per game and has the third most rushing yards on average, the ‘Hawks control the clock, make minimal mistakes on offense, and force mistakes on defense. There really isn’t a better all-around team in the league. Combine that with CenturyLink field and the “12th Man” that the crowd dubs themselves as, and it’s hard not to pick them to go all the way. And yet, in this divisional round, I am doing the unheard of and picking New Orleans. The Saints have already been embarrassed in Seattle, they know what it’s like and will deal better a second time around. They’ve gotten the road victory monkey off their back and their defense is coming together well as a unit. Last week they shut down McCoy to the point where he was completely irrelevant, which I believe they can replicate against Lynch. And, I think Drew Brees is due. To have him go on the road and throw three touchdowns is exactly what is needed for the team from the Big Easy, with Shayne Graham delivering again to send the Saints to the championship game. 27-24 New Orleans
Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots, 8:15 PM EST
Anybody who watched last week’s Wild Card game involving the Colts had to be astonished. I haven’t talked to anyone yet who turned it off at halftime thinking it was over, but I’m sure those piteous people exist somewhere. Andrew Luck led a seriously insane comeback against the playoff greenhorn Chiefs, and helped solidify his name as the best up and coming quarterback in the league. Unfortunately for Indy, their defense was exposed and they lost a few players to injuries which never helps in a playoff run. But, they still have the explosive TY Hilton and talented Luck to put up points on the scoreboard in a hurry. The Colts are riding momentum right now having now won four straight, and for a streaky team like theirs this is nothing but good news. The only serious problem shown on Saturday was the running game. Trent Richardson is turning out to be totally useless with Donald Brown completely taking over the ground attack. Although when a team is down by 28 they shouldn’t really be running the ball, it’s still a little concerning that Richardson is such a bust. Indianapolis also signed ex-Patriots receiver Deion Branch to plug the gap filled by Darrius “Todd Pinkston” Hayward-Bey. Whether this helps or not is yet to be seen, but it would be nice to see Branch burn his former team once or twice at the ripe age of 34.
Of course, the Patriots are used to these January battles with the Colts, this time without Peyton Manning at the helm of the opposition. That means that Tom Brady and Emperor Belicheat will have an evil game plan that is tried and true, and this time around should result in Brady receiving high fives from his teammates. The thing I don’t like about New England is that they’re rather untested during the regular season. Sure, they beat Denver and New Orleans, but most of the other games they played were really soft. The AFC East is a partial joke, as the Bills are a bad team, the Jets are a bad unpredictable team, and the Dolphins are an above-average mediocre team. Still, the Patriots managed going only 4-2 in their own division, losing their other two games to playoff teams Cincinnati and Carolina. The Patriots are also banged up on offense, missing all of their good pass catchers (Gronk), as Kenbrell Thompkins and Julian Edelman will need to come up big for Tom Brady. Stevan Ridley has also shown some promise on the ground, basically splitting carries with LeGarrette Blount, who between the two of them average 4.75 YPC. New England’s defense is underrated too , as their run defense is the only thing that is a problem, which against the Colts isn’t a real problem at all. If Andy Reid’s Alex Smith can throw for four TD’s against Indy, just imagine what Tom Brady and Bill Belichick can do. I don’t want the Patriots to win, but the combination of a good ground attack, solid pass defense, the home crowd in Foxboro,. and the intangibles that are the Brady and Belichick combo should pull it out against the young Luck(y) upstarts. 38-27 New England
Sunday, January 12th Games
San Francisco 49ers @ Carolina Panthers, 1:05 PM EST
The Niners managed to pull it out last week against Green Bay, I’ll give them that much. The only problem is, they played such a close game against the weakest division champion outside of Philadelphia. Colin Kaepernick overcame his mistakes by using his legs to torch the Packers defense, who you would have thought would have learned by now to keep a man spy on the QB. Michael Crabtree also came up huge for San Fran, grabbing 125 yards worth of passes, completely overshadowing Number One receiver Anquan Boldin in the Green Bay game. They also played good downfield coverage, not allowing receivers to run loose in the secondary and letting Aaron Rodgers beat them. This should be a low-scoring, grind-it-out defensive game, just like the 10-9 Carolina victory that these two teams played back in Week 10.
Of course, I don’t think anybody could have predicted that the Panthers would be here after starting the season 0-2. Looking back on their season though, it is almost amazing how nobody could have seen how good this Panthers team was. Their only bad loss was to a Buffalo Bills team on the road by one point. Their other losses were in New Orleans where everybody loses, and against the Seahawks and the Cardinals. They weren’t really gifted with an easy schedule either, as they had to play the West (Seattle, San Fran, and Arizona all had 11 or more wins), the Saints twice, and the Patriots and Dolphins. Going 4-3 in those games is a testament to the talent of Carolina, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They’ve given up the least points per game of any team, along with only an average of surrendering 80 yards a game on the ground. Although not a high-caliber offense, being able to grind out yards on the ground and having a multi-talented quarterback in Cam Newton give this Panthers squad enough to work with in terms of reaching pay dirt. All the Panthers have to do is shut down Kaepernick’s running game, and they’ll win this game. 17-12 Carolina
San Diego Chargers @ Denver Broncos, 4:40 PM EST
Well, the Chargers sure proved me wrong last week. I don’t know if it was more of the Bengals channeling the Bungles of old, or San Diego actually putting a charge into something, but that was one game that I got sorely wrong. They’re playing good football, Philip Rivers isn’t making mistakes, and the running game dominated last week. Except, again, you were playing the Bengals who turned the ball over in embarrassing fashion. Don’t expect that from Peyton Manning and the best offense in NFL history this week. Although the Chargers have played Denver pretty well this year, I don’t see this game being very close. It’s Manning time, and he’s going to reign. The good news is, since San Diego beat the Broncos once this year already, all those bothersome people who say “it’s so hard to beat the same team three times in the same year” can keep their traps shut. But come on, this is the Denver Broncos, and this is Peyton Manning, who will have Wes Welker back in addition to every single other offensive weapon this team has. Denver cruises. 38-24 Denver