We’re down to the elite eight in the NFL. Here’s an initial breakdown of the two Sunday divisional round matchups that will reduce that will get us to the final four…
(6) Seattle Seahawks at (1) Carolina Panthers: 1:05 p.m. ET on FOX
Seattle’s Super Bowl destiny?: At this point, opponents have to wonder if the Seahawks simply have the football gods to compete with whenever they play Seattle. This is a team that only made last year’s Super Bowl after receiving some huge breaks from the suicidal Packers in the NFC championship game and is only alive right now because the Vikings missed a once-in-a-generation kick at the conclusion of their wild-card matchup. Mentally, that has to scare a Carolina team that has a lot more to lose. They’re the higher seed, they had the best record in football this season and they’ve yet to win a Super Bowl. All of the pressure is on them.
The health factor: Carolina might benefit from two weeks’ rest, but that won’t bring back cornerbacks Bene Benwikere or Charles Tillman, both of whom are out for the year after suffering late-season injuries. That might leave the Panthers secondary vulnerable against Russell Wilson and his suddenly rather stellar group of receivers. Throw in that the Seahawks have been getting healthier and might have Marshawn Lynch back and right now Seattle looks better off than the Panthers in terms of injuries.
The rematch factor: The Panthers accomplished a rare feat in Week 6 by beating Seattle on the road — something that has happened only five times in the last four years. But at that point, the Seahawks were still coming out of an early-season rut and they still nearly beat Carolina anyway. Things have since changed for Seattle, which finished ranked in the top five in terms of scoring offense and defense. And while this matchup is on the road, teams that lose the first of two in-season games typically improve in the second affair.
Ultimate new-era quarterback matchup: Not only were Wilson and Cam Newton the best two quarterbacks in football during the second half of the season, but there’s a decent chance they’ll finish 1-2 in MVP voting (assuming anyone but Newton earns a vote). And along with Tyrod Taylor they were the only quarterbacks to rush for more than 500 yards. Newton had 10 touchdowns on the ground, while the shifty Wilson ranked third in football with a 5.4 yards-per-rush average. This is gonna be fun.
Wrong team, wrong time: Carolina won its eight home games this season by an average of 16 points per outing, and five of the six teams that have won at least 15 regular-season games have won at least one playoff game. But the 2011 Packers did not, and this team isn’t any more dominant than they were. It feels like they’re running into the wrong team at the wrong time. Seahawks 20, Panthers 17
(6) Pittsburgh Steelers at (1) Denver Broncos: 4:40 p.m. ET on CBS
How healthy are these Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks?: Ben Roethlisberger vs. Peyton Manning. In the past, you couldn’t get a better matchup than that. Two future Hall of Famers with a combined five Super Bowls on their résumés. But Roethlisberger injured his shoulder in Saturday’s wild-card victory over Cincinnati and Manning is coming back from a a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot. The difference is that Roethlisberger has been effective when even relatively healthy, whereas Manning was the league’s lowest-rated qualified passer this season.
The rematch factor: These teams met only four weeks ago, with Pittsburgh staging a huge comeback to win 34-27 at home. But that was against Brock Osweiler, and Manning is smarter and more experienced. No. 18 also looked healthier than he did earlier in the season in Week 17, which is encouraging. Throw in that the Broncos are at home this time and it’s no surprise Denver opened up as a seven-point favorite.
The defensive edge: Pittsburgh has faced backup quarterbacks in six consecutive weeks. A vulnerable team on defense was lucky to beat Osweiler in Week 15, lost to Ryan Mallett in Week 16 and barely got past AJ McCarron in the wild-card round. Why should we trust them against Manning and his stellar weapons? Both defenses can turn the ball over, but the Broncos have a much better pass rush and the Pittsburgh line is somewhat of a liability, especially if Roethlisberger is far from 100 percent (which he appears to be).
Peyton Manning is not a bad playoff quarterback: His teams haven’t gotten it done very often, but this isn’t an individual sport. Manning has actually completed a solid 64 percent of his playoff passes, which ranks fourth among 20 active quarterbacks who have at least 100 playoff attempts. And he ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of touchdown-to-interception ratio, yards-per-attempt average and passer rating. Not what you’d expect from a Hall of Famer, but not horrendous. Plus, you have to consider the sample size. Regardless, this might be his last chance to quiet the doubters.
The Mile High edge: The Broncos have lost just four home games since the start of 2012, and they’re the healthier and more rested team. These teams both possess the ability to explode or implode, so anything could happen here, but I can’t pick the Steelers in this spot. Broncos 30, Steelers 24