Divisional Round Preview, plus all news from around the league.

San Francisco 49ers (13-4) @ Carolina Panthers (12-4)

Sunday Jan 12th 2014 17:30 GMT, Sky Sports 2/2HD

Synopsis – The defending NFC champion 49ers 14-play 65-yard drive to end Green Bay’s playoff aspirations provided a stark reminder of the challenge required in stopping them.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman utilizes unique personal groupings, Frank Gore, despite turning 30, remains a potent workhouse behind a solid and dependable offensive line, quarterback Colin Kaepernick provides the kind of duel threat keeping defenses honest, and the return of Michael Crabtree seriously enhances the dynamism of a passing game (his eight-catch, 125-yard outing against the Packers on Sunday included chunk-play grabs of 11, 12, 13, 14, 17 and 31-yards, provide conclusive proof of that) that struggled to find its identity for much of the season.

On defense, outside linebacker Aldon Smith has returned and appears close to replicating the sort of form that saw him register 19.5 sacks in 2012-13, going some way to establishing San Francisco’s seven game win streak, the best among teams still active. Factor in an offense that’s found balance with an uncompromising defense they may well be the most complete team in the playoff picture.

Key take aways – The 49ers have the defense to nullity both the oppositions passing and run game, not to mention the capacity to control the tempo of the game through the run, most notably in the four-minute offense, making them potentially the most dangerous team in the playoffs. Then again, Carolina boasts Cam and Kuechly…

Predicted Score: San Francisco 31, Carolina 28.

New Orleans Saints (12-5) @ Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Saturday Jan 11th 21:00 GMT, Sky Sports 3/3HD

Synopsis – Drew Brees may not have been the electric force he so often is when playing within the confines of the Super Dome, but that didn’t stop New Orleans racking up 7 of 13 third downs.

Running back Mark Ingram provided the catalyst for a strong rushing attack that averaged 5.1-yards on 36 total carries. On the other side of the ball, a defense weakened be the absence of star safety Kenny Vaccaro, used a combination of creative schemes and a strong front did a stellar job in blunting Chip Kelly’s high-tempo offense.

That being said, the last time New Orleans visited Seattle, they went home with their tails well and truly between their legs after a 34-7 hiding, and were 3-5 on the road during the regular season.

However, the confidence gained in emerging from a hard-fought contest in Philadelphia may stand them in good stead when they take to the field at Century Link.

Key take aways – A Week 13 hammering which saw New Orleans tumble into a 27-7 hole by halftime hardly makes for pleasant reading (if you’re a Saints fan, that is…) in the build-up to this weekend’s showdown, especially given offensive struggles that produced a paltry 188-yards of total offense (147 coming from Drew Brees alone – making this his worst performance since 2006), but if New Orleans can follow the blue print used to limit the effectiveness of LeSean McCoy, who was held to 77-yards on 21 carries, there’s a chance the Saints can neutralize Lynch in very much the same way they were able to during that infamous Monday night massacre, where ‘the beast’ was tamed to the tune of 45-yards on 16 carries, thus putting the pressure squarely on Russell Wilson and the passing game.

Predicted Score: The typically ebullient Richard Sherman opined via his column on MMQB.com “He’s never done that to us.” In reference to Brees propensity to produce brilliance, but the magnitude of the occasion may bring the magic back to the degree that it keeps Seattle’s devastating defense honest, but once again home field advantage and ‘the 12th man’ will keep the ‘Legion of Boom’ rolling onto the NFC Championship game. It’ll be close, but Seattle will edge it 27-14.

Indianapolis Colts (12-5) @ New England Patriots (12-4)

Sunday Jan 12th 1:00 GMT, Sky Sports 3/3HD

Synopsis – The legend of Luck continues to gather momentum. After digging a 28-point hole against the Chiefs last Saturday, he then proceeded to fill that hole, with a little help from outside linebacker Robert Mathis pivotal strip-sack of Chief’s quarterback Alex Smith, by leading the Colts back from the brink by throwing three touchdown passes after halftime, including a 64-yarder to a wide-open T.Y. Hilton for the go-ahead score with 4:22 (thus enabling the Colts to outscore the Chief’s by 35-13 in the second half). An actuality that gives Indianapolis the chance to make serious noise in the playoffs, but will the inconsistencies that could have been punished against better teams than the Chief’s rear their ugly heads once more?

New England on the other hand are a perfect 8-0 at home this season, which makes for good reading if you happen to be a Bostonian, except the Patriots have lost on the last two occasions they have hosted home playoff games (against the Jets and Ravens, respectively) coming off an undefeated regular season at Gillette Stadium.

On the face of it, this may appear a statistical irrelevance; the Colts shouldn’t be intimidated by the often daunting prospect of going into Foxborough to take on Belichick and his Patriots, and even more so given the fact that injuries have rendered the Patriots more vulnerable than they’ve been in many a year during the Brady-Belichick era.

Key take aways – The Patriots may have been deprived of the services of seasoned veterans in the mould of Vince Wilfork and Jerod Meyo, and the match-up nightmare that is Rob Gronkowski, but Tom Brady is the archetypal cold-blooded killer, very much in the Micheal Jordan mould, who is well capable of improving upon his 17-7 post-season record against a Colts defense ranking 13th against the pass (231.9 yards-per-game) and 26th against the run (125.1 yards-per-game).

Predicted Score: Expect Belichick to commit to the run predominantly though power runner LaGarrette Blount, which is what New England did during its final two regular season contests against the Raven’s, and Bills respectively, allowing decisive control at the line of scrimmage. Repeat this trick against an average Colts defense and the pressure on Andrew Luck may tell.

Indianapolis 24, New England 34.

San Diego Chargers (10-7) @ Denver Broncos (13-3)

Sunday Jan 12th 2014 21:00 GMT, Sky Sports 2/2HD

Synopsis – San Diego sneaked into the playoffs via a little help from the Jets, Cincinnati, and the officials that failed to notice the seven Chargers situated on the line to the left of the Chiefs’ snapper as Ryan Succop’s field goal attempt sailed wide made with eight seconds remaining. Had they noticed, the Chief’s would have had a second chance, and we may well be sitting here having an entirely different conversation.

However, that’s history and now the 9-7 Chargers have the opportunity to extend their winning streak to six games, after eliminating highly fancied Cincinnati in their fifth last Sunday, and given a rejuvenated Phillip Rivers and his blossoming chemistry with Keenan Allen, San Diego and it’s considerably improved defense have a chance to repeat their 27-20 victory of the Broncos on December 12th.

John Fox’s will be out to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

Denver had outscored opponents by an average of 20.4 points in winning its first seven home games before falling 27-20 to San Diego on the aforementioned date.

Ryan Mathews ran for 127 yards and a touchdown while the Chargers (10-7) held the Broncos (13-3) to their lowest point total of the season. “It’s tough to say you’re confident knowing what you’re going against. You don’t want to take that the wrong way,” Chargers Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle told ESPN.com. “Do we believe we can win [again]? Yes. Do we know what a tough challenge it is and how great we have to play? Yeah. It’s not just because it’s happened in the past it’s going to happen. You still have to play at a high level and do the things necessary as a team to win.””… We have been the underdog all year. We are out to continue to believe in ourselves.”

However, despite San Diego being only one of three teams to limit the Broncos juggernaut to below its average of 37.9 points-per-game during the regular season, the return of Wes Welker from a concussion sustained in the Broncos’ win over Tennessee on Dec. 8 enhances Denver’s prospects of beating San Diego’s mix of Cover 1/Cover 2 schemes; schemes that did a good job of limiting the effects of the dynamic Demaryius Thomas.

An assertion acknowledged by the man himself when addressing the associated press “A lot of times teams will decide to go ahead and double Wes,” said the wide out who hauled in 14 touchdown receptions to rank second in the NFL. “So absolutely, it opens up things for me. If I have single-man coverage, it’s something that I definitely enjoy and look forward to”.

Key take aways – If Manning and Denver are to prevail, he must do a better job in sliding protections correctly, and receivers have to be physical enough to get separation on a jam, therefore allowing him to get them the ball.

The Chargers defense is pretty sound, due in no small part to the fact that you seldom see them playing people out of position. Eric Weddle is such a wild card. He can be used just about anywhere and can create some deception.

Until the Broncos start to dictate the pace of the game, they are going to have to grind the ball out and be patient. Getting the running game going is a must. The Broncos play-action passing game accounted for approximately 25% of their pass plays and is an integral part of the passing game. If the Broncos become too one dimensional, the Chargers gain the advantage in their secondary.

Manning has lost his last three postseason games and is 4-6 in his past 10 overall against the Chargers, including playoff losses during the 2007 and 2008 seasons while with Indianapolis. Rivers has posted a 99.1 quarterback rating in going 6-2 all-time in Denver, so something has to give.

Predicted Score: Despite San Diego’s recent charge (no pun intended) and an average Denver defense ranking 27th against the pass, I can’t see the upset that may trigger a similar run to the one fashioned by the 2011-12 Giants, who like San Diego finished the regular season 9-7 before going on to life the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

San Diego 27, Denver 34.

In other news…

Branch-ing out?

In an intriguing sub-plot, Deion Branch returns to New England, not as a Patriot but as a member of the visiting Colts, having signed on as a free agent six days before Sunday’s divisional clash.

Branch, who in two stints with the Patriots (from 2002-06 and 2010-12) caught 518 passes for 6,644-yards and 39 touchdowns, returns to his old haunting ground to provide Luck with the veteran support lacking following the season ending injury suffered by Reggie Wayne.

To make room, the Colts had to place starting cornerback Greg Taylor and defensive end Fili Moala on injured reserve.

Blunt spike

Staying in New England, linebacker Brandon Spikes was placed on injured reserve after sustaining a knee injury.

Spikes, the Patriots third-leading tackler with 86 total tackles, (48 solo), is the fourth leading defender to be side-lined by the Patriots this season; following in the wake of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Meyo, and Tommy Kelly.

To compensate, Dane Fletcher is likely to replace Spikes at middle linebacker between Dont’a Hightower and rookie Jamie Collins, a second-round draft pick.

Missing Fin

According to the Miami Herald, the Dolphins have dispensed with the services of offensive coordinator Mike Sherman.

A decision that though expected, still came as a something as a shock to coach Joe Philbin, who told the (Miami) Herald “I would like to thank Mike for his contributions to the Miami Dolphins,” he said “Mike has been a mentor to me throughout my coaching career, dating back to 1979. He is a man of great integrity, dedicated to his family, his team, his players and his profession. On behalf of the entire Miami Dolphins organization I want to wish Mike and his family the very best in the future.”

It’s widely believed the Dolphins’ search for Sherman’s replacement will begin immediately, with Ben McAdoo, the Packers’ quarterback’s coach, a man Philbin knows well from their days together in Green Bay, the leading candidate.

McAdoo, 36, coached the Packers’ tight ends for six seasons before moving to the quarterback’s room in 2012. Philbin wanted to interview McAdoo when he first got the

Dolphins job two years ago, but the Packers denied permission. That shouldn’t be a consideration this time around, as McAdoo’s contract is up, and the Packers’ season is over. Whoever is hired will become the Dolphins’ fourth offensive coordinator since 2010.

The move also ends Sherman’s six-year partnership with Ryan Tannehill, whom he also coached at Texas A&M. Tannehill has shown considerable improvement in his year in the league, but struggled in the final two games – both Dolphins losses that ultimately cost the team a playoffs spot.

Miami finished the year in the bottom third of the league in both total offense (312.9 yards) and points (19.8).

McDaniels withdraws from Browns job search

While the Patriots were on their playoff bye week, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels interviewed for the open Browns head coaching job.

On Wednesday, though, McDaniels withdrew from consideration for the job, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, who broke the news via his twitter account – @AdamSchefter “One person who knows Josh McDaniels said he had “an awesome” meeting with Browns, but it isn’t right time for him to become a head coach”.

Having just fired Rob Chudzinski after one season, and owner Jimmy Haslam embroiled has plenty of legal problems at the moment, Cleveland hardly represents the most attractive of propositions.

images: © James Willamor, © Neal D