Line: Seahawks by 8.5
When Seattle Has the Ball: The Saints' defense allowed Russell Wilson to throw for 10 yards per attempt and three TDs, and find themselves with an even tougher task this time out as they're forced to do battle without do-it-all rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro. New Orleans faces three tough tasks in this one -- keeping Russell Wilson in the pocket, containing his receivers, and not getting stomped flat by Marshawn Lynch.
While Wilson is poised and accurate in the pocket, he's tremendously creative on the run and capable of sparking huge plays since he's so good at keeping his eyes downfield while on the move. Rob Ryan is a fan of exotic blitzes, but Wilson's savvy and escapability makes crazy six-man rushes a DangerRuss proposition. Ryan may be better served with some base three- and four-man containment rushes with an extra blitzer coming late to pick Wilson off in the pocket once the protection is committed. Caution may be the order of the day, as Wilson absolutely shredded Saints blitzes in their first meeting.
The Saints' defensive weakness is on the ground, and that bodes ill once Beast Mode gets untracked. New Orleans will need more of its DL to follow Akiem Hicks' example in clogging up run lanes, and linebacker David Hawthorne will also need to raise his game if the Saints have any shot at keeping Seattle behind the chains.
The final X-factor is receiver Percy Harvin. Word is that he's been practicing with no issues, and if he plays he'll bring one more dangerous dimension -- particularly on packaged run-pass throws to the flat -- that the Saints' D may be ill-equipped to deal with.
When New Orleans Has the Ball: The first key for the Saints' offense is very simple -- don't dig yourself a 17-point hole in the first quarter, as they did in their Week 13 shellacking. It's never what you want to do at any time, but a big deficit in this game could rob New Orleans of its best shot at a victory -- punishing the Seahawks with the run game. While Seattle's preceived "weakness" against the run is overblown, attacking the Seahawks on the ground can still be preferable to throwing against one of the best pass defenses in league history.
In-shape Mark Ingram can be a hard-nosed runner, and powering through some tackles would gain critical yards and knock a few decibels off the CenturyLInk noise meter. It's tough to beat the Seahawks deep even on play action, since free safety Earl Thomas' centerfield role tends to keep him from getting sucked in on run fakes and his range is nearly unbelievable. If the linebackers bite, though, it could open up a chasm between Thomas and the underneath coverage for Jimmy Graham to exploit.
Aside from that, it will be worth testing whether Malcolm Smith can equal K.J. Wright's tremendous Week 13 performance in staying with Darren Sproles, as well as whether corner Byron Maxwell is up to the challenge of sticking with Graham split out wide (though he did a fine job on Graham in the prior matchup). You can never count out a QB with Drew Brees' accuracy and command of his offense, but Road Brees is simply different from Superdome Brees. And Road Brees could be Roadkill Brees if new left tackle Terron Armstead can't keep things clean on the blind side. Armstead has an extremely limited track record, but against the Panthers (the only team he's faced which boasts similar edge-rush threats to what Seattle can offer), he surrendered a pair of sacks and three additional hit/hurries. With Seattle already able to mount more of an interior rush than Brees likes to deal with, extra heat off the edge could spell disaster for the Saints' chances.
The Final Score: Seattle 34, New Orleans 23. Too much noise, too much Russell Wilson and too many Seattle pass rushers for the Saints to overcome.
Line: Patriots by 7
When New England Has the Ball: This is the only game not to feature a regular-season rematch, so it's our first chance to see how Tom Brady and company look to attack the Colts' defense. Unfortunately for the Colts, their biggest defensive strength -- corner Vontae Davis' coverage on opposing No. 1 wideouts outside -- doesn't do much to address the Patriots' ability to slice defenses apart from the slot. Julian Edelman has been almost uncoverable since taking over the Pats' primary slot role, and Indianapolis slot corner Darius Butler is likely to struggle with Edelman's quickness and precision. Robert Mathis has been able to single-handedly elevate the Colts' defense at times this season, but he's facing a very capable left tackle in the Pats' Nate Solder.
New England has re-established a power run game at just the right time, and the LaGarrette Blount/Stevan Ridley combo will offer a stiff challenge to the Colts' sub-par run defense. Both backs are averaging over two yards per carry before contact thanks to the typically strong work from the Patriots' OL, and the Colts' linebackers will need to bring a lunchpail attitude to keep from surrendering a load of yards after contact. Shane Vereen should be back in the mix after recovering from a late-season groin injury, and he'll offer a potential coverage mismatch for the Colts' linebackers.
When Indianapolis Has the Ball: After an ill-fated flirtation with a power running identity behind Trent Richardson, the Colts figured out that they'll go as far as Andrew Luck can take them. Luck looked capable of taking them pretty far indeed once he took flight in the second half against Kansas City, turning in a performance for the ages in the Colts' stirring comeback. Luck's biggest challenge this week will be involving the rest of his offensive cast -- T.Y. Hilton was almost a one-man band against the Chiefs, but Bill Belichick's long history of taking away an opponent's best weapon likely means that guys like LaVon Brazill and Da'Rick Rogers will need to make major contributions. Rogers oozes raw talent, and he could have the chance to make some game-changing plays against a defense that has struggled against opponents' No. 2 wideouts for much of the season.
Donald Brown has emerged to give the Colts a viable run game -- in contrast to Trent Richardson, Brown actually possesses NFL-caliber lateral quickness and agility. He'll have the opportunity to get loose against a Patriots D that has struggled to adequately replace Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. The Colts have given lip service to not giving up on Richardson for these playoffs, but it's really hard to see what he can offer the offense at his current size and compatibility with Indy's blocking schemes. The most important set of legs in the Colts' backfield probably belong to Luck -- for Indy to come out on top, he'll need to convert four or five third downs with his legs and keep other plays alive with scrambles to set up downfield throws. New England lacks a dominating pass rush, but the Colts lack dominating pass blockers, too.
The Final Score: New England 33, Indianapolis 24. Brady's precision and the Patriots' balanced attack proves too much the Colts' defense, and Bill Belichick forces Luck into one too many mistakes.