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No. 4 Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at No. 2 New England Patriots (12-4)
Key Matchup: You have to imagine that if Alex Smith can throw for 378 yards and four touchdowns, then Tom Brady can probably post big-time numbers against the Indianapolis secondary. Will Brady have enough time to find open receivers, though? New England’s battled injuries up front all season and there isn’t a better pass rusher in football right now than Indianapolis outside linebacker Robert Mathis. The outdoor environment could hinder the Colts’ pass rush, but it could also help their secondary. Regardless, the game’s outcome will likely depend on whether New England can produce through the air.
X-Factor: When the Colts traded a first-round pick to Cleveland for running back Trent Richardson, they did so expecting Richardson would make an impact in the playoffs. That’s not likely to happen, as Richardson has been a colossal bust in Indianapolis. However, fellow running back Donald Brown is emerging as one of the more underrated players of these playoffs. Brown doesn’t touch the ball a lot, but when he does, he‘s gaining significant yards. The fifth-year running back is averaging nearly six yards per touch. Injuries to defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo have left the middle of New England’s defense vulnerable for a running game to exploit.
Stat Watch: Many may look at Brady’s 2013 season as a great one, but it won’t be because of his production. The two-time Super Bowl MVP threw just 25 touchdowns, which was his fewest since 26 in 2005. In addition, he completed just 60.5 percent of his passes, which is actually the second lowest of his career.
Prediction: Oddsmakers have Denver, New England, San Francisco and Seattle favored to advance to their respective conference championships. Recent history suggests there’ll be an upset, though. I’ve been high on Indianapolis all season and pessimistic regarding New England, so an upset here plays right into my views. Frankly, neither team is very talented. In fact, I think the entire AFC playoff field is as weak as it has been in sometime. Nevertheless, I like the way the Colts are playing. In leading the Colts back from a 28-point deficit, Andrew Luck had a coming of age moment. Can his defense keep the game close enough to give him a chance in the end? Recently, Bill Belichick and Brady haven’t been as steadfast at home, as people believe. The Patriots lost to the Ravens in 2009, the Jets in 2010, and the Ravens again in 2012. That’s three home playoff losses since ‘09. The Colts’ ability to pressure Brady and run the ball will keep them in the game. In a close game, do you go with Brady or Luck? History says go with Brady, but it’s a new era and Luck will usher it in on Saturday night.
Colts 24 Patriots 20
No. 6 San Diego Chargers (10-7) at No. 1 Denver Broncos (13-3)
Key Matchup: It’ll take San Diego’s best defensive performance to keep Peyton Manning from shredding their secondary. Even in their 27-20 victory over Denver in week 15, Manning still threw for 289 yards and two touchdowns. And that was without slot receiver Wes Welker. Still, the Chargers would rather allow that stat line than the 330 yards and four touchdowns that Manning dropped on them in week 10. It’s unlikely San Diego can play man-coverage against Denver‘s receiving corps, so they’ll need their pass rush to play as well as it did a week ago in order to prevent Manning from finding his rhythm.
X-Factor: The Chargers best defense was their offense in their 27-20 week 15 victory over Denver. San Diego relied on their running game to keep Manning and Denver’s prolific offense off the field. The Chargers ran the ball for 177 yards on a season-high 44 carries. As a result, they were able to possess the ball for 38:49. It’s hard to execute the same strategy against the same team twice in a season, but that’s exactly what San Diego may have to do.
Stat Watch: Because of his regular-season success, Manning has gotten a bit of a free pass for his playoff struggles. Until now. People are beginning to examine his playoff woes. It’s not all on him, but he has eight one-and-done playoff appearances and just a 9-11 playoff record. These were not just mild upsets, either. For example, the Colts were 8.5-point favorites against Pittsburgh in ‘05. Last year, they were nine-point favorites against Baltimore. Both losses were home games for Manning.
Prediction: The legacy of Manning hovers over this game like a cloud. The more his teams lose in the postseason, the more he goes down in the same breath as Brett Favre and Dan Marino instead of John Elway and Joe Montana. A unique way to look at this game is how San Diego matches up with Denver. In a shootout, Philip Rivers can get hot and outplay Manning. He’s done it before. The Chargers can also force Denver’s defense into submission with their physical running game. In fact, during their current five-game winning streak, they’ve leaned on their running game and not Rivers’ arm. You also can’t discount the fact that San Diego head coach Mike McCoy was Denver’s offensive coordinator last year. He coached those players for four years, so he knows their strengths and weaknesses. Because these two are divisional rivals, there isn’t a lot each team can do to surprise one another. It’s going to come down to whichever team executes their respective game plan better.
Broncos 38 Chargers 28