Rappler's NFL Divisional playoff round breakdowns and predictions
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana - After a thrilling wild-card weekend that broke US TV ratings records anew, the National Football League (NFL) playoffs continue on to the Divisional round with more than a few compelling storylines and characters raring to seize their moment.
With marquee matchups, renewed rivalries and names like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck and Drew Brees on tap, it’s like the holiday season all over again for football’s faithful as the NFL proves to be the gift that keeps on giving.
Being an AFC guy, here is my breakdown and predictions of this weekend’s AFC matchups, as well as my picks in the NFC exclusively for Rappler.com.
(Editor's note: All four games this weekend can be seen in the Philippines on All Sports Network at the times provided)
American Football Conference (AFC)
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (Sunday, Jan. 12, 9:00 a.m. MNL)
After an improbable come-from-behind win at home last weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs (second largest comeback win in playoff history after being down by 28 in the 3rd quarter), the Indianapolis Colts hope to take their momentum with them to Foxborough where the mighty, 3-time Super bowl winning tandem of quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Bellichick await following a bye week.
These two franchises have had one of the best rivalries in football since the turn of the century, with the Patriots having a 2-1 edge in postseason matchups. The home team has won each contest and eventually hoisted up the Super Bowl trophy. Needless to say, the Patriots are hoping that trend continues. Brady and Bellichick were integral components in each of those Patriots teams, while nobody in the Colts’ active roster nor coaching staff can say the same - unless you factor Deion Branch, who I will get back to shortly.
While quarterback Peyton Manning continues his Hall of Fame career in Denver, this new era of Colts have quickly taken on a new identity which embodies their phenomenal second-year quarterback Andrew Luck.
Luck has already orchestrated 11 game-winning drives and 8 fourth quarter comebacks in his young NFL career, and proved last weekend that he can also get it done in the postseason (something Manning struggled to do during his Colts tenure).
Luck will have to work his magic yet again as he faces a well-oiled and disciplined Patriots defensive behind an offense that finished third in the regular season in scoring and will be playing its fourth consecutive divisional round game coming from a bye.
One thing going against the Patriots, however, are injuries to some of their key players such as Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Sebastian Vollmer, while former tight end Aaron Hernandez sits in a Massachussetts jail cell on murder charges.
The Patriots’ secondary will have their hands full against T.Y. Hilton, who has emerged as the Colts’ top receiver after Reggie Wayne tore the ACL in his right knee during their Week 7 win over the Broncos. Hilton’s 224-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Chiefs last week probably means Bellichick will focus more on taking him out of the equation this weekend, especially with the Colts’ struggles in running the football.
In what appears to be part gamesmanship on top of actual need, the Colts have brought in the former Patriot, Branch, who has yet to play a single down all season long, to provide some help to the ailing Colts wide receiver ensemble. Branch, who is still friends with Brady, was MVP winner for the Patriots’ last Super Bowl win nine years ago, and ironically has a chance to return to his old stomping grounds and play the role of the villain just a season removed from his second stint with the franchise in 2012.
Luck can’t afford to throw three picks like he did against the Chiefs and not expect the Patriots to make the Colts pay. Brady and Bellichick’s history of success with replacement players together with the Colts’ challenged secondary makes up for the Patriots wide receiver losses, and a heavy dosage of the run from their tandem of Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount is to be expected against a Colts run defense that ranked in the bottom 10 during the regular season.
Colts Pro Bowl linebacker Robert Mathis will have to step up yet again and pressure Brady in the pocket to help make up for a lot of the Colts’ weaknesses on defense against the Patriots’ potent offense. The last time these two teams met, the Patriots routed the Colts at home, 59-24, back in November 2012 during Luck’s rookie season.
Time of possession and turnovers will be the main factors in this matchup. And with that said, I have to lean toward the home team barring another miraculous performance from Luck.
Prediction: Patriots 35 – Colts 24.
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos (Monday, Jan. 13, 5:30 a.m. MNL)
If you’re going by stats and records alone, it’s easy to write-off the Chargers’ chances against the Broncos in Denver this weekend.
Numbers don’t lie. Peyton Manning has amassed astronomical numbers this season including the most single-season touchdown passes in NFL history with 55, together with 5,477 passing yards (also tops records), leading the Broncos’ stellar offense that put up 606 total points (yea, you guessed it, broke all records as well).
But the numbers Chargers fans are banking on is QB Phillip Rivers’ 2-0 record against Manning in the postseason. Altogether, Manning’s playoff record of 9-10 has been the lowlight on his Hall of Fame credentials that boasts of four MVPs and a 167-73 regular season record.
Manning - who has admitted that his illustrious NFL career is nearing its close - will have a chance to add to his lore; exorcise his playoff demons and finally get one against Rivers in the playoffs this weekend.
In doing so, Manning will have a plethora of weapons in receivers Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker, who is coming back after being shelved for the last two weeks of the regular season to recover from concussion-like symptoms.
But if there’s a team that can upset the Broncos, the Chargers are definitely one of them. After all, they did hold the Broncos to a season low 20 points last month in Denver and hold the distinction as the only team to beat the Broncos at home this season.
The Chargers are a resilient bunch as they showed in their gutsy win in Cincinnati last week wherein Rivers threw a season-low 128 yards, but they’ll have to dig deeper with Ryan Matthews hurting after taking on a bulk load of their season-best 196 rushing yards.
With all that said, it’s been Manning’s year and I have more than had my share of experiences watching him get on hot streaks such as the one he currently is enjoying. I don’t see this one being close with Manning advancing to meet his old rival in Brady for another epic AFC Finals showdown.
Prediction: Broncos 42 – Chargers 20
National Football Conference (NFC)
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks (Sunday, Jan. 12, 5:30 a.m. MNL)
I’ve seen the Seahawks on the field live once this year and instantly became a believer in quarterback Russell Wilson. Drew Brees and the Saints have had a good year, but it will come to an end in Seattle thanks in large to the Seahawks’ dynamic and potent offense.
Prediction: Seahawks 35 – Saints 17
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers (Monday, January 13, 2:00 a.m. MNL)
I went against the 49ers last week and they proved me wrong by pulling off a game-winning drive on the road in the cold against the Packers at Green Bay. They are definitely on a roll, and it’s tough to go against them this week despite the Panthers’ disciplined and determined run-heavy offense and stifling defense.
Prediction: 49ers 17 – Panthers 10 - Rappler.com
Follow Dennis on Twitter @dRealSource.