Chris Burke and Doug Farrar get you ready for the weekend with The Playbook, a detailed weekly preview that gives you everything you need to know about the upcoming slate of games.
No. 6 New Orleans at No. 1 Seattle -- Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET (FOX): Whatever the Saints learned from the 34-7 thrashing they underwent at the hands of the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on Dec. 2 ... well, the obvious question is whether it will be enough. Seattle's constricting defense took the oxygen out of the passing game prized by head coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees right from the start, limiting Brees to 147 yards, the lowest he's ever put up in a game with more than 20 passing attempts. Payton's team has tried all sorts of totemic gestures to reverse its inefficiency on the road, from changing the Gatorade at team headquarters to painting a Seahawks logo on its practice field to simulate a toxic Seattle environment that overwhelms most visitors.
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The Arizona Cardinals provided a template of sorts to beat the Seahawks at home when they did so on Dec. 22 -- crash through Seattle's offensive line (New Orleans has the front seven to do that), pressure Russell Wilson out of the pocket, spy him to the sideline (ditto) and keep him from driving the ball downfield with play action. That last one is going to be tough because New Orleans will be without cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Kenny Vacarro and its defense was vulnerable to Wilson's fakes last time around. Tight end Zach Miller caught a 60-yard pass after Saints' linebackers bit to the line.
As for New Orleans' offense versus Seattle's defense, the Saints have leaned a bit more on the run in the last month, and Mark Ingram was a key component in last Saturday's road win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild-card round. That will help the Saints with drive maintenance and help Brees with play-action concepts. But Brees was 0-for-8 on passes traveling 15 or more yards in the air last time around, and that can't happen again if the Saints are to pull off this upset.
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“I think we expect them to run the ball like they did against Philadelphia because that worked very effectively in that game for them, but you can’t change the DNA of your team," Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said Wednesday. "You can’t change what you have done because you start making stuff up in the playoffs ... then what can you say after the game, how can you justify it? You can say that it didn’t work the first time, but that’s what you do. If you throw shots, that’s what you do. You can’t change the makeup of your offense in what you do and your game planning for one team.
"They’ve definitely sprinkled in some nuances and some new things, but I think at the end of the day they’re going to go back to who they are.”
Go back to who you are, even when who you are didn't work last time? That's the complication. -- Doug Farrar
Chris Burke: Seahawks 27, Saints 21
Doug Farrar: Seahawks 27, Saints 17
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FARRAR: Five steps to beat the Seattle Seahawks
No. 4 Indianapolis at No. 2 New England -- Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET (CBS): The unwillingness to lose is a tough intangible to measure. And it might be the Colts' most dangerous quality.
They put it on full display last weekend in storming back from 28 down to stun the Kansas City Chiefs, thus setting up this matchup against New England. Opening in such a hole again this week likely would mark the end of the line as requiring another massive rally, this time in Foxboro, might be too much to ask.
But the Colts are dangerous enough, especially on offense, to hang with New England. The conversation with both teams often starts at quarterback, and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck has moved quickly onto the verge of joining players like the Patriots' Tom Brady among the elite at his position. (Some might even argue that Luck is there already, despite his short time in the league.) Luck shook off three interceptions last week to bounce back with four TD passes and 443 yards through the air.
His play has been aided in recent weeks by the continued development of the weapons around him, despite the loss of Reggie Wayne for the season. T.Y. Hilton (13 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns versus Kansas City) is now a viable No. 1 threat, while Da'Rick Rogers has come out of nowhere to provide a home-run option. Meanwhile, Donald Brown has grabbed the top RB job by the throat, wrestling it away from Trent Richardson.
"They’re very much a gameplan offense. What you see them doing in one game is not necessarily what you see them doing in another," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Against Kansas City it was almost all three receivers and a tight end.
"Maybe they’ll look at us differently, maybe they won’t. ... It’s hard to predict exactly what they’re going to do."
What the Colts have not always done is protect Luck. He was sacked 32 times in the regular season -- a number that easily could have been higher, if not for his escapability. New England can be dangerous off the edge, thanks to Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones.
That's what the Indianapolis defense often lives and dies by, too. Robert Mathis led the league in sacks this season, and his forced fumble of Alex Smith last week helped turn the tide in Indianapolis' favor. The Colts need him and his fellow linemates to at least pressure Brady because their secondary may be too wounded to corral the Patriots' passing attack.
Smith lit up Indianapolis early last week, something Brady surely took notice of. Even with Rob Gronkowski on the shelf and no true No. 1 receiver, Brady had a stellar season. A multi-prong run game, led by Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, will test the Colts as well. -- Chris Burke
CB: Patriots 31, Colts 20
DF: Colts 23, Patriots 21
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No. 5 San Francisco at No. 2 Carolina -- Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET (FOX): "We owe them."
That's the message San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick had after his team won in Green Bay last Sunday, thereby setting up a divisional-round matchup with Carolina. Back in Week 10, the Panthers put the clamps on Kaepernick and the 49ers in a 10-9 road victory.
The stakes will be higher this time around, with the winner off to the NFC title game.
To get there, San Francisco will have to solve the Panthers' front seven, something it was unable to do in the first meeting. Carolina limited Kaepernick to just 107 total yards (91 passing, 16 rushing), and allowed nothing after San Francisco grabbed a 9-0 lead in the second quarter. Frank Gore did churn out 82 yards on the ground that game, an effort the 49ers could use and then some this week.
The 49ers' offense is more dangerous as a whole than it was on Nov. 10, mainly due to the long-awaited return of Michael Crabtree from injury. Kaepernick's favorite target, Crabtree had eight catches for 125 yards and a touchdown in San Francisco's playoff win at Green Bay.
Carolina's No. 2-ranked defense stands as a far more imposing threat than its 18th-ranked offense. The Panthers did not fare much better in the Week 10 game, with QB Cam Newton held under 200 total yards as well. Carolina's lone touchdown came on the legs of DeAngelo Williams, who sprung loose for a 27-yarder. Receiver Steve Smith should be back in the Panthers' lineup after missing Week 17, which no doubt would boost Newton's confidence.
Newton's team has scored 30 points just once since that meeting with the 49ers, though, relying instead on the defense to lead the way. It's a stout unit anchored in the middle by Luke Kuechly and possessing a Greg Hardy- and Charles Johnson-led pass rush.
If the Panthers are vulnerable on the defensive side of the ball, it is in the secondary. While Kaepernick could not take advantage of that perceived weakness earlier this season, the 49ers' QB will give Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis ample opportunities to stretch the field Sunday. -- CB
CB: 49ers 17, Panthers 14
DF: Panthers 17, 49ers 12
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No. 6 San Diego at No. 1 Denver -- Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET (CBS): The Chargers needed other AFC teams to lose in the last week of the regular season just to get into the playoffs, and they may have been marked out anyway if Bill Leavy's officiating crew knew how to count, but that's all in the past -- and San Diego presents the Broncos with a vexing set of issues. The Chargers beat these Broncos 27-20 on Dec. 12, giving Denver its only home loss of the season, and they did it in the same way opponents have been trying to do it against Peyton Manning for over a decade. They slow-rolled Denver's offense by keeping Manning off the field, winning the time of possession battle 38:49-21:11 and taking every play down to the last possible second on the game clock. That game was also a national coming-out party for rookie receiver Keenan Allen, who caught two passes for 29 yards... and two touchdowns.
Of course, the Broncos helped the Chargers' cause by gaining 13 yards in the 13 plays after they took a 10-3 lead in the first quarter and going three-and-out on three straight second-quarter drives. It was a big and atypical win for a defense that finished dead last in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics.
"We didn't play well, didn't stay on the field, didn't have the ball much, and when we did, we didn't do much with it," Manning concluded.
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It wasn't a fluke, either. The Chargers are 6-2 in games started by Philip Rivers at the new Mile High Stadium, and the two Denver-San Diego matchups this season went for a combined score of 48-47 in the Broncos' favor. Thus, a team that barely sneaked into the postseason is making the AFC's No. 1 seed nervous -- and for good reason. The Chargers are riding a five-game win streak, including their 27-10 beatdown of the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round.
“I think they do a good job with personnel," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said of the Chargers, whose head coach, Mike McCoy, used to be Denver's offensive coordinator. "They’ll come out in a passing personnel and run the ball. They do a good job of mixing it up ... we have to eliminate them getting good yardage running the ball on first and second down. As long as we keep them in third-and-long situations and get off the field, allow our offense to get out there and handle the clock, we shouldn’t have a problem. But [the Chargers are] getting the third-and-short and making it easy [with] easy throws. They have a young receiver [Allen] that’s emerging right now, so they’re just trying to get easy throws and get in a good rhythm. We just can’t allow them to do that.”
Most teams that beat Manning one way find it difficult to repeat with the same methods. The bad news for Denver is that this Chargers team has enough firepower on offense to go toe-to-toe, even when the clock isn't an issue. -- DF
CB: Broncos 34, Chargers 21
DF: Broncos 35, Chargers 28
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Two –Minute Drill
• Matchup to Watch:
-- Wes Welker vs. San Diego's secondary. Earlier this week, I took a look at how the Chargers beat the Broncos during the regular season. Defensively, the plan in that game was to drop into a passive shell, with the goal being to limit Peyton Manning to short passes.
One of the reasons that approach worked was that Welker did not play in the game. Now back from injury, Welker could be the difference in turning those underneath routes into big gains, which might force San Diego to alter its defensive approach.
Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle told ESPN.com his Chargers secondary will vary its approach on Welker, so that not one specific defender is responsible for him. It's almost a given that no matter who is on Welker, Manning will find him with some passes. As they were in their earlier matchup with Denver, the Chargers will live with Manning playing conservatively. If those completions to Welker turn into more space downfield, though, look out. -- CB
BURKE: Stats suggest Chargers are this year's team of destiny
-- Carolina's front seven vs. San Francisco's offensive line. The last game between these teams exposed a little-told tale that's shown up at times throughout 2013: This 49ers line is not quite as adept as the unit that led the franchise to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2012 season. They're more vulnerable to power inside and speed outside, and the Panthers can provide both in all sorts of ways. -- DF
• Pressure’s On …:
-- Terron Armstead, OT, Saints. The Seahawks do a fantastic job of attacking their opponents' soft spots, and they'll likely go out of their way early to find out if Armstead falls into that category. The rookie, thrust into the left tackle job late in the season, has held up admirably, but dealing with Seattle's deep pass rush is another story.
Another potential issue: the noise. Seattle's 12th Man presents a challenge for any visiting team, but Armstead already has a couple of false starts since jumping into the lineup. He'll have to be sharp to avoid another one or two this weekend. -- CB
-- Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints. Graham may be the best tight end in football, but he certainly didn't look like it against the Seahawks on Dec. 1. Brees targeted Graham nine times in that game, and Graham caught just three passes for 42 yards. Linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner did amazing jobs in coverage to the seams and flats, obstructing Graham's path and handing him off to Seattle's talented safeties when the routes got too deep. Wright will not play in the divisional rematch, but replacement Malcolm Smith actually has better pass coverage numbers than Wright for the season. -- DF
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• This Week’s Sleeper:
-- Ted Ginn Jr., WR, Panthers.The motivation factor for Ginn versus his former team did not dictate much in Week 10; Ginn had two catches for 19 yards. Could it play a role here?
The way San Francisco's and Carolina's defenses have been playing, it may take a big gainer for anyone to find the end zone. Ginn's explosive speed makes him a candidate to break off just such a play, be it on a return or a quick catch-and-run. -- CB
-- Ryan Mathews. Mathews has been seen as a disappointment since the Chargers took him in the first round of the 2010 draft, but he's upticking at exactly the right time. Just as San Diego needs a more effective run game to counter enemy defenses and control the clock to make up for its own sub-par defense, Mathews has been on a tear. He's logged more than 100 yards in four of his last seven games, and picked up 99 yards against the Raiders on Dec. 22. A back gaining 534 yards in December is a back who can help Rivers with play action and keep that offense balanced against Denver's iffy run defense. That's what the Chargers wanted when they took Mathews, and it's what they finally have. -- DF
• Rookie Spotlight:
-- Kenbrell Thompkins, WR, Patriots. Sort of a full-circle rookie season for Thompkins, who shined in the preseason and then failed to match the hype he created for himself. He finished the season with 32 catches for 466 yards in 12 games -- respectable numbers. And he might find a major role awaiting him Saturday with Aaron Dobson looking unlikely to suit up. Dobson's absence would push Thompkins into a full-time position in the offense, and he may see plenty of targets from Brady if the Colts focus on stopping Julian Edelman. -- CB
-- Logan Ryan, DB, Patriots. Little was thought of the Patriots' decision to take Ryan in the third round of the 2013 draft, outside of yet more jokes about Belichick wanting to stockpile his entire roster with guys from Rutgers. But Ryan has more than repaid New England's faith in him by amassing five interceptions in his first NFL regular season, including four in the final six weeks. Among qualifying cornerbacks, only Seattle's Richard Sherman has a lower passer rating allowed. Belichick has gone out of his way to praise Ryan's football instincts, which is rare to see for a first-year player who is clearly standing out in one of the league's most demanding defenses. -- DF
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