By Mike Ivcic, UltimateCapper Contributing Writer
You may have heard by now that last week’s wild card weekend was a crazy weekend. How crazy? Well, for the first time in my professional prognosticating career, I managed to have three results in which I got only half of the pick correct (either straight up or against the spread). That’s for the entire playoffs! And it happened in the first three games of the weekend, as the Colts won but didn’t cover and both the Saints and Chargers not only covered, but took the game outright. The only reason that didn’t happen with the fourth game is because the Niners 3-point win created a push, meaning that not a single game all weekend went into the same column in both categories. Nuts.
As far as the actual on-field action, the most surprising result to me was the Chargers thorough manhandling of a Cincinnati team that hadn’t lost a home game all year. Now San Diego gets to travel to Denver, where it just so happens they managed to be the only team to win a game against the Broncos all year. They earned that trip by winning the battle on defense, thoroughly confusing Andy Dalton with a variety of disguised coverages designed to force bad throws, and they did just that. Speaking of bad throws, it was clear after watching Aaron Rodgers on Sunday that he still wasn’t totally healthy. Sure, he was still better at whatever percentage he was than any of the Packers other options, but he missed a couple of plays that could have easily swung the game in Green Bay’s favor. In both of those games, the losing QB simply didn’t play as well as anticipated, and in the playoffs it’s all about QB play.
The other thing that wins in the playoffs is defense, as the Saints and Chiefs proved in opposite ways on Saturday. The Eagles defense simply wasn’t playoff caliber, and New Orleans learned from watching tape of Kansas City, Dallas, and Minnesota in developing a game plan to snuff Chip Kelly’s high-powered offense. Those two factors, combined with a huge kickoff return at the precise right moment, gave Drew Brees the opportunity to engineer the game-winning drive. The Saints offense may have only managed two trips to the end zone and had to settle for four field goals, but the defensive performance is what ultimately pushed New Orleans into their rematch with Seattle. Meanwhile, Kansas City will be watching the rest of the playoffs from home after Andrew Luck led the Colts to the second-largest come-from-behind victory in playoff history. Sure, injuries played a big part in the Chiefs collapse, especially losing Justin Houston and Brandon Flowers, but Indy scored 35 points in the second half. That’s simply unacceptable from one of the league’s premier defenses. Alex Smith led the Chiefs offense to 44 points, which should be enough to win a playoff game every single time. Instead, he couldn’t score enough to keep up with the rate at which his defense was surrendering touchdowns, and now Indy will face the Patriots this weekend. It’s the perfect dichotomy for showing just how important a good defense really is come playoff time.
Now, onto this week’s games – with three of the four posting lines of a touchdown or more. That’s never a good thing when it comes to me picking games…
New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks
Sat, 4:30pm, FOX
Line: Seahawks by 8
A month ago, this exact game occurred on Monday Night Football and the Saints were never even in it. That’s a distinct possibility for every game that occurs in Seattle each and every season, and there’s no shame in it – ask San Francisco, who also got throttled in primetime when they visited the Pacific Northwest in week 2. But three weeks ago, Arizona went into CenturyLink Field and beat the Seahawks, depleting the aura just a bit. Then, New Orleans captured their first road playoff victory ever with a game-winning field goal in Philadelphia as time expired. So everything is setting up for a New Orleans victory this Saturday, right?
Wrong. Sure, the Saints played a good game in Philadelphia, especially defensively, but their offense was held to four field goals and only two touchdowns, a formula that won’t work this week. Plus, the Seahawks are a monster defensively when they play at home, a fact Drew Brees and company now understand after their last visit. Seattle may not be as explosive in the passing game as the Eagles, but Russell Wilson is far more mobile than Nick Foles and thus creates more mismatch problems for the Saints secondary. Rob Ryan didn’t necessarily do a terrible job against the Seahawks offense last time – it was Sean Payton’s offense that really put NO behind the proverbial 8-ball – but he’ll have to be a borderline magician to keep this game within striking distance in the fourth quarter. If the game is close late into the game, I think the edge shifts dramatically to Payton and Brees, who are each better than Carroll and Wilson, respectively, but I don’t foresee the Saints being able to play the first 50 minutes of football well enough to make the last 10 relevant.
Pick: Seattle 30, New Orleans 17
Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots
Sat, 8:10pm, CBS
Line: Patriots by 7.5
Let me start by saying I would love to pick the Colts. I will root very strongly for the Colts and against the Patriots on Saturday night. That said, there’s simply not enough evidence that I can find that would indicate the Colts will go into Foxboro come out victorious. For starters, Andrew Luck just won his very first playoff game last week after spotting the opponent 38 points. I promise that if the Patriots have a 38-10 lead, they won’t proceed to get outscored 35-6. Plus, T.Y Hilton clearly caught the Chiefs secondary off guard with his explosiveness, and once Brandon Flowers went down in the third quarter there was simply no way for Kansas City to adjust to stop him. Now, however, there’s game tape for the Patriots to watch, and they’ll learn how to stop Luck’s new go-to target.
On the other side of the ball, the Colts defense survived last weekend by forcing field goals late, as opposed to touchdowns. If they can do that again, they can definitely at least keep the Indy offense in the game. Just like the Saints, though, the key will be figuring out ways to score enough points, because eventually the Patriots will find the end zone. Perhaps a special teams or defensive touchdown will be the answer, and Adam Vinatieri kicking a game-winning field goal in Foxboro to beat his former team would be an absolutely terrific script. If the Colts are going to win the game, that’s how it will have to happen, and because the Pats really don’t blow anyone out, I’m actually going to talk myself into taking a cover just so I have an excuse to root for Indianapolis. The AFC is set up for Brady and Manning, though, and Luck and company just don’t have enough to ruin that matchup.
Pick: New England 27, Indianapolis 24
San Francisco 49’ers @ Carolina Panthers
Sun, 1pm, FOX
Carolina beat San Francisco by a point on the road this season, 10-9. For that to happen again, the Panthers defense is going to have to do what the Packers defense couldn’t last weekend – stop Colin Kaepernick.
I’ll say this about Kaepernick – though I outlined my doubts about him and his ability to lead the Niners to a Super Bowl win, his play does translate well to the style of football that typically wins in the NFL postseason. Because San Francisco has a good corps of wide receivers – all of whom are now healthy and productive with the return of Michael Crabtree – opposing defenses have no choice but to respect the 49’ers ability to throw the ball downfield. Add in Frank Gore, and suddenly there are just too many offensive weapons to cover. What happens in those situations was evident Sunday, when the Packers brought a blitz, got good pressure on the weak side, and had above average coverage on the short and intermediate routes of the San Fran receivers. Kaepernick simply pulled the ball down, eluded the rushing Jarrett Bush (who only hurt his cause by taking the inside lane and allowing Kaepernick to scramble outside of the pocket), and running for the biggest first down of the game. It was a perfect series that indicates the ups and downs of the 49’ers QB – just after getting a second chance because of a poor pass that should have been intercepted and instead was dropped, he comes back and make a play with his legs to lead the Niners to a road playoff win. That type of mobility wins when January weather and stingier, better defenses make it harder to throw the ball.
Carolina’s defense, though, is just that type of defense, and unlike the Packers who were absent Clay Matthews, the Panthers will have Luke Kuechley, their best player, in the lineup this week to spy on Kaepernick. If he and the rest of the Panthers defense can do to the Niners what they did at Candlestick in week 10, then Cam Newton and the Carolina offense will definitely be in position to win this game. That’s a tall order, though, especially with Crabtree’s presence, and as much as I hate admitting it, this is San Francisco team that’s just built to win these types of games.
Pick: San Francisco 20, Carolina 17
San Diego Chargers @ Denver Broncos
Sun, 4:30pm, CBS
Line: Broncos by 9
No, no, and no. These two teams played twice this year – once in San Diego where Denver won by 7, and once in Denver where San Diego won by 8. Why, then, would I think that this game, being played in Denver, would be more lopsided than either of the two regular season games after the Chargers just validated their playoff presence by manhandling a previously-undefeated-at-home Cincinnati squad? That’s right… I wouldn’t.
Now, that doesn’t mean I think the Chargers will actually win. Sure, they’re the only team to beat the Broncos at Invesco Field this year, and yes Peyton Manning has a history of playoff flops that includes a brutal loss to the Ravens in this exact round last year. But as well as Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense has played this year, this isn’t Andy Dalton and the Bengals. The San Diego defense did a marvelous job at disguising coverages last week, thoroughly confusing the Bengals QB and forcing two terrible interceptions, but Manning and the Broncos offense has now seen this defense twice this season, so there probably aren’t too many wrinkles that will be foreign to them. Plus, the Broncos play a much different style of offense than the Bengals, relying more on no-huddle, spread sets that are dictated by Manni8ng based on the defense presented, as opposed to Dalton’s scripted play calls out of more bunch formations that learn more heavily on the designed run. San Diego is built to stop the latter, but they’re a little less adept at containing the former.
Finally, while San Diego has clearly been the hot team, winning their last five games, let’s remember that at one point this was a 5-7 team that needed about 8 different results totally outside of their own control just to get to this point. One more win by the Ravens, Dolphins, Jets, or Steelers would have left this team watching the playoffs instead of playing a Divisional Round game. This isn’t last year’s Ravens or even the ’06 Wild Card Steelers that won three road playoff games en route to a championship. This is a Chargers team that doesn’t have a real top-flight receiver and, unless they decide to use Ryan Mathews a whole lot more than they did last week, won’t take full advantage of the absence of Von Miller. The Broncos and Patriots are on a collision course, and the NFL is drooling over a possible championship weekend that features the best team rivalry (San Francisco vs. Seattle) and individual rivalry (Brady vs. Manning) in the entire sport. They’ll get their dream scenarios.
Pick: Denver 34, San Diego 28
Against Spread: 2-1-1
Against Spread: 126-124-6
Against Spread: 128-125-7