New Orleans @ Seattle
Saturday 4:35 ET
Saturday's Divisional Round opener is a rematch of Week 13's 34-7 blowout Seahawks home win, where Russell Wilson shredded Saints DC Rob Ryan's defense for 310 yards and three scores on 22-of-30 (73.3%) passing with 47 more rushing yards. Seattle dominated from start to finish as the clearly superior team. And I wouldn't expect a dramatically different result Saturday evening. ... The lone Saints defender who made a sizable impact on the Week 13 tilt was SS Kenny Vaccaro, recording a year-high ten tackles with a forced fumble of Marshawn Lynch. Vaccaro has since been sent to injured reserve with a broken ankle, improving the matchups of both Wilson and Lynch. Even if the Seahawks don't quite eviscerate the Saints as they did six weeks ago, at very worst the scoreboard should be even or in Seattle's favor enough that OC Darrell Bevell can confidently pound away on the ground. Facing a New Orleans defense that coughed up 4.61 regular season yards per carry -- the NFL's fifth most generous clip -- Lynch is the favorite to lead all running backs in Divisional Round rushing. ... Wilson's target distribution since Seattle's Week 12 bye: Golden Tate 31; Doug Baldwin 23; Zach Miller 22; Jermaine Kearse 18; Lynch 14; Luke Willson 10. ... As the target numbers suggest, Seattle lacks a defined go-to pass-game option, playing run-first ball with a quarterback who prefers throwing to the open man rather than force feeding an alpha receiver. Although he's expected to be on a Week 19 snap count, Percy Harvin's (hip) return further muddies the pass-catching corps. It's a tricky situation in daily fantasy leagues.
Harvin is expected to be available for spot duty, likely similar to the snap count he logged in his lone 2013 appearance. Harvin played 16 downs in Week 11 against Minnesota, securing a 17-yard pass and returning a kickoff 58 yards. Harvin's mammoth big-play ability makes him an X-factor Saturday, but he won't be a full-time player. ... In these teams' regular season bout, the Seahawks attacked the Saints with in-line TE Miller, who registered team highs in targets (8), catches (5), and yards (86), scoring a two-yard touchdown toward the end of the first quarter. New Orleans was touched up by Eagles tight ends in the Wild Card round for a combined 5-38-1 line. ... Expect Tate to get the Keenan Lewis treatment, lining up across from the Saints' top corner on most of Saturday's downs. Lewis did so in Week 13, and Tate came away with 45 scoreless yards on four receptions. Lewis has been a thorn in the side of No. 1 receivers all year, also effectively checking DeSean Jackson (3-53) last week. ... Although Harvin and Baldwin play the same Z/slot position in Seattle's offense, Harvin's return isn't necessarily a concern for Baldwin's snaps or targets. In Harvin's lone 2013 game, Baldwin got the start and played 51-of-54 downs, putting a 2-63-1 line on the Vikings. Harvin and Baldwin were frequently on the field together. Attempting to project the Seahawks' leading receiver in a given game has been a crapshoot all season due to the lack of defined roles, but I would rank Seattle's pass catchers Baldwin > Miller > Tate > Harvin > Kearse for the Divisional Round. And I wouldn't feel overly confident in any of them on FanDuel.
While Vaccaro is a key piece missing from New Orleans' defense, the Seahawks are also short a critical component in SLB K.J. Wright (foot), a coverage maven who took on Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham for the majority of Week 13 snaps. This is the deficiency in Seattle's otherwise impenetrable defense Saints coach Sean Payton figures to attack. Mark Ingram proved the Week 18 box-score beneficiary of Pierre Thomas' (chest) absence, but I prefer Sproles' outlook this particular week. Rather than a featured offensive piece, Payton has employed Sproles as a matchup-specific weapon this season, upping his workloads when the opponent dictates. I think the opponent dictates in the Divisional Round. Seattle plays incredibly stout run defense at home, submitting 3.50 YPC compared to 4.20 on the road. Look for the Saints to finish Saturday's game with considerably more pass attempts than rushes, and Ingram to be much less of a factor than he was in Philly. ... More passing theoretically bodes well for Drew Brees' statistical prospects, but that won't necessarily be the case against a Seahawks defense that plays smothering coverage throughout the secondary and graded out No. 1 overall in Pro Football Focus' regular season pass-rush metrics. Brees fired off 38 attempts in these clubs' Week 13 clash, but managed 147 yards and one touchdown, good to Graham in the second quarter from two yards out. I prefer Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Andrew Luck as Week 19 quarterbacks to Brees.
Brees' target distribution since Marques Colston returned from a knee injury in Week 10: Colston 73; Graham 72; Sproles 48; Thomas 40; Lance Moore 33; Kenny Stills 26; Robert Meachem 17; Ben Watson 16; Ingram 13. ... Beyond Graham and Sproles, no Saints pass catcher has an attractive Divisional Round matchup. Seattle limited Colston to 27 innocuous yards on four catches in Week 13, and in slot corner Walter Thurmond and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, the Seahawks have horses in the middle of the field to keep Colston contained. ... Moore, Stills, and Meachem form a maddeningly unpredictable No. 2 receiver rotation in the first place, and now must deal with LCB Richard Sherman and RCB Byron Maxwell's route-disrupting press coverage on the perimeter. Barring perfectly executed manufactured shot plays or blown defensive assignments, the Saints' outside receivers will struggle for openings. ... Of all this weekend's postseason affairs, I think Seattle over New Orleans has the best chance to be a tail-kicking blowout, and a bit of a struggle to watch. The Saints deserve a lot of credit for getting this far in Payton's comeback season, but I don't think they match up well with the Seahawks from a talent, physicality, or tactical perspective. And the CenturyLink factor accentuates Seattle's advantage.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 27, Saints 13
Indianapolis @ New England
Saturday 8:15 ET
Colts in-game strategies varied all season due to inconsistent defense and an inordinate amount of first-quarter deficits, but all along OC Pep Hamilton has pulled no punches about his preferred style of attack. Hamilton desires a run-foundation offense, and in the Divisional Round has a matchup to execute against a New England run defense that ranked 30th in 2013 and this past week lost run-thumping MLB Brandon Spikes (knee) to injured reserve. While I'm not buying Pep's pledge to re-involve Trent Richardson following his brutal Wild Card game fumble, I do like Donald Brown's chances of a strong Week 19. Brown has hovered between 12-15 touches over Indy's last three games. The contract-year tailback may be dressing Saturday night for the final time as a Colt. ... Although T-Rich played a handful of snaps after last week's turnover, he never touched the football again. As Brown was already severely outplaying him, it's conceivable that Richardson won't get another redemption opportunity until the 2014 season. ... Red-hot Andrew Luck will enter Saturday with a 12:4 TD-to-INT ratio across his last five games, and completing 68.1% of his throws over the last three. I see this game playing out in 23-20 type fashion, a hard-fought, low-scoring affair where both quarterbacks register rather middling production and the run game is leaned on by both sides. Luck is an outstanding ballplayer and turned in an unforgettable performance in last week's comeback win, but I'd shy away from him in fantasy playoff leagues.
The Colts shuffled their wideout deck yet again in the Wild Card round, promoting LaVon Brazill (49 snaps) into the starting lineup for the first time. T.Y. Hilton (61) remained the No. 1, while slot man Griff Whalen (54) was also heavily involved and Da'Rick Rogers (28) took a backseat. Bill Belichick's defense has a long, documented history of eliminating the opposing team's top weapon, so expect Aqib Talib to get physical with Hilton all over the field Saturday night, perhaps even with safety help over the top. The receiver pecking order behind T.Y. has proven almost impossible to predict. ... The matchup does set up nicely for Coby Fleener, who played 63 downs versus Kansas City and turned in a respectable 5-46-1 line on seven targets. During the regular season, New England coughed up the fourth most receptions (89) in the NFL to tight ends, and sixth most yards (971). I think Belichick will feel comfortable shading soft coverage toward Fleener and allowing him to catch possession-type targets as long as Hilton doesn't repeatedly burn his defense deep. Fleener costs $4,900 on FanDuel's Divisional Round tourney, fifth behind Jimmy Graham ($7,500), Julius Thomas ($6,800), Vernon Davis ($6,500), and Greg Olsen ($5,700). I like that value.
More so than any team in football, the Patriots are a game plan-oriented offense that identifies its opposition's weak spots and attacks them rather than playing one specified brand of ball and daring the defense to stop it. There are two glaring weaknesses on Indianapolis' defense. The first is in the secondary, where LCB Josh Gordy is filling in for Greg Toler (groin) and slot defender Darius Butler -- a former Patriots draft pick -- forces his fair share of turnovers but struggles in coverage. Look for Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman to run a high volume of routes at Gordy and Butler as New England picks apart the Colts on quick-hitting, chain-moving completions. The Pats' receivers move around the formation so frequently that attempting to forecast wideout-cornerback matchups is generally futile, but I expect this to be OC Josh McDaniels' approach. Edelman is the best bet for Week 19 production because he's a full-time player, while Amendola is currently only playing around 50% of the snaps. ... Kenbrell Thompkins is one of my favorite cheap FanDuel fliers because he'll start at X receiver with Aaron Dobson (foot) shelved. The Patriots' X plays on the perimeter, where Thompkins could also experience plenty of Gordy's coverage in addition to RCB Vontae Davis. ... I like Tom Brady to have a solid if unspectacular box-score game at chilly Foxboro with limited weaponry against an above-average Colts pass defense. On both sides, I think this will be a chain-moving contest from an offense perspective, with limited splash plays.
Indianapolis' second defensive weakness is on the ground, where it finished the season 26th in run defense with 4.47 yards-per-carry allowed, the seventh highest clip in football. Despite Jamaal Charles' early-game concussion last week, the Colts coughed up 150 yards and a touchdown on 32 runs (4.69 YPC) to Kansas City. New lead back LeGarrette Blount is always a boom-or-bust producer because he never buoys his stats with pass-game involvement, but has upside in the Divisional Round due to the matchup and Patriots' tendency to exploit enemy weaknesses. Blount's carry total grew in three straight games to close out 2013. Although he lacks special ability, Blount has proven a good fit for New England's offense because he is incredibly difficult to tackle with a head of steam. And Blount is getting heads of steam behind the Patriots' alley-clearing line. ... Stevan Ridley has remained involved in the Patriots' backfield, but isn't getting goal-line carries and was never a factor as a receiver. Persistent ball-security woes have reduced Ridley into a complementary player. ... As the Pats have transitioned into a smash-mouth team after losing so many pass catchers, Shane Vereen took a late-season backseat and was limited in practice this week with a groin injury. Vereen will play against the Colts, but I don't think New England will feature him. Expect larger workloads for Blount and to a lesser extent Ridley. Over the season's final three weeks, Vereen averaged 4.3 touches for 25.3 touches per game.
Score Prediction: Patriots 23, Colts 20
San Francisco @ Carolina
Sunday 1:05 ET
The 49ers and Panthers squared off in Week 10 and played to a 10-9 result, with visiting Carolina emerging victorious. While small-sample historical data like that game isn't necessarily predictive as the clubs do battle again, I do believe the brand of football and final score will be similar. These are smash-mouth teams with developing quarterbacks and top-five defenses, one of which (San Francisco) is peaking in January, and the other freshened up coming off a first-round bye. I'm avoiding this game in fantasy playoff lineup decisions. ... With Steve Smith debilitated by a PCL sprain so much that he characterized himself at "57%" health this past week, look for Carolina's offense to spin its wheels. Receiving production will be tough to come by as top pass-game weapon Greg Olsen takes on a 49ers defense that allowed the seventh fewest yards (750) in the league to tight ends this regular season. ... The Panthers need a big effort from Brandon LaFell, who cleared 70 yards in 2-of-16 games during his contract year but may be forced into Carolina's top-receiver role Sunday. LaFell doesn't do anything particularly well, dropping eight passes in 2013 and struggling to create separation throughout his career. LaFell could improve his market value with a fast postseason finish, but executing won't be easy running routes against sticky 49ers outside cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Tarell Brown. In the Week 10 game, San Francisco held LaFell to 48 yards on four grabs, and he committed one of his trademark drops.
The 49ers are the best bet for box-score defensive production in the Divisional Round after stifling Cam Newton for 16-of-32 passing, 169 yards (5.28 YPA), no touchdowns, and an interception in the November meeting. Carolina's lone TD came on a 27-yard DeAngelo Williams run. Look for San Francisco's freakishly talented defensive front to overwhelm the Panthers' largely rag-tag offensive line. ... Ted Ginn is Carolina's X-factor with homerun-hitting return ability and speed to stretch the defense on shot plays. The Panthers are predominantly a three-receiver team, so Ginn will be on the field for most offensive snaps. ... It doesn't get any easier for the Panthers' run game. San Francisco has held its last four opponents to 307 yards and two scores on 83 carries (3.70 YPC) and will pose a mismatch in the trenches for Carolina's front five. The Panthers can also be a bit self-defeating with their running back usage, shuttling Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert in and out of the game based on personnel package. Although this theoretically keeps their legs fresh, it prevents any one of them from establishing an in-game rhythm. Williams, Stewart, and Tolbert combined to manage 1,384 yards on 350 carries (3.95 YPC) this season.
The 49ers field a better offense than the Panthers, but generating ball movement will be similarly difficult on Sunday. Carolina ended the regular season ranked No. 6 versus the pass and No. 2 versus the run, keyed by a dominant front four and linebacker corps that is lightning quick to the football. Frank Gore was the one San Francisco skill-position player who did damage in the Week 10 game, totaling 103 yards from scrimmage and averaging 5.13 yards per carry, though coach Jim Harbaugh didn't get him the ball enough. I don't expect Gore to have a big Divisional Round game, but he gives the 49ers their best shot at sustaining offense and keeping the sticks moving. ... Carolina's second-level speed figures to prevent Colin Kaepernick from taking over this game with his legs, but there are exploitable spots in the Panthers' secondary. Michael Crabtree is running most of his routes at X receiver, where he'll line up across from undrafted rookie RCB Melvin White. The hard part for quarterbacks when facing the Panthers is getting the ball out quickly enough to avoid imposing defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, and one-gap penetrator tackles Dwan Edwards and Kawann Short, who work in rotation. Those four linemen combined for 30.5 regular season sacks. Carolina is also highly effective on defensive back blitzes.
Anquan Boldin has a tougher matchup on paper than Crabtree, as he'll run routes at breakout slot corner Captain Munnerlyn and surprisingly trusty veteran LCB Drayton Florence. Both Munnerlyn and Florence earned top-25 cornerback grades from Pro Football Focus, while White came in 65th. ... It's worth noting Kaepernick did not have the services of Crabtree (Achilles', PUP) in the Week 10 game, and Vernon Davis left with a first-half concussion. Both pass catchers are healthy for the Divisional Round. Carolina plays stout defense against tight ends, but Davis is always a good bet for end-zone trips, scoring 14 touchdowns in 16 appearances this season. Always fast and physical, Davis took a big step forward as a route runner in 2013. ... The Niners made heavy usage of two-tight end sets in last Sunday night's win over Green Bay, as third receiver Quinton Patton played only 17 downs while Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek combined for 42. I still think Patton can be an X-factor for San Francisco at some point in the postseason, but right now he's just not getting enough playing time. McDonald and Celek are lightly used in the pass game.
Score Prediction: 49ers 17, Panthers 13
San Diego @ Denver
Sunday 4:40 ET
These division rivals matched up twice this regular season, theoretically giving us a template from which to work when prognosticating Sunday's Divisional Round finale. The Chargers' offensive approach was clear, limiting Philip Rivers to 49 passes compared to 79 combined team rushes. Due to Ryan Mathews' balky ankle, however, I expect OC Ken Whisenhunt to dial up a divergent strategy, allowing Rivers to go toe-to-toe with Peyton Manning in a shootout. San Diego's regular season run-based game plans were designed not only to keep Manning on the sideline, but compensate for the Chargers' leaky defense. With DC John Pagano's unit playing better of late and Mathews' health murky, I think the Chargers will let Rivers be a gunslinger. It's no surprise that Vegas' 54.5-point over-under on Bolts-Broncos is Week 19's highest. ... Danny Woodhead makes for an intriguing boom-bust FanDuel play on the theory that San Diego will play fast and aggressive, utilizing hurry-up packages and worrying more about yards and points than time of possession. Throw in the possibility of Mathews either being limited or simply not a big part of the game plan, and Woodhead is a sneaky candidate to lead all Divisional Round running backs in all-purpose yards. ... Although Whiz and coach Mike McCoy purposely reined in Rivers' 2013 pass attempts against Denver as a function of game plan, Rivers remained effective in the meetings, completing 31-of-49 throws (63.3%) for 384 yards (7.84 YPA) with a 3:0 TD-to-INT ratio. A cherry on top of Rivers' matchup is Broncos top pass rusher Von Miller's (ACL surgery) absence. Miller wreaked havoc in the two regular season contests, racking up 12 tackles, three for a loss, two quarterback hits, and a sack. Look for Rivers to flourish with more volume and a cleaner pocket.
Increased volume would bode well for the entirety of San Diego's receiver corps, though the Bolts are a spread-the-wealth passing-pie team. Rivers is instructed to get the ball out quickly and progress to open receivers as opposed to bombarding a Vincent Jackson or Antonio Gates with targets. These are the combined pass-option stats from San Diego's two regular season games against Denver: Vincent Brown 6-89; Gates 6-85; Eddie Royal 5-82; Keenan Allen 6-70-2; Woodhead 5-30-1; Ladarius Green 1-25; Mathews 2-3. No Chargers pass catcher exceeded 62 receiving yards in either game. ... In FanDuel's daily game, I'm leaning on Rivers at quarterback but won't have any of his receivers or tight ends in my lineup. ... Despite San Diego's ball-control policy when facing Denver this season, the Chargers still combined for 47 points in the two affairs and are capable of keeping Sunday's game competitive simply because they can move the ball and rally for scores. The Bolts finished the year No. 5 in total yards and No. 12 in points, and dropped 27 on Cincinnati's top-three defense on the road last week. Denver is favored by 9.5 -- the largest margin of any Divisional Round game -- but I expect San Diego to cover if Whiz and McCoy indeed let Rivers sling it around the yard. The Broncos do not play imposing defense in any area.
Conversely, the Broncos pummeled the Chargers with regular season pass attempts as Peyton Manning combined to complete 52-of-77 throws (67.5%) against San Diego for 619 yards (8.04 YPA), six touchdowns, and one pick. Pagano's group deserves recognition for stouter recent play, but ultimately the Bolts lack pass-defense personnel to stymie the NFL MVP. Manning is going to have a big game. Just how big will determine whether San Diego stands any chance to pull the upset. ... While Bolts pass-catcher production was unmoving in 2013 Broncos games, most of Denver's guys went off. Here are their combined numbers: Demaryius Thomas 11-153-3; Julius Thomas 7-142-1; Eric Decker 5-94; Knowshon Moreno 13-85; Andre Caldwell 6-59-2; Montee Ball 5-49; Wes Welker 3-21. ... I noticed PFF's Mike Clay peg Demaryius as the premier bet for receiving production in the Divisional Round, and I agree. San Diego is not built to contain an elite NFL wideout. The Chargers did against A.J. Green (3-34) last week, but Andy Dalton deserves the majority of blame. Expect Demaryius to have his way with liability RCB Richard Marshall. ... Denver also has the top fantasy tight end for Week 19 in Orange Julius, who crippled San Diego's defense on seam routes during the regular season. Thomas is a blowup candidate. ... Decker noticeably scuffled in the box score versus San Diego, primarily for too-many-mouths-to-feed reasons. Always a good bet to find pay dirt, Decker has done so 24 times over his last 29 games.
Medically cleared from his concussion, Welker returns after missing the last three games of 2013, including Week 15 versus San Diego. Welker was targeted six times in these clubs' November clash but simply had a bad day, dropping a pass, having another target intercepted, and finishing with 21 yards on three catches. I expect a much better performance Sunday night. Denver intentionally held Welker out late in the season as a precaution, and he'll be a full-time player against the Bolts. ... The Chargers ranked 27th in YPC average allowed (4.59) this regular season and continued to have run-defense issues in the Wild Card round, as Cincinnati tagged San Diego for 113 yards on 25 carries (4.52 YPC). This is a plus matchup for Moreno and Ball, though Denver's increasing propensity for backfield timesharing makes both Broncos runners dicey propositions in fantasy playoff leagues. I noticed Clay recommend Moreno as the No. 1 fantasy back in the Divisional Round. I personally would play Marshawn Lynch over him.
Score Prediction: Broncos 33, Chargers 28