Previewing Sunday’s NFL playoff matchups

Sunday’s early game features two elite athletic quarterbacks and the late game is highlighted by injury question marks, passing games and the NFL’s best defense.

Seattle Seahawks (11-6) at Carolina Panthers (15-1)

The Carolina Panthers were the best team in the NFL during the regular season, but the Seattle Seahawks present an imposing matchup for them. Seattle has won four of the last five meetings between the two teams, while Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is 5-1 against the Panthers and Carolina coach Ron Rivera is 1-4 against Seattle. Yet, when they faced each other in October, the Panthers got the 27-23 win in Seattle with TE Greg Olsen hauling in seven passes for 131 yards and the game-winning, 26-yard touchdown with 32 seconds left. But the Seahawks beat the Panthers 31-17 in last year’s playoff matchup.

In many ways, the teams are very similar.

Russell Wilson and Cam Newton are two of the most athletic quarterbacks that can use their legs to run for first downs or simply buy time to set up receivers downfield. Wilson finished as the top-rated passer (110) in the NFL, throwing for 4,024 yards, 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Newton had 3,837 yards, a conference-leading 35 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Wilson was the first quarterback in NFL history with at least 4,000 yards passing, 30 touchdowns thrown and 500 yards rushing. Newton was the first quarterback with 30 touchdown passes and 10 touchdown runs.

Both of their leading receivers are a bit unconventional. Instead of having a big wideout on the outside, the Seahawks are led by primary slot receiver Doug Baldwin, who tied for the NFL lead with 14 touchdown receptions and garnered 1,069 yards. The Panthers use Olsen as their primary target, and he had 1,104 yards.

The similarities extend to the defensive side of the ball, too, where the Seahawks boast the second-ranked overall defense and the top rushing defense. The Panthers have the sixth-ranked defense and are fourth against the run. The difference is in the passing game, where Seattle is ranked second and Carolina is 11th. But the Panthers thrive on turnovers, sporting an NFL-best plus-20 turnover ratio, tying for the NFL lead with four interception returns for touchdowns. They have Pro Bowlers at every level – DT Kawann Short, who led the team with 11 sacks, LBs Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, who leads the team with 118 tackles, and CB Josh Norman.

The Seahawks have the same situation with Pro Bowl defensive players in DE Michael Bennett, who led the team with 10 sacks, LB Bobby Wagner, who led the team with 114 tackles, and defensive backs Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.

This matchup features escape artists with the quarterbacks and immense defensive talent and acumen.

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6) at Denver Broncos (12-4)

The good news for the Denver Broncos is that they are the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The bad news for Denver is that the top seed in the AFC has only compiled a 15-10 postseason record since the NFL went to the 12-team playoff field in 1990 (top seeds in the NFC are 21-4). Another bit of bad historical news for the Broncos: The Pittsburgh Steelers are tied for the most conference championship appearances in NFL history.

But, of course, this game won’t be decided by history, rather how well these teams play in the late Sunday afternoon game. While the Broncos have been just average on offense this year while shuffling between Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler and back again, their success has been built largely on defense, where they have the top-ranked unit overall, third against the run and first against the pass.

The fact that QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Antonio Brown are both banged up and certainly won’t be 100 percent should further help Denver’s odds. In the Steelers’ December win over the Broncos, Roethlisberger threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns and Brown had 16 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns.

On Friday morning, Brown was ruled out as he couldn’t pass his concussion protocol, putting the onus on Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton to become more productive in the passing game.

Big Ben led the NFL with a 328.2-yard passing average per game in 2015, the third-highest average in NFL history. Brown had a career-best 136 catches, tied for second-most in NFL history, and ranked second in the NFL with a franchise-record 1,834 yards receiving.

It’s no wonder Las Vegas wasn’t putting a line on this game through the middle of the week, with Roethlisberger’s shoulder and Brown’s concussion the storylines to watch before the game even starts. Pittsburgh has the third-ranked offense in the league, built behind their third-ranked passing attack, but without Brown and without a full week of practice for Roethlisberger, it could dramatically impact the game. Even if Roethlisberger can play, only five of his 21 touchdowns in 2015 came in road games.

Manning, meanwhile, is coming back from his foot injury and has played well against the Steelers. He has a 3-1 record against them, throwing eight touchdowns and four interceptions. Manning ranks second in playoff history in passing yards (6,800), completions (598) and attempts (935), and fourth in touchdown passes (38). Demaryius Thomas led the Broncos with 105 catches, 1,304 receiving yards and six touchdowns.

While the running game for both teams is a bit of an afterthought, the Broncos were one of two teams in the NFL with a pair of 700-yard rushers – Ronnie Hillman going for 863 and C.J. Anderson for 720. Their defense is far from an afterthought, however, giving up a league-best 283 yards per game. Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall each had more than 100 tackles, and Von Miller led the team with 10 sacks, one of two players in Broncos history with four seasons of double-digit sacks.

Sure, the overall history isn’t great for the Broncos, but when the Steelers’ injuries are combined with the record of the two teams against common opponents this year – the Broncos are 8-3 compared to the Steelers at 6-5 – even if Vegas wasn’t putting an early line on the game, the Broncos have to be considered favorites.

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