NFL playoffs Saturday TV schedule: Patriots-Ravens, Seahawks-Panthers first up

An AFC grudge match and a potential Cinderella story in the NFC highlight the first day of NFL Divisional playoff action.

Elaine Thompson/AP
Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch (24) rushes for a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Seattle.

In the earlier part of the 2014 NFL season, some pro football fans across America weren't sure what to make of the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks.

Both teams were struggling. The Patriots had been defeated by the Kansas City Chiefs, 41-14, on Sept. 29. The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks were treading water with a 3-3 record on Oct. 20.

But from that point on, the two perennial powers got their focus back and put together long winning streaks – seven consecutive and 10 out of 11 games for New England and nine out of 10 for Seattle – that propelled them back into the NFL playoffs for yet another season.

Both the Patriots and Seahawks will host playoff games Saturday as the NFL Divisional Playoff round gets underway this weekend.

New England will host old playoff friend Baltimore, whom they have played three times before in the postseason. The Ravens won two of those games, all played at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

This contest will be decided on the line of scrimmage – whichever team controls it will win. Can the Patriots' offensive line give quarterback Tom Brady enough time to throw to his favorite targets – Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman?

The Ravens have one of the better defenses in the NFL, fourth in the league against the run. Linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata lead the front seven. But they've had to plug in substitute players in their defensive backfield this season, due to injuries. However, the makeshift pass defenders did a terrific job last Saturday as Baltimore beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC Wildcard playoff game on the road.

Looking at the Ravens offense, quarterback Joe Flacco leads a balanced attack with veteran wide receivers Steve Smith and Torrey Smith and running back Justin Forsett, who rushed for 1,266 yards this season. The question is how successful they will be against an improved Patriots defense, which allowed fewer yards and points in 2014. New acquisitions Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner helped that cause from the defensive backfield.

You can watch the Patriots and Ravens on NBC, beginning at 4:35 p.m. Eastern time Saturday.

Following that contest will be the Carolina Panthers taking on the Seahawks in an NFC Divisional playoff game in Seattle. The Panthers are coming off a 27-16 Wildcard playoff victory last Saturday over the Arizona Cardinals. In that contest, the Carolina defense set an NFL record for fewest yards allowed in a postseason game. That performance came from a team that finished the regular season with a losing record, but still won the NFC South division.

The Panthers defense, led by linebacker Luke Kuechly, will have its work cut out for it Saturday, going up against Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, who threw for 3,475 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. Receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse are his favorite targets, catching just over 100 passes between them. Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch rushed for 1,306 yards and 13 TDs in 2014.

Carolina will go as far as quarterback Cam Newton will take them. The former Heisman Trophy winner is dealing with a lower back injury that was the result of a car accident last month. He only completed 18 of 32 passes last week against Arizona, but did throw a pair of touchdown passes. Running back Jonathan Stewart was a big help, rushing for 123 yards and a touchdown. Newton has veteran tight end Greg Olson and rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to throw to – both men gained over 1,000 yards receiving in 2014.

But there's the rub. Those Carolina receivers will be going up against one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Seahawks, rated the league's best against the pass, have Pro Bowl-caliber talent at cornerback in Richard Sherman and at safety with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.

These two teams have some history during the regular season – in a Week 8 meeting in Charlotte, Seattle scratched out a 13-9 victory.

The playoff version of Panthers versus Seahawks can be seen on Fox, beginning at 8:15 p.m. Eastern time Saturday.

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