Posted: Thu Jan. 2, 2014Updated: Sat Jun. 14, 2014
The pressure of the dreaded one-and-done experience is what makes for so much riveting and excruciating drama every January in the NFL playoffs. Months of work, preparation and success can be wiped out in one ill-fated three-hour block of time. There is no best three-out-of-five or four-out-of- seven series to ease your way into in football. It's an unforgiving one-shot deal on gameday, and if things go badly, they quickly and cruelly usher you off the stage.
The good fans in Cincinnati and Kansas City know of which I speak. The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, and have endured four one-and-done postseasons in the intervening years. The Chiefs haven't waited quite so long, but it has still been since 1993 and the days of Joe Montana at quarterback since the Kansas City faithful have had a playoff victory cigar to light. There have been a staggering six one-and-done playoff trips for the Chiefs in the past 20 years.
Will this weekend be the long-awaited charm for Cincinnati and Kansas City? Is the end of their painful playoff droughts at hand, with the Chiefs packing off for Indianapolis and the Bengals staying home to welcome the upstart Chargers? It's almost time to tune in to find out. If Bengals and Chiefs fans can bear to watch, a reward for their patience might be about to present itself. And there's absolutely nothing shabby about Saints-Eagles and 49ers-Packers, maybe the two best matchups of the NFL's first round.
Last week: 14-2; Season 169-86
Saturday, Jan. 4
4:35 p.m. ET (NBC)
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5) The Colts seem to have played at least three distinct seasons, having started fast, slumped in November, but finished on a definite upswing with three consecutive victories. As for the Chiefs, their season breaks neatly into that 9-0 eye-popping start, followed by a 2-5 finish in which they lost to every decent team they played. That includes a Week 16 defeat at the hands of the visiting Colts at Arrowhead. With the rematch slated for Lucas Oil Stadium, I can't see the outcome being any different. Andrew Luck gets his first career playoff victory, and Kansas City's playoff losing streak rolls on into a third decade.
8:10 p.m. ET (NBC)
New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6) Most of the pressure is squarely on the Saints, who looked like one of the NFC's Super Bowl favorites four short weeks ago, but can't seem to steady themselves and play their game on the road. The Eagles are 7-1 in the season's second half, with four consecutive home wins and that giddy sense that they don't yet know where this team's ceiling is. In what should be the most entertaining and wide-open game of the weekend, I like Philadelphia's offense to land one more punch than New Orleans' defense can absorb. Maybe the NFL schedule-makers could do us a favor and have Chip Kelly and Sean Payton match their playcalling acumen at least once a season.
Sunday, Jan. 5
1:05 p.m. ET (CBS)
San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-5) The Chargers certainly appear to be the quintessential "dangerous team" in this year's AFC playoffs, having needed an improbable chain of events -- not to mention a little help from the officials last week against Kansas City -- to fall their way just to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2009. That gives Philip Rivers and Co. a playing-with-house-money feel, but if the Bengals are as good as I think they are, San Diego's karma won't matter. This is no-excuses time for Cincinnati, which has reached the playoffs five times in the Marvin Lewis coaching era, but is still waiting for its first postseason win. Unbeaten at home this season, the Bengals should have everything working in their favor. If they can't get over the hump and into the divisional round with this team, against this playoff opponent, then Cincinnati will rank as one of the underachievers of the year.
4:40 p.m. ET (FOX)
San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at Green Bay Packers (8-7-1) In the two most recent 49ers-Packers games, Colin Kaepernick has taken turns shredding the Green Bay defense with his feet (45-31 in last January's NFC divisional playoff) and with his arm (34-28 in Week 1 this season), and the fact that playmaker Clay Matthews will miss the game with another thumb injury won't help the Packers' cause one bit. San Francisco rolled to almost 1,100 yards of offense in those two shootouts, and comes into this rematch with an NFL-high six-game winning streak. But Green Bay does have some reason to think things will be different this time around. The frigid weather forecast could get into the 49ers' heads and cast them in the role of the 1967 Dallas Cowboys in the Ice Bowl, and the return of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb last week gave the Packers an undeniable lift. If Green Bay can get an early lead and continue to thrive on the energy and emotion of surviving last week's near-death experience at Chicago, the pressure might build on the defending NFC champions, who had much more than a one-and-done playoff run on the agenda this season.