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NFL Divisional Playoffs: A closer look

By By The Sports Xchange
Published On: Jan 06 2014 09:16:41 AM CST
closeup of football laces

iStock/joecicak

The NFL's well-rested and top-seeded bye teams join the playoffs next weekend with the NFC's No. 1 Seattle Seahawks hosting the New Orleans Saints and the AFC's No. 1 Denver Broncos playing a historically rude guest and West Division rival San Diego.

The other divisional games feature the Indianapolis Colts at New England in the AFC and the San Francisco 49ers at Carolina in the NFC.

The next round begins Saturday when the Saints visit Seattle's infamous din of inequity with a 4:35 p.m. ET kickoff followed by the Colts at the Patriots at 8:15 p.m. ET.

On Sunday, the NFC defending champion 49ers are at Carolina with a 1:05 p.m. ET kickoff, then the Chargers visit the Mile High Broncos for a 1:40 p.m. game.

These matchups were set this weekend beginning Saturday when the Colts staged a ridiculous comeback to eliminate the Kansas City Chiefs, 45-44, and the Saints stopped the Philadelphia Eagles, 26-24. On Sunday, the Chargers handled the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-10, and the 49ers managed a 23-20 win in Green Bay on a last-play field goal.

Here is a close look at next weekend's games:

SATURDAY'S GAMES

NEW ORLEANS AT SEATTLE

4:35 p.m. ET

The Seahawks routed the Saints, 34-7, on "Monday Night Football" in Seattle on Dec. 7.

Seattle enters as the No. 1 seed in the NFC after going 13-3 during the regular season. The victory over the Saints was kick-started by an interception return for a touchdown by defensive lineman Michael Bennett, which led to CenturyLink Field re-setting a Guinness record for loudest crowd noise ever recorded in an outdoor stadium.

"It's loud, it's crazy, they've got a good thing going there," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of the Seahawks after New Orleans won at Philadelphia on Saturday night to advance. "Obviously, they've only lost one game there in the last two years. But having been there less than a month ago, I think that serves us well, what to expect, how to prepare for it.

"But we're going to need our best game, that's for sure."

The Saints went 3-5 on the road during the regular season and must win three consecutive road games to reach the Super Bowl, but notched a victory on the first leg against the Eagles.

Seattle is coming off a bye week, has lost one home game in the past two seasons and enters with the league's top-ranked defense.

"Obviously, we did not play our best football that night," Brees said of the Dec. 2 loss to Seattle. "We got beat pretty soundly by those guys. There's a reason they're the one seed"

This is a chance at postseason redemption for the Saints, who were on the wrong side of a 41-36 playoff meeting at Seattle in January 2011. But the Seahawks present a number of challenges for Brees, including a secondary with three All-Pros -- cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Cam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.

The rested Seahawks lost two of their final four games but clinched the top seed in the NFC by dominating the St. Louis Rams 27-9 in Week 17 to claim the NFC West title.

INDIANAPOLIS AT NEW ENGLAND

8:15 p.m. ET

The Colts (12-5) visit the Patriots (12-4) with Indianapolis coming off a dramatic 45-44 wild-card victory at home against the Kansas City Chiefs engineered by second-year quarterback Andrew Luck

"There's no question he's a complete football player and one of the top quarterbacks in this league already," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "He has a great career in front of him but I think he's already established himself as a very poised and talented player that can do a lot of things to beat you and he manages his team well and plays good situational football."

The Patriots had a first-round bye for the fourth consecutive season as the No. 2 seed in the conference after winning the AFC East for the 11th straight year. The Patriots have won five of their past six games.

Indianapolis held a weight-room workout with 100 percent attendance on Sunday despite a game that played out like a 12-round heavyweight fight against the Chiefs. The Colts mounted the second-largest playoff comeback in the NFL history, rallying from a 35-10 hole in the third quarter to upend the Chiefs.

Answering the bell in Foxborough, Mass., is not a worry according to Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, but it is uncharted territory for the upstart AFC South champions. The confidence comes from a season of comebacks and two years of dealing with less-than-ideal conditions.

Still, the Colts will enter banged up, with cornerback Greg Toler and safety LaRon Landry among those whose status could be uncertain up until game time.

The last playoff meeting between the teams was in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. True to modern form, the Colts won the game, 38-34, overcoming an 18-point deficit.

The Colts reached the playoffs in 2012 but lost in the wild-card round to Super Bowl champion Baltimore. Pagano said the team was focused not to go home early.

SUNDAY'S GAMES

SAN FRANCISCO AT CAROLINA

1:05 p.m. ET

The NFC South champion Carolina Panthers join the postseason party next weekend by playing host to the San Francisco 49ers, who escaped a wild card war in Green Bay with a final-play field goal, 23-20.

This is a rematch of a Nov. 10 game in San Francisco when the Panthers gained serious attention by coming back from a 9-0 deficit to beat the reigning NFC champs, 10-9.

Although it was an ugly game, it was a statement that the Panthers needed as they had been 2-14 in their previous 16 games decided by a touchdown or less. Since that win, Carolina is 5-0 in close games.

The more veteran 49ers now come into this divisional battle on the heels of winning two consecutive games with a field goal on the last play, also winning at Arizona to close out the regular season on a game-winning kick by Phil Dawson.

These two teams are somewhat of a mirror image. On offense they each have athletic quarterbacks who can run or pass, Carolina with the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft in Cam Newton and San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick, the No. 36 player selected in the same draft.

On defense each team has great linebackers led by second-year phenomenon Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis for the Panthers, while the 49ers have Navarro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith.

After their regular-season game, Newton acknowledged the importance of that win at that time.

"This game is a maturity jump for us, because in the past what I've been a part of, we've been somewhat uncertain of how we will turn out in these types of games," Newton said. "We needed that type of game, just to be in a dog fight, in somewhat of a barnburner, to show what type of team this really is."

One of the big early keys will be how Newton performs out of the gate in his first career playoff game.

"This is going to be a new venture for me, and I'm going to try to make the most of it," Newton said during the team's bye week. "We have to worry about ourselves first. I feel as if when we're playing at our best, there's really no team that can stop us."

SAN DIEGO AT DENVER

4:40 p.m. ET

Denver (13-3) is the top seed in the AFC, but the West division rivals split the regular-season matchups, including the Chargers' 27-20 victory at Mile High.

The Chargers and Broncos are original members of the American Football League from its 1960 startup. This will be the first time the two teams have met in the postseason when they kick off at 4:40 p.m. ET at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium.

"We know them, they know us, personnel-wise," said Chargers safety Eric Weddle. "It's going to be a great game and great battle. We held them to 28 and 20 points in both games. You never know. It could be a shootout, or it could be a low-scoring game. That's the great thing about the playoffs."

The Broncos set an NFL record with 606 points during the regular season and quarterback Peyton Manning passed for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, both single-season league records.

During the two-week break, coach John Fox and the Broncos received good news -- wide receiver Wes Welker was cleared after missing the final three games of the regular season with a concussion, including the second San Diego game -- but Denver could be forgiven if it was less than excited about drawing the Chargers again.

It's not just that the Broncos lost at home to them earlier this month; it's that they have lost six of their past eight games to the Chargers in Denver.

Moreover, San Diego is 2-0 against Manning in the playoffs -- both when he was with the Indianapolis Colts. Manning has eight one-and-done postseason appearances. That includes a 38-35 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens at home to end last season.

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