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Thursday, January 9, 2014

NFL Playoff Predictions Part 2: The Divisional Round

Well, last week was very average for me. The Eagles and Bengals failed to muster a W, so I went 2-4 on predictions in a riveting Wild Card Weekend. Now it’s time to look ahead to the next wave of games, which look like they could be even more enjoyable.

Colts (12-5) @ Patriots (12-4)

Let me preface this by saying that I am a Patriots fan, and have been since I started following football. And I do not want to pick against the team I root for. However, I will give as much credit as I believe is due to Indy. They pulled off a fantastic comeback against Kansas City last week, and Andrew Luck is coming off an excellent performance.

I’ve been pessimistic about the Patriots all season. With an aging Brady and the amount of injuries the Pats have had, I’m frankly amazed that they still managed to go 12-4 and snag the 2nd seed in the AFC.

Still, with Coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady at the helm of this team, you just can’t count them out. This season, the Patriots have made their offensive attack much more balanced. Although Brady is without a doubt still the Patriots’ biggest offensive weapon, New England’s running game was a very respectable 9th in the league. Add the fact that Indianapolis’ run defense was a paltry 23rd in the league and you have a big advantage for the Patriots, who are led in this department by the explosive Stevan Ridley. LeGarrette Blount also had an excellent last game against the Bills.

    The problem with this for New England is that the offense needs to produce as much as possible, because this game could very well be a shootout. Andrew Luck has improved this season, and is coming off an emotional comeback win over KC.  Injuries have decimated the New England defense, so much so that it finished 26th in total yards allowed (18th in pass yards, 30th in rush yards) Donald Brown will be very dangerous come Saturday, and Luck has a more complete arsenal of weapons to throw to than Brady.

Danny Amendola did practice for the Patriots, which obviously helps their cause. And the game will be in a rainy, chilly Foxborough, where the Patriots have excellent home-field advantage. And let’s face it-as long as Belichick has been on the sidelines, the Patriots have shown that they remain competitive even when dealing with setbacks, of which they’ve had many this season.

Prediction: Patriots 38, Colts 35
San Diego Chargers (10-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3)

This is probably the game that is going to see the most upset picks as we get closer to the weekend.

    The Chargers went into Cincinnati and convincingly beat Andy Dalton and the Bengals on the road. This was the first time Cincinnati lost at home this season, going 8-0 at Paul Brown Stadium in the regular season.

    The Broncos had similar success when playing in front of their own fans, only losing one game in Denver. They went 13-3 this season and possess the first seed of the playoffs. However, one of those three losses was a 27-20 loss to the Chargers in Denver.

    Those who picked the Cincinnati Bengals to beat San Diego last week, including myself, believed one of the most important edges Cincy had over the Chargers was on defense: The Chargers’ defense was shaky, while the Bengals were one of the best teams on defense all year. Of course, that didn’t translate when the two teams met

    The Broncos are not going to have as much of an edge as Cincinnati was perceived to have in this game. The Charger defense was also able to hold Peyton Manning to his worst offensive performance in that recent 27-20 win. Losing Von Miller is a huge blow to the Denver defense. 

    Of course, Peyton Manning is a far cry from Andy Dalton. And cliche as it may be, the Chargers want to see as little of him as possible when game time comes around. Indeed, in the two games against the Chargers, Denver went 1-1. The first game was convincingly in the Broncos’ hands until the 4th quarter, when San Diego turned a 22-point deficit into  a one-score game before Denver escaped with the win. The San Diego defense returned with a vengeance in the next game. In both these games, the SD defense was able to severely limit the Broncos’ time of possession.
Peyton Manning is 4-5 against San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, and he has never beaten Rivers in the postseason.

The Chargers have the tools (Good defensive performance, experienced quarterback, veteran presence) and the momentum (Winners of their last 5) to give the Broncos a very difficult game. However, I still think Denver will be able to pull out a very narrow win. Peyton Manning is much too smart of a quarterback to make the same mistakes 3 times. If Manning can stay on the field enough and the Denver run defense holds (to be fair, with Matthews, Woodhead, Brown, and even Fluker, this will be difficult), this will be a win for the orange and blue.

Pick: Denver 27, San Diego 24

49ers @ Panthers

Oh man this is going to be a fun one. It’ll be the first playoff game for Carolina since 2008, and if things go their way, their first win since 2005. This would be the first playoff win in Charlotte since 2003. By contrast, the 49ers have been a perennial contender for a few years, with three consecutive playoff appearances, one resulting in a close loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship and one resulting in a close loss in the Super Bowl against the Ravens.

The Panthers are going to be emotional heading into this game, and there is without a doubt a lot of pressure on Cam Newton. Newton had slightly higher yard and touchdown totals than 49ers’ QB Colin Kaepernick, but the two have similar playing styles, most highlighted by their ability to run the football as well as pass it. Kaepernick is more experienced than Newton, having led the Niners to the playoffs and the Super Bowl last year. In addition, the Niners have shown versatility on the road and probably would have won the division if it wasn’t for the Seahawks’ amazing regular season.

On defense the story is much the same. As far as points allowed, Carolina allowed the second least in all of football, while San Francisco was right behind them at third. (15 versus 17, respectively) Neither team has a serious advantage over the other statistically when it comes to defense.

The one game in which Carolina and San Francisco faced each other this season was a gritty, physical 10-9 win for the Panthers. Frank Gore had 82 rushing yards in that contest, but the game may not be an accurate predictor of how the two teams are going to fare. Sure, the score will most likely be close, but I don’t think that both offenses are going to be limited to that degree.

San Francisco’s playoff experience narrowly outshines Cam Newton in his first playoff game.

Prediction: 49ers 20, Panthers 17

New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks were widely acclaimed this season, many calling them the best team in football this year during the regular season.

And it’s hard to disagree. The ‘Hawks were a remarkably complete team this year. They went 13-3 for the season, winning a vastly improved NFC West even without one of their best receivers in Percy Harvin.

The good news for the Emerald City is that Harvin is back, healthy, and will be suited up on Saturday afternoon, ready to embrace the ear-shattering roar of CenturyLink Field.

In the regular season, these two teams met in Seattle once, and Seattle smacked around the Saints to the tune of 34-7. Brees was frozen for most of the game by the solid Seattle defense, and to say it was an embarrassing loss is an understatement.

    You can bet that the Saints will be analyzing that game to death to see what went wrong, but will it make a difference? Of course Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the game, but this time he is not going up against a quarterback with no playoff experience like Nick Foles. Foles, to his credit, kept the game close and Philadelphia only lost on a last-second field goal.

The Saints are a very good team, no question, but I just don't see them able to pull off theupset, especially with Seattle's vast arsenal of weapons.

Prediction: Seahawks 31, Saints 17

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