Before I get into Wildcard weekend, let me say how amazing the last week of the regular season was. Because of all of the division matchups late (a scheduling tactic the NFL switched to a couple of years ago), the playoffs essentially started in Week 17. Green Bay vs Chicago came down to the last possession, the Cardinals nearly played spoiler to the 49ers defending their NFC Championship crown, and San Diego nearly gagged away a game that they should’ve controlled; and I lapped all of it up like a thirsty pet.
But enough about all of that, we have wildcard weekend coming up and I have nothing better to do than to analyze them all.
Kansas City vs Indianapolis:
You know what’s weird? The last few weeks of the season, the national media hopped off the collective jock of the Colts. After hearing about how Andrew Luck was the best thing to happen to football since the invention of the laces, the Colts largely flew under the radar as they finished with three straight wins after alternating wins and losses for six weeks. Part of that is probably the fact that the AFC East was pretty atrocious this year. During that time the Colts have only turn the ball over once and have averaged 122 yards on the ground per game (including surpassing 100 yards on the ground vs the vaunted Chiefs defense, their best competition in that span), which I’m sure came as a welcomed relief to Andrew Luck. By balancing the offense and defense they became a more potent offense and put together the best point output since early in the season. Add that to Robert Mathis’ ability to pressure the QB, hot finish, an underrated secondary and an extremely talented/versatile QB and the Colts could very easily be a tough out.
The Chiefs came out like gangbusters, starting the season 9-0 and looking like strong contenders for home-field advantage in the playoffs. Then their fortune ran out. And those close games that they won early (in one score games, KC was 3-0 to begin the year), they began to lose (0-3 in such games to end the regular season). So a team that began 9-0, finishes the season 11-5. Did I mention that their best wide receiver (Dwayne Bowe) and two best pass rushers (Tamba Hali and Justin Houston) are all coming off injuries for Saturday’s game in Indianapolis?
I won’t have a whole team recap of a playoff team with bad news though, right? Right. They showed a lot of fight in their final game vs the Chargers even with 22 of the 24 starters pulled to rest up for this game. Not to mention the fact that the maligned offense began to put up more points (meeting or surpassing 28 points in four of the final five games of the season).
I don’t believe in Kansas City. Never did. A good defense probably got the benefit of looking great against several backup quarterbacks early in their schedule). I don’t think Alex Smith is anything more than a mediocre quarterback with good weapons at the skill position. I love Jamaal Charles (who is arguably the best running back in the game), but I can’t believe a playoff team would allow Charles to beat them by himself. With one team finishing the season strong and the other limping along, give me the hot team with the better QB at home. Colts beat Chiefs 24-13.
Cincinnati vs San Diego:
Let’s be honest, this division wasn’t very good; ESPECIALLY early in the season. By the time the Steelers (who should probably be in the playoffs) and the Ravens got their acts together, the Bengals had pretty much sewn up the AFC North. The team is absolutely loaded on offense with its weapons. Phenom AJ Green and dependable running back Benjarvis Green-Ellis were known quantities, second-year wide receiver Marvin Jones and rookie Giovanni Bernard were pleasant surprises to make the offense much more dynamic. Speaking of known quantities, I think I know what the Bengals have in Andy Dalton—a mediocre talent. In the past two postseason, Dalton has failed to score a touchdown. And while he had a career high in yards (over 4,000) and TDs (35), he also turned the ball over more than he ever has in his career (24). But more than the aggregate stats, Dalton’s inconsistency has been staggering; 5 TDs one game, 3 picks in the very next. I just don’t think that a team can win with a decent quarterback in today’s pass-happy/heavy score league.
To be fair, the defense (which was branded as the best part of this team) took a MASSIVE hit when former All-Pros DT Geno Atkins and Leon Hall went down for the year. Safety Taylor Mays joined them on IR a short time later, and LB Ray Maualuga has missed significant time as well. Funny thing happened though, the defense remained good. They’ve given up the third least yards and fifth least points in the league according to www.pro-football-reference.com. Somehow Marvin Lewis kept the defense together and this team in command of the division.
May I chuckle at the fact that the AFC West got THREE teams in the playoffs? No? Not funny to anyone else? As a Raiders enthusiast I am painfully aware of how awful this division was just last year, and to see them with the argument as the best division in the AFC tickles me mercilessly. Anyway….
It’s great to see Phillip Rivers back on his game. There were a couple of years not that long ago that had people (myself included) wondering if he still was a quality QB. Turns out, when you don’t re-sign talent around a quarterback (ignore that QB in Foxboro), he isn’t as good. Now, Rivers has Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead, and Eddie Royal were all invaluable pieces to the offense. Maybe more important than the additions was the health of Ryan Matthews and Antonio Gates. Both are talented players who have struggled in recent years to stay on the field. And while the defense isn’t a star-studded group, it improved. After giving up an average of 23.6 points per game in the first 11 weeks, they allowed an average of only 17.6 points per game. Every year in football we look back on a team that played well late and ends up making a playoff run. The Chargers feel like that sort of team.
I don’t believe in Dalton. At all. It isn’t a coincidence that in his two appearances in the playoffs (where the competition naturally rises) he has failed miserably. I remember vividly watching them last year and Dalton was terrible. I won’t make the mistake of believing in him (and by extension that team) again. Cincy beat San Diego in Cali and that gives me pause, but that was several weeks ago. Plus, I might have to be talked out of the Chargers making a surprise run in the playoffs. Keep in mind, San Diego had to win all four of its final games to reach the postseason. I’m so sure that San Diego is going to win that I’m starting to doubt myself, so I’m going to shut up now. Charger 23 Cincinnati 17.
San Francisco 49ers vs Green Bay Packers:
At the beginning of the year, San Francisco was one of the teams that was widely held to be thought of as a Super Bowl contender given their talent and title as reigning NFC champions. Fast forward to the playoffs and the 49ers are still a feared team despite having to play on Wildcard weekend. While QB Colin Kaepernick struggled a bit early, he rallied later in the year when his weapons became healthier (Michael Crabtree’s return has helped bolster the wide receiver corps) and he settled in while starting his first season as the number 1 QB on the depth chart. While the read option has virtually been non-existent in their offense this season, the running game was still dynamic enough to finish as the third most potent rushing offense in the league. Last year in the playoffs, the 49ers beat the Packers using the read-option that allowed Kap to rush for 181 yards and carve up the Cheeseheads 45-31. The 49ers beat the Packers in week one 34-28 as Anquan Boldin had the best game of his career. It will be interesting to see how this incarnation of this rivalry will turn out; but the constant of the 49ers defense (3rd in points allowed this year) serves as a well-known refrain to each verse of the song of this rivalry.
Aaron Rodgers is a monster. I was concerned that he was coming back at exactly the wrong time for this team given that they were essentially in a play-in game against Chicago last week. With everything on the line (and after two turnovers that were so uncharacteristic a spectator could only chalk them up to rustiness) Rodgers discount double checked the Packers into the playoffs on this play. Coming off a collarbone injury that sidelined him for nearly half the year, and he comes out the box with a game-winning play—just another story for his legend. On the receiving end of that preposterous throw was Randall Cobb, who had been dealing with his own set of ailments this season; Cobb bolsters a WR group that is always dangerous. And speaking of Packers players on the mend, Eddie Lacy participated in his first Thursday practice in several weeks, indicating he is as healthy as he has been all season. I’ve often wondered what Rodgers would look like with a competent and reliable running game, Lacy’s presence means I no longer have to wonder on the subject—he went for nearly 1200 yards and is the odds on favorite for Rookie of the Year.
As much fun as the Packers offense is to talk about and watch, their offense this year has been pretty terrible. They rank 25th in points allowed per game, and they will likely be without their best weapon Clay Matthews (thumb injury). The defense necessitates that the Packers win in a shootout, always a dangerous proposition against a team with a stout defensive squad.
It scares me how much this team relies on the Green Bay offense, and they won’t be going against a Bears team that was missing a piece in the defensive line, linebacking group, and secondary; they will be going against one of the most consistent defenses in the playoffs. What’s more, Green Bay gave up the 3rd most rushing yards per attempt-- think they might see a healthy dose of Frank Gore? I love Aaron Rodgers, but he can’t play defense, and the 49ers are a more well-rounded team. The game is in Green Bay, but teams with defenses and run games play well on the road regardless of the location of the contest . Besides, Kap’s arm wouldn’t be affected by a nuclear winter, much less a Green Bay one. San Francisco 28 Green Bay 21.
New Orleans Saints vs Philadelphia Eagles:
Yea… my bad. I thought New Orleans would be better this year. I just didn’t know that their defense (which gave up the most yards ever last year) would be good. How could they be? The personnel is largely the same from last season’s squad, the biggest change is at the coordinator position. Rob Ryan has been the most important acquisition of the offseason for any team.
Drew Brees keeps being fantastic. Brees just completed his fourth 5,000 yard season, no one else has done it more than once. I know passing statistics at large are a bit inflated given the rule changes, but even amongst the most pass-happy QBs he is right there at the top. Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, and his pick-a-WR-to-go-off-this-week formula just presents too many weapons for most defenses. Brees is so great he has been able to (slowly) move General Managers off the statue-esque 6’5” QBs that were thought to be the only option at the position. More interesting, Mark Ingram has shown signs of life recently for the team. Ingram has been buried on the depth chart behind Sproles and Pierre Thomas despite being a Heisman trophy winner and 1st round draft pick. There’s no way to know about how many touches he will get this postseason, but his development might be something to keep an eye on during the tournament.
Remember when I wrote earlier in this post that Rob Ryan was the biggest offseason acquisition? Chip Kelly may have something to say about that. Kelly turned this team of talented offensive players into an incredibly potent offense led by a QB many had no idea about to start the season. Look at it this way, the Eagles scored the fourth most points in the NFL this season and they didn’t even have Jeremy Maclin. Besides the obvious increase in pace, Kelly also incorporated beautiful route combinations to make the decision making easier for the young QB; Foles responded with an insanely efficient 27 TDs and 2 INTs for the year. It also doesn't hurt to have the league’s leading rusher, LeSean McCoy, helping out the young QB. By spreading defenses out, the Eagles were able to run early and often against opponents, a change from Andy Reid’s mostly throwing attack.
The Eagles defense has been the weak spot for the team for years. While the defense is far from a stalwart, it improved throughout the year. After giving up 34.5 points per game through the first four weeks of the season, the team only gave up more than 21 points once for the rest of the year. The defense doesn't have to be great for the team to have success; as long as it doesn't allow an insane amount of points, the offense will keep the team in every game.
The Saints’ troubles away from the dome in New Orleans this season have been well documented. New Orleans and Seattle are the best home teams I’ve seen all year, but the Saints won’t be back in Louisiana for the rest of the season—it won’t matter, I can’t see picking Foles over Brees in such a close game. Plus, in the season finale, Foles really struggled with pressure from Dallas (a team that didn’t pressure the QB well this year) as Cris Collinsworth pointed out in the game. When the pocket began to collapse, Foles was looking to get out of there after he got knocked around a bit early on; I think Ryan will dial up some exotic pressure to keep Foles off his game. Combine that with a mediocre defense facing the Saints offense, and I think it’ll be too much for the Eagles in a really tight contest. New Orleans 24 Philadelphia 21.