A thrilling Wild Card Weekend saw three road teams prevail in hostile environments -- setting up another enticing batch of games:
Noting the surprising success enjoyed by visitors this past weekend, which road team is most likely to prevail in the divisional round?
I'll go with San Francisco having the best chance to win (in Carolina). The 49ers narrowly lost to the Panthers, 10-9, at Candlestick in Week 10 in one of the most physical games of the season. The teams are built very similarly, with great defenses, powerful running games and dynamic quarterbacks. The key to the Panthers' victory was that they contained Colin Kaepernick, sacking him six times and allowing him to run for just 16 yards. Another key: Carolina did not allow Kaepernick to complete one pass over 10 yards (in six attempts at lengthier distances).
So why might this game be different? Because Kaepernick has Michael Crabtree back on the field. And because the 49ers are the much more experienced team when it comes to big games.
The two road teams with the best chance to win this weekend are San Diego and San Francisco. The Colts' pass defense will struggle versus Tom Brady, and the Saints' offensive line and receivers will have trouble against the Seahawks' defense.
San Diego plays well enough on defense to slow down Peyton Manning. On offense, Philip Rivers can move the ball against a very average Broncos defense that does not excel in any one area. In addition, the Chargers will not be intimidated by playing in Denver, considering they won there just last month. San Francisco has a chance to win any game with that defense. Cam Newton has outplayed Colin Kaepernick this year, but with the emergence of Michael Crabtree, the 49ers have a good chance to prevail in Carolina.
All that said, when it comes to actually picking the games ... I like Denver to beat San Diego and draw New England in the AFC Championship Game. On the NFC side, I do see the Niners winning at Carolina, setting up a scintillating conference title game in Seattle.
I think the entire world is going with the 49ers, and why not? They've looked the best of all the playoff teams so far, and now with a healthy Michael Crabtree -- "the greatest catcher of all time" -- they're peaking. (Though I'd personally rather have Mike Piazza in his prime, I'll defer to Jim Harbaugh.)
I'd love to be able to give you another team that I think can win on the road, but Indianapolis has too many flaws; the Colts also put every bit of mental energy they had into that comeback win over Kansas City. How much can you have left after a game like that? New Orleans didn't play lights-out against Philadelphia (though the final drive was clutch) and will be facing a Seahawks squad that is a big step up from the Eagles. San Diego would need too much to fall right to upset the Broncos in Denver (like Peyton Manning missing a few turns and not getting to the stadium until midway through the fourth quarter).
If you absolutely made me choose one of those three teams, I'd go with the Colts, just because of how susceptible the Patriots are on defense. But I honestly can't see anyone other than the 49ers getting a road win this week.
The 49ers are going to win handily at Carolina this weekend, but few would consider that an upset at all. So I'll put that aside and instead go with a team that few are giving much of a chance to win this week: the San Diego Chargers.
This actually has set up pretty favorably for the Bolts. They have that plucky, nothing-to-lose mentality, as they barely snuck into the playoffs. They have the momentum of a five-game winning streak. And they have the best possible matchup against Peyton Manning -- a quarterback the Chargers have tormented in the past and, just last month, beat in Denver. And then there's the whole Peyton doesn't play well in the playoffs narrative that Manning has written over his entire career.