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NFL Divisional Round preview

Image: Drew Brees (©John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports)
Can Brees atone for the Seattle no-show in Week 13?
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Joel Beall

Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall.

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Judging by the numbers from the FOXSports.com Pro Pick ‘Em Challenge, it appears most fans aren’t expecting last week’s drama to continue: more than 75 percent of America believes the Seahawks, Patriots and Broncos will glide into the conference championships (57 percent picked the 49ers in the San Francisco – Carolina matchup). These clubs are solid and unquestionably the favorites. Then again, they are far from slam-dunk selections. New England has to face Andrew Luck and his magical Amish muttonchops, Seattle has to beat Drew Brees for the second time this season and, allegedly, Denver’s quarterback has a proclivity toward sluggishness this time of the year.

Besides, if last weekend taught us anything, it’s that we have no idea how this rodeo will play out. Which makes it that much more enjoyable of a ride.

Last Week: 3-1
Season: 168-91-1. Chalk last week’s lone loss to Andy Dalton and Jay Gruden. Speaking of which, even by the Washington franchise's absurd standards, it’s never good to hire a coordinator whose previous team’s fans are happy to see depart. Plus, pairing Gruden, a blunt, in-your-face personality with the emotional fragility of Robert Griffin III? Don’t be surprised when the first, “Source: RG3 unhappy with offensive philosophy” leak springs in training camp.

AFC Playoff Schedule

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots

The lowdown: The most revered non-divisional rivalry of the past decade will be renewed this weekend in Foxborough. Admittedly, the departure of a certain 6’5” signal caller may damper the buildup to this clash of conference titans. On the other hand, Indy’s new man under center ain’t too shabby himself, and dismissing the virtue of this matchup strictly on one’s absence disparages the rest of the characters in this must-watch spectacle. With a new twist on a celebrated conflict, the Patriots welcome the Colts in the AFC Divisional Round.

Andrew Luck had quite the shoes to fill for the Horseshoes, playing in the shadow of the franchise savior. The former No. 1 overall pick is constructing a legacy of his own, already hurdling an obstacle that took his predecessor six years to accomplish: winning a playoff game. And in what fashion: 443 passing yards, another 45 yards on the ground and four trips to pay dirt against a Chiefs defense that held opponents to fewer than 20 points per game in the regular season. The fact that Luck led the charge without the services of bull’s-eye Reggie Wayne or a competent backfield further enhances his aura. After a strong first-half showing, the Colts defense has been extremely vulnerable in the winter months, and Trent Richardson’s no-show is reminiscent of the Monstars pilfering talent from NBAers. Despite these flaws, Luck’s residence at the helm gives the Colts a fighting chance.

Of course, the presence of T.Y. Hilton certainly assists in this undertaking. Viewed as the de facto primary target for Luck in Wayne’s vacancy, Hilton scuffled in this enterprise, failing to insert the consistency that the role demands. Yet on the season’s biggest stage, Hilton answered, and answered with vigor in 13 receptions, 224 yards and two touchdowns. Although New England is susceptible on the ground, Indianapolis will likely attack from the sky, putting the onus on Hilton to display such prowess again this week.

Speaking of air assaults, Tom Brady’s passing figures have seen a precipitous drop from the past, but in no way does that indicate decline from the 36-year-old arm. If anything, quite the contrary, as in many ways this was perhaps Brady’s finest campaign. Working with a depleted, neophyte receiving crew and a set of turnover-prone running backs, the two-time MVP still guided his offense to the third-best scoring average in the league, posting 27.8 points per outing. This scoreboard outbreak was especially important given the rash of injuries suffered by the Patriots defense.

Alas, it’s this defensive damage that puts this Patriots squad under question. Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo will be on the sidelines Saturday, and the New England resistance has not fared well without its playmakers, ranking 30th against the run and 26th in total defense. This dubious shield was bestowed a generous slate down the home stretch, taking on feeble clubs in Houston, Cleveland, Miami, Baltimore and Buffalo in December, and the week off for this maligned bunch was needed. Unfortunately, with all remaining opponents flaunting some semblance of proficiency on offense, the Patriots defense will need to rise to the challenge to facilitate a February trip to New York.

Line: New England -7, 53 points

Fake line: Mentions of Bill Belichick’s success in the postseason – 5.5. By the way, if the Patriots lose, that would give Brady and Belichick six losses in their last nine playoff attempts. No way that’s happening, right? (pause) Right?

TV: Saturday – CBS – 8:15 PM EST

The Colts win if… Luck delivers another rabbit from his hat, the Colts running game is able to keep Brady on the sidelines.

The Patriots win if… Someone breaks into Indy’s hotel and shaves Luck’s beard, stripping him of his powers.

Prediction: Patriots 28, Colts 20

San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos

The lowdown: One demon will be expelled on Sunday. One will wreak havoc for another offseason. The playoff phantoms of Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning vie for a Mile High deposition in the AFC Divisional Round.

Perhaps Rivers is excused from such condemnation. Granted, the side-arm signal caller has historically shriveled in January, at least compared to his distinguished production during the fall. However, unlike past journeys where the Lightning Bolts entered the postseason as favorites, this iteration of the Chargers comes draped as the underdog beneath the AFC’s No. 6 seed. Moreover, Rivers efficiency against a stout Bengals defense is one of the chief reasons why San Diego punched its ticket to Denver. (Although some would argue Andy Dalton might have been the Chargers’ MVP last weekend.) In the midst of a career rejuvenation at age 32, a loss on Sunday won’t belittle the feats by the 32-year-old this season.

The same cannot be said of Rivers’ quarterback cohort. Instead of celebrating his record-breaking campaign in 2013, critics are accenting detractions like “9-11 playoff record,” “can’t win in cold weather” and “Rex Grossman” toward the revered Manning this week. In truth, Manning hasn’t been as bad as believed at this juncture of the calendar; in that same breath, if a “Peyton Manning Greatest Hits” hour-long DVD was released, approximately three minutes would be dedicated to playoff exploits (with 150 seconds of said duration showcasing the 2006 AFC Championship). Individual statistics don’t hold the same gravitas in football as other sports, providing further merit to Manning’s cynics. With a weakened Patriots team serving as the only (perceived) viable opponent in the Broncos’ path to the Super Bowl, the pressure for Manning to avoid another winter shortcoming is paramount.

Not to say these field generals will be alone in their endeavors. Dormant since the departure of LaDainian Tomlinson, the San Diego backfield has proven to be a dynamic complement to the aerial game. This sentiment was evident in the team’s victory in Cincinnati, where the trio of Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown combined for 183 rushing yards and two scores and accounted for half of Rivers’ targets in the receiving game. Coupled with the emergence of rookie wideout Keenan Allen and a reinvigorated defense that’s allowed just 16.3 points per contest over the last six games, the Chargers possess a formidability usually unseen by a No. 6 seed.

The Broncos’ complementary parts are well-known, with Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas profiting from the exposure of Manning’s regular-season conquests. Furthermore, Knowshon Moreno, the once-believed bust of the Denver backfield, finally fulfilled his first-round promise with nearly 1,600 yards from scrimmage and 13 total scores. Conversely, the Broncos are far from infallible, with the resistance looking like an Achilles’ heel. The defense finished the year ranked in the bottom third in points allowed, and was especially vulnerable against air raids (254.4 passing yards per outing, 27th in the NFL). Worse, the unit is without All-Pro Von Miller for the rest of the season, and the esteemed Champ Bailey is a shell of his former shutdown self. Concededly, these vices have been negated by the offense’s fireworks this season; nevertheless, if the Broncos plan on venturing to the Meadowlands this February, a defensive stand will be called upon at some interval. A proposition, based on 16 weeks of testimony, that Denver’s D may be unable to answer.

Line: Denver -9.5, 55 points

Fake line: Sideline shots catching crazy Rivers’ faces – 1.5. Thank God for Google.

TV: Sunday – CBS – 4:40 PM EST

The Broncos win if… The San Diego backfield is kept in check, Manning keeps on keepin’ on.

The Chargers win if… If “Tim Tebow” is trending on Sunday, something has gone seriously, seriously wrong for the Broncos.

Prediction: Broncos 34, Chargers 21

NFC Playoff Schedule

New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks

The lowdown: New Orleans is taking the axiom, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” to heart. In preparation for the team’s journey to Seattle, the scene of a smackdown in Week 13, coach Sean Payton spray painted the Seahawks logo on the Saints practice field, trying to evoke the pain and embarrassment suffered in the Emerald City. The tactic served its motivation purpose, with the cry of “vengeance” echoing out of the Bayou locker room. However, “a man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green.” The playoffs are a different animal, with little correlation between the events of yesterday and the fate of tomorrow. Could the Saints be victim to their own enmity?

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To be fair, Drew Brees has already reached a degree of retaliation this postseason. Entering last weekend’s Philadelphia foray, many were questioning if Brees possessed the temerity and fortitude to win on the road, using his 3-5 away record in 2013 and 0-3 career mark in playoff games away from the Big Easy as evidence to this claim. The eight-time Pro Bowler brushed aside these doubts, connecting on 20-of-30 passing attempts for 250 yards and a touchdown in frigid weather to lead the Saints over the Eagles. Just as notable was Brees’ altruistic distribution, spreading the pigskin to nine different targets last week. This circulation not only keeps adversaries on their toes, but keeps his own players engaged, knowing that the rock could be headed their way on any possession.

Also keeping the offense engaged: a stalwart defense. Traditionally viewed as the weak spot for the Saints in the Brees-Payton Era, coordinator Rob Ryan has transformed the unit into of the NFC’s best, a conviction seen in the defense’s concession of 19 points and 305.7 yards per game (both ranking fourth in the NFL in their respective categories). New Orleans has been exceptionally parsimonious against the pass, allowing a meager 194.1 yards per tilt, second-best in the league. With the heightened emphasis on aerial excursions in the NFL landscape, the Saints’ secondary has morphed the club into a well-rounded force.

Yet, as good as the New Orleans protection has been, it can’t hold a candle to the output of the Seahawks. Loaded with stars in Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, Seattle’s secondary garners most of the attention, notoriety that’s worthy judging by its NFL-low 172 passing yards allowed per game. The front seven is just as deserving, oppressing challengers to 101.6 yards per appearance, seventh-best in football. Together, these detachments relinquished just 14.4 points and 273.6 yards per contest this season, both league-lows. Moreover, the Seahawks held the Saints to 188 total yards and seven points in their previous get-together this year, with the yardage total doubling as the lowest harvest under Brees’ reign in New Orleans.

Also looking to duplicate Week 13’s performance is Russell Wilson, as the sophomore quarterback tossed for over 300 yards and three touchdowns in a flawless outing. Since then? Not so much: four scores, three picks and a middling average of 171.3 passing yards per game in the last four weeks. Worse, ball-security issues that plagued Wilson in the first half resurfaced. Marshawn Lynch is the catalyst for the Seattle offense and Percy Harvin’s return should awaken the attack from its comatose state (the offense has accounted for only seven touchdowns in the past four games). Paired with their lockdown defense, one would think this would be enough to propel the Seahawks into the conference championship. Even so, Wilson’s play, which has gotten a relative pass from scrutiny the past month, will need to improve in order to bring the Lombardi Trophy to Seattle.

Line: Seattle -7.5, 46.5 points

Fake line: Amount of angry Seattle emails in my inbox for criticizing Wilson – 450. I received hundreds of livid comments and Tweets in Week 16 for the audacity to pick the Cardinals to cover the spread. Not win, mind you, just that the game would be closer than imagined. You would have thought I ran over Steve Largent’s dog or posed in a holiday card with Clay Bennett judging by the Hatorade sent my way.

TV: Saturday – FOX – 4:35 PM EST

The Seahawks win if… Jimmy Graham is contained, Wilson is safe with the rock.

The Saints win if… Seattle’s HGH shipment is behind.

Prediction: Saints 23, Seahawks 17

San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers

The lowdown: One would think beating the likes of New England, New Orleans and San Francisco, as well as finishing the season on an 11-1 tear, would confer a modicum of respect. This hasn’t been the case for Carolina, as most believe the Niners will roll through Charlotte to set up a NFC West showdown in Seattle for the conference title.

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Insult is nothing new to the Panthers. Though a valued coordinator, Ron Rivera was viewed as an incompetent head coach in his first two seasons at the helm. After his first 36 professional games, Cam Newton looked to be a player whose feats failed to translate from the box score to the win column. Hell, Steve Smith, who has fueled an entire career off perceived slights, looked to be out of gas.

But woe unto thee who fails to recognize the Panthers’ efforts this campaign. Rivera has abandoned his conservative ways and adopted a more modern philosophy in his execution, one that has produced dividends. In his third year, Newton has proved himself more than just a stats stuffer, becoming an efficient and effective signal caller in spite of a relative lack of weapons at his disposal. Although injuries and Father Time have taken their toll, Smith remains the primary target in the Carolina receiving game.

And then there’s the Panthers defense. Led by probable Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly, Carolina is yielding the second-fewest points (15.1) and yards (301.3) per game in the league. Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson and Thomas Davis have led the charge up front, while Mike Mitchell highlights a speedy and perilous secondary. For those still questioning if Carolina has what it takes to notch a playoff victory, one view of this unit should alleviate those reservations.

The Panthers certainly have the Niners’ attention, referring to Week 10’s 10-9 upset in Candlestick. With a loss the following week, the preseason Super Bowl favorite faced a possibility of not making the postseason, as the defeat dropped San Fran to a 6-4 mark. The 49ers had made their bones on the weaklings of the league but fallen short against evenly-matched competition. Colin Kaepernick was showing signs of a one-year wonder, and the defense was besieged with injuries.

Since that interval, the Niners have recaptured their bravado, winning their past seven games, including notable Ws over a hot Arizona crew, Seattle and Green Bay. Kaepernick has reduced his turnovers and returned to his dual-threat acuity, and most of the players that watched the regular season on the sidelines are back in uniform. It was a more circuitous route than imagined, but San Francisco’s arsenal is loaded to make a run into February.

Line: San Francisco -1, 42 points

Fake line: Times the announcer crew portrays Steve Smith’s jawing with opponents as “heart” or “character” – 8.5. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Smith, but he’s the only cat in the world that gets praised for dropping f-bombs in other dudes’ grills.

TV: Sunday – FOX – 1:05 PM EST

The 49ers win if… Frank Gore breaks through Carolina’s brick wall, the Nature Boy delivers another pregame speech.

The Panthers win if… Carolina forces Kaepernick to throw, Newton gets it done on the ground.

Prediction: Panthers 20, San Francisco 16

Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall

Tagged: Bengals, Broncos, Colts, Patriots, Saints, 49ers, Seahawks, Redskins, Panthers, Chargers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Champ Bailey, Steve Smith Sr., Philip Rivers, Wes Welker, Thomas Davis, Demaryius Thomas, Earl Thomas, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Julius Thomas, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, T.Y. Hilton

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