The NFL playoffs get underway with the Wild Card Games set to kick off on Saturday, Jan. 4. Four showdowns will help determine the true contenders, moving them closer to the Lombardi Trophy.
Those who proved themselves to be among the league's elite enjoy the luxury of bye weeks, but these upstart postseason clubs are not to be taken lightly. A team can capture momentum with the regular turnaround, utilizing it as fuel to catch fire on a run to the Super Bowl.
Let's take a look at the TV information for the contests on the upcoming slate, along with predictions as to how they will play out.
|Saturday, Jan. 4||Time (ET)||TV|
|Kansas City at Indianapolis||4:35 p.m.||NBC|
|New Orleans at Philadelphia||8:10 p.m.||NBC|
|Sunday, Jan. 5||Time (EDT)||TV|
|San Diego at Cincinnati||1:05 p.m.||CBS|
|San Francisco at Green Bay||4:40 p.m.||Fox|
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Indianapolis Colts
This is an intriguing matchup, because the Colts—true to their 2013 form—went up against this elite foe and beat the Chiefs handily 23-7 in Week 16.
Since starting the season 9-0, Kansas City has struggled in going 2-5 after its bye week. A big reason for that has been the perpetually declining pass rush that made the Chiefs one of the most vaunted defenses in the first half of the season.
NFL.com's Chris Wesseling highlights how much of a drop-off there has been, which has resulted in the team slipping to 24th in total defense:
Justin Houston averaged 1.4 sacks per game through Week 7. Entire #Chiefs D is averaging 1.3 sacks per game since.— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) January 3, 2014
KC yields just 19.1 points per game overall, though, and top sack master Justin Houston (11 sacks in 10-plus games) will return for the first time since Week 12 when he suffered a dislocated elbow, per the Kansas City Star's Terez A. Paylor.
That should make life interesting for Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, whose offensive line is suspect and leaves him susceptible to so many hits despite his exceptional athleticism.
But at least a more judicious Luck is seeking the opportunity to avenge last year's playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton discussed how far Luck has come in his second year, leading a team that has an NFL-low 14 turnovers, per Colts.com's Craig Kelley:
To pinpoint one of the things he’s improved on is when a play breaks down, it’s important that the quarterback position doesn’t compound the problem. I think he better understands and can trust his check-down is going to be at a certain spot, or after two hitches it’s time to pull the ball down, run and get what you can.
That’s one of the many things he’s gotten better at. That’s one of the things that has made a difference for us this season, not exposing the football.
Luck's counterpart, Alex Smith, is not known for being a turnover machine himself, but his last game experience came facing Indy, where he threw for just 153 yards and an interception.
Given how tenuous the Chiefs are on defense, the energy that will pulsate through Lucas Oil Stadium and how locked in the Colts will be, this is bad news for Kansas City.
As long as Indianapolis can at least somewhat limit Chiefs superstar running back Jamaal Charles—easier said than done—it should come down to who has the edge under center. Since Luck is on the home team's side, the Colts get the edge and advance in this one.
Prediction: Colts 27, Chiefs 24
New Orleans Saints vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Even though the current forecast, per Wunderground.com, projects a temperature of 29 degrees in Philadelphia, defense shouldn't be too prominent of a theme.
The Eagles may be inferior on that side of the ball, but they are far more balanced than the Saints are.
New Orleans relies almost exclusively on Drew Brees and the passing attack—which yes, got the team 11 wins, but no, isn't always the most viable option away from the warmth of the Superdome.
LeSean McCoy spearheads Philadelphia's top-ranked rushing attack and is also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. All of that makes life for second-year signal-caller Nick Foles easier.
Credit Foles for his brilliant play, too, because he's accounted for 30 total touchdowns and only tossed two interceptions. Straying away from a dynamic playmaker like Michael Vick is a gutsy move, just the type Eagles head coach Chip Kelly is known for.
It's paid off in the shape of a home playoff game and an NFC East title: So far, so good.
The big difference will be how effective Foles is against the blitz and how that translates to the exotic schemes deployed by New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
Foles was statistically the best when facing at least one extra rusher, per NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano:
From @nflnetwork research: Nick Foles (rating 125.1) was statistically the best QB against the blitz in 2013.— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) January 2, 2014
Ryan has simplified things a bit schematically this season, which has helped his unit turn around from a historic low in 2012. This is the playoffs, though, and Ryan should pull out all the aggressive stops.
Since the Saints' offense often isn't the same away from home, look for Foles' steady hand, Philly's physicality up front on offense and its tempo to drive a crowd-pleasing victory.
Prediction: Eagles 38, Saints 28
San Diego Chargers vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Let's give the visitors some love, shall we?
Mike McCoy has turned the Chargers around enough to make the playoffs in his first year as coach, reviving the perpetually tenuous career of QB Philip Rivers in the process.
Rivers has been lights-out on the road as well, per the NFL on ESPN's official Twitter account:
On the road this season, @Chargers QB Philip Rivers ranks 1st in Comp % (71.5) 2nd in Pass yds (2,496) and 3rd in Pass TD (15).— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 3, 2014
San Diego lost 17-10 to Cincinnati in Week 13—also a turning point for what had been among the league's worst defenses. That surge was most on display in a 27-20 upset win over the Denver Broncos.
Part of why the Chargers were able to knock off the AFC's top seed was not only Rivers' smart decision-making, but also a punishing ground game led by Ryan Mathews.
Bengals rookie Giovani Bernard is exciting, but the lack of a physical back Cincinnati has to pound it between the tackles in the cold could cost it a third consecutive first-round exit.
QB Andy Dalton is coming off a game in which he threw four interceptions. Doing so against these upstart Chargers will result in another one-and-done.
Dalton's doltishness, Rivers' renaissance and McCoy's mystique point to an upset special on Sunday in Paul Brown Stadium.
Prediction: Chargers 21, Bengals 17
San Francisco 49ers vs. Green Bay Packers
Which lower seed has the best chance of winning?
The dual-threat freak of an athlete devastated Green Bay in last year's playoffs, running for 181 yards in San Francisco's win—the most in a single game by a quarterback in NFL history.
Then Kaepernick crushed the Pack from the pocket in Week 1, throwing for over 400 yards and looking like an unstoppable force who would continue to take the NFL by storm.
This hasn't been the case for Kaepernick, who endured somewhat of a slump this year but has recovered nicely over the past four games. However, he doesn't have recent experience in cold weather from which to draw on under this type of pressure.
For the Packers, it's almost a bonus that they're here at all. Aaron Rodgers returned in Week 17 to rescue the Cheeseheads and help win the NFC North at 8-7-1:
The problem is, the Niners are the more complete team who have the tools to stop Lacy, pressure Rodgers and gash the Packers with running back Frank Gore and Kaepernick.
Home-field advantage will seem a bit obsolete by the weekend's end when half of the road teams advance.
Prediction: 49ers 23, Packers 20