NFL Playoffs 2013: An early look ahead to wild-card weekend
One of the most unpredictable NFL seasons in recent memory has set the table for what should be a fascinating postseason. Several division titles and a wild-card spot in each league went down to the wire, with playoff seeding hinging on Week 17's results as well.
What's in store for the wild-card round? Here's an early look at the matchup:
No. 6 San Diego Chargers (9-7) at No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
The Bengals are making their third consecutive playoff appearance but their first in that span as a division champ -- and this could be a critical difference. After bowing out at Houston each of the past two seasons, Cincinnati will host a first-round game, and it comes in hot, having won five of six. The lone loss in that stretch was to Pittsburgh, which would have been visiting its AFC North rivals had San Diego not pulled out an OT win on Sunday.
How dangerous does that outcome make the Chargers, now an underdog with nothing to lose? Well, that all depends on which San Diego team shows up: the one that narrowly eked past the Chiefs' backups or the one that beat a fully-manned Kansas City and Denver on the road.
This will be the second meeting of the season between these two teams. Cincinnati won the earlier matchup 17-10 at San Diego in Week 13. The Bengals pulled off that victory by stifling a dangerous Chargers attack, forcing three turnovers and limiting the Ryan Mathews/Danny Woodhead combo to fewer than 100 yards rushing. Andy Dalton did not have to do all that much (14-of-23 for 190 yards, one TD, one INT), thanks to 149 yards combined from BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard.
Cincinnati finished the regular season 8-0 at home, but its last home playoff win was over Houston during the 1990 season.
No. 5 Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at No. 4 Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
The last game in which the Chiefs employed their full roster? Week 16 against the Colts ... and Indianapolis absolutely dominated that one 23-7, in Kansas City. Will a week of rest for Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles and Co. give the Chiefs enough juice to flip the script in the rematch?
Indianapolis has played its best football this season against some of the better teams in the league, scoring wins over Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and Kansas City. But unlike the Chiefs, who ran a gauntlet of playoff teams in November and December, the Colts have played just two postseason participants since Oct. 21: Cincinnati and Kansas City. (They also lost to 10-6 Arizona in that stretch.)
Smith was sacked five times in the Week 16 meeting with Indianapolis, and the Chiefs also committed three turnovers. Though Charles did his thing with 144 total yards, he received very little help from his teammates in an extremely lackluster offensive effort. Meanwhile, Andrew Luck was near-flawless in throwing for 241 yards to nine receivers.
No. 6 New Orleans Saints (11-5) at No. 3 Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
The Saints will hit the road, traveling to Philadelphia as the six seed. All things considered, that may not be a terrible position, assuming the Saints find some way to shake their road woes -- they lost five of their last six outside the Big Easy.
Still, when this Drew Brees-led offense is on, it's almost impossible to stop. The Saints proved that again Sunday with a playoff-clinching 42-17 romp over the Buccaneers, in which Brees threw for 381 yards and four touchdowns. The offense is as healthy as it's been all season too, with Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and others back from injuries in recent weeks.
How well a revived New Orleans defense can hold its own against LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles may be the difference-maker here. The Eagles entered Sunday with the league's second-most prolific offense in terms of points scored. They've also won four straight at home, outscoring their opponents by an average count of 34-17 in those games.
No. 5 San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at No. 4 Green Bay Packers (8-7-1)
The Packers' reward for scratching and clawing their way to the NFC North title? A matchup with the San Francisco team that smoked them out of the playoffs last season and beat them in Week 1 this season. Oh, and the 49ers might be playing as well as anyone in the league -- they enter the playoffs winners of six straight.
Green Bay simply has had no answers for Kaepernick in the two recent meetings. In last season's 45-31 playoff win over the Pack, Kaepernick threw for 263 yards and rushed for a QB playoff-record 181. Eight months later, in Week 1, he torched Green Bay's secondary to the tune of 412 yards passing.
Of course, Green Bay has a dangerous offense of its own, made even more lethal by the Week 17 returns of Aaron Rodgers and wideout Randall Cobb. That duo hooked up for the division-clinching touchdown pass that broke Chicago's hearts on Sunday. Getting Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Eddie Lacy as close to healthy as possible will be critical for Green Bay. Another key injury to watch: Clay Matthews' fractured thumb. He sat out Week 17 after undergoing surgery and was considered questionable for the playoffs. Without him, the rest of the Packers defense will be even more under the microscope against Kaepernick.