NFL DIVISIONAL IS WHERE THE PLAYOFFS REALLY BEGIN

11Jan14

Now that we’re finished with the wildcard round of football, it’s time to start paying more attention.

Before you get too hot and heavy about that opening remark, let me clarify things for you.  I’m not implying that the wildcard round didn’t mean anything or that it wasn’t exciting football.  It just means that it was like every other season – completely unpredictable!

Sure it’s created a lot of buzz for the talking heads all week, and the Indy comeback is certainly one for the record books.  And let’s not forget that three out of four home teams lost.

But what’s so surprising about that?  More times than not, the visiting team is better than the home team, given the way the playoffs are set up.  For instance, who could logically argue that the 49ers and Saints are not better teams than the Packers and Eagles?  Remember, I said “logically”!

That’s right, it can’t be done.  And although they had to come from 28 points down to win, the same argument could be made for the Colts being a better team than the Chiefs, since they at least beat a couple of “above .500” teams during the season.

The biggest surprise was the Chargers’ domination of the Bengals.  At least until you think about it.

What does that mean?  Well, San Diego found themselves at 5-7 after twelve games and most likely heading for another short season, when they suddenly caught fire and ran off four straight victories to grab the final playoff spot in the AFC.  They were supposed to go to a frozen city of Cincinnati and collapse, but everyone forgot that the Bengals reside in that Ohio town.

You remember the Bengals, don’t you?  They are the team that folds like a lawn chair come playoff time, and they didn’t disappoint.

So here we are in the divisional round, with four matchups that all have the potential to be fantastic games.  Of course, they all have the potential to be blowouts, too.

Let’s take a look at the AFC first.

Indianapolis at New England —  If you try to listen to the experts for advice on this game, you’re heading for a major headache, since they all have very strong opinions on this one, and they vary from one end of the spectrum to the other.

A couple of gentlemen that I have a lot of respect for (I won’t name names, since that’s not the point) have picked the Colts to be the “team of destiny”, so they are predicting an upset in Foxboro this week.

A couple of other gentlemen that I have a lot of respect for are heading the other direction, predicting a Patriot domination and, quite possibly, a blowout.

I’m landing somewhere in between.  After all, we have seen a Colts team that has looked invincible one week and then gets blown out of the water the following week.

Then again, we can say the same about New England.  They have been underwhelming this season, but that might be because over the past decade we have come expect them to be great, not just good.

The big difference is the Patriots, love them or hate them, are 8-0 at home this season.  Their organization finds ways to win in January.

And while the Colts are 5-3 on the road, three of those losses came to non-playoff teams.  I don’t believe they are quite where they need to be to win a playoff game at New England.

Will they keep it close?  Only if they don’t spot the Patriots a 28 point lead.  In fact, they need to be within a TD going into the 4th quarter, or this one’s over.

In the end, I’m going with New England 41-34.

San Diego at Denver – A lot of people are pointing to this game as the upset special of the week.  I just don’t see it.

I understand that last week the Chargers discovered the running game.  But that was against the Bengals, not the Broncos.  They also relied heavily on a defense that intercepted a Dalton pass every couple of minutes (at least it seemed that way).  Do you really think that will happen with the General running things for Denver?

Granted, the Chargers are a much improved team from earlier this season.  They finished off the season strong and were fortunate enough to play at Cincinnati in the first round.  But they are at Denver this week.  Don’t look for the same results.

The only way this game stays close is if San Diego scores first and often in the first half.  That way, they can control their offensive game plan and mix in the running game when they want.

However, if Denver scores first, or if they build a two-score lead, the Chargers will have no choice but to become one dimensional and pass, pass and pass again.  That will be playing right into the Bronco’s hands and it will fail miserably.

Ultimately, I don’t see the Chargers staying in this one for long.  This may very well be the blowout of the week.

That’s why I’m going with the Denver Broncos 45-27.

Now for the NFC!

New Orleans at Seattle – There have been so many story lines created for this game, my head spins every time I hear someone talk about.

We have the “revenge” factor for New Orleans, since they were destroyed 34-7 in their week 13 visit to Seattle.  There is also a revenge story for losing at Seattle in the playoffs a few years ago, when they were strong favorites to contend for the Super Bowl.

We also have the “Seattle doesn’t lose at home” story line, although that one lost some of its steam when Arizona shut them down in week 16.

Ultimately, you can throw all of that out the window.  This is a new day.  There is every reason to believe that the Seahawks will dominate this game, given the history stated above.  I don’t think they will dominate it for a couple of reasons.

First of all, the Saints have one of the best home records themselves, so they know all about the home field advantages and what comprises them, such as fan noise.

Second, Coach Peyton is no dummy.  You’d better believe that he has not only dissected every minute of game film of their loss at Seattle, but also of the Cardinals victory at Seattle.  He is fully aware of what worked and what did not.

In other words, watch for the Saints to run the ball a lot and pass occasionally, which is contrary to their normal M.O.  If they find themselves having to pass it a lot, they’re done.  After all, they’d be passing it against the best secondary in the business.

And let’s not forget that, although not flashy like the Broncos, the Seahawks offense is efficient and does not make many mistakes.  Wilson has proven my preseason predictions correct, in becoming a much more improved QB than his rival counterparts.  And Lynch is still running over everyone in his way!

I’m not looking for a blowout, but I am looking for Seattle to be in control for most of the game.  I’m picking the Seattle Seahawks 27-23.

San Francisco at Carolina – This may be one of the best playoff games in years.  These teams are so evenly matched, it’s unreal!

Both teams have a QB that can throw it down the field or take off running.  They both have RBs that can pound out yardage the old fashioned way.  They both have a very talented corps of receivers.  And they both have very good defensive units.

So how do you pick a winner in a game like this?  Very carefully!

It’s not often that the home team is not favored in a divisional round matchup.  So that has to tell you something.

Most people are pointing to the Panther’s winning streak that saw them go from 1-3 to 12-4.  That’s quite impressive and cannot be ignored, but the fact is that during the final 13 games, they only had five games against teams that finished above .500, and they went 3-2 against them.

However, one of those wins was at San Francisco against these very same 49ers.

Or was it?  The reality is that these 49ers are not the same team they were in week 10 when they lost 10-9 to the Panthers.  They were dinged up and piece-mealed together.

Now they have all of their pieces back.  No longer can Boldin be double teamed, unless you want to find Crabtree running free down the sidelines.  No longer can you key on Gore, unless you want to see Kaepernick pass or run too beat you.

I believe this will be a close game that comes down to the wire.  The 49ers have kicked game ending field goals to win the past two weeks 23-20.  Don’t be surprised if the same thing happens here.

I’m taking the San Francisco 49ers 27-24.

Now, go and enjoy some football!

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