NFL Divisional Playoff Round Preview

NFL Divisional Playoff Round Preview
January 10, 2014, 2:30 pm
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For a league that’s so obsessed with hype and marketing, it’s amazing that the NFL hasn’t come up with a catchier name for this weekend’s action than “The Divisional Playoff Round.”
 
I think about that every year around this time. There should be an easier, less awkward and clunky way to say it.
 
Maybe we should start calling it the DPR?
 
OK, good.
 
Here’s your NFL DPR Preview —
 
Game 1: (6) New Orleans Saints at (1) Seattle Seahawks
 
Time: Saturday, 4:35 pm
 
Weather: Showers, with thunderstorms possible. High near 50. Chance of precipitation is 100%. (Note: This should finally dispel the theory that Seattle’s 12th Man is made up primarily of Gremlins)
 
Spread: Seattle -8. The Saints were only underdogs in three games this year (four if you count the playoffs), but never by this many points. It’s the first time this season that a New Orleans opponent is favored by more than a touchdown.
 
Meanwhile, the Seahawks were favored by an AVERAGE of 11.25 points a game at home this year. That’s incredible.
 
History: These teams played each other in Week 13. The game was in Seattle, the Seahawks were coming off a bye, and hey, that sounds familiar!
 
Seattle won big, 34-7.
 
Their most recent playoff meeting came three years ago in Seattle, when the 7-9 Seahawks upset the 11-5 Saints and Marshawn Lynch did this:
 

 
Injuries:
 
Seattle: Percy Harvin will be active for the Seahawks and this is obviously a big deal. Even if Harvin’s not at his best, his mere presence triggers a domino effect of not so-fresh-feeling that begins deep inside Rob Ryan’s gut and then festers throughout the entire defense. Just the thought of dealing with Harvin must give Sean Payton a migraine.
 
New Orleans: Pierre Thomas led all NFL running backs in receptions this season with 77. He also missed last week’s Wild Card game with a chest injury. But it looks like he’s on track to play on Saturday.
 
Ultimately, the Saints still have Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram to step in if Thomas can’t go. But while Sproles can fill the receiving void and Ingram can move the chains, neither can block like Thomas, and that would come in handy against Seattle.
 
Three Things to Watch:
 
1. Stop Jimmy Graham, stop the Saints. And in Week 13, the Seahawks did both. Graham only made three catches for 42 yards in that blowout.
 
Buuuut, in that game, Seattle shadowed the 6-7 Graham with 6-4 linebacker K.J. Wright. These days, Wright is on the IR with a broken foot, and his replacement, Malcolm Smith, is only 6-0. Those four inches could make a difference, and Smith will need extra help.
 
2. The Saints D ranked 19th in rushing yards allowed this season, and 29th in yards per carry, but here are two reasons for them to be optimistic heading into Saturday’s meeting with Marshawn Lynch.
 
Week 13: They got their butts kicked by the Seahawks but held Lynch to 45 yards on 16 carries.
 
Last week: They held LeSean McCoy to 77 yards on 21 carries. That alone has to leave them feeling like they can conquer the world.   
 
3. It didn’t end up affecting their seeding, but Seattle’s Week 16 home loss still looms large in the big picture. Before that, it really seemed like Seahawks were unstoppable at Century. It was hard to imagine a reality where they would or could lose a home playoff game. But that Cardinals game broke the force field and planted a seed. Teams know it can be done now. And as always, knowing is half the battle.
 
Pick: Seahawks 28, Saints 24.
 
Offensively, neither team committed a lot of turnovers this year. In fact, the Seahawks and Saints were tied for the second lowest total in the NFC. But on the other side of the ball, the Seahawks forced more turnovers than anyone in the NFL, while the Saints are down at the bottom — lowest takeaway total in the NFC and 29th in the NFL.
 
That makes the difference. Seattle makes a few more big plays. And they advance to NFC Championship.
 
 
Game: (4) Indianapolis Colts at (2) New England Patriots
 
Time: Saturday, 8:15 pm
 
Weather: Rain. Patchy fog. Low around 40. Breezy. Winds could gust as high as 34 mph. Chance of precipitation 90%. Beautiful.
 
Spread: New England -7.
 
The Colts were underdogs by seven or more points three times this season — at San Francisco, at Cincinnati, at Kansas City — and won two of those games outright.
 
History: Most of the time, I forget that Adam Vinatieri is still an active NFL player. Even when I hear his name in highlights and see it every week in fantasy, it doesn’t register. He’s just another random player. And I don’t know, maybe that’s just me. But whenever Vinatieri’s back in town, it’s impossible to ignore his presence and not marvel at the fact that he’s still kicking. I mean, this guy played for Bill Parcells. He played WITH Scott Zolak and Dave Meggett and Big Play Willie Clay! That’s history.
 
The Colts and Patriots also have some history, but all the emotion has been shipped out to Denver. In terms of Saturday, the only other game that matters happened last year, in Week 11 of the regular season, when the Pats handed Luck the worse loss of his career.
 
Injuries:
 
Indianapolis: The Colts are relatively healthy, especially with starting safety/resident psycho LaRon Landry on track to play. Landry left last week’s game early with a concussion.
 
New England: The Pats are also pretty healthy, or as healthy as they’re going to be. Basically, among the few key players who haven’t already been knocked out for the season, everyone looks OK. Except for Aaron Dobson, who will probably miss the game with an injured foot.
 
Remember all the time we spent arguing about Brady and his rookie receivers? When it was like Khaleesi running around training his three little dragons? What a waste. Here we are in the playoffs, and there’s no Boyce. There’s no Dobson. Kenbrell Thompkins has only made one catch since Thanksgiving. Brady’s ditched his dragons and traded them for a set of triplets from the village of Welkeros.
 
Three Things To Watch:
 
1. The Colts were the least penalized team in the NFL this year, racking up only 65 accepted flags. In related news: The Patriots were second on that list with 68. In related related news: The lead official for Saturday’s game is Pete Morelli, aka Peter the Lenient. Morelli’s crew called the fewest penalties in the league this season.
 
Add it all up, and we could be in store for a free-flowing game in Foxborough.
 
High five!
 
2. Andrew Luck is 14-2 in games decided by seven or fewer points.
 
Funny how that happens with incredibly gifted quarterbacks. And at this point, it’s pretty clear that Luck will be one of the best. Heading into Saturday’s game, I’ll still take Brady over Luck every single time. But that doesn’t mean I want to see the other No. 12 under center with the game on the line, and the Patriots D the only thing standing in his way.
 
3. Tom Brady was sacked 40 times this season, which was one short of a career high set back in 2001. In other words: When he gets sacked 40+ times in a season, the Patriots ALWAYS win the Super Bowl.
 
As far as Saturday goes, the offensive line has it’s hands full with defensive end Robert Mathis. Mathis led the NFL in sacks this season and must be stopped. If the Pats contain him, Brady will have time to pick apart the rest of the Colts defense and they’re not very good.
 
They just gave up 44 points to the Jamaal Charles-less Chiefs.
 
Pick: Patriots 37, Colts 24
 
The Pats have two objectives: 1) Stop Robert Mathis. 2) Stop T.Y. Hilton on defense. And they’ll find a way to do both. And they’ll force at least two turnovers. Meanwhile, Brady and the offense will carry out a balanced attack and wear down the Colts D before running away with it late.
 
Note: Wet conditions + slippery ball = fewer carries for Stevan Ridley, please.
 
 
Game: San Francisco 49ers (5) at Carolina Panthers (2)
 
Time: Sunday, 1:05 pm
 
Weather: Sunny, with a high near 56. 20 percent chance of rain. 40 percent chance of a Jim Harbaugh spit shower.
 
Spread: San Francisco -1.
 
That makes Carolina the only home underdog on this week’s schedule. No respect for Riverboat Ron, huh?!
 
Not sure how much longer he’ll be able to take it. He has a good mind to go for it on 4th and 20 on Sunday. And in the first quarter!
 
History: The Panthers officially arrived in Week 10, when they went into San Francisco and walked out with a 10-9 win. After that, there was no denying that the Panthers were for real. And they still are.
 
This will be the first ever playoff game between Carolina and San Francisco. In tribute, here’s the box score from the first ever regular season game between the two: Kerry Collins vs. Elvis Grbac in a fight to the death!
 
Injuries:
 
San Francisco: Starting cornerback Carlos Rogers injured his hamstring in Week 17 and missed last week’s game in Green Bay. He was hoping to play on Sunday, but he still hasn’t practiced. If Rogers can’t go, he’ll be replaced by Perrish Cox, who signed two weeks ago, and whose real name was also a stage name in Magic Mike.
 
Carolina: Steve Smith has struggled with a sprained knee for weeks now, although with the Panthers landing a bye, it was presumed that he’d be ready to go on Sunday.
 
But yesterday after practice, Smith told reporters that he suffered a set back. That his knee had gone from 74 percent to 51 percent. And now, there are serious questions over whether or not Smith will play.
 
To be honest, I’m not sure how much I believe him. I don’t know. Isn’t this exactly the kind of stunt Smith would pull? The old “pretend to suffer a setback right before the game, and then come out at 95%” move. That’s textbook Steve Smith.
 
I think he’ll play. And won’t be shocked if he has a big game.
 
Three Things to Watch:
 
1. “The first one isn’t always fun, but it’s always unforgettable.” I read that on the back of an “After Prom” greeting card at CVS the other day, and I think that’s relevant to Cam Newton as he prepares for his first career playoff game.
 
First of all, it’s great to see him finally in the postseason. It will be even greater to watch him succeed. But the 49ers defense just isn’t much fun. Newton couldn’t have asked for a much worse debut match-up.
 
On the plus side, he’s at home. And he’s already seen the Niners once this year. But the playoffs are a different beast, and I think Newton’s about to learn that the hard way. (Especially if Steve Smith is actually telling the truth.)
 
2. That said, there’s probably more pressure on Kaepernick after the way he played in that earlier loss to Carolina. He was 11 of 22 for 91 yards and an interception back in Week 10, and was sacked a career high six times.
 
Now, it’s the playoffs. Now Carolna is at home and well-rested after the bye. Then again, Kaepernick will have a little more help than he did last time.
 
3. Michael Crabtree didn’t play in the first game, but in his short time back in the line-up, he’s helped revitalize the Niners offense. He’s given Kaepernick another legitimate target. He’s created more open space for Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. According to Jim Harbaugh, Crabtreee has the best hands he’s ever seen.
 
We’ll disregard that because Harbaugh is tapped. But in general, it’s hard to overstate what the addition of Crabtree has done to the 49ers attack, and how much more dangerous they are now, than the last time these teams met.
 
In that first meeting, the Niners didn’t have Vernon Davis either. He was knocked out early with a concussion.
 
The Pick: 49ers 24, Panthers 21
 
I hope I’m wrong. The Panthers have been a lot of fun this year. But this time around, they need Cam Newton to do too much. In turn, Newton will try to do too much, and in the end, it still won’t be enough.
 
 
Game: San Diego Chargers (6) at Broncos (1)
 
Time: Sunday, 4:40 pm
 
Weather: Partly cloudy, with a low around 25.
 
Spread: Denver -9
 
History: The Broncos and Chargers played twice this season, with each team winning on the other team’s home field. For sake of dreaming, the most recent match-up is the one you want to focus on — when the Chargers went into Denver on a Thursday night and shocked the NFL world.
 
They haven’t lost since.
 
Injuries:
 
San Diego: If the Chargers are going to win, they need to run the ball, control the clock and keep Peyton on the sidelines. In order to do that, they need Ryan Mathews.
 
Mathews — who had the fourth most carries in the league this year — has been dealing with a sore ankle for three weeks. It limited his playing time against Cincinnati. And he’s still not back at practice. It will be a surprise if Mathews sits, but a bigger surprise if he looks like his old self out there.
 
Only problem is that the Chargers need that guy.
 
Denver: We know how many hits Wes Welker has taken, but now it’s a matter of how many more he can take. Either way, he’ll back on the field on Sunday, and will obviously help the Broncos attack whenever he’s in.
 
Three Things to Watch:
 
1. The Broncos were held under 30 points three times this year, and two of those times came against the Chargers. That’s an amazing statistic and one that you can be sure that Peyton Manning has been reminded of a few hundred times this week.
 
2. Welker didn’t play when the Chargers upset the Broncos, and wasn’t alone. Champ Bailey missed that game too, and like Welker, will be back in the line-up on Sunday. Bailey is only a nickel back at this point in his career, and that’s slightly depressing, but he’s still a damn good nickel back. He’ll help improve Denver’s secondary situation.
 
3. Looks like it will be below freezing on Sunday night, which means that the Peyton Can’t Win in the Cold narrative will be blasting away on full steam.
 
Word out of Denver this week is that that particular storyline has really started to eat away at Peyton. He cares about it. And he’s angry.
 
And even worse . . .
 
If he can’t overcome the conditions against San Diego on Sunday, it might go down as his biggest belly flop of them all.
 
Pick: Broncos 38, Chargers 21
 
Nah, he’ll save it for next week against New England.
 
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