The unpredictable nature of the Wild Card Round of the NFL playoffs is what makes it one of the more exciting weeks of the postseason. The stakes are the lowest, but that doesn't mean we won't see good, hard-fought games this weekend.
Sunday's action features the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals in the early game (1:05 p.m. ET). The San Francisco 49ers then face the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in what is perhaps the marquee matchup of the weekend.
Let's take a look at whose Super Bowl hopes will still be alive after the Wild Card Round.
No. 5 Kansas City Chiefs at No. 4 Indianapolis Colts, Saturday, Jan. 4 at 4:35 p.m. ET on NBC
When these teams matched up in Week 16, the Colts held the Chiefs scoreless after the latter scored on their first drive. It's hard to imagine the Chiefs can get much worse than that, as they'll likely look to use Jamaal Charles in their offensive attack to a greater degree. (He had only 13 carries in that game, but still managed to rush for 106 yards.)
The biggest concern is the Chiefs' clear inability to beat top teams. It's hard to feel confident in a team that's 1-5 against teams with winning records; that lone victory came against the Eagles in Week 3, thanks to Michael Vick still controlling his team's offensive fate.
The bottom line is that Kansas City has yet to show the ability to compete against playoff-caliber teams. Their ability to beat the teams they should beat in the regular season will pay no dividends in the playoffs.
Additionally, the Colts smothered the Chiefs' offense in their lone matchup, and the latter's defense has allowed an average of 27.8 points in their last six games. With Andrew Luck heating up a bit (eight touchdowns, one interception in the last four weeks), the Colts should not have trouble scoring points.
It all adds up to a win for the Colts on Saturday.
The pick: Colts 20, Chiefs 16
No. 6 New Orleans Saints at No. 3 Philadelphia Eagles, Saturday, Jan. 4 at 8:10 p.m. ET on NBC
This game would be a whole other story if it were taking place in New Orleans. The Saints aren't quite as invincible on the road, however, as their 3-5 record indicates. However, thanks to their 8-0 home record, they're in this game, and they still have a legitimate shot to win.
One thing is for sure: This game will feature a lot of scoring. The Eagles secondary is simply atrocious (32nd in the NFL in opponent passing yards), which bodes well for Drew Brees. The Saints quarterback is coming off a four-touchdown performance, his second in four weeks.
The Eagles offense has been rolling lately too. They've lost only once since Week 8, thanks to Nick Foles' MVP-caliber play.
However, one important detail of the Eagles' hot streak is that their wins aren't coming against playoff teams. Of their seven wins (in the last eight games), only one win, against Green Bay in Week 10, was against a playoff team. Also, that win came against a Packers team with Scott Tolzien behind center, which is a bit different than having Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.
So, while the Eagles are one of the NFL's hottest teams, they haven't been beating the NFL's top teams. They did beat the Arizona Cardinals in Week 13, a team that is certainly of playoff caliber, but their other five wins came against the Cowboys, Bears, Lions, Redskins and Raiders, whose combined record is 30-50. Plus, they lost to the 5-10-1 Minnesota Vikings.
The Eagles' lackluster secondary, combined with Brees going into the playoffs with some momentum, spells trouble for Philadelphia. Also, don't forget, Brees has plenty of playoff experience.
According to FOX Sports, in nine career playoff appearances, Brees has 22 touchdown passes, four interceptions and a 104 passer rating. While many of those games were played in the domed confines of the Superdome, Saturday's game doesn't call for precipitation, which means Brees should be just fine.
Expect this game to come down to whoever has the last possession.
The pick: Saints 38, Eagles 35
No. 6 San Diego Chargers at No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Jan. 5 at 1:05 p.m. ET on CBS
The Chargers have a dangerous offense, as they're averaging just over 29 points per game during their current four-game winning streak.
But that high-powered offense should be no match for the Bengals, who own the best defense in the AFC. Thanks to Defensive Player of the Year candidate Vontaze Burfict, and the solid play of the secondary, no team has allowed fewer yards in the AFC this year than the Bengals.
Also, don't forget, the Chargers' loss that came right before their winning streak was a defeat to the Bengals in San Diego. In that game, the Chargers looked lost offensively, compiling only 91 rushing yards while turning the ball over three times. To make matters worse, the game on Sunday is in Cincinnati, where the Bengals are 8-0 this year.
Furthermore, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been terrific lately, his four-pick Week 17 performance notwithstanding. He had nine touchdown passes without an interception in Weeks 14-16, and he has accounted for 13 touchdowns (11 passing, two rushing) in the past four weeks.
If the Dalton-A.J. Green connection heats up, this team will be hard to stop. Don't sleep on their chances to contend for the Super Bowl.
Overall, this should be a close game, but the Bengals simply won't lose at home.
The pick: Bengals 24, Chargers 20
No. 5 San Francisco 49ers at No. 4 Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Jan. 5 at 4:40 p.m. ET on FOX
The 49ers have dominated defensively this year, but this game will be a true test for their offense. After all, it would be unreasonable to expect the Niners to limit Aaron Rodgers in this game, so Colin Kaepernick and Co. will need to pick up the slack a bit.
This holds true in large part because of San Francisco's somewhat lacking secondary. Carlos Rogers, normally one of their better cornerbacks, hasn't looked like his true self this year. The condition of his hamstring is also questionable for Sunday's game.
Also, according to Eric Branch of SFGate, the Niners allowed 755 passing yards in the final two games of 2013. That was their most in back-to-back regular-season games since 2005.
Despite some concerns, the 49ers still have one of the best defenses in the NFL. Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks will make life difficult for Rodgers over the middle of the field, and a defensive line that includes Justin Smith and Glenn Dorsey should bottle up the run, as they've done all season.
Even one of the NFL's best quarterbacks should struggle against the 49ers' dominant 3-4 defense. While Rodgers will likely be able to sneak in some deep plays to his variety of weapons at wide receiver, the Niners will be able to focus on defending the pass because of their ability to stop the run. (They're fourth in the NFL in opponent rushing yards.)
But here's the real interesting statistic: For all the attention on Lambeau Field's frigid conditions, Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick has played one game this season in sub-40 degree weather. That game was against the Redskins, and Kap had three touchdowns and a 134.6 passer rating. In fact, the whole team played well, as the Niners won 27-6.
Granted, the Redskins are significantly worse than the Packers, but the Niners have at least shown they are capable of winning is cold weather. Lambeau will be chillier, but that only gives the Niners, with their dynamic rushing attack, an advantage over the Packers' pass-happy offense, especially in the absence of Clay Matthews.
The pick: 49ers 31, Packers 24
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