Will the Pack have any luck slowing down Colin Kaepernick and Co.?
Four of the NFL's final 11 games of the season will occur this weekend in the form of the Wild Card Round. Even while the majority of teams are eliminated, the NFL playoffs remain among the most highly rated sports TV events of the year. Here is complete information on where and when you can catch this weekend's action:
|Chiefs @ Colts||4:35||NBC|
|Saints @ Eagles||8:10||NBC|
|Chargers @ Bengals||1:05||CBS|
|49ers @ Packers||4:40||FOX|
It's impossible to pinpoint what might happen, as the Cincinnati Bengals are the only team that checks in as a clear favorite. But the other three favorites currently sit as 2.5-point favorites, with no real separation from their opponents. The evenly matched games should make for thrilling drama, and here are the keys for those matchups.
Kansas City vs. Indianapolis
One would figure that Kansas City's stars should be refreshed and healthy after last week's de facto bye. There was actually some concern surrounding Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe, though ESPN.com's Adam Teicher reports that Bowe has been cleared to play:
"I'm fine,'' said Bowe, who practiced Tuesday. "I had minor headaches. It was nothing big. The coaches were going to rest me anyway, so I had a good time to rest and recover and be fresh for this game. That was the game plan.
"I didn't feel as bad as other people felt when they had a concussion. I just felt a little tired. There wasn't any dizziness or problems with vomit or none of that stuff. It was mainly just fatigue.''
Kansas City doesn't have many playmakers to combat a Colts defense that has conceded just 20 points the past three weeks. In Week 16, Indy essentially went all-in in limiting Jamaal Charles, seeking to force Alex Smith to beat them with downfield passes. Smith failed, turning it over twice and throwing for just 153 yards.
More importantly for Indianapolis, Andrew Luck has looked much more composed during the team's season-ending three-game winning streak. Luck seemed lost for a long stretch following Reggie Wayne's season-ending injury but has since operated the offense much more efficiently.
This figures to be the weekend's lowest-scoring game, as neither offense has the personnel to exploit the other's defense on a consistent basis. If either quarterback can elevate their game and win the crucial situations on third down and in the red zone, that will likely make the difference.
Philadelphia vs. New Orleans
The Saints offense has experienced some much-ballyhooed struggles on the road. They can ill-afford to repeat their regular-season pattern if they hope to keep up with the Eagles' hyperefficient offense, which sported the league's best ground game during the regular season. New Orleans gave up 4.6 yards per rush, fifth-worst in the league, and doesn't figure to have a ton of success slowing down LeSean McCoy and Co.
Thus, the onus is on the Saints offense to keep up. Despite the alarming home-road splits, it would be folly to dismiss New Orleans solely because of that. The Saints match up extremely well with the Eagles, whose thin secondary does not have the bodies to match up with New Orleans' spread-the-wealth receiving options. Indeed, Sean Payton is rather confident in the unit, regardless of the conditions:
Jimmy Graham should have a huge day and must be especially active in the red zone to ensure the Saints cash in their drives with touchdowns. The Eagles haven't had much success with the league's better ends—they've given up 124 yards to Antonio Gates and 135 yards to Jason Witten. The Eagles simply do not have a coverage linebacker capable of keeping up with Graham.
This is a game of mismatches, and whoever breaks serve will have the advantage.
San Diego vs. Cincinnati
The Chargers may have gotten into the postseason controversially, but they're offensive firepower makes them more dangerous than Baltimore or Miami could have been. And yet, given their defensive deficiencies, it's fairly clear the Chargers are only likely capable of winning a shootout. Indeed, San Diego only won one game in which they scored fewer than 24 points, a 19-9 Week 6 victory over the Colts.
The Bengals are a much more combustible squad, which makes them a good Super Bowl darkhorse, but also a team capable of flaming out this Sunday. Cincy's defense has stabilized after some initial struggles following season-ending injuries to cornerstones Geno Atkins and Leon Hall. They won't shutdown the Chargers offense, but should have spots of success.
That puts the onus on Andy Dalton, whose Jekyll-and-Hyde performance patterns render most predictions about Cincinnati futile. The Bengals like to use the screen game with explosive back Gio Bernard, and getting the ball quickly out of Dalton's hands might help him settle down:
Andy Dalton has thrown a league-high 65.4 percent of his passes in 2.5 seconds or less— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 28, 2013
If Dalton settles into a rhythm, he should have little trouble hitting A.J. Green and Marvin Jones downfield against San Diego's putrid secondary (Eric Weddle notwithstanding). Of course, "if" is always the preoperative word with Dalton, who must finally prove that he can deliver postseason results to a perpetually snakebitten Bengals franchise.
San Francisco vs. Green Bay
Green Bay has lost to San Francisco three times since the beginning of the 2012 season, twice with Colin Kaepernick at the helm. Kaepernick has beaten Green Bay with his legs and his arms, and the Packers defense has never had answers for him. It appears they won't have their best defensive player to help either, as linebacker Clay Matthews has already been ruled out with a thumb injury:
The Packers defense has disintegrated in recent weeks, hemorrhaging yards through both air and ground. In the second half of the season, only the Falcons and Bears allowed more yards per play, per Pro-Football-Reference. The forecast calls for wicked winter conditions, with temperatures as low as -4 degrees Fahrenheit, but the 49ers ground game should make them relatively weather-proof.
With Aaron Rodgers back, Green Bay does have the weaponry to keep up in a shootout with the Niners. Rodgers looked rusty early on, throwing two picks, but returned to his typically accurate, improvising self on the game-winning touchdown to Randall Cobb. Cobb provides a complement to Jordy Nelson in the receiving game that the Packers have missed for months, and according to Sarah Barshop of ESPNWisconsin.com, the receiver felt good after a larger-than-expected workload in Week 17:
According to the NFL official game book, Cobb played 37 of the Packers’ 78 offensive snaps.
“I actually expected to play less,” Cobb said. “In our plan, that (I) was going to be on a snap count, wasn’t going to get as many reps as I would like but the way the game was going, I was feeling good. I actually didn’t take my first hit until that touchdown at the end of the game. I didn’t take any hits up until then so that helped out.”
Green Bay is nearly impossible to defend when Rodgers is in rhythm with his receivers. The Packers will likely need that kind of effort if the 49ers rushing attack exploits the Green Bay defense once again.