By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) And then there were eight.
If last week’s Wild Card round – where three of the four games were decided by three points or less – was any indication of how the playoffs will be, this weekend’s games should be a treat.
Here’s my take on how this weekend’s Divisional Round plays out.
(Home team in all CAPS)
SEAHAWKS 27, Saints 23 – Saturday 3:35 PM
Just six weeks ago in Seattle, the Seahawks utterly dismantled the Saints 34-7. The Seahawks defense held Drew Brees to his lowest yardage total (147 yards) since 2006, the Saints’ seven points was their lowest total since 2008 and for the first time in the Brees-era, the Saints didn’t register a single first-down on their first three drives. Seattle took Jimmy Graham out of the game by challenging his releases off the line of scrimmage. Offensively, the Seahawks utilized their play-action package to perfection, gaining huge chunks of yardage down the field. The Saints earned their first road playoff win last week in Philadelphia, by playing swarming defense, controlling the line of scrimmage and dominating time of possession with their run game. However, four of the Saints’ five losses this year have come against teams who rank in the top-nine in rushing defense. The Seahawks rank seventh. As talented as the Saints are, the Seahawks defensive personnel is simply too good. Add in deafening crowd-noise to aid a pass rush that’s held opposing quarterbacks to a 60 passer-efficiency rating – and you have a Seahawks-winner.
PATRIOTS 34, Colts 27 – Saturday 7:15 PM
Two of the AFC’s most successful franchises over the past decade meet for the fourth time in the playoffs. The Colts’ 11 postseason appearances since 2002 leads the league. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck sparked an improbable 28-point comeback last week against the Chiefs, completing 71% of his passes for 318 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. However, Luck’s performance glossed over an absolutely dreadful performance by the Colts secondary. This performance certainly wasn’t overlooked by the league’s most successful quarterback-coach duo – Tom Brady and Bill Belichick – who have earned a league-record 17 combined playoff wins. The Colts don’t have a strong enough offensive line or running game to capitalize on an injury-riddled Patriots front. Football is all about matchups. Defensively, the Patriots will neutralize wide receiver TY Hilton with cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Logan Ryan and safety help over the top. Offensively, they will spread the Colts out to exploit their talent-poor secondary, as they advance to their third-straight AFC Championship game.
49ers 23, PANTHERS 20 – Sunday 12:05 PM
Time to buckle up that chin strap extra tight, as it’s going to be a physical affair in Charlotte. There are striking similarities between these teams: they both play suffocating defense – ranking in the top five in both points and yards – and have physical offensive lines that pave the way for creative rushing attacks involving two of the league’s most uniquely-skilled quarterbacks. Back in Week 10, they played in an offensive struggle, where the Panthers smothered the 49ers offense, holding them to 151 yards in a 10-9 victory. A lot has changed for the 49ers since that game. Vernon Davis and Eric Reid were lost early in that game to concussions, wide receiver Michael Crabtree was still on PUP recovering from his Achilles’ tear, and Aldon Smith played limited snaps. The big question in this game is how will quarterback Cam Netwon perform in his first career playoff game? Playing with discipline and contain in pass rush lanes will be crucial, as both of these quarterbacks will tuck it and run when the defense overpursues. Tight game, but I don’t think the Panthers have enough weapons on offense to take down the battle-tested 49ers.
BRONCOS 31, Chargers 27 – Sunday 3:40 PM
Just three times this season, the juggernaut Broncos were held to 20 points. Two of those efforts belong to the Chargers, splitting the season series with one game apiece. In both games, the Chargers followed the “best defense is a good offense” blueprint, deploying a run-heavy game plan to control the clock and keep Peyton Manning and company on the sidelines. Running back Ryan Mathews has played a crucial role in the Chargers’ success, but after missing practice on Friday, his status for Sunday is in question. Defensively, the Chargers defensive front has been varied with their looks against the Broncos, executing a variety of twists and line stunts to create conflict in the Broncos’ protection schemes. Chargers head coach Mike McCoy’s familiarity with Manning and the Broncos offense is a big factor. In order to win this game, the Broncos defense must key on the Chargers run game to get them in unfavorable down-and-distance situations. While Peyton Manning didn’t deliver last season, he was brought into Denver for this very reason and will lead the Broncos to victory.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin
Season Record: 169-90-1