Before last week's games, I highlighted a few factors that would go a long way towards deciding the Wild Card matchups
. And now, less than 24 hours before the best weekend of the NFL season kicks off, it's time to look ahead to the round of eight.
Seahawks Passing Attack
The Saints have been thinking about this opportunity for a while now. They got absolutely embarrassed in Seattle in week 13 and have looked ahead to a potential rematch ever since. Much of the talk this week has been about that redemption story; can Sean Payton rally his troops and can Drew Brees figure out away to solve the Seahawks secondary. But looking at how Seattle and New Orleans have gone about their business so far this season, a different and potentially more important matchup reveals itself.
In the Seahawks eight home games, they've gone 7-1. Three of those games, including the lone loss, have been close games (ARI, TB, TEN) while the remaining five got pretty ugly for the visitors (STL, NO, MIN, JAX, SF). You'd think that in the blowouts, Seattle would have dominated every aspect of the game. But, in fact, Seattle's defense and running game are, for the most part, always good at home. What differentiates the blowouts from the competitive games is Seattle's ability to move the ball with ease and score, specifically through the air.
In the blowouts, Seattle is scoring 35.2 points per game compared to 19 in the close games.The Seahawks are actually rushing for more yardage in close games than they are in the blowouts, where the passing game has been instrumental in running up the score.
On the other side of the ball, New Orleans has been among the NFL's best all season in pass defense. They've only allowed two 300-yard passers (Russell Wilson and Jay Cutler) all year and, with Keenan Lewis expected to suit up, the Saints have a chance to right the ship if they can minimize Wilson's effectiveness in the passing game. It's going to be very hard for the Saints to pull off the upset, but if they do, I expect their secondary to be the main reason why.
Andrew Luck and the Colts are coming off of a win for the ages. They pulled out a thrilling 45-44 victory against the Chiefs, giving Luck his fourth fourth-quarter comeback on the year.
But looking at the Colts trajectory this season, last week's thrilling victory could mean danger ahead for Indy. Their three other fourth-quarter comebacks this season came against Oakland in Week 1, Seattle in Week 5, and Houston in Week 9. Want to guess what happened in each of their games following the fourth-quarter comeback? Yeah, that's right, they lost. Those losses came to Miami, St. Louis, and San Diego -- not exactly a murderer's row.
In each of those three losses, the Colts got down early. It's hard to imagine a team led by Andrew Luck and Chuck Pagano will have a problem getting up for a playoff game, but it will be interesting to see how Indy looks coming out of the gate. And with Bill Belichick's impressive record coming off of a bye, it's conceivable that New England will simply jump on Indianapolis early, just like Miami, St. Louis, and San Diego did. Composure in Carolina
There's no denying that the Panthers have become one of the better teams in the NFL, but history tells us that the rise to the very top usually takes some time.
It's uncommon for a team to come out of the blue and instantly become a serious contender. Usually ateam will earn a wild card spot or sneak in with a 10-6 record for a couple of seasons while ascending up the NFL ranks. Since 1999, there have been eight teams that have gone directly from mediocrity or worse to a first-round bye. One team, the '99 Rams, went all the way, but the remaining seven teams won just four combined games despite home field advantage and better records. Three lost their first playoff game while the other four managed to win their first playoff game.
It's a simple explanation: inexperienced playoff teams don't make long playoff runs, even if they did go 12-4 or 13-3 during the regular season.
Here are the teams that failed to win a game:
-The '03 Chiefs lost to a more experienced Colts team in the divisional round after a 13-3 season.
-The '05 Bears, in Lovie Smith's second year, lost in their first game to a Panthers team that had made it to the Super Bowl two seasons earlier.
-Peyton Manning made his first playoff appearance with Indy in 1999. They went 13-3 during the regular season then lost to Tennessee in their first playoff game.
The 1999 Colts is, in my opinion, the best comparison. This Panthers team has ridden Cam Newton and a fierce defense to relevancy, but the team as a whole lacks experience. This is their first rodeo, and unless Cam can settle down what is likely to be a riled up Panthers team, it could be a short one. He's shown poise and comfort in the pocket beyond his years so far this season but his ability to manage high-pressure moments on Sunday will determine just how deep of a run his team can make.
Ground Game in Mile High
Much has been made about Peyton Manning's record against the Chargers. He's 0-2 in the playoffs against San Diego and, earlier this season, the Chargers did the unthinkable and pulled out a win in Denver. For his career, Manning is 7-6 against San Diego but, somewhat surprisingly, his stats in the wins are pretty similar to his stats in the losses. Yards and attempts climb slightly in the losses while his completion percentage is about two points higher in the wins, but he's Peyton Manning -- he's always putting up good numbers.,
That's why Knowshon Moreno will be so important. Smart money says Peyton will be Peyton once again on Sunday, but if Knowshon is Knowshon, the Broncos passing stats might not matter all that much.
In San Diego's seven losses this season, they've allowed their opponent to rush for 100+ yards six times (the only exception came in their loss to Denver when the Broncos only rushed for 84 yards) and, in those losses, opponents are rushing for 136 yards per game. On the other hand, in their nine wins, the Chargers have allowed an opponent to reach 100 yards on the ground just three times (in their win in Denver, the Chargers allowed only 18 rushing yards).
Moreno's rushing numbers will be a key barometer for this game. Peyton's production is essentially a given, but if the Broncos can control the ball and keep Peyton and Co. on the field using both the running and passing game, Peyton should finally reverse his playoff fortunes against San Diego.