Last weekend we were treated to two great days of NFL football. With the exception of the Chargers-Bengals snoozefest, each game of Wild Card Weekend was settled in the final seconds, and decided by 3 points or less.
That said, yours truly went 3 of 4, and this week I'm aiming for a perfect slate. So without further ado, I bring you my predictions for the second round of the NFL playoffs.
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The Saints are coming off their first road playoff victory in franchise history. Suffice it to say Drew Brees finally silenced his critics, albeit for only 7 days. New Orleans has changed their game plan as of late, having ran the ball 32 times per game in their last three contests. Last time they played in Seattle, they only carried it 17 times as a team.
The Seahawks locked down the NFC's No. 1 seed with a 13-3 mark on the season. They were almost perfect at home again this year, going 7-1 at CenturyLink Field. Football's loudest building is also its most difficult to play in. It's safe to say that anything short of the franchise's first Super Bowl victory this year will be a failure in the eyes of most Seahawks faithful.
On paper, the matchup is fairly even. While the Seahawks dominate on defense (1st in points allowed and 1st in yards allowed), the Saints are no scrubs in that department either (4th in both categories). On offense, the edge goes to the Saints by a long shot in the yards department, but Seattle still managed to outscore New Orleans for the season. The Seahawks absolutely dominated the last time the two teams met back in Week 13 to the tune of a 34-17 victory. With rain expected this Saturday and temperatures hovering around 45 degrees, the Seahawks appear to have more in their favor than just home field advantage. While the Saints may have turned a corner by finally winning a postseason game away from the dome, I just don't think they have another win left in their tank. The "12th man" will be too much for them to overcome.
Seahawks: 31, Saints: 21
- Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
Indy erased a 28-point deficit last weekend and fought their way to the second round with an impressive 45-44 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Shortly after the victory they hit the free agent market to find former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch to add to their arsenal. Branch might be washed up, but one thing the former Patriot knows is New England football, namely Tom Brady. It appears the Colts picked up Branch for an inside edge, and it's possible they may have some tricks up their sleeves for their rivals.
For the first time in his career, Tom Brady took every snap this season for the Patriots, leading them to a 12-4 record. With a surrounding cast on offense full of scrubs, Brady did what he does best and carried the Pats on his shoulders all the way to their 2nd-place finish in the AFC. They finished 3rd in the NFL in points per game (27.8) and 7th in yards per (384.5). Their defense left something to be desired and they didn't blow teams out like they usually do, but they still found ways to win.
The Patriots have had the Colts number since 2001, holding a 10-5 record in head-to-head matchups. They've won the last 3 meetings between the clubs, most recently matching a franchise record in points with a 59-24 beat down last season. In Andrew Luck's only career game against New England, he was out-dueled by New England's crafty veteran under center, as Brady threw for 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. While the Colts were decent on the road at 5-3, New England is just too good in Foxboro, holding a perfect 8-0 record. With an expected high of 48 degrees and a possibility of rain, the stars seemed to be lined up for yet another postseason victory for the Patriots.
Patriots: 33, Colts: 28
- San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
Colin Kaepernick had another big outing against the Green Bay Packers this past weekend, as San Francisco knocked off the Pack 23-20 at Lambeau Field. Having rattled off 7-straight victories, the 49ers are one of the NFL's hottest teams right now. With a 6-2 record away from home this regular season, coupled with last week's win, the 12-4 Niners appear to be able to get it done anywhere they go, as long as their defense plays up to its usual standards.
Cam Newton finds himself in the playoffs for the first time in his short career, riding the coattails of one of the NFL's best defenses to a 12-4 record and a first-round bye. Carolina's defense ranks 2nd in the NFL in yards per game allowed (301.2), and 3rd in points per game (17.0). From the worst team in football three short years ago, it's hard to believe that the Panthers find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, looking to win their first postseason game in 7 years.
These two teams are incredibly similar. Offensively and defensively they are right on par with one another in both yards and in points per game. They're both led by inexperienced quarterbacks who have shown flashes of brilliance mixed with moments that left fans shaking their heads. Both clubs made it to where they are with stout defense and mediocre offense. Never was this more true than when they met back in Week 10, when the Panthers went to San Francisco and beat the home team, 10-9. The question is, who can win when it matters most? The Niners have playoff experience on their side, and I think that will be the difference maker in this tilt.
49ers: 23, Panthers: 16
- San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
The ever-so inconsistent Chargers pulled the upset last Sunday, laying the smack down on the Bengals, 27-10. The shocking part isn't that they won, it's that they won because of their defense, not in spite them. While their offense ranked 5th in yards and 12th in points this season, their defense was the opposite, finishing 23rd and 11th, respectively. Regardless, this team wins big games and they are the only NFL team to win in Denver this season.
Peyton Manning had an MVP-worthy season, with 5,477 passing yards and 55 passing touchdowns (both NFL records). Denver's offense was a force to be reckoned with, finishing tops in yards per game (457.3) and tops in points per game (37.9), yet another NFL record. Despite a defense that was simply awful at times this year, the Broncos finished the season 13-3, good for the AFC's No. 1 overall seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Now comes the age old question, can Peyton be better in the postseason, or is he going to be one-and-done again?
With division-rivalry games, it's never easy to predict who will win. Each of these teams went on the road this year and beat the other in single-possession victories. Peyton Manning has struggled against the Chargers in his career, and his 0-2 career postseason record versus the Bolts is certainly indicative of that. However, since joining the Broncos, Peyton has been pretty good against San Diego, throwing 12 touchdown passes and only 3 interceptions, while leading the Broncos to a 3-1 record against their divisional rival. Both of these teams are offensive juggernauts and neither seems to be able to stop anybody on defense. With mild weather expected in Denver this Sunday (50 degrees), the elements aren't likely to slow down these high-powered offenses, either. I expect a shootout in this one, and home field advantage may be the difference maker here.
Broncos: 38, Chargers: 34
That will leave us with four teams left on the road to MetLife and Super Bowl XLVIII. Check back in next week when we preview the Conference Championship Games.