Annually, things really get interesting in the NFL divisional round of playoffs.
The pretenders from the weaker divisions were eliminated last week. Two each remain from the AFC West, NFC West and NFC South. We’re left with teams who can readily be projected into the Super Bowl – well, maybe not so fast, Indianapolis Colts. You have the toughest matchup this weekend, at New England. The AFC’s hottest team – the San Diego Chargers – has a better shot at Denver, its second home.
In analyzing the four games, though, perhaps the most even at first glance, San Francisco at Carolina, seems pretty clear-cut in favor of the Panthers.
The entire Carolina defense, man for man, is vastly superior to what Green Bay Packers fielded against the 49ers last week when San Francisco won, 23-20, on the road.
Offensively, I’d still take Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb over their Panthers counterparts. But Carolina is substantially better at tight end with Greg Olsen, and Ron Rivera’s offensive line is better as a unit than what the Packers had left. QB Cam Newton isn’t Rodgers, but he’s had an incredible third season.
New Orleans (12-5) at Seattle (13-3), 4:30 p.m. EST: The Seahawks won in Seattle, 34-7, on Dec. 2. Winner: Seahawks. The Saints finally won a road playoff game last week at Philadelphia, but Seattle is a completely different proposition. The Eagles pretty much took Jimmy Graham out of Drew Brees’ arsenal. The Seahawks, with an even better secondary, should be able to top that. It also seems unlikely New Orleans will have any running success against the Seattle front, so too much will fall on Brees.
Indianapolis (12-5) at New England (12-4), 8 p.m.: The Patriots won, 59-24, Nov. 18, 2012. Winner: Patriots. After overcoming a 28-point deficit last week to oust Kansas City, it might seem Andrew Luck can do anything. But I don’t think beating Tom Brady at home in the playoffs is in the cards just yet. The New England defense isn’t as stout as the Kansas City one Luck burned for 45 points, especially missing its two best players, but Bill Belichick has a knack for finding a way this time of year.
San Francisco (13-4) at Carolina (12-4), 1 p.m.: The Panthers won, 10-9, Nov. 10 at Candlestick. Winner: Panthers. It’s sometimes dangerous to translate regular-season results into playoff projections, but Carolina holding San Francisco without a TD in their earlier meeting stands out. One caveat: Colin Kaepernick throws better on the run than from the pocket, as he demonstrated against the Packers, and the Panthers front four will have him on the run.
San Diego (10-7) at Denver (13-3), 4:30 p.m.: The Chargers won, 27-20, Dec. 12 at Denver. Winner: Chargers. Philip Rivers is 10-6 career vs. the Broncos, has won four of his past five at Mile High, and is 6-5 vs. Peyton Manning (who is 0-2 in postseason starts against San Diego). That adds up to a strong upset possibility for the Chargers, who tore up a better Bengals defense last week behind Rivers, revitalized under Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt.