NFL Wild Card Playoffs: What to Watch for in Sunday's Games
With the first day of the 2014 NFL playoffs already in the books, it is time to turn our attention to Sunday's slate of wild-card action.
In the early game, the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals will play host to the sixth-seeded San Diego Chargers.
In the late afternoon, the NFC North champion Green Bay Packers will host the NFC's fifth seed, the San Francisco 49ers.
While the only thing that ultimately matters in these games is the final score, there are a number of individual matchups that could go a long way toward determining the outcomes.
Over the next few pages, we will examine a few of these matchups that are worth watching as Sunday's action unfolds.
How Does Philip Rivers Stack Up Against the Bengals Secondary?
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers put together one of the best statistical seasons of his career in 2013. He passed for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions. He shredded numerous defenses along the way.
How will Rivers fare against the Cincinnati Bengals' fifth-ranked pass defense? If Cincinnati has its way, Rivers won't perform too well.
Despite suffering a number of injuries on the back end of the defense—including a season-ending one to starting cornerback Leon Hall—the Bengals allowed just 209 yards per game through the air in the regular season.
The Bengals have also averaged an impressive 34.4 points per game at Paul Brown Stadium this season, which means the pressure may be on Rivers to lead scoring drives nearly every time San Diego touches the ball on offense.
How Do the 49ers Handle the Weather at Lambeau?
Home-field advantage can be an important asset in the postseason, and the Green Bay Packers may have the benefit of a huge home-field advantage against the San Francisco 49ers.
According to USA Today's Tom Pelissero, the wind chill at Lambeau Field on Sunday may reach as low as minus-50 degrees.
While this is not ideal weather for any football player, it could be especially brutal for the visiting team.
It is relatively safe to say the 49ers are not particularly accustomed to playing in such frigid conditions. According to weather.com, the average temperature in San Francisco in January is a mild 57 degrees.
If the 49ers cannot find a way to overcome the weather, they will have an extremely difficult time overcoming the Packers.
Can the Bengals Handle the Postseason Pressure?
If the Cincinnati Bengals are to beat the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, they will first have to figure out how to not beat themselves in the postseason.
This marks the third straight time the Bengals have reached the playoffs. Cincinnati lost the past two in uncharacteristic fashion.
Between 2011 and 2012, the Bengals posted a 19-13 regular-season record and scored an average of 23 points per game. Cincinnati's playoff losses came with a combined score of 50-23.
Learning to win in the postseason is critical if the Bengals are going to go on a legitimate playoff run. The last time Cincinnati won a playoff game came following the 1990 season.
Who Runs Better, Eddie Lacy or Frank Gore?
Running the football might very well be a priority for the Packers and 49ers, if for no other reason than it might provide a chance to keep warm.
All kidding aside, the ground game is likely to be pivotal in Sunday's matchup between these two storied NFC franchises. This game will feature the league's eighth- and ninth-leading rushers in Green Bay's Eddie Lacy and San Francisco's Frank Gore, respectively.
During the regular season, Lacy rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Gore ran for 1,128 yards with nine scores.
While this is not a head-to-head competition (barring something unpredictable and potentially awesome), the better runner will almost certainly give his team a better chance of leaving Lambeau with the victory.
Can San Diego's Defense Handle A.J. Green?
It has taken just three years for Bengals receiver A.J. Green to establish himself as one of the top receivers in today's NFL. This season, Green was the league's fifth-leading receiver, racking up 1,426 yards and 11 touchdowns on 98 receptions.
This is why Green is a major part of Cincinnati's offense and the one player whom the Chargers need to stop in order to win on Sunday.
Green's yardage total accounted for 33.2 percent of quarterback Andy Dalton's 4,293 passing yards during the regular season.
If the Chargers can find some way to shut Green down, they will have a better chance of limiting the Cincinnati offense.
However, this may be a tall order considering the Chargers ranked just 29th against the pass (258.7 yards per game allowed) during the regular season.
How Does Aaron Rodgers Handle the 49ers' Pass Rush?
He performed relatively well in his first game back, a 33-28 win over the Chicago Bears that earned the Packers an NFC North title. In that game, he went 25-of-39 for 318 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
If he is going to lead the Packers to another victory, he will need to stand tall in the face of a potentially dominant 49ers pass rush and not concern himself with the possibility of a new injury.
San Francisco ranked just 18th in sacks during the regular season with 38. However, the regular season included a five-game stretch without star pass-rusher Aldon Smith.
Smith, who has racked up 42 sacks during his three-year career, has the potential to take over a game, and it will be interesting to see how Rodgers handles him and the rest of the 49ers' defensive front.
Can the Chargers Run Against Cincinnati's Defensive Front?
San Diego's strength on offense is its passing game (ranked fourth, averaging 270.5 yards per game). Still, the Chargers will need to be able to bring some semblance of a rushing attack into Cincinnati in order to stave the Bengals' aggressive pass rush (ranked 10th with 43 regular-season sacks).
Chargers starting back Ryan Mathews had the best season of his career in 2013, with 1,255 yards and six rushing touchdowns. Hie backup, Danny Woodhead, added 429 yards and two scores on the ground.
Against the Bengals, these two will face the league's fifth-ranked run defense (96.5 yards per game allowed). The last time these two teams met, the Chargers amassed just 91 net rushing yards as a team.
On paper, Cincinnati has the advantage in this matchup. If San Diego cannot find a way to make things work in their favor, it could be in for a long afternoon.
Can Colin Kaepernick Keep Pace with Rodgers?
While the ground game is likely to go a long way in deciding the game between the Packers and 49ers, there are going to be times when the quarterbacks involved are going to have to deliver.
While 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick did guide his team to the Super Bowl a season ago, the Packers have the advantage in terms of quarterback experience.
Aaron Rodgers is in his sixth season as a starter, which includes five postseason appearances.
Keapernick showed he can handle the pressure of the playoffs in 2012, but can he match Rodgers, a three-time Pro Bowler and former Super Bowl MVP?
Even with Rodgers' absence, the Packers averaged 266.8 passing yards per game during the regular season. San Francisco averaged just 186.2 yards per game.
Kaepernick may have to deliver with the game on the line, and if he cannot, the 49ers may have an early exit from the postseason.