The National Football League divisional round playoff features the remaining eight teams in the NFL. Here is a look at the weekend’s matchups with predictions on who advances to the conference semifinals.
New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have won four straight games, three to end the regular season and then last weekend’s shootout with the Chiefs in the wild-card round. Colts’ sophomore QB, Andrew Luck, is looking like a seasoned veteran of late and shouldn’t have too much difficulty going punch for punch with the Patriots’ Tom Brady. If the Colts defense can get back to how it was performing at the end of the season, when they allowed just 20 points during the last three regular season games, the Colts could easily upset the Pats. But the Patriots are as well seasoned of a playoff team that has ever existed. Brady and company, along with coach Bill Belichick, represent one of the most unflappable teams in NFL history. They are near-impossible to beat at home (8-0 at Gillette Stadium this season) and are top ten in passing and rushing. The Colts will be able to score on the Patriots defense, but it probably won’t be enough to top what Brady and running back Stevan Ridley put up. Patriots win 35-28.
New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks
The Saints survived the new-look Eagles last week in the wild-card round — barely. The Seahawks are a far better, far more talented team than the Eagles and could prove to be too much for the Saints in the divisional round. Having picked up their first road playoff victory in franchise history last week in Philadelphia, the Saints will have some of the pressure relieved as they continue their playoff trip on the road. But CenturyLink Field in Seattle this Saturday will be a much different beast than Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The Seahawks were 7-1 at home this year and have won six straight playoff games in their own stadium. This season, in early December, the Seahawks limited Saints QB Drew Brees to 147 passing yards in a 34-7 win. The total was Brees’s worst since 2006. At 13-3 and with the best defense in the league, the Seahawks will likely handle the Saints again. But Brees already recognized that Seattle would be the team to go through in order to get back to the Super Bowl. The Saints have the experience to pull off an upset here. However, the Seahawks are just too good of a team and are on a roll. Seattle shuts down Brees and the Saints’ offense for a second time this season. It won’t be as lopsided as their first meeting. Seattle wins 27-17.
San Diego Chargers vs. Denver Broncos
The Chargers head to Denver Sunday as big-time underdogs against arguably the best team in football. However, the Chargers have one of the hottest offenses in the playoffs right now and have won five straight games. Three of which were against playoff teams: the Kansas City Chiefs, the Cincinnati Bengals, whom they beat last week in the wild-card round 27-10, and a week 15 victory over these very Denver Broncos. So anything is possible here. Chargers QB Philip Rivers has carried this club on his back, finishing the season in fifth with passing yards (4,478), fourth in touchdowns (32) and fourth in passer rating (105.5). Only problem here is that Rivers trails Bronco’s QB Peyton Manning in each and every single one of those categories, and basically every other QB stat. In fact, Manning had 16 more touchdown passes (55) than the next-best QB in the game (Brees, with 39). So this will inevitably come down to who can throw more touchdowns, and when that is what’s at stake, always bet on Peyton Manning. Broncos win 34-20.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Carolina Panthers
This might be the most intriguing match of the weekend. The Panthers and 49ers finished the season with identical records at 12-4. The Panthers won their division and were given a week off before this matchup while the 49ers had to fight their way in by beating the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card. The argument can be made here about what is better at this point in the season: an extra week of rest or an extra week of fine-tuning. The 49ers looked up for the task last week and will have just as tough of a test this week in the defensive-heavy Panthers. The Panther D stymied Colin Kaepernick in the regular season, when the 49ers lost a low-scoring battle at home. But it was only thanks to an improbable touchdown run from Panthers’ running back DeAngelo Williams that gave the Panthers the victory 10-9. Cam Newton was equally ineffective against the 49ers imposing defense in that week. While this could be another low-scoring affair, it will likely be the most exciting match this weekend. This game could end up needing more than the allotted 60 minutes to be decided and might be decided by a field goal. A field goal will win it, but it will likely be the battle between the two defenses. In this episode, the 49ers come out on top on the road 16-13.