(Kelley L. Cox/USA Today)
The 6’4, 290 lb. Greg Hardy has promised a long day for 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick are the headliners for the final NFC Divisional game of the weekend. One of the most visible players will be Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy. Unlike his self-implied handle “The Kraken”, Hardy’s play has been anything but mythical — posting eight sacks in his last three games. Hardy will need another beastly performance against the San Francisco 49ers and the elusive Kaepernick.
Saturday January 11, 2014:
Seattle Seahawks 23, New Orleans Saints 15 - By the time Drew Brees and the Saints arrived in their physical divisional round meeting with the Seahawks, their opposition’s thoughts were focused on hosting the NFC Championship next week. The Saints were shut out for three quarters due to timely drives and a very aggressive defensive performance. Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch rushed for 140 bruising yards on 28 carries with two touchdowns. Brees passed for 309 yards and Marques Colston — whose ill-advised forward lateral ended the game caught 11 balls for 144 yards and a score. Seattle faces the winner of today’s Panthers/49ers contest.
|NEW ORLEANS SAINTS|
New England Patriots 43, Indianapolis Colts 22 - For the second consecutive game, LaGarrette Blount was a sledgehammer for the New England Patriots offense. Blount pounded the Indianapolis Colts for 168 yards on 24 carries, including a 73 yard rumble as the Patriots move on to the AFC Championship. Andrew Luck threw three or more interceptions for the second straight week, including a pick six in the opening minute of action. There was no comeback in the cards as the Patriots controlled the time of possession and the Colts never led.
|NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS|
San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4) - In their first meeting this season, San Francisco was without wide receiver Michael Crabtree, tight end Vernon Davis — who suffered a concussion early in the contest and linebacker Aldon Smith was just returning to the team after a five-game suspension and was limited on snaps. It looks like the tables have turned on the Panthers at the most critical time. Wide receiver Steve Smith continues to recover from a knee injury he suffered as the regular season closed out. During his absence, Cam Newton was able to spread the ball around as Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. stepped up. The Panthers non-existent running attack has since become a strength. Carolina’s offensive line will have to account for linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, something they did not have to do in Week 10. The Panthers defense remains the best in the NFL. Linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackle Greg Hardy anchor a very stout unit which sacked Atlanta’s Matt Ryan nine times in the season finale.
The Niners are the NFL’s best road team going 6-2 in the regular season and defeating the Green Bay Packers last week 23-20 — running their win streak to seven games. This is not the same team the Panthers faced in Week 10, this is the team which won the NFC last season and they may be just a tad better. Colin Kaepernick has become more and more of a dual threat each week as the team regained healthy players. Frank Gore’s rushing numbers haven’t jumped out at anyone, but he has remained healthy and is still good for 20+ touches. Receivers Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis are the most dangerous receiving trio remaining in the playoffs. The Panthers defense only were concerned with keeping Boldin in check in their first meeting. If Steve Smith doesn’t go for Carolina expect San Francisco to send pressure at Newton forcing him to defeat them with his arm. The Niners believe their physical secondary is no match for the young Panthers receiving unit. Fullback Mike Tolbert will have major blocking assignments as the edges will be open.
Panthers 22 – Niners 17
|SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS|
San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3) - The Chargers were the only team to defeat the Broncos at home this season. Phillip Rivers connected with Keenan Allen in a 27-20 stunner in Week 15. The win was San Diego’s second in what has now become a five-game winning streak. Ryan Matthews rushed for a regular season high 127 yards and a score. The most telling stat was the Chargers dominating the time of possession 39 minutes to 21 for the Broncos. Rivers was only 12-20 for 166 yards, but his mistakes were minimal and Ryan Matthews was allowed to be the workhorse — receiving 30 touches. Last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, Ryan rushed for 144 yards. If the Bolts offense can get another great effort out of Matthews, things will get interesting. If he is unable to go Ronnie Brown and Danny Woodhead will platoon the backfield. The defense only registered an interception and a sack, but were successful in pressuring Peyton Manning for most of the evening with several effective blitz packages.
Wes Welker was nursing a concussion and was unable to go against the Chargers in Week 15 and the Broncos only lost by a touchdown. In Week 10, Welker only had three receptions for 21 yards. It’s safe to say Welker will get more than his share of looks from Manning in this one. The Broncos only ran the ball 11 times for 18 yards in their second meeting, with Knowshon Moreno getting eight of those carries. Denver has since averaged 119 yards on the ground heading into the postseason. Peyton Manning will never be surprised twice and has done his homework on the Chargers pass rush. Manning has four receivers with at least 65 catches and 10 touchdowns so if Welker sees limited action it will have little effect on the Broncos passing attack. Denver will be without linebacker Von Miller — who tore his right ACL. The Broncos would be wise to play physical with Allen and Matthews — who is turnover prone and shies away from a pounding.
Broncos 31 – Chargers 20
|SAN DIEGO CHARGERS|