Billick divisional round preview: Not all of these guys are advancing
By Brian Billick
Rejoice, America! The divisional round is here
Drew Brees finally got the Saints a road win. Cam Newton and Bill Belichick are back in action after a week to rest, get healthy, and soak in the wild-card madness. And Philip Rivers and his Chargers officially look like men on a mission. Our Super Bowl-winning coach tells you what to look for in each of this weekend's games — and who will win them. So click ahead and get the answers.
Image (L-R): Howard Smith, Bob Donnan, David Butler II & Pat Lovell / USA TODAY Sports
1. Saints at Seahawks (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, FOX)
This is a rematch of Week 13’s beat-down, also in Seattle. The 27-point loss was the biggest deficit of the season for the Saints and the second-worst loss in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era. New Orleans scored just seven points in the game — tied for the fewest scored in the Payton/Brees era in New Orleans. But it doesn’t stop there: the measly 188 yards of total offense was their worst output since 2003 and Brees’ 147 passing yards in that game was his fewest since 2006. Rob Ryan and the Saints’ defense will be tasked with shutting down Russell Wilson, who is an astounding 15-1 in Seattle during the course of his two-year career. Ryan has vastly improved a defense that surrendered 300 or more yards in every game but one last season into one that has held opponents under 300 yards in nine of 17 games in the regular season and playoffs, including holding the most explosive offense in the league, the Eagles, to just 256 total yards last week in the wild-card round. But he wasn’t so successful against the Seahawks in that previously mentioned week 13 game — the defense gave up 310 yards to Wilson through the air and the Seahawks running game totaled 127 yards on the ground. In addition to Wilson’s stellar home record, the Seahawks have won five straight postseason games at home while just last week, the Saints earned the first road playoff win in franchise history. Beating the Seahawks in Seattle will be a whole different challenge than doing it against the Eagles in Philadelphia. It may not be the 27-point margin it was in early December, but I like the Seahawks to roll at home.
Image: Joe Nicholson/USA Today Sports Photo: Joe Nicholson
2. Colts at Patriots (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS)
This is the only game this weekend that isn’t a rematch from the regular season, but these two teams have a well-established postseason rivalry, albeit in just three games dating back to 2003. The Patriots hold a two games to one advantage in the series with the home team winning each time — and then going on to win the Super Bowl each time. This time, the rivalry will feature a new face — the comeback kid, Andrew Luck. The Colts’ come-from-behind win over the Chiefs last Saturday was the fourth double-digit deficit that Luck has overcome this season (the Colts trailed 38-10 in the third quarter) and was the largest comeback win in Colts’ franchise history. While Luck is new to this postseason rivalry, this won’t be his first time going to head-to-head with Tom Brady. In week 11 of 2012, the Patriots beat the Colts 59-24 and while Luck threw for 334 yards, he also threw three picks and finished with just a 63.3 passer rating. Luck has improved his ball security this season, leading Indianapolis to a league-low 14 turnovers in the regular season, but the turnover bug was back in the first half last week. The Colts had four turnovers in the game, Luck being directly responsible for three of them. On the other hand, Tom Brady was nearly perfect that day in 2012, passing for 331 yards and three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 127.2. But three of Brady’s four best receivers that day were Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who are injured (Gronkowski) or no longer with the club (Welker and Lloyd). The only players to catch a pass in that game who are still with New England are Julian Edelman (who did catch a TD in that game) and running back Shane Vereen, but they combined for just 69 of those 331 yards. Even if this game was being played in Indianapolis, I’d still be inclined to pick the Patriots, so the fact that they are at home makes it that much easier. Luck and the Colts will make it respectable, but Bill Belichick and Brady just won’t allow them to make another magical second half comeback in this one.
Image: Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Photo: Winslow Townson
3. 49ers at Panthers (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Panthers’ regular season consisted of 12 wins, their most impressive coming in week 10 when the traveled to San Francisco and beat the 49ers at their own game. The Panthers kept the Niners out of the end zone and limited them to just three field goals in the 10-9 upset in the midst of what would become an eight-game winning streak. The two teams combined for just 401 yards, which was the fewest of any game this season. This game should be another heavyweight championship fight as two of the league’s stingiest defenses will face off against two of the league’s most physical rushing attacks. Carolina holds a slight defensive advantage with the NFL’s second-`ranked defense when it comes to scoring, total yards and rushing yards compared to the Niners who rank third, fifth and fourth respectively in those categories. San Francisco holds the offensive edge with the third-best rushing attack and the 11th-best scoring offense as the team dealt with injuries to its receiving group which is nearly 100 percent now. Carolina falls just outside the top 10 in rushing offense, but ranks just 18th and 26th in scoring and total yards. Cam Newton has started every game in his three-year career, 48 in total, but this will be his first appearance in the postseason. Colin Kaepernick on the other hand, has just 23 regular-season starts in his three-year career, but this will be his fifth start in the playoffs with an already impressive 3-1 record. That makes Kaepernick, selected 35 picks after Cam Newton and the sixth quarterback taken in the 2011 draft, the veteran of this matchup. It doesn’t help that Newton’s best and favorite target, Steve Smith, is banged up with a knee injury. I have been riding the Panthers’ bandwagon all season, but I think that ride ends on Sunday. The Panthers won’t win this time around by scoring just 10 points and I’m not sure they have the offensive fire power to much better than that against this defense. I like the 49ers to get their revenge on Sunday.
Image: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images Photo: Michael Zagaris
4. Chargers at Broncos (Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, CBS)
There is one stat that I hold most valuable in the NFL and it’s one that I have been tracking since my days in Minnesota as the offensive coordinator — Toxic Differential. It measures a team’s ability to create big plays on offense while limiting turnovers and limit big plays on defense while also forcing takeaways. To me, it is the one statistic that, on its own, can predict success more than any other and what it tells me is that Denver has a lot to be concerned about. But then again, so does San Diego. Of the remaining teams in the playoffs, Denver has the third-worst toxic differential while San Diego is second to last. Denver, on the surface, is thought to be the most explosive offense in the NFL, and while the Broncos had the second-most plays of 20+ yards (77), they still trailed the Eagles by 22 in that category. The problem is, they gave up 74 on defense and had just as many turnovers as they had takeaways. That gives them a toxic differential of just +3 heading into the playoffs. Similarly, San Diego has an equally unimpressive Toxic Differential of -1 and is fairly consistent across the board in the four categories. They maintain a -4 turnover ratio and only make up three spots with a +3 big play differential. But the Chargers did have a +4 turnover ratio in the wild-card round, best of any team this postseason so far. And they do rate the third-most explosive offense — they will need all those explosive plays to keep pace with the Broncos, but they need to do it while not turning the ball over. That is the give-and-take in the formula, you must take chances by getting the ball down the field, but are those chances worth the turnover risk? The Chargers will answer that for us on Sunday. For comparison purposes, Seattle is +47, San Francisco is +30 and New Orleans +19 —all maintain very impressive Toxic Differentials on the NFC side of the house. So if either of these teams represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, the matchup could be a little one sided.
Image: Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports Photo: Chris Humphreys