KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (11-5) @ INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (11-5), SATURDAY, 2:35 P.M., NBC
The Chiefs, in their first season with Andy Reid as head coach, were the NFL’s last remaining undefeated team before running into the Denver Broncos. Twice. Two losses to the AFC’s 1-seed sandwiched around a 3-point loss to the San Diego Chargers dropped the Chiefs from 9-0 to 9-3 and killed any real chance KC had at a first-round bye. Still, the team that was 2-14 in 2012 won nine more games in 2013, the biggest improvement of any team in the league.
The Colts, picked by many NFL experts to fall back to earth after posting a surprising 11-5 record in 2012, maintained their record and won the AFC South for the first time since a man named Peyton Manning lined up behind center in 2010.
Led by the already-great-and-still-improving Andrew Luck, it would be hard to discount the Colts in the playoffs, especially at home, where they were 6-2 during the regular season.
But the Chiefs have boasted one of the league’s best defenses and though Alex Smith limits the explosiveness of the passing game, no one has been able to limit running back Jamaal Charles during his career season (1,287 rushing yards, 693 receiving yards and 19 total TDs).
The Colts gave up the seventh-most rushing yards this season and it’s not like their pass D (13th worst) is enough to make up for it.
Then again, that’s what I would have said before week 16, when the Colts embarrassed the Chiefs 23-7 IN ARROWHEAD.
That game may point to the Colts advancing to Denver (barring a Chargers upset at Cincy) in the divisional round, but I expect Reid and the Chiefs to play to their potential and escape falling to the one-dimensional (though it’s a pretty good dimension) Colts team.
Chiefs 28, Colts 24
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5) @ PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-6), SATURDAY, 6:10 P.M., NBC
The return of head coach Sean Payton (suspended for the 2012 season for his involvement with the Saints’ illegal bounty program) helped return the Saints to their former glory. After a disappointing 7-9 season in 2012, Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense put up some gaudy numbers that may go overlooked due to the Broncos’ record-setting season.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia started the season with the exciting duo of rookie head coach Chip Kelly and veteran quarterback Michael Vick, but finished the year with Vick leashed to the bench while second-year QB Nick Foles excelled while remaining in the pocket. Foles posted an all-time best ratio of 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions in 12 games started.
Much has been made of the Saints’ troubles away from the Superdome, and rightly so. The Brees-led offense averages 8.8 yards per pass attempt at home (which would be a league best over 16 games) but just an Alex Smith-like 6.5 YPA on the road (which would be tied for fifth-worst).
The Eagles, on the other hand, are tops in the NFL with their 8.8 team-YPA, and Foles has averaged an even better 9.12 yards per attempt in his time behind center.
Foles’ brilliance has been aided by the career season of running back LeSean McCoy, who outran the rest of the NFL with 1,607 rushing yards and another 539 yards receiving.
McCoy will be the difference-maker in this game as New Orleans can’t match Philly’s production on the ground.
The Saints, with running backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles ranked 25th in the league with 1,473 rushing yards (143 yards less than McCoy) and will have to rely on Brees to keep pace in this shootout. Brees is certainly capable of slinging it around, but on the road, against one of the few offenses that can outscore them, I see the Saints being sent home early.
The forecast calls for cold, but clear skies, and shouldn’t be a factor as Shady and Foles have their way with the Saints.
Eagles 38, Saints 20
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (9-7) @ CINCINNATI BENGALS (11-5), SUNDAY, 11:05 A.M., CBS
I guess, officially, they have to play this game, but depending on how my Saturday night goes, I might sleep through this one.
The Bengals are the best boring team to make the playoffs. They’re like the Ravens, but with one exceptional playmaker and without the grossly overpaid quarterback. And the Chargers, well, they’re good, but not really. And aside from a possible Philip Rivers tantrum, I can’t see this game having much entertainment value.
San Diego is considered a surprise, but at 9-7 and on the heels of a questionable win against Kansas City’s JV team, it should be no surprise if they’re trounced by the Bengals, who were a perfect 8-0 at home this season.
On paper, this game should be a relatively easy one for Cincy, who beat San Diego on the road 17-10 in week 13, but it depends on which Andy Dalton shows up.
Will it be the one who threw nine picks between weeks 10-13 and then threw another four in week 17’s must-win against Baltimore? Or the one who threw 25 TDs and only seven interceptions in Cincy’s 11 other games?
Even if Dalton struggles, it might only take a couple lobs to wide receiver A.J. Green to give Cincinnati enough of a lead for its third-ranked defense (in terms of total yards) to protect.
San Diego’s offense can score, but the Bengals have the league’s fifth-best pass de- fense, which should limit what Rivers and rookie wideout Keenan Allen can do. And unlike the Bengals, the Chargers don’t have a vaunted defense (ranked just 23rd) to keep them in this one if Cincinnati goes ahead early.
Bengals 30, Chargers 14
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (12-4) @ GREEN BAY PACKERS (8-7-1), SUNDAY, 2:20 P.M., FOX
The Packers went from being one more Matt Flynn dropback from an early vacation to being one of the scarier teams to make the playoffs. Green Bay boasts the worst win-loss record of any team in the post- season, but was 6-2 in games quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who missed eight games with a broken collarbone) completed.
The Niners, fresh off a Super Bowl loss, managed an impressive 12-4 record despite showing few signs of the exciting, high-octane offense that averaged 34.7 points in last sea- son’s playoffs. Has coach Jim Harbaugh and company really abandoned the read-option that makes quarterback Colin Kaepernick so dangerous, or have they saved it to unleash it on the Packer defense yet again?
Green Bay’s offense struggled, predictably, without Rodgers. The Packers averaged 30.6 points per game with a healthy Rodgers and just 21.5 points per game with either Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien or Matt Flynn starting at QB. But Rodgers is back, and judging from his 318-yard, two-TD performance (I’ll attribute his two first-half picks to rust) against the Bears in a game for the NFC North crown, he’s still a force to be reckoned with.
But if there’s any team that’s shown it can stop Rodgers, it’s San Francisco. The 49ers have enjoyed three straight wins against the Packers, including last year’s 45-31 win in the divisional playoffs and two straight season-openers.
But this will be the first time the Niners will travel to Lambeau Field since Kaepernick has taken the reins. He proved he can win in tough road conditions when he led the Niners on a 17-point comeback against Atlanta in the Georgia Dome in last season’s NFC Championship game, but playing in a dome isn’t the same as winning in the 12 degree (high!) weather Green Bay will offer on Sunday.
This one’s tough for me. I’m a lifelong 49ers fan but I can’t ignore Rodgers, his bevy of weapons and how large Lambeau can loom in January. As much as I want to, I can’t pick with my heart. And as a journalist, it’s my duty to be objective.
49ers 73, Packers 1