(Marshawn Lynch photo courtesy of the Seattle Seahawks)
(Cam Newton cover photo courtesy of the Carolina Panthers)
SEATTLE @ CAROLINA, 1:05 p.m. (EST)
The line: Panthers by 2
The story: This is the marquee game of the weekend. Carolina was 15-1 this year, including a defeat over Seattle, so, naturally, the Panthers believe the road to the NFC title goes through Charlotte. Except the guys they’re playing? Well, they’re the defending NFC champions. In fact, they’re the two-time defending champs – and they’re on a roll.
Not only has Seattle won its last six road games; it allowed a grand total of one touchdown in those games.
The Seahawks are the club nobody in the NFC wants to play, which means Carolina just drew the short straw. Yeah, I know, the Panthers went to Seattle and won, and that was a signature victory. But that was then, and this is now and now … I don’t know if I trust anyone more in the NFC playoffs than Russell Wilson.
The guy is 7-2, has been to two Super Bowls, won one of them and was this year’s passing leader. Like MVP cinch, Cam Newton he makes plays with his arm and his legs, but unlike Cam Newton he knows what it’s like to go deep into the playoffs. That doesn’t mean Newton is at a disadvantage here. But the only quarterback hotter than Newton down the stretch is the guy he’s playing.
Then there’s this: Running back Marshawn Lynch. He didn’t play last weekend, and he hasn’t suited up in nearly two months. But he’s supposed to play here, which means one more weapon Carolina must defend.
The Panthers are one of the league’s top defenses (they ranked sixth overall), and their strength lies in takeaways: They make a lot of them. In fact, their 39 were six more than second-place Arizona and 17 more than the Seahawks. Ah, but Seattle ranked second in overall defense, second vs. the pass, first vs. the run and first in points allowed – the fourth straight year they led that last category.
Apparently, Carolina is unimpressed, and maybe it’s that they’re the only team that went undefeated at home this season. I don’t know. All I know is that Roman Harper earlier this week announced that the Panthers “are the better team.” Well, Roman, that’s why we watch.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Carolina has a streak of 27 straight games with 100 or more yards rushing. Seattle, meanwhile, has a streak of 27 straight games (including the playoffs) without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
(Peyton Manning photo courtesy of the Denver Broncos)
PITTSBURGH @ DENVER, 4:35 p.m. (EST)
The line: Broncos by 7-1/2
The story: This looks like the surest thing this weekend, and not because Denver is hot or Peyton Manning is back or the Broncos’ defense gives up yards like Bill Belichick does sound bites. Nope, this is all about Pittsburgh and for two reasons.
Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.
Both were hurt last weekend, with Brown ruled out of Sunday’s game. Roethlisberger revealed he suffered significant shoulder damage when sacked by Vontaze Burfict, but he returned to that game and the smart money is on him playing. The question is: At what level? Big Ben is tough and strong and resilient, but he’s playing with one arm vs. the league’s best defense and without his top receiver. So what do you think happens here? Points will be at a premium for Pittsburgh.
I might cut him some slack if Pittsburgh had a running game, but its top two backs are out, which means nobodies Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman carry the load, and good luck with that. The idea of an injured Roethlisberger trying to carry this offense without a running game, without Brown and with the league’s top sack unit in his face makes this one easy to figure out. Bottom line: The Steelers might have a better chance at Powerball.
OK, so Peyton Manning hasn’t exactly lit it up this year, but he’s had two months to recover from a foot injury, and he brought energy to the huddle two weeks ago. Plus, when did he look his best this season? Uh-huh, against Green Bay … or after a mid-season bye.
My guess: Manning won’t beat Pittsburgh. The Broncos’ revitalized rushing attack will. For the first 10 games, it was AWOL. Then, suddenly, it came to life, and what a difference. Over the last seven games, Denver improved its average per-game total by nearly 50 yards – and look for as much C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman as Peyton Manning when the Broncos have the ball.
And when they don’t? Look for them to sit on the short crossing routes and bubble screens, daring Roethlisberger to beat them deep. My guess: He won’t.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: Manning has a 3-2 record vs. Pittsburgh, with 9 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.
FIVE GUYS ON SUNDAY’S HALL-OF-FAME RADAR
Denver LB DeMarcus Ware. He has four sacks in five career playoff games.
Pittsburgh WR Martavis Bryant. He’s aiming for his third career playoff game with a touchdown.
Seattle QB Russell Wilson. He averages 8.61 yards per attempt in the playoffs, the highest postseason average in league history. He had three TDs and a 149.2 rating vs. Carolina in the playoffs last year.
Seattle S Kam Chancellor. He has a forced fumble or interception in four of the past six playoff games, including a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown vs. Carolina in the divisional round last year.
Carolina DE Jared Allen. He has four sacks and two forces fumbles in his last four playoff appearances.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
Since the NFL moved to a 12-team format in 1990, No.1 seeds in the NFC playoffs are 21-4, while No. 1 seeds in the AFC are 15-10.
With a defeat of Denver, Pittsburgh would advance to its 16th conference championship game – besting San Francisco (15) for most appearances since 1970.
A Pittsburgh victory would be its 35th in playoff history, breaking a tie with Dallas for most postseason wins.
Pete Carroll is 5-1 vs. Carolina.
Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch has nine rushing TDs in 10 playoff games. He also has six 100-yard games.
Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse has a touchdown catch in four of his last six playoff games.
Graham Gano’s 69 touchbacks tied for first among NFL kickers.
Since 2010, Seattle is 5-2 in the playoffs when trailing by nine or more points. The rest of the NFL is 7-42.
Ron Rivera is 19-5 in December and January, tied with Pete Carroll for the best record since 2011.
Seattle has a streak of 87 straight games (including the playoffs) where it has either led or been within one score in the fourth quarter.
Carolina’s 10-game winning streak at home is the longest current home winning streak in the NFL.
Cam Newton’s 33 sacks this season were the fewest of his career.