This is a rather odd feeling for me. For the first time in 18 years, the local NFL team is playing a home divisional round playoff game which is odd because I thought local NFL teams don't play in January.
The Cowboys 2007 playoff game in January 2008 does not count because at the time I was in Hampton Roads, VA which 1) doesn't have an NFL franchise and 2) I was there because I was stationed aboard the carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) assisting with her refueling operation. I'd have to go back to the 1995 playoffs when the Cowboys were the NFC #1 seed and defeated the Eagles, Packers, and Steelers en route to their most recent championship.
Just make a mental note: don't go anywhere near I-25, Colfax Ave, and Federal Blvd. on Sunday. Best to watch the games on television like I always do.
As for our playoff records, Ms. Roberts, Mr. Blake, and I started the playoffs with similar 2-2 records. How we got there was very different.
This is the weekend where 8 becomes 4. Which 4 will remain is the question?
SAINTS AT SEAHAWKS, 1/11, 3 PM (CT), FOX
It is understandable why the Seahawks are considered by some (like yours truly in his updated Super Bowl pick) to represent the NFC. Seattle might not have all the big offensive superstars that other teams have, but they have playmakers. And they own the #1 ranked defense in lowest average yards per play, fewest yards, and most importantly fewest points. Since being drafted and named the Seahawks starting quarterback in 2012, Russell Wilson has posted a 15-1 home record.
Seattle started the season 4-0 before being defeated by the Colts in Indianapolis in Week 5. Seattle followed up with a 7 game winning streak that also included a Week 13 win over the Saints on Monday Night Football at home. The win came after their bye week. Since that Monday Night game, Seattle has gone 2-2 with both their losses to NFC West foes the 49ers in San Francisco and a rare home loss to the 10-6 Cardinals in Week 16. Seattle claimed the NFC 1-seed with their win over the Rams on the last Sunday of the season.
Seattle shutout the Giants at their home stadium in Week 15. The Seahawks are hoping to make a return trip to the New York Metro area in February and claim the franchise's first Super Bowl trophy.
Last Saturday night the Saints did something they have never done before in the franchise's history: win a road playoff game. Despite two turnovers, the Saints were able to defeat the Eagles 26-24. As I stated last week, the Saints road record was 3-5, but three of those losses were decided by 8 pts or less including one loss being in the final seconds at New England. If the Saints are to make another Super Bowl appearance it will be taking a long road trip to get to New York City. Since the NFL expanded to its current 12-team format in 1990, only two 6-seeds have ever won the Super Bowl: 2005 Steelers and 2010 Packers.
I think this game will be a lot closer than the Week 13 Monday Night game where the Seahawks pummeled the Saints into a black and gold pulp. Seattle has the home-field advantage in this game.
SEAHAWKS 28, SAINTS 17
COLTS AT PATRIOTS, 1/11, 7 PM (CT), CBS
As expected New England won the AFC East. The Patriots started the season with close wins over AFC East rivals Buffalo and New York and followed it up with back-to-back wins over NFC South cellar dwellers Tampa and Atlanta.
Their first loss came at Cincinnati where Tom Brady did not toss a touchdown pass for the first time since Week 17 in 2009 (also a loss). The streak lasted 52 games, two shy of the record of 54 games set by Drew Brees that lasted from 2009-12.
New England followed up their loss with a last second win over the Saints at home, but then another loss in New York to the Jets. The Patriots entered the bye week at 7-2.
A controversial non-call cost the Patriots at the chance of a win against NFC South champion Carolina. Quarterback Tom Brady was caught by the ESPN cameras in the lead in to the post-game uttering some profanities to the referees as he left the field.
After the Carolina game, New England won 5 of their final 6 games including an overtime win over the Broncos, a crazy comeback against the Browns, and blowout victory at Baltimore that put them in position to win the #2 seed.
The Colts matched the Bills' comeback over the Oilers in the 1992 playoffs by coming back from down 28 to win 45-44. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck threw for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns vs. 3 interceptions. Luck even had some luck on his side when a fumble on a running play near the goal line bounced back to him and he was able to run in the recovery for a 5 yard score to cut the lead to three.
After the Chiefs scored a field goal to make the lead up to 6 again, Luck found T.Y. Hilton deep on a 64-yard touchdown pass to give the Colts their first lead of the game. Hilton was having a career day, catching 13 passes for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The Colts defense stiffened and Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith's pass to Dwayne Bowe on 4th down was out of bounds thus completing the comeback.
The Colts outscored the Chiefs 35-6 in the game's final 27 minutes. In the Buffalo comeback (or in Monica's case, the Houston collapse) the Bills outscored the Oilers 38-3 after Bubba McDowell's interception return. It's something that seems to almost always spark a comeback.
The comeback sparked the Bills run to their third of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. After the Oilers, Buffalo soundly defeated the 1-seeded Steelers in Pittsburgh and the 2-seeded Dolphins in Miami led by quarterback Dan Marino. The Bills remarkable run ended in the Super Bowl when they were steam rolled by Dallas 52-17.
If the Colts were to duplicate what the Bills did, their run to the Super Bowl would be rather noteworthy. The Bills Super Bowl run in 1992 featured them playing against 3 Hall of Famers (Moon, Marino, Aikman). Buffalo defeated two of them.... but not the last one. The Colts may face one future Hall of Famer in the AFC Playoffs (Brady), possibly another (Peyton Manning). In the Super Bowl, maybe the Saints led by Drew Brees. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's focus on this game.
I cannot see the Patriots making another Super Bowl run. I did not expect them to play in the AFC Championship Game this season because of too many up and coming teams. I thought it was Cincinnati, but I was wrong. Another team that I thought would snap their long playoff drought.
The Colts have proven this season they can play with the best in the NFL. They beat the Chiefs in Kansas City and then when it mattered in the playoffs. They gave the Broncos their first loss of the season in what was billed as Peyton Manning's homecoming game. They beat the 49ers convincingly and handed the Seahawks their first loss of the season.
I am inclined to pick the Patriots because of their history. Only once in the Brady-Belichick era have the Patriots lost a divisional round home game. I think Andrew Luck last week took himself to that next level with the comeback win. I cannot see the Patriots allowing what happened to Kansas City last week. They will be ready to play later on Saturday Night. This could also rekindle the Patriots-Colts rivalry that started between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in 2001. For the next few seasons we might have Brady-Luck games on the schedule which they will meet next season in Indianapolis.
The Patriots will be making their third consecutive AFC Championship appearance and their 8th in the Brady-Belichick era.
PATRIOTS 35, COLTS 24
49ERS AT PANTHERS, 1/12, NOON (CT), FOX
After a Week 5 loss at Arizona, the Panthers looked like they were on the verge of another mediocre season. Carolina's only win at that point was a 38-0 win over the woeful Giants. Since then Carolina has been hot winning 11 of their next 12 games and had an 8-game winning streak until it was broken in New Orleans by the Saints on Sunday Night in Week 14. That eight game winning streak included wins over the Patriots on Monday Night in Week 11 and on the 49ers home turf. The Panthers returned the favor by beating the Saints two weeks later in Charlotte and set themselves up for the Panthers first NFC South title since 2008.
In 2013, Carolina allowed 241 points which was second to the Seahawks.
Most of Carolina's offense is run through quarterback Cam Newton. Newton finished his third season with 3,379 passing yards and 24 touchdowns. He also added 585 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns. Newton has emerged as the playmaker that led the 2010 Auburn Tigers to the National Championship Trophy. Can Newton take the Panthers to their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history?
Last week the 49ers handed the Packers their 5th home playoff loss. Since starting 13-0 in home playoff games, the Packers are now 3-5 in playoff games played in Wisconsin. San Francisco has won their last 4 games against the Packers including 2 playoff games and 3 involving Colin Kaepernick as their starter.
The 49ers opened up a 3 point favorite according to some but is now to a pick 'em. Both teams are very similar: quarterbacks that can throw the ball as well as run and tough defense.
I see points being a premium in this game. The 49ers seem to have the makings of the road warriors this year. San Francisco advances to the third NFC Championship game appearance matching their runs from the 1988-90 seasons and 1992-94 seasons.
49ERS 20, PANTHERS 16
CHARGERS AT BRONCOS, 1/12, 3:30 PM (CT), CBS
First some disclosure. I live now in Denver along with several family members. My aunt's spouse is a Broncos fan. My mom's boyfriend is a moderate follower of the Chargers.
There really is not much to describe about the Broncos season. Peyton Manning was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year & will possibly collect his fifth MVP award. Manning set the record for most passing yards and touchdowns for a single-season. Denver started the season 6-0 before losing to the Colts in Indianapolis. In a three week period Denver swept the Chiefs to give them the inside edge to the AFC West Title. Denver defeated the Chargers in San Diego in Week 10, but San Diego returned the favor in the Mile High City on a Thursday Night game in Week 15.
The Broncos opened as a 10 point favorite but has since closed to 9.5 points.
By virtue of the schedule makers the Broncos played 3 of their final 8 games at home. Their last home game was the Week 15 game against the Chargers. Their first home game since that game is this weekend... and it is against the San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers are continuing their winning ways. This time dispatching the Bengals in Cincinnati. Since losing to Cincinnati in the regular season, San Diego has now won 5 games in a row. Denver and San Diego split the season series with the road team winning each time. Now the stakes are higher in playoffs. Maybe not a mile high, but they are there. Win and advance to the AFC Championship. Lose and wait until September to play again.
Peyton Manning has had an interesting history with the San Diego Chargers. In the 1998 NFL Draft, the Colts had the first overall pick. Some members of the Colts front office felt that Ryan Leaf was the better quarterback. Manning in one his interviews told the Colts that if they did not pick him, he would kick their butts for the next 15 years. The Colts chose correctly while the Charges ended up with a #1 of their own... the #1 draft bust of all time.
Manning started with a 3-0 record against the Chargers including the Week 16 overtime win in 2004 where Manning broke the single-season touchdown record once held by Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino.
In 2005, the Chargers ended the Colts chances at an undefeated season with a 26-17 win at Indianapolis in Week 15.
On a Sunday Nighter in 2007, Peyton Manning had a very uncharacteristic game tossing 6 interceptions.... and yet the Colts STILL could have won that game. Adam Vinatieri, who is known for his clutch kicks in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII, missed what would have been the game winning field goal that was well within his range.
In the playoffs, the Chargers closed out the old RCA Dome with a shocking 28-24 win and were given a chance to knock off the Patriots from the unbeaten ranks.
Well... a Manning did hand the Patriots their first loss of the 2007 season.
Indianapolis finished the season 12-4 in 2008 while the Chargers had to beat the Broncos in the final game of the 2008 NFL Season in order to claim the AFC West. Though the Colts did beat the Chargers in San Diego during the regular season, the playoffs...
A Colts post-season game ending 23-17 with a touchdown run on the road in overtime... where have I seen that before...?
The Chargers would get the best of Manning again in 2010 in another Sunday Night game. Though the Broncos have won 3 of the last 4 games against the Chargers since Manning joined the team last season, past experiences with the Chargers weigh on his mind.
Manning will likely go into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, but if there is one knock on his resume it is that he holds a 9-11 post-season record including being one-and-done 8 times. Of those eight occurrences, Manning's team was the 2-seed or better 4 times. Last season was one of those occurrences when the #1-seeded Broncos were knocked out of the playoffs by eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore in the coldest game ever played in Denver.
Though Denver had some snow come through recently, temperatures are expected to be in the upper 40s with lows dropping to the upper 20s on Sunday. There might be a small chance of a rain-snow shower, but it shouldn't be anything that will impact the game.
Both offenses have the ability to put points on the scoreboard. I think the Broncos are aware of the history and they cannot afford to make any mistakes in a game like this. The Broncos getting a 9.5 point advantage seems very high to me. This has the makings of a shootout.
BRONCOS 37, CHARGERS 30