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NFL Wild Card round preview
Should we really be surprised at the ticket woes for Wild Card weekend? Forget that it’s expected to be colder than Cruella de Vil in Green Bay, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. In truth, the NFL in-stadium experience pales in comparison to baseball, basketball and even college football presentations. Aside from a handful of places like Lambeau, Jerry’s World and Seattle’s 12th Man, most of the venues are corporate mausoleums. The TV timeouts impede the flow of the contest, the lavatory line resembles a campout for a Hunger Games premiere, a lone beer is the equivalent of buying a case at the market and the crowds are on the lower end of the fan-base totem pole in terms of game knowledge and general civility. Why put up with those conditions when you can watch the fun in the comfort of your own home, which offers a clean bathroom and full fridge without hostile patrons and costly parking? If anything, the question shouldn’t be, “Why aren’t these games selling out?” but “Who in their mind would want to be out in that nonsense?”
Of course, given that I’ll likely be sitting in the rafters of Paul Brown Stadium in a blizzard with a nine-dollar brew on Sunday, perhaps I’m not the one who should be proposing this inquiry.
Last Week: 14-2
Season: 165-90-1 (Alas, fell just short of first in clutch rankings among experts. I was devastated upon learning this news, although bounced-back fairly quickly upon realizing no one really cares about this besides me.)
The Lowdown: The Colts and Chiefs enter the Wild Card round with identical records, but the routes of entrance are quite divergent.
In wake of Reggie Wayne's season-ending knee injury, Indianapolis's offensive identity was shaken. Without the services of the venerable wideout, Andrew Luck labored in his rapport with the rest of his receiving corps. As a corollary, an unfair onus was placed on the backfield, a responsibility Trent Richardson and Donald Brown were ill-suited to handle. Making matters worse, the Colts defense, one that had been stout in the first half of the season, had become vulnerable due to depth and injury issues. This cavalcade of problems equated to an erratic six-game stretch for the Horseshoes, getting crushed in three defeats (120-47 scoring difference) and eking out wins against the lowly Titans (twice) and Texans. Though they had clinched the AFC South, the Colts appeared to be limping into January.
Or so it seemed. Indianapolis ended the regular season with three straight wins, including a 23-7 clock-cleaning of the Chiefs in Arrowhead in Week 16. Neophyte wideouts like Griff Whalen, Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill have begun to fill Wayne's void, and the resistance has regained its early-season mojo. The backfield leaves much to be desired, and the Colts have struggled in stopping the run this year (125.1 yards per appearance, 25th in the NFL). Conversely, Luck alone, who in his second campaign in the league is already an upper-echelon arm, gives Indy a fighting chance. Furthermore, having wins over San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and Kansas City makes Indianapolis a formidable playoff opponent.
It's these preeminent wins that have been a sticking point in Arrowhead. The Chiefs were the talk of the league in the first half of the fall, storming out of the gate to a 9-0 record. After taking his lumps in the City of Brotherly Love the past few seasons, Andy Reid was rejuvenated in his new red digs, instilling a continuity and offensive astuteness that had been sorely lacking in KC. Alex Smith's steady presence under center alleviated some of the adversarial focus on Jamaal Charles, letting the All-Pro back run wild (132 total yards per game, 19 touchdowns). Combined with an advantageous defense, the Chiefs had all the makings of a Super Bowl contender.
Unfortunately, the past six weeks have called this credence into question. Before last Sunday's loss to San Diego (in which most of Kansas City's starters rested), the Chiefs had lost four of their previous six, including a season sweep by the Broncos and the aforementioned smackdown by the Colts. Upon further review, perhaps Kansas City was the recipient of a generous schedule, defeating only one team with a winning record – a Philly lineup sans Nick Foles. Also coming under inquiry was the performance of the defense. Although boasting sound numbers, it appears most of these stats derived from a six-game stretch against troubled quarterbacks in Eli Manning, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Terrelle Pryor, Case Keenum, Jason Campbell and Jeff Tuel. With an o-fer in big-time scenarios this season, are the Chiefs in over their head?
Line: Indianapolis -1, 46.5 points
TV: NBC – 4:35 PM EST
The Colts win if… Luck dinks-and-dunks his way through Kansas City’s defense, an early deficit takes the ball out of Jamaal Charles’ hands.
The Chiefs win if… Charles takes advantage of Indianapolis’ susceptible rush resistance, the Colts backfield fails to provide ample contributions for Luck and the passing game.
Prediction: Colts 27, Chiefs 24
The Lowdown: For those that have abstained from Twitter, radio, websites and television the past week, let me fill you in on, apparently, the only storyline for this matchup. Despite an 11-5 record, the Saints’ 3-5 road mark has cast an ominous shadow on the Saints’ journey into the City of Brotherly Love this weekend. Sure, three of those defeats came against the Panthers, Patriots and Seahawks, all of which earned a bye this postseason. Moreover, it’s not like the Link has provided much of a haven for the Eagles, as Philly boasts a .500 record at home this season. But those trivial facts clash with the chief narrative and Lord knows we can’t have divergent, reasonable discourse in our sports landscape.
Yes, Drew Brees is o-fer away from the Superdome in three career postseason starts. He’s also the head of an offensive attack averaging 307.4 passing yards per contest, second-best in the NFL. This could be somewhat problematic for Philadelphia, given its secondary is allowing a league-high 289.8 yards per tilt. To their credit, the Eagles defense ranks right in the middle of the pack in points conceded (23.9 per outing), and it has been advantageous as of late. However, they’ve yet to face an arm as dangerous as Brees and come out on top.
Speaking of which, while New Orleans’ road résumé has come under question, Philadelphia’s portfolio raises some similar eyebrows. The Eagles beat just one playoff team this season, and even that comes with a caveat, as the victory came against an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers squad in Week 10. Inversely, New Orleans has upended San Francisco and Carolina, and New England needed a miracle finish to knock-off the Black and Gold in Foxborough.
Before this sounds like an exclusive testament to the Saints, the Eagles have certainly warranted this position in their own right. Since installing Nick Foles under center midway through Week 5’s excursion against the Giants, Philadelphia is 9-2 with the second-year signal caller. Taking the reins from the mistake-prone Michael Vick, Foles has been remarkably efficient, finding the end zone 30 times with just four turnovers. Helping Foles is the NFL’s leading rusher in LeSean McCoy. Although Chip Kelly’s offense is seemingly fueled by the air game, in actuality it’s predicated by the ground efforts of McCoy. Finishing the regular season with 2,146 yards from scrimmage, McCoy’s exploits against New Orleans’ so-so defensive front will go ways in determining this ballgame.
Line: Philadelphia -2.5, 54 points
TV: NBC – 8:10 PM EST
The Eagles win if… McCoy replicates his winter-wonderland performance from Week 14, OMG DREW BREES CAN’T WIN ON THE ROAD.
The Saints win if… Foles’ prosperous run hits a wall, the Philly defense’s porous ways continue.
Prediction: Saints 30, Eagles 23
The Lowdown: "Winning ugly can be a beautiful thing," is certainly applicable to the plight of San Diego. Bestowed an opportunity thanks to losses from the Dolphins and Ravens, the Lightning Bolts struggled against a Chiefs squad comprised mostly of second-stringers. Blessed with one more gridiron gift via an officiating gaffe, the Chargers pulled out the W in overtime to grab the final AFC Wild Card spot.
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The manner in which they punched their postseason ticket was hardly aesthetically pleasing, yet the Chargers are in, and that's all that matters at this juncture. Moreover, while they were the beneficiary of divine intervention in Week 17, San Diego merits this inclusion, winning five of its last six contests including victories over the Denver Broncos in Mile High and Kansas City (with its starters!) in Week 12. With Philip Rivers in the midst of a career revival, Ryan Mathews finally living up to his highly-touted ability and a better-than-believed defense, the Chargers have seemingly been conferred the annual "team no one wants to play" moniker in the AFC.
Alas, the Chargers head east to confront a Bengals team that took care of business in San Diego just a month ago. Cincinnati has been a tour de force in the Jungle this fall, owning an 8-0 record in the Queen City. And as hot as the Chargers have been, the Who Deys have matched that tear with nine wins in their last 12, with two of those defeats coming in overtime. That Cincinnati has accomplished such feats without the services of defensive playmakers like Geno Atkins, Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Robert Geathers is testament to this roster's fortitude.
Not that Cincinnati is without question marks. The play of Andy Dalton has come under scrutiny, most concerning the third-year signal caller's penchant for throwing to the wrong team. The TCU product has also routinely fallen short on the big stage, most notably in his two postseason appearances (56.9 completion percentage, 384 yards, zero trips to pay dirt, four interceptions, two losses). This is especially frustrating given Dalton's arsenal of weapons in All-Pro A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard, Marvin Jones and the tight end duo of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.
But have Bengals backers been too harsh on Dalton? A quick comparison of QBs:
|QB||Yards per game||Completion Percentage||Touchdowns||Turnovers|
The first two figures are from Eli Manning and Joe Flacco, respectively, during their teams' Super Bowl runs in 2011 and 2012. The third stat line belongs to, you guessed it, the maligned Dalton. It should also be noted that the Red Rifle's 33 aerial scores in 2013 are a franchise record. Granted, his Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde routine can be maddening, but Dalton is more than capable of leading Cincinnati to the Promised Land.
Line: Cincinnati -6.5, 47 points
TV: CBS – 1:05 PM EST
The Chargers win if… Rivers torments a vulnerable secondary, Dalton’s “Agent Orange” persona makes an appearance.
The Bengals win if… The weather tames Rivers and the San Diego passing game, Green goes nuts on a Chargers defense allowing 258.7 passing yards per game (29th in the NFL).
Prediction: Bengals 24, Chargers 21
The Lowdown: Though Carolina and Seattle are the favorites to emerge from the NFC, San Francisco merits inclusion in this conversation. This was not the case six weeks ago, as consecutive losses to the Panthers and Saints left Jim Harbaugh’s club at 6-4. Not only had they fallen short in all four playoff-caliber tests, but many started to wonder if the Niners had traded the wrong quarterback in the offseason, as Colin Kaepernick had as many turnovers as touchdowns (11 a piece) in the past nine games. Worse, both sides of the ball were dealing with a plethora of losses, including Aldon Smith’s substance-abuse sabbatical. Defending the conference championship looked like a long shot for San Francisco.
Since that juncture, the 49ers have won their last six contests. They’ve taken care of business against stiff competition in Seattle and Arizona. Kaepernick has proven himself a capable field general in the second half, hitting pay dirt 11 times versus a lone turnover in the span. Injured playmakers have slowly assimilated back to full strength for the Niners, assembling the vaunted crew that everyone envisioned back in August. With one of the game’s fiercest defenses, a sound rushing assault and a brilliant coach at the helm, San Francisco will be a tough out.
Not that Green Bay will pay much attention to such designations. With a meager three wins since the end of October, it’s easy to deem the Cheeseheads fortunate to even be playing in January. Yet with Aaron Rodgers back in the saddle, you better believe the Packers are just as menacing as any team still alive.
Although the return of No. 12 has garnered the headlines, it’s Green Bay’s other backfield component that will be the key to victory. In Rodgers’ absence, offensive responsibility was bestowed to rookie rusher Eddie Lacy, who answered the challenge with 11 touchdowns and nearly 1,200 yards on the ground. Considering the lack of help he received from Rodgers’ replacements, that’s quite the endeavor. With sub-zero weather expected on Sunday in Wisconsin, maneuvers from the soil will be imperative for both lineups; nevertheless, San Francisco’s front seven has been stout against the rush, conceding just 95.9 yards per contest (fourth-lowest in the league). It won’t be pretty, but the Packers will need Lacy to succeed to some extent in order to come out on top.
Line: San Francisco -3, 45.5 points
TV: FOX – 4:40 PM EST
The 49ers win if… Kaepernick takes care of the rock, Frank Gore keeps the Green Bay offense on the sidelines.
The Packers win if… It doesn’t look promising for the Packers. Then again, as we saw last week, in Aaron Rodgers, anything is possible.
Prediction: 49ers 23, Packers 20
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