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NFL Picks – Divisional Round

Peyton Manning looks for his first postseason win as a Bronco, and his first in four years. Elsewhere, the next generation of quarterbacks do battle in the NFC while an old legend and future star meet in New England. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

[As predicted last week, I tanked last week, going 1-3. However, I’d still pick every game the exact same way except I’d avoid the Bengals at all costs. Not sure why I thought Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton would deliver in a playoff game.]

Last Week:  1 – 3 – 0
Playoffs:     1 – 3 – 0

Saturday, January 11 (4:35PM ET)

(6) Saints at (1) Seahawks
Narratives always change after one postseason win. Last week, the sports world doubted the Saints and their ability to win a playoff game on the road. Then New Orleans went into Philadelphia in ideal January conditions and squeeeeeeaked by a mostly overrated Eagles team. Now the Saints are getting attention as the sleeper team in the NFC. What?

The Saints offense struggled against a pretty mediocre Eagle defense and a secondary that had been gashed by Matt Cassel (382 yards) and Kyle Orton (358) in recent weeks. All-of-sudden the Saints are going to light up that Seahawks defense? In Seattle? To refresh your memory; Seattle’s defense was the NFL’s top overall defense, top pass defense, and top scoring defense. In fact, Seattle allowed only 172 passing yards a game, more than 20 yards better than the NFL’s second ranked passing defense. That Seahawks defense is kinda/sorta/maybe really good.

It’ll take an exceptional effort from Drew Brees to pull the upset Saturday, and based on his recent production, that seems unlikely. Brees has thrown two interceptions in three of his last four outings. Furthermore, of the nine road games New Orleans played this season, Brees committed multiple turnovers in five of them, at least one turnover in two, and gone turnover free only twice. I’m not encouraged by that track record if I’m a Saints fan.

Here’s something else to consider: I trust Russell Wilson in a big game right now more than I trust Drew Brees. Wilson doesn’t hurt his team with turnovers. He also extends plays to deliver those breathtaking 3rd down conversions that absolutely deflate opposing defenses. Add Marshawn Lynch and Seattle’s electric crowd to the equation and I just don’t see how Brees and the Saints steal a win from the most well-rounded team in the league.

If there is a case for the Saints, it’s built on the impressive New Orleans defense, the inability of Seattle’s offense to score at times, and the NFL screwing the top seeded Seahawks by scheduling the game for 1PM local time on a Saturday. (Total garbage, by the way. I understand the NFL won’t ask a team to play on a short week in the playoffs and that’s fine, but the top seed should at least get to pick what time slot it wants on that given day.) To win, New Orleans must jump out early and put pressure on the Seahawks offense. Remember, Seattle hasn’t played a truly significant football game in over a month. A slow start wouldn’t be shocking. Then again, neither would a whirlwind start that knocks the Saints to the mat right after the bell. The Saints are a good football team but they’re not built to withstand a heavyweight bout. SEAHAWKS If I were Charles Barkley; Seahawks -8

Saturday, January 11 (8:15PM ET)

(4) Colts at (2) Patriots
Andrew Luck was amazing last week. Sadly, he doesn’t play safety, cornerback or any other defensive position that would give the opposing offense even the slightest resistance. While I don’t expect Indianapolis to surrender 44 points again, somewhere close to 35 smells about right.

Though the Patriots have had their postseason troubles of late, they don’t struggle against offensive minded teams. It’s the tough and gritty physical defenses (Jets, Ravens, Giants) that have given New England fits in recent years. And that’s why I picked the Patriots to win the AFC way back in early November. The only defense even remotely similar to the aforementioned physical defenses was Cincinnati. Since Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton held prominent positions on that team, there was never really anything to fear.

Let’s no forget how important this postseason is to Tom Brady. I’m sure he sees the weakness of the AFC. Not a single intimidating defenses stands between him and his sixth Super Bowl appearance. Sure, New England’s defense is an injury-ravaged mess, but Brady’s been somewhat underachieving in the Patriots biggest games over their last four playoff runs. It’s time for Brady to carry the load and prove once again he’s the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. If he doesn’t come through, and the Patriots fall to a flawed Colts team, I’m not sure Brady’s three rings and decade long AFC East dominance will pardon him this time around. PATRIOTS If I were Charles Barkley; Patriots -7

Sunday, January 12 (1:05PM ET)

(5) 49ers at (2) Panthers
My favorite game of the weekend. If you stood the Carolina Panthers in front of a mirror they’d see the 49ers reflection staring back them. And vice versa. Color scheme is the biggest difference between these teams.

Let’s start with the backbone; defense. Both units are physically intimidating monsters. They’ve carried their respective teams to where they are now. Running the football will be a mammoth and mostly fruitless task as both units rank inside the top five in rush defense. In fact, both rank within the top five in every major defensive category except pass defense, where the Panthers are ranked 6th and the 49ers 7th. Translation, you have to throw the football to win, and even then points will be hard to come by as Carolina was 2nd in points against and San Francisco 3rd.

If passing is the key to victory, quarterbacks will obviously decide the game. If you’re picking a quarterback to build your franchise around for the next decade, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton are at the top of everyone’s draft board with Russell Wilson and just below Andrew Luck. Cannons for arms and rockets for feet, but both still drive their fan bases and coaches a little crazy with poor accuracy (Kaepernick) and lazy mechanics (Newton). If I had to pick one of the two, I’d take Newton simply because he can suck for 57 minutes and still win the game in the final three.

Of course, Newton doesn’t have the luxury of winning despite a poor outing if it weren’t for the Carolina defense. No unit has been more underrated, underappreciated or flat-out ignored than the Panther defense. Need proof? Ask ten football fans what they think of Luke Kuechly. Six of them never heard of him. Three couldn’t tell you his jersey number. If you don’t know, Kuechly is the best linebacker in the game. Period. Kuechly has teamed with the NFL’s best pass rush to turn Carolina into one of the game’s most dominant and disruptive defenses. Cam Newton has been phenomenal this season, but the overwhelming portion of Carolina’s success should be credited to Sean McDermott’s defense.

It’ll be interesting to see who can score Sunday. Neither team boasts an explosive offense and both units require their defenses to keep them in games. Carolina doesn’t have the big names like Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree, but they have proven talents in Greg Olsen and DeAngelo Williams. If these teams played 100 times, one team would win 51 times. It’s a complete coin flip. When push comes to shove, though, I’m taking Newton over Kaepernick. PANTHERS If I were Charles Barkley; Panthers +1

Sunday, January 12 (4:40PM ET)

(6) Chargers at (1) Broncos
Peyton Manning last won a playoff game on January 24, 2010. Since winning the Super Bowl following the 2006 season, Manning’s playoff record is 2-5, including four one-and-dones. There’s no way Manning loses this football game. There’s just no way.

I know what you’re thinking; “You shouldn’t guarantee a victory for a quarterback with a career full of playoff struggles.” And you’d be right. Then again, I can’t remember Manning being so aware of his legacy as he was this season. He made it a point to answer critics who said he couldn’t win in the cold. He’s sick of the doubting. He knows he can’t lose Sunday without hellfire raining down on his record-breaking 2013 season. Manning NEEDS to win Sunday.

If the opponent boasted a dominant defense I may not be so confident in picking Manning and the Broncos. San Diego’s defense isn’t nearly as good as it looked last week in Cincinnati, and the Chargers offense can’t match Denver’s firepower. What it boils down to is I’m betting on Peyton this week. I’m not sure his legacy would recover from a loss Sunday. BRONCOS If I were Charles Barkley; Broncos -9

*****

Last Week: 2 – 1 – 1
Playoffs:    2 – 1 – 1

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