Although plenty can happen in Week 17 to shake up the NFL playoff picture, it should come as no surprise that many fans are already looking ahead. With several tantalizing postseason matchups potentially on tap, it's quite difficult to pump the brakes.
This NFL season has been one of the most tightly contested campaigns in recent memory, which means that the playoffs should be no different. Several high-quality teams won't have the benefit of a first-round bye, which will make the Wild Card Round extremely interesting.
Here is some further analysis regarding possible Wild Card Round matchups that will have football fans buzzing should they come to fruition.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Green Bay Packers
It seems like ages ago since the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Green Bay Packers 34-28 in Week 1 of the 2013 NFL season, and there is no doubt that plenty has happened to both teams ever since.
The Niners have had their ups and downs, but they once again look like Super Bowl contenders. The Packers have mostly been down due to the absence of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but he is back in the fold and will start for the Pack in Week 17 against the Chicago Bears, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Packers announced Aaron Rodgers will start Sunday.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 26, 2013
Rodgers' return is obviously huge for Green Bay as it faces a playoff play-in game against Chicago. Per SportsCenter, Rodgers' return has resulted in a 7.5-point swing in the spread:
Crazy stat of the day: The Packers are a 3-point favorite at Chicago with Aaron Rodgers starting. Without, they'd have been 4.5-pt underdog.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 27, 2013
The Packers have managed to hang in there without Rodgers due to the incompetence of the Bears and Detroit Lions, but the former NFL and Super Bowl MVP is ready to step back into the fire, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
It's been a difficult process for me, thinking I was going to have a chance every week and then obviously the medical decision based on what we saw, and then the organization with the ultimate call. I was hopeful that this opportunity would come up, but I know there's no guarantees in this business.
If Green Bay beats the Bears in Week 17 and San Francisco remains in the No. 5 seed, the teams will meet in the playoffs for the second straight year. Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick has made life miserable for the Packers over the past two seasons, and he is really starting to round into form. At the same time, Rodgers' return would most definitely give Green Bay a fighting chance.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Indianapolis Colts
Essentially all of the focus in the AFC this season has been on the Denver Broncos. It is for good reason since Peyton Manning and the Broncos have enjoyed a fantastic season, but some team in the AFC is bound to challenge them come playoff time. The New England Patriots are a definite possibility, but that challenge could also come from the winner of the game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs, assuming it ultimately happens.
As of right now, the Colts are the No. 4 seed, while the Chiefs are locked in as the No. 5 seed. Coincidentally, the teams met in Week 16 with the Colts surprisingly steamrolling past KC by a score of 23-7 in Kansas City. Most expected the Chiefs to win due to the Colts' recent struggles, but that wasn't the case. Truth be told, the Colts' regular-season resume measures up with basically any team in the league, as pointed out by ESPN's Trey Wingo:
Will the Colts be a force in the playoffs? Have wins in reg season over Broncos, Chiefs, Niners and Seahawks— trey wingo (@wingoz) December 22, 2013
The Colts haven't exactly been the same team without wide receiver Reggie Wayne; however, quarterback Andrew Luck is coming into his own, and Donald Brown has provided Indy with a viable running game as well.
Despite the fact that their meeting in Week 16 was one-sided, it's likely that the Colts and Chiefs will play a tighter game should they meet again in the playoffs. Indianapolis would almost certainly be favored at home, but it would be difficult count out the Chiefs considering how well running back Jamaal Charles is playing.
New Orleans Saints vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Which potential playoff matchup would be the most entertaining?
As difficult as it is to believe, the New Orleans Saints would be the No. 6 seed in the NFC if the playoffs started today. It can easily be argued that the Saints would be the most dangerous No. 6 seed in NFL history, which means the No. 3 seed would have their hands full.
Provided New Orleans remains in its current position, it will meet the winner of the NFC East in the first round of the playoffs. The Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys will play for the division in Week 17, and Philly seems to have the upper hand due to its recent play.
A clash between the Eagles and Saints in the playoffs would be something special since they are two of the best offensive teams in the league. New Orleans is always dangerous under head coach Sean Payton, especially when quarterback Drew Brees is locked in. Although Brees has struggled a bit in recent weeks, he is still an elite signal-caller.
The Eagles offense hasn't been exactly what most expected under first-year head coach Chip Kelly, but it is potent and figures to produce Philly's first rushing champion since 1949 in the form of LeSean McCoy, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
LeSean McCoy: trying to be 1st Eagles RB to lead NFL in rushing yards since Steve Van Buren in 1949— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 24, 2013
That type of offensive contrast is exciting to think about, and it would undoubtedly lead to a fun chess match between two of the best offensive minds in the sport. Payton and Kelly are offensive innovators, and they will most definitely do some special things come playoff time.
Playing in the elements would seemingly give the Eagles the advantage, especially since New Orleans has struggled away from home, however, the Saints can never be counted out.
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