There are some truly excellent matchups in the Wild Card Round of the 2013-14 NFL playoffs.
Two of the league's most exciting offense square off. There's a rematch from last year's NFC divisional playoffs. And in the AFC we get two rematches from the regular season, with the top seeds prevailing in those contests.
It's all enough to make an NFL fan just giddy. Without further ado, let's break down all four Wild Card contests.
New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles
If you were only to look at recent form, the Eagles would be the obvious pick. While they were winning seven of eight down the stretch, the Saints limped into the playoffs after a 2-3 stretch after starting the year 9-2.
If you looked at home and away records, you'd probably pick the Eagles as well. While they weren't particularly good to start the season at home (0-4), they've since won four straight in Philadelphia. And you just know that Philadelphia crowd will be whipped into a frenzy and will make life very difficult for Drew Brees when he tries to audible at the line.
As dangerous as the Saints are offensively, the Eagles are actually statistically better, with more yards (417.3 to 399.4) and points (27.6 to 25.9) per game. And while the Saints have been better defensively, the Eagles will bring the league's No. 1 rushing attack against the Saints No. 19 run defense.
Of course, New Orleans counters with the No. 2 passing attack against the league's worst statistical pass defense, so a shootout seems almost guaranteed.
That fact wasn't lost on Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis:
DC Bill Davis scouts the Saints: This offense is so efficient because of Drew Brees' precision.— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) December 31, 2013
Few teams have been able to slow down the Eagles running game, but taking DeSean Jackson out of the game will be a key for the Saints. They absolutely cannot allow the big play to beat them and will want to force Foles to consistently beat them with Riley Cooper or the tight ends, not long shots down the field to Jackson.
For the Eagles, finding a way to contain Jimmy Graham (86 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns) will be vital. Brees and the passing game will move the ball, no doubt about that, but if the Eagles can contain Graham and stifle the running game, they can force Brees into obvious passing downs and ratchet up the pressure.
The Saints would do well to take a page out of the Dallas Cowboys game plan against the Eagles. Philly managed just 27 points in two meetings with the Cowboys, so Dallas did something right.
It's hard to bet against Brees and Graham, but this just feels like a Philly win. This is a team that has really embraced Chip Kelly's system and has executed it beautifully down the stretch, and the Saints' struggles on the road seem destined to continue with a rowdy Philly crowd breathing down their necks.
Prediction: Eagles win, 30-27
San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
The initial impression of most folks will be a Niners win in this contest. San Francisco has won six straight and 11 of their last 13, beat Green Bay in Week 1 and come into the game with the No. 3 defense in points allowed and the No. 5 defense in yards allowed.
Oh, and let's not forget their No. 3 rushing offense facing Green Bay's No. 25 run defense. This has all the makings of a traditional Niners win, with them running the ball down the throats of the Packers and making every inch a battle for Green Bay's offense.
Ah, but there is the Aaron Rodgers factor.
Green Bay is 6-2 with him under center, and Randall Cobb returned last week as well, meaning the team's dangerous passing attack is almost entirely intact. If Rodgers could lead the Packers past the Bears in his first game action since early November, what can he do in his second game back?
The key in this game will be turnover differential. The Niners were plus-12 in that regard this season, tied with Philadelphia at fourth in the NFL, and for all of the talk that Colin Kaepernick regressed this year, he certainly doesn't turn the ball over much (eight interceptions).
But if Green Bay can force a few turnovers and turn them into points, that offense can run and gun right past the Niners.
Still, both on paper and in practice, the Niners are just the better team. Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle shares this key stat:
And much like he did when these teams played in last year's playoffs (181 rushing yards, two touchdowns), don't be surprised to see Kaepernick utilize more of the read-option than we've generally seen from the Niners and have a big game on the ground.
Prediction: Niners win, 28-20
San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals
For as dangerous as the Chargers are on offense—fifth in yards per game—it's hard to see the Bengals losing this game.
They finished 8-0 at home on the season. They beat the Chargers, in San Diego, in Week 13, 17-10. They have the defense—third in yards allowed per game, fifth in points per contest—to stifle Philip Rivers and company. And even after losing key defensive players like Geno Atkins and Leon Hall, they've proven to have the depth to overcome such big losses.
The key for Cincinnati will be the play of quarterback Andy Dalton, at times excellent and at times dreadful this season. But Bengals fans will surely be relieved to see how much better he fares at home as opposed to on the road:
|Andy Dalton 2013 Stats|
Against San Diego's 29th-ranked pass defense, Dalton will likely be given the go to let it rip quite a bit. If he doesn't turn the ball over, the Bengals have the weapons on offense (A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard) to put up points and the defense to stifle their opponent's dangerous offense as they did in Week 13.
San Diego won't go down without a fight—remember, it won five of six to get into the playoffs, including wins over Kansas City (twice, though in Week 17 the Chiefs rested most of their starters) and Denver Broncos—but the Bengals aren't in the habit of losing at home.
Prediction: Bengals win, 28-17
Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts
This is the hardest game to get a handle on. In Week 10, this would have been a no-brainer selection to pick the Chiefs, which won their first nine games. But since then the team has gone 2-5 and lost at home to the Colts in Week 16, 23-7.
A season ago, you might have said the Colts reached the playoffs due to an easy schedule and the element of surprise after being 2-14 in 2011. Not so this year, as they beat the Niners, Seattle Seahawks, Broncos and Chiefs this year, finishing 4-2 against teams that reached the postseason.
It's hard to give the Colts a huge edge at home, too. While they were 6-2 in Indianapolis, the Chiefs were 6-2 on the road. So while the Colts will be pleased to play this game in front of their fans, the Chiefs travel well enough to make things interesting.
The key for the Colts in their Week 16 win came down to two factors—their running game and Chiefs turnovers. The Colts rushed for 135 yards and managed to dominate in time of possession, 38:20 to 21:40, though that was aided by four Chiefs turnovers.
The Colts did well to keep the Chiefs limited in the passing game, giving up just 132 yards through the air. Truthfully, the Chiefs want to win by playing solid defense and running the ball anyway—outside of Jamaal Charles, the team isn't exactly stocked with talent at the skill positions—so they'll hope to mulligan that performance.
Of course, the dirty little secret of the Chiefs has been that the defense just isn't playing all that well of late.
After holding their first 10 opponents to 17 points or less, they've done it just once since. That's bad news against Andrew Luck, who has continued to develop in his second season, and his cast of young and underrated skill players.
This game will be tight—and it's pretty hard to forecast in general—but expect the Colts to sneak away with a win.
Prediction: Colts win, 24-20