Friday, January 10, 2014

NFL Playoffs - Divisional Round Previews

The NFL Playoffs head to the Divisional Round this weekend, with the Seattle Seahawks hosting the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers playing on the road against the Carolina Panthers in the NFC.
Meanwhile, the AFC will have the New England Patriots hosting the Indianapolis Colts and the San Diego Chargers traveling to play the Denver Broncos.

The following offers a brief look at each of the games and the Heftyinfo predictions follow . . . . .

Saturday, January 11

New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks -  The Saints, led by All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees, will be looking to avenge the 34-7 blowout loss they suffered in Seattle back in early December on Monday Night Football.
The Seahawks have perhaps the best defense in the entire NFL and they held the Saints to less than 200 yards total offense in that game. However, the 'Hawks offense has struggled since that meeting, averaging 19.7 points per game in the final four games.
New Orleans ran the football very effectively last week in their playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles and will need to do more of the same if they want to reverse their fortunes this time around.
Look for the Seahawks to unleash running back Marshawn Lynch in this one, after he averaged 4.2 yards per carry with 1,215 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns during the regular season. QB Russell Wilson is also a very effective runer with the ball (539 rush yards, 5.6 ypc average) and had another solid season passing, with 26 TD passes and just nine interceptions.
Playing against the vaunted Seattle defense, the Saints will be hard pressed to run the ball like they did last week. Brees will have to play better this time around as well, looking to his many targets in the passing game, including his favorite, tight end Jimmy Graham, who had 16 touchdown grabs in the regular season.
Special teams could also play a role in this game as the weather may very well be a factor with rain and strong winds possible. The Saints have not been a good road team this season, going 4-5 (including playoffs) away from the Super Dome. The Seahawks were 7-1 at home.

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots - Andrew Luck and company come calling against the Patriots in Foxborough, MA after staging the second biggest comeback win in NFL Playoff history last week against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Patriots are well aware of this and have been one of the perennial favorites to reach the Super Bowl since the early 2000's and are favored in this game.
Patriots' QB Tom Brady did more with less on offense this year after losing several weapons from his arsenal (Wes Welker went to Denver, Aaron Hernandez went to jail and Rob Gronkowski is out for the season with knee injuries) by throwing for 25 touchdowns with just 11 picks.
New England runs the football better, averaging 129 yards per game to 109 for the Colts. Donald Brown leads the Colts' running game and scored twice last week against Kansas City.
LeGarette Blount (772 rush yards, 5.0 ypc average and seven TD) has been coming on for the Pats and forms a dangerous one-two punch with team leading rusher Stevan Ridley (773 yards, 4.3 ypc average and seven TD) to go with the passing game.
The Colts can put some points on the board, evidenced by 35 second half points last week in the big comeback 45-44 win after trailing 38-10 early in the third quarter.
New England rates the edge defensively, in spite of some key injuries that have sidelined several regulars this year. The Patriots racked up 48 QB sacks to 42 for the Colts, although (the Colts) Robert Mathis was credited with 19 sacks this season to lead the league.
As in Seattle, the weather could be a big factor on Saturday night in New England with strong winds and possible downpours of rain possible during the game. The Patriots were 8-0 at home during the regular season while the Colts went 5-3 on the road and have a 5-2 record against playoff teams.

Sunday, January 12 

San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers - The last time these teams played each other in San Francisco back in Week Ten, the Panthers scratched out a 10-9 win.
Both of these teams play defense!
The 49ers ranked in the top of the NFL on defense against the run (96 yards per game) and in total yards allowed by opponents, giving up just 317 yards per game.
The Panthers were up to the task as well, allowing just 301 yards per game (87 rushing, 214 passing) and allowed an average of only 15 points per game over the final 12 regular season games, going 11-1 after a 1-3 start.
The teams really do mirror each other offensively, with running quarterbacks who can throw the ball when needed.
The 'Niners, who beat Green Bay 23-20 on the road in last week's Wild Card round, have RB Frank Gore and QB Colin Kaepernick leading the running game while wide receivers Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis present a difficult challenge for the Panthers' defense.
Carolina has QB Cam Newton (585 rushing yards and six TD in regular season) along with running backs DeAngelo Williams (team leading 843 yards rushing) and Mike Tolbert to pound the ball on the ground. Leading receivers Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, along with tight end Greg Olsen, give Newton prime targets to throw to. Smith could be a game time decision as he has been nursing a knee injury.
Look for another "smash mouth" type game as these two teams go at it. The key will be each defense trying to contain the opposing QB from breaking outside the pocket and going off for long runs. Each is a threat to do just that, and the Green Bay Packers found that out the hard way last week against Kaepernick, who had two big runs to set up scores, including the game winning field goal as time expired.

San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos -  These two AFC West division rivals split the two regular season games, with each team winning on the road. Denver won 28-20 at San Diego and the Chargers won 27-20 last month in Denver.
The Broncos not only want to avenge their only home loss during the regular season, but would also like to do away with the memory of last season's bitter Divisional Round playoff loss (at home) to the Baltimore Ravens in double overtime.
Denver QB Peyton Manning set new records with 55 touchdown passes and also passed for 5,477 yards, eclipsing Drew Brees' record by one yard.
In addition, the Broncos shattered the NFL record for scoring in a single season by racking up 606 points in the regular season. But all that means nothing if the Broncos don't win the Super Bowl this year.
The Chargers are led by QB Philip Rivers, who has enjoyed a bounce back year in the 2013 season after two straight down years by his standards.
The 'Bolt upset the Cincinnati Bengals with a 27-10 road victory last week as the defense took over and shut out the Bengals in the second half.
The Chargers have played "ball control" against Denver this season, including the win in Week 15 when they held the ball for 38 minutes to keep Manning and company off the field. They will need to do that once again if they want to win this game.
The Broncos will be without All-Pro linebacker Von Miller (knee injury) while San Diego might not have RB Ryan Mathews (ankle injury), who ran for 127 yards in Week 15 against Denver.
Both teams have solid running games with Denver gaining 117 yards per game and San Diego 123 per game. Broncos' RB Knowshon Moreno went for 1,038 yards this season to lead his team while Mathews had 1,255 yards to lead the Chargers. Teammate Danny Woodhead ran for 429 yards while also hauling in 76 passes and he scored a touchdown in the win vs. Cincy last week.
The Broncos have five players who scored at least 10 touchdowns in the record setting offense and Manning will have WR Wes Welker (73 catches, 778 yards and 10 TD) back for the game after he missed the last three regular season games due to a concussion.
Look for a high scoring game once again with these two explosive offenses. The Broncos are heavy favorites, but do not sleep on the Chargers, who have been playing lights out defensively in recent weeks. In addition, they held the Broncos to a season low 20 points and just 295 yards in total offense when they beat them last month.
The key to this game will be avoiding turnovers.
The Chargers' defense forced four last week against the Bengals and had the edge in their win over Denver as well. Manning threw just ten picks all season long while Rivers was intercepted just eleven times. Not surprisingly, they were the top two passers in the AFC this year.

The Heftyinfo picks for this weekend's playoff games . . . . .

Seattle over New Orleans
New England over Indianapolis
San Francisco over Carolina
Denver over San Diego

Last Week's Record:  2-2


Regular Season Record: 168-87-1

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