San Francisco @ Carolina
Sunday 1:05 ET
The 49ers and Panthers squared off in Week 10 and played to a 10-9 result, with visiting Carolina emerging victorious. While small-sample historical data like that game isn't necessarily predictive as the clubs do battle again, I do believe the brand of football and final score will be similar. These are smash-mouth teams with developing quarterbacks and top-five defenses, one of which (San Francisco) is peaking in January, and the other freshened up coming off a first-round bye. I'm avoiding this game in fantasy playoff lineup decisions. ... With Steve Smith debilitated by a PCL sprain so much that he characterized himself at "57%" health this past week, look for Carolina's offense to spin its wheels. Receiving production will be tough to come by as top pass-game weapon Greg Olsen takes on a 49ers defense that allowed the seventh fewest yards (750) in the league to tight ends this regular season. ... The Panthers need a big effort from Brandon LaFell, who cleared 70 yards in 2-of-16 games during his contract year but may be forced into Carolina's top-receiver role Sunday. LaFell doesn't do anything particularly well, dropping eight passes in 2013 and struggling to create separation throughout his career. LaFell could improve his market value with a fast postseason finish, but executing won't be easy running routes against sticky 49ers outside cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Tarell Brown. In the Week 10 game, San Francisco held LaFell to 48 yards on four grabs, and he committed one of his trademark drops.
The 49ers are the best bet for box-score defensive production in the Divisional Round after stifling Cam Newton for 16-of-32 passing, 169 yards (5.28 YPA), no touchdowns, and an interception in the November meeting. Carolina's lone TD came on a 27-yard DeAngelo Williams run. Look for San Francisco's freakishly talented defensive front to overwhelm the Panthers' largely rag-tag offensive line. ... Ted Ginn is Carolina's X-factor with homerun-hitting return ability and speed to stretch the defense on shot plays. The Panthers are predominantly a three-receiver team, so Ginn will be on the field for most offensive snaps. ... It doesn't get any easier for the Panthers' run game. San Francisco has held its last four opponents to 307 yards and two scores on 83 carries (3.70 YPC) and will pose a mismatch in the trenches for Carolina's front five. The Panthers can also be a bit self-defeating with their running back usage, shuttling Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert in and out of the game based on personnel package. Although this theoretically keeps their legs fresh, it prevents any one of them from establishing an in-game rhythm. Williams, Stewart, and Tolbert combined to manage 1,384 yards on 350 carries (3.95 YPC) this season.
The 49ers field a better offense than the Panthers, but generating ball movement will be similarly difficult on Sunday. Carolina ended the regular season ranked No. 6 versus the pass and No. 2 versus the run, keyed by a dominant front four and linebacker corps that is lightning quick to the football. Frank Gore was the one San Francisco skill-position player who did damage in the Week 10 game, totaling 103 yards from scrimmage and averaging 5.13 yards per carry, though coach Jim Harbaugh didn't get him the ball enough. I don't expect Gore to have a big Divisional Round game, but he gives the 49ers their best shot at sustaining offense and keeping the sticks moving. ... Carolina's second-level speed figures to prevent Colin Kaepernick from taking over this game with his legs, but there are exploitable spots in the Panthers' secondary. Michael Crabtree is running most of his routes at X receiver, where he'll line up across from undrafted rookie RCB Melvin White. The hard part for quarterbacks when facing the Panthers is getting the ball out quickly enough to avoid imposing defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, and one-gap penetrator tackles Dwan Edwards and Kawann Short, who work in rotation. Those four linemen combined for 30.5 regular season sacks. Carolina is also highly effective on defensive back blitzes.
Anquan Boldin has a tougher matchup on paper than Crabtree, as he'll run routes at breakout slot corner Captain Munnerlyn and surprisingly trusty veteran LCB Drayton Florence. Both Munnerlyn and Florence earned top-25 cornerback grades from Pro Football Focus, while White came in 65th. ... It's worth noting Kaepernick did not have the services of Crabtree (Achilles', PUP) in the Week 10 game, and Vernon Davis left with a first-half concussion. Both pass catchers are healthy for the Divisional Round. Carolina plays stout defense against tight ends, but Davis is always a good bet for end-zone trips, scoring 14 touchdowns in 16 appearances this season. Always fast and physical, Davis took a big step forward as a route runner in 2013. ... The Niners made heavy usage of two-tight end sets in last Sunday night's win over Green Bay, as third receiver Quinton Patton played only 17 downs while Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek combined for 42. I still think Patton can be an X-factor for San Francisco at some point in the postseason, but right now he's just not getting enough playing time. McDonald and Celek are lightly used in the pass game.
Score Prediction: 49ers 17, Panthers 13
San Diego @ Denver
Sunday 4:40 ET
These division rivals matched up twice this regular season, theoretically giving us a template from which to work when prognosticating Sunday's Divisional Round finale. The Chargers' offensive approach was clear, limiting Philip Rivers to 49 passes compared to 79 combined team rushes. Due to Ryan Mathews' balky ankle, however, I expect OC Ken Whisenhunt to dial up a divergent strategy, allowing Rivers to go toe-to-toe with Peyton Manning in a shootout. San Diego's regular season run-based game plans were designed not only to keep Manning on the sideline, but compensate for the Chargers' leaky defense. With DC John Pagano's unit playing better of late and Mathews' health murky, I think the Chargers will let Rivers be a gunslinger. It's no surprise that Vegas' 54.5-point over-under on Bolts-Broncos is Week 19's highest. ... Danny Woodhead makes for an intriguing boom-bust FanDuel play on the theory that San Diego will play fast and aggressive, utilizing hurry-up packages and worrying more about yards and points than time of possession. Throw in the possibility of Mathews either being limited or simply not a big part of the game plan, and Woodhead is a sneaky candidate to lead all Divisional Round running backs in all-purpose yards. ... Although Whiz and coach Mike McCoy purposely reined in Rivers' 2013 pass attempts against Denver as a function of game plan, Rivers remained effective in the meetings, completing 31-of-49 throws (63.3%) for 384 yards (7.84 YPA) with a 3:0 TD-to-INT ratio. A cherry on top of Rivers' matchup is Broncos top pass rusher Von Miller's (ACL surgery) absence. Miller wreaked havoc in the two regular season contests, racking up 12 tackles, three for a loss, two quarterback hits, and a sack. Look for Rivers to flourish with more volume and a cleaner pocket.
Increased volume would bode well for the entirety of San Diego's receiver corps, though the Bolts are a spread-the-wealth passing-pie team. Rivers is instructed to get the ball out quickly and progress to open receivers as opposed to bombarding a Vincent Jackson or Antonio Gates with targets. These are the combined pass-option stats from San Diego's two regular season games against Denver: Vincent Brown 6-89; Gates 6-85; Eddie Royal 5-82; Keenan Allen 6-70-2; Woodhead 5-30-1; Ladarius Green 1-25; Mathews 2-3. No Chargers pass catcher exceeded 62 receiving yards in either game. ... In FanDuel's daily game, I'm leaning on Rivers at quarterback but won't have any of his receivers or tight ends in my lineup. ... Despite San Diego's ball-control policy when facing Denver this season, the Chargers still combined for 47 points in the two affairs and are capable of keeping Sunday's game competitive simply because they can move the ball and rally for scores. The Bolts finished the year No. 5 in total yards and No. 12 in points, and dropped 27 on Cincinnati's top-three defense on the road last week. Denver is favored by 9.5 -- the largest margin of any Divisional Round game -- but I expect San Diego to cover if Whiz and McCoy indeed let Rivers sling it around the yard. The Broncos do not play imposing defense in any area.
Conversely, the Broncos pummeled the Chargers with regular season pass attempts as Peyton Manning combined to complete 52-of-77 throws (67.5%) against San Diego for 619 yards (8.04 YPA), six touchdowns, and one pick. Pagano's group deserves recognition for stouter recent play, but ultimately the Bolts lack pass-defense personnel to stymie the NFL MVP. Manning is going to have a big game. Just how big will determine whether San Diego stands any chance to pull the upset. ... While Bolts pass-catcher production was unmoving in 2013 Broncos games, most of Denver's guys went off. Here are their combined numbers: Demaryius Thomas 11-153-3; Julius Thomas 7-142-1; Eric Decker 5-94; Knowshon Moreno 13-85; Andre Caldwell 6-59-2; Montee Ball 5-49; Wes Welker 3-21. ... I noticed PFF's Mike Clay peg Demaryius as the premier bet for receiving production in the Divisional Round, and I agree. San Diego is not built to contain an elite NFL wideout. The Chargers did against A.J. Green (3-34) last week, but Andy Dalton deserves the majority of blame. Expect Demaryius to have his way with liability RCB Richard Marshall. ... Denver also has the top fantasy tight end for Week 19 in Orange Julius, who crippled San Diego's defense on seam routes during the regular season. Thomas is a blowup candidate. ... Decker noticeably scuffled in the box score versus San Diego, primarily for too-many-mouths-to-feed reasons. Always a good bet to find pay dirt, Decker has done so 24 times over his last 29 games.
Medically cleared from his concussion, Welker returns after missing the last three games of 2013, including Week 15 versus San Diego. Welker was targeted six times in these clubs' November clash but simply had a bad day, dropping a pass, having another target intercepted, and finishing with 21 yards on three catches. I expect a much better performance Sunday night. Denver intentionally held Welker out late in the season as a precaution, and he'll be a full-time player against the Bolts. ... The Chargers ranked 27th in YPC average allowed (4.59) this regular season and continued to have run-defense issues in the Wild Card round, as Cincinnati tagged San Diego for 113 yards on 25 carries (4.52 YPC). This is a plus matchup for Moreno and Ball, though Denver's increasing propensity for backfield timesharing makes both Broncos runners dicey propositions in fantasy playoff leagues. I noticed Clay recommend Moreno as the No. 1 fantasy back in the Divisional Round. I personally would play Marshawn Lynch over him.
Score Prediction: Broncos 33, Chargers 28