NFL Divisional Playoffs Picks: Last-Minute Expert Projections
The 2014 NFL playoffs started with a bang.
The road teams carried a wildly exciting Wild Card Weekend. Three of the week's four winners were visitors, with only the Colts and their near-record comeback preventing the sweep.
It's going to be doubly hard for those upstarts this week. The top seeds have been unleashed, with the Chargers and Saints facing the unenviable task of traveling to Denver and Seattle, respectively.
Can San Diego beat the Broncos a second straight time? Does New Orleans have a chance on the road?
Here's what NFL experts from around the web had to say.
Experts' Roll Call
Before we move on to the divisional round's games, let's take a look at our panel of experts.
ESPN: ESPN's picks are a combination of the selections of 13 experts. Those experts include writers like Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, as well as former players such as Mike Ditka and Ron Jaworski.
CBS Sports: The CBS Sports picks feature eight writers, including senior NFL columnist Pete Prisco and NFL insider Jason La Canfora.
NFL Network: Melissa Stark, Shaun O'Hara and Sterling Sharpe of NFL GameDay First were late additions to this season's panel.
Bleacher Report: I would be remiss not to include the prognostications of my esteemed colleagues here at Bleacher Report. This year's starting lineup for Bleacher Report's picks team features a combination of national lead writers and lead writers covering the NFL's divisions.
There you have it: over 35 NFL experts all offering their takes on this week's games.
The experts were correct last week in picking the San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts to advance, but whiffed on the other two games.
Last Week Consensus: 2-2
Season Consensus: 151-84
New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
Final Verdict: It may not be fashionable in today's NFL, but you can still win playoff games by running the ball and playing defense.
That's what propelled the Seattle Seahawks to victory over the New Orleans Saints at rainy CenturyLink Field on Saturday.
The Saints made a game of it in the second half, but it will be the Seahawks hosting the NFC Championship Game next week after a 23-15 win.
ESPN: Seahawks (12-1)
CBS Sports: Seahawks (6-2)
NFL Network: Seahawks (3-0)
Bleacher Report: Seahawks (10-2)
Overall: Seahawks (31-5)
The New Orleans Saints got their first road win in playoff history last week in Philadelphia, but this week, things become exponentially tougher for Drew Brees and company.
Saturday, the Saints travel to Seattle to face the NFC's top seed, a 13-3 Seahawks team with one home loss over the past two full seasons.
The Seahawks destroyed the Saints, 34-7, at CenturyLink Field back on Dec. 2, but Brees told Brian Allee-Walsh of USA Today that New Orleans learned valuable lessons from that pounding.
"We got to give a lot of credit to them because they forced us to be that way," Brees said. "But, then again, there are a lot of things we can correct and get better at, and I feel like we have."
Bleacher Report NFC South lead writer Knox Bardeen thinks the Saints will pull off the upset:
Sean Payton is one of the best strategists in the NFL, and no team plays better with a chip on its shoulder than the Saints. There’s no way New Orleans, which was embarrassed in Week 13 in Seattle, is going to get manhandled again. Plus, the Saints are coming off a road win versus the red-hot Eagles.
However, NFC West lead writer Tyson Langland and a large majority believe the Seahawks will play host to the NFC Championship Game:
It’s hard not to be impressed by the Saints after their gritty performance in Philadelphia last week. New Orleans’ run game ran wild to the tune of 185 yards and picked up the slack for a struggling Drew Brees. Yet don’t expect similar results this weekend in the Pacific Northwest. The Seahawks possess the No. 1 defense in the NFL and average 2.4 takeaways a game. As long as Russell Wilson protects the football, Dan Quinn’s defense will do the rest.
Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)
Final Verdict: The Indianapolis Colts had their playoff hopes dashed by a Blount instrument Saturday night.
Running back LeGarrette Blount and the New England Patriots ran all over the Colts. The Pats tallied a staggering 234 yards on the ground, including a franchise-record 166 yards and four touchdowns by Blount.
Throw in four interceptions by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, and the Patriots cruised to a 43-22 win despite the fact that Tom Brady failed to throw a touchdown pass.
ESPN: Patriots (8-5)
CBS Sports: Patriots (6-2)
NFL Network: Patriots (2-1)
Bleacher Report: Patriots (11-1)
Overall: Patriots (27-9)
The Indianapolis Colts pulled out a win for the ages last week, rallying from 28 down in the second half to stun the Kansas City Chiefs.
This week, the Colts head to Foxborough, where they'll meet a New England Patriots team making its annual pilgrimage to the playoffs as AFC East champions.
"We all understand it's a one-week season now," Belichick said. "We need everybody's best this week. We're playing against another great team. We're going to get their best so it will be a highly competitive matchup."
Three-quarters of the experts feel that the playoff-tested Patriots will get the win at home, including Bleacher Report NFL national lead writer Mike Freeman:
If Alex Smith can light up that Indy defense, just what exactly do you think Tom Brady will do to it? As magical as Andrew Elway is, not even he can overcome that horrid Colts defense two weeks in a row. Don't misinterpret me: The Patriots can be beaten at home. But the teams that can pull it off are well-rounded and play excellent defense. That's not the Colts.
With that said, though, NFC North lead writer Zach Kruse stands alone as the only writer here at Bleacher Report to select the Colts:
The Colts have already proven an ability to beat any team, anywhere. The question here is, can Indy get an even performance from a team playing more and more inconsistent late in this season? I think Andrew Luck rides the wave of momentum from Wild Card Weekend and tears through the Patriots defense.
San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)
Final Verdict: Let the hype begin.
Sunday's battle between the NFC's hottest teams really wasn't much of one. The Carolina Panthers hung around early, but a dominant effort by the San Francisco defense in the second half propelled the 49ers to a 23-10 win.
It's a disappointing end to the season for a Panthers team that exceeded expectations in 2013, and an outcome that sets the stage for a slugfest in Seattle next week.
49ers vs. Seahawks, for the third time this year and with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
ESPN: 49ers (11-2)
CBS Sports: 49ers (6-2)
NFL Network: 49ers (2-1)
Bleacher Report: 49ers (10-2)
Overall: 49ers (29-7)
The San Francisco 49ers are the hottest team in the National Football League. They haven't lost since November, when the Niners dropped two in a row in the middle of the month.
One of those losses came against the Carolina Panthers in a hard-hitting defensive affair that the Panthers won, 10-9.
That game also served notice to the rest of the NFL that the Panthers were a team to be reckoned with. However, the 49ers were without wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who told Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News that San Francisco has "better intentions" for this game.
“We have a lot of people back," Crabtree said.
It's Crabtree who Bleacher Report NFL national lead writer Michael Schottey feels will be the difference in a San Francisco win on the road:
Michael Crabtree gives the 49ers far more balance on offense than they've had most of the season. Although the Panthers defense is formidable, the 49ers should be able to find a little room in the secondary.
Most of the panel agrees, but NFL national lead writer Ty Schalter is not among them:
It's hard to pick against a 49ers team that's playing its best ball of the season right now, but the Panthers defense is even better than the 49ers'. Cam Newton makes enough plays in this one to carry Carolina to the victory.
San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3)
Final Verdict: Speaking of hype, get ready for the latest chapter in the story of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning.
For three quarters of Sunday's matchup with the San Diego Chargers, the Denver Broncos were in complete control. The Bolts rallied late, but in the end Manning and the Broncos prevailed 24-17.
That sets the conference championship slate, and gives our panel their first perfect week of the season.
Peaking at the right time.
ESPN: Broncos (12-1)
CBS Sports: Broncos (7-1)
NFL Network: Broncos (2-1)
Bleacher Report: Broncos (11-1)
Overall: Broncos (32-4)
Every ball needs a Cinderella, and in this year's NFL playoffs, the San Diego Chargers are wearing the glass slipper.
The team has reason to be optimistic that they can keep it going this week in Denver. The Broncos lost only once at home all season long—to the Chargers in Week 15.
However, safety Eric Weddle confessed to SportsNetwork.com (via FOX News) that besting the most prolific offense and quarterback in NFL history twice in a row isn't going to be easy.
"It's tough to say you're confident knowing what you're going against," Weddle said when discussing the game. "Do we believe we can win (a second time)? ... Yes."
Bleacher Report NFC West lead writer Tyson Langland thinks the Chargers can win, too:
Peyton Manning and the Broncos are the obvious pick, yet you can’t discount San Diego's Week 15 win at Sports Authority Field. Philip Rivers is playing his best football of the season, the offensive line is controlling the line of scrimmage and the defense is forcing turnovers. That is the recipe for winning playoff games on the road.
However, Langland is one of few, while AFC North lead writer Andrea Hangst is one of many calling for Peyton Manning and the Broncos to get the win:
The Chargers defense looked the best it has all season last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, thanks to a few gifts from Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and running back Giovani Bernard. The Broncos, however, won't be so generous this week. These two teams are well matched at quarterback, but Denver's stacked offense will be too much in this one.