The second weekend of playoff football should prove to be just as exciting, if not better than the first.
Indianapolis Colts (12-5) @ New England Patriots (12-4)
With Indianapolis coming off of a thrilling come from behind victory list week they have all the confidence in the world that they can win a shootout. I anticipate New England taking the air out of the ball and giving the Colts 26th ranked run defense a heavy dose of Stevan Ridley and LaGarrette Blount. Inexperience and injury gave Tom Brady very little margin for error with his receiving corp throughout the regular season. Even in all of his greatness, a stout running game with select play action opportunities seems to be the best way to attack the Colts defense. Even though Brady is the best player on offense for the Patriots a combination of winter in New England and a fierce Colts pass rush led by Robert Mathis do not suggest a huge passing day for the New England offense.
Injuries on defense will undoubtedly sting New England’s defense. Regardless of personnel, Bill Belicheck will be tasked with trying to confuse 2nd year emerging star Andrew Luck and his spark plug of a receiver, T.Y. Hilton. Hilton lines up in just about every conceivable place a receiver can, seeking favorable match ups and opportunities for large gains. Kansas City had early success aggressively undercutting receivers and anticipating throws to come up with interceptions. I imagine Aqib Talib and Logan Ryan will look for similar opportunities.
Indianapolis will look to continue to ride the hot right arm of Andrew Luck this week, as they did last week against Kansas City. Luck’s confidence, both in himself and his generally unproven receivers, is a marvel to watch. Avoiding turnovers will be paramount, as it was turnovers that dug the enormous hole that Luck dug himself out of last weekend. For the Colts to escape Foxboro with an upset I think they will have to score at least 27 points, a total they exceeded 4 times in road victories during the regular season. I think that number indicates success in moving the ball without turning it over and capitalizing on red zone opportunities.
Defensively, Chuck Pagano will have to find a way to contend with a dangerous Patriots ground game. If New England is indeed committed to the run it will serve the tri purpose of controlling the clock on offense, shortening the game and keeping the ball away from Andrew Luck. Holding the Patriots rushing attack under 150 yards total and forcing Tom Brady to make plays with receivers that may not be ready for the moment could prove to be a winning strategy.
It will take another miracle to run up the score through the air against a rested albeit banged up Patriots defense. I don’t see it happening.
New Orleans Saints (12-5) @ Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
The New Orleans Saints travel to Seattle this weekend looking to balance an impressive road victory last week with the realization that they were man handled on December 2nd by these very same Seattle Seahawks. Offensively, New Orleans must look for ways to get production from their best players. That means they will need to get the ball to Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston early and often. The Saints possessed the second best pass offense in the league during the regular season. The Saints will need a good run pass balance to keep Seattle from completely abandoning run defense and focusing on where Drew Brees will throw the ball. The Seattle secondary is too good, the best in the NFL against the pass, for the Saints to be one dimensional. Sean Payton must give Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas (if healthy) the opportunity to impact this game. That means committing to running the ball and most likely keeping Drew Brees under 30 pass attempts in this game. The willingness of Sean Payton to trust his offensive line to grind out yards and consistently open holes will largely influence the outcome of this game.
Defensively, New Orleans showed the ability to zero in and contain Philadelphia’s running game last week and they will be challenged again this week. Much of Seattle’s success is predicated on being able to run the ball early and often, thereby creating favorable matchups for Russell Wilson to take advantage of. Wilson struggled some as the season wound down but I attribute that to acclimating to life without Sidney Rice and having to constantly manufacture offense with Percy Harvin. I’m still not sure Wilson has enough weapons at his disposal to win a shootout. Pressure is not enough against Russell Wilson. He is excellent on the move both as a runner and passer so stopping him comes down to sacking him, which New Orleans does well (49 on the season), or confusing him with coverage. The Saints ranked second overall against the pass during the regular season. Even without dynamic rookie safety Kenny Vaccorro, I expect the Saints defense to rise to the challenge on the road.
The Seattle offense should serve as a lesson in poise and self awareness. They know who they are and they do not vary much from a proven formula. The power run game is their bread and butter. I expect Marshawn Lynch to look for every chance at recreating his much replayed game securing scamper that still echoes through the memories of Seahawks fans to this day. If Percy Harvin is able to play, he offers yet another weapon that can be used to pound New Orleans into submission. If Russell Wilson plays mistake free football and the running game is able to generate yardage, Seattle is very hard to beat.
Defensively I look for Seattle to attack early and often. Many times deception is a defense’s best friend. The ability to do one thing when the offense expects another is a successful tactic. It is not one that Seattle will be using this weekend. They are going to play tight man defense in the secondary, leaning on the best corner in the game, Richard Sherman, as well as two first-class safeties (Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas) to match up with the Saints vaunted pass catchers. The front four will be tasked with not only harassing Drew Brees but rendering the Saints rushers, which looked good last week, ineffective. If Seattle makes New Orleans one dimensional they will win this game.
I think weather plays a factor in this one and Seattle pounds their way to the NFC Championship Game.