Who has the edge in Divisional Round matchups?
Wild Card Weekend was one to remember. Six of the last eight Super Bowl winners have played on the first weekend of the playoffs, and from the looks of things, it could happen again.
After Andrew Luck’s thrilling 28-point comeback Saturday afternoon, fans were treated to three other matchups that lived up to the hype. And now the playoff picture is crystal clear. Eight teams remain in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. Four games next weekend will determine who moves on to Championship Weekend.
Here’s your first look at the divisional round:
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET on FOX)
The Saints make the dreaded trip back to Century Link Field for the first time since Week 13.
In that game, the Saints defense gave up 27 points to Seattle’s offense and Russell Wilson heard "MVP" chants in the crowd. Wilson diced up New Orleans’ secondary by throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-7 win.
The Seahawks will look to duplicate that success, but the Saints have found some success in the past five weeks, allowing just 19.8 points a game during that span.
Wide receiver Percy Harvin could be eased into action despite missing the last two months with soreness in his surgically repaired hip. Harvin practiced with the team all week, and if he’s able to go, he would add another dimension to Seattle’s efficient offense.
The priority for the Saints should be to keep Drew Brees upright. Seattle does a good job of disrupting the quarterback and will likely overload rookie left tackle Terron Armstead. While Armstead is extremely athletic for his size, he has some holes in his game and needs some assistance with chip blocks from the running backs.
Speaking of which, it’s unknown if Pierre Thomas will be playing after being ruled out with an undisclosed chest injury against the Eagles. Darren Sproles, Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram will look to be a part of the game plan if Thomas can’t go.
With a win in Philly, the Saints have proven they can get it done on the road. Taking care of business in front of the deafening 12th man faithful is another story. The Seahawks had an unbeaten home record (15-0) in the Russell Wilson era until they lost in Week 16 against the Cardinals.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET on CBS)
Does anyone want a piece of Luck after he staged a historic postseason comeback? Probably not.
But the New England Patriots watched the Chiefs, without Jamaal Charles, hang 44 points on the Colts. Indianapolis has big-time problems in its secondary, and a well-balanced attack could prove to be too much. Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount has run for 265 yards and four touchdowns in the team’s last two games. If the Patriots get out front early, it could be Blount who puts Indy away.
It will be defensive end Robert Mathis’ job to get in Tom Brady’s face and force him to make ill-advised passes. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will be spending this week installing a plan on how to limit the Colts pass rusher. Mathis, who racked up 19.5 sacks in the regular season, had a key strip-sack on Alex Smith to offer the Colts hope on Saturday.
Luck’s favorite target, T.Y. Hilton, was very productive against the Chiefs, but faces a whole new challenge going against Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib. The Colts, whether it’s Donald Brown or the team’s prized acquisition Trent Richardson, must have some semblance of the running game to keep Brady on the sideline.
Bill Belichick, coming off a bye, is 10-3 dating back to 2000. That’s pretty good.
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET on FOX)
If you’re into low-scoring, black-and-blue football, this one is for you. Before the Panthers went on the road and ripped a victory away from the 49ers in Week 10, many had them pegged as pretenders. The Panthers were a good team who were exceeding their expectations and playing great defense. That was their signature win. Now, they must do it again if they have hopes of playing for the George Halas Trophy.
Fresh off a bye week, Cam Newton is likely to get his favorite target Steve Smith back to action. Smith, who was sidelined in Week 17 with a sprained PCL, didn’t practice last week but should be eased into action as kickoff approaches.
In the first matchup, Newton faced a challenging defense, completing just 50 percent of his passes and threw one of his 13 interceptions.
Aldon Smith didn’t have much of an impact in the first game and will be breathing down Newton’s neck. Carlos Rogers, who was inactive for Sunday’s matchup against the Packers, would be a welcoming addition to the 49ers, too.
Ultimately what this game will come down to is whose defense will crack first.
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos (Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET on CBS)
Chargers first-year head coach Mike McCoy makes his return to Denver, where he was the offensive coordinator for four seasons.
McCoy’s offensive philosophy of extending long drives and owning the time of possession has worked well for San Diego. Philip Rivers has emerged as a front-runner for Comeback Player of the Year award alongside running back Ryan Mathews. The Chargers offense can move the ball, but will it be able to keep pace with Peyton Manning off a bye?
Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano did a masterful job of shutting down Bengals elite wide receiver A.J. Green in the wild-card round. Unfortunately, Pagano’s long nights at the office will be spent on how to contain a quartet of Pro Bowl-worthy options.
Wide receiver Wes Welker was shut down for the last two weeks of the season while he dealt with concussion-like symptoms. Welker does his damage in the slot and will give nickel corner Derek Cox some trouble.
Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas have 3,506 yards and 37 touchdowns combined. That’s a lot of production to defend.
The two teams split during the season, but the Chargers laid the blueprint to beating the Broncos on the road in Week 15. A healthy dose of Mathews, Keenan Allen and maybe some Danny Woodhead could add to Manning’s disheartening 9-11 postseason record.
You can follow Ross Jones on Twitter @RossJonesFOX