Posted: Thu Jan. 9, 2014Updated: Sat Jun. 14, 2014
The divisional round of the NFL playoffs is where big dreams go to die. From 2005-12, the top seeds in each conference went a stunning 7-9 in their playoff openers, with so many clubs squandering the home-field advantage and hard-earned benefit of the first-round bye. In seven of those eight seasons, at least one top seed lost in the divisional round, with both No. 1's going down in flames in 2008 and '10. Only in 2009, when the Saints and Colts made the Super Bowl, did the trend not hold.
If anything, that track record adds even more pressure to Denver (13-3) than it does Seattle (13-3), given that AFC top seeds are just 3-5 in this round since 2005, and the Broncos were the No.1 seed last year (at 13-3) when they lost that 38-35 double-overtime thriller against eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore.
Denver quarterback Peyton Manning has some painful memories from being in this position. This is the fourth time he's led a No. 1 seed into the divisional round, and he's only 1-2 in those games, losing with the 2005 Colts against sixth-seeded Pittsburgh, and last year to the fourth-seeded Ravens.
This weekend, both the No. 1 Seahawks and Broncos are home against No. 6 seeds: the Saints and Chargers, teams they've already beaten this season. That probably makes the favorite's role all the tougher to bear in the playoffs.
Postseason: 2-2; Season 169-86
Saturday, Jan. 11
4:35 p.m. ET (FOX)
No. 6 New Orleans Saints (12-5) at No. 1 Seattle Seahawks (13-3) Pete Carroll is right. The past isn't always prologue when it comes to the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. Just because Seattle was 27 points better than New Orleans in Week 13 at CenturyLink Field doesn't mean Saturday afternoon's rematch will follow the same basic script. Remember how Denver dismantled Baltimore on the road in December 2012, then lost to the Ravens at home in the playoffs? Remember the 2011 Giants winning at both Green Bay and San Francisco in the postseason, after losing to the Packers and 49ers in the regular season? The 2010 Packers, yet another recent Super Bowl champion, lost in the regular season at Chicago and Atlanta, then returned to those venues and won in the playoffs. That should give the Saints hope that what they face has been overcome plenty of times in recent history. I foresee New Orleans starting well and holding the lead for much of this game, but in the end, Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense will wake up just in time to mount a fourth-quarter comeback and not waste that No. 1 seed.
8:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
No. 4 Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at No. 2 New England Patriots (12-4) The Patriots in the Belichick-Brady era have been almost a sure-thing in the AFC divisional round when they earn one of the top two seeds and a first-round bye, going 6-1 in that situation, with only an upset loss to the Jets in 2010 marring their record. They've won those games by an average of almost 14 points. And don't forget, it was the Patriots' memorable and controversial "Snow Game" comeback overtime victory against Oakland in the 2001 AFC divisional round that launched the whole New England dynasty. Tuck rule, anyone? But the Colts should be riding high on the emotion of last week's miracle win over Kansas City and will put up a four-quarter fight in Foxboro, which is expecting mild temperatures and maybe some rain Saturday night. The Patriots defense won't be giving up any 28-point leads, so Indy's best shot is to keep it close throughout and give Andrew Luck the chance to find out if his fourth-quarter magic is better than Brady's fourth-quarter magic.
Sunday, Jan. 12
1:05 p.m. ET (FOX)
No. 5 San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at No. 2 Carolina Panthers (12-4) You wonder if the Panthers will be able to control their sky-high emotions and play their best in the crucible that is the playoff spotlight. Carolina hasn't been to the postseason since 2008, hasn't won a playoff game since '05 and hasn't treated the home crowd to a victory in January since the Super Bowl season of '03. How Panthers quarterback Cam Newton reacts to the pressure of his first career playoff game will likely set the tone for the rest of the team, and I could see him struggling early to find his rhythm and playmaking mojo. If that takes the Carolina crowd out of things in the first half, that's a big advantage for the 49ers, who have proven the past two postseasons they can successfully take their act on the road, winning at Atlanta in last year's NFC title game and at Green Bay last week. This will be the most fiercely fought game of the weekend, but San Francisco's playoff experience will make the difference.
4:40 p.m. ET (CBS)
No. 6 San Diego Chargers (10-7) at No. 1 Denver Broncos (13-3) The top-seeded Broncos and Peyton Manning might have breezed through portions of the regular season, with their record-breaking offense hanging up the league's first 600-point-plus output, but there will be no coasting this month. The three teams besides Denver still alive in the AFC playoffs are the three teams that have beaten the Broncos this season: San Diego, Indianapolis and New England. And the only opponent to win in Denver is the one the Broncos must wrestle with right off the bat: the red-hot Chargers, winners of five in a row and the only club that won by more than three points in last weekend's first round. If the Broncos don't turn the ball over and give San Diego some easy scores, I can't see the wild-card Chargers scraping up enough points to beat them. But after last year's searing one-and-done divisional-round loss to Baltimore in Denver, it will be a pensive Broncos crowd on Sunday afternoon, one that could turn on the hometown team if San Diego gets out to an early lead. Time to find out if Denver has the mettle it lacked last year. Getting his first playoff win as a Bronco will prove to be the toughest step for Manning, but he'll take it any way it comes.