In the Wild Card round last week, the New Orleans Saints passed the gut-check test against the Philadelphia Eagles, finally earning the franchise's first road playoff victory. Now, only one week later, the Saints face the stiffest challenge in the 2014 NFL Playoff field, the Seattle Seahawks at a windy, rainy CenturyLink Field. After taking a 34-7 beating in Seattle on Monday Night Football in Week 13, few give the Saints a chance to win. To be completely objective, they may be right, but Seattle's got to earn it on the field and the Saints will be ready to make a lot of people eat crow come Saturday night. Let's take a look at all four of this weekend's Divisional playoff games.
Last week I went 3-1
I told you so: Saints over Eagles!
What do I know: Bengals over Chargers?
#6 New Orleans Saints at #1 Seattle Seahawks
Saturday, January 11th, 3:35pm CT, FOX
What's left to say that hasn't been said already? Sean Payton's Saints are significant underdogs for one of the first times since facing Indianapolis on Super Sunday in 2010, and rightfully so. The Saints are facing the NFL's best team in the NFL's loudest stadium. Weather forecasts have Seattle seeing a 100% chance of rain and winds at 24 mph. Outside of Keenan Lewis, the New Orleans defensive backfield is disturbingly cringeworthy. Looks like everything is coming up Seahawks!
I won't get too in-depth on the #1 seed upset trends we've all read about recently. In fact, I've brought it up twice myself, over the last calendar year. The main one for me though, is that in the NFC, the #1 seed is 2-4 in the Divisional round over the last six postseasons. One win being the Saints' emphatic victory over Arizona in 2010 and the other, being Atlanta's ridiculously close win last year over, well… Seattle. What is the crux of this trend though? It may be that the #1 seed buys into their own hype, comes in overconfident (human nature), and finds themselves in far tougher a game than they honestly anticipated. These #4, 5, & 6 seeds that have faced these #1's over the years have been far better teams than their seed number dictates. #6 seed does not = dumpster fire, just as #1 seed does not = coronation time.
I was fully prepared to pick Seattle to win from the moment the game winning field goal crossed the uprights in Philly. Then, the strangest thing happened, I started to notice all of that house money that's laying around. That house money the Saints and Who Dat Nation were granted thanks to that "terrible draw" of having to face the Seahawks and the overwhelming obstacles it demands. None of us have seen house money like this since Indy in the Super Bowl, and I argue that underdog status is laughably minor in comparison.
As much as we should all expect a fierce and focused Seahawks team, a fierce, focused, and loose Saints team should be expected as well. With all of the signs pointing squarely at Seattle, why lean toward the underdog Saints? I guess I just realized I've picked them all year and why stop now? Coach Payton and his brilliant nonsense has made a "rational" fan think outside the numbers and go with the intangibles. Besides, I don't earn or lose any income on these picks, I just have fun making them. House money, folks.
Saturday, January 11th, 7:15pm CT, CBS
Which Colts team will show up in Foxboro on Saturday, who the hell knows? What I do know is that as good as Andrew Luck and Chuck Pagano have been together, I trust Tom Brady and Bill Belichick more at playoff time. Brady and Belichick will find ways to consistently take advantage of the Colts defense, and Belichick will game plan to take away Luck's best weapon in T.Y. Hilton. Should New England race out to an early lead in the first half, Indy has clearly shown they will not be deterred. The Patriots should be prepared for the Colts to make their push and adjust to any sort of rally accordingly. This may be one of the weaker Patriots teams of the past few seasons, but they'll be good enough to reach their third consecutive AFC Championship Game.
Sunday, January 12th, 12:05pm CT, FOX
The easiest pick of the four Divisional games is this one. The 49ers improved at their most glaring weakness during the first Niners/Panthers matchup, the receiving corps. The Panthers stayed static at their biggest weakness all season, the secondary. Put these two factors together and San Francisco should make up the point differential from the 10-9 Week 10 loss at Candlestick Park. San Francisco's game travels as well as any in the NFL, and Carolina's homefield advantage is as bland and nondescript as any team in the playoffs. Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick will both be stifled in the running game and both QB's will feel their share of sacks against these fierce front sevens. Frank Gore's physical running and Phil Dawson's accuracy may very well be the difference in this game. I get the feeling Kaepernick will make that one big play with his arm that will be too much for Carolina. San Francisco will make their way to their third consecutive NFC Championship Game.
Sunday, January 12th, 3:40pm CT, CBS
This was a more difficult matchup to pick than I originally anticipated, for a few reasons. Philip Rivers has a winning record against Peyton Manning at 5-4, and two of the four losses came last season when Rivers was having one of the worst seasons of his career. Rivers is also 2-0 against Manning in the playoffs, not a good omen for Peyton. For Denver, no team in the playoff field is under more pressure than the Broncos, and no singular player will face the pressure and scrutiny that Manning will face. Much like the similarly #6 seeded Saints, the Chargers are playing this game with loads of house money. Should the Chargers lose, the story is "oh well, great season though" and it's quickly forgotten. Should the Broncos lose, it will be a story well past the Super Bowl and into the offseason. I nearly went with San Diego here, but think Denver will have learned from overlooking Baltimore in last year's Divisional round loss. I can see San Diego having a 6 point lead late and Manning leading Denver to a game winning touchdown, alleviating the pressure, until next week of course.
If the Divisional round is half as exciting as Wild Card weekend, then we're all in for a treat. Queue up your Saints hype playlist, grab some blue Gatorade, and pick up some Popeye's chicken! Into the breach one more time, my friends. WHO DAT!!!