Seattle Seahawks @ Carolina Panthers
1:05 PM EST, FOX – Line: Carolina -2.5, Over/Under: 44
After a Wild Card Weekend ripe with rematches, the theme continues today as the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers meet for the second time this season, in a redux of one of the league’s most entertaining contests. However, this second round tilt very nearly came to fruition, as last weekend’s improbable meltdown in frigid Minnesota gave the Seahawks (10-6, 2nd in NFC West) a proverbial second chance. With the temperature fluctuating below zero (minus-6 at kickoff), both teams had a very difficult time of sustaining any semblance of offense, with only one touchdown scored between the two combatants. It took three full quarters and then some for the visiting ‘Hawks to get on the scoreboard, by virtue of a 3-yard pass from Russell Wilson to Doug Baldwin, followed shortly by a 46-yard Field Goal courtesy of Steven Haushka to erase a 9-point lead en route to a single-point advantage, which was set up by a crucial Adrian Peterson fumble. After the teams exchanged possessions, the Vikings drove all the way down to Seattle’s 9-yard line (thanks to a 19-yard Pass Interference penalty from Kam Chancellor), setting a virtual chip shot for Kicker Blair Walsh. Despite drilling his previous three attempts with ease, Walsh miraculously shanked the kick to the left, missing the posts by a good mile, effectively ending the game. Now, Pete Carroll and his charges off to the Divisional Round for the fourth consecutive year, against a team that shocked them in an earlier meeting in which the two-time NFC Champions were very much figuring themselves out. Ah, but much has changed since that 27-23 defeat; the Seahawks have since won nine out of eleven outings, exhibiting immense improvement in two vital areas. Let’s start off with the Offensive Line, which was a bonafide mess during the first half of the campaign, as players were shuffled around on a weekly basis, with many of their number playing out position, with some even making the transition from the defensive side of the ball. However, Offensive Line Coach Tom Cable eventually managed to iron out the wrinkles, and turn this Motley Crew of blockers into a cohesive unit. As a result, the passing game unexpectedly blossomed into a devastating weapon; the aforementioned Wilson (4,577 Total Yards, 35 Total TDs) has eviscerated opposing Secondaries for twenty-eight passing touchdowns in that time, on his way towards becoming the first Quarterback in the history of the NFL to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for another 500 in the same season. Baldwin (1,069 Yards), who was on the receiving end of thirteen of those scores ended, with a league-high fourteen touchdowns, proving that this Receiving Corps was more than capable without the injured Jimmy Graham. Oh, and we mention that Marhsawn Lynch (417 Yards, 3 TDs), who has missed the previous seven weeks of action rehabbing from a Sports Hernia, has been activated? With that said, the vaunted Legion of Boom returning to form has had just as much to do with their run of success. Indeed, reports of this group’s demise were very premature, as the Seahawks’ defense (17.3 points per game) became the first in nearly sixty years to pace the league in points allowed on four consecutive occasions. During their eleven-game stretch, Seattle relegated the opposition to a mere 14.6 points per game, with all but three of their opponents held below fourteen points. They’ve forced fifteen turnovers in that time, parlaying into a solid plus-5 advantage in that regard.
Meanwhile, turnovers will likely play a very key role in today’s affair, for nobody forced more of them than the Panthers (15-1, 1st in NFC South). The three-time NFC South Champions turned over their opponents a staggering thirty-nine times, equating to a very sizable plus-20 advantage. Furthermore, all those takeaways had a very positive effect on their overall offensive output; Carolina surprisingly led the league with 31.2 points per game, aided by the defense, which accounted for five scores themselves, and allowed them to enjoy favorable field position, with an average starting point of their own 30.7-yard line (2nd Overall). Ironically though, Ron Rivera’s charges didn’t force a single turnover in their previous encounter with the Seahawks, losing the turnover battle 0-2 in what ultimately became the victory that would define their season. That win at CenturyLink Field was the moment where the rest of the world became aware of this team, as they overcame a 9-point deficit in the fourth quarter to upset a team that has dominated the NFC over the past two years. Trailing 23-14 with just over eight minutes to play, the offense awoke, with Cam Newton first leading a 9-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in a Jonathan Stewart touchdown, followed shortly by yet another 80-yard drive capped by a triumphant 26-yard touchdown toss to Greg Olsen to take a 27-23 lead with just thirty-six seconds remaining. Despite a slow start, Newton was fantastic to close the game out, going 11-of-12 for 152 yards over the duration of the final two drives. Then again, when you consider how he’s performed on the whole of this season, his heroics should come as no surprise; the MVP front-runner has accounted for 4,473 total yards and forty-five total touchdowns, but made significant strides as a passer, improving greatly in Yards per Attempt (7.7), Net Yards per Attempt (6.72), Interception Percentage (2.0), and Sack Percentage (6.2), while also leading a league-high four Game-Winning Drives. Making his accomplishments all the more impressive is the fact that the offense he’s done so with virtually a no-name group of weapons; with promising sophomore Kelvin Benjamin (Torn ACL) biting the dust in the Preseason, and longtime Left Tackle Jordan Gross retiring coupled with the departure of veteran rusher DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers Offense appeared to be void of credible weapons, but that has proven to be a fallacy. The oft-traveled Ted Ginn has found a home in Carolina, enjoying career-bests in Yards per Reception (16.8) and Receiving Touchdowns (10), while Olsen carried the passing game with 1,104 yards and seven scores. It looks like the First Round Bye was a real boon to Rivera and Co., as Ginn, who missed the season finale with an ailing knee, and leading rusher Stewart (989 Yards, 6 TDs), who missed the final three games with a lingering ankle sprain, are both expected to be at full health.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos
4:40 PM EST, CBS – Line: Denver -7.5, Over/Under: 41
Continuing with the theme of rematches, Sunday’s latter matchup features the injury-riddled Pittsburgh Steelers at the Denver Broncos, for the second time in the last five weeks. In similar fashion to the earlier of today’s contests, if not for some very fortuitous circumstances, the Steelers (10-6, 2nd in AFC North) in all likelihood wouldn’t be in this position. In a game that featured swirling winds and heavy rain, Pittsburgh blew a 15-point fourth quarter lad to the A.J. McCarron Bengals, who enjoyed a heavy swing in momentum with Ben Roethlisberger suffering a sprained shoulder on a hit by Vontaze Burfict. With Big Ben on his way to the lockerroom, the hosts rattled off sixteen unanswered points, then intercepted his replacement Landry Jones on his own 14-yard line with 1:50 left to play. Game over, right? Not so fast, folks…In an effort to run out the clock, Tailback Jeremy Hill inexplicably fumbled on the very next play, with Mike Tomlin’s charges recovering, which led tot eh return of Roethlisberger, who promptly engineered a 9-play, 74-yard drive from his own 9-yard line culminating in a 35-yard Chris Boswell Field Goal to earn the victory. However, they had quite a bit of help in that drive; as Roethlisberger dinked and dunked down field with an ailing shoulder, the aforementioned Burfict nearly beheaded Antonio Brown as the Receiver failed to haul in a pass, earning a 15-yard Targeting Penalty, while in a bizarre chain of events, Adam “Pac Man” Jones earned another 15-yard penalty (this one of the Unsportsmanlike Content variety) as he made contact with a referee while being engaged in an exchange with Pittsburgh Linebacker Joey Porter, who wandered onto the field. This made a 50-yard Field Goal a far more manageable 35-yard attempt, which Boswell easily converted. So with thirty of those seventy-four yards attributed to the most boneheaded of penalties, the Steelers advanced to the second round of the Playoffs for the first time since 2010. With that said, it sure did come at a steep price; thanks to Burfict’s assault, Brown has already been pronounced inactive for today’s contest, as he is still in the league’s Concussion Protocol, while Roethlisberger will attempt to give it a go despite reportedly sustaining a sprained AC Joint and torn ligaments his throwing shoulder. This obviously hampers one of the most prolific passing attacks in the league, as Brown amassed 136 catches for 1,834 yards (13.5 y/r) and ten touchdowns, while Roethlisberger averaged a staggering 328.2 yards through the air despite missing five games to injury. It should be interesting to see how Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley tailors the gameplan given Brown’s absence and an almost certainly compromised Big Ben. Last week, the Steelers exhibited a surprising commitment to the running game, with the unheralded tandem of Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint piling up 123 yards on twenty-eight carries. Look for the pairing to take on an even greater role in the Offense, as Tomlin and Haley will need them to keep Denver’s nasty defense honest so that Roethlisberger will have time and room to throw.
Meanwhile, despite a campaign that featured an unbeaten start, an underperforming Hall of Fame Quarterback who was benched for a virtual unknown, and another switch back to said Hall of Fame Quarterback, the Broncos (12-4, 1st in AFC West) still somehow managed to win their fifth-consecutive division title, and secure the No. One Seed in the AFC in the process. The feel good story that was the rise of Brock Osweiler ended abruptly midway through the season finale against the Chargers, as Gary Kubiak benched the Quarterback in favor of Peyton Manning, who had missed the previous six games resting an ailing foot. For a few weeks it appeared that we had seen the last of Manning, but the five-time MVP emerged from halftime to lead Denver to a 27-20 victory in which the home side overcame a staggering five turnovers. No. 18 completed just 5-of-9 passes for sixty-nine yards, but deftly managed the offense which was powered by a sporadic running game that amassed 210 yards and a pair of touchdowns on thirty-two carries, outscoring the visitors 20-14 in the second half. While certainly far from an offensive outburst, Manning looked fresh for the first time in over two months, moving around the pocket and throwing the ball without any issues. Now, with yet another week to rest, he should be as 39-year old veteran can be at this juncture. After all, he’s only played in one half of football since November 15th. However, that begs the question: just what can we expect from Manning? The league’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns among a wealth of other categories had struggled mightily when he was on the field in 2015, logging career-worsts in Passing Yardage (224.9) and Interception Percentage (5.1%), with a number of other figures representing his lowest since his rookie campaign in 1998. Hell, before his injury, he was actually leading the league with seventeen interceptions. With his body betraying him, the move to bench him was absolutely the right thing to do at the time, just as reinstating him last week was as well. With potentially just three games left in his illustrious career, we’re betting that he’ll resemble the Peyton Manning that we’ve come to expect rather than the shell of the Quarterback we saw through the first nine games of the season, provided he’s healthy of course. With that said, he probably won’t need a vintage 300-yard, 3-touchdown performance since his compatriots on defense have been quite proficient at limiting that very thing. The Broncos have been hellacious on this side of the ball, leading the league in a number of categories including Total Defense (283.2), Passing Defense (199.6), Net Yards per Attempt Allowed (5.1), Yards per Carry Allowed (3.3), and Sacks (52) among others. In fact, only one Quarterback managed to torch them for 300 passing yards this season, and if you guessed that it was Roethlisberger, then you would be correct. Big Ben manhandled their vaunted Secondary for 354 yards and three touchdowns on 40-of-55 passing in a 34-27 Steelers’ victory, with the aforementioned Brown hauling in sixteen of eighteen targets for 189 yards an a pair of scores. With an ailing shoulder, we highly doubt that Roethlisberger will throw the ball fifty-five times, and sans Brown he’s unlikely to reach that same yardage total, which should make this rematch with Denver’s defense far more favorable for the latter.