The National Football League is down to its version of the 'Elite Eight' as we approach this weekend's divisional playoff round. Four teams each from the American and National conferences will try to take another step closer to Super Bowl XLVIII Feb. 2.
Saturday's contests include Seattle hosting New Orleans in the first NFC semifinal. From a playoff history perspective, these two teams met back on January 8, 2011 in an NFC wild-card game. Sporting a 7-and-9 won-loss record to capture the NFC West that season, the Seahawks won a wild contest, 41-36, which included an incredible 67-yard touchdown run by Seattle's Marshawn Lynch.
Fast-forward to this season and the Seahawks had their way with New Orleans, beating Drew Brees and the Saints, 34-7, on Dec. 2.
Despite that outcome, the Saints have some momentum coming into this game. They finally won a road playoff game last Saturday against the Philadelphia Eagles. However, Seattle's 12th man - the home crowd - and some opportunistic defense on the part of the top-rated Seahawks will be enough to prevail in this playoff contest.
Saturday's game will be televised on Fox beginning at 4:30 p.m. Eastern time.
The New England Patriots will play host to the Indianapolis Colts in Saturday's nightcap. The last time these two franchises met in the playoffs, Peyton Manning was still quarterbacking the Colts and led them to a come-from-behind victory over New England in the 2006 AFC championship game in Indianapolis.
Now second-year quarterback Andrew Luck is the field general in Indy. Luck cemented his place in Colts lore after leading Indianapolis to a wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend. The Colts overcame a 28-point second half deficit to advance in the AFC.
Like the Saints, Indianapolis benefits slightly from having played a game last weekend. But New England head coach Bill Belichick and his staff have had the time to game plan for the Colts. The Patriots have developed a solid running game - namely LeGarrette Blount - that can handle poor weather conditions, which are expected Saturday night. Thus, Tom Brady and the Pats get the pick here.
CBS will televise the Patriots and Colts, beginning at 8:15 p.m. Eastern time Saturday.
Sunday starts off with the San Francisco 49ers traveling to Carolina to take on the Panthers in an NFC Divisional round game.
Earlier this season, Carolina edged the Niners in San Francisco, 10-9. The Panthers defense shut out San Francisco's offense in the second half of the game.
This will the first time these former NFC West division rivals have met in the playoffs. The Panthers lead the overall series, 11-7.
Expect a few more points to be scored this time around with both Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers and the Panthers' Cam Newton creating some offense with their arms and legs. According to NFL.com stats, both teams are good at running with the football and stopping the run. So, this one will come down to passing. Carolina All-Pro receiver Steve Smith is injured while the 49ers Michael Crabtree returned last weekend to help them beat the Packers. San Francisco will edge out the Panthers for a second road playoff victory in two weeks.
The Panthers-49ers contest will air on Fox, starting at 1 p.m. Eastern time Sunday.
The final game of the weekend will be the third installment of an AFC West Division rivalry as the Denver Broncos host the San Diego Chargers. These teams split the two regular season meetings with the road team winning each game.
Peyton Manning has led the Broncos offense this season to record-breaking heights. Manning threw for 5,407 yards and 55 touchdown passes this season, besting Tom Brady's mark of 50 set back in 2007. Denver's offense also scored the most points in a season in the history of the NFL, with 606.
The Chargers have been playing their own version of 'Survivor' at the end of this current season. On the final Sunday of the regular season, San Diego had to hope two other teams would lose, then beat the Kansas City Chiefs in their finale just to have a shot at the postseason.
Then, San Diego traveled to chilly Cincinnati last weekend and defeated the Bengals in an AFC wild-card playoff game. There should be no shortage of confidence for the Chargers as they get set to meet the No. 1 seed in the AFC. However, with Manning at the controls of a potent Broncos offense, Denver should advance to host the AFC championship game on Jan. 19.
The Denver-San Diego AFC divisional playoff game will be broadcast by CBS, beginning at 4:30 p.m. Eastern on Sunday.