With the divisional round coming up this weekend, the top two teams in each conference are back off their byes and ready to host the winners from last weekend.
Three of the four matchups are not expected to be close, with three teams favored by seven points or more.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the biggest storylines heading into the weekend.
1. Will the Patriots’ injuries catch up with them?
The New England Patriots can seemingly overcome injuries better than any other team in the NFL. Teams like the Dallas Cowboys suffer a couple of injuries and start setting records for defensive futility. Meanwhile, the Patriots lose Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and a lot more, and they keep trucking along.
However, at this point, it’s the playoffs. Minor deficiencies get magnified. Wilfork, Mayo, Tommy Kelly and Brandon Spikes were all key defensive players. Can the Patriots really survive the loss of this magnitude and not miss a beat? And don’t forget the loss of Rob Gronkowski on offense.
Bovada lists the Patriots as 7.5-point favorites this week, and the injuries probably won’t hinder them too much against the Colts — especially if the Colts come out like they did in the first half of their wild-card game.
2. Can Indianapolis’ defense play better?
The Indianapolis Colts won their wild-card game against the Kansas City Chiefs, but they gave up 44 points. The Patriots are sitting back and looking at film this week. They’re identifying all the favorable matchups they have in this game and are probably coming up with ways to attack the Colts’ secondary. If Indianapolis can’t generate a strong and consistent pass rush, the Colts are going to be at the mercy of Tom Brady and the New England passing game in this AFC divisional playoff matchup. Indianapolis has to find a way to make important plays on defense in the first quarter to keep New England from getting a quick 14- or 21-point lead. If the Colts can limit New England to 17 points per half, they could win a 35-34 kind of game, but if New England scores 24 or more points in the first half, it will be hard for the Colts’ offense to keep up on the road.
3. Will Michael Crabtree help Colin Kaepernick be better against Carolina?
The 49ers’ offense is the true focus of this game. Roughly two months ago, when San Francisco lost to the Carolina Panthers at home, Michael Crabtree was not in the Niners’ lineup because he was injured. Now, he’s back. Coinciding with the return of Crabtree, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been a steadier and more effective quarterback. If he can supplement his scrambling and planned running with a very accurate short passing game, the 49ers’ offense might be able to string together more drives and score 10 to 14 more points than in the first meeting with Carolina. If San Francisco can hit 23 points in this game, Carolina might not be able to overcome the 49ers, given the strength of their defense.
The oddsmakers are expecting a low score. The total is 42, which is the lowest of the four games this weekend.
4. Will Wes Welker make Denver’s offense as good as it can be?
The last time the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers played, San Diego held Denver to just 20 points — the Broncos’ lowest point total of the season. Wes Welker, the Broncos’ most important receiver thanks to his ability to get open in the middle of the field on third downs, will be back with the team after missing the final three games of the regular season (including that San Diego game). If Welker is effective, Peyton Manning should be expected to get the ball to him on third downs.
Manning also should be able to find other receivers, since Welker will draw a lot of attention from the Chargers’ defense. Denver knows San Diego’s defense has made life difficult this season. The Chargers have held Denver to less than 30 points not once but twice. If the Chargers can limit Denver to 24 points, they could easily pull off the big upset in the final game of divisional playoff competition this weekend. The total for this game is 54.