I can’t remember the last NFL season where the post-season picture was so murky heading into the final set of games. But now that week 17 is in the books and the dust has settled, we now know which teams we’ll be watching battle it out this coming Wild Card weekend.
Before we get into a game by game analysis, let’s quickly address the sea of whining emanating out of Pittsburgh. Yes, it is true that a missed illegal formation penalty by the Chargers may have cost the Steelers their miracle playoff berth, but before fans complain too much about poor officiating they ought to quickly Google: “Bill Leavy Super Bowl XL.” And let’s also not forget that the Steelers are (8-8), if you don’t want to watch the playoffs from the couch, win more games than you lose.
Sunday Jan 5, 8:35am: Chiefs (11-5) at Colts (11-5)
The last time these two teams met was just two weeks ago. Indianapolis traveled to Kansas City and put the hammer down on the Chiefs 23-7 at Arrowhead Stadium.
Now, this isn’t to say that this result is indicative of what we might expect to see this Saturday at Lucas Oil Field in Indy. The Chiefs lost 3 fumbles and Alex Smith threw 1 INT compared to 0 turnovers by the Colts in their last match-up. If you take turnovers out of the equation, the rest of the game stats were pretty even. Of course turnovers are in fact part of the equation, which is why the Colts dominated, but if KC can hold on to the ball the game most likely will come down to the wire.
Jamaal Charles is turning into one of the most consistent and dangerous running backs in the league. It seems to be an anomaly if he doesn’t score at least one 30+ yard rushing TD in a game. But Alex Smith is just one of those guys that is hard to trust (regardless of his 31-10-1 record over his past 42 starts) and while he just keeps winning games, he’s still much more of a game manager than a guy who is going to put the team on his shoulders and do what it takes to win. That being said, with Charles and the stout KC defense, perhaps a game manager is all that they’ll need.
On the other side of the field will be Andrew Luck. The once consensus pick for “top QB prospect of all-time” is both living up to expectations and not at the same time. Compared to the average second year quarterback, he’s light years ahead, but compared to the top players at his position in the league, he’s still got a ways to go. A win against a tough Chiefs team in the playoffs will go a long ways to pushing his name up the list a notch or two.
For Kansas City, a playoff victory would cap off an already amazing comeback season. Andy Reid and Alex Smith took over a (2-14) team and truly challenged the Broncos for the AFC West title.
My Pick: I am taking the Chiefs in this one, as long as they pound the rock and hold on to the ball. The Indianapolis defense is ranked 26th in the league against the run, giving up an average of 125.1 yards. This doesn’t bode well against a crafty back like Charles. Kansas City to win 20 -17 Indianapolis.
Sunday Jan 5, 12:10pm: Saints (11-5) at Eagles (10-6)
Can New Orleans win outside of the Superdome? This is the question nervously churning in the stomachs of Saints fans. In 2013, Drew Brees and Co. is (8-0) at home and (3-5) on the road, and it’s sure to be cold and miserable this weekend in Philly.
But not all hope is lost for the followers of the fleur-de-lis, Brees has piled up 5,000+ yards for the third straight season and the Eagles are absolutely atrocious against the pass. In fact, they gave up 358 yards last weekend to Kyle Orton in their win over the Cowboys.
Playoff games can tend to be low scoring defensive affairs, but we can expect to see a shoot-out in this one, with plenty of passing yards on both sides. Nick Foles has thrown only 2 interceptions all season while the Saints defense is 24th in the league with only 12 takeaways through the air. That being said, New Orleans held opposing QBs to a rating of 83.6, so while Foles led the league in this category he’ll be facing a formidable secondary, even if they aren’t tops at creating turnovers.
My Pick: Nick Foles and LeSean McCoy are an offensive one-two punch to reckon with, but I think that Drew Brees’s playoff experience will win out in the end. But, this pick comes with one caveat. If it snows more than just a dusting (the weather forecast calls for below freezing temperatures), the tide will definitely shift in the Eagles’ direction. In the week 14 blizzard that dumped on the City of Brotherly Love, the Philadelphia running attack piled up 299 yards on the ground, including a bevy of long touchdown runs. With the Saints’ 2013 road woes, I just don’t see them winning away from the dome and in adverse conditions. New Orleans 35 – 31 Philadelphia (no snow), Philadelphia 28 – 17 New Orleans (with snow).
Monday Jan 6, 5:05am: Chargers (9-7) at Bengals (11-5)
San Diego needed help in week 17 to get into the playoffs, but they’re going to need a lot more help if they hope for any sort of chance to pull off the upset in Cincinnati. The Chargers ought to be commended for making it this far in the tough AFC West (both Wild Card teams come from the division) but it will take one hell of a game to come out of this one with a victory.
The odds are truly piled up against the Bolts: Cincinnati is (8-0) this season at home and second only to Denver with 54 touchdowns, just the Patriots and Broncos have scored more points in the AFC, and the Bengals are third in the NFL in total defense.
But the Chargers have won their last four games and historically the Bengals have not fared well in the post-season. The Bengals not only took an early exit in 2011 and 2012, they haven’t won a playoff game since 1991.
My Pick: While historical “bad luck” can often seem to truly affect a franchise, the 2013 Bengals are not the same type of team as their predecessors, especially not at home. The buck stops here for the Chargers’ wild ride in the only blow-out of the weekend. Bengals 31 – 10 Chargers.
Monday Jan 6, 8:40am: 49ers (12-4) at Packers (8-7-1)
Don’t let the disparity in records deceive you. This could be the finest match-up of the first round. On the surface the 49ers would appear to be heavy favorites, but at Lambeau Field in January, with Aaron Rodgers back under center, the Packers have to like their chances.
San Francisco started out the season as one of the top teams in the NFL, but an early season slump saw them drop in the power rankings. During the second half of the campaign, however, the Niners returned to form and are once again a true contender to return to the Super Bowl. They’ve won six in a row, including a big-time divisional victory over the rival Seahawks. This team is truly playoff ready.
If the weather turns sour both teams have solid rushing attacks to fall back on. San Francisco turns to the veteran Frank Gore and Green Bay scored an A+ in this year’s draft by selecting RB Eddie Lacy. Even if Lacy’s ankle acts up, James Starks showed last week that he’s still got some jump in his legs.
Last year when these two teams met in the playoffs Colin Kaepernick had one of the greatest outings for a QB in NFL history. He rushed for 181 yards, threw for 263 more and was accountable for 4 total touchdowns. But, this was before defensive coordinators (mostly) figured out the read-option.
My Pick: Green Bay will put up a good fight, but San Francisco’s defense will get to Aaron Rodgers and come up with at least one turnover. In the lowest scoring affair of the Wild Card round the Niners will edge out the Packers 13-10.