Hoagie season is almost over. It breaks my heart.
It's our last week of NFL games on more than one day, our last weekend with more than two games on the docket and let's hope it can come close to the genuine drama and emotion of Wild Card Weekend. I would take that all over again, without a doubt.
This remains another weekend of the rematch, with the Seahawks and Saints, 49ers and Panthers and Chargers and Broncos all renewing acquaintances. And, for the most part, all of the previous meetings were pretty riveting. Even Seattle's fast and calculated domination of New Orleans was alluring, if for nothing else than its staggering outcome. In the case of San Francisco-Carolina, it might have provided the most physical game of the entire season. The only teams that did not meet up previously are the Colts and Patriots, but even that continues a trend of the best quarterbacks getting to the divisional round.
This is where the cream generally rises, and all of the passers still involved in this tournament very much deserve to be here. No accidents. And, other than Andrew Luck and Cam Newton, two recent No. 1 overall picks, all have been here before. So the stage will not be too big and I expect plenty of hero performances from this group of quarterbacks. Of the four quarterbacks who won last week, oddly enough, only Drew Brees was not in top form. Despite Luck's early interceptions, he was able to singularly rally his Colts for an improbable comeback win at home.
History would tell us that these advancing No. 6 seeds can be dangerous, and more than a few Super Bowl winners have taken that path to a Lombardi Trophy. Will the Saints and/or Chargers continue that trend? We'll find out soon enough.
San Diego at Denver
Sunday, Jan. 12, 4:40 p.m. ET (CBS & CBSSports.com)
Why to watch: The parable of Peyton Manning, and his magical regular seasons and his quick exits from the playoffs, is a familiar one to us all. And, sure, no one is going to win the Super Bowl every year, but Manning's single ring is often held against him -- I've been guilty of it -- and his nine one-and-dones and sub-.500 playoff record are not lost on anyone either. Just as Andy Dalton was the poster boy for quarterback pressure in the wild-card round, now it's unquestionably Manning. Add the fact that the Chargers won at Denver on a short week not too long ago to keep their slim playoff hopes alive and they seem to be a tricky matchup for the Broncos. Philip Rivers generally fares well against Manning's teams and the Chargers have this team-of-destiny thing going on. So you can see why some are thinking upset here. I certainly don't suspect the Chargers suffer from any nerves or jitters. If anything they are playing with house money. However, anything other than a Lombardi will serve as an abject failure for Manning and the all-or-nothing Broncos. That's a tricky position to be boxed into, and, certainly, Manning has been there before, and no man stands alone in this sport. But this game, fair or not, is all about him and his legacy and trying to defy the odds of an aging quarterback changing teams and getting the ultimate glory. After what the Ravens did in Denver a year ago, and coming off a regular season in which he set the single-season yardage and touchdown records, the expectations for the Broncos simply could not be higher.
What to watch for: The Chargers seem to save their best for these games and they have the ingredients to make this a tough matchup. Their pass rush has had success against the Ryan Clady-less Broncos and they have dominated time of possession. (Getting RB Ryan Mathews healthy through four quarters, though imperative for San Diego, will not be easy.) They have a playmaking safety in Eric Weddle, who could be disruptive downfield should Manning take those shots. And they have a quarterback who, next to Manning, may have had the best statistical season in the NFL. Add in Denver's defensive issues, and there's a recipe for an upset. ... Can Denver muster a pass rush, especially now with Von Miller out? Much of that will fall to Shaun Phillips, who had an excellent regular season, but is a long-time former Charger whom opponents know well. ... The Chargers will try to run behind stud rookie D.J. Fluker. He makes their offensive line go. ... What kind of burst does Mathews, who has missed practice time due to mounting injuries down the stretch, have early in the game? ... The Broncos, coming off the bye, could use a crisp start. The more they fall behind, and the more San Diego sticks with the run (40 attempts against a tough Bengals defense last week) the less time Manning spends on the field. ... The loss of space-eating defensive tackle Keith Vickerson could be huge for Denver. Expect a very physical approach by San Diego. ... How much blitzing will Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano do? That's when Manning can crush you, especially with slot guy/hot receiver Wes Welker back from a concussion. Pagano showed last time around a healthy dose of mixing around his pressure and coverages. Can he fool Manning again? Manning's second-lowest yardage of the season and second-lowest rating came against San Diego. ... Is the Broncos' secondary haunted at all by the Rahim Moore meltdown from the playoffs last year? Denver will need a big game from Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, particularly if he is matched up on rookie WR Keenan Allen.
San Francisco at Carolina
Sunday, Jan. 12, 1:05 p.m. ET (Fox)
Why to watch: Two of the more powerful hybrid quarterbacks in the NFL -- actually, the two strongest and fastest multidimensional quarterbacks in the NFL -- meet with a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line. Colin Kaepernick has seen it all before, nearly winning a Super Bowl last year, his first as a starter. Cam Newton makes his playoff debut after the bye last week. They can throw the ball a country mile and make unreal plays with their feet and both will likely have to do plenty of that against two of the top defenses in the league -- units that can attack the passer and force him to get up and run. The two best linebacking corps will be featured prominently in this game, and whichever group can do the best chasing down the other team's quarterback quite likely will win. It's also a meeting between two coaches from contrasting backgrounds, with Jim Harbaugh experiencing nothing but winning since switching over from the college ranks, while "Riverboat" Ron Rivera was seen by many as a possible dead-man walking entering this season, only to emerge as a Coach of the Year candidate. It's the team everyone thought would be here, against the team pretty much no one believed would be here. And, by and large, both teams are built similarly, with potent defense and a penchant for the power run game, led by dynamic, new-age quarterbacks.
What to watch for: When the 49ers needed a play last week at Green Bay, it very often came from the legs of Kaepernick. His ability to break contain and tear down the sidelines was huge, and while he'll have much more difficulty against a quicker, much better Panthers defense, the possibility exists that Harbaugh may have to turn to some designed runs more than he usually likes. Kaepernick is already fifth all-time in postseason rushing yards by a quarterback, averaging 90.5 yards in his four playoff contests. This could come down to which quarterback escapes the most when things break down and gallops down field, particularly on third down. ... Panthers WR Steve Smith says he is playing, but how effective will he be coming back from injury? Can he run normal routes and still stretch a defense? And, even as a decoy, will that be enough against a 49ers secondary battling a slew of injuries as well? ... 49ers linebackers had trouble with seam routes in particular in the postseason a year ago. This could be a game where Panthers TE Greg Olsen sees a lot of targets and where Brandon LaFell takes on the role of primary deep threat. ... Is Frank Gore hitting the wall at all after another season of being the bell cow for San Francisco's offense? Do the 49ers go more running back by committee? ... This should be the healthiest and freshest Panthers edge rushers Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson have felt in quite a long time, and while the 49ers have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, how much help will they require from the likes of TE Vernon Davis? ... The 49ers offense has finally been moving now that it has Davis, Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree all as downfield threats. ... I suspect, just a little, that ex-49er Ted Ginn might be especially fired up for this game after his ups and downs with that franchise. He could be a difference maker. ... The 49ers have made so many East Coast trips already this season, including one to the West Coast of Europe (i.e. London). Does any of that catch up to them now that they have to do it all over again after just getting back from Green Bay early Monday morning?
New Orleans at Seattle
Saturday, Jan. 11, 4:35 p.m. ET (Fox)
Why to watch: Sean Payton is a master motivator, and he has a belly full of material after his team was steamrolled in Seattle in the regular season, a game that helped turn the tide in Carolina's favor as the Panthers went on to nip them for the NFC South title. Few can play the "us against the world" card like Payton, and if the Saints do not come out with considerably more fire and determination than they displayed last time in the Pacific Northwest, I would be shocked. They also have the services of Darren Sproles now, which restores balance to the offense. And while the Saints proved last week that they finally can win a playoff game on the road, it's something very different to go out to Seattle and win one there. This would be a statement game. Of course, I also expect the Seahawks to have gained some perspective by their home loss to end the season, snapping their 14-game winning streak there, and serving as a reminder that it's by no means preordained that no one dare upset the 12th man. If the Saints offense can operate at close to its normal rate -- the passing game in particular suffers on the road -- then we could have the makings of a shootout. Either way, we have two of the best smallish quarterbacks of this, or any, era meeting once again with a season on the line.
What to watch for: Payton is talking up his defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, as a head coaching candidate, but if he gets exploited by the Seahawks like he did in the first meeting, that will resonate more loudly than any words. Ryan was repeatedly caught in blitzes and his defense was picked apart by Russell Wilson on third down. One would think his game plan would be vastly different this time around. ... Lots of travel for the Saints, on a short week, playing on a Saturday and playing a night game last Saturday. How do they adapt? ... A week of rest should have done wonders for Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch, whose workload seemed to catch up with him in December with his yards per carry lagging. His powerful style provided problems for the Saints last time out. ... Is there a bigger wild card in these playoffs than Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin? He played just about 12 snaps of one game all season coming back from major hip surgery in the summer, then looked headed for IR and now is expected to be active this weekend. Even if in a limited role, his return and receiving skills and his ability to create big plays as a tailback or on end-arounds are weapons the Saints would not have seen on tape with his current team. With so much time to prepare for this game, one would expect some wrinkles from Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. ... The Saints will need more from TE Jimmy Graham this week. He was barely targeted last week and the Eagles more or less took him away. Graham had just three catches for 42 yards in the first meeting with the Seahawks and that won't get it done this week. ... Look for Payton to keep riding RB Mark Ingram, who is emerging as the feature back for the Saints after a long time as a role player.
Indianapolis at New England
Saturday, Jan. 11, 8:15 p.m. ET (CBS & CBSSports.com)
Why to watch: This is familiar ground for the Pats, as it seems they make it at least this far every year. And this is foreign terrain for the Colts in the post-Peyton Manning era. Generally, coming off a bye, the last coach you want to see is Bill Belichick, with any additional time to prepare leading to an advantage. And after some playoff setbacks in recent years, and with Tom Brady not getting any younger, some will say that this team's window might finally be getting close to closing. Does it bring out the best in them? For all of their issues this season, the Patriots still won a bunch of games and that offense looked pretty good the final two weeks of the season. This is the time of year when they will look to run the football and be as balanced as possible. It certainly feels like the Aaron Hernandez scandal, and even the latest Rob Gronkowski injury, were a long, long time ago. They have the potential to alter what this season will ultimately be remembered for based on how they perform this month. The Colts may be wondering if their luck will run out after a crazy set of circumstances helped them pull off the second-biggest comeback in playoff history last week, but then again, their quarterback is still just scratching the surface of his greatness and he doesn't shrink from any challenge.
What to watch for: For whatever reason, the Chiefs failed to account for Colts WR T.Y. Hilton last week, despite him being pretty much the only weapon that could get Indy back in the game. Um, Belichick is not going to let that happen. Hilton will be a marked man, likely by CB Aqib Talib and a safety over the top, and if someone else can step up and beat the Patriots, then so be it. TE Coby Fleener might need to have the game of his life, especially if this gets to be a shootout. ... Colts RB Trent Richardson looks like an accident waiting to happen after his fumble last week. Keeping him on the sideline might be the best bet, especially with Donald Brown showing a nose for the end zone. ... The Patriots continue to lose key run stoppers, with Brandon Spikes joining Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo on IR. Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton was incredibly patient with the run game most of the season but came out firing in the playoffs. Testing that Pats run defense might not be a bad way to feel his way through this contest. ... New England has a large complement of running backs. Which one, if any, takes the floor here? Kind of have a feeling Shane Vereen has a big role against the Colts. ... The Colts got short on corners a week ago, and were getting beat in the slot. The Pats have the ability to test them repeatedly in that area of the field with receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Brady might not even have to look outside the hash marks all that much to be highly effective. ... Can Robert Mathis be at his best outside the dome this late in the season? He was certainly a beast last week. His strip sack helped change the game. ... I expect to see Chandler Jones move around and try to attack a suspect Colts offensive line.