Preview: NFL Divisional Round

A look ahead to this weekend's crucial fixtures

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The Independent Online

Aside from the Dallas Cowboys’ thrilling win over the Detroit Lions, the wild card round failed to meet expectations. But one look at the divisional round lineup and it’s hard not to get excited.

The New England Patriots kick-off Saturday’s action when they host the Baltimore Ravens, before the Seattle Seahawks take on the Carolina Panthers. On Sunday the Cowboys travel to Wisconsin to face the Green Bay Packers, and the divisional round concludes with the Denver Broncos vs the Indianapolis Colts.

The AFC’s top-seed, the Patriots, welcome the Ravens to Boston in a match-up that John Harbaugh seems to relish. The Ravens head coach has a 2-1 record at New England in the post-season, including a 28-13 win in the 2012 season en route to success in Super Bowl XLVII.

Many have labelled Baltimore as the dark horses in their pursuit of a second Lombardi Trophy in three years. The post-season experience of veterans Terrell Suggs, Joe Flacco and Haloti Ngata is invaluable, but few would bet on Tom Brady, himself accustomed to the thrills of the playoffs, losing another home playoff game against the Ravens.

The Seahawks are 10.5 point favourites in their game against the Panthers, and it’s easy to see why Pete Carroll’s team are so comfortably favoured. Seattle won as many games at CenturyLink Field than the Panthers managed in the entire season, while Carolina were hardly jaw-dropping in their wild card win against the Ryan Lindley-lead Arizona Cardinals.

The Panthers are the second team in NFL history to reach the play-offs despite finishing the regular season with more losses than victories. The first? The Seahawks, in 2010. Seattle won their wild card tie before exiting in the divisional round that season. Carolina will do well to ensure the same fate isn’t inflicted upon them on Saturday night.

Ron Rivera’s team have conceded only 59 points in their last five games, while the Seahawks’ defence is the best in the league. Expect a low-scoring affair.

Five of the NFL’s best offensive players will be on show in Sunday’s contest between the Packers and the Cowboys. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson and Dallas’s Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray were rewarded for this season’s efforts with a place in the upcoming Pro Bowl, and all signs point to an exciting clash this weekend.

Green Bay averaged a league-high 30.4 points per game this season; the Cowboys averaged 29.2. In the last meeting between the sides, in December 2013, the Packers came from 26-3 down at half-time to win 37-36. Although another shootout will make for exciting viewing, it’ll be interesting to see whether either team’s defence has done its homework and can stop the opposing offence this time around.

The final game of the divisional round will see Peyton Manning taking on his former team. The Broncos quarterback welcomes the Colts to the Mile High City in what should also be a high-scoring contest.

This will be the third time Manning has faced off against his successor Andrew Luck. The ‘Manning-Luck’ series is currently tied at 1-1, and despite the two being at the opposing ends of their careers, the desire to clinch a spot in next weekend’s AFC Championship Game burns deeply in both.

Manning and Luck combined for 79 passing touchdowns and 9,488 passing yards this season. The stage is set for a thrilling climax to the week’s action.

Three things to look out for:

1) The Ravens can cause the Patriots problems with the deep ball

It’s no secret that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco likes to attempt a deep pass every now and then, and he has every reason to with today’s pass interference rules. Baltimore benefited more than any other team in the NFL with pass interference penalties, drawing 15 flags for 315 yards.

On the other hand, only three teams were penalised more times than the Patriots’ defence was for pass interference, as the Patriots racked up nine flags for 148 yards.

2) Do the Panthers have a chance against the Seahawks?

Well, crazier things have happened, but the odds are against Carolina. That said, the Panthers have controlled Marshawn Lynch better than most.

In three games against them, the running back has averaged just 63.3 rushing yards. If the Panthers defence can limit Lynch once more and force the Seahawks into a one-dimensional attack, they can target Russell Wilson and attempt to cause errors from the Seattle offence.

3) It could be a long night for the Packers’ and Cowboys’ defence.

Green Bay’s offence averaged 386.1 yards per game this season, the Cowboys’, 383.6. Jordy Nelson and Dez Bryant combined for 2,839 receiving yards and 29 touchdowns. On the ground, Eddie Lacy and his counterpart DeMarco Murray rushed for 2,984 yards and 22 touchdowns between them.

The Packers and the Cowboys will be hard-pushed to beat the record set by the Washington Redskins and New York Giants for most points in a game (which stands at 113; the Redskins beat the Giants 72-41 in 1966), but this should be a thriller nonetheless.

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WILD CARD RESULTS

Carolina Panthers 27 Arizona Cardinals16

Baltimore Ravens 30 Pittsburgh Steelers 17

Indianapolis Colts 26 Cincinnati Bengals 10

Dallas Cowboys 24 Detroit Lions 20

DIVISIONAL ROUND FIXTURES

Saturday, 10 January

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks

Sunday, 11 January

Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos

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