It’s here. My favorite football weekend of the year. The Wild Card round is a close second, and no single day beats Conference Championship Sunday, but the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs can’t be beat in terms of quality AND quantity. After waiting in the wings last weekend, the top two seeds in each conference will join the fray, adding their storylines to an already dramatic postseason. But enough filibustering! Let’s kick-off The Opening Drive, featuring some LARGE point spreads in all but one of the contests.
I apologize in advance for the word count, but at least you’re not reading this novella from Grantland’s Bill Barnwell, which is only part one of two. God Barnwell, my eyes are bleeding. (Please, as if I actually read it.)
(12-5) New Orleans Saints at
(13-3) Seattle Seahawks
4:35 PM ET, FOX
Rematch number one, baby! These Saints were drubbed in week thirteen when they went into Seattle and tried to take down the Seahawks on their home turf. New Orleans is on the road again Saturday afternoon, the first game of the weekend. That’s right, we get Wilson vs. Brees as an appetizer. What did we do to get so lucky?
In order for the Saints to go into CenturyLink Field and win, their offense needs to perform at a near-perfect level. That means no stupid Brees interceptions 40 yards down the sideline. That also means another 85+ yards rushing from Mark Ingram, who suddenly doesn’t look like a total waste of a first round draft pick. Darren Sproles has to produce one or two solid returns and set-up the offense with good field position. And somehow Marques Colston and Kenny Stills have to beat the one-on-one coverage they’ll be seeing from the Seahawks’ imposing secondary. Uh-huh.
Seattle’s offense, while potent at moments during the season, has struggled to be as electric as it was in 2012. Most of that can be blamed for an offensive line that’s had too many injuries to protect Russell Wilson effectively. Percy Harvin has been on the sidelines for most of the season, but is somehow miraculously being healthy enough to make a go of it on Saturday. Don’t ask me how. (Steroids.) Wilson has to stay upright if he’s going to hit downfield throws to Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate, each of whom can get behind defenses. But Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette are maniacs off the edges for New Orleans, so Wilson may not get the time he needs.
The Odds: Seattle is a eight point home favorite.
The Prediction: I know there’s a lot of recent historical evidence to suggest the Seahawks, being the favorites to come out of the conference, will have a hiccup along the way. I just don’t think it’s happening this week. I’m taking the Seahawks to win at home by more than the eight. (Sorry Maura.)
Crazy note, the crowd at the last two Seattle home games versus the Saints have been crazy/loud/stupid enough to generate small earthquakes. There’s been some additional equipment put into place, and now you can apparently track the seismic vibrations as they happen.
(12-5) Indianapolis Colts at
(12-4) New England Patriots
8:15 PM ET, CBS
Saturday night’s primetime match-up is one we’re all familiar with. The Colts and Patriots are longtime foes, but there is something obviously different about this installment: no Peyton Manning. His replacement Andrew Luck brings with him to Foxboro an offense fresh off a 45 point explosion versus the Chiefs. Something tells me T.Y. Hilton won’t be going off for 234 yards against the Patriot secondary. (Aqib Talib may not be on him the whole time, as Hilton’s a smaller, faster receiver.) And as Darius Heyward-Bey has been ruled out, Luck may not have anyone else besides Coby Fleener to throw to. Bill Belichick will be fine letting that happen. He’ll double cover Hilton and force the Colts to run the ball, something they’ve been hesitant to stick to this season. Oddly enough, their interior offensive line weakness washes out against the Patriots’ interior defensive line weakness. So there might be some mild success there.
Luck, meanwhile, has excelled when he’s allowed to run a no-huddle and keep the defense on their toes. But he might be playing catch-up as he was against KC, because Tom Brady will shred the Colts’ battered secondary. Injuries to LaRon Landry and Vontae Davis (who probably isn’t totally fine after his groin injury) means Brady will spread out that defense and whittle chunks of yards by throwing to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. And expect to see them run out of three-receiver sets as well. LeGarrette Blount has come on strong down the stretch and gives the Patriots some dynamic ability in the run and return games, and Stevan Ridley is going to get his touches out of the backfield as well.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, I think the Deion Branch (ex-Patriot) signing by the Colts will mean absolutely nothing.
The Odds: New England is a seven point home favorite.
The Prediction: If I go down, I’ll go down picking the Patriots, seven points or not. I think the Luck stops here.
Wow. I’m really, really sorry about that one. I’m not sure what came over me.
And now… a brief intermission before we get to Sunday’s action:
Yeah. That just happened. Onto the Sunday affairs!
(13-4) San Francisco 49ers at
(12-4) Carolina Panthers
1:05 PM ET, FOX
Rematch number two! The earlier meeting was a 10-9 victory for Carolina in San Francisco. Now, the Panthers welcome in the rolling Niners, who are itchy for revenge. But I think the Niners know it will be very different this time around. For starters, they have Michael Crabtree back. While the number one receiver isn’t quite operating at 100%, he’s been effective in drawing coverage away from Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. Speaking of which, Davis suffered a concussion in the second quarter when these teams met in early November. His fourteen touchdowns this season (including the Wild Card win) are obvious evidence of his status of a red zone threat. Still, I love the Panther front seven. They have the talent and scheme to both harass and contain Colin Kaepernick. Luke Kuechly will be integral to hunting the gazelle down. The only question will be if the Carolina secondary can force a turnover or two off his off-target throws.
Carolina’s offense, while reliable, hasn’t been as explosive as I’d like it to be. They’re still missing a legitimate number two receiver opposite Steve Smith, who, by the way, is bothered by a sprained left knee. That leaves Greg Olsen (a tight end) as Cam Newton’s best downfield threat. Eep. The Niners will once again be without corner Carlos Rogers in their secondary. But that’s a loss they can likely sustain against the Panthers, because like I said, shitty receivers. Carolina will need to rely on their ground game even more, and that starts with Newton. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart getting 10-15 carries each will be necessary, but Newton’s just as important to the Panthers’ running game.
The Odds: San Francisco is a one point road favorite.
The Prediction: A one point spread pretty much takes the number-work out of it. I’m taking the Panthers at home. That’s basically the only reason I’m going with. Everything is too close to call.
(10-7) San Diego Chargers at
(13-3) Denver Broncos
4:40 PM ET, CBS
And rematch number three of the Divisional Round. This will be the third time these teams have met this season, since they’re both in the AFC West. (Hi Football 101.) There’s been a ton of talk this week about how the Chargers are the only team this season to hold the Broncos under 400 yards of offense in a game. And they did it twice. San Diego is well-versed in Manning-ness, having met him so many times as a Colt and then now twice a year as a Bronco. If they didn’t have more success against him than other teams, I’d be a little worried.
Philip Rivers is having a fantastic season, and he only had to throw 16 times for the Chargers to emerge from Cincinnati victorious. I’m sure coach Mike McCoy would love for that number to stay the same this week, but there’s no way Peyton Manning is playing down to Andy Dalton-levels. Rivers will have to throw at least 25 times, and that’ll be true even with a decent ground game behind him. They have to win the time of possession battle versus the Broncos once again. Rivers can’t throw stupid interceptions and kill series meant for Ryan Mathews runs and Danny Woodhead catches in space.
All that being said, there’s no clear reason why the Broncos won’t win this weekend. The weather shouldn’t be a factor in Denver this weekend (temperatures should be in the 40’s), so we can go a week without hearing the “Manning sucks in cold weather” critics. Wes Welker will be back on the field after sitting out a few weeks following a second sustained concussion. Welker’s presence gives Manning an underneath weapon that isn’t easily replaced. Welker will draw coverage inside, which enables Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas to see less double coverage on the outside. And that means POINTS. With two weeks off and a chance to meet a team for third time in a season, why wouldn’t Manning win?
The Odds: Denver is a 9.5 point home favorite.
The Prediction: God, that’s a large margin for two teams without much defense.
Agh. I can’t. I can’t do it. I have to take the Chargers to cover that 9.5. You just know there’s going to be some sneaky last minute touchdown that brings the score to under double-digits. I do think the Broncos will win and I am hoping Rivers throws plenty of interceptions, but that’s just too many points.
Good god man. Did I just take the Chargers to cover? WHO AM I???
I’ll let you all know Sunday night if I’ve saved my 1-2-1 playoff record from falling into the garbage. (Spoiler: the answer is almost assuredly no.) Enjoy the best weekend of football there is!