2014 NFL Wild Card Weekend Predictions

January 4, 2014

I may prefer college football over the pros, but the fact that the NFL playoffs begin right as the college bowl season ends makes me very happy.

It’s basically the perfect transition from football to the part of the college basketball season that everyone gets excited about.

In this post, I’ll give a short rundown of the four Wild Card matchups taking place this weekend as well as my predictions for the games. I’ll do a similar post every week leading up to the Super Bowl, which means that I won’t have a full playoff prediction post but you will still be able to see my prediction for each game that actually occurs.

Without further rambling, here is the Wild Card Weekend preview.

AFC Wild Card

(5) Kansas City Chiefs at (4) Indianapolis Colts (Saturday, 4:35 PM ET – NBC)

Kansas City exceeded the expectations of many (and met mine) by finishing 11-5 and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time with Andy Reid as head coach. The Chiefs will travel to Lucas Oil Stadium to take on the Colts, which had little trouble winning the AFC South, sweeping the divisional matchups and finishing four games ahead of second place Tennessee.

Some people would call what Kansas City did to finish the regular season “backing in” to the playoffs. The Chiefs did drop the final two contests in December, but both of those losses came against playoff competition (one of those teams being the Colts) and the team had already punched its ticket to the postseason. What Kansas City did before those final two games, when the team needed a win, was obliterate Washington and Oakland in consecutive weeks. While the defense has generally been the stronger of the two sides for Reid’s team, the offense came alive near the end of October and had a vicious bite until being subdued by Indianapolis on December 22. Kansas City isn’t going to hold the Colts to under 14 points, so the offense needs to regain some of that swagger to have a chance in this one.

Inside the dome, we can expect that the Colts will have some success offensively with a fairly balanced attack. But what gives the Colts the true advantage in this game is the team’s ability to stop Kansas City’s run game. Jamaal Charles managed to eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark the last time these two teams met, but the Chiefs weren’t able to do much else offensively en route to scoring only a single touchdown. If the Colts can find a way to limit the effectiveness of Kansas City’s run game, Alex Smith probably won’t be able to do enough on his own to outduel Andrew Luck.

Luck & Co. will have success offensively and the defense will do just enough to send Indianapolis to the divisional round. Expect the Chiefs to come out looking better than the last time these two teams met, but it still won’t be enough to upset the home team.

My Pick: 27-23 Indianapolis

(6) San Diego Chargers at (3) Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, 1:05 PM ET – CBS)

The Bengals are making their third consecutive trip to the playoffs with Andy Dalton at quarterback, but have yet to win a playoff contest with No. 14 under center. Another loss before the divisional round wouldn’t be good for Marvin Lewis’s job security, especially since the team will be facing a new opponent and is playing at home for the first time during the three year stretch. San Diego comes to town making the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and due to the weather may be dreading it.

San Diego should simply be glad that it made the playoffs based on what happened at the end of regulation during last week’s game against Kansas City. The Chargers are the third team from the AFC West to qualify for the playoffs and definitely the most inconsistent. A four game winning streak (including a victory over Denver) to end the season followed a stretch between November 3 and December 1 where San Diego dropped four of five (including a 17-10 loss to Cincinnati) games. The Chargers did receive good news earlier this week that running back Ryan Mathews is probable to play in this game, which could be huge for the team. Mathews complements Philip Rivers well, whose resurgence this season leads an offense that is second to Denver in the AFC in passing yards per game.

Cincinnati likely would have preferred to avoid the return of Mathews, but fans should be confident that the defense has the tools to deal with an additional weapon. The Bengals have the AFC’s best overall defense in terms of total yardage allowed, ranking second against the run and third against the pass. Rivers may have trouble throwing the ball against the cold weather, and going up against Cincinnati’s tough secondary would have been difficult anyway. I expect Dalton to have a better game through the air, as he will have the opportunity to pick apart the conference’s worst pass defense.

As much as my roommates would like to see the Bengals bow out in the Wild Card round for a third straight year, I don’t think it’s going to happen. San Diego is too inconsistent, the weather favors Cincinnati and Lewis’s team has not dropped a game this season at home.

My Pick: 24-21 Cincinnati

NFC Wild Card

(6) New Orleans Saints at (3) Philadelphia Eagles (Saturday, 8:10 PM ET – NBC)

The surprising winner of the NFC East will take on the playoff regular New Orleans, whose defense may actually be the key to victory for a change. Like the other games this weekend not played in a dome, cold weather could affect the outcome of this one.

The Saints still have a powerful offense with Drew Brees at the helm, but it’s the defense that has kept the team in close games with the best in the league. Along with giving up just over 19 points per contest, the Saints trail only Seattle and Carolina in the NFC for fewest yards allowed on defense. This shift in team philosophy will come in handy against the Eagles, which have been tearing it up offensively with Nick Foles at quarterback and Chip Kelly as head coach. You may not have heard this often in the past, but if New Orleans wants to win this game, the defense is going to have to dig deep and play hard while tired; Kelly’s up-tempo offense has been tough to stop.

Nick Foles appears to be the real deal for the Eagles, but you have to wonder if Chip Kelly’s offense is the real deal in the NFL. Sure, teams have clearly had trouble slowing down Philadelphia’s quick offensive attack, but when things go bad, they go really badly. Twice this season the Eagles have been held to less than 10 points on offense, and two separate times the team has been beaten by at least 18 points. Remember, this is a team that was fighting for its playoff life until the final game of the regular season, so motivation was unlikely to be a factor in either of those blowouts. In this game, Foles will have to step up in his first playoff appearance and produce against one of the NFC’s stingiest defenses. He will get help from LeSean McCoy, who should have success against a Saints defense that has struggled against the run, but New Orleans will likely try to force Foles to make mistakes a more experienced quarterback wouldn’t make.

Despite the New Orleans defense, I think this game will be the highest scoring of the weekend. Brees and Foles will go back and forth all game long, but the presence of McCoy gives Philadelphia the advantage.

My Pick: 34-30 Philadelphia

(5) San Francisco 49ers at (4) Green Bay Packers (Sunday, 4:40 PM ET – FOX)

Who would have guessed that these two teams would meet on Wild Card Weekend? Injuries throughout the season have resulted in an extremely intriguing pairing during the first weekend of playoff action, and it is my belief that the best chance for a Wild Card participant ending up in the Super Bowl comes from this game.

San Francisco’s defense had been taking a beating throughout the regular season, but it appears as though many of the injured 49ers on that side of the ball will play in this game. Still, with so many players on the injury list, it is impressive that the 49ers were able to finish the regular season at 12-4. Frank Gore is expected to be back on offense, which gives San Francisco a much needed boost in this game. Without Gore, it is questionable as to whether the team would be able to take advantage of Green Bay’s suspect run defense. That is what this team will need to do to win this game, as the chilly temperatures could make throwing the ball a nightmare for both quarterbacks.

Aaron Rodgers is back for Green Bay, and if you’re a Packers fan then that probably makes you think your team has a legitimate shot at making the Super Bowl. True as that may be, the most difficult opponent Green Bay would face in the playoffs were the team to make it that far is San Francisco. The Packers have a lot of issues on defense which will most likely be exploited by the 49ers, and Rodgers may not be able to totally bail the unit out with his arm due to the weather conditions. Additionally, the 49ers defense has managed to play fairly well in the absence of key players at various points in the season. Like San Francisco, the Packers would benefit greatly from a solid performance by their running back.

It would be foolish to say that Aaron Rodgers will not have a large impact in this game, because he will. But this game has the potential to be dominated by the run, and in that case San Francisco has the edge both offensively and defensively. I think this will be the one game of the weekend where the home team is not victorious.

My Pick: 33-27 San Francisco

– K. Becks

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