2013-14 NFL Playoffs: Wild Card Weekend Kicks Off Battle for Super Bowl Supremacy
After four months of gridiron warfare, twelve teams have found their way to the National Football League playoffs. While the top two seeds from each conference (Denver and New England in the AFC, Seattle and Carolina in the NFC) take a break, Wild Card Weekend kicks off this afternoon with two games followed by two more on Sunday.
By this point in the season, there aren’t the big lines that we saw for some of the games during the regular season (really, those 28 and 29 point lines that the Jacksonville Jaguars were giving up were tough to pick!). There is quality from the one seed to the six and the teams, with a trip to the Super Bowl as the reward, are going to come out fighting (home team in CAPS, pick in bold, lines from the Mirage in Las Vegas).
Kansas City Chiefs vs. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (+1)
This is absolutely the toughest game of the weekend for a prognosticator to pick. Kansas City, after storming out to a 9-0 record to start the season, went 2-5 over their last seven games of the season. All five of the losses were against teams that made the playoffs (Denver twice, San Diego twice and Indianapolis), meaning that they aren’t exactly on a roll right now. Indianapolis is on the opposite track; after hitting 6-3 following a loss to the lowly St. Louis Rams, the Colts won five of their last seven.
Neither team is dominant on the defensive side of the ball (both are ranked in the second half of the league), so it will be the offense that will be the big indicator in this game. The Chiefs have the 10th ranked rushing game in the league behind RB Jamaal Charles (third in the league behind LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte), who is also the leading receiver for the team, and an excellent game manager is Alex Smith (he’s not going to be the reason you win, but he probably won’t be the reason you lose). The Colts counter with second year QB Andrew Luck, who has a tendency to go gunslinger on the Ponies (with varying degrees of success), and WR T. Y. Hilton. Their running back tandem of Donald Brown and Trent Richardson failed to reach 1000 total yards rushing between them this year.
Played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy, this will be the only game this weekend that isn’t affected by the inclement weather that the United States is under right now. In what will be a closely fought game, I see the home-field working out as an advantage for Indianapolis as they take an early lead, the Chiefs struggle to play from behind and the Colts will take this game outright.
New Orleans Saints (+2.5) vs. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
There’s a fascinating stat that has been making the rounds as this game features a dome team (of course, the Saints) hitting the road to take on an outdoor team. In the past 25 games where a dome team has played on the road in conditions below freezing (32°) that dome team is 3-22 in those games. In theory, that wouldn’t bode well for Saints QB Drew Brees and his gang.
The game isn’t played in theory, however. If it wasn’t for the mind-blowing season that Denver quarterback Peyton Manning put up, Brees might be a contender for the NFL MVP. With Brees leading the second ranked passing attack (he piled up 5162 yards over the season with 39 TDs), the Saints improved from a 7-9 team last year to 11-5 this season with basically the same lineup (head coach Sean Payton deserves some credit, too). The Saints will be without their leading rusher in Pierre Thomas, who has already been declared out for this game due to injury, meaning former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram will have to pick up the slack.
The perplexing thing about this game is what Philadelphia Eagle team is going to show up. Will it be the team that waxed the Chicago Bears two weeks ago on the road or the team that fell to the New York Giants during the midpoint of the season and while at home? QB Nick Foles is now in control of this team and, with the #1 rusher in the league in LeSean McCoy and WRs DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper, he’s proven he can run the hyperactive Chip Kelly offense. The problem will lie in the defenses: New Orleans comes into this game with the #4 defense in the NFL, while the Eagles step up with the #29 defense in the league.
The game won’t be played at Lincoln Financial Field in quite the snowstorm that it was for the Detroit game (on December 8, the Eagles handled Detroit easily, 34-20, in a driving snowstorm that left Fox Sports broadcasters trying to call out the action between the flakes). It’s going to be cold, yes, but I will take the experience of the Saints (and a strong defense) over the enthusiasm of the Eagles and take the Saints to win this game.
San Diego Chargers vs. CINCINNATI BENGALS (-7)
The biggest spread in the Wild Card Weekend schedule is this game between the Bengals, winners of five of their last six games, and the Chargers, who have every scenario break right for them in Week 17 to squeak into the playoffs.
Although they are on a four game winning streak, there is little that would lead anyone to believe that the Chargers have a chance in this game. They do have the #4 passing attack in the NFL with QB Philip Rivers and a middle of the pack rushing assault with RBs Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead, but those may be negated by the third-ranked defense of the Bengals. The Bengals, winners of four of their last five games, have their own potency on offense with the #8 passing game of QB Andy Dalton and a comparable running game with RBs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. Against the #23 defense of San Diego, they should face little opposition.
This game harkens back to 1982, when these same two teams faced off in what became known as the “Freezer Bowl.” On that day in January, the temps were a frigid -9° and the wind chill a numbing -59°, with Cincinnati emerging as the victor. Snow is in the forecast for the game on Sunday and, while it will be a balmy 36° at game time, I expect the Bengals to repeat their performance in the cold from 1982 and win this game handily.
San Francisco 49ers vs. GREEN BAY PACKERS (+3)
The final game of Wild Card Weekend will be another historical harbinger. The 1967 “Ice Bowl” played between the Dallas Cowboys and the Packers, was the coldest game in history by temperature at -16°. The game on late Sunday afternoon may challenge that as snow is expected, the temperature will be below zero at kickoff and winds are expected to drive the wind chill factor to as low as -20°, if not worse.
Now that the meteorological data is out of the way, the game should actually be an entertaining one. The 49ers, on a six game winning streak, are well prepared to take on the conditions at Lambeau Field with the third ranked rushing game of RB Frank Gore and the read/option style of QB Colin Kaepernick. Sporting the fifth best defense in the NFL, the Niners are perhaps up for the challenge of hitting the “frozen tundra” in Wisconsin.
Who wants to bet against Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, however? After sitting out seven weeks, all Rodgers did was come back and, in a win-or-go-home game, defeat the Chicago Bears on the road to seal the NFC North for the Pack. Injuries will be the big question for the Cheeseheads, however, as RB Eddie Lacy is nursing an ankle injury and the heart of the defense, LB Clay Matthews, is a game-time decision with his broken thumb. Rodgers’ wide receiver corps has also been decimated by nagging injuries.
Although I don’t see the Packers winning this game outright, I do see them sticking around throughout the game and making it interesting in the end. Thus, I am taking the Packers and the points in the final game of Wild Card Weekend.
Last Week: This is the way to end the season! Another 11-5 run on the picks to finish off the year at over .500. We’ll see if, through the entirety of the playoffs, we can go 11-0!
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