The time has finally arrived where we can put behind us the perpetual putridity of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the latest internal strife at Redskins Park and the latest heartbreaking late-season loss in Dallas and focus on actual, good football.
Or at least the closest thing we'll get in this unpredictable NFL season. Like every winter, the springing of a new year on the calendar means a paring down of the protected shield's 32 teams by more than 60 percent, down to the 12 teams who have a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.
By now, we should all have come to the realization that each of these squads has a chance to bear-hug Roger Goodell and kiss the world's most expensive football. Sure, it might seem difficult to envision a world where the Broncos' world-beating offense goes down or one in which the AFC West's third-place team contends for a championship, but I'll be damned if I'm ruling either possibility out.
If Joe Flacco winning a Super Bowl last year while looking like a reincarnated Joe Montana didn't tell you anything is possible, nothing will.
Each of the 12 playoff teams has their inherent flaws, but for now, we'll merely focus on the eight playing this weekend. Starting later Saturday, three-quarters of the qualifiers will be in action, in a series of games that honestly range from appointment television to "well, it's NFL playoff football—I guess I gotta watch."
No matter. The matchups deserve their time in the sun regardless of how we ultimately feel about watching them, so let's take a look at the entire Wild Card Weekend slate and determine the outcome of all four contests.
Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts (PK)
When: Saturday, Jan. 4 at 4:35 p.m. ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis
Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra
It's easy to see why this game was given the unfortunate Saturday afternoon distinction, typically given to the least-appealing of the Wild Card matchups. Neither Kansas City nor Indianapolis brings a massive media market share and the relative entertainment value for the casual fan (points, points, points) is somewhat low compared to San Diego-Cincinnati, which has a similarly smallish market.
This matchup is also familiar because the Colts and Chiefs played just a couple weeks back, when Indianapolis turned in arguably its most dominant performance of the season in a 23-7 win. Alex Smith turned the ball over three times by himself and Knile Davis added a fumble, with the Chiefs coughing it up a season-high four times in their sloppiest performance of the year.
Keep in mind that this game was at Arrowhead, widely considered one of the toughest home stadiums in football. Also, keep in mind that the Chiefs were essentially playing a playoff game. Win and they had a shot at the AFC's top seed and the AFC West crown. Lose and all the glories went to Denver.
So they lost. Hard.
Although it's typically fool's gold to discern too much from a regular-season matchup, there are a few things Indianapolis might be able to carry into Saturday's contest.
The biggest, arguably, is getting pressure on Smith. The Colts brought the Kansas City quarterback down five times, hit him consistently and used pressure as a disruptive force in the offensive ecosystem. Branden Albert was not in the lineup for that contest, and the Chiefs are expected to get him back. But he'll also be playing for the first time in more than a month and without his fellow tackle on the right side, with rookie Eric Fisher ruled out with a groin injury.
Indy's defense isn't great shakes by any means—it ranked 16th in DVOA this season, per Football Outsiders—but the one thing you cannot have is strife in the offensive line. Robert Mathis is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate after posting an NFL-high 19.5 sacks and Jerrell Freeman and Cory Redding are also threats depending on the situation.
The biggest advantage in the Chiefs' favor here is Jamaal Charles, and they could win if he has a big day. Charles was arguably the league's most effective back all regular season, and Indy's 22nd-ranked run defense (per DVOA) isn't exactly awe-inspiring.
But the combination of Andrew Luck and Kansas City's shaky offensive line makes this feel like a steal for the Colts at a pick 'em.
Score Prediction: Colts 21, Chiefs 17
New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles (-2.5)
When: Saturday, Jan. 4 at 8:10 p.m. ET
Where: Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia
Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra
This will not be for the faint of heart. Or, at least those who faint or have their heart clench up when the traditional rules of football are taken, rolled up in a spitwad and thrown right to the back of Mr. Old School's head. There will be fourth-down conversions, odd formations dreamt up in some football mental laboratory and countless plays that make zero sense at first blush.
For non-crotchety, well-adjusted folks like ourselves, this has all the makings of an awesome high-scoring affair.
The Eagles were the best offense in football down the stretch. No, not the best offense in the NFC—the best offense period. DVOA ranks Philadelphia second overall for the season offensively, and over the season's second half Chip Kelly's unit ranked first, barely edging out the Broncos and Patriots. That could come as a surprise to some, who see the gaudy numbers Peyton Manning and Co. were putting up and express skepticism that any offense could be better. But for those paying attention, this has been a long time coming.
Nick Foles, who barely looked worthy of holding a football last season, led the NFL with a 119.2 quarterback rating—the third-best in the history of the NFL. His 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the regular season also set a record, with the lost kid who wasn't "athletic enough" to run Kelly's system doing so to perfection. You have to wonder just how gaudy Foles' statistics would be had he played more than what amounts to 11 games (taking away his early-season appearances, which were negligible).
Still, Foles will be taking on one of the league's most aggressive defenses, an improved, attack-first unit led by Rob Ryan.
"They're a talented group," Foles said, via ESPN. "They're going to mix it up with their coverages. They're going to try to put pressure on you at times and they're going to try to get to you."
Whether the Saints will be able to get to Foles is another question entirely. Philadelphia does an excellent job of getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands early, with Foles being pressured only at a league-average rate despite the Eagles' shaky pass blocking. Ryan also has to be cognizant of LeSean McCoy at all times, whose elusiveness in the backfield could cause a ton of problems.
On the other side, Drew Brees won't have much difficulty finding seams against the Eagles' defense. Philadelphia finished dead last against the pass during the regular season, and though DVOA shows a marked improvement from 29th to 15th in the second half, that's still not good enough to make me think Brees will struggle.
Pierre Thomas' absence will hurt, but that should only increase the team's reliance on Darren Sproles—rarely a bad tradeoff. With the weather at least warming up relative to the worst predictions, one has a hard time seeing either team not approaching 30 points.
Philly gets the nod for one reason: New Orleans has been terrible on the road this season. Bill Barnwell of Grantland did an excellent job of highlighting at least a short-term trend in road struggles for New Orleans, backed up by nearly every metric possible. Eagles win, as your Twitter feed fills up with Kelly #hottakes found by Philly Twitter.
Score: Eagles 34, Saints 31
San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals (-6.5)
When: Sunday, Jan. 5 at 1:05 p.m. ET
Where: Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati
Stream: CBS Sports Playoff Stream
On paper, Chargers-Bengals will be the biggest blowout of the weekend. Cincinnati opened as a touchdown favorite, and while that's dropped down by a half of a point, it's still four points more than any other team is getting. Though, using the standard three-point method, one could say Vegas thinks the 49ers are 5.5 points better than Green Bay. Whatever.
San Diego comes into the playoffs thanks to a four-game winning streak, a heaping pile of luck and some old-fashioned incompetence from an officiating crew. You've all heard ad nauseam—likely from Pittsburgh Twitter—about the missed penalty in the Chargers' 27-24 overtime win over Kansas City that would have sent the Steelers to the playoffs last week.
None of that matters at this point. All we need to look at is who the Chargers are—and how they stack up against what could be an underrated Bengals squad.
The outlook: not as bad as one may think, but still not great. Cincinnati and San Diego are only separated by a few slots in overall DVOA, and there are plenty of reasons to think the Chargers have a real shot on Sunday.
It all starts with Philip Rivers. Maligned at this point last season as someone who could not longer be cited in the franchise quarterback discussion, Rivers came back with arguably his greatest campaign in 2013. He completed a career-high 69.5 percent of his passes, found a burgeoning star at receiver in Keenan Allen and was the second-best quarterback in football behind Manning in numerous metrics.
This comes at a time when the Bengals' secondary is starting to show its signs of wear. Already without top cornerback Leon Hall for the rest of the season, Terence Newman is listed as doubtful with a knee injury. I'm bullish on Marvin Lewis' ability to adjust—he kept the defense afloat without Geno Atkins and Hall already—but it's at least something worth watching.
The reality, though, is that this matchup will come down to what happens on offense. At their peak, the Bengals can score with any team in the NFL. At their nadir, it's like watching a golden retriever try to drive a car—tragic, and almost certain to end in tears.
Andy Dalton is the source of almost all the skepticism. In two playoff games as a pro, Bad Andy has come out to play. He threw four interceptions without a touchdown in two losses to Houston, and it's obvious that the Bengals are starting to hear the noise.
"People can keep saying whatever they want because we haven't won a playoff game," Dalton said, via ESPN. "You've got to win. That's what it comes down to. And for us to get where we want to go, we need to win. That's the way it works. For me, we need to get a win in this one."
Well, Dalton is in luck. San Diego's secondary can nicely be described as inadequate. The Chargers improved in their late-season run from historically bad to merely regular old horrible, but there's just not enough talent here to stop Cincinnati. Especially if Lewis finally gets the hint and sits BenJarvus Green-Ellis for good.
Score Prediction: Bengals 27, Chargers 23
San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers (+2.5)
When: Sunday, Jan. 5 at 4:40 p.m. ET
Where: Lambeau Field in Green Bay
Stream: Fox Sports Go (restrictions apply)
In some ways, this is an entirely unhealthy matchup. Packers players leftover from last year's squad are still probably having night terrors about Colin Kaepernick's record-setting performance in the 2013 divisional round. Luckily, for players who weren't on that team but were on this roster Week 1, they can always have Kaepernick's earth-scorching 412-yard, three-touchdown passing performance to wake up in cold sweats about.
The perception here is that San Francisco has Green Bay's number. Jim Harbaugh has defeated Mike McCarthy three times over two calendar years, and nearly every measurement likes him for a fourth. The 49ers are a 2.5-point favorite despite playing in the frigid Lambeau conditions, and there is no bigger separation between two teams per DVOA than San Francisco's sixth-place and Green Bay's 21st.
And while we have to account for Aaron Rodgers' absence and take all offensive numbers with a dump truck of salt, the Packers' problems aren't on that side of the ball. They're still the third-best offense in football yardage-wise, ranked ninth in DVOA and Pro Football Focus' measurement ranks them sixth. Matt Flynn wasn't great shakes, sure, but Eddie Lacy might win Offensive Rookie of the Year and there's a ton of receiving talent here.
Defense? Not so much. Kaepernick might not have continued his torrid pace past Week 1, but there isn't much reason to think he can't recapture his excellence against this Green Bay defense. The Packers allowed 5.9 yards per play during the regular season, second worst to only the Chargers among playoff teams. They rank in the bottom five against both the pass and run, per DVOA, which is kind of a problem considering those are the two types of plays an offense can run.
What's worse, the Packers will have to raise their game without their best player. Clay Matthews will sit out Sunday while recovering from thumb surgery, stripping Dom Capers of the weapon best-equipped to handle Kaepernick athletically.
The 49ers are undergoing their own defensive injury issues with cornerbacks Eric Wright and Carlos Rogers. But they're also getting Michael Crabtree closer to full health, have a quarterback who didn't miss seven weeks of the season and, frankly, have more talent at a ton of spots.
It shouldn't shock anyone to see the Packers win, but San Francisco is a favorite for a reason.
Score Prediction: 49ers 34, Packers 27
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