January NFL football is only for the elite, as the league's top 12 contenders have survived the grueling regular season and are gearing up for the playoffs.
There was plenty of drama to finalize the postseason picture in Week 17. The San Diego Chargers emerged out of a muddled AFC to claim the No. 6 seed, while the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles punched their ticket to the playoffs by winning their respective NFC divisions.
Now that the playoff field is set, let's take a look at the weekend's entire schedule of wild-card matchups, complete with TV info and predicted winners.
|NFL Wild Card Weekend Schedule|
|Kansas City Chiefs||Indianapolis Colts||Sat., Jan. 4||4:35 p.m.||NBC|
|New Orleans Saints||Philadelphia Eagles||Sat., Jan. 4||8:10 p.m.||NBC|
|San Diego Chargers||Cincinnati Bengals||Sun., Jan. 5||1:05 p.m.||CBS|
|San Francisco 49ers||Green Bay Packers||Sun., Jan. 5||4:40 p.m.||Fox|
No. 5 Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at No. 4 Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
This AFC matchup will kick off the postseason Saturday afternoon in Indy, where the Colts posted a 6-2 home record during the regular season.
These two teams met recently in Week 16, and the Colts used a well-rounded effort to claim a 23-7 victory.
While the Chiefs rested their starters for last week's overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers, the Colts wrapped up the season with three strong wins after battling with inconsistency all season, including in Sunday's 30-10 win versus the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Both teams were at full strength two weeks ago, and not much has changed. As in the original tilt, I suspect the Colts will be able to win with the raised stakes on Saturday.
After starting the season 9-0, Kansas City has just two wins in its past seven contests, with both coming against subpar competition in the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders. Simply put, the Chiefs haven't looked like a playoff team in the second half of the season.
The main reason for the breakdown is the defense. The unit gave up 12.3 points per game during the early-season win streak, but it's allowed an average of 27.7 per contest since. Quarterback Andrew Luck should be able to exploit the Chiefs defense and guide the Colts to the second round of the playoffs.
Prediction: Colts win 28-20
No. 6 New Orleans Saints (11-5) at No. 3 Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
The Eagles barreled down the stretch with seven wins in their final eight games to claim a spot in the playoffs. Philadelphia beat the Dallas Cowboys (sans Tony Romo) in the regular-season finale to win the NFC East crown under first-year coach Chip Kelly.
In the process, the former University of Oregon coach joined rare company, per ESPN's Kevin Negandhi:
The season turned around when Nick Foles took over the reins of the offense, giving Kelly a more traditional dropback quarterback as opposed to the fleet-footed Michael Vick. Kelly proved he didn't need a dual-threat QB to succeed, as Foles put together a monster year (2,891 yards, 27 TDs, 2 INTs) alongside tailback LeSean McCoy (2,146 yards from scrimmage, 11 total TDs) and leading receiver DeSean Jackson (82 catches, 1,332 yards, 9 TDs).
But as Greg A. Bedard of MMQB noted, the team's defensive transformation under new coordinator Bill Davis has been a huge reason for its turnaround after it went 4-12 in 2012. The unit clamped down to give up a respectable 21.4 points per game in the second half, something that doesn't bode well for a mercurial Saints offense.
New Orleans has been hit or miss to finish of the 2013 season. The team blew out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 42-17 Sunday, but it had scored a combined 29 points in the previous two contests, both losses.
Although the Saints have a well-rounded defense that ranked fourth in points allowed this season (19.0), their lack of a consistent running game will haunt them in this playoff matchup. Nick Foles and Drew Brees are comparable at this point, but McCoy gives the Eagles the edge in a game that should come down to the wire.
Prediction: Eagles win 34-31
No. 6 San Diego Chargers (9-7) at No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
Marvin Lewis has never guided the Bengals out of the first round of the playoffs during his 11-year tenure as head coach.
The previous four trips each ended in the Wild Card Round, with 2013 marking the fourth time in five years that the club has reached the postseason. The Bengals are primed to get that monkey off their back against the Chargers, though, as San Diego just squeaked into the playoffs with a win over the second-string Chiefs in Week 17.
Spearheaded by the NFL's leading tackler, Vontaze Burfict (171), Cincinnati ranked first among AFC teams in points allowed (19.1 per game) and yards allowed (305.5 per game). As Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer noted, the 2013 Bengals joined some rarefied air in franchise history:
Though the Chargers have looked good during their current four-game win streak, with running back Ryan Mathews leading the charge on offense, I suspect Cincinnati will stifle the Chargers once again on Sunday.
Prediction: Bengals win 24-13
No. 5 San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at No. 4 Green Bay Packers (8-7-1)
Aaron Rodgers showed up just in time to save Green Bay's season in Week 17, leading a late touchdown drive to propel the Packers to a 33-28 win against the Chicago Bears in a game that decided the NFC North. The Packers were 6-2 this season when Rodgers started and finished games, and they went 2-5-1 without him while he recovered from a collarbone injury.
Rodgers showed why he's one of the league's best in the final minute of Sunday's contest, finding Randall Cobb for this game-winning 48-yard touchdown pass on fourth down:
With the victory, the Packers are now set to host a familiar foe in the 49ers. This will mark the fourth time these two clubs have met since the start of the 2012 season. San Francisco has emerged victorious in each of the three previous tilts, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick playing a central role in the past two wins.
Kaepernick posted an NFL-record 181 rushing yards by a quarterback in the 45-31 win in last year's Divisional Round before throwing for a career-high 412 yards in the 34-28 Week 1 49ers victory this season.
Aside from the recent loss of Mario Manningham (knee), who hasn't contributed much in his two years with the 49ers, San Francisco is also healthier thanks to the recent returns of receivers Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton and Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati.
But it's the menacing San Francisco defense that will be responsible for a 49ers win on Sunday at Lambeau Field. Three of the team's starting four linebackers (Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks) were named to the Pro Bowl, and Aldon Smith is just as talented.
Rodgers and Kaepernick figure to put on some fireworks in this game, but the Niners are more well-rounded and have an edge in the recent series history between these two teams.
Prediction: 49ers win 31-24