by Paul West
After another eventful 2013 NFL season, the Wild Card round is here. This week’s matchups feature big names, rematches and potentially game-changing conditions in three of the four games.
Saturday, 4:35PM EST: Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts
The weekend’s first Wild Card game is a rematch from Week 16, in which the Colts forced four turnovers and beat the Chiefs in their own stadium, 23-7. The game wasn’t as lopsided as the score implies–the Colts only out-gained the Chiefs by 59 yards–but the Chiefs lost the turnover battle 4-0, which makes it hard to win an NFL game. This isn’t likely to happen again; the Chiefs finished the regular season with a +18 turnover margin, and quarterback Andrew Luck, despite his obvious abilities, has a tendency to force balls into traffic and can be interception-prone. The Colts have also shown a troubling tendency to give up early leads, which could be a problem against a team that runs the ball like the Chiefs can. If the Colts go in the hole early, the Chiefs might pound the ball with Jamaal Charles and shorten the game. This would pressure Luck to play high-risk ball, and might playing into the hands of a defense that changed a lot of games before injuries befell them around midseason.
Speaking of injuries, just when it seemed like the Chiefs’ defense was getting healthier, linebacker Tamba Hali has been held out of this week’s practices due to swelling in his knee. Meanwhile, the Colts’ offense has been more erratic since the loss of Reggie Wayne in October, which means the Colts will have to rely on a balanced run-pass attack to spread out the defense and spring T.Y. Hilton from the slot.
Aside from the turnover battle, a key factor to watch will be the play of Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. Smith has shown flashes of brilliance in his time in Kansas City; when he’s at his best, he’s patient, accurate and surprisingly versatile. He can occasionally use his legs to move the chains, and playing in the Indianapolis dome will make it easier for him to get the offense into a rhythm. If Jamaal Charles and the running game are as effective as can be expected, Smith can get comfortable and the Chiefs might put up a lot of points.
Prediction: 27-24, Chiefs
The Colts tend to give up early leads, but they can score in bunches and will be hard to put away. The key for the Chiefs will be to keep pace early, control the tempo of the game and take advantage of Andrew Luck’s tendency to give the defense chances. Luck’s dual-threat ability will keep them in the game, and T.Y. Hilton might sneak in a deep strike. But the Chiefs will hang on.
Saturday, 8:10PM EST: New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles
One of the first things that comes to mind when considering this matchup is the weather. While it isn’t predicted to be as cold as Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field, Saturday’s high temperature in Philadelphia is predicted to be 26 degrees. Of course, the actual game won’t begin until well after sundown, which means the gametime temperature might be somewhere in the teens–and the windchill will be worse than that. This doesn’t bode well for the Saints, a pass-happy dome team that hasn’t fared well in frigid temperatures. As if that wasn’t enough, leading rusher Pierre Thomas has been ruled out for the game, having been injured in the season finale against Tampa bay. Thomas will be badly missed; along with his team-leading 549 rushing yards, he had 77 receptions for 513 yards and helped diversify the Saints’ attack. Without him, the Saints will be forced to lean heavily on dual-threat running back Darren Sproles, who’s been banged up all season. Of course, the real engine of the Saints’ offense is their record-setting quarterback, Drew Brees, who will have to manage conditions that are nothing like the well-managed confines of the Superdome. The good news for the Saints is that the Eagles’ 32nd-ranked pass defense gives up almost 300 yards per game, which means there’s always a chance of Brees, Jimmy Graham & company putting up a lot of points.
On the other side of the ball, Eagles’ quarterback Nick Foles has been both exciting and reliable, throwing 27 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions all season. The Eagles also have the explosive LeSean McCoy, who led the NFL in rushing yards and is one of the most dangerous all-purpose threats in the NFL. This will make things hard for the Saints’ defense, a ball-hawking squad that can give up lots of yardage but is capable of creating turnovers and big defensive plays.
The biggest variable to watch for in this game might be the weather. It may seem counter-intuitive, but snowy conditions can facilitate high scores, as offensive players know where they’re going and defenders have to react with diminished traction. Shifty, explosive players like Sproles and McCoy could turn this game into a shootout if the field is a slip-n-slide. But if the stadium goes into a deep freeze and icy conditions prevail, McCoy and Foles’ underrated athleticism could create one or two game-changing plays amid a lot of slow-moving pileups.
Prediction: 34-28, Saints
While the Saints haven’t got a strong history in frigid conditions, the Eagles’ defense is too weak against the pass to put a lid on the Saints for four quarters. Brees and the Saints’ offense got back into a good groove in Week 17, which means they’ll have restored confidence and timing going into the playoffs. The field should be cleared out enough by Saturday evening, so an icy slog is unlikely. The Saints’ experience, the Eagles’ poor pass defense and Jimmy Graham’s matchup problems should give New Orleans the edge.
Sunday, 1:05PM EST: San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals
When considering this matchup, it bears noting that the Cincinnati Bengals haven’t lost a game at home this season. It also bears noting that the Chargers’ entry into the playoffs was dubious, to say the least. In a Week 17 must-win game against the Chiefs’ second string team (Kansas City sat 22 of its 24 starters for the game), San Diego benefited from two blown calls, one of which the NFL officially admitted was blown, as well as a missed 41-yard walkoff kick at the end of regulation by the normally reliable Ryan Succop. They overcame an early ten point deficit to win in overtime, to the consternation of both purists and Pittsburgh Steelers fans. They enter the Wild Card weekend playing with house money and a sense of new life, and quarterback Phillip Rivers gets to continue what’s been one of his strongest seasons to date.
Meanwhile, the Bengals have a lot of firepower and a lot to prove. Head coach Marvin Lewis has still never coached his team to a playoff victory, and the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. Quarterback Andy Dalton has become known as much for his inconsistency as anything, but when the Bengals’ offense is clicking, it’s downright scary. They have two legitimate threats at wide receiver, a ground-pounding running back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a dynamic dual-threat running back in Giovani Bernard, and the ability to put up points in bunches. When Dalton seems comfortable in the pocket, he’s a confident, accurate gunslinger who can make the Bengals’ offense look like a video game.
With much of the country in the grip of a deep freeze, gametime conditions have been a much-discussed factor. The Bengals playing the Chargers in Cincinnati is a particularly historic matchup, where this factor is concerned: in 1982, the Ken Anderson-led Bengals defeated Dan Fouts’ Air Coryell team in the AFC Championship game in wind chills that bottomed out at -59 degrees. The Chargers had just won one of the greatest games in NFL history in Miami, and seemed Super Bowl bound, until their warm-weather air aerial assault was grounded by one of the coldest games in history. This year’s Chargers are not nearly as historic, nor are the conditions going to be as absurd; in fact, it likely won’t even be the coldest day of the weekend. Chargers’ quarterback Phillip Rivers is 9-2 in his career in games where the temperature is 40 degrees or lower, and it won’t likely be cold enough to neutralize the Chargers’ offense.
The primary variable in this game is the Bengals’ ball-hawking, big-play defense. The Rivers-era Chargers have been known to drop the occasional head-scratcher, finding stunning ways to lose games and playing surprisingly poorly when in positions to take control of their destiny. If they start the game out of sync, the Bengals’ defense could not just create turnovers but put points on the board.
Prediction: 35-17, Bengals
Despite being occasionally baffling, the Cincinnati Bengals are a scary team to face at home. The Chargers are playing with house money, but they also appear to be playing on borrowed time. They’ll have to play at the top of their game, and the Bengals will have to lay an egg, for the Chargers to pull off the upset.
Sunday, 4:40PM EST: San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
Just when you thought it was safe, the Green Bay Packers seem to be getting healthy and in sync. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers came back from a broken collarbone in last week’s division-clincher, shaking off early rust to look like his old self. As if that wasn’t enough, slot receiver Randall Cobb not only seemed to return to form, but he caught the game-winning bomb from Rodgers in the game’s final minute. Still not impressed? The Packers also have Jordy Nelson, who’s finally being recognized as an elite wide receiver and helped carry the offense while the team was decimated. The Pack is back, they’re playing at home, and their 8-7-1 record should be disregarded when considering their threat potential.
Of course, the 12-4 49ers are also a bona-fide threat. The defending NFC Champions have a balanced array of weapons on offense, and their defense can pressure the quarterback and create turnovers. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, after bursting on the scene and taking his team to the 2013 Super Bowl, is a dynamic dual threat. Despite playing in California, the Niners are well suited for playing in cold conditions: they’re defensively strong, and the can dominate the line of scrimmage and control the tempo by running the ball. This should neutralize the advantage that Lambeau’s projected conditions (which is to say, weather in which most people would prefer to be inside) would give the Packers against most teams.
The x-factor to watch in this game is the running game of the Packers. Rodgers, Cobb and Nelson are as dangerous a trio as there is in the NFL, but they’re even more dangerous when the Packers’ running game keeps defenses honest. Bruising rookie running back Eddie Lacy is among the league’s leaders in yards after contact, and veteran running back James Starks has surprised a lot of people with his performance as a roleplayer. If the Packers can run the ball effectively, it will be harder for the Niners’ defense to pressure the pass. This could mean a big day for Rodgers and company.
Projection: 27-20, Packers
The Packers’ defense already has trouble against the pass, and with linebacker Clay Matthews recovering from thumb surgery, their job won’t be any easier. But the Packers have a Rookie of the Year candidate at running back, bona-fide #1 receivers in the slot and at wideout, and arguably the best quarterback in football. Combined with home-field advantage, this should be enough.