NFL Playoffs 2014: Complete Guide to Entire Postseason

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterDecember 30, 2013

NFL Playoffs 2014: Complete Guide to Entire Postseason

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    After one of the wildest, craziest Week 17s on record, the NFL playoff field is finally set.

    Confused by the records, seeds, tiebreakers, matchups and brackets? Don't panic!

    Your friends at Bleacher Report have assembled a sort of Hitchhiker's Guide to the NFL playoffs, a one-stop shop previewing and predicting all the games, from the upcoming Wild Card Round to Super Bowl XLVIII.

    We've got the dates, times, places and teams all in here, as well as thorough breakdowns and predictions of the matchups set and yet to come.

    Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has his towel; make sure you brought yours along with you as you reference our handy guide.

Saturday, January 4: Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts

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    Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN

    When: Saturday, January 4, 4:35 p.m. ET (NBC)

    Which teams: Kansas City Chiefs (5) at Indianapolis Colts (4)

    What to know: The Chiefs are the biggest surprise in the NFL, going from a league-worst 2-14 to 11-5 in one incredible offseason. The Colts were last season's Cinderella; their unconventional free-agent spending spree paid off with a second straight double-digit-win season and an AFC South crown.

    New Chiefs head coach Andy Reid worked like crazy to remake the team in his image, and it paid off. The offense, quarterbacked by perpetual reclamation project Alex Smith—but led by workhorse back Jamaal Charles—was the sixth-best scoring unit in the NFL prior to their Week 17 loss against the Chargers.

    The Chiefs defense, already stocked with pass-rushing talent, blossomed into the fourth-best scoring defense in the NFL (going into Week 17), per Pro Football Reference. The front seven, backstopped by stalwart middle linebacker Derrick Johnson, is intimidating.

    It's hard to get a read on the Colts. They destroyed the San Francisco 49ers on the road, but were whooped at home by the St. Louis Rams. At times, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has overemphasized an underwhelming power-run game and, at times, completely abandoned the run.

    Second-year No. 1 overall pick quarterback Andrew Luck is the straw that stirs the Colts' drink; if he's on, he can conjure a win from almost any situation.

    Who will win: I like the consistent Charles against the Colts' front much more than the Chiefs' disorganized unit; I like steady Smith coached by wily Reid better than young Luck and schizophrenic Hamilton. Kansas City Chiefs, 24-17

Saturday, January 4: New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles

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    Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA

    When: Saturday, January 4, 8:10 p.m. ET (NBC)

    Which teams: New Orleans Saints (6) at Philadelphia Eagles (3)

    What to know: The NFL world was buzzing all summer, waiting for new Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly to either set the league on fire with his mind-blowing, hyper-modern, science-fiction approach, as detailed by Jenny Vrentas of The Monday Morning Quarterback—or fail miserably.

    Though it was closer to the former than the latter, Kelly simply got the most out of the explosive talent that was already on the roster, like NFL-leading rusher LeSean McCoy and game-breaking wideout DeSean Jackson.

    Once original starter Michael Vick lost his job to a combination of injuries and performance, backup Nick Foles stepped in and threw a franchise-record 237 passes without an interception. His 19 touchdowns without a pick fell one shy of Peyton Manning's NFL record of 20. History or no, the Eagles had the NFL's second-best scoring offense after 16 weeks, per Pro Football Reference.

    The Saints started off the season as the hottest team in football. Head coach Sean Payton's return from a year-long suspension clearly rejuvenated quarterback Drew Brees; he helped the team to a 9-2 start.

    The story of the season, though, is the defense. New architect Rob Ryan transformed the 31st-ranked scoring defense of 2012 into a top-five scoring unit.

    Injuries slowed down key players like tight end Jimmy Graham, though, and knocked out star rookie defensive back Kenny Vaccaro. As a result, the Saints went 2-3 down the stretch.

    Who will win: Nobody wants to back into the playoffs, but an effortless blowout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put the Saints back on the right foot going into this matchup. Ultimately, the Saints defense is much more likely to slow down Foles than the Eagles defense is to stop Brees. New Orleans Saints, 33-30.

Sunday, January 5: San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals

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    Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, OH

    When: Sunday, January 5, 1:05 pm ET (CBS)

    Which teams: San Diego Chargers (6) at Cincinnati Bengals (3)

    What to know: The AFC North champion Bengals finished off an 11-5 season with a 34-17 defeat of their rival Baltimore Ravens in Week 17, which pushed them to a 5-1 record in their last six games.

    The Bengals are balanced and talented on both sides of the ball. They went into the last week of the regular season with the NFL's seventh-ranked scoring offense and sixth-ranked scoring defense, per Pro Football Reference.

    Cincinnati is also looking to break the NFL's longest streak without a playoff win, per Jason Morrison of Dayton Daily News.

    The Chargers are a surprise playoff inclusion at 9-7. Rookie head coach Mike McCoy guided fading 32-year-old quarterback Philip Rivers to the fountain of youth, and a running back committee of misfits ran for a 13th-best 1,779 yards over the season's first 16 weeks.

    On defense, the Chargers don't do much well except defend the end zone. They allowed a ninth-worst 5,532 total yards in the first 16 weeks, per Pro Football Reference, but 11th-best 324 points. When these two teams met during Week 13 in San Diego, the Bengals won, 17-10.

    Who will win: The Chargers are a great story, and McCoy will continue to lead them to good things in the future, but the Bengals are much better on both sides of the ball. Barring one of quarterback Andy Dalton's occasional four-turnover brain farts, Cincinnati should cruise. Cincinnati Bengals, 28-20.

Sunday, January 5: San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers

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    Where: Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI

    When: Sunday, January 5, 4:40 pm ET (FOX)

    Which teams: San Francisco 49ers (5) at Green Bay Packers (4)

    What to know: This is a rematch of one of the most memorable games of 2012: A 45-31 stunner that seemed to usher quarterback Colin Kaepernick and head coach Jim Harbaugh to the highest levels of the sport—and heralded the beginning of the (short-lived?) Zone Read Era of NFL football.

    Despite the questions asked of head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers and the Packers winning just two of eight games without quarterback Aaron Rodgers—and those by just one point each—as well as needing a miracle comeback and fourth-down touchdown just to back into the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record, they're here.

    The San Francisco 49ers didn't exactly follow the script either.

    After scorching the NFL on the ground and in the air in 2012, Kaepernick was neither as explosive nor as error-free in 2013. His adjusted average yards per attempt dropped from an NFL-best 8.6 to 7.6, and his average yards per carry dropped from 6.6 to 5.7. His 87 rushing yards in Week 2 against Seattle were by far his season's best; nothing like that 181-yard outburst against the Packers.

    The defense, though, was as stout as ever. Going into Week 17, the 49ers boasted the third-best scoring defense in football, per Pro Football Reference. Despite Kaepernick's struggles (especially while star receiver Michael Crabtree missed time with an Achilles injury), San Francisco still finished 12-4 and is as dangerous as any team.

    Who will win: A much-hyped Week 1 rematch in San Francisco broke the 49ers' way, 34-28. The 49ers are a better team, and the Packers have had big flaws exposed, but can Aaron Rodgers steal one playoff game in Lambeau? Yes. Green Bay Packers, 30-28.

AFC Divisional Round Games

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    Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, CO

    When: Sunday, January 12, 4:40 p.m. ET (CBS)

    Which teamsLowest-seeded AFC Wild Card Round winner at Denver Broncos (1)

    What to know: The Broncos have been the best team in the NFL from wire to wire, riding Peyton Manning's record-smashing season to a 13-3 record. Averaging a mind-boggling 38.1 points per game before they hung a meaningless 34 points on the Raiders in Week 17, per Pro Football Reference, Manning and the Broncos can outscore anybody.

    Sometimes, though, their 22nd-ranked defense puts that to the test—as in Week 5's 51-48 basketball game in Dallas.

    The lowest-seeded winner of the previous round—the Kansas City Chiefs, if my pick is correct—will have to come up with a way to stop Manning...or Manning, as he sometimes has in the playoffs, will have to stop himself.

    Who will win: I don't see Manning and the Broncos getting bounced at home in the first game two seasons in a row; I like the Denver Broncos over the field.

    Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA

    When: Saturday, January 11, 8:15 p.m. ET (CBS)

    Which teamsHighest-seeded AFC Wild Card Round winner at New England Patriots (2)

    What to know: Considering the way the Patriots started this season—with practically every skill-position star from 2012 either on another team, injured or in jail—it's just short of a miracle that they are again skating past the Wild Card Round on a bye.

    Despite quarterback Tom Brady's early struggles and a revolving door of injuries at the right tackle position, the Patriots still finished Week 16 with the fifth-ranked scoring offense, ninth-ranked scoring defense, and a 12-4 record, per Pro Football Reference.

    Who will win: If I picked the Wild Card Round correctly, the Patriots will be hosting the Bengals. The Bengals are the more talented team, but the difference in ability and experience at head coach and quarterback makes an upset impossible to pick. New England Patriots.

NFC Divisional Round Games

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    Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, WA

    When: Saturday, January 11 at 4:35 p.m. ET (FOX)

    Which teamsLowest-seeded NFC Wild Card Round winner at Seattle Seahawks (1)

    What to know: Early this season, the Seahawks established a reputation for being invincible at home, but something less than that on the road. Their "Legion of Boom" defense showed up everywhere; they allowed a second-best average of 14.8 points per game through 16 weeks, per Pro Football Reference.

    Sometimes, quarterback Russell Wilson and tailback Marshawn Lynch provided just enough punch to escape places like St. Louis' Edward Jones Dome with a win barely intact. Two low-scoring losses to quality divisional rivals in their last five games provide more reason for worry.

    That said, the Seahawks had the No. 1 seed all but clinched for most of the season, and when they're on, they're as good as anybody.

    Who will win: CenturyLink is a fortress, and the Seahawks were my preseason pick to win it all. Seattle Seahawks over anyone, including my pick of the New Orleans Saints. (Seattle beat New Orleans 34-7 in Week 13.)

    Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC

    When: Sunday, January 12 at 1:05 p.m. ET (FOX)

    Which teams: Highest-seeded NFC Wild Card Round winner at Carolina Panthers (2)

    What to know: In mid-October, the Carolina Panthers were 1-3, head coach Ron Rivera was a dead man walking and a few media folks were even calling for 2011 No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton to be benched.

    Since then, the Panthers are an incredible 11-1, Rivera has been christened "Riverboat Ron" for his newly-aggressive fourth-down playcalling and Newton has metamorphosed from an all-stats, no-wins fantasy football monster to a guy who always makes a play when needed.

    Newton has four game-winning drives and four fourth-quarter comebacks in 2013, per Pro Football Reference, doubling his prior career total of two. Despite a lack of game-breaking receivers, he and the Panthers' power running game are the perfect complement to the NFL's best scoring defense of the first 16 weeks.

    Who will winThe hottest team in football, the Panthers are going to be a very tough out for any team. The Carolina Panthers match up much better against my pick to face them, the Green Bay Packers, than they do the San Francisco 49ers—so if my pick proves right, the Panthers advance. If not, I like San Francisco.

Conference Championships

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    Where: Home of highest-seeded AFC Divisional Round winner

    When: TBA. Sunday, January 19 at either 1 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. ET

    Which teamsLowest-seeded AFC Divisional Round winner at highest-seeded AFC Divisional Round winner

    What to know: If my picks are correct, the NFL will be ecstatic: It's Manning-Brady XV, a postseason sequel to the Week 12 ratings monster that went to Brady and the New England Patriots in overtime, 34-31.

    Who will win: The Denver Broncos might have beaten the Patriots on the road if not for a fluke bounce on a poorly-returned punt. I'll take the Denver Broncos to finally get back to the big game for the first time since team president John Elway was the quarterback. 

    Where: Home of highest-seeded NFC Divisional Round winner

    When: TBA. Sunday, January 19 at either 1 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. ET

    Which teamsLowest-seeded NFC Divisional Round winner at highest-seeded NFC Divisional Round winner 

    What to know: Presuming things break as I've picked them—and, fair warning, the NFL playoffs haven't hewn this closely to chalk in a long, long time—the Seattle Seahawks will host the Carolina Panthers.

    If not, this will be likely be the third meeting of the Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. The Seahawks blew out the 49ers in Seattle and lost 19-17 at Candlestick Park.

    Who will win: Either way the Seattle Seahawks, with their record-breaking home-field advantage, are coming out of the NFC.

Super Bowl

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    Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ

    When: Sunday, February 2, 6:25 p.m. ET

    Which teams: AFC Champion vs. NFC Champion

    What to know: If you somehow haven't heard, Super Bowl XLVIII will be the first Super Bowl played outdoors in a cold-weather city.

    Whether the climate is a factor or not remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: The NFC has been a significantly stronger conference all season long. Whether the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, or New Orleans Saints come out of the NFC, they all have deeper, better-balanced teams than any squad likely to come out of the AFC.

    Who will win: I'm sticking with my preseason pick, the Seattle Seahawks over the Denver Broncos.