NFL Nation: 2014 Quick Takes

Quick Take: Patriots at Broncos

January, 12, 2014
1/12/14
10:00
PM ET
DENVER -- Three things to know about the Denver Broncos' matchup against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at 3:05 p.m. ET Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

1. Once more with feeling: Commence hyping, but it's Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady again, with a Super Bowl trip on the line. And no matter how much Manning tries to deflect in the coming days -- and he will try with all of his conversation-directing might -- most folks will want to make Sunday's affair another high-profile chapter in the Manning-Brady saga that has played out over the course of two Hall-of-Fame careers. It will be the 15th time the two have faced each other and the fifth time in the postseason. And while Brady has a decided advantage -- 10-4 -- they are 1-1 against each other in previous AFC Championship Games. It will also be a meeting of the only two quarterbacks in league history to have thrown at least 50 touchdown passes in a season.

2. Don't sleep on the ground (attacks): While the pregame hoopla will center on the two quarterbacks, the two offenses' running games may really decide the issue. The Patriots, especially over the past month of the regular season, have shown their run-game chops and they simply overwhelmed the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round Saturday night. The Broncos then pounded out 133 yards against the Chargers on Sunday. Denver rushed for 280 yards against New England in Foxborough, Mass., in the Patriots' 34-31 Nov. 24 overtime win. Whichever defense holds up against that burly approach just may earn a Super Bowl trip.

3. Cover up: When Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. left Sunday's game early in the second half with knee and ankle injuries, what had been a dominant defensive performance for the Broncos got a little dicier down the stretch. Harris is their do-it-all guy in coverage and plays in all of the team's defensive packages. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers went after Harris's replacement -- Quentin Jammer -- plenty after the change, and had success. The Broncos will have to consider what they do if Harris does not play against the Patriots. They could stick with Jammer or try rookie Kayvon Webster on the outside against Brady. Or they could move Champ Bailey back outside. Bailey has played in the nickel, as the slot cornerback, since his return to the lineup in mid-December.

Quick Take: Patriots at Broncos

January, 12, 2014
1/12/14
8:00
PM ET
Three thoughts on New England Patriots vs. the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game at 3 p.m. Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

1. Just as Bill Belichick predicted: In a postgame meeting with receiver Wes Welker after the Patriots' 34-31 victory over the Broncos on Nov. 24., Welker relayed what was discussed. “He came over and he was like, ‘Good job, we’ll see you all again, I’m sure.'" Nice call, Bill. From start to finish, the Broncos and Patriots were the AFC's best, most consistent teams this season. And we never get tired of another Peyton Manning-Tom Brady duel. So it seems fitting, from this viewpoint, that these teams will meet to decide the AFC champion.

2. Broncos didn't get a heavy dose of Blount: The Patriots' offense has almost reinvented itself over the past three games into more of a ground-and-pound attack, with 6-foot, 250-pound bruiser LeGarrette Blount leading the team's three-man committee at running back and turning in two record-setting performances. Guard Logan Mankins said after Saturday's victory over the Colts: "Right now, I don't know if we're a better running team than a passing team, but the running is working. So why go away from something that's working?" Blount played just two offensive snaps against the Broncos on Nov. 24, in part because the Patriots fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter and became more one-dimensional toward the pass. From an instant analysis perspective, this is the key for the Patriots this week. If they can play the game on their terms and get Blount going, I think they have matchup advantages against a suspect defense that could be exploited and ultimately result in a win. If they are forced into a spread game like they were Nov. 24, the chances of victory decrease significantly.

3. In a sub defense game, secondary is as strong as it has been: In the Nov. 24 game between the teams, the Patriots were in a sub defense (five or six defensive backs) for all 90 snaps (including penalties). That's usually the way it goes when playing a Manning-led team and Manning was content to hand the ball off against the lighter box (280 rushing yards, 48 carries). That chess match figures to be in play once again. For the Patriots, they are as healthy and as deep as they have been all season in the secondary, which is ideal in this type of X's-and-O's chess match. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard are locked in as the top cornerbacks, with Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory the starting safeties. Nickel back Kyle Arrington played a solid game in the slot against Welker on Nov. 24 and the Patriots also have impressive rookie Logan Ryan.

Quick Take: 49ers at Seahawks

January, 12, 2014
1/12/14
6:25
PM ET
Three things to know about next Sunday's San Francisco 49ers-Seattle Seahawks NFC Championship Game at CenturyLink Field:

1. Inevitable meeting: The matchup has been brewing since the offseason. This is one of the most heated rivalries in the NFL. The players have gotten chippy. The coaches have gotten chippy. The teams have poached each other’s rosters. It only makes sense that a Super Bowl berth comes down to these two NFC West adversaries.

2. The quarterbacks: San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson are two of the most dynamic young quarterbacks in the NFL. They have similar games and are great leaders for their teams. This game likely will come down to which quarterback makes the most plays with his arm and legs. Kaepernick has been to this stage before; Wilson hasn’t. Will Kaepernick's championship game experience give him the edge?

3. Can 49ers figure out how to win at Seattle? The 49ers were hammered in Seattle 29-3 in Week 2 and have been outscored 71-16 in their past two games at CenturyLink Field. The 49ers were greatly affected by the infamous noise level in those two games. Sunday, after beating the Panthers, several 49ers said the key will be to play as perfect as possible to take the crowd out of the game.

Quick Take: 49ers at Seahawks

January, 12, 2014
1/12/14
4:20
PM ET
SEATTLE -- Three things to know about next Sunday's San Francisco 49ers-Seattle Seahawks NFC Championship Game at CenturyLink Field:

1.The rubber match: This is the game most people expected to see when the season began, bitter NFC West rivals going head to head for a trip to the Super Bowl. They split in the regular season, with the Seahawks winning 29-3 in Seattle and the 49ers winning 19-17 at Candlestick Park in December. The 49ers have been the big boys on the NFC West block in recent years, but the Seahawks took that crown in the regular season. Now they want to prove they can do it in the playoffs. Playing on the road has not been a problem for San Francisco the past two months. The 49ers have won five consecutive road games, including the past three.

2. An honest hatred: This is the best rivalry in the NFL today and one of the best in professional sports. Most players on both teams will deny it all week, but the truth is these teams can’t stand each other, and that goes for the head coaches, as well. The two fan bases do everything they can to berate each other, and all of that animosity adds to the intrigue and hype for a title game. These are two of the most physical teams in the league. They are going to pop each other right in the mouth on every snap. It won’t be an easy game to officiate, having to find a balance between letting them play with so much on the line and knowing when a player’s actions get out of hand.

3. Dominant defenses: They say defense wins championships, and you certainly can make that argument with both of these teams. Seattle, the No. 1 defense in the NFL this season, has not allowed more than 19 points in any of its past six games, averaging only 11.2 points per game over that stretch. The 49ers, the No. 5 defense in the league, have allowed only 15.2 points per game in its past 11 games.

Quick Take: 49ers at Panthers

January, 5, 2014
1/05/14
9:15
PM ET
Three things to know about the San Francisco 49ers' matchup at the Carolina Panthers in the NFC divisional round at 1:05 p.m. ET Sunday:

1. Rematch: All Colin Kaepernick said about the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night, after the 49ers secured their trip there with a 23-20 win at Green Bay was “we owe them.” The Panthers beat the 49ers in San Francisco, 10-9, on Nov. 10. It was one of the NFL’s most physical games of the season. Both offenses struggled as both teams played brilliant defense. Expect another low-scoring game, although the point total likely will exceed 19 this time around.

2. Young quarterback battle: This will be a terrific national spotlight game for two of the better young quarterbacks in the league, Kaepernick and Carolina's Cam Newton. One of these two quarterbacks is heading to the NFC Championship Game. Newton was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. Kaepernick, who already has been to one Super Bowl, was taken in the second round.

3. Great linebacking play: The first meeting was highlighted by stellar defensive play, particularly by the inside linebackers. San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly are among the game’s best middle linebackers. Bowman and Kuechly are legitimate NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidates. Expect this matchup to be run through these guys once again.

Quick Take: 49ers at Panthers

January, 5, 2014
1/05/14
8:45
PM ET
Three things to know about the Carolina Panthers' Jan. 12 playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers at Bank of America Stadium:

1. Mirror image: The Panthers (12-4) proved they were legitimately good this season with a 10-9 victory at San Francisco on Nov. 10. To prove they are a legitimate Super Bowl contender, they must get past the 49ers again. This arguably was the toughest of the three opponents Carolina could have drawn, as the teams are almost mirror images of each other. Both have an athletic quarterback -- Carolina in Cam Newton and San Francisco in Colin Kaepernick -- who can beat you with his legs as well as his arm. Both have a solid running game, with Carolina eighth in the NFL and San Francisco third. Both have a stout defense, Carolina second and San Francisco fifth, built around stopping the run first. This one should be just as close and physical as the first.

2. Contain Colin: Minutes after rushing seven times for 98 yards and throwing for 227 yards and a touchdown in a 23-20 victory over Green Bay, Kaepernick was asked what he thought about the rematch with Carolina. "That we owe them for the first time they came to our house," he told Fox Sports. The Panthers won at Candlestick Park in large part because they contained Kaepernick. They held him to 16 yards on four rushes and 91 yards passing. They sacked him six times. He was 0-for-6 on throws of more than 10 yards, the first time he's failed to complete a deep pass with multiple attempts in his career. For the first time this season, he was held without an official scramble, and he was 0-for-4 with two sacks when he did escape the pocket. San Francisco's 151 total yards were its fewest since Week 9 of 2006. The Panthers, who have 15 sacks in their past two games, likely will need to duplicate that to advance to the NFC Championship Game.

3. Flair controversy: The Panthers have been using professional wrestler Ric Flair's famous "WOOOOOOO" chant as part of their locker room celebration much of the season. It's become so big that cornerback Drayton Florence, who started the chant with the defensive backs before it caught on with the rest of the team, has been looking for a way to get "The Nature Boy" to give a motivational speech before the upcoming game. Florence, safety Mike Mitchell and corner Captain Munnerlyn taped this past week a "WOOOOOOO" pump-it-up video to play on the giant video screen before the game. Now we find out that Flair, who lives in Charlotte, gave the 49ers a motivational speech in their hotel the night before the Green Bay game. During the speech, Flair said his heart was with the 49ers all the way to the end. This could get touchy. Fortunately for Carolina, it has won seven straight at home since a 12-7 loss to Seattle in the season opener, so it can depend on the home crowd more than the hometown Nature Boy.

Quick Take: Chargers at Broncos

January, 5, 2014
1/05/14
6:00
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- Three things to know about the San Diego Chargers' matchup against the Denver Broncos in the AFC divisional round on Sunday at Sports Authority Field:

1. No secrets: These two teams have played twice in the past eight weeks, so they’ve pretty much seen everything the other team has to offer. The Chargers will have some confidence playing at Denver because they won there just three weeks ago, a 27-20 victory in a nationally televised Thursday night contest. San Diego's defense held the Broncos’ Peyton Manning-led offense to its lowest point total of the season. That said, the Chargers also understand that Manning likely will have a few more tricks up his sleeve this time.

2. Streaking: San Diego has won five consecutive games and six of its past seven. The Chargers are playing with a lot of confidence and remain dangerous because of the carefree, energetic way they perform on both sides of the ball. San Diego players said they could see the Bengals tightening up in the second half with the game slipping away. The Broncos are a team expected to go to the Super Bowl, so if San Diego can put pressure on Denver by getting ahead early, perhaps the Broncos could suffer the same fate as last year, when they lost to Baltimore.

3. Veteran leadership: Longtime Chargers such as Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Eric Weddle and Nick Hardwick have helped provide focus for this young team, exuding a quiet confidence that shows up on the playing field. As it's done throughout the second half of the season, San Diego does not get rattled when things do not go its way. That ability to handle adversity serves it well in the playoffs. The Chargers essentially have been in playoff mode since Week 14 of the regular season, so they approach each week with a sense of urgency that other teams have failed to match until this point.

Quick Take: Colts at Patriots

January, 5, 2014
1/05/14
5:30
PM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- Three things to know about Saturday's Indianapolis Colts-New England Patriots divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. This will be the first playoff matchup between the two teams since the epic AFC Championship Game the Colts won 38-34 on Jan. 21, 2007.

1. Battle of receivers. Quick: Can you name a receiver on either team not named T.Y. Hilton? Andrew Luck of the Colts and Tom Brady of the Patriots are the two best quarterbacks in the league when it comes to getting the most out of their receivers. They both lost their primary receiving targets to injury this season. Colts receiver Reggie Wayne's season ended in Week 7 with a torn ACL. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski's season ended with a torn ACL and MCL in Week 14. Receiver Julian Edelman led the Patriots in receiving this season with 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. Hilton, who set a franchise playoff record with 224 yards against Kansas City on Saturday, led the Colts with 1,083 yards and five touchdowns this season.

2. Ugly first game. Luck is making his second appearance against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. New England beat Indianapolis 59-24 during the 2012 season. The Colts led 14-7 at the end of the first quarter and trailed only 24-17 at halftime, but the Patriots outscored them 35-7 in the second half. Luck was 27-of-50 for 334 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Brady was simply better, as expected. He was 24-of-35 for 331 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. But Brady won't have Gronkowski (137 yards) or Wes Welker (80 yards) to throw the ball to this time around. Hilton had six catches for 100 yards. Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman had 12 tackles in that game.

3. Stopping the run. Brady is obviously the focal point for the Patriots, but New England does have a decent running game, too. Running backs Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount finished within a yard of each other during the regular season, with Ridley gaining 773 yards and Blount rushing for 772 yards. They also combined for 14 touchdowns. The Colts, on the other hand, had Donald Brown rush for 537 yards and Trent Richardson finished with 458 yards.

Quick Take: Chargers at Broncos

January, 5, 2014
1/05/14
4:35
PM ET
Three things to know about the Denver Broncos' matchup against the San Diego Chargers in the AFC divisional round at 4:40 p.m. ET Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

1. Get loose: Over the previous eight seasons, six of the Super Bowl winners have played on wild-card weekend, including the past three champions. While there is a talent factor there -- or in the case of the past three Super Bowl winners quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco -- there is also the matter of the favorite feeling pressure. The top two seeds wait and the pressure builds around them, as their opponent has already worked through the butterflies and earned a win. It could be even more of a factor for a team like the Broncos. For many fans, last January’s double-overtime loss to the Ravens overshadows all the broken records this season. How the Broncos work through that this week and deal with it early on Sunday -- on all fronts from the head coach down -- will have a lot to do with whether they advance. They just need to live up to coach John Fox’s words to Peyton Manning in Houston when the quarterback was staring at the touchdown record in the game’s waning minutes: "Go play ball."

2. No keep-away: No opposing coach worth his headset needs to be reminded of the troubles that come with giving Manning the ball too often. Having been the Broncos' offensive coordinator with Manning behind center, Chargers coach Mike McCoy has a better working knowledge than most. The Denver offense has run fewer than 65 plays in two games this season -- both against McCoy’s Chargers. In San Diego’s win in Denver on Dec. 12, the Broncos ran a season-low 54 plays, including penalty snaps. Their average drive start was the 19-yard line. Sunday the Chargers’ first two touchdown drives against the Bengals went for 12 and 10 plays for 86 and 80 yards respectively. The Broncos' defense has to get San Diego off the field. The Broncos' odds of winning go up if their play count on offense is north of 65 plays.

3. Arrive early: The Chargers are going to want to slow things down and shorten the game. But the sooner the Broncos can squash the threat of an upset the better. The Chargers are not built for comebacks filled with explosive plays, so if the Broncos open with some precision in their speedball game they can get the pace they want. Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has largely chosen coverage over pressure against Manning this season, banking on the idea they can get to Manning out of a three- or four-man rush before he can find room against seven- and eight-man coverage looks. The Broncos must protect Manning better than they did last month against San Diego -- especially against the Chargers' interior pass-rushers when Pagano attacked the left side of the offensive line, and got to work right out of the gate.

Quick Take: Colts at Patriots

January, 5, 2014
1/05/14
4:25
PM ET
Three things to know about Saturday's Indianapolis Colts-New England Patriots divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium:

1. Luck and Mathis can control/take over a game: When dissecting the three possible Patriots opponents -- Bengals, Colts and Chiefs -- the feeling was that New England should beat them all if playing its best game. But the reason the Colts were listed as the least preferred matchup was because they had the difference-making quarterback in Andrew Luck. I don’t think the Colts' team is as good as the Patriots' team, but with Luck and defensive end Robert Mathis they have two players who can control/disrupt a game. That makes this matchup potentially dangerous. Also, while it might be tempting to label the Colts a dome team that will struggle playing in what figures to be challenging New England elements, it should be noted that Indianapolis played an excellent game in a decisive Week 16 victory at Kansas City. They have had some duds on the road this year, a 40-11 loss to the Cardinals on Nov. 24 comes to mind, but they’ve also had two impressive wins away from home -- the 27-7 win over the 49ers in Week 3 and the 23-7 win over the Chiefs in Week 16. The Patriots and Colts didn't play each other this season. The last meeting between the teams came in 2012, with the Tom Brady-led Patriots thumping the Luck-led Colts 59-24 on Nov. 18.

2. Talib on Hilton: With Reggie Wayne on season-ending injured reserve, T.Y. Hilton has emerged as the Colts’ go-to target. He was dynamic in the wild-card round win over the Chiefs (13 catches, 224 yards, 2 TDs) and it wouldn’t be surprising if cornerback Aqib Talib is called upon to match up against him. The Patriots haven’t had a matchup corner like Talib since Ty Law (1995-2004). The second-team All-Pro hasn’t matched up every week, but when he has, he’s mostly been very competitive.

3. Scouting the Colts’ defense and other connections: Colts teams under coach Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell were known for a 4-3 defense that was undersized but quick. This Colts defense has more of a Ravens-type look, which makes sense as second-year head coach Chuck Pagano was Baltimore’s defensive coordinator prior to coming to Indianapolis. They are bigger at the line of scrimmage and will vary their pressure calls. The Colts are banged-up in the secondary as that unit looked vulnerable in the wild-card round. If Brady gets protection -- and this is an obvious pregame storyline -- he should find some favorable matchups. In a bit of a local touch, the Colts come to town with two former Boston College players as their bookends on the offensive line -- left tackle Anthony Castonzo and right tackle Gosder Cherilus. Also, former Patriots cornerback Darius Butler is the Colts’ nickelback. The kicker, of course, is former Patriot Adam Vinatieri.

Quick Take: Saints at Seahawks

January, 5, 2014
1/05/14
8:00
AM ET
Three things to know about the New Orleans Saints’ matchup at the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday in the NFC divisional round at CenturyLink Field:

1. Ugly memory: This is a rematch of a game played just five weeks ago -- and it was by far the Saints’ ugliest performance of the season, a 34-7 loss on “Monday Night Football.” The Saints' normally potent offense gained just 188 yards, and an early sack-fumble set the tone. The defense was just as ugly. It sold out to stop running back Marshawn Lynch, but got burned by play-action fakes and Russell Wilson’s arm and legs.

Obviously it’s safe to expect a much better performance from the Saints this time. But will it be good enough? The Saints showed reason for optimism with the way they won their first playoff game Saturday in chilly Philadelphia -- relying on their run game, defense and special teams as much as they relied on Drew Brees. Now they’ll never be labeled as a team that can’t win a big game on the road again, right?

2. Battered secondary: The Saints had the No. 2-ranked pass defense in the NFL this season (behind the No. 1-ranked Seahawks). But they keep losing their best defensive backs to injuries. Cornerback Jabari Greer suffered a season-ending knee injury in November, then safety Kenny Vaccaro suffered a season-ending ankle injury in December. Now top cornerback Keenan Lewis will be questionable after leaving Saturday’s playoff win with a concussion. Judging by the way he was pleading to stay in the game, it’s possible the concussion wasn’t too serious. But those types of injuries are impossible to predict. The Saints are extremely thin behind Lewis -- as the Eagles proved by attacking deep after Lewis left.

3. Saints can run: Seattle’s top-ranked pass defense obviously caused problems for Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham & Co. in that first meeting. But the Saints proved at Philly that they can trust their run game if needed. They ran for 185 yards on 36 carries, led by a huge effort from resurgent running back Mark Ingram (18 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown). Whether or not running back Pierre Thomas is able to return from a back injury, the Saints obviously have multiple options they can feature.

Quick Take: Saints at Seahawks

January, 4, 2014
1/04/14
11:30
PM ET
SEATTLE -- Three things to know about next weekend's New Orleans Saints-Seattle Seahawks divisional round playoff game at CenturyLink Field:

1. Back where Who Dat was handed its hat: The Saints were 0-5 in road playoff games in franchise history before defeating the Eagles 26-24 in Philadelphia on Saturday night. Now New Orleans returns to the site of its worst defeat this season, a 34-7 victory by the Seahawks in a Monday night game on Dec. 2. Seattle held the Saints to 44 yards rushing, and Russell Wilson had one of his best games of the season, completing 22 of 30 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns.

2. And where the Beast Quake beat them: The last home playoff game for the Seahawks was a 41-36 victory against the Saints three years ago, when Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch rocked the world (literally). His 67-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, when he broke seven potential tackles, was the scamper that came to be known as the Beast Quake after registering seismic activity from the frenzied crowd.

3. Strength versus strength: Saturday's game will match the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL against the No. 2 passing offense. The Saints averaged 307 yards passing per game in the regular season, and had four players with more than 70 catches, an NFL first. The Seahawks led the league in passing yards allowed per game (172), and interceptions (28).

Quick Take: Saints at Eagles

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
12:36
AM ET
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Three things to know about next Saturday's New Orleans Saints-Philadelphia Eagles wild-card playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field:

1. Unsteady Brees: It has often been said the Saints are a different team at home and on the road, but really, Drew Brees is a different quarterback. In seven home games before Sunday, Brees threw 23 touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating was 122.5. On the road, Brees has thrown 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions with a passer rating of 84.8. Brees averaged almost two more yards per attempt at home than on the road.

New Orleans’ defense is actually a bit better on the road. The Saints have eight interceptions and 26 sacks on the road and had three picks and 21 sacks in the Superdome before Sunday.

2. Subplots and storylines: The game will draw huge ratings in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Austin, Texas. Brees and Eagles quarterback Nick Foles went to Austin’s Westlake High School a decade apart. Foles broke Brees’ school records for touchdowns in a season and a career and yards in a game and career. Brees held on to the mark for passing yards in a season.

Saints head coach Sean Payton and assistant head coach Joe Vitt were both assistants on Ray Rhodes’ Eagles staff. Vitt coached linebackers from 1995 to 1998, while Payton coached quarterbacks in ’97 and ’98.

Saints defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley was the Eagles’ first-round draft pick in 2006. As a rookie, he played against the Saints in a divisional playoff game. The Saints won, 27-24.

Back in the 1980s, Buddy Ryan was head coach of the Eagles. Bill Davis, who had been an assistant on Dick Vermeil’s staff, was a personnel guy. They didn’t exactly get along, and Davis left in 1989.

Almost a quarter-century later, their sons are first-year defensive coordinators for the Saints and Eagles. Rob Ryan has done a dramatic job revamping the Saints' defense. New Orleans was worst in the NFL in yardage and points allowed in 2012. The Saints are fourth in yards and fifth in points under Ryan. Davis has engineered a transition to the 3-4 that has the Eagles playing markedly better defense in the second half of the season. The Eagles have held 10 of their past 11 opponents to 21 or fewer points.

3. Graham cracking: In Jimmy Graham, the Saints have arguably the most dangerous tight end in the league. The Eagles have had mixed success against tight ends this season.

San Diego’s Antonio Gates caught eight passes for 124 yards, but that was early in the season, before Davis’ unit hit its stride. Just last week, Chicago’s Martellus Bennett caught five balls for 85 yards. Tampa Bay’s Timothy Wright caught seven passes for 91 yards.

Going into Sunday night, tight ends have caught an average of 4.3 passes for 52.7 yards per game against the Eagles this season. Jason Witten had 12 catches for 135 yards for the Cowboys on Sunday.

Quick Take: Saints at Eagles

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
12:25
AM ET
Three things to know about next Saturday's NFC wild-card playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles:

1. Road woes: The Saints (11-5) have to reverse a trend that has gotten uglier as the season has progressed. They finished 3-5 on the road, including three straight road losses in December (at Seattle, St. Louis and Carolina). There’s no great explanation for why the Saints have been such a different team away from home. They’ve struggled to score points and hit on deep passing plays. They’ve turned the ball over too often early in games. And they’ve had trouble stopping the run. All of those things are curable, in theory. But the Saints need to prove it on the field; they came close at Carolina in Week 16 but still managed only 13 points. Weather could be a factor, but early forecasts seem somewhat manageable (temperatures in the 20s or 30s, with no precipitation).

2. Eagles on fire: The opponent might even be scarier than the location. The Eagles (10-6) are one of the NFL’s hottest teams, having won six of their last seven. Nick Foles has been a revelation since taking over as the starting quarterback, with 27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. And Philadelphia has by far the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL, led by dangerous running back LeSean McCoy. The Saints will need their safeties to step up and be sure tacklers -- a bigger challenge now that rookie Kenny Vaccaro is out for the season. Increasing the degree of difficulty is the fact the Eagles are an unfamiliar foe for the Saints, led by rookie coach Chip Kelly and his unconventional offense.

3. Saints on fire: Of course, the Saints are no slouches themselves on offense. Although they’ve struggled to bring their show on the road, it’s still some of the most dazzling theater in the NFL at times. Drew Brees just threw for another 381 yards and four touchdowns in Sunday’s 42-17 win over Tampa Bay (three of the TDs for 40 yards or more). And he just wrapped his fourth 5,000-yard passing season, with 39 touchdowns to boot. That will put a scare into the Eagles’ defense, which ranks in the bottom five in the NFL. The Saints finished the season ranked No. 4 on offense and No. 4 on defense. Despite their low seeding, they have one of the highest ceilings of any playoff team.

Quick Take: Chiefs at Colts

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
11:00
PM ET
Three things to know about next week's Kansas City Chiefs-Indianapolis Colts wild-card playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium:

1. Containing Jamaal Charles. The Chiefs running back finished with 106 yards on 13 carries in the first matchup between the two teams on Dec. 22. But those yards don't tell the whole story. Charles gained 37 yards on Kansas City's opening series. That means the Colts held one of the NFL's premier all-around players to only 69 yards the rest of the game. Indianapolis will have to do the same again because Charles has proved that he can run the ball -- he ran for 226 yards against the Colts in 2012 -- and he had 195 yards receiving against the Oakland Raiders in Week 15 this season. Charles finished the season with 1,287 yards rushing, 693 yards receiving and 19 touchdowns.

2. Do it on defense. Yes, Andrew Luck is the Colts' most valuable player, but they'll need their defense to play well. They're heading into the playoffs with the defense getting 11 sacks and forcing eight turnovers during their three-game winning streak. The Colts sacked Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith four times to go with four turnovers in the game. Indianapolis held Kansas City to 287 yards of total offense.

3. Continue to protect the quarterback. The offensive line has done a good job protecting Luck. He was sacked only three times in the final three games of the season. The ability to keep the young quarterback on his feet has helped the Colts' passing game, as he was 26-of-37 for 282 yards in the season finale against Jacksonville on Sunday. Luck also completed 67 percent of his passes to receivers with six touchdowns and only one interception in the final four games of the season. He had completed only 50.5 percent of his passes to his receivers in the first five games without Reggie Wayne.

You know what you're going to get out of receiver T.Y. Hilton. But fellow receivers Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill and Griff Whalen are about to step into unfamiliar territory. The three have developed a nice continuity with Luck. The playoffs aren't the time for them to have a setback by showing their inexperience. The Colts won't be able to run their no-huddle offense if Luck can't depend on them to get open and catch the ball.

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