New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
The Saints meet the Seahawks in a rematch of a couple of memorable games, at least for the Seahawks. One was a Wild Card matchup in 2011 in which the Seahawks were big underdogs at home, but won 41-36, in a game remembered for Marshawn Lynch’s long touchdown run in which he broke over 10 tackles on the way to the end zone. The other was a 34-7 blowout for the Seahawks in Seattle on December 2. That memory is still fresh in a lot of minds leading up to this game. This is easily the best Seahawks team since the one that appeared in Super Bowl XL, and even though their 14-game home winning streak was snapped 3 weeks ago, they are still extremely tough to beat at home. In addition, the Saints are, even with last week’s win road win in Philadelphia, they are still 4-5 on the road this year. Even that road win against the Eagles won’t change my mind, as there’s a big difference in playing the Eagles and playing the Seahawks, no matter the location, and with the game in Seattle, I don’t hardly give the Saints a chance. Out of 13 NFL experts on ESPN.com, only 1 picked the Saints to win this game, the spread favors the Seahawks by 8.
Seahawks 34, Saints 26.
Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)
The Patriots are a touchdown favorite at home in a matchup of perhaps the two most successful franchises of the last 15 years. The Colts have appeared in the playoffs for 12 of the last 15 years, while the Patriots have appeared in 11 of the last 15 postseasons. This is the 4th time these teams have met in the playoffs, with the Patriots having won 2 out of 3. All of those matchups were between 2004 and 2007, and featured the Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning rivalry. Now it’s Brady vs. Andrew Luck, and in their only previous meeting, in November 2012, New England won 59-24. However, the Colts have come a long way since then. Some people have remarked how the Patriots were guaranteed to win because it’s “Tom Brady in the playoffs,” but those people are forgetting that the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl in 9 years (although they do have 2 AFC titles since). The Colts are riding a ton of momentum after coming back from being down 38-10 to the Chiefs to win 45-44. And this Colts team, and Andrew Luck in particular, will likely be among the NFL’s elite for the next decade. The future starts now. While this would be an upset, many people acknowledge this may be the most even matchup, as 5 ESPN analysts out of 13 picked the Colts in this game, and only 4 picked the other 3 underdogs combined.
Colts 31, Patriots 27.
San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)
Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton were roommates at the 2011 NFL Combine, and now in their 3rd season in the league, they meet for the right to go to the NFC Championship Game. The Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time in 5 seasons, and their crowd will be hungry to erase the memory of their 33-13 loss to the Cardinals in January 2009. It has, in fact, been 8 years since the Panthers won a playoff game. However, the Panthers are 2-point home underdogs because of who they are playing. The 49ers are the defending NFC champions, and are trying to reach the NFC Championship Game for the 3rd straight year. They are coming off a road win a week ago in frigid Green Bay, and are gunning for another in Charlotte. I mentioned the relationship between Kaepernick and Newton; Kaepernick has playoff experience from last year’s run, while this is Newton’s first ever playoff start. The Panthers are 7-1 at home, with the only loss coming to the top-seeded Seahawks, although the 49ers are 7-2 on the road (counting last week’s win). The 49ers are undefeated since a Week 11 loss to the Saints, and are undefeated since the return of Michael Crabtree, who had been out injured. The week before the Saints loss, however, they lost to the Panthers at home, 10-9. If they want to beat the Panthers now, it will have to come on the road. While this game has the closest spread, only 2 experts on ESPN are calling for the upset. I beg to differ, based on the fact the Panthers have beaten this 49ers team in San Francisco, and the fact this Panthers team seems primed and ready to make some noise. One thing is almost certain: this matchup between the 2nd and 3rd ranked defenses in the NFL should produce a low-scoring defensive struggle.
Panthers 13, 49ers 10.
San Diego Chargers (10-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3) (-9)
In the largest spread of the weekend, the Broncos are 9-point home favorites. However, I have reason to believe this could be the most competitive game of the 4. First of all, 6 seeds have won 6 out of their last 8 games against 1 seeds in the playoffs, a stat that would favor the Chargers. Also favoring the Chargers is the fact they won, 27-20, in Denver on December 12, exactly one month before this playoff contest. In their other meeting back on November 10, however, the Broncos won in San Diego, 28-20. Not only did they split the two games, but the combined scores are 48 for the Broncos and 47 for the Chargers. I’d say that’s pretty even. And while the Broncos are 13-3, they are 1-3 against the remaining AFC playoff teams, and was sacked as many times in those 4 games as he was in the other 12 games of the season. All that being said, in my midseason report, I picked the Broncos to win the AFC, and at the start of the playoffs, although I didn’t write a post making official Super Bowl picks, when friends asked me my pick I said I would stick with the Broncos (and the Seahawks in the NFC), because I hadn’t seen enough out of any other team to change my mind. So, I’ll continue to stick with it, at least for one more week, even though the Chargers have won 5 straight and are very hard to pick against. While the Broncos did lose to the Chargers a month ago at home, they are still 7-1 in Denver. And besides, how wise would it be for me to pick against one of the greatest quarterbacks the game has ever seen? Interestingly, only 1 of the aforementioned 13 panelists on ESPN picked the Chargers; I certainly think the Chargers should get more respect, and I almost picked them myself.
Broncos 31, Chargers 28.