NFL Wild Card Weekend Picks: Last-Minute Expert Projections for AFC & NFC Teams
The NFL's second season has begun.
On Saturday, Wild Card Weekend will get underway with games in Indianapolis and Philadelphia. Two more games in Cincinnati and Green Bay will follow on Sunday.
As the march toward Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey gets rolling, here's a look at how football experts from around cyberspace expect this first weekend of the postseason to play out.
Experts' Roll Call
Before we move on to Wild Card Weekend's games, let's take a look at our panel of experts.
ESPN: ESPN's picks are a combination of the selections of 13 experts. Those experts include writers like Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, as well as former players such as Cris Carter and Keyshawn Johnson.
CBS Sports: The CBS Sports picks feature eight writers, including senior NFL columnist Pete Prisco and NFL insider Jason La Canfora.
NFL Network: Melissa Stark and former players Shaun O'Hara and Sterling Sharpe make up this panel.
Bleacher Report: I would be remiss not to include the prognostications of my esteemed colleagues here at Bleacher Report. This year's starting lineup for Bleacher Report's picks team features a combination of national lead writers as well as lead writers covering the NFL's divisions.
There you have it: nearly 40 NFL experts all offering their takes on this week's games.
The B/R experts ended 2013 with a bang, as Week 17 was the panel's best consensus week of the entire season.
Last Week B/R Consensus: 14-2
Season B/R Consensus: 149-82
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
Final Verdict: If we told you that the Kansas City Chiefs lost star running back Jamaal Charles on the first series of their Wild Card matchup with the Indianapolis Colts, you would likely assume the Chiefs were beaten handily.
If we then told you that the Chiefs matched a team record for points in a playoff game by halftime, you would probably assume it was the Colts who were blown out.
Neither of those things happened.
The Chiefs raced to a 31-10 lead at intermission, but Andrew Luck keyed yet another furious second-half comeback by Indy.
The Colts outscored the Chiefs 35-13 in the second half, and the end result was a wild 45-44 win by the home team.
ESPN: Colts (9-4)
CBS Sports: Colts (6-2)
NFL Network: Chiefs (2-1)
Bleacher Report: Colts (9-3)
Overall: Colts (25-11)
The first game of Wild Card Weekend features two teams that met only a couple of weeks ago.
In that Week 16 contest, the Indianapolis Colts, who won the AFC South in 2013, dominated the Kansas City Chiefs 23-7 at Arrowhead Stadium.
That game was part of something of a late swoon for the Chiefs. Kansas City started the season 9-0, but it won only two of its last seven games to close the regular season.
That swoon, and a lack of offensive firepower outside of running back Jamaal Charles, led Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen to side with the majority in picking the Colts to advance:
Jamaal Charles is a star. But is there another player on the Chiefs offense that will impact the Colts' defensive game plan? I don't see it. I'm taking Andrew Luck and the much-improved Indianapolis offense to advance at home.
However, NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse smells an upset brewing:
The Colts won three in a row to the end the season, including a 16-point win over the Chiefs. So why Kansas City now? Jamaal Charles is the best offensive player on either side, and Alex Smith has been in this position before. The Chiefs are also getting healthy at the right time. A 6-2 record away from home this season proves Kansas City can go on the road and win, too.
New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
Final Verdict: If the rest of the playoffs are half as interesting as the first day, this will go down as one of the most exciting postseasons in NFL history.
The New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles may not have put up as many points on Saturday night as the Chiefs and Eagles earlier in the day, but the game was still a thrilling, back-and-forth game that went right down to the wire.
In the end, despite a less-than-stellar first half from quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints were able to drive into position for a 32-yard Shayne Graham field goal as time expired.
The kick sealed a 26-24 win that was the franchise's first-ever road playoff victory.
ESPN: Eagles (9-4)
CBS Sports: Eagles (5-3)
NFL Network: Eagles (2-1)
Bleacher Report: Eagles (8-4)
Overall: Eagles (24-12)
For over a decade now, at least one team in the NFL has gone from the outhouse to the penthouse, rising from the cellar one season to capture its division the next. This year's rags-to-riches story is the Philadelphia Eagles, who won 10 games and captured the NFC East in Chip Kelly's first year as head coach.
This week, the Eagles welcome the New Orleans Saints, who are back in the postseason after missing the playoffs amid the "Bountygate" scandal last year.
Were this game to be played in the climate-controlled comfort of the Superdome, it's likely that the panel's vote would be different, but a pair of late losses cost the Saints the NFC South crown, a first-round bye and home-field advantage.
With the forecast in Philly calling for temperatures in the 20s, Bleacher Report NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon is among the two-thirds of the panel picking the Eagles:
The Saints were just 3-5 on the road this year, while the Eagles have won four straight at home by an average of 17 points. That number is inflated by a 44-point victory in their home finale, but that goes to show how hot this team is. Look for LeSean McCoy to carry the Eagles, doing what Zac Stacy was able to do against this defense a few weeks ago. Drew Brees is still Drew Brees and this is a favorable matchup for the Pro Bowler, but Philly should have enough to win a close game.
NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland, on the other hand, thinks Brees and company will pull one out on the road:
The Saints and Eagles have both been offensive juggernauts this season. Nick Foles has been flawless in his execution, and Drew Brees went over the 5,000-yard passing mark for the third straight season. There’s no question the game will be a high-scoring affair. Yet when it comes right down to it, head coach Sean Payton has more postseason experience than Chip Kelly. Moreover, Brees will torch the Eagles’ porous secondary.
San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
Final Verdict: Move over Tony Romo. You've got company under the microscope.
In his three NFL seasons, quarterback Andy Dalton has led the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs three times. All three times, the Bengals were one-and-done, in large part because Dalton played poorly.
Poor doesn't begin to describe Dalton's second half, which featured three back-breakingly ill-advised turnovers.
The San Diego Chargers cruised to a 27-10 win, and the Bolts will move on to face the Denver Broncos for the third time this season next week.
For the Bengals, it's another playoff disappointment, and an offseason that's going to feature several huge questions looming over the organization.
ESPN: Bengals (10-3)
CBS Sports: Bengals (7-1)
NFL Network: Chargers (2-1)
Bleacher Report: Bengals (12-0)
Overall: Bengals (30-6)
The San Diego Chargers are one of the hotter teams in the NFL. Written off as toast several weeks ago, they reeled off five wins in their last six games to capture the AFC's final wild-card spot.
That's the good news. The bad? That one loss in San Diego's last six games came at the hands of this week's opponent.
Back in Week 13, the Cincinnati Bengals traveled to San Diego and downed the Chargers 17-10. This game will take place in the Queen City, where the Bengals are undefeated this season.
That's one of the reasons why the writers here at Bleacher Report, including AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst, are unanimous in their belief that the Bengals will notch their first playoff win in over two decades Sunday:
The Bengals are undefeated at home and have put up no fewer than 34 points in their last five home games. They already defeated the Chargers once, in Week 13 at San Diego. This win shouldn't be as close. The Bengals have a far better defense and the skills to keep Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense in check. The Bengals will end their playoff win drought that dates back to 1990 on Sunday and finally stop flying under the radar.
However, AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen cautions that the Chargers will likely keep things close:
The Bengals beat the Chargers a few weeks ago, but Andy Dalton had a horrible first half in that game. The Chargers like to control the ball to keep their defense from being exposed, which gives them a chance to win just about any game. Cincy's defense is good enough to keep the scoring down at home, so as long as Dalton doesn't collapse against a bad defense, the Bengals should cruise to victory.
San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at Green Bay Packers (8-7-1)
Final Verdict: Wild Card weekend ended just as it began: with a nailbiter.
Unfortunately for the Green Bay Packers, it also began just like the 2013 regular season: with a loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
The two teams battled both each other and the biting cold in Green Bay, but it was kicker Phil Dawson's 33-yarder as time expired on the Packers' season.
It's the second straight season ended by the 49ers, and the 23-20 San Francisco win is the team's fourth straight against Green Bay.
ESPN: 49ers (12-1)
CBS Sports: Tied (4-4)
NFL Network: Packers (2-1)
Bleacher Report: 49ers (9-3)
Overall: 49ers (26-10)
For one of these teams, the last game of the 2013 season will be the same as the first.
Way back in Week 1, the San Francisco 49ers downed the Green Bay Packers 34-28. However, much has changed since then for both teams.
The 49ers stumbled a bit after that game, losing two straight. Since then, though, the 49ers are 11-2, including victories in their last six games.
The Packers, meanwhile, have been on quite the roller coaster. With Aaron Rodgers sidelined for almost half the season by a broken collarbone, they appeared to be done. However, a combination of stumbles by the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears and Rodgers' Week 17 return paved the way for a wild win over the Bears a week ago that sent the Packers back to the playoffs.
As the two teams gear up for a game that could be among the coldest in NFL history, most of the experts, including Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen, have thrown their support behind the red-hot 49ers:
Jim Harbaugh's club might run the ball 40 times in this game against the Packers defensive front. And why not? Pound the ball with Frank Gore, create play-action opportunities for Colin Kaepernick and limit the explosive plays versus Aaron Rodgers on defense.
With that said, there are some pundits, such as NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter, who feel the Packers will prevail on the (really) frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
"The 49ers have been the better team over the course of the season," Schalter wrote, "but Aaron Rodgers is the better quarterback. There's still a magic about Lambeau in the playoffs."