Christopher’s Picks: Divisional Round

We’ve reached the point in the NFL season where all bets are off. Suddenly, how teams did during the 16 game regular season doesn’t matter anymore. And after last week’s games, in which all four road teams won, you have to wonder how much home field advantage will even matter at this point.

Historically speaking, one of the home teams will lose this weekend. It’s happened every year since 2004, usually more than once. Add the fact that three of the four games this week are rematches and we’re almost guaranteed different results this time around.

Some of the games are expected to be closer than others (San Francisco is a one-point favorite at Carolina, while the other home teams are favored by over a touchdown), but even a pick there is hard to be confident in. Let’s try anyway.

Seattle over New Orleans

With torrential rain and swirling winds expected at kickoff, both teams will likely lean on their running games today. For the Saints, running back Pierre Thomas is inactive again this week. But Mark Ingram played well in his place last week. They’re going to need plenty of him this week, especially against the much vaunted Seattle secondary.

Should they get the run game going early, there is a slight opening for the Saints to steal this one. While the Seahawks running game is formidable with Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch leading the charge, the team as a whole average a mere 3.3 yards per carry in the last meeting. They’ll have to be better this time around.

In the end though, I’m still taking Seattle. New Orleans will play a better game this time around (how could they not, really?), but the Seahawks will still force Drew Brees to make a mistake or two to seal it.

Indianapolis over New England

How do I go with Indy here? Well it started with the line for the game, with the Colts currently at +8, according to ESPN.

I’ve said from the start of the season that the Colts are still slightly overrated based on their actual play. But the reason they are rated to begin with is because of their ability to beat good teams. It started Week 3 in San Francisco, then two home wins against Seattle and Denver in Weeks 6 and 8. Throw in two wins over Kansas City and you get my point. Where they struggle is against everyone else, it seems.

So I would have taken them keeping this game close in a heartbeat. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw ways that they could win today. The only issue that I have is the weather, which will be similar to that of the game in Seattle (windy and rainy). Andrew Luck can be a great passer, but in those conditions, I’m not so sure. And if it comes down to the running games, New England has the advantage with LaGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley leading the charge.

Still, I think the Colts sneak by for reason. Tom Brady and the Patriots offense doesn’t look nearly as formidable this season without Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker, and the Colts have some very capable players on defense to contend with the passing game (Vontae Davis, specifically).

It will either be a Colts win or an embarrassing loss. I don’t see an in-between.

Carolina over San Francisco

Is this not the most intriguing matchup of the week?

Of course my perspective is slightly biased, but this rematch really had to happen. Carolina’s first real test against the league’s best began in San Francisco and ended with a 10-9 win and they haven’t looked back since, winning six of their last seven games. Of all the matchups this week, these two are nearly identical to one another. Physical teams with mobile quarterbacks, that lean on the running game and the defense. Like the first game, the winner will have to earn it for the full 60 minutes.

So for San Francisco this time around, they’ll have Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith at their disposal, as well as Vernon Davis, who went down early in the last meeting. This certainly helps Colin Kaepernick, who will be under duress for much of the game once again.

For Carolina, the real question mark is wide receivers Steve Smith, who is nursing a PCL injury and won’t be at full strength. He’ll play, but they’ll need him to have a big impact with cornerback Carlos Rogers likely out for the Niners. At the very least, he’ll need to play well enough to be the focal point of the pass coverage. That will open up the opportunities for the rest of the Panthers offense.

If you’re looking for key players, I think that Anquan Boldin for the Niners and Ted Ginn Jr. for the Panthers will be the guys, oddly enough. If Anquan can catch a jump ball or two and attract as much attention as Crabtree and Davis, they’ll be tough to stop. For Ginn, he’ll need to make some big plays on special teams. More points will be scored this time around, but Carolina may need some help on defense and special teams.

Of course the Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season, when they also earned a first-round bye. It ended up being a season to forget as Arizona came into town and destroyed Carolina 33-13 in a game that was just awful from the start. I don’t think we see another blowout of that magnitude, but it’s really a toss-up as to who wins tomorrow. I’m just going with the home team.

Denver over San Diego

For Peyton Manning‘s sake, I hope the Broncos win this one. The last thing we need is more criticism of one of the best we’ve ever seen for circumstances that aren’t solely his fault.

Denver won’t struggle on offense. We know this. In addition to his receivers (Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Julius Thomas), running back Knowshon Moreno has played very well thanks to his supporting cast out wide and up front. By all accounts, Wes Welker will be back in the lineup as well, which only opens up the offense even more.

But the Chargers offense can still win here — they did so just a few weeks back. Philip Rivers has a better supporting cast around him with the additions of Danny Woodhead and rookie Keenan Allen. Even better for the Chargers is the fact that Von Miller won’t be on the opposite side this time around. On the defense, the much improved play of their cornerbacks has been the difference during their current five-game win streak. They’ll need to bring their best again this week.

I’m still going with Denver. The Chargers need too many things to go right in order to win and unlike the Ravens last season, I don’t think the Broncos allow those things to happen.

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