Wild Card Week was sensational, starting with a record-tying comeback by the Indianapolis Colts at home over the Kansas City Chiefs, in what was a surprisingly high-scoring contest. The San Diego Chargers upset the Cincinnati Bengals on the road, thanks to apparently not-to-blame-in-the-least quarterback Andy Dalton and his three interceptions. The San Francisco 49ers kicked a field goal as time expired to win Ice Bowl II at Green Bay and the No. 6 seed New Orleans Saints tipped the Philadelphia Eagles to secure their first ever playoff win on the road.
So here we are, all set up for the divisional round, where both top seeds will face the No. 6 seed, starting with the Seattle Seahawks hosting the Saints Saturday afternoon at CenturyLink Field.
|New Orleans Saints||Seattle Seahawks
About 40 days ago, the Saints rolled into Seattle and were handed a beating they’d never seen before. They were punched in the mouth early and often and never got up off the mat. After getting the road monkey off their back a week ago, many seem to be incredibly optimistic that this is all of a sudden the 2009 Saints, the one that went on and beat Peyton Manning and the Colts in the Super Bowl. They’re not.
Last week’s win at Philly was merely win over an inferior team and one that hadn’t taken advantage of their home field all year (4-5 including the Wild Card game). And the Saints did a lot of their damage on the ground — 36 carried, 185 yards in all — but despite similar defensive numbers against the run, Seattle is far more effective in that area than were the Eagles last week, and it’s difficult to imagine Seattle falling off the cliff there in their home environment in such a big game.
Seattle has won the turnover battle regularly this season, and Brees is much more turnover prone on the road, particularly outdoors, and it’s going to be cool and windy Saturday, suggesting the team best equipped to run the ball and play defense has an edge — as if the Seahawks needed more of an advantage.
Even on a neutral field, the Seahawks are better and win six or more out of 10 games between the two teams. They’re just better and present numerous matchup problems for a decent but not dominating Saints defense. New Orleans’ secondary, down Kenny Vaccaro, is merely average, especially considering the coverage problems their linebackers have had. The line is strong and Cameron Jordan is one of the top 10 ends in the game, but he’s not Robert Quinn or J.J. Watt and isn’t going to dominate Seattle tackle Russell Okung to the point of changing the game.
At home, Seattle has a unique and decided edge that has led them to victories in 15 of their last 16 games, and five in a row in the postseason. The Seahawks have a bad taste in their mouths, too, looking back to the divisional a year ago at Atlanta where they took the lead with less than a minute left and lost on a last-second field goal. They also took a less-offering loss at home to Arizona three weeks ago.
Seattle could not be more motivated to avoid looking ahead to a possible Three-Match with the San Francisco 49ers and focusing on the task at hand, which is beating a good-but-not great Saints team and exercising a demon or two.
And I’ve yet to mention the name of Percy Harvin, he of the most electrifying set of ball skills the league has seen in some time, and one that can impact the game in about a million ways; from the slot, out wide, stacked in the backfield, end-around and reverses, swing passes, bubble screens, slants, outs, fly patterns and in the return game. If you’ve yet to see what Harvin is all about, I’ll sum it up in one sentence fragment: he’s zero-to-lightspeed in a flash, doesn’t slow down when he cuts, likes to run through defenders as much as around them and may be the most elusive player in the open field since Barry Sanders.
The Seahawks scored 26 points per game this season without Harvin. They plated 34 on the Saints, including the Michael Bennett fumble return for a score, back in December. They’re rested, focused and a nightmare matchup for the Saints on both sides of the ball, despite the Saints having weapons of their own when they have the ball. Insert Harvin into the offense and on kick returns, and we’re talking about the potential for a scary and dynamic offensive threat, one that could score upwards of 35 points in another thrashing of the Saints.
If the Saints want to stay in this, they have to start the game well on offense and hope for the perfect storm of self-destruction from the home team, i.e. penalties, turnovers and problems on third down. Seattle should be able to run the ball a bit better than they did the first time around versus New Orleans and combined with the addition of Harvin should be able to score three or four touchdowns, plus a couple of field-goal drives. As a result, they would have to play their worst game of the season defensively to fail to advance.
That’s just not going to happen.
|Indianapolis Colts||New England Patriots
I buy Andrew Luck, Donald Brown, TY Hilton and the Colts offense scoring some points in Foxboro, but expecting that defense to tighten up and hold Tom Brady to what may have to be fewer than 20 points at home is not something I’d bet on this week.
There’s no Rob Gronkowski, but the Patriots are getting more out of their running game than some expected this season and Brady could probably find a way to complete a pass to Santa Claus if given the chance, and Julian Edleman, perhaps the best receiver the world west of the Atlantic seaboard has never heard of, is a Brady favorite and a legitimate threat in all situations.
New England boasts the better defense, the more experienced quarterback, the better running game and the better coaching staff, and they are at home. Tough to pick the upset here.
|San Francisco 49ers||Carolina Panthers
A tough call. The 49ers, in my opinion, are the better team. The defenses are comparable, the running games are somewhat similarly successful, though a slight advantage to the Niners, and the special teams units are both very solid. The game is at Carolina, so edge to the Panthers there, but despite falling to Carolina at home earlier in the season, San Francisco has more upside offensively and I actually trust in Colin Kaepernick more than I do Cam Newton when it comes to throwing the football.
This is mostly due to Kaepernick having more weapons and the fact that Newton’s best receiver, Steve Smith, is far from 100 percent, though he is expected to play.
This game will be physical, low-scoring and could turn on a dime on several occasions in the second half. In the end, the quarterback that gets it done probably leads his team to victory. Kaepernick is more experienced in these kinds of games and the likes of Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree will help the Niners get more out of their passing game, particularly on third down.
It will be interesting, however, to see how Kaepernick handles things if Carolina can get consistent pressure on him and keep him in the pocket.
|San Diego Chargers||Denver Broncos
The Chargers beat the Broncos in Denver earlier this season and while most deem that motivation for the Broncos, they will be without Von Miller for the entire posteason and San Diego turned it up a notch or two defensively last week at Cincinnati.
For the Bolts to have a real chance, they’ll need to get to Peyton Manning regularly, which is not easy to do, and they will have to run the ball effectively for four quarters — probably without Ryan Mathews, their best runner, who is listed as questionable.
I do believe San Diego will make a game of this and they should be able to score points, but I’m not sure their defense can make play after play to limit Manning and the Broncos enough to pull out the win.
– Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
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