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NFL Divisional Playoffs Preview

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By Clark Judge, Sports Xchange

Talk about old-school football. The last time these two met, the Panthers won, 10-9. That was November at Candlestick Park, and this could be a repeat — though Carolina is a slight underdog Sunday when it hosts San Francisco at 12:05 p.m. The game is being televised by FOX.

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That makes no sense when you consider the Panthers are home, where they were 7-1; that they’ve won 16 of their last 20 games, dating back to last season and that they’ve won eight of their last 10 vs. the 49ers, including the last four.

Plus, their only home defeat? It was a 12-7 decision to Seattle where running back DeAngelo Williams fumbled at the Seahawks’ 8 with five minutes left.

So what gives? Oddsmakers trust San Francisco’s playoff history. Under Jim Harbaugh the 49ers have been to two conference championship games in two years, and the experts are telling you that experience could swing the vote. Otherwise, the two teams are so similar this one’s almost too close to call. Both have young quarterbacks who win games with their arms and/or their legs; both have impressive rushing attacks; and both have suffocating defenses, with each ranked among the league’s top five (Carolina is second; the 49ers fifth).

One area where there is a difference: Pass catchers. The 49ers have a cadre of good ones, led by Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree — and, remember, Crabtree didn’t play vs. Carolina earlier this year The Panthers’ Steve Smith insists he’ll play, though he downgraded himself after Thursday’s practicing, saying he thought he “overdid it.” With Smith handicapped by a sprained knee, the Panthers’ are reduced to Greg Olsen and Brandon LaFell, and look how that played out in their Week 17 loss to Atlanta: They produced 149 yards passing.

If Carolina is going to keep San Francisco from making another conference championship game appearance, the Panthers must harass Kaepernick as they did in November when they sacked him six times, intercepted him once, and held him to a career-low 91 yards passing and 16 yards rushing. Kaepernick has taken responsibility for that loss, promising to make amends, but the onus is on the 49ers’ offensive line to keep pass rushers like Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson off their quarterback.

Something to consider: The Panthers ran for 100 or more yards in 38 of last 46 games, but good luck here. Reason: San Francisco is the only team not to allow a 100-yard rusher this season. Of course, the Panthers allowed only one 100-yard rusher since Week 14 of 2012 and only five rushing TDs this season.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS AT SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Saturday, 3:35 p.m. (FOX)

Seattle was supposed to bury all those road-kill jokes with its upset of Philadelphia last week, and it did ... for one game. But that was then, and this is now, and now the Seahawks must win where they couldn’t earlier this season and where nobody but Arizona has won in the past two years. The Saints insist they’re ready for the upset, but look at the betting line: Few believe them.

It’s easy to see why. Seattle flummoxed Drew Brees in a 34-7 demolition last month, holding him to a season-low 147 yards passing, and, yeah, OK, so the Saints beat Philadelphia without Brees throwing for a gazillion yards. That’s because Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson ran for 185 yards, and let’s be honest: You think that’s going to happen again? It’s not, even though Pierre Thomas is likely to be active. The Seahawks allowed only four rushing TDs this year and held opponents to 3.9 yards a carry.

But there’s more. The last time these two met in the playoffs was here, and New Orleans was the defending Super Bowl champ and Seattle a 7-9 division winner. So what happened? Yep, the Seahawks won. Brees is 1-3 here, and that’s not an aberration. This is a tough spot for anyone but Seattle to succeed, and if the Saints are to pull the unthinkable they must not play from behind, force Russell Wilson into atypical mistakes and hope their defense plays as well this weekend as it did last.

Otherwise, they’re road kill. Again.

Something to consider: No team scored on Seattle on its opening drive this season, making the Seahawks the league’s only team not to allow an opponent to score on its opening series.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Saturday, 7:15 p.m. (CBS)

Trust me, New England would’ve liked to have seen Andy Dalton more than it would Andrew Luck. As he proved last weekend, no game is out of reach for Luck, with the Colts’ quarterback producing an NFL-best 11 fourth-quarter or overtime victories in his first two seasons. Luck and the Colts are confident they can pull the upset, mostly because the Patriots’ defense is vulnerable and Indianapolis, not New England, has the momentum.

And that’s great, except for one thing: Tom Brady. The Patriots’ quarterback has been stripped of his five leading receivers from last year, one of his best pass blockers and the team’s top three defensive players, yet all he did was produce an NFL-record 11th division championship. Now, Brady could be without Aaron Dobson (he was in a walking boot this week), but since when have roster deletions deterred this guy? He’s not only unbeaten at home in 2013; he’s 11-3 there in the playoffs.

Nevetheless, this could be closer than people anticipate. Luck is hot, and the Colts believe they’re this year’s out-of-nowhere team. Maybe. But if they’re going to pull the upset, they must bottle up the Patriots’ backs and squeeze Brady into sacks and atypical errors. Otherwise, it’s over.

Something to consider: Indianapolis won three of its last four road divisional playoff games, but New England is 2-0 at home vs. the Colts in the postseason.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS AT DENVER BRONCOS

Sunday, 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

These two have met 108 times, but this is their first playoff game — and it’s one oddsmakers make the most lopsided of the weekend. Don’t ask me why. I know the Broncos are rested. I know Wes Welker is back. I know the Broncos are home where they’re 13-4 in the playoffs and 7-3 in the divisional round. And I know they have a quarterback who set a league record with 55 TD passes.

But I also know San Diego beat them here a month ago, won six of its last eight in Denver and is 2-0 vs. Peyton Manning in the playoffs. I also know the Chargers aren’t under the pressure that Denver ... er, Manning ... is. Denver was the best team in the AFC ... maybe football ... last year and didn’t win a playoff game, and stop if you’ve heard this before. Manning is 9-11 in the postseason, including seven one-and-dones, and this game is about ending that conversation before it gets started.

For San Diego, the formula is simple: Run the ball effectively, don’t commit turnovers and keep pass rushers off Philip Rivers. Do that, and the Chargers have a chance. One problem: Running back Ryan Mathews, who was so effective in the Bolts’ victory last month, is hobbled by a bad ankle that sidelined him the second half last weekend. Mathews will play, but how reliable he’ll be is another matter.

Something to consider: The Chargers haven’t allowed one opponent the second half of this season to produce 400 yards in offense. They allowed 400 yards four times in the first eight games and 500 twice.

Five guys it’s good to be this weekend

1. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. In his last 12 games at home, he has nine interceptions, two touchdown returns, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

2. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. He’s not only 15-1 at home; he has 33 touchdown passes, seven interceptions and a 112.8 passer rating.

3. New England quarterback Tom Brady. He’s 10-4 vs. the Colts and 11-3 vs. everyone at home in the playoffs.

4. Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy. He has 24 sacks in his last 25 games, including seven in his past two.

5. San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis. He has 100 yards receiving in four of six playoff games and averages 97.2 yards per contest. He also has six TDs and is tied with teammate Anquan Boldin for most catches (11) by an active NFL player of 25 or more yards in the playoffs.

Believe it ... or don’t

Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will broadcast the Denver-San Diego game Sunday. So what? So the Broncos are 6-0 this year when those two work their games, including a 28-20 defeat of the Chargers.

Then there’s this, San Diego: A No. 6 playoff seed and No. 1 seed have met five times in the past five years, and the No. 6 seed won four of them. The Chargers are the sixth-seed in the AFC.

Since the NFL moved to the 12-team format in 1990, NFC top seeds are 19-4 on divisional weekend, while AFC No. 1 seeds are 13-10.

With a victory Sunday, San Francisco will advance to its 15th conference championship game, tying Pittsburgh for the most conference championship-game appearances since 1970.

San Diego led the league in 10-play drives with 39 this season. The Chargers also led the league in third-down conversions at 49 percent and fewest three-and-out drives (13.8 percent) Denver was second in fewest three-and-outs at 15.3 percent.

At 2-0, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick has the most road playoff wins of any quarterback in 49ers’ history. Honest. Joe Montana was 1-3, John Brodie 1-1, Steve Young 0-3 and Jeff Garcia 0-2.

The Broncos are the first team in league history to have five players score at least 10 touchdowns from scrimmage.

Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch leads the NFL with 19 100-yard rushing games since 2011. His 39 touchdowns since then are also the most, two more than Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson.

Denver allowed the fewest sacks (20) this season and produced a league-high six games without a quarterback takedown.

San Diego has 14 takeaways in its last seven games, or double the number it had in its first 11.

Ten numbers that may mean something

3-0: San Francisco’s playoff record under Jim Harbaugh when leading at the half.

5: Career blocked kicks by Seattle’s Red Bryant.

9: Carolina players who remain from their last playoff team (2008).

9-3: Record of Anquan Boldin’s teams in the playoffs.

10-6: Philip Rivers vs. Denver.

20: San Francisco rushes of 20 or more yards, best in the league.

17: Russell Wilson career 100 passer ratings.

90.5: Colin Kaepernick’s average rushing yards per game in the playoffs.

92: Cam Newton passing and rushing TDs his first three seasons, second most in league history.

139.6: Russell Wilson’s passer rating last time he played New Orleans.

Clark Judge, a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange, has covered pro football since 1982 and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.

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