In 1990, the NFL added a third wild card team to its playoff structure. Previously, five teams from each conference made the playoffs; three division winners and two wild card teams. With the third wild card team added, a total of twelve teams (six from each conference) would make the playoffs each season. And it’s been that way ever since, except for a wrinkle in 2002 when the NFL added a fourth division to each conference. In order to keep the playoff teams at twelve, they went back to two wild card teams to go along with the four division winners.
From 1990 through 2001 (the year before they went to four divisions), away teams won only 9 of the 44 playoff games during the divisional round. Yet, since 2002 through last year, away teams won 16 of 44 playoff games during the divisional round.
With four division winners (which the NFL ranks as the top four playoff teams and the wild card teams as five and six), it’s likelier for wild card teams to be better than some divisional winners. In many cases, the lower ranked wild card winners are just as good or better than higher ranked division winners. With four divisions, there’s more variance for overall conferences to be bad and thus, a divisional winner could simply beat up on bad teams and give of the perception that they are good. I’m no math wiz, but since each team in each division has to play all teams in their division twice each, if you have multiple bad teams in a division, there’s a great chance the division winner can pad their wins and rank within their conference.
Take a look at last week’s wild card round. Three wild card teams each beat a division winner. Green Bay had only eight wins and the 49ers had twelve, yet, the 49ers were the wild card and the lower seed. New Orleans had eleven wins, but they were the wild card and beat a Philadelphia Eagles team who were able to win ten games in one of the NFL’s worst divisions.
With that information, I think it’s likely that one road team (and lesser seed) wins a game in this round and it’s possible that road teams go 2-2. In 2008, road teams went 3-1, but there’s never been a road team sweep during the divisional round (at least since 1990).
Much like last week, KJ (2-2 last week) will preview the AFC games and GG (3-1) will preview the NFC games. (GG)
4. Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at 2. New England Patriots (12-4)
In all my years as a sports fan (founded in 1986), I don’t think there is a team I despise as much as the New England Patriots. I don’t like the Los Angeles Dodgers because I grew up a San Diego Padres fan. The Chicago Bulls drove my 90’s Phoenix Suns teams crazy, but then again they drove everyone crazy. There’s everyone’s favorite teams to either hate or love – the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, Duke Blue Devils, and as of late, the Miami Heat. Still, none of them give me the same vomit-taste in my mouth, like the New England Patriots.
Spygate! Bill Belichick and his worn, torn grey hoodie, his monotone one-word answers, his supposed “genius”. Tom Brady and … and … his stupid perfect life! Winning three Super Bowls, going undefeated in a regular season, that little “dink and dunk” offense that drives an opponent crazy! Stop letting them eat up the clock! Stop letting them get first downs by, like 1-yard! So annoying!
Oh … and they seem to always beat my teams. This year it was the comeback against Denver, as we watched Brady throw in the cold weather but Peyton Manning still continued to run the ball. Last year it was the 59-24 demolishing of the Andrew Luck-led Colts, further proving the point that the Patriots are going to stick it to you and stick it to you good. “Oh you’re the next coming? How do you like those three interceptions, two returned for TDs? That’s what I thought.”
This is a different Colts team and this is a different Patriots team. These Patriots no longer have Aaron Hernandez (incarcerated), Wes Welker (catching TD’s in Denver) or even Rob Gronkowski (injury-prone). They have a running game that consists of LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley. Ohh … I’m shaking in my Dockers. Julian Edelman (who?) is their top receiver! And it’s not like they win with their defense, they allowed the third most rushing yards this season and their passing game gave up the 18th most passing yards. But they still won 12 games. How?! How did we let them do this?!
Meanwhile the Colts are coming off an emotional high, the second largest comeback in postseason history, a 45-44 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Luck willed his team to victory. They probably feel unbeatable right now. I would!
Sure the running game is in shambles, their defense gave up 44 points (but only 13 in the second half … that’s good right?) and they have to go into New England. But I’m going with strength of schedule on this one. The Colts have wins over the Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers. They’ve proved they can win on the road (in San Francisco and Kansas City). How ’bout taking out the other “top” team in the league, the Patriots, on the road, with a chance at another bout against that ex-girlfriend quarterback?
Don’t listen to Boston Globe columnist, Dan Shaugnessy, write about how the Colts won’t be a challenge to the Patriots! And how it’s a cake walk, though he used “Waltz of Tomato Cans”, straight to the AFC Championship game!
Oh no! I may be hating the Patriots even more come Saturday night, but watching Luck and the Colts’ comeback last week … I’m all in baby! I heart Andrew Luck, Coach P, T(hank) Y(ou) Hilton and even Reggie Wayne looking so cool on the sidelines!
KJ’s prediction: Colts 31, Patriots 28
GG’s prediction: Patriots 28, Colts 23
6. San Diego Chargers (10-7) at 1. Denver Broncos (13-3)
Thanks to my allegiance to both the Colts and their former quarterback, I was happy that my ex-hometown team, the San Diego Chargers, upset the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round. Will San Diego play the role of the Ravens last year, strut into Denver and pull off an upset? Everything points to, “Are you friggin’ nuts?!” San Diego defeated the Broncos in Week 15, so why not? Because that was the regular season and does Manning really want to answer the “Can’t Win the Big Game” critics by losing to an inferior San Diego team at home? Probably not.
KJ’s prediction: Broncos 35, Chargers 17
GG’s prediction: Broncos 31, Chargers 20 (what, no mention of Philip Rivers’ bolo tie?)
5. San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at 2. Carolina Panthers (12-4)
If the Panthers didn’t beat the 49ers earlier this season, this would be the exact kind of game we talked about above. The 49ers played against the Seahawks and Cardinals twice (as well as the Rams who were bi-polar, beating league giants and then getting smoked by worse teams). The NFC West was the league’s most competitive division and it felt like the 49ers were playing in a playoff atmosphere week after week. The Panthers did get to beat up on the Falcons and Bucs twice and still had less wins than the 49ers. But they did beat the 49ers.
And that’s not to say that Carolina didn’t deserve their ranking. After a rough 1-3 start, they only lost one more game along the way and beat the Patriots along the way. But it’s not arguable that the 49ers had the harder schedule.
In week 10, the Panthers rolled into San Francisco and simply beat the 49ers at their own game. In fact, the teams are very similar. Using overall yardage, the 49ers were the better run team (ranked 4th compared to the Panthers at 11), but the Panthers were slightly better as the passing team (29th vs. 30th). Defensively, the Panthers gave up the 2nd least yards rushing while the 49ers were 4th and the Panthers were slightly better defending the pass (6th vs. 7th).
Both teams have quarterbacks who create big plays just as well on their feet as through the air. Both teams depend on their lines to dominate the line of scrimmage. Something’s got to give right?
In their upset over the 49ers in week 10, the Panthers came down from a 9-0 deficit to win the game. The 49ers were out of sync all day offensively, a lot due in part to the Panthers defense, but they also lost Vernon Davis to injury for the second half. So what’s different? Other than Vernon being back, so is Colin Kaepernick’s favorite receiver, Michael Crabtree. And Steve Smith might not be 100%. He hasn’t been the Steve Smith of old, but he’s still a force on third down. The 49ers also showed that playing away from home isn’t that big of a deal for them, losing only twice on the road all season long in addition to going to Green Bay last week in the snow and winning.
I don’t think the big game will absorb Cam Newton at all. He played in huge games in college and had to sustain game winning drives down the stretch during the regular season. But I do think the 49ers swallow the Panthers’ run game, which forces Newton to have to throw more than they’d like him to. If the Panthers can sack Kap like they did in week 10, they could win this game. But I think the 49ers will be ready to somewhat stifle their pass rush. They’ve been there, they’ve done that. And they’re the slightly better team.
GG’s prediction: 49ers 21, Panthers 17
KJ’s prediction: 49ers 16, Panthers 13
6. New Orleans Saints (12-5) at 1. Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
It’s another match-up of teams who met during the regular season. Unlike the 49ers vs. Panthers, this game was not close at all. In fact, it was an absolute blowout. The Seahawks made Drew Brees look human and Russell Wilson did a fantastic impression of Superman Drew Brees.
I’m not sure what else happens differently. The Saints will probably play better. But they’ll still be unable to run the football, which forces Drew Brees to try and beat the number one pass defense in the league through the air entirely. And it didn’t work well the first time. Mark Ingram was their leading rusher for the game with 22 yards on the ground. If they can’t make the Seahawks honest defensively, it might be tee-off season on Brees. Also, the Seahawks are by far the best team in football at getting turnovers on defense.
If I was a Seahawks fan, the only thing I’d be worried about is expectation. They had a taste of the playoffs last year, losing to the top-ranked Atlanta Falcons. Then again, they were the number one seed in 2005 after losing in the playoffs the year before and made it all the way to the Super Bowl. Maybe it matters slightly, but I don’t expect it to matter that much. Unless Drew Brees is Superman and beyond, I don’t think the Seahawks have to sweat it out that much in the fourth quarter.
GG’s prediction: Seahawks 28, Saints 13
KJ’s prediction: Seahawks 28, Saints 21