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The running game has been the pedigree for success for the red hot Chargers, but will it be enough if the banged up Ryan Mathews can’t get the go against the favored Broncos?
AFC/NFC Divisional Playoff Round
Saturday, January 11
NFC Divisional Playoff 4:35 PM ET – TV: FOX
New Orleans Saints (6) 12-5 @ Seattle Seahawks (1) 13-3
Pierre Thomas (Chest) is listed as doubtful, a vital part of the Saints’ offense known to utilize their backs in the screen-game. However, head coach Sean Payton has gone a different route with Thomas missing in action by taking a more physical approach. When these two squads met in Week 13, Payton dialed up only 17 run-plays at CenturyLink Field, a game Seattle creamed New Orleans 34-7. Last week, out in Philly, with Mark Ingram being the prime ball-carrier, Payton turned to the ground-attack by calling Ingram’s number 18 times, as the third-year back ran for nearly 100-yards, averaging 5.4-yards per carry and a score. As a team, the Saints ran the ball 36 times for 185-yards. Physicality proved to be the main-element for success in New Orleans’ 26-24 road win over Philadelphia to setup a rematch between two NFC heavyweights underneath the pacific northwestern sky, home of the wild and crazed barking faithful of Seattle’s “12th Man” hecklers. And how do you negate a loud crowd? You need to be physical and be able to establish an effective running game, keeping your quarterback upright on passing downs. Seattle sports the best secondary with Richard Sherman manning up on opponents prime-targets, the deep-end at the safety position features arguably the best free safety Earl Thomas, and a knock-you-off-your-cleats, hard-hitting strong safety Kam Chancellor. Still, with New Orleans likely to feed Mark Ingram the ball, Drew Brees and the Saints’ passing game will need to find ways to get tight end Jimmy Graham in favorable matchups downfield. Seattle held the freakishly talented Graham to just 3-catches in their regular-season meeting with linebackers K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner and help over the top at safety. Wright is out with a foot injury, leaving things for Malcolm Smith, a smaller frame than Wright to fill the void. Smith doesn’t have the coverage skills at the level of Wright’s, but all is not lost. Expect Seattle’s defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to throw the physical and athletic Kam Chancellor up at the line often to bump Graham off his routes. Chancellor can also shadow him downfield, not letting Graham get many open spaces, forcing Brees to complete passes in his direction in small windows. Richard Sherman will likely be matched up on Marques Colston, an advantage I give to Sherman. Colston may be physical enough to win the one-on-one battles, but doesn’t possess enough speed to gain separation on Sherman. Defensively for Rob Ryan’s unit, he has more on his plate than trying to slow down Seattle’s bruising-runner Marshawn Lynch. Add Percy Harvin’s return from a hip injury to Seattle’s schematic in three-receiver sets, and all of a sudden your safeties are in position to freeze with him motioning around before the snap, running routes towards the center of the field, leaving one-on-one targets for Russell Wilson to connect with Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate on the outside. Unless Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles put on a dazzling-performance, Drew Brees and gang won’t be able to spark enough music against Seattle’s ball-hawking defense that’s allowed only 13.75-points per game in front of their home crowd.
Pick: Seahawks 27, Saints 17
AFC Divisional Playoff 8:15 PM ET – TV: CBS
Indianapolis Colts (4) 12-5 @ New England Patriots (2) 12-4
Indianapolis’ defensive coordinator Greg Manusky’s unit needs to come full-circle in this matchup going up against one of the better offensive lines in executing their blocks, both run-blocking and pass-protecting. His best player and most versatile weapon is speedy edge-rusher Robert Mathis, a player that moves around on the line and used on stunts with his high-level of athleticism and playmaking ability. Kansas City was able to neutralize Mathis for most of the game with an extra blocker last week in the wild-card round, but the lone big-play Mathis made was the turning point of the game, when he ran down Alex Smith and forced a fumble that led to an Indianapolis touchdown, putting the Colts within striking distance early in the third quarter. Mathis is the difference-maker for Manusky’s defense, and Tom Brady is familiar with Mathis, being sacked by the 11-year veteran five times in his career. “He kind of wreaks a lot of havoc. We’ve got to be able to figure out how to slow him down and then we’ve got to be really balanced on offense like we’ve been. We’ve got to run it, and when we throw, we’ve got to throw it good, said Brady.” The recipe for success on Brady’s take to get Mathis off his game is balance, and the Patriots have a balanced offensive attack and keep changing the pace on their opponents on the ground, with running backs Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount. All three backs give opposing defenses a different set to handle. Blount serves as the bruising style of runner, Ridley being shifty, and Vereen being a deadly-weapon out of the backfield catching passes. And I expect New England’s offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ game-plan to evolve around attacking Indianapolis’ vulnerable against the run defense with a combination of Ridley and Blount between and outside the tackles, and for Veeren to be able to find holes and separation leaking and swinging out of the backfield in the screen-game. Kansas City’s running backs, Knile Davis, Dexter McCluster and Anthony Sherman combined for 16-catches, 86-yards and two scores against Indianapolis, an area the Patriots should be able to dissect their backend of the 3-4 with the short passing game. Indianapolis’ cornerbacks, Darius Butler and Vontae Davis rarely do any jamming at the line of scrimmage, usually playing the outside that leaves open spaces on slant and crossing-routes on the inside. The best case scenario for the Colts’ defense is to limit New England’s running game and try to place Brady in long distance passing downs. If not, Brady will be in high-percentage passing downs on third and shorts, a favorable spot to get the ball to slot receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman on quick strikes to move the chains. Although Andrew Luck is the man that stirs the drink on the offensive side of the ball for the Colts, they’ll need Donald Brown and Trent Richardson to be up to par running the football. New England’s front is much better at getting after the quarterback than Kansas City’s, and I expect Luck to have some duress in the pocket. Mainly, Gillette Stadium isn’t a fast track like Lucas Oil Stadium is for Luck to connect with speedy-receiver T.Y. Hilton, and New England’s defense always forces turnovers. There’s just not enough evidence on the defensive side of the ball for me to see Indianapolis stumping New England’s smoothly-operated offense.
Pick: Patriots 34, Colts 24
Sunday, January 12
NFC Divisional Playoff 1:05 PM ET – TV: FOX
San Francisco 49ers (5) 13-4 @ Carolina Panthers (2) 12-4
Ultimate battle in the trenches here; both teams are led by solid defenses, an effective ground-attack and quarterbacks that possess a unique deal of athleticism that allows them to improvise, extend plays from the pocket, and make plays with their feet. When these two teams met back on Nov. 10 in San Francisco, it was Carolina’s defense and smash-mouth style of offense that helped them prevail on the road 10-9. Carolina’s front on the defensive side of ball brought Kaepernick to the ground 6 times and hurried him 16, never giving him a comfortable look downfield. However, this time, things could be much better for Kaepernick, who at the time was missing two valuable targets, tight end Vernon Davis, who left that Week 10 contest after suffering an early concussion, and receiver Michael Crabtree, a precise route-runner that gets separation and a target for Kaepernick to trust in tight coverage, because of his physical presence and ability to out-muscle corners in one-on-one battles. The Panthers’ defense has been absolute dynamite at the point of attack, anchored by defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson creating havoc on the edges, and defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Colin Cole doing all the bench-press pushing in the middle to help stuff the run between the tackles and free up the outside rush. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are a dynamic-duel in running down backs and covering out in the flats. The most interesting factor in this matchup is how Davis and Kuechly patrol the middle of the field against Vernon Davis on seam-routes. And if the 49ers are able to establish the run with Frank Gore, this will give Kaepernick and 49ers’ offense the luxury to work off the play-action pass, a key part of this game that can get either Davis or Kuechly to bite that will leave one of them singled up with Davis. And if Kaepernick has enough time in the pocket, he’ll be able to find Davis in open spaces. As for Cam Newton and the Panthers’ offense goes, San Francisco’s corners man things up on the outside with the safeties in a cover 2 shell and zone things off on the underneath routes. Carolina’s top receiver Steve Smith (Knee) has been practicing and looks like he’ll play, but may be limited. Ted Ginn, a speedy-receiver will have to step things up with the uncertainty of Smith’s knee holding up. Ginn may catch a break on the outside man coverage, with Carlos Rogers’ (Hamstring) status iffy, and if he can’t get the go for the 49ers, Perrish Cox will get the start at cornerback. If the Panthers’ offense is going to make big-plays against San Francisco’s talented defense, particularly against their backend, Newton will have to extend plays from the pocket. I’m not expecting both ground attacks to do anything in the realm of spectacular, as both defenses have been consistent at stopping the run. But getting the two and three-yard gains on first and second downs is in favor of San Francisco’s Frank Gore over Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams in the aspect of physicality. My verdict is simply this; I like the fact that both coaches are committed to the run and keeping their quarterbacks upright, but you have to have reliable receivers in the passing game on critical third downs. And Kaepernick has more weapons at his disposal than Cam Newton.
Pick: 49ers 24, Panthers 17
AFC Divisional Playoff 4:40 PM ET – TV: CBS
San Diego Chargers (6) 10-7 @ Denver Broncos (1) 13-3
Head coach Mike McCoy’s plan was executed to the tee on Dec. 12, a game his Chargers pulled off the upset over Peyton Manning and the Broncos at Mile High. And how was this done? It was done by controlling the clock, keeping Manning and the Broncos’ prolific offense off the field. Ryan Mathews carried the football 29 times in that contest for 127-yards and a score, and as a team McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt called 44 run-plays. The grounding and pounding has been installed into the San Diego offense, and it continued last week out in Cincinnati in the wild-card round, as both Mathews and Danny Woodhead combined for 28 of the teams 40 rushing attempts in their 27-10 win. This new element for San Diego has put quarterback Philip Rivers in third and shorts with the backs and tight ends utilized in their spread alignments, keeping opposing defenses guessing on the run and pass. Antonio Gates has been Rivers’ go-to-target at tight end throughout the years, but he now has another option and emerging player at the position LaDarius Green, who the Chargers have been able to get the athletic tight end into open spaces with him and Gates lined up in the same packages. The Broncos defense has been vulnerable in covering tight ends this season, allowing the second most receiving yards against them (953), along with five touchdown passes. Denver’s defense may get some breathing room, however. Ryan Mathews (Ankle) was spotted walking around in brace during practice and his status is questionable. Danny Woodhead is more of a back that’s used in the screen-game, but not the style of runner that can run between and outside the tackles like Mathews. Woodhead has been used on draws most of the time when his number has been called upon to carry the rock. If Mathews is absent, Ronnie Brown, a physical style of runner will get the go and should be able to fill the void effectively. Getting Wes Welker back from his concussion issues working out of the slot is a huge plus for Denver, but what needs to be better for the Broncos this time around is the running game. Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno combined for 18-yards on 11-attempts against San Diego’s blitzing front. And receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas need to win the one-on-one battles against the press-coverage from San Diego’s CB’s Shareece Wright and Derek Cox. The key-players for Denver’s defense that I’m circling in on are Robert Ayers, Malik Jackson, and Shaun Phillips. They must be able to provide pressure and keep Rivers out of short distance passing downs. You don’t want to get caught in the avenue of having to manufacture pressure by blitzing against San Diego, their screen and short passing game has been able to counter off of them. In the grand scheme of things, I’m expecting Denver to get Knowshon Moreno going to help setup the play-action pass, and for Peyton Manning to be much better at reading San Diego’s disguised blitz-packages at the line of scrimmage. Extra film study makes way for Manning to be ready with his “Air-Jordan’s” on. Feel me?
Pick: Broncos 31, Chargers 23
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt