NFL Playoffs 2013: An early look ahead to the divisional round
Good luck topping that next week, NFL.
The league kicked off its playoff season with a nail-biting weekend of action, which opened with Indianapolis' 28-point rally against Kansas City and closed on a Phil Dawson game-winning kick against Green Bay. Three road teams won in the wild-card round -- and it would have been four had the Colts not pulled off one of the sport's all-time great comebacks.
The visitors may find a tougher road in Round 2. There, the top four seeds await after enjoying a bye.
Let's take an early glance at the matchups to come:
It's a mistake for any team to ever feel really comfortable in the playoffs. And seeing the Chargers again might have the Broncos a little extra uneasy this week.
San Diego split the season series with Denver, winning at Mile High on Thursday night in Week 15. The Broncos scored an NFL-record 603 points during the regular season, which works out to an average of 37.9 points per game. But they mustered only 24 per outing vs. the Chargers. Peyton Manning's offense had the ball for a mere 21 minutes and 11 seconds in that earlier loss, as San Diego controlled the tempo and the clock.
Ryan Mathews was key to that approach, rushing 29 times for 127 yards. Will he be available for a full workload next week? Hard to say -- he played sparingly in San Diego's win over the Bengals, and head coach Mike McCoy did not offer much detail at the reason.
In Denver's win over the Chargers, Demaryius Thomas stole show with three touchdown catches. Manning fired four TDs in all that game. San Diego picked off Andy Dalton twice Sunday, but it finished the regular season with the 29th-ranked pass defense, so Manning no doubt will take to the air.
Denver fans need no reminder that their team also finished the 2012 season with a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed, only to lose a double OT thriller to Baltimore in the divisional round.
No. 4 Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at No. 2 New England Patriots (12-4)
Andrew Luck takes his magic act on the road. One thing's for sure as he does: Indianapolis probably cannot afford to cough up 44 points again, like in its dramatic wild-card victory over Kansas City.
Even without Rob Gronkowski or any real dominant No. 1 receiver, the Patriots' offense has shown itself capable of hitting those heights on occasion. Tom Brady finished the regular season with 4,343 yards passing, a 60.5 completion percentage and 25 touchdowns, topping Luck in all of those categories. His No. 1 target, Julian Edelaman, topped the century mark with 105 catches.
The real danger in defending the Patriots' attack, though, comes in trying to account for all of their running backs. Stevan Ridley led the way there with 835 yards from scrimmage (and seven touchdowns), Shane Vereen is a valuable dual-threat back and LeGarrette Blount accounted for 334 total yards in Week 17.
Indianapolis' defense answered the bell in the second half Saturday, limiting Kansas City to just six points over the final 28 minutes. But the Colts are banged up in the secondary, so their hopes may rest on Robert Mathis and the front generating a little heat on Brady.
On the other side of the football, expect Luck to look deep at least a few times -- T.Y. Hilton is one of the league's more dangerous deep threats, and Da'Rick Rogers showed against the Chiefs that he can make a play or two himself. Getting Donald Brown going early against the Patriots' 30th-ranked rush defense would make those attempts easier to find.
New Orleans' last playoff trip to the Pacific Northwest? The famous Marshawn Lynch "Beastmode" performance, in which the Seattle back rumbled through the entire Saints defense for a 67-yard touchdown to help the 7-9 Seahawks upset the Saints.
The Saints' visit to Seattle earlier this season was not any more enjoyable. The Seahawks raced out to a 17-0 lead and coasted to a 34-7 win with Drew Brees throwing for a paltry 147 yards, his lowest passing total since the 2006 season. To give his team a chance next week, Brees will have to be much better than that. He'll also have to step up his game from the up-and-down effort he had in the 26-24 victory at Philadelphia on Saturday.
The Seahawks were the only team to hang more than 30 points on Rob Ryan's defense after the Saints' Week 7 bye. Of course, even that work was not enough to keep the Saints from losing their final four regular-season games away from home.
Lynch is still around as a dangerous back for the Seahawks (feels like he's older than 27, doesn't it?), but quarterback Russell Wilson is the driving force there. He accounted for 357 total yards and three touchdowns vs. the Saints on Dec. 2.
Predicting what will occur in the NFL playoffs is a fool's errand, but there is something you can take to the bank: This matchup will be an absolute slobberknocker.
The 49ers and Panthers beat the stuffing out of each other in Week 10, when Carolina stole a hard-earned 10-9 victory at Candlestick. The Panthers recorded six sacks and held the dangerous San Francisco offense -- and quarterback Colin Kaepernick -- almost completely in check. Kaepernick mustered just 91 yards passing, as an early 9-0 San Francisco lead slipped away.
Cam Newton did not fare much better against San Francisco's front seven. He was dropped for three sacks (two by Ahmad Brooks) and hit on 16-of-32 passes with an interception. The game's lone touchdown came on a 27-yard scamper by DeAngelo Williams.
The defending NFC champion 49ers proved their mettle again Sunday. They ventured into freezing cold Lambeau Field to nab a last-second win over the host Packers. Michael Crabtree, whom the 49ers did not have in that earlier matchup with Carolina, hauled in eight grabs for 125 yards as the passing game's centerpiece.
Carolina certainly will have to account for him next weekend; he has quickly re-established himself as Kaepernick's preferred option, at least until Kaepernick looks for Vernon Davis in the red zone. The Panthers' crowd ought to be revved up. This is the franchise's first home playoff game since 2008, and Carolina will be shooting for its first home playoff win since the 2003 season.