Friday, January 03, 2014

It’s That Time: The NFL Wildcard Playoffs

It is the first weekend of 2014 and that means NFL playoff action. As I look at this season’s playoff schedule I do not see that one dominant team. In fact this truly seems like a year when any of the playoff teams could win it all. I expect a number of exciting and close games with a few surprises along the way. So let’s buckle up and prepare for a great finish to the 2013 NFL season.

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) vs. Indianapolis Colts (11-5) Sat. 4:35pm, NBC

The Chiefs started strong, looking as if they might make a run for the mark held by the ’72 Dolphins. They were 9-0 heading into the bye before struggling through a three game losing streak. Two of those losses were against division their division rivals as the Broncos forced open the door to first place in the division.

The Colts also finished with an 11-5 record, including among their victories a win in K.C. This team is in the playoffs for the second year in a role behind sophomore quarter back Andrew Luck. Luck and his team have proven they can win games. Now they need to show they can take the next step, winning a playoff game. But beating a team twice in one year is not as easy as it sounds. KC has already lost two games to both the Broncos and Chargers. Can the Colts become the third team to beat KC twice this season?

Statistically these teams are very close with the Chiefs having a slight advantage in the running game. However the Chiefs’ head coach has in the past shown a preference for passing. I also doubt the Chiefs will make many adjustments from what they did in their week 16. With the home crowd behind them I think the Colts move on to the divisional championship with a 45-38 win.

New Orleans Saints (11-5) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6) Sat. 8:10pm, NBC

Much has been said about the Saints’ record on the road verses their perfect record at home. This playoff game will be outside in the cold on the road which should be a disadvantage for this dome team. Normally I would say this does not matter in the playoffs and that the Saints’ experience will help negate the weather. However, I understand the Saints are trying to change things up in how they are handling their road trip. When I hear of a team changing things up I know the issue has gotten into their heads. Will the Saints be tight, trying to overcome their terrible road record or will they focus on the team on the other side of the ball?

The Eagles learned to win at home and on the road this season. Chip Kelly’s offensive system promised a lot of points scored and they have delivered. The surprise has been the Eagles’ defense. While they have given up a lot of yards the Eagles have not given up a lot of points. This has been a huge bonus for a team which many thought was in the process of rebuilding. Another pleasant surprise has been an offensive line which has remained healthy and has become one of the best in the league.

The Eagles’ offensive line is one of the keys to this game. The Saints will try to pressure Nick Foles who has a few bad tendencies under pressure. The offensive line must keep Foles upright and must open holes for the Eagles’ running game. On the other side the Saints should be able to move the ball but will they be able to close the deal in the red zone? I think the Eagles’ defense makes enough big plays to keep this one close until their offense takes control in the fourth quarter. The Eagles score late to win 24-28.

San Diego Chargers (9-7) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5) Sun. 1:05pm, CBS

The Chargers make the playoffs, earning their way with a win in their season finale. This is another warm weather team traveling to a cold weather stadium. The Chargers run the ball well enough to handle a cold weather game. But do they have enough on the defensive side of the ball? Still the Chargers have found ways to win the games they need to and will be able to make this another close game.

The Bengals have also found ways to win games. Their defense has been fairly consistent and I expect them to give up 17 points just under their season average. On offense the Bengals will need to be able to run the ball in the cold weather. I think they will be able to move the ball on the Chargers’ offense and this will be the difference in the game. The Bengals offense will have a good day leading to a 35-17 win.

San Francisco 49ers (12-4) vs. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1) Sun. 4:40pm, Fox

The 49ers have quietly put together a great season. Last year they were one of the final two teams standing coming within one play of winning the Lombardi Trophy. The Niners have been a solid team all season and I do not expect a letdown this weekend. But they are traveling to a colder climate (a running theme this weekend). This definitely is a team which will not have problems with the cold.

Perhaps the biggest story on the Packers’ side of the ball is the return of their starting quarterback who came back from injury to lead the team to a victory in the final game of the regular season. But Rodgers will not be on the defensive side of the ball. This is the area where I have the most questions about the Packers. Can their defense do enough to keep this team in this game? I think the Packers come up short at home. The 49ers move on with a 45-42 win.

The NFL has had trouble getting sellouts for three of these games. That may be a story to watch as the playoffs move forward. Let’s hope what promises to be a very good weekend of football does not become a weekend of local blackouts.

Again, I think the Colts, Eagles, Bengals and 49ers will win this weekend. Who do you think will win?

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