The National Football League wild-card playoff round kicks off this Saturday with two games, followed by another two on Sunday. Here is a look at the four matchups and which teams will prevail.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Indianapolis Colts
This AFC wild card is as good of a battle as you can ask for in the first round. Both clubs finished the season with identical 11-5 records. But the NFL playoffs are usually won by teams on hot streaks, which means the advantage here goes to the red-hot Colts. They’ve won three straight games in which they only conceded 20 points to opponents, and one of those was against the Chiefs whom they beat 23-7. That game began perfectly for the Chiefs with an easy touchdown by their leading rusher Jamaal Charles. But that first quarter touchdown was all they could muster against an inspired Indy defense. Charles will have to lead the way Saturday for the Chiefs if they’re to win on the road in Indianapolis. But he won’t be able to do it alone. QB Alex Smith will have to get involved in some way — which won’t be easy with OLB Robert Mathis, the NFL’s leading sack man this season, staring him down every snap. Colts’ sophomore QB, Andrew Luck, will look to lead his team past yet another tough challenge this season — having already beaten arguably the three best teams in the NFL this season: the Denver Broncos, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. Look for this one to come down to the last drive. Colts win by less than a touchdown.
New Orleans Saints vs. Philadelphia Eagles
This NFC wild-card matchup would be an easy pick were it not for the Eagles’ 7-1 record in the second half of the season. After beginning the season 3-5, with three of those losses coming with QB Michael Vick starting and two with Matt Barkley filling in, the Eagles handed the keys full-time to Nick Foles who was responsible for two of the team’s first three victories on the season. What he did the rest of the season you will be able to read about in the record books. Foles, in his second season in the league, finished this year with 27 touchdown passes and only 2 interceptions, which is the best TD-INT ratio in NFL history. In total, he was 8-2 as a starter for the Eagles this season. Eagles coach Chip Kelly is in his rookie season after switching from college ball to the NFL — this might be the Eagles’ weakest link heading into the playoffs. Especially knowing who is on the other sideline: Saints’ coach Sean Payton, who has a Super Bowl ring and a Coach of the Year award. He, too, coaches one of the league’s best QB’s, Drew Brees. So this matchup could get interesting. The Eagles have an attack that no team has had the chance to figure out yet this season, and it might be too unfamiliar for the Saints to adjust in time. The Saints will also be in unfamiliar territory while they look for their first road victory in franchise victory. The Nick Foles success story continues for at least one more week. Eagles win big at home with running back LeSean McCoy and Foles carrying them on their shoulders.
San Diego Chargers vs. Cincinnati Bengals
The Chargers have missed the last three postseasons while the Bengals have gone 23 years without winning a single postseason game. Chargers QB Philip Rivers is one of the best in the game, leading the NFL this season in completion percentage at 69.5 percent. But the Bengals, despite their top-ten passing game, rely solely on their lethal and well-rounded defense. They are top-five in both opponents’ rushing yards allowed per game and opponents’ passing yards allowed per game. In their lone matchup of the season, the Bengals shut down the Chargers high-octane offense, allowing just ten points to the Chargers in San Diego. With this matchup in Cincinnati, where the Bengals happen to be a perfect 8-0 this season, it appears as if it will be a tough one for the west coast club. The Bengals stave off the Chargers despite a valiant effort from Rivers. This should be a low-scoring affair.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Green Bay Packers
The 49ers fell one victory shy of a Super Bowl title a year ago. But they’re back at it this year and are playing as well, if not better, than any other team in the league right now. 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick has a full season under his belt after taking over last year for Alex Smith (now starting for the Chiefs). With the addition of pro-bowl wide-receiver Anquan Boldin and the always-steady running back Frank Gore, the 49ers are able to beat opponents both in the air and on the ground. How the Packers contain that offense is as big of a question mark as to how their superstar QB, Aaron Rodgers, returns from injury. Rodgers was rusty in his first game back last week after breaking his collarbone seven weeks ago, but he looked more like the three-time Pro-Bowler in the second half and could fully have the rust knocked off by Sunday. It’s a tough draw for the 49ers. The Packers went 2-5-1 in Rodgers’ absence after starting the season 5-2 with Rodgers leading the way, so their record is a bit misleading. Regardless, San Francisco has won six games in a row and are 11-2 in their last 13. All four of the 49ers losses this season came to playoff teams, and the last two were by a combined four points. The 49ers are too steady right now for the Packers, and despite the game being played at the toughest road stadium in the NFL, Lambeau Field in Wisconsin, they should be able to torch the Green Bay defense much as they did in the first week of the season when they won 34-28. A similar score line can be expected Sunday in this showdown, with the 49ers advancing.