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NFL Playoff Preview: NFC Divisional
By Matt Horkman

No. 6 New Orleans Saints (12-5) at No. 1 Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Key Matchup: In their 26-24 win at Philadelphia, New Orleans ran the ball for 185 yards on 36 carries. Their dependence on the running game was an uncharacteristic move, as the Saints are a pass-first team.  Against most opponents, a pass-catching corps of Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills, and Lance Moore represents a matchup nightmare. Throw in Darren Sproles out of the backfield, and this offense has the potential to drop 40-plus points any given game. However, Seattle ranks No. 1 defending the pass. They have two players (Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas) who are legit candidates for defensive player of the year. In addition, they were the only team in football to allow less than 3,000 yards passing. They also intercepted a league-high 28 passes. One of their most impressive performances of the year was their week 13 performance against New Orleans. They didn’t have an interception that night, but Seattle held New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees to a season-low 60.5 completion percentage. If the sequel is as good as the original, then Seattle is going to the NFC championship.

X-Factor: Recent trends suggest that home-field advantage is no longer meaningful, but CenturyLink Field in Seattle is an exception. Under Pete Carroll, including playoffs, the Seahawks have a 25-8 record at home. The lone playoff game was a 41-36 victory over New Orleans in the 2010 NFC Wild Card. The Saints, meanwhile, are not a very good road team. Their win in Philadelphia doesn’t change anything. As I wrote last week, the issue isn’t whether New Orleans could win a road playoff game. The issue was whether they can sustain success away from the Superdome.

Stat Watch: The Seahawks have held opponents to just a 63.4 passer rating, which is the lowest in the NFL. In fact, Seattle’s one of 15 teams since 2000 to hold opponents to a combined passer rating of 65 or lower.

Prediction: A poor start doomed New Orleans in the first meeting between these teams. The Saints went three-and-out on their first possession, had a fumble returned for a touchdown on their second possession, and had another three-and-out on their third possession. Before they knew it, the first quarter was over and they dug themselves in a 17-point hole. New Orleans will play better this week because it can’t get any worse. Football is about matchups, though, and the Saints drew a favorable matchup with Philadelphia last week. This week, they get an unfavorable matchup. The Seahawks have the secondary to slow down Brees and New Orleans’ passing attack. Defensively, the Saints struggle against physical running games. The Patriots and Jets both had success running between the tackles against Rob Ryan‘s defense. Seattle should take advantage of that vulnerability, especially in the fourth quarter, as Marshawn Lynch is arguably the most physical runner in football today.

Seahawks 30 Saints 20

No. 5 San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at No. 2 Carolina Panthers (12-4)

Key Matchup: Patience wins against Carolina’s defense. The Panthers pride themselves on stopping the run and preventing the big play. As a result, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is going to have to check down to a running back in the flat instead of forcing the issue downfield. Even though he played well against the Packers, Kaepernick did display inaccuracy (53.3 competition percentage) and just as easily could‘ve had three interceptions instead of one. He can’t count on Carolina’s defensive backs dropping interceptions as Green Bay’s did. Michael Crabtree

X-Factor: When these teams met in week 10 of this year, a healthy Steve Smith caught six passes for 63 yards. The 49ers, meanwhile, didn’t have Michael Crabtree. Smith seems likely to play this week, but at less than 100 percent. Simply put, there’s now a huge question with Carolina’s top receiver, while San Francisco has added a healthy Crabtree.

Stat Watch: An insurmountable rush led the way for Carolina in their week 10 victory over San Francisco. The Panthers had six sacks against the 49ers and held Kaepernick to just 91 passing yards. Carolina’s pass rush is one of the most underrated weapons in this year’s postseason. The Panthers have a league-high 60 sacks in 2013, which is 20 more than the league average, and 22 more than San Francisco’s well-respected pass rush.

Prediction: Carolina’s week 10 victory over San Francisco was a slugfest. You can expect a similar game this Sunday, especially with these two defenses. The 49ers pride themselves on toughness. Jim Harbaugh wants his team to outmuscle their opponents. That normally happens because not many teams can match San Francisco’s physicality. Carolina can, though. In fact, they did earlier this year. The 49ers’ offensive line rarely loses the battle in the trenches, but they struggled against Carolina‘s defense. The Panthers don‘t blitz often, but they were effective using it against San Francisco. In addition, defensive end Charles Johnson played arguably his best game. The 49ers will need to make adjustments. Most notably, I expect Harbaugh to turn to the short-passing game, so Kaepernick gets rid of the ball quickly. He may also give right tackle Anthony Davis more help on Johnson. Regardless, the addition of Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis -- who left the week 10 game with a concussion -- boosts San Francisco’s offense, while an injured Smith will likely cost Carolina a big play or two. In a game likely to come down to field position, that’s the difference. 

49ers 16 Panthers 13

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