Friday, January 3, 2014

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs: Wild Card Round

AFC Wild Card: #5 Kansas City (11-5) at #4 Indianapolis (11-5), Indianapolis favored by 2 1/2

These teams enter their posteason matchup on different trajectories. The Chiefs are stumbling into the playoffs, losers of five of their last seven games. The Colts went through a mid-season lull, but have won three games in a row, including a 23-7 rout of the Chiefs two weeks ago in Kansas City. When the Chiefs got off to a 9-0 start it was on the back of their defense. But in their 2-5 slide, the defense has collapsed. I was amazed to see that the Kansas City defense finished in the 20s against both the rush and pass. The Chiefs offense has turned things around though during this stretch and is hoping that the playoffs will be when both sides of the ball will get on the same page. Jamaal Charles has been consistently amazing all season and he will need to have a big game if the Chiefs are to win their first playoff game in 20 years. The Colts defense is strong against the pass but was one of the worst units against the run. The game plan should be pretty clear for Kansas City. However, in the game two weeks ago, the Chiefs had the ball for just 21 minutes, as the Colts pedestrian run game was able to control the clock. Donald Brown and Trent Richardson strike fear in nobody but for whatever reason ran effectively against Kansas City two weeks ago. Andrew Luck and Alex Smith had very similar seasons but both are playing their best football of the year right now. The Kansas City defense will have to try to force Luck into mistakes, something that he rarely does, as the Colts had a league low 14 turnovers this season. The Chiefs were also very careful with the ball so in this game the turnover battle will be at even more of a premium than usual. You know about T.Y. Hilton but Griff Whalen might be the Colt to watch tomorrow. He led the Colts with 7 catches for 80 yards against the Chiefs a few weeks ago. I think the Chiefs resting their starters last week and then having their reserves play so well, was a great result for Kansas City. It gave the team an extra sense of confidence that they have the guys up and down the team to get it done in the playoffs. Beating a team twice in one season is very difficult, let alone twice in two weeks. Colts fans must not be feeling too confident as they can't even sell out their first home playoff game in 3 years. I think that Charles will have a very good game, and the Chiefs defense will step up enough to give KC the victory.

Prediction: Kansas City 28, Indianapolis 23

NFC Wild Card: #6 New Orleans (11-5) at #3 Philadelphia (10-6), Philadelphia favored by 2 1/2

Two high powered offense collide in primetime on Saturday night. Except, the Saints tend to leave their high powered offense in the Superdome. If Drew Brees and company can take their aerial show on the road, than the Eagles dead last passing defense is the team to do it against. The Eagles will have their hands full trying to slow down Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Kenny Stills and the best tight end in football, Jimmy Graham. Graham is probably the key to the game, as he has played well both at home and on the road all season. More importantly is that the Eagles don't let Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, or Mark Ingram get going. The Eagles can almost concede to Drew Brees, but if they start letting the Saints running backs gash them, then it will be game over. The Eagles and Nick Foles have taken their high octane offense on the road and at home, but the Saints defense is very good at limiting the big play. The Saints finished second against the pass this season but haven't seen an offense like the Eagles. DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper, Brent Celek, and rookie Zack Ertz give Foles multiple options in the passing game. Philly has so many weapons they can throw at you, and it isn't just their passing game that is scary. LaSean McCoy led the league in rushing, helping carry Philadelphia to the number one rushing attack in the NFL. The Saints defense isn't nearly as good at stopping the run as they are the pass. A bigger question than can the Saints successfully move the ball on the road, is how will Foles fare in his first playoff start. He had a strong game at Dallas last weekend in what was essentially a playoff game, so he has at least shown he can deal with the pressure of a big game. The Saints have an opportunistic defense, and a strong pass rush. The Eagles offensive line struggled mightily against Dallas last weekend and has to play better Saturday night. After losing 10 straight home games, Philadelphia has now won four straight at home and has seemed to reclaim homefield advantage. The Saints can try to pretend like their road problems aren't a concern, but eight games has made it very clear that they are a mediocre at best team away from home. Philadelphia is peaking right now and because of that I like them to win in Chip Kelly's first playoff game.

Prediction: Philadelphia 27, New Orleans 20

AFC Wild Card: #6 San Diego (9-7) at #3 Cincinnati (11-5), Cincinnati favored by 7

Maybe the third year will be the charm for Cincinnati and Andy Dalton? Dalton will play his first home playoff game and his first playoff game against a team other than the Houston Texans. Dalton is really the key for how far or how quickly the Bengals season ends in the playoffs. He has been brilliant at times this season, but has also been dreadful, including last weekend when he threw four interceptions against the Ravens. He hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in 2 playoff games and because of that the Bengals never really had a chance in those games, despite having a very good defense. Dalton will have his chance to make plays against a porous Chargers secondary, that ranked 29th in the league against the pass. A.J. Green had a big game against the Chargers when these teams played in San Diego during the regular season and I expect him to have an even better game on Sunday. Surprisingly, the law firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis had one of his better games of the season against the Chargers. Ellis averaged just 3.4 yards per carry this season but remained the Bengals lead back, despite Giovanni Bernard showing flashes of brilliance. Cincinnati again bring a good defense to the playoffs but one that will be tested by the Chargers offense. Philip Rivers has been rejuvenated this season, and the addition of Danny Woodhead has seemed to light a fire under Ryan Mathews. Rookie WR Keenan Allen may win offensive rookie of the year, and old reliable, tight end Antonio Gates is still getting it done. However, the Chargers offense couldn't muster much at all against the Bengals in their first meeting. Rivers has some escapability, but will really need his line to play at a peak level to stop guys like Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. I think if Marvin Lewis and the Bengals can't beat the Chargers at home, they may never win a playoff game. Cincinnati was 8-0 at home this season, they have way more talent than San Diego, and a loss would be unacceptable. Even with the city of Cincinnati seeming not to care about these Bengals, maybe they will start to care when they win their first playoff game since the 80s.

Prediction: Cincinnati 27, San Diego 17

NFC Wild Card: #5 San Francisco (12-4) at #4 Green Bay (8-7-1), San Francisco favored by 3

The biggest storyline entering this game between old rivals isn't anything about the players but all about Mother Nature. It is going to be negative temperatures when these teams play each other and will likely bring back memories of Tom Coughlin's frozen face from 2007. The cold will be tough to play in but both teams have to deal with the same elements and it won't give Green Bay any sort of real advantage. The advantage in this game is clearly for the 49ers since they have completely owned the Packers the last two years. Packers fans feel so despondent about their chances that one of the supposed best fanbases in football is struggling to sell out their playoff game. The 49ers have won three straight games against Green Bay, including last season in the playoffs when they nearly got Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers fired. If Capers still hasn't figured out a way to stop Colin Kaepernick then he probably will be fired after Sunday. Last season it was Kap running all over the Packers, and in the first game of the season this year, it was Kap throwing all over the Packers. The rest of the season Kap didn't come close to the sort of passing game he had against Green Bay in Week 1. Kap has played better during the 49ers current six game winning streak and has been helped by the return of Michael Crabtree to the lineup. The acquisition of Anquan Boldin might have been the best off-season move by any team. He made Joe Flacco 120 million dollars last year and is now making Kap look real good. Tight end Vernon Davis is a matchup nightmare for every team he faces and with the Packers missing Clay Matthews at linebacker, he could have a huge game. Frank Gore once again ran over 1,000 yards this season, but has been slightly inconsistent the last few weeks. He did next to nothing against Green Bay in Week 1, but he needs to at least be consistent if not spectacular Sunday to take some pressure off of Kap in the cold temperatures. Aaron Rodgers returned last weekend and made an immediate impact for the Packers. Another player that returned last week and made his presence felt was WR Randall Cobb. Rodgers and Cobb connected on the game winning touchdown in the waning moments in Chicago last weekend. The Packers offense goes to a whole other level with Rodgers in the lineup. One area where Green Bay is much improved than in past matchups against San Francisco is their running game with Eddie Lacy. Lacy didn't do much against the Niners in Week 1 but has improved by leaps and bounds since then. Backup running back James Starks has also been playing well the last few weeks. The return of Cobb to go with Jordy Nelson, James Jones and the emerging Jarrett Boykin means the Packers pass offense is lethal as ever. The 49ers defense though is looking more like the 2011 unit, than the 2012 unit that struggled down the stretch last season. Some defenses excel in one area, but the 49ers defense is consistently good against both the run and pass. They are also mostly healthy, hence the reason the team has peaked at the end of the season. I was scared of this game because playing Aaron Rodgers, probably the second best quarterback in football right now, is always a dicey proposition. But the Niners have proven time and time again they are better than the Packers, so I have utmost confidence they will make it four in a row on Sunday.

Prediction: San Francisco 24, Green Bay 20

Last Week Against the Spread: 12-4
Overall Against the Spread: 124-108-8

Last Week Straight Up: 15-1
Overall Straight Up: 174-81-1

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