It’s the New Year, which can only mean one thing – the NFL playoffs are upon us, and Mike White has once again dusted off his crystal ball to give us his view on who will be the winners and losers this weekend.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Indianapolis Colts
Two teams that, at the beginning of this season, not many would have predicted to have finished at 11-5 and to be facing off against each other in the first round of the post-season. The Colts have inevitably been led through the regular season with pieces of brilliance from Andrew Luck, who has a genuine case to be classed as one of the NFL’s most effective QB’s after just two seasons, but that’s not to say that the rest of the roster hasn’t improved. After losing Reggie Wayne to injury, the rest of the young offense has stepped up to help keep Luck’s production going, while the defence has also raised its level through the regular season. Special credit goes to TY Hilton who has amassed a 1000 yard season, and Robert Mathis who has 19.5 sacks on defence.
But the Chiefs are the team with the choices here, they have the players who can really decide this one; starting with Jamaal Charles. After a week’s rest in week 17, he will be raring to go against one of the league’s worst rushing defences who allowed him 100 yards on 13 carries last time these two met. Now you could say that the Colts will be focusing on stopping him, but so has every other team this year, and they’ve all failed so far – Charles would have got my vote as league MVP. He has basically carried this team to 11-5 with almost 2000 total yards and 19 TD’s, averaging 5 yards per rush and 10 yards per reception. They’re silly numbers, and the Indy defence doesn’t look like a unit capable of stopping him.
Another possible game changer for Kansas City could be the return of Justin Houston from injury. The defence hasn’t quite looked the same without him, and his return could spark a change back to the utterly dominant and destructive unit we saw in the first half of the regular season: pressure on Luck is key for the Chiefs’ defensive gameplan, and as good as the ex-Stanford man has been this year, he still throws a few bad balls under pressure, one of those could make the difference.
Chiefs 27-23 Colts
New Orleans Saints @ Philadelphia Eagles
The things I’m hearing about this game are: ‘The Saints hate the cold’, ‘Saints are awful on the road’, ‘New Orleans’ run defence is shocking’, ‘Nick Foles is the best thing since sliced bread’. I just can’t help but feel people are going way overboard on this one, so let’s look at the facts.
Yes, the Saints have a poor record both on the road and in colder conditions, but look back to week 5 and their stifling win over the Chicago Bears: they can perform well on the road in the cold – it’s a mental block that Sean Peyton and Rob Ryan will be working hard to make the players overcome. If they can do so, then the Philadelphia Eagles’ defence is going to be in for a very long evening indeed. The league’s worst pass defence will simply not be able to cope with the Saints’ offense, and New Orleans will be keen to get Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram going on the ground, so that Drew Brees can use Jimmy Graham and co. to their full, devastating effect.
But the Eagles’ offense itself is pretty devastating at times; especially with 160+ yards on average on the ground every game. LeSean McCoy has finally been used to his full potential, and it’s making life easy for whoever is Quarterbacking Philly these days, as it allows DeSean Jackson to be a genuine deep threat on every single play. The Saints’ defence has been pretty good through the air, but it is on the ground that they have struggled, so you would expect the aggressive Rob Ryan to go one on one with the Eagles’ receivers in an attempt to slow down McCoy. New Orleans will also be throwing one hell of a lot of effort into their pass rush and unsettling Nick Foles, so the excellent Philly offensive line will have to be on the top of their game once again.
This is a tough one to call, but I feel that too much has been read into the possible cold weather and the experience of Drew Brees and many of the New Orleans team in tight spots such as these will prove crucial. While it’s definitely possible that the entertainment spectacle that is the Philly offense could pull this one out, there is a lingering suspicion that this could prove too big for Nick Foles at this stage of his career against a defence who are going to mix things up and confuse the young QB.
Saints 30-27 Eagles
San Diego Chargers @ Cincinnati Bengals
Many think that the Saints/Eagles game will be the biggest shootout of the round, but here’s a newsflash: we could well see a downpour of points in Cincinnati on Sunday evening. The Bengals have scored more than 34 points in each of their last 5 home games, and 40+ in 4 of those, so the San Diego defence, who allowed 350 total yards to the KC backups last week, will find themselves struggling to stop Andy Dalton and company, even if the red-headed Cincy QB is still error-prone and inaccurate at times. The Chargers have to keep AJ Green under 120 yards receiving to have any chance of winning this, and they will have to keep a close eye on Giovani Bernard, who has been a gold-mine of a find at RB for the Bengals this year with his big play potential.
Philip Rivers has been excellent in the most part for the Chargers this year, and he will be looking to exploit another average unit in the Bengals’ secondary. Cincinnati no doubt expected more from their back unit this year, but there is still time for them to show their best level of play when it matters. Vontaze Burfict will be the man that the San Diego offense will be looking to bypass, as he has been one of the Bengals’ best players this year, overcoming character concerns to be a real force in the middle of that defence. The Chargers will have to find a way to stop him from shutting down their run game or they will find themselves under serious pressure from the Cincy pass rush.
Cincinnati are unbeaten at home this season, and despite winning in the end, the Chargers’ unconvincing performance against a second-string Chiefs team when the pressure was well and truly on did nothing to show me that they were ready to come into the cold in Cincy and go home with a win.
Chargers 31-38 Bengals
San Francisco 49ers @ Green Bay Packers
This is the game that everyone is waiting for with baited breath, and while the Packers only sneaked their division at the last minute, the atmosphere at Lambeau Field and the memories of a certain Playoff encounter not too long ago will make this an occasion to remember, especially if the weather is going to be as cold and unaccommodating as predicted.
The Niners have been accumulating some serious momentum over the last few weeks of the regular season and are playing some great football, especially after the return of Michael Crabtree on the outside, opening things up for Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the San Francisco offense. Running back Frank Gore will be crucial for the Niners here up against one of the league’s poorest rushing defences, and after watching what Matt Forte did to the Pack last week, he will be licking his lips for this one. In fact, all of the running backs on the roster should be looking forward to this, as San Francisco will look to keep the ball out of Aaron Rodgers’ hands for as long as is physically possible by running the ball 50+ times during the course of the game: a tactic that could well win them the game.
But with the return of Rodgers and his multi-dimensional speed threat Randall Cobb, the 49ers will know that they have to be on top of their game on both sides of the football this weekend. Eddie Lacy is a star at RB, and the rookie will need to be at his barrelling best to give the Packers a balanced attack and create some gaps in the defence for Rodgers to exploit. Another key for the Packers is the need to recreate the havoc that the absent Clay Matthews could have created: his thumb surgery rules him out here, and robs the Pack of their best weapon on defence.
Although there has been a lot made about the cold and the conditions, the Niners’ run-heavy game plan is well suited to the conditions, and if they can keep the football away from the Packers’ best players for long enough, they have a huge chance to come out of one of the great amphitheatres of the game with a hard fought win.
49ers 30-24 Packers