Wild card weekend certainly lived up to its name. Two last-second field goals and a 28-point comeback turned the tides for six NFL teams, even forcing a pair of home teams to start their vacations early. If last weekend was any indication of these playoffs, then the divisional round should be full of fireworks.
This weekend will feature a trio of rematches from the regular season and a showdown between two of the game’s best quarterbacks. The New Orleans Saints head to Seattle for a second time this season, hoping for better results than the 34-7 blowout they suffered in early December. A rejuvenated Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers will pack up and head to Carolina seeking some revenge against Cam Newton and the Panthers. The San Diego Chargers will try to slow Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense once again, looking for a repeat of their Week 15 win in the Mile High city.
The most-anticipated game on the weekend slate just might be the showdown between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots. The Colts and Patriots have built up quite the rivalry over the past decade, but with Manning now off in Denver, Tom Brady will have to start fresh and try to create some new memories with Andrew Luck.
Four teams have already had their fates sealed, and four more will join them out on the golf course after this weekend. In the meantime, let’s breakdown some of the keys to this weekend’s games and take a quick reprieve for a couple thoughts on the constantly rotating coaching carousel.
**Editor’s Note: Each week, I’ll break down 10 thoughts from around the NFL in the NESN.com “First and 10.” That being said, here are 10 more thoughts from around the NFL after another week of football.
Saints at Seahawks:
1. Get it to Graham – The first time the Saints traveled to Seattle, Jimmy Graham was essentially a non-factor. The Seahawks’ secondary shut him down, limiting him to just three catches for 42 yards, and forcing Drew Brees to look elsewhere in the passing game. The plan worked to perfection as the Hawks downed New Orleans 34-7.
Graham needs to be a bigger factor on Saturday if the Saints hope to have any chance of pulling the upset. Sean Payton won’t let the Seahawks shut down his offense in the same way this weekend, but, in order to do so, he’ll need to set plays up for Graham to be successful. Graham was arguably the best receiving target in the NFL this season, and at full health he should be even more of a handful for Richard Sherman and Co.
2. Bringing the boom – Without cornerback Brandon Browner, the Legion of Boom isn’t quite complete, but the combination of Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are dangerous enough to live up to the name. The Seahawks brought the boom on the Saints’ offense the first time these two met this season, holding Brees to a season-low 147 yards, and they’ll need to do more of the same on Saturday. As long as the Seahawks bring some pressure on Brees and bracket Graham, there shouldn’t be anything holding them back from heading to the NFC Championship Game.
Colts at Patriots:
3. Getting to Brady — Robert Mathis was the key for the Colts against the Chiefs last weekend, and he will be important for Indianapolis yet again this weekend. Mathis has sacked Brady five times in seven career games against the Patriots, and he’ll need to add to that total on Sunday for the Colts to have a chance.
Brady is one of the best in the league at stepping up and avoiding pressure. However, if defenses can get to No. 12, he tends to force passes and miss his marks. Mathis, who Brady called the “Defensive Player of the Year” earlier in the week, led the league in sacks this season (19 1/2) and will need a few more for Indy to pull out a win.
4. Contain T.Y. – The Chiefs had one of the NFL’s best secondary’s during the regular season, but they were unable to contain T.Y. Hilton on wild-card weekend. The speedy receiver torched them for 224 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning 64-yard bomb from Andrew Luck in the final minutes.
Hilton was a monster against the Patriots last season, catching nine passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots will be better prepared this time, especially given the Colts’ depleted receiving corps. A mix of Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard will be tasked with stopping the speedy receiver, which will be key in preventing the Colts from any another epic late-game heroics.
49ers at Panthers:
5. Kaepernick is a different QB with Crabtree – With Michael Crabtree back in the mix, Colin Kaepernick has been a very different quarterback over the last six weeks. Not only has Kaepernick been completing a much higher percentage of his passes — 62 percent with Crabtree to 57 percent without — but he’s also made better decisions with the football (eight touchdowns, two interceptions since Week 13).
When the 49ers and Panthers met earlier this season, Kaepernick endured arguably his worst game in the NFL, completing just 11 of 22 passes for 91 yards and an interception. The Panthers’ defense isn’t any different this time around, but having Crabtree in tow could make all the difference for the 49ers.
6. Panthers are NFL’s best running team – The Philadelphia Eagles may have averaged the most rushing yards per game this season, but the Panthers actually had the most consistent running game in the NFL in 2013. Carolina was the only team to rush for at least 80 yards in every game this season, including 109 yards on the ground against the 49ers’ fourth-ranked rush defense in Week 10.
Between DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton, the Panthers have a three-headed rushing attack matched by few teams around the NFL. Establishing some balance with a running game will be important for the Panthers, but allowing Cam Newton to get going on the ground should put the Niners on their heels and open up the passing game, which is where the Panthers can really pull away.
Chargers at Broncos:
7. Chargers need Mathews – The San Diego Chargers were just 2-for-4 in the red zone last Sunday in Cincinnati, which isn’t so bad, but they probably would have converted even more if Ryan Mathews was able to finish the game.
Mathews has enjoyed a resurgence with the Chargers this season, running for a career high 1,255 yards and establishing a new role as a reliable goal-line back. He runs with the type of power and ferocity needed down by the goal line and was a workhorse during San Diego’s late-season win over the Broncos — 29 carries for 127 yards and a touchdown. The Chargers will need Mathews to provide opportunities for Philip Rivers in the passing game and punch the ball in down near the goal line. If he’s healthy, the Chargers should be able to control the clock and keep the game close until the final minutes.
8. Allow Welker to be the difference – While the Chargers’ 27-20 win in Denver in Week 15 was impressive, there was a pretty big — or small — key missing for the Broncos. Wes Welker was unable to play in the Broncos’ final three games of the regular season due to a concussion. However, the littlest big-impact player on Denver’s roster is finally healthy and ready to go on Sunday.
The Chargers may have been able to shut down Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker for the most part last time around, but with Welker back in the mix, something has to give. Welker has plenty of experience in the postseason and should be more than a handful for whoever is tasked with covering him in the slot. If Peyton Manning is on his game, Welker could be all the difference the Broncos need to come out with a win.
9. Mike Zimmer should be a head coach – The hottest names in the NFL coaching carousel seem to be former head coaches and some young guys from the college ranks. Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been a hot name on the market for a few years now, but he continues to be overlooked time and time again. This year, he should finally get his chance. He’s earned it.
In five seasons with Zimmer, Cincinnati has made the playoffs four times and the Bengals’ defense has never finished worse than 15th in the NFL (2009: 4th, 2010: 15th, 2011: 7th, 2012: 6th, 2013: 3rd). Zimmer has clearly established himself as one of the best defensive minds in the NFL, and it’s about time he has the chance to lead his own team.
10. Lovie will do wonders for the Tampa D – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense was actually a lot better than their 4-12 record might have indicated this season. With Greg Schiano gone and Lovie Smith coming to Tampa, the strategy won’t change much — expect the zone to stay — but there will be more creativity, especially with Darrelle Revis.
Smith is walking into a defensive coach’s dream scenario with the roster already chocked full of playmakers like Revis, Lavonte David, Adrian Clayborn and Gerald McCoy. All he needs to do is establish some firmer roles for his star defenders and allow Revis to freelance in man-to-man coverage more often, and the Bucs should experience a turnaround similar to what the Panthers had in Carolina this season.
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