Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
This will be the first of the four Wild Card games. Kansas City, which started out 9-0, slipped and went 2-5 down the stretch. One of those losses was a 23-7 loss to Indianapolis at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 16. The Colts, who swooned in the middle of the season, have momentum, winning their last three games.
NFL.com claims “To say Kansas City, losers of five of their past seven games, stumbled down the stretch is putting it nicely.” This may be a bit exaggerated. Two of those losses were at the hands of the Denver Broncos, and they were close games: KC lost the first by 10 and the second by 7. They also lost twice to the San Diego Chargers, but each loss was by a mere field goal. (The second loss was also due to a botched field goal and a lost of resting regulars)
That loss to the Colts in Week 16 sticks out like a sore thumb. Of all the turnovers Alex Smith had this season, a full 30 percent of them came in that game. Luckily for the Chiefs, Justin Houston will more than likely be ready to go for this afternoon in Indianapolis. Kansas City did not get much pressure on Colts’ QB Andrew Luck, and Houston should be able to change that provided he is truly back to form-he had 11 sacks before going down with a dislocated elbow. However-Indianapolis’ offensive line was sixth best in sacks allowed this season with 32. Luck is, however, able to make throws under pressure.
The Chiefs’ defense has been a large reason for their success this year, especially because of all the takeaways they had: 36, good for second best in the league. There is a small but important problem with this defense-it is very reliant on turnovers. Only Seattle was able to generate more turnovers this season, and the Colts committed the least turnovers in the NFL this season (14).
Andrew Luck may not command the respect that Peyton Manning did in Indianapolis when he wore blue and white, but he is a big reason for this team’s ability to rebound from their ugly mid-season performance. Reggie Wayne went down with an ACL injury and did not return for the rest of the season, but Luck and his team were able to rebound quickly.
Prediction: Indianapolis narrowly beats KC, 24-21.
New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
The “Iggles” may be a lot better than their respectable-but-not-mindblowing 10-6 record suggests. They have only one loss since Halloween. Their offense is ranked second in the league. Quarterback Nick Foles has a passer rating of 119.2. LeSean McCoy has rushed for 1,607 yards, and DeSean Jackson has 1,332 yards under his belt. No other NFL team has had those weapons all at once...ever. Even better for Philly, the Saints, while they boasted an 8-0 record in the Superdome, were a paltry 3-5 outside of New Orleans. Drew Brees, near-unstoppable in the Superdome, was not nearly as fun to watch when on the road.
But let’s not jump to the assumption that the Saints are hopeless. They most certainly are not. New Orleans finished fourth in total yards and are led by one of the best quarterbacks in the game today with Drew Brees at the helm. Rob Ryan has whipped the Saints’ defense, nothing short of horrendous in 2012, to respectability this year. TE Jimmy Graham could also give the Eagles headaches. And perhaps most importantly: the Eagles’ pass defense was ranked dead last this year.
Inexperience may play a factor as well. This is Nick Foles’ first ever playoff game, whereas Drew Brees is a seasoned veteran who has a Super Bowl ring. Also-Brees showed this season that he can spread the ball around very well.
This could be a slugfest Saturday afternoon at the “Linc”, but the Eagles will ultimately come out on top, to the tune of 34-28.
San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
You know, I think people are pretty impatient when it comes to football teams rebounding from years of mediocrity. The Cincinnati Bengals, awful for years (their last playoff victory came in 1990 against the Houston Oilers), even dubbed the “Bungals” (Or is it “Bungles”? Is there a definitive spelling for that nickname?) are back in the playoffs for a third consecutive season. Their young quarterback, Andy Dalton, is still being hounded by some who wonder if it is a make-or-break postseason for him.
It’s true that Dalton has made mistakes. It’s also true that he has cost his team when he falters, but that can be said of any quarterback. What is not mentioned is that Dalton has improved every year since he became the Bengals’ quarterback in 2011. He throws the ball more, makes more completions, and gets more yards. On top of that, he now holds the Bengals’ record for passing yards in a season.
Dalton’s inconsistencies of course should not be overlooked. Only four quartebacks threw more interceptions than him this season, and his playoff appearances have been lackluster. However, this is not enough to convince me that he is on any hot seats.
The Bengals beat the Chargers in Week 13 by a score of 17-10. That was the weakest offensive performance the Chargers had all season. Granted, Philip Rivers did not have a bad performance (23/37, 252 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT) Rivers’ receivers had a bad day that game, with the exception of Keenan Allen. This is because of the Bengals’ defense and their complete effort.
Don’t count the San Diego Chargers out of this game, though. They won 4 straight to get to this position, and even when their offense struggled against Cincy in Week 13, the defense was able to keep the game close. Dalton had his second-worst passing performance of the season, with an interception that sailed lazily into the hands of Eric Weedle. Dalton was not able to move effectively in that game. This could be a question for the Chargers-their defense was questionable all season long, and even in one of their most effective performances, they did not pull out a W. Remember, the Chargers are here because two other teams (Miami and Baltimore) lost and Kansas City rested most of their best players.
This is probably the most likely game to be an upset, however, and this is because of Chargers QB Philip Rivers. His passer rating on 3rd down was second best-only Colin Kaepernick bested his performance. He’s throwing the ball farther and better, and his overall passer rating is the best it’s been since 2008. It is primarily up to his performance as to whether the Chargers will win.
Pick: Cincinnati, 31-24.
San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at Green Bay Packers (8-7-1)
Talk about a contrast. San Francisco, overlooked most of the year because of the white-hot Seattle Seahawks, is coming in to this game winners of five of their last six. Colin Kaepernick looks great after a slow start.
Meanwhile, Green Bay has limped into the postseason. Aaron Rodgers was close to being ruled out for the season not long ago, and the Packers would have missed out on the postseason if it wasn’t for an astounding collapse for the Detroit Lions and the inability of the Chicago Bears to win the last game of the season.
Aaron Rodgers is healthy, and this is obviously a welcome sign for the Packers. And they have something they didn’t have the last two times they squared against the Niners-a formidable run game with Eddie Lacy. Unfortunately, Lacy was heard claiming that he had trouble in the Chicago game because of a numb hand and a problematic leg. Worse still for the Packers, Lacy’s counterpart Frank Gore has had a career year. Both topped 1,100 yards this year.
The weather in Green Bay may be a factor in this game. The bitter Wisconsin cold is a far cry from the temperate weather in San Francisco. The forecast calls for a high of 5 degrees, with a brutal wind chill which will put temperatures in closer to -20. Because of that, the game may turn to a war of attrition, fought outside the air.
Prediction: San Francisco 24-13