The NFL playoffs promise no shortage of intrigue. There isn't one team, even among those enjoying a bye for the first round, that stands clearly above the rest heading into the postseason. In other words, the eventual Super Bowl champion could very well be in action this weekend.
Sure, the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks are the rightful favorites in their respective conferences, but both teams had hiccups down the stretch and are far from unbeatable. It's a situation just like last season with the Baltimore Ravens, where a team can get hot in the Wild Card Round and make a run.
Knowing that, let's take a closer look at each of the four matchups on tap for the opening round of postseason play and make predictions for which teams will keep their Super Bowl dreams alive for at least one more week.
Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts
The single biggest advantage either team holds in this game is Jamaal Charles. The Chiefs' dynamic running back should find plenty of holes against an Indianapolis defense which ranks 26th against the run. When these teams played in Week 16, a Colts win, Charles had 106 yards on just 13 carries.
Kansas City should have learned a lot from that game. It attempted 28 passes as compared to just over a dozen carries for Charles and Knile Davis combined. Jason Whitlock of ESPN clearly thinks the Chiefs will bounce back from that lackluster performance after resting players in Week 17:
Andy Reid's record after a bye is incredible. I'm calling Sunday a bye. Chiefs roll the Colts. #payyourmortgage— Jason Whitlock (@WhitlockJason) December 31, 2013
The Chiefs must come out with a far more run-centric approach in the rematch. That should allow them to control the pace of the game on the road while also giving Charles more chances to make game-changing plays. If they stick with that game plan, they will get the win.
Prediction: Chiefs 24, Colts 20
New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia enters the playoffs as one of the league's hottest teams. It won seven of its last eight games, including the last two to secure a playoff berth. The same can't be said for the Saints, which lost three of their last five contests to close out the regular season.
Which teams will advance on Saturday?
The most worrisome thing about that for New Orleans is how the losses occurred. All three were on the road, and the team's normally high-powered offense averaged just 12 points. Facing a weak Eagles secondary will help, but that probably won't be enough.
That's because the Eagles can match the Saints' passing attack by picking up their tempo but have the added edge of being able to run the ball. This game could be a shootout for three quarters, at which point Philadelphia will turn to LeSean McCoy against a worn-down Saints defense to get the victory.
Prediction: Eagles 31, Saints 28
San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals
Look no further than the Bengals for a sleeper Super Bowl team. Cincinnati has the best defense—by far—in the AFC and has enough playmakers on the offensive side of the ball to come up with points in those always crucial fourth-quarter possessions.
The only question mark is whether Andy Dalton can limit his mistakes. He tossed 20 interceptions during the regular season, and while the third-ranked defense will be able to bail him out to a certain extent, consistent turnovers would doom Cincinnati's otherwise promising chances.
Dalton believes the team chemistry will help (via Nick Hurm of The Cincinnati Enquirer):
"I think it helps having a lot of the same guys back from the teams the last couple of years, guys that understand that we've had an opportunity that we haven't taken advantage of," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "I think all that is going to help us going in this year. The staff, the players being the same, we have that extra year of experience, knowing what to expect going in and it’s going to help us out."
Luckily for the Bengals, San Diego ranks 29th in passing yards allowed and also checked in near the bottom of the NFL with just 11 interceptions. Add in the fact Dalton's passer rating was nearly 18 points higher at home, and Cincinnati should find a way to move on.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Chargers 17
San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
Now that Aaron Rodgers is back in the mix, the Packers are clearly more dangerous than their 8-7-1 record would suggest. That said, facing a 49ers team with an elite defense that made it all the way to the Super Bowl last season is a tough draw, even with home-field advantage.
Which teams will advance on Sunday?
While San Francisco likely won't be able to completely stop Rodgers and his myriad of weapons, the 49ers are better built to win close games, which this will be. The trio of NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Frank Gore is a perfect recipe for second-half success, especially in cold weather.
Ultimately, this game feels like one that will be decided by a late field goal. Look for Phil Dawson, who's connecting at nearly a 90 percent clip this season, to convert, followed by the 49ers defense getting the final stop they need to reach the divisional round.
Prediction: 49ers 30, Packers 28