New Orleans @ Seattle
Saturday 4:35 ET
Saturday's Divisional Round opener is a rematch of Week 13's 34-7 blowout Seahawks home win, where Russell Wilson shredded Saints DC Rob Ryan's defense for 310 yards and three scores on 22-of-30 (73.3%) passing with 47 more rushing yards. Seattle dominated from start to finish as the clearly superior team. And I wouldn't expect a dramatically different result Saturday evening. ... The lone Saints defender who made a sizable impact on the Week 13 tilt was SS Kenny Vaccaro, recording a year-high ten tackles with a forced fumble of Marshawn Lynch. Vaccaro has since been sent to injured reserve with a broken ankle, improving the matchups of both Wilson and Lynch. Even if the Seahawks don't quite eviscerate the Saints as they did six weeks ago, at very worst the scoreboard should be even or in Seattle's favor enough that OC Darrell Bevell can confidently pound away on the ground. Facing a New Orleans defense that coughed up 4.61 regular season yards per carry -- the NFL's fifth most generous clip -- Lynch is the favorite to lead all running backs in Divisional Round rushing. ... Wilson's target distribution since Seattle's Week 12 bye: Golden Tate 31; Doug Baldwin 23; Zach Miller 22; Jermaine Kearse 18; Lynch 14; Luke Willson 10. ... As the target numbers suggest, Seattle lacks a defined go-to pass-game option, playing run-first ball with a quarterback who prefers throwing to the open man rather than force feeding an alpha receiver. Although he's expected to be on a Week 19 snap count, Percy Harvin's (hip) return further muddies the pass-catching corps. It's a tricky situation in daily fantasy leagues.
Harvin is expected to be available for spot duty, likely similar to the snap count he logged in his lone 2013 appearance. Harvin played 16 downs in Week 11 against Minnesota, securing a 17-yard pass and returning a kickoff 58 yards. Harvin's mammoth big-play ability makes him an X-factor Saturday, but he won't be a full-time player. ... In these teams' regular season bout, the Seahawks attacked the Saints with in-line TE Miller, who registered team highs in targets (8), catches (5), and yards (86), scoring a two-yard touchdown toward the end of the first quarter. New Orleans was touched up by Eagles tight ends in the Wild Card round for a combined 5-38-1 line. ... Expect Tate to get the Keenan Lewis treatment, lining up across from the Saints' top corner on most of Saturday's downs. Lewis did so in Week 13, and Tate came away with 45 scoreless yards on four receptions. Lewis has been a thorn in the side of No. 1 receivers all year, also effectively checking DeSean Jackson (3-53) last week. ... Although Harvin and Baldwin play the same Z/slot position in Seattle's offense, Harvin's return isn't necessarily a concern for Baldwin's snaps or targets. In Harvin's lone 2013 game, Baldwin got the start and played 51-of-54 downs, putting a 2-63-1 line on the Vikings. Harvin and Baldwin were frequently on the field together. Attempting to project the Seahawks' leading receiver in a given game has been a crapshoot all season due to the lack of defined roles, but I would rank Seattle's pass catchers Baldwin > Miller > Tate > Harvin > Kearse for the Divisional Round. And I wouldn't feel overly confident in any of them on FanDuel.
While Vaccaro is a key piece missing from New Orleans' defense, the Seahawks are also short a critical component in SLB K.J. Wright (foot), a coverage maven who took on Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham for the majority of Week 13 snaps. This is the deficiency in Seattle's otherwise impenetrable defense Saints coach Sean Payton figures to attack. Mark Ingram proved the Week 18 box-score beneficiary of Pierre Thomas' (chest) absence, but I prefer Sproles' outlook this particular week. Rather than a featured offensive piece, Payton has employed Sproles as a matchup-specific weapon this season, upping his workloads when the opponent dictates. I think the opponent dictates in the Divisional Round. Seattle plays incredibly stout run defense at home, submitting 3.50 YPC compared to 4.20 on the road. Look for the Saints to finish Saturday's game with considerably more pass attempts than rushes, and Ingram to be much less of a factor than he was in Philly. ... More passing theoretically bodes well for Drew Brees' statistical prospects, but that won't necessarily be the case against a Seahawks defense that plays smothering coverage throughout the secondary and graded out No. 1 overall in Pro Football Focus' regular season pass-rush metrics. Brees fired off 38 attempts in these clubs' Week 13 clash, but managed 147 yards and one touchdown, good to Graham in the second quarter from two yards out. I prefer Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Andrew Luck as Week 19 quarterbacks to Brees.
Brees' target distribution since Marques Colston returned from a knee injury in Week 10: Colston 73; Graham 72; Sproles 48; Thomas 40; Lance Moore 33; Kenny Stills 26; Robert Meachem 17; Ben Watson 16; Ingram 13. ... Beyond Graham and Sproles, no Saints pass catcher has an attractive Divisional Round matchup. Seattle limited Colston to 27 innocuous yards on four catches in Week 13, and in slot corner Walter Thurmond and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, the Seahawks have horses in the middle of the field to keep Colston contained. ... Moore, Stills, and Meachem form a maddeningly unpredictable No. 2 receiver rotation in the first place, and now must deal with LCB Richard Sherman and RCB Byron Maxwell's route-disrupting press coverage on the perimeter. Barring perfectly executed manufactured shot plays or blown defensive assignments, the Saints' outside receivers will struggle for openings. ... Of all this weekend's postseason affairs, I think Seattle over New Orleans has the best chance to be a tail-kicking blowout, and a bit of a struggle to watch. The Saints deserve a lot of credit for getting this far in Payton's comeback season, but I don't think they match up well with the Seahawks from a talent, physicality, or tactical perspective. And the CenturyLink factor accentuates Seattle's advantage.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 27, Saints 13
Editor's Note: Rotoworld's partner FanDuel is hosting a one-week $300,000 Fantasy Football league for the Divisional playoff weekend. It's $25 to join and first prize is $25,000. Starts Saturday at 4:35pm ET. Here's the FanDuel link.
Indianapolis @ New England
Saturday 8:15 ET
Colts in-game strategies varied all season due to inconsistent defense and an inordinate amount of first-quarter deficits, but all along OC Pep Hamilton has pulled no punches about his preferred style of attack. Hamilton desires a run-foundation offense, and in the Divisional Round has a matchup to execute against a New England run defense that ranked 30th in 2013 and this past week lost run-thumping MLB Brandon Spikes (knee) to injured reserve. While I'm not buying Pep's pledge to re-involve Trent Richardson following his brutal Wild Card game fumble, I do like Donald Brown's chances of a strong Week 19. Brown has hovered between 12-15 touches over Indy's last three games. The contract-year tailback may be dressing Saturday night for the final time as a Colt. ... Although T-Rich played a handful of snaps after last week's turnover, he never touched the football again. As Brown was already severely outplaying him, it's conceivable that Richardson won't get another redemption opportunity until the 2014 season. ... Red-hot Andrew Luck will enter Saturday with a 12:4 TD-to-INT ratio across his last five games, and completing 68.1% of his throws over the last three. I see this game playing out in 23-20 type fashion, a hard-fought, low-scoring affair where both quarterbacks register rather middling production and the run game is leaned on by both sides. Luck is an outstanding ballplayer and turned in an unforgettable performance in last week's comeback win, but I'd shy away from him in fantasy playoff leagues.
The Colts shuffled their wideout deck yet again in the Wild Card round, promoting LaVon Brazill (49 snaps) into the starting lineup for the first time. T.Y. Hilton (61) remained the No. 1, while slot man Griff Whalen (54) was also heavily involved and Da'Rick Rogers (28) took a backseat. Bill Belichick's defense has a long, documented history of eliminating the opposing team's top weapon, so expect Aqib Talib to get physical with Hilton all over the field Saturday night, perhaps even with safety help over the top. The receiver pecking order behind T.Y. has proven almost impossible to predict. ... The matchup does set up nicely for Coby Fleener, who played 63 downs versus Kansas City and turned in a respectable 5-46-1 line on seven targets. During the regular season, New England coughed up the fourth most receptions (89) in the NFL to tight ends, and sixth most yards (971). I think Belichick will feel comfortable shading soft coverage toward Fleener and allowing him to catch possession-type targets as long as Hilton doesn't repeatedly burn his defense deep. Fleener costs $4,900 on FanDuel's Divisional Round tourney, fifth behind Jimmy Graham ($7,500), Julius Thomas ($6,800), Vernon Davis ($6,500), and Greg Olsen ($5,700). I like that value.
More so than any team in football, the Patriots are a game plan-oriented offense that identifies its opposition's weak spots and attacks them rather than playing one specified brand of ball and daring the defense to stop it. There are two glaring weaknesses on Indianapolis' defense. The first is in the secondary, where LCB Josh Gordy is filling in for Greg Toler (groin) and slot defender Darius Butler -- a former Patriots draft pick -- forces his fair share of turnovers but struggles in coverage. Look for Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman to run a high volume of routes at Gordy and Butler as New England picks apart the Colts on quick-hitting, chain-moving completions. The Pats' receivers move around the formation so frequently that attempting to forecast wideout-cornerback matchups is generally futile, but I expect this to be OC Josh McDaniels' approach. Edelman is the best bet for Week 19 production because he's a full-time player, while Amendola is currently only playing around 50% of the snaps. ... Kenbrell Thompkins is one of my favorite cheap FanDuel fliers because he'll start at X receiver with Aaron Dobson (foot) shelved. The Patriots' X plays on the perimeter, where Thompkins could also experience plenty of Gordy's coverage in addition to RCB Vontae Davis. ... I like Tom Brady to have a solid if unspectacular box-score game at chilly Foxboro with limited weaponry against an above-average Colts pass defense. On both sides, I think this will be a chain-moving contest from an offense perspective, with limited splash plays.
Indianapolis' second defensive weakness is on the ground, where it finished the season 26th in run defense with 4.47 yards-per-carry allowed, the seventh highest clip in football. Despite Jamaal Charles' early-game concussion last week, the Colts coughed up 150 yards and a touchdown on 32 runs (4.69 YPC) to Kansas City. New lead back LeGarrette Blount is always a boom-or-bust producer because he never buoys his stats with pass-game involvement, but has upside in the Divisional Round due to the matchup and Patriots' tendency to exploit enemy weaknesses. Blount's carry total grew in three straight games to close out 2013. Although he lacks special ability, Blount has proven a good fit for New England's offense because he is incredibly difficult to tackle with a head of steam. And Blount is getting heads of steam behind the Patriots' alley-clearing line. ... Stevan Ridley has remained involved in the Patriots' backfield, but isn't getting goal-line carries and was never a factor as a receiver. Persistent ball-security woes have reduced Ridley into a complementary player. ... As the Pats have transitioned into a smash-mouth team after losing so many pass catchers, Shane Vereen took a late-season backseat and was limited in practice this week with a groin injury. Vereen will play against the Colts, but I don't think New England will feature him. Expect larger workloads for Blount and to a lesser extent Ridley. Over the season's final three weeks, Vereen averaged 4.3 touches for 25.3 touches per game.
Score Prediction: Patriots 23, Colts 20