Saturday, January 11, 2014

2014 NFL Playoff Predictions - Divisional Round

2-2 felt like a victory last week.  The two I missed put up easily the most disappointing performances of wild card weekend.  Andy Dalton continues to look be a postseason loser, and the Eagles flopped at home against a Saints team who has struggled on the road.  My good picks had Indy pulling the stunner against KC and the Niners winning by my projected margin in the frigid conditions at Lambeau.  Given recent history, we haven’t seen the end of the upsets.  Since 2005, #6 seeds are 5-2 against #1 seeds.  Which favorites fall this week?

Saints @ Seahawks
Saturday (4:35, FOX)

Much like the Niners with the Packers, the Seahawks have had the Saints number recently.  The 2010 wild card game is best remembered for Marshawn Lynch rushing through the entire Saints defense, and this year featured a 34-7 prime time pummeling by the NFC’s #1 seed.  Will the Saints finally figure it out and extend the recent success of #6 seeds? 

The forecast is calling for a lot of rain and a lot of wind.  Despite last week’s win outdoors in Philly, gaining a victory in horrible conditions in the loudest venue in the sport over a team that has owned you doesn’t sound like a promising scenario for the Saints.  Nick Foles didn’t turn the ball over last week, but he wasn’t able to generate any offense against a New Orleans defense at less than full strength.  I have more confidence in Russell Wilson’s ability to consistently move the offense against a squad that shouldn’t present him with too many mental quandaries.  Losing Parys Haralson last week won’t help the Saints slow down Lynch and the running game. 

One way the Saints can avoid another 27 point blowout is to take advantage of an absence on Seattle’s side.  KJ Wright, Seattle’s best coverage linebacker, will be sorely missed as they try to contain Jimmy Graham.  The massive tight end is my key player for the Saints in this one.  His ability to move the chains and make plays in the red zone will be the biggest factor in whether or not the Saints advance.  For Seattle I think the obvious key will be Lynch’s ability to control the tempo and field position of the game.  Him being able to consistently keep the Seahawks in manageable situations will help make up for a less-than-explosive passing game.  Said passing game could get quite the boost with the return of Percy Harvin who appears to be a go for this week.  While he’s sure to be a bit rusty after missing the entire regular season, you can never discount the potential impact of a player with his explosiveness. 

I think the weather and field conditions will keep the dome home Saints from being as effective offensively as they’ll need to be to earn the upset.  If Seattle can avoid a bye week hangover and not let Graham run free in the secondary, I think they get another decisive win against the boys from the bayou. 

Seahawks 30
Saints 17

Colts @ Patriots
Saturday (8:15, CBS)

This one has to be the most enticing matchup of the weekend.  Here we’ve got the up-and-coming Andrew luck against one of the best QBs of our era, Tom Brady.  The two have had one head-to-head matchup with Brady’s Patriots laying a 59-24 whooping on Luck’s Colts.  One impressive tidbit (for the Patriots) about that win was that it came right in the middle of what would have been an 8 game winning streak for Indy had things gone quite a bit differently that day in Foxboro.    

What can you say about Indy’s comeback against the Chiefs?  Being down 38-10 early in the second half and coming back with 5 TDs to earn the first playoff win of Luck’s career is one of the craziest halves of football I’ve seen.  TY Hilton was a one man receiving show, catching 13 of Luck’s 29 completions and scoring twice.  Luck was the hero that day, throwing for an insane 443 yards an 4 TDs, while adding another score on that head-shaking perfect bounce fumble recovery. 

While what Indy did against the Chiefs was incredibly impressive, I cannot see a Bill Belichick defense getting completely owned for just under 30 minutes like what happened to KC.  Even without the literal core of their defense (Wilfork, Mayo, and Spikes), I think New England has enough to keep the Colts from another offensive outbreak.  It’s no secret that Hilton is the only legit weapon Luck has, so expect to see Aqib Talib following and getting physical with him all over the field.  Luck won’t be able to win this one on his own.  Donald Brown doesn’t need to have 100 yards, but he’s got to keep Indy in manageable situations and keep New England honest. 

Some will try to convince you that Tom Terrific is working with a bunch of scrubs this year, but he has a better arsenal than Luck.  Julian Edelman has done a fine job making fans forget about Wes Welker, stepping in as Brady’s most reliable target on his way to  1,056 yards on 105 receptions.  Stevan Ridley is working his way back into Belichick’s good graces, and Sucker Punch has been the team’s biggest rushing weapon late in the season.  Shane Vereen is healthy and brings a little more physicality to what used to be Danny Woodhead’s role.  Gronk will obviously be missed, but Brady has enough weapons in his arsenal to get back to another big game.

In what forecasts as a very wet game, I think we see a lot of Ridley and Sucker Punch and an opportunistic Patriots defense that will force a couple of Colts turnovers.  New England gets out to an early lead and holds off another second half Indy charge.

Patriots 27
Colts  23

49ers @ Panthers
Sunday (1:05, FOX)

Old school fans who pine for days where teams actually played defense will want to tune into this one.  Carolina and San Fran are the 2nd and 3rd best scoring defenses in the league and already played a 10-9 contest in San Fran back in week 10.  While I expect a few more points to be scored in this one, it should be another close contest between two fairly similar teams.

Both teams feature QBs who can beat you with both their arms and legs.  Both like to lean on the run.  Both have brutish offensive lines, with the Panthers actually having the better year than the Niners (don’t take my word for it; check out  Both feature a productive, tenured receiver and athletic tight end in the passing game.  Both defenses shut down the opposing run game and don’t allow much through the air.  Both defenses feature two of the best linebackers in the game.  Both secondaries are unheralded yet consistently stingy.  And my favorite – Both teams feature head coaches who played for the Bears from ’87-’92. 

Carolina owned the most impressive win streak of the season, rattling off 8 straight from weeks 6 through 13.  They experienced both ends of the spectrum, winning both no and close contests.  They won games they probably shouldn’t, including their last two of the season against the Saints and Falcons.  As hot as they got during that streak, they had a rather unimpressive 3-0 end to the regular season.  Will they be able to flip the intensity switch against the Niners after a bye week preceded by a near-monumental letdown in Atlanta

If you watched last week’s SF-GB game, you witnessed a pretty enjoyable football game.  You also saw a San Fran team battling field-leveling weather conditions, referees who left their flags in the locker room, and a much better passing game than the one they’ll face this week.  In that previous matchup, the Niners were without Michael Crabtree from the start, and saw Vernon Davis, Eric Reid, and Ray McDonald depart with injuries prior to the final whistle.  Aldon Smith was on very limited snaps in his first game back.  San Fran is near full strength for this one, and you’ve got to think they’re focused and hungry for a return to the Super Bowl. 

If Carolina is to win this game, the biggest key in my opinion will be their ability to eliminate Colin Kaepernick as a runner and, conversely, get a lot of plays from Cam Newton’s legs.  Both of these QBs are 'rattleable'.  I think Frank Gore will do a better job of keeping his offense on schedule and that Cam will struggle to consistently make plays in the passing game with a severely limited or missing altogether Steve Smith. Carolina’s defense comes up with another strong effort, but Crabtree follows up his 8 catch, 125 yard game at Green Bay with another difference-making performance.  This time he scores the game-winner. 

Niners 20
Panthers 17

Chargers @ Broncos
Sunday (4:40, CBS)

Surprised that Peyton Manning is in the primetime, division round capper?  You shouldn’t be.  The most intriguing matchup of the weekend in my opinion has the Chargers seeking to continue their winning ways with a second victory of the year at Peyton’s place.  The Chargers pretty much owned the Broncos in week 15, rushing for 177 yards and limiting the Broncos to 9 offensive drives.  Repeating that performance is easier said than done, and personally, I don’t think they can follow that same script and get another road win. 

Peyton’s postseason struggles (8 one-and-dones) are well documented.  They can’t be ignored or excused.  Will it happen again?  Philip Rivers and Tom Brady are the only QBs with winning records against Manning, and Rivers is an extremely impressive 6-2 in Denver’s place.  San Diego’s head coach, Mike McCoy, was Manning OC last year, and Ken Whisenhunt might be the league’s best OC this year.  Ryan Mathews did more of the damage in that week 15 win, but he’s hobbled heading into this one.  He’s a longshot to put up another 127 against this leaky Denver defense.  I think Danny Woodhead will be the Chargers’ best weapon and that Rivers will attempt 50 passes for the first time this season.  Keenan Allen’s two TDs in week 15 were huge, but he’ll need to catch more than those two passes this time around. 

It’s scary just how bad Denver’s defense looked in that loss to San Diego.  They knew the run was coming, but they could do nothing to stop it.  That loss came on the heels of them surrendering a combined 90 points to the Patriots, Chiefs, and Titans.  And now they don’t have Von Miller.  I have no confidence in this unit’s ability to shut down Rivers and the Chargers, so Manning is going to have to pull off a rare feat and shine in the playoffs.  Demaryius Thomas is the best pass catcher still playing football.  He, Eric Decker, the medically-cleared Wes Welker, and Julius Thomas give him the weapons he’ll likely need to maximize to advance to the conference championship. 

John Pagano did a great job scheming against the Broncos in week 15, but this is still one of the worst pass defenses in the league.  I can’t believe that Peyton hasn’t figured out another way or two to exploit the Chargers secondary.  Vegas has this as the least competitive matchup of the four, but I don’t see it that way.  I believe in the Rivers-McCoy-Whisenhunt trifecta and think they’re going to give Manning and company another ulcer.  This one goes back and forth throughout, but Demaryius dominates and catches the game winner in a wild divisional round finale. 

Broncos 41
Chargers 37

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