Saturday 24 February 2018 / 08:43 PM

Then There Were 8: Divisional Preview

I don’t think anyone could have predicted the results from this past weekend’s Wild-Card Round. 3 out of the 4 victors were playing on the road, Alex Smith threw 4 TDs and lost, Drew Brees had more INTs than TDs and won, and Cincinnati fell in a laughter to the Chargers (OK, perhaps this one shouldn’t have been so difficult to call, but in my defense, the Bengals were undefeated at home during the regular season).

So now the match-ups are set for the Divisional Round. We’re down to eight teams, with each side just two games away from a chance at the Lombardi trophy.

Let’s take a look at the keys to winning for each team:

San Diego at Denver


The Broncos and the Chargers will face each other for the 3rd time in two months, so there should be no surprises between these two clubs. San Diego boasts the biggest upset of the NFL season after pulling out the win in Mile High in week 15, but with Wes Welker back in the line-up the Bolts will have a much tougher time keeping Manning and the offense in check this time around.

Keys for San Diego: The Chargers’ improbable run over the past 5 games has been built behind a steady, ball-control offense and tight defense. Their game plan calls for less passes but expects that the pass plays they do call to accurate and thrown for completions. John Pagano’s defense has held 5 out of the last 6 opponents to under 20 points. If they can somehow pull off this feat in Denver, then they’ll have a chance. The Broncos’ defense is in the bottom half of the league in most categories, including scoring, giving up 24.9 points per game.

Keys for Denver: Plain and simple. Don’t implode. While it may be an oversimplification, this game rests on the shoulders of Peyton Manning. If he does his thing, the Broncos should win easily, but if he turns the ball over in Denver territory, we have seen what the Chargers’ running game can do with short fields.


My Pick: It was a fun ride, but the buck stops here for Philip Rivers.


Denver 31 – 21 Chargers

San Francisco at Carolina


The last time these two teams met was in week 10 of the regular season and the Panthers won 10-9. The 49ers were missing Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis left the game early with a concussion, so don’t read too much into the final score.

This match-up pits two teams with very similar builds. They both rely on a tough defense, they both play physical brands of football, and both teams’ quarterbacks are young and agile. Limiting the opposing team’s signal caller to less than 30-yards rushing will be a goal for both defenses heading into this one.

Keys for San Francisco: Focus in on the run. While Cam Newton is a much better pocket passer than many give him credit for, he is most dangerous when he gets out of the pocket and runs with the ball. Carolina’s offense has struggled to get down the field of late and has relied heavily on Newton’s legs to move the chains on 3rd down. On the other side of the ball the Niners need to protect Kaepernick. Carolina sacked Kaepernick 6 times in their last match-up and the QB has the tendency to implode when he’s under heavy pressure. Harbaugh will attempt to run gore as much as possible, but the Panthers are #2 in rushing defense, allowing a paltry 86.9 yards per game.


Keys for Carolina: The 49ers are #5 in total defense and the Panthers’ offense has struggled to put together long drives recently. The return of Steve Smith should help, but Carolina must find a weakness in the Niners defense to exploit. Their best bet is to give their offense a short field by getting to Kaepernick and forcing him to make mistakes.


My Pick: The winner of this game will be the team that forces more turnovers.



Carolina 16 – 13 San Francisco

Indianapolis at New England

When Andrew Luck looks across the field to the opposing sideline this weekend in Foxboro, he’ll be staring at the guy that he’ll be hoping to emulate as his career progresses. While Tom Brady (selected #199 overall in the 6th round of the 2000 draft) did not come into the league with the same fanfare as Luck, he quickly established himself as one of the premier QBs in the NFL. And in 2013 Brady might be playing his best football. Not his best statistically, but his best considering the fact that the Pats are less talented than we’ve seen them in a decade and yet Brady led them to a (12-4) record and a first round bye.

Keys to Indianapolis: While all eyes will be on Luck, the Colts defense will need to fix what went wrong last week when they gave up 44 points to the Chiefs. During the final three weeks of the regular season, the Indianapolis D held their opponents to 10 points or less. The Colts will need the “stingy” version of their defense to show up to win on the road.


Keys to New England: LaGarrette Blount had the 2nd most rushing yards in the NFL over the final three weeks of the season. If he can move the chains and eat up the clock, this will help to keep the miracle-worker, Andrew Luck, on the sidelines. On defense, the Pats need to limit big plays like the 64-yard bomb to T.Y. Hilton that pushed the Colts over the Chiefs.


My Pick: Luck looked like a legend during their Wild-Card game, but he did throw 3 interceptions. Toss that many picks on the road and forget about it.


New England 27 – 20 Indianapolis


New Orleans at Seattle


I’ll do my best to cover the Seahawks as impartially as possible throughout this Super Bowl run, but I can’t help but be giddy as a school girl about our chances. But please remember, I was a Hawks’ fan back when we were (2-14) under Tom Flores and during all the Kelly Stouffer, Rick Mirer, and Dan McGwire years. I’ve put in my time and suffered through many a loss in the ½ empty, now-defunct Kingdome.

As a city, Seattle suffers from one of the worst championship droughts in the US. The last major title won by an Emerald City team was the 1979 NBA crown by the Supersonics (I was 3-years old). The Hawks have never won the Super Bowl and the Mariners have never even been to the World Series, despite being favored to do so in the late 90’s. But yeah, I’ll do my best to be partial.

Keys for New Orleans: The first key will be to completely forget about what happened the last time these two teams met up. And then, Sean Payton needs to seriously rethink the Saints’ game plan. New Orleans won in Philly by running the ball and not counting on Brees to do it through the air. They’ll need to do more of the same if they want different results at Century Link Field this time around. The key to beating Seattle is not by outsmarting their Legion of Boom secondary (Seattle is #1 against the pass), but instead by giving them a dose of their own medicine. If you look at the last two teams that beat Seattle (Arizona and SF) they both did so by playing physical football on both sides of the ball. If you want to beat the Hawks you’ve got to punch them in the face.


Keys for Seattle: Seattle has struggled a bit on offense of late and so the possible return of Percy Harvin (we’ll find out shortly if his practice schedule is merely a decoy or if he truly is ready to go) is a welcome boost. They’ll hand it off to Lynch, a given, and Russell Wilson will run around like a chicken, frustrating Rob Ryan’s defense. In short, Seattle needs to score points with their offense and not count on the D or the 12th man to do all the work.


My Pick: There’s no way in hell I’m predicting any Seahawks games this post-season and being held responsible for a “jinx”. Drew can fire me before I lay down a score here. Go Hawks!


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Michael Airhart

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