It’s Wild Card Weekend in the National Football League. A two-day run that may be the best of the year in all of sports, and one that will send home four of the 12 postseason participants.
Many intriguing questions will be answered by Sunday night, including the following:
Can the Cincinnati Bengals win their first playoff game in 24 years?
Can the San Diego Chargers, the AFC playoff team with one of the worst road records (4-4), defeat the Bengals, the playoff team with the best home record (8-0) in the entire league?
Will the New Orleans Saints shake their own road woes, or will the stain of a 3-5 record away from the SuperDome remain?
Can the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Indianapolis Colts on the road after being beaten soundly by them just two weeks ago at home?
What will the below-freezing temperatures mean for the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers?
|AFC Wild Card
|Kansas City Chiefs||Indianapolis Colts
The Chiefs, at full strength, struggled at home versus the Colts just last month and this time the game is at Indianapolis. I expect Alex Smith to be better than he was December 22 when he managed just 153 yards on 16-for-28, including an interception. The Chiefs did run the ball well in that game — Jamaal Charles ran for 106 yards on just 13 carries — but they couldn’t stop a Colts run game that has otherwise been inconsistent at best.
I don’t see Indy being able to replicate that 135-yard outcome on the ground and the Kansas City defense will most certainly be better creating uncomfortable dropbacks for Andrew Luck — they sacked him just once two weeks ago. It will be close, but I like Andy Reid’s Chiefs to squeak one out on the road.
|NFC Wild Card
|New Orleans Saints||Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles haven’t been great at home this year, winning more games on the road in 2013, but the Saints’ best road win this season came at Chicago October 6. Since that game, New Orleans is 1-5 on the road and have averaged fewer than 17 points per game.
Furthermore, the Saints are 1-21 when playing in temperatures under 40 degrees and it’s slated to sit in the low 30s for kickoff Saturday. Drew Brees, one of the game’s elite quarterbacks, has vastly lesser marks on the road this season, too, including nine of his 12 interceptions, 63 fewer yards per game, a complete percentage that dipped nearly 10 percent and 2.3 yards per attempt fewer.
The Eagles aren’t world beaters — I don’t believe they can win on the road at Carolina or Seattle — but their defense has been a bit better than their overall statistics suggest and their offense is multi-dimensional thanks to running back LeSean McCoy’s NFL-leading 1,607 yards and the quarterback play of Nick Foles.
Brees and company may keep it close, but I like Philly’s ability to run clock late and hold off the Saints.
|AFC Wild Card
|San Diego Chargers||Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have yet to lose at home this year and have been awfully impressive during their 8-0 run at Paul Brown Stadium that includes victories over Green Bay, New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Cincinnati defeated the Chargers 17-10 at San Diego in Week 13 and while I expect more offense this time around, the Bengals defense is terrific in home games and should be able to keep Philip Rivers at bay enough to come out winners.
It’s also noteworthy that the Chargers’ defense allows 4.6 yards per carry and ranks No. 29 in the NFL in pass defense. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green could have big days.
|NFC Wild Card
|San Francisco 49ers||Green Bay Packers
In what is the most intriguing matchup of the weekend, thanks to two storied franchises who have a ton of playoff history against one another, as well as the weather, the absurdly frigid conditions likely favor the team with the best combination of defense and running the football. That suggests the visitors have an edge, but the Packers may be better equipped to deal with the weather and field conditions, and Green Bay can run the ball well with Eddie Lacy, supporting one of the premier passers in the NFL in Aaron Rodgers.
What concerns me with the Packers is their poor defense — versus the run and the pass — and the fact that their best defender, Clay Matthews, will not play. The great equalizer in this game may not be home field advantage, it may be the play of the quarterbacks. Rodgers regularly plays big in big games, while Kaepernick has taken a step back this year. He has, however, lit up the Packers defense twice already in his career, including in Week 1 when the Niners won 34-28 at home.
I like San Francisco here, but there are more variables in this game than any in recent memory, and as a result I wouldn’t be surprised if either team won by a field goal or by three scores.
If the above is 100 percent correct, the divisional matchups will look as follows:
Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014: No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals at No. 2 New England Patriots
Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014: No. 5 Kansas City Chiefs at No. 1 Denver Broncos
Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014: No. 5 San Francisco 49ers at No. 1 Seattle Seahawks
Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014: No. 3 Philadelphia Eagles at No. 2 Carolina Panthers
– Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
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