NFL Playoffs 2014: Preview and Predictions for Sunday's Wild Card Matchups

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NFL Playoffs 2014: Preview and Predictions for Sunday's Wild Card Matchups
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Two down, two to go. Following Saturday's doubleheader of NFL playoff action, the protected shield will give us another seven-hour block of time to ignore all loved ones. 

Sunday will see two awfully familiar foes do battle. In the early afternoon matchup, the Chargers and Bengals meet up for the first time since Cincinnati's 17-10 victory last month. San Diego turned the ball over three times in that contest, with Philip Rivers turning in one of his worst performances of 2013. Ironically, it was that loss that helped spark the Chargers' improbable four-game run into the postseason.

The 49ers and Packers, meanwhile, will be playing for the fourth time in two calendar years. That's not necessarily abnormal for these two bastion franchises of NFL excellence, but San Francisco comes in holding a three-game winning streak in those battles. Alex Smith started it off before his departure for Kansas City, and Colin Kaepernick has flummoxed the Packers in their last two meetings.

If we've learned anything over these past couple years, though, it's to throw everything out the window we thought we knew. Making the playoffs has merely become a lottery ticket—a 1-in-12 opportunity to hold the Lombardi Trophy. Nothing more, nothing less.

Whether that's the NFL's beloved parity shining strong or just an indicator of widespread mediocrity is irrelevant. Excitement is all that matters, and the NFL product has proven nothing if not edge-of-your-seat thrilling of late.

With that in mind, here's a quick check-in with both Sunday afternoon contests. 

(Spreads via Vegas Insider.)

 

San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals (-6.5)

When: Sunday, Jan. 5 at 1:05 p.m. ET

Where: Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati

Watch: CBS

Stream: CBS Sports Playoff Stream

Welcome to the reckoning of Andy Dalton. Heading into the playoffs, Dalton's situation feels not too dissimilar to Joe Flacco's a year ago. Everyone from the tip of Maine to Los Angeles is debating whether the Bengals can win a Super Bowl with the Red Rifle playing quarterback. While he set franchise records for passing yards and touchdowns in 2013, his high-variance style hasn't lent itself well to the small postseason sample.

In two postseason appearances, he put up Rocky Horror Picture Show numbers: 41-of-72 (56.9 percent), 384 yards, zero touchdowns, four interceptions. It will not surprise you that the Bengals lost both of those games to the Texans—one of which prominently featured T.J. Yates. Even if it was two years ago, losing to Yates isn't something folks easily forget.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"People can keep saying whatever they want because we haven't won a playoff game," Dalton said, via ESPN.com. "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."

The Bengals, in fact, are 0-4 in playoff games under Marvin Lewis. They've lost three of those games by double-digits, averaging a disconcerting 13.5 points per contest. It's always unfair to judge on such a small sample and Cincy's roster has undergone complete overhauls three times in Lewis' tenure, but it's a spotlight everyone knows is shining.

For the Chargers, there are few questions bigger than their defensive woes. San Diego finished dead last in regular-season defensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders, and it wasn't all that close. The Chargers' 17.5 percent rate, which states that San Diego allowed opposing teams 17.5 percent greater offensive value than a replacement-level unit, was more than three percent worse than any other team.

It's not even like they have a strength, either. San Diego ranks 31st against both the run and the pass. Though slightly improved from their midseason nadir, the Chargers will be hoping for a Philip Rivers career day if they have any shot.

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Rivers, about as maligned as Dalton last year, has undergone a career transformation under Mike McCoy this season. He was eclipsed only by Peyton Manning in Football Outsiders' DYAR metric, set a career-high at 69.5 percent completions and propped up a receiving corps whose best player is a rookie—Keenan Allen. In case you're not familiar with NFL history, rookie receivers aren't typically putting together 1,000-yard seasons.

With Cincinnati being without Leon Hall and likely Terence Newman, per NBCSports, in the secondary, it's possible the Chargers could turn this into a shootout. Ryan Mathews put together arguably his best stretch of football during San Diego's four-game winning streak, and Cincy's defense has fallen off against the run without Geno Atkins. 

San Diego has a better chance of winning this than anyone realizes. Just not enough for me to pick them straight-up.

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

Watch: Fox

Stream: Fox Sports Go (restrictions apply)

Every preview of this game tends to delve into a rehashing of past matchups. Of Colin Kaepernick's 181-yard rushing day in the divisional round last season, of his 412-yard passing day in Week 1. Of the way Jim Harbaugh veers hard left every time Mike McCarthy goes right, leading to this hapless situation where Harbaugh is Lucy and McCarthy is Charlie Brown.

All of those past matchups are less concerning to me than the Packers' complete lack of consistency on defense. Regardless of opponent. Remember that team hanging within three percent of San Diego for worst defensive DVOA?

Yeah, that would be the Packers. The Cheeseheads have seen the strong cheddar of years past go by the wayside, replaced by rotting Limburger. They rank in the bottom five against both the run and pass, and it's not even like you can blame Aaron Rodgers' injury for giving opposing teams more opportunities to score. The Packers were 29th in defensive DVOA for Weeks 1-9...and 29th in defensive DVOA for Weeks 10-17. 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

They've been terrible from the outset. With Clay Matthews out after undergoing thumb surgery before Week 17, Kaepernick should only have more room to do, well, pretty much whatever he pleases. Harbaugh has shown an innate ability to know what buttons to push at the right time, so I would be shocked if we didn't see an increased proliferation of Kaepernick read-option keepers on Sunday.

The 49ers have some defensive issues of their own, particularly in the secondary. Carlos Rogers and Eric Wright are both listed as questionable, meaning both will be hobbled even if they suit up. The team re-signed Perrish Cox for the stretch run to deal with these ailments, but there's a reason he's been hot-potatoed around football all season long.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Rodgers should have success through the air, and Eddie Lacy has been so good that I doubt many defenses could hold him out of the end zone. At least no one's as surprisingly mediocre as San Francisco against the run.

Despite the record discrepancy, these teams know each other well and both have warts. Even as Vegas puts San Francisco as 5.5-point favorites on a neutral field (remember, home teams get three points), the result of this contest isn't necessarily preordained.

I'll take the favorites, like I did with Cincinnati, just because Green Bay's warts are a little more glaring. You can survive with a mediocre defense in today's NFL; not a group of 11 blind mice.

Score Prediction: 49ers 34, Packers 27

 

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