What to watch for: Tips for Divisional-Round games


New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks

This is a matchup of two teams with pass-protection problems. New Orleans has not done a great job protecting Drew Brees, especially on the road against quality defenses like in Week 13 against Seattle. Brees has also not thrown the ball well of late.

As strange as it sounds, New Orleans' best chance in messy conditions could be to win with defense and running. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson both ran the ball hard last week in Philadelphia. The crowd and the snap count were a problem for New Orleans in the their first meeting, but they were able to put together an eight-minute touchdown drive in the first half.

Even if they run often, New Orleans could really use a wide receiver that could win on the outside. The Seahawks aren't afraid to leave their cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage, but Robert Meachem and Kenny Stills weren't able to win battles last time.

The Seahawks offensive line has struggled to protect Russell Wilson all season. The team's passing game was not effective down the stretch, and no one knows how the return of Percy Harvin will change things. Seattle was very effective with called runs by Wilson last time out. They also uncorked a lot of those plays in the playoffs last season.

Further reading:
ATL's full Saints-Seahawks preview
Percy Harvin says he'll play vs. Saints
Further viewing:
Divisional Round X-Factor: Khiry Robinson
How loud is Seattle's 12th Man?

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots

Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib is a logical matchup for Colts tight end Coby Fleener. That would leave room for a double team on T.Y. Hilton, with Pro-Bowl snub Devin McCourty making sure Hilton doesn't beat the Patriots deep.

Heavy rain is expected to fall throughout Saturday in New England. That favors the Patriots, who have run an effective four-pronged ground attack all season. The Colts linebackers have not been impressive lately in pass coverage either. The Chiefs moved the ball for over 500 yards last week with a lot of short passing, which is Tom Brady's bread and butter. Look for Shane Vereen to get the ball a lot, and for Stevan Ridley to find his way out of the doghouse. Ridley has fumbled a lot, but he's still New England's most talented runner.

One thing in the Colts' favor: Their inconsistency. Really. The Patriots were the most consistent team in football, according to Football Outsiders. They are the same solid team week after week. The Colts had the fourth highest variance of any team. That means they are capable of stinkers, and quite capable of beating anyone on their best day.

Further reading:
Super duo: Belichick, Brady made for playoffs
Colts OC: Pats find a way to get opponents' signals
Further viewing:
Divisional Round X-Factor: LeGarrette Blount
NFL Films previews Colts-Patriots

San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers

There are a lot of ways to attack analyzing this game, but it feels like one where it comes down to which team is tougher. It's a point we discussed on our podcast preview of the game: San Francisco could not pick up a yard in so many key situations against Carolina the first time around. Can you really blame that on the absence of Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree?

As great as San Francisco's defense is playing, we'd still take the Panthers front seven over them. Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short and Dwan Edwards all had terrific games the first time these teams met. Charles Johnson dominated 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis. Was that because Crabtree, Davis and Aldon Smith weren't themselves?

Carolina's running game has improved down the stretch, but Cam Newton's accuracy has not. He's among the streakiest quarterbacks in the league and can go through cold spells for entire halves at a time.

Further reading:
Panthers' Smith downgrades himself after practice
ATL's full Niners-Panthers breakdown
Further viewing:
Cam vs. Kap: Who would you rather have at QB?
Can Panthers overcome lack of experience?

San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos

It's not just about Peyton Manning. The Broncos have the best offense we've seen in a long time, but the Chargers -- the Chargers?? -- might have the more complete team. The talent is not overwhelming on the Chargers defense, but coordinator John Pagano has consistently confused opposing quarterbacks, including both Manning brothers. Ryan Mathews' status is up in the air for Sunday, but San Diego still has a great running game. And Philip Rivers' careful, near error-free play is reminiscent of Peyton.

We're most interested to see if the Broncos continue the bombs away approach that worked for them down the stretch of the season. After relying on a short passing game for most of the season, Manning started to go deep far more often with great effectiveness. It's as if he wanted to shut everyone up regarding the "Too old to play in the cold" story.

Denver's defense is a mystery at this point. They won't have Von Miller, and they have struggled to settle on an effective lineup all season. Rivers and the Chargers offense moved the ball fairly well in Cincinnati. It should be much easier to score Sunday.

Further reading:
Battista on Peyton Manning and the playoff bugaboo
Recent playoff history favors No. 6 seeds
Further viewing:
Does Rivers have the edge over Peyton?
NFL Films previews Chargers-Broncos

We previewed all four Divisional Round Weekend games in the latest Around The League Podcast.