And then there were eight.
On Saturday, January 11, the Seattle Seahawks (13-3), the NFC’s No. 1 seed, will host the New Orleans Saints (12-5) at CenturyLink Field to kick off the weekend (FOX, 4:35 PM ET). That night in primetime (CBS, 8:15 PM ET), the Indianapolis Colts (12-5), who won the AFC South, will travel to Gillette Stadium to face the AFC East champion New England Patriots (12-4).
On Sunday, January 12, the Carolina Panthers (12-4), who won the NFC South, will welcome the San Francisco 49ers (13-4) to Bank of America Stadium (FOX, 1:05 PM ET) and the AFC’s top seed, the Denver Broncos (13-3) will host the San Diego Chargers (10-7) at Sports Authority Field at Mile High (CBS, 4:40 PM ET).
“The playoffs is football at the highest level,” says Carolina defensive tackle Dwan Edwards.
Last week, three of the four Wild Card games were decided by three points or fewer, the first time three games were decided by three points or fewer in the Wild Card round. The four Wild Card games averaged 34.7 million viewers, the most-watched Wild Card Weekend on record.
Three of the four Divisional games are rematches of regular-season meetings: Carolina won at San Francisco 10-9 in Week 10, Seattle defeated New Orleans 34-7 in Week 13 and Denver and San Diego split the season series.
A look at this weekend’s Divisional Playoffs:
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (12-5) at SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (13-3) (Saturday, FOX, 4:35 PM ET)
Seattle, which won the NFC West with a 13-3 record, is the No. 1 seed in the NFC and has won 15 of its past 16 home games. The Seahawks had six players selected to the Pro Bowl: S KAM CHANCELLOR (2nd), RB MARSHAWN LYNCH (4th), CB RICHARD SHERMAN (1st), S EARL THOMAS (3rd), C MAX UNGER (2nd) & QB RUSSELL WILSON (2nd).
“We all believe in what we can do,” says Wilson, whose 24 wins are the most by a quarterback in his first two seasons in the Super Bowl era. “We’ve got to stay focused on the main goal and that’s to win.”
Seattle led the NFL in points allowed (231), total defense (273.6 yards per game), passing defense (172.0), takeaways (39), interceptions (28) and turnover differential (+20).
New Orleans went on the road in the Wild Card round and earned a 26-24 win at Philadelphia. SHAYNE GRAHAM kicked four field goals, including the game-winner from 32 yards out as time expired. The Saints rushed for 185 yards, the second-most in a playoff game in team history, led by MARK INGRAM (97 yards) and KHIRY ROBINSON (45).
“We’re all about the here and now and being in the moment,” says quarterback DREW BREES, whose 102.1 career postseason passer rating ranks fourth all-time. “We’ve got a great team. I hope that we’re peaking at the right time. We’re going to need our best effort to beat Seattle, but if there’s a team that can do it, I believe that it is us.”
The teams met in Week 13, when the Seahawks defeated the Saints 34-7 in Seattle. Wilson threw three touchdown passes and Seattle’s defense limited New Orleans to 188 total net yards of offense. The last playoff meeting between these two teams was the 2010 Wild Card matchup in Seattle (January 8, 2011). Lynch ran for 131 yards and a touchdown as the Seahawks knocked off the Saints 41-36.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (12-5) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (12-4) (Saturday, CBS, 8:15 PM ET)
The Patriots won at least 10 games for the 11th consecutive season, joining the San Francisco 49ers (1983-1998) as the only teams to accomplish the feat. The Patriots had four players selected to the Pro Bowl: QB TOM BRADY (9th), GLOGAN MANKINS (6th), ST MATTHEW SLATER (3rd) and CB AQIB TALIB (1st).
“The playoffs means it’s a one-game season each week,” says New England defensive end ROB NINKOVICH. “You have to lay it all out there because if you don’t win the game, you go home.”
Brady has won 17 games in the playoffs, the most in NFL history, and has a 17-7 (.708) postseason record.
“When it comes down to it, the team that plays the best is going to win,” says Brady. “In the playoffs, you’re playing the best teams. When you play a good team, it’s hard to beat a good team when you don’t play your best.”
In the Wild Card round, the Colts erased a 38-10 second-half deficit and won 45-44 in the third-highest scoring playoff game in NFL history. The victory by Indianapolis was the first time ever that a team won a game in regulation after trailing by at least 28 points and it tied for the second-largest comeback of any kind in league history.
“Incredible, incredible victory,” says Colts head coach CHUCK PAGANO. “A great team victory and one for the ages. Our guys are unbelievable. They stuck to the process and never doubted. We did just enough to advance in the tournament.”
Quarterback ANDREW LUCK threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns – and added a fumble-return TD – and wide receiver T.Y. HILTON set team playoff records with 13 catches for 224 yards and two scores.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (13-4) at CAROLINA PANTHERS (12-4) (Sunday, FOX, 1:05 PM ET)
Opening the postseason on the road, San Francisco won 23-20 at Green Bay to advance to the Divisional round for the third consecutive season under head coach JIM HARBAUGH. PHIL DAWSON kicked three field goals, including the game-winner as time expired, and COLIN KAEPERNICK passed for 227 yards and rushed for 98.
“It was amazing to get that win,” says Kaepernick, who improved to 3-1 in his postseason career. “We came back, fought and played hard.”
In the victory at Green Bay, wide receiver MICHAEL CRABTREE had eight catches for 125 yards and Pro Bowl tight end VERNON DAVIS had a 28-yard touchdown catch, his sixth postseason TD in six career playoff games.
“They got us the first time,” says Pro Bowl linebacker NA VORRO BOWMAN of the Panthers, who defeated the 49ers 10-9 in Week 10. “What’s on our minds is to get them now. It’s the playoffs. Win or go home.”
The Panthers tied a franchise record with 12 wins and won the division for the fourth time in team history. Carolina had five players selected to the Pro Bowl: DE GREG HARDY (1st), C RYAN KALIL (4th), LB LUKE KUECHLY (1st), QBCAM NEWTON (2nd) & FB MIKE TOLBERT (1st).
“This is going to be a new venture for me and I’m going to try and make the most of it,” says Newton, who is making his postseason debut. “You have to play each and every play like it’s your last because it may be.”
Carolina ranked second in the NFL in points allowed (241), total defense (301.3 yards per game) and rushing defense (86.9). Kuechly and THOMAS DAVIS were the only linebacker teammates to each record at least 120 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. Hardy, who tied the single-season team record with 15 sacks (KEVIN GREENE, 1998), is the first player in NFL history to enter the postseason after posting at least three sacks in his team’s final two games.
“This is my first time in the playoffs and it’s exciting,” says Hardy. “I can’t wait to see what’s next. I want to enjoy it.”
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (10-7) at DENVER BRONCOS (13-3) (Sunday, CBS, 4:40 PM ET)
Denver won the AFC West and secured home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a 13-3 record. The Broncos scored 606 points, the most in a season in NFL history. The Broncos had five players selected to the Pro Bowl: QB PEYTON MANNING (13th), K MATT PRATER (1st), WR DEMARYIUS THOMAS (2nd), TE JULIUS THOMAS (1st) and G LOUIS VASQUEZ (1st). Manning passed for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, both single-season NFL records.
“All the records and all the stats go out the window,” says Denver head coach JOHN FOX. “It’s a whole new season. The key is playing the best football during the playoffs. It’s a single-elimination tournament, so you can’t have a bad day. You have to be on your game from beginning to end. The team that usually does that is the team that usually wins it all.”
The Chargers have won five in a row, including last week’s 27-10 win at Cincinnati. San Diego rushed for 196 yards and got touchdown runs from DANNY WOODHEAD (five yards) and RONNIE BROWN (58). Pro Bowl quarterback PHILIP RIVERS threw a touchdown pass in the win and posted a 118.8 passer rating.
“We challenged everyone on the football team that going on the road in a playoff game is not going to be easy,” says San Diego first-year head coach MIKE MC COY, who spent the previous four seasons with Denver as the team’s offensive coordinator. “The players have gone out and executed and now we’ve got another week.”
The two teams have faced one another 108 times but this will be the first meeting in the postseason. This year, the clubs split the season series. San Diego won 27-20 at Denver in Week 15 with Rivers throwing two touchdown passes.
And then there were eight.