New Orleans Saints #5 (-8) @ Seattle Seahawks #1 (46.5): Seahawks 28-20
Saturday, 4:35 PM, Century Link Field, Seattle, WA (Weather: 100% rain, low 50s)
Reasons: The Divisional games get off to rainy starts Saturday with both games slated for heavy rain. A few weeks ago I would have had the Seahawks winning this game 49-7, but a lot has happened in a short few weeks, namely the Seahawks first home loss in two years, and the Saints winning a road playoff game in the driving rain last week v. the most dynamic offense in the league, whose defense had been improving by the week. The exploits of these two teams are well documented, both statistically and record-wise. The Seahawks were 7-1 at home this season, only losing a close battle to an Arizona team that should be making noise in these playoffs, while the Saints were 4-5 on the road, including last week's wild card win in Philadelphia. Both teams are ranked in the top 10 in scoring offense (SEA - T8th; NO - 10th), and NO ranks 4th in total yards, but both do it differently: NO has the 2nd-ranked passing game, while Seattle has the 4th-ranked run game. Defensively the Seahawks are the top defense in the NFL (ranked #1 in total yards and scoring), but the Saints are a surprising 4th in both categories as well. The Saints aren't scared - they've played in Seattle already this season and they've just come from a hostile road playoff environment in bad weather, but can they really pull it off again in far worse conditions v. a much better defense? I don't think so. <Thinks quietly about all the Seahawks PED issues...>
Indianapolis Colts #4 (+7.5) @ New England Patriots #2 (52.5): Patriots 30-21
Saturday, 8:15 PM, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA (Weather: 90% rain, soaked field, mid-50s)
Reasons: The Colts have to be the sexiest team in the playoffs right now. Coming off that improbable 28-point comeback, the second largest in NFL playoff history, the Colts are also led by the cold-blooded future king of the league, the comeback kid himself, Andrew Luck. The Colts are also coming into Foxborough 7.5-point underdogs, with seemingly nothing to lose. So that might suggest a tough match up for New England, if it weren't for a few key points. First, the Patriots beat Indianapolis late last season (11/18/12) 59-24 in the only match up between any semblance of these two current teams (most importantly starting QBs). The pundits see that as an opportunity for the Patriots to look past the Colts; I see it as another opportunity for Bill Belichick to prepare for the game (or at least Luck). Secondly, the weather will be a huge factor. The dome life can be an easy life and New England is one of the toughest places to play in the winter, snow or not. The heaviest rain may be gone, but it'll still be raining hard, although unseasonably warm. Thirdly, Bill Belichick (BB) is 10-5 coming off byes since joining the Patriots in 2000 (0-1 playoffs, losing in 2010 to the Jets 28-21 in the Div. Round), which includes a controversial loss at Carolina this season. In other words, when BB has time to prepare for you it doesn't usually go well (although if I were a Colts fan I'd point to the 0-1 playoff bye record). Most importantly may be that last week's incredible comeback, despite being historical and incredibly entertaining, was clearly a function of the absurd amount of game-ending injuries to key players by the second half of the game (six - well documented in my last Tuesday's Gone article), making the Colts comeback much more understandable. The Patriots were 8-0 at home this season, averaging 29 ppg (+1 season average), but the Colts were no road dogs (5-3, averaging 24 ppg, -0.5 season average); the Colts defense is statistically identical to New England's (ranked 9th & 10th scoring defense, 20th & 26th total defense, respectively), but the Colts gave up 44 point to a Chiefs team on the road, who immediately lost their best offensive player (Jamal Charles). The Patriots offense is much better (2nd scoring; 7th total yards), with a proven veteran WR (as opposed to a sophomore sensation), a stable of gifted, diverse RBs (as opposed to Donald Brown and half a Trent Richardson), and a HOF QB (as opposed to a guy who could be a HOF QB). At first glance I thought the spread was too high, but then I convinced myself with the aforementioned points.
San Francisco 49ers #4 (-1) @ Carolina Panthers #2 (42): 49ers 28-27
Sunday, 1:05 PM, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC (Weather: Sunny, mid-50s)
Reasons: This is one of the most evenly matched games one could imagine. Let me count the ways. CAR is ranked 2nd in scoring defense (15.1 ppg); SF is ranked 3rd (17.0). CAR is ranked 2nd in total defense (301.2 ypg); SF is ranked 5th (316.9 ypg). Both teams rank in the top-7 in individual passing/rushing defense. SF is the 24th-ranked total offense (323.8 ypg); CAR is ranked 26th (316.8). It's interesting to note that the Panthers only gain 317 ypg, which is exactly what the top-5 49ers give up - so if SF has a normal day they should hold the Panthers to their meager season average. The same can basically be said about the opposite match up, so I wouldn't expect many yards in this game. It doesn't end there. CAR was 7-1 at home this year; SF was 7-2 on the road (including the playoffs). The weather will be a Bay Area-like 50 degrees and sunny. Both team are even led by QBs of similar age, style, and experience. One major differences could be in scoring offense (SF ranked 11th w/ 25.4 ppg; CAR ranked 18th w/ 22.9 ppg), but those numbers are different with CAR home and SF away (CAR - 26; SF -24). Another major difference, the one of most consequence, is playoff experience, in which the 49ers have far more, nearly winning the Super Bowl last season. The additional home scoring will pale in comparison to the playoff experience and drive these ultra-talented 49ers bring to the table. This will be one epic battle won by the 49ers. Apparently Vegas and I see it the same way, as SF gives one to CAR on the road.
San Diego Chargers #6 (+9.5) @ Denver Broncos #1 (54.5): Broncos 31-24
Sunday, 4:40 PM, Mile High Stadium, Denver, CO (Weather: Windy, mild, high 40s)
Reasons: All anyone can seem to talk about is that Denver lost to SD 27-20 Week 15 in one of Manning's worst performances of the season (61.5 QBR). That game had Manning running for his life for one of the only times this season, and Ryan Matthews took over, rushing for 127 yards on 29 carries, much like he did last week grinding down the Bengals top-ranked defense. The Chargers also controlled the ball 2:1, not giving the Broncos much of a chance to score. The return of Melvin Ingram and the probability of Eric Weddle playing bolsters an already 11th-ranked defense that gives up fewer than 22 ppg, and the Chargers are going to need it. The once banged up Broncos are well rested and come in as the not only the top offense in the league, but in league history. Defensively the Broncos aren't that impressive, but they give up as many points (24.9 ppg) as the 12th-ranked Chargers score (24.8 ppg). Two of the three Broncos losses this season came at home, one obviously against these Chargers, who are 5-4 on the road this season, including the playoffs. The Chargers are definitely the hot team and the sexy pick, but even a red-hot Rivers (who only threw 16 passes last week by the way) won't be enough to stop a hungry Peyton Manning, who I can't imagine will lose twice at home to the same team in one season, let alone in one month. As I type that I remember Manning's unimpressive playoff record (9-11), which is even worse outdoors (2-6), including a loss at home last year, but I suppose you never bet against Manning at home. Ryan Matthews may again exploit a Von Miller-less front seven, but they won't have time to run against this high-powered offense.
Stay tuned next week for Tuesday's Gone: Week 19 #NFL Predictions Review: DIVISIONAL ROUND.