Saints vs. Seahawks, 4:35PM ET
The forecast for Saturday’s Divisional round game in Seattle is calling for a 70-perent chance of rain throughout and high winds ranging between 28 and 30 miles per hour. Considering Seattle already has the toughest defense in the NFL and has struggled offensively in recent weeks, the under seemingly holds more value than the side in this matchup. The Saints also went with a power run approach last Saturday in Philadelphia and may have to employ a similar tactic if they can’t stretch the ball vertically. The Seahawks also did a great job of limiting New Orleans’ screen and short area game in the first matchup, so offense could be at a premium for the Saints this weekend. The under is 5-0 in the Saints’ last five road games, 7-1 in their last eight games overall and 5-0 in the Seahawks’ last five games. FREE PICK: UNDER 44
Colts vs. Patriots, 8:15PM ET
Andrew Luck and the Colts staged one of the greatest comebacks in NFL playoff history last week when they knocked off the Chiefs, 45-44. But they also received some help along the way. Kansas City lost six starters throughout the game, including running back Jamaal Charles. Bob Sutton also failed to adjust to T.Y. Hilton’s ability to run free in his secondary in the second half and the Colts turned the ball over a whopping four times. Too many things went right for Indianapolis to bank on more fireworks Saturday night in Foxboro. (I’ll save everyone the “Luck” puns.) This is usually the time of year when Bill Belichick and Tom Brady make their money and Belichick won’t make the same mistakes that Sutton and Andy Reid did a week ago. FREE PICK: PATRIOTS -7
49ers vs. Panthers, 1:05PM ET
This truly is a coin flip of a matchup. The Panthers beat the 49ers 10-9 in San Francisco back in November of this year but the Niners were without Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith, and only had Vernon Davis for the first half before he injured himself. Colin Kaepernick has also been a different quarterback with Crabtree back in the starting lineup and the Niners are one of the hottest teams in the league. While Carolina plays outstanding defense at home, this will be Cam Newton’s first playoff game and his inexperience could shine through. With this game expected to be tight throughout, look for the Niners to hold onto victory in the end. FREE PICK: 49ERS PICK’EM
Chargers vs. Broncos, 4:40PM ET
The Broncos were held under 30 points only three times this season and the Chargers were able to do it twice. In their current five-game winning streak, San Diego has rushed at least 36 times per contest and gained over 143 yards in every game. Running the ball and stealing time of possessions away from Peyton Manning will be the key to their success but whether or not they can do it will be another story. Manning realizes that his window to win another Super Bowl is slamming shut and despite his issues in his first playoff games, the cold weather or Denver’s defense, I don’t think Manning will be outdone this weekend by a scrappy San Diego team. It’s too tempting to take the 10 points with the Chargers after they were able to dismantle an underrated Cincinnati team a week ago but I’m going to do it anyway. I think this is Manning’s year to at least get back to the Super Bowl and I see a rout in the final game of Divisional week. FREE PICK: BRONCOS -10
Missouri vs. Ole Miss, 7:45PM ET
Some pundits didn’t expect Mizzou to win six games this season and now the Tigers are knocking on the door of playing in the SEC championship game. They have two more hurdles to overcome, however, as they need to beat Ole Miss on Saturday night and then Texas A&M in their final game of the regular season. Fortunately their starting quarterback James Franklin is set to return from injury to take the place of redshirt freshman Maty Mauk, who filled in admirably while Franklin was out with a shoulder injury. Before he was knocked out of a win against Georgia earlier this season, Franklin was completing 67.7 percent of his passes and was one of the top quarterbacks in the nation from a statistical standpoint. One mismatch that Franklin can take advantage of is the one-on-one issues that the Tigers’ receivers will give the Rebels’ cornerbacks. L’Damian Washington stands 6’4″ while future NFL prospect Dorial Green-Beckham is 6’6″ and Marcus Lucas is 6’5″. Conversely, Ole Miss’ starting corners are 5’9″ (Senquez Golson) and 5’8″ (Mike Hilton). As long as Mizzou’s stout defense can limit Bo Wallace’s ability to freelance and connect for big plays, they should win. FREE PICK: MISSOURI -2.5
Oregon vs. Arizona, 3:30PM ET
Oregon is back on track to being the top seed from the Pac-12 and it knows style points will count tomorrow in Arizona. The Wildcats, meanwhile, have failed to cover in three straight games and are coming off a lifeless performance versus Washington State last week. The Ducks are 12-2 against the spread in their last 14 road games and 10-4 ATS in their last 14 conference games. Arizona doesn’t have the hosses up front to dominant Oregon in the trenches. These are the types of matchups where the Ducks thrive. FREE PICK: OREGON -20.5
Cowboys vs. Giants, 4:25PM ET
The Giants have won four straight but take a look at the quarterbacks they beat during that stretch: Josh Freeman, who didn’t know the playbook, Nick Foles before he became Nick Foles, a hobbled Terrelle Pryor and then Scott Tolzien last Sunday. Not exactly a Murderer’s Row of signal-callers. Granted, the Cowboys’ defense has been brutal under Monte Kiffin this season but Eli Manning hasn’t been sharp himself. The Cowboys are 4-1 against the spread in their last five games following a straight up loss and 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games overall. Take the dog. FREE PICK: COWBOYS +1
Panthers vs. Dolphins, 1:00PM ET
There isn’t a team hotter right now in the NFL than the Carolina Panthers, which is why they’re probably due for a letdown. They’re coming off back-to-back wins versus the 49ers on the road, and the Patriots at home on Monday night. Seeing as how they’re coming off a short week and now have to make the trip down to Miami, this is a perfect time to fade the Panthers. The Dolphins have been a mess both on and off the field over the past three weeks but they picked up a nice home win last week against the Chargers and are 4-0 against the spread in their last four games versus the Panthers. FREE PICK: DOLPHINS +4
+ There’s no player that excites me more than C.J. Spiller heading into the 2013 season. He’s going to be the focal point of Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett’s up-tempo, run-heavy offense in Buffalo. He flashed his speed and strength against Minnesota on Saturday, knifing through the defense while displaying quick feet. It’s just too bad that he’ll face 8-man fronts all season.
+ Speaking of the Bills, their pass rush looked good against the Vikings. There were times when Jerry Hughes ran himself out of plays but he has great acceleration off the snap. He, Manny Lawson and Marcell Dareus stood out, but the entire starting front seven for Buffalo had a solid night.
+ The transition from Rob Chudzinski to Mike Shula in Carolina hasn’t been seamless for Cam Newton. On Thursday night in Philadelphia, Newton struggled with errant passes, throwing receivers open and hitting targets in stride. Most of his completions came with receivers coming back to the ball, which is fine if a quarterback is accurate. But Newton completed 57.7% of his passes a year ago and thus far in preseason he’s 11-for-23 (47%). Shula figured to rely heavily on DeAngelo Williams and the running game, and it’s unlikely that that plan has changed.
+ Nick Foles was 6-for-8 for 53 yards and a rushing touchdown on Thursday night against Carolina, but Michael Vick was clearly the more efficient quarterback. He was poised and confident in the pocket, displayed good mobility while extending plays with his feet, and got the ball out of his hand quickly (a requisite in Chip Kelly’s offense). While Kelly has avoided naming a starter for Week 1, it’s safe to assume Vick is the current frontrunner…
+ …Now, whether or not Kelly can keep Vick healthy is a different subject altogether. Kelly’s offense will be predicated on short-to-intermediate passing out of multiple personnel groupings and formations. The read option also appears to be a key feature, which suits Vick’s skill set but also puts him at risk for injury. Even if Foles doesn’t win the starting job out of camp, history tells us that Vick’s backup needs to be ready at a moment’s notice. It’s only a matter of time before the veteran suffers some sort of aliment.
+ We’ll see what happens when opponents start game planning to beat them on Sundays but thus far the Browns have been intriguing. Brandon Weeden looks comfortable and confident running Norv Turner’s offense and a star is rising in tight end Jordan Cameron, who made an incredible catch for a touchdown versus the Lions on Thursday night (one of his two scoring receptions in the game). Save for guard John Greco (who was manhandled by Nick Fairley on consecutive plays in the first half), the offensive line has also performed well and the defense might turn out to be the most underrated unit in the NFL by seasons end. Usually it takes about 10 games before Ray Horton’s system takes hold but his players in Cleveland have taken to it like a fish to water.
+ Dirk Koetter finally has his power running game to complement his vertical passing attack in Atlanta. The Falcons ran Steven Jackson out of the “11” and “12” personnel groupings on Thursday night in Baltimore, trying to match hat-for-hat and allowing him to do what he does best: Run downhill. Thanks to Matt Ryan and his assortment of weapons in the passing game, that offense was already difficult to stop. If they can build a lead and then run clock in the second half of games, they’ll avoid having what happened in the NFC title game when they allowed the 49ers to erase a 17-point deficit.
+ It’s becoming evident that the Ravens will be held back by their lack of weapons in the passing game. Torrey Smith took a simple slant for a touchdown against the Falcons on Thursday but William Moore also took a horrible angle on the play and turned a 7-yard gain into a 77-yard score. Without Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin drawing attention in the short-to-intermediate game, opponents will likely bracket Smith in coverage and force somebody else to beat them. Visanthe Shiancoe won’t be that somebody else.
+ The run-blocking units for San Diego and Chicago had good nights on Thursday. Matt Forte finished with a 9.2 average and Ryan Mathews rushed for 5.0 yards per clip, as both running backs flashed burst and acceleration through open lanes. Rookie Kyle Long stood out for Chicago, as he consistently was stout at the point of attack and finished blocks in the running game. Sadly though, Philip Rivers was often on his back and Jay Cutler had pass rushers around his feet throughout the first quarter. Pass protection will be a major question mark for both teams all season.
+ Alex Smith completed 7-of-8 passes last week against a Saints team that played a soft zone, but he struggled against a more aggressive 49er defense on Saturday. He’ll be able to dink and dunk past lesser opponents but what happens when the Chiefs are trailing and he has to beat opponents vertically in the fourth quarter? There’s no question he’s an upgrade over Matt Cassel and Kansas City is going to win a few contests on Andy Reid’s game-planning alone. But Smith remains limited as a passer and thus, it’s hard envisioning the Chiefs beating teams like Denver or New England if they’re able to make it to the postseason.
With training camps ready to kick off around the NFL, intrigue surrounds a handful of starting quarterbacks. Here’s a closer look at three rather polarizing signal callers.
Even if the Panthers match their 2012 season and amass another 7-9 record, Newton will head into 2014 as Carolina’s starting quarterback. Nobody will fault Newton if he can’t out-duel Matt Ryan and Drew Brees within the NFC South, especially when you consider the weapons that the Falcons and Saints have offensively. That said, more will still be expected of Newton as he heads into his third season. In seven of his final eight games, he averaged 245.6 passing yards per contest and threw 13 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions. He also rushed for 360 yards and four scores during that same span and continues to be one of the best playmaking quarterbacks in the NFL. But his accuracy was erratic in his second season and his decision making in the clutch also came under scrutiny. He improved when the Panthers took more off his shoulders and spread the wealth offensively, so look for new coordinator Mike Shula to build off of what Rob Chudzinski was able to accomplish with Newton in the second half of last year. Can Newton improve upon his career completion percentage of 58.9? Will the departure of Chudzinksi stall his progress? Will he prosper or fold in the fourth quarter of close games? Newton will once again be one of the more intriguing signal callers heading into the 2013 season.
Given the lack of playmakers, the carousel of offensive coordinators, and the suspect pass protection, there have been plenty of excuses for why Bradford hasn’t improved upon his rookie of the year campaign in 2010. But considering the offseason the Rams just had, there are no more excuses: Bradford needs to excel in 2013. Thanks to the free agent signings of Jake Long and Jared Cook, as well as the selections of Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Zac Stacy, Bradford will be surrounded by more playmakers this season than at any point during his four-year career. The offensive line has also improved significantly over the past two offseasons (at least on paper), and this will be the first time that Bradford will play under the same offensive coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer) in back-to-back years. Will Bradford elevate his game is the question. According to Rotoworld.com, he’s completed just 46.4 percent of his red zone passes for 541 yards, 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions over the course of his career. And while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch points out that Bradford’s touchdown-to-interception ratio jumped to 9:1 in the red zone during the second half of the 2012 season, that came against San Francisco (twice), NY Jets, Minnesota, Buffalo and Tampa Bay, which all ranked 22nd or lower in red zone defense. Simply put, he needs to be more consistent on third downs and inside the 20 if this new-look Rams offense is going to fire on all cylinders. He’s wanted more responsibility at the line of scrimmage and he’ll get that under Schottenheimer, who wants Bradford to run more up-tempo looks Time will tell if Bradford can push to become an elite quarterback or settle for being a glorified game manager that doesn’t show the ability to elevate those around him.
Who is the real Josh Freeman? The quarterback that threw 16 touchdown passes to just three interceptions between Weeks 6 and 11 last season, or the one that finished with a TD:INT ratio of 6:10 during the Bucs’ 1-5 slide at the end of 2012? Freeman’s biggest issue heading into 2013 is overcoming pressure. He struggles when defenses rush him off the edge, he struggles when they put pressure in his face, and he struggles in a muddied pocket. Granted, most quarterbacks have issues when they’re under duress. According to Pro Football Focus, nine of Freeman’s 17 interceptions last year came when he was under pressure, which probably isn’t an uncommon percentage among starting NFL quarterbacks. But in his four seasons, the Bucs are just 24-32 with him as a starter, and no playoff appearances. Over that same span, Tampa Bay is also just 5-10 against Atlanta and New Orleans, and if Freeman can’t beat those two opponents than the Bucs will continue to fall short in the NFC South. Now, are those failures all on Freeman? Of course not. In fact, he was nearly unbeatable at one point last year, albeit with the aid of Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson. But it’s telling that the Bucs are willing to head into 2013 without extending Freeman’s contract. Greg Schiano wants and demands more from his quarterback, who has enough playmakers around him to succeed. (Tampa has done a nice job of collecting talent on both sides of the ball the past two offseasons.) If Freeman can’t become a more consistent playmaker, the Bucs may chalk up that 10-win season in 2010 as a fluke and look to move on next offseason.