The Wild Card round of the playoffs last week gave us three great games…and Andy Dalton. The matches get even closer and more unpredictable this week with the field narrowing down to eight teams. With the bye week behind us, the best teams in the league now look to defend their home fields, while a crop of underdogs look to get one game closer to the Lombardi Trophy.
On Sunday, we get to see preseason favorites San Francisco and Denver take on two teams who surprised many and used huge win streaks to vault themselves into the ranks of the contenders. Carolina and San Diego have both beaten the teams they face this Sunday, but all of that is in the past as all four teams look to move onto the AFC and NFC Conference Championships next week.
San Francisco 49ers Vs. Carolina Panthers (1:05 PM EST, FOX)
1. These two squared off November 10 in a 10-9 Panthers victory in San Francisco, but San Francisco was hobbled without Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Aldon Smith. This week they will come into Carolina as healthy as they’ve been all season, and on a seven-game win streak. The 49er team this Sunday will be a much better team than they were in November.
2. Carolina sacked Colin Kaepernick a career-high six times in the November meeting, and led the league in that exact category this year. Where the Green Bay Packers’ defensive ends broke containment and allowed Kaepernick to turn the corner for big runs in key moments last week, Carolina will be much more disciplined and almost certainly have a gameplan designed specifically to prevent such occurrences.
3. If the past is any type of indicator, the big game atmosphere surrounding Cam Newton’s first ever playoff game should not be bothersome at all. In his one year starting college ball at Auburn, Cam threw for 335 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 73 yards and two touchdowns in the SEC title game, then 265 yards passing and 64 on the ground in the National Championship versus Oregon. Then, a few months later Cam threw for a rookie record 422 yards in his first ever NFL game.
4. Random tidbit of information that means absolutely nothing towards the result of the game: Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton were roommates at the NFL combine in 2011.
5. In the last year of the 49ers home stadium Candlestick Park, there remains the realistic possibility that they can return to the stadium one last time for the Conference Championship Game next weekend. If the Saints can get past the Seahawks, the Niners would host the lower-seeded Saints.
San Diego Chargers Vs. Denver Broncos (4:40 PM EST, CBS)
1. The Denver Broncos were an offensive juggernaut all season, except when they played the Chargers. The Broncos failed to gain 400 yards of total offense only twice this season, and both times were against San Diego. The Chargers also handed the Broncos their only home loss of the season on a Thursday night game in Week 15.
2. Peyton Manning pieced together the greatest passing season of all-time, breaking the marks for passing yardage and passing touchdowns. That said, he has lost his last three playoff games, including throwing a season-ending interception in overtime last year in this same round versus the Ravens at home.
3. A key in the Chargers current five-game winning streak has been their run game, and they upped the ante last week by running for a season high 196 yards, while Philip Rivers attempted a season-low 16 passes. The ground game was paced the Chargers in their Week 15 victory in Denver when Ryan Matthews ran for 127 yards and a touchdown. Matthews didn’t practice this week, as has been the case for several weeks as he nurses an ankle injury, but has not been ruled out of Sunday’s game.
4. Wes Welker will be making his return to action this Sunday more than a month since he suffered a concussion Week 14 vs the Titans. Even after missing the final three games of the season, Welker was still second in the league with 18 red zone receptions, one behind the Chargers Danny Woodhead.
5. These two AFC West rivals have played each other 108 times in their histories, but this is the first time they’ve squared off in the playoffs. There is some playoff history here, however, as Philip Rivers is 2-0 versus Peyton in the playoffs.