The Playbook: Previewing 49ers-Packers, Eagles-Saints, more wild-card games
No. 5 Kansas City Chiefs at No. 4 Indianapolis Colts -- Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET (NBC): "I didn't think we played very well, in any facet of the game," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said a mere two weeks ago, when his team was stomped at home by the Colts 23-7.
Was that lackluster performance more the result of Kansas City's poor play or of the Colts being able to dictate the game? We should get the answer to that question Saturday in a playoff rematch.
Certainly, Kansas City will have to be much better than it was in Week 16, when the Colts sacked Smith five times and forced three turnovers. One of those K.C. miscues turned the game irreversibly in Indianapolis' favor: a Robert Mathis strip-sack of Smith near midfield, setting up a Donald Brown touchdown that put the Colts up by 13. Rookie Eric Fisher, who struggled so mightily after getting selected No. 1 overall, will be responsible for Mathis again, should Fisher play -- he's currently questionable with a shoulder problem. Mathis finished the regular season with a league-leading 19.5 sacks. Donald Stephenson will fill in for Fisher if his injury keeps him out.
(Update, 2 p.m. ET: Fisher has been ruled out for the game.)
The Chiefs generated 47 sacks of their own in 2013, five more than the Colts despite Mathis' efforts. Part and parcel of that pass rush came the 36 turnovers the Chiefs forced, good for second-best in the league. But Indianapolis coughed up the football less than once per game with 14 total turnover during the regular season.
Neither quarterback (Smith or Andrew Luck) was particularly reckless through the air this year. Smith fired interceptions on just 1.4 percent of his passes; Luck was not far behind at 1.6. This is the lone game where the weather will not play a factor, thanks to Indianapolis' retractable roof, so there could be some fireworks through the air.
Indianapolis might prefer that to a grind-it-out game. Why? Well, the Chiefs own an advantage on the ground, with the ability to unleash Jamaal Charles against the league's 26th-ranked run defense. Even in that earlier 16-point loss to Indianapolis, Charles gained 144 total yards and a touchdown. For what it's worth, Donald Brown and Trent Richardson combined for 122 yards rushing in Kansas City.
Luck will make just his second postseason appearance. He struggled through a 24-9 loss at Baltimore last season. And it's just playoff appearance No. 3 for Smith, who went 1-1 for the 49ers in the 2011 postseason. -- Chris Burke
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No. 6 New Orleans Saints at No. 3 Philadelphia Eagles -- Saturday, 8:10 p.m. ET (NBC): There are all kinds of interesting narratives for this game, starting with the fact that Eagles quarterback Nick Foles and Saints quarterback Drew Brees both went to Westlake High in Austin, Texas. Foles, who has redefined the Philly offense in his second year as an NFL quarterback, has been watching Brees with much respect for years.
"He's a guy I've watched and learned from," Foles said this week. "He's done a lot of great things throughout his career, on and off the field, and he's a great role model for fellow players, kids and adults."
Brees, who is coming off a ridiculous regular-season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in which he completed 24-of-31 passes for 381 yards and four touchdowns, has been his usual brilliant self most of the season -- but the dings against him for road performances are legitimate. He's thrown 27 touchdown passes and three picks in the Superdome this season with a 126.3 passer rating. When the Saints travel, Brees' stats are far more mortal -- 12 touchdowns, nine picks and a 84.8 rating. It's a hair-splitting argument in the regular season, but with Brees traveling in a one-and-done situation, concerns might be amplified on the Saints' side of things.
One thing's for sure. The two offensive play-designers in this game, Saints head coach Sean Payton and Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, have a great deal of admiration for each other.
"I think one thing that Sean does, he just always seems to get the right matchups," Kelly said Wednesday. "He's obviously got some talent and they are a really, really talented football team, but Sean does a great job of getting his playmakers in matchups that are favorable to him and he does it week in and week out."
Another thing driving the Saints' passing offense this year is that Brees is spreading the ball around in ways the league has never seen. In 2013, he led an offense with four players amassing more than 70 receptions each, the first time that's happened in NFL history. Jimmy Graham is Brees' most productive target, and he'll be a matchup nightmare for an Eagles defense that improved in the second half of the season but still ranks 24th against tight ends in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics.
Kelly has integrated the formation concepts that worked so well for him at Oregon, and he's been beating NFL defenses over the head with them all season. The Eagles present a nearly unstoppable combination of execution, motion and matchup awareness when they're firing on all cylinders. Payton said this week that his scout team is having a tough time replicating Kelly's spread concepts.
"The pace is extremely, extremely fast, and so we will have our work cut out for us ... There is a lot of variety. You have to defend the whole field."
The two defenses in this game must feel like ugly ducklings, but each brings interesting attributes to the table. Rob Ryan's Saints squad excels in advanced blitz concepts, but his go-for-broke approach leaves defensive backs in matchups that are hard to win at times. Philly's Billy Davis has established a hybrid defense that works pretty well on all levels and features a host of underrated players -- especially on the frontline.
One guy to watch is Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin, who nabbed the late-game interception against the Cowboys last Sunday that gave his team the NFC East. It was no fluke, as Boykin has been effective from the slot and outside most of the season. Against a formation-diverse passing offense such as the one run by Payton and Brees, Boykin's adaptability might prove to be the difference. -- Doug Farrar
No. 6 San Diego Chargers at No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals -- Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET (CBS): It's a good thing Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is having one of his best seasons under new head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, because the defense San Diego has put on the field in 2013 isn't good enough to win a playoff game by itself. Outside of safety Eric Weddle and defensive lineman Corey Liuget, the Chargers lack impact players on that side of the ball. That's more the fault of former general manager A.J. Smith than anyone in the building now, but things are what they are -- and the Bengals have the weapons to break that defense down pretty quickly.
Cincinnati has scored more than 40 points in three of its last six games. Quarterback Andy Dalton is streaky and somewhat limited, but he has two outstanding targets in All-World receiver A.J. Green and second-year man Marvin Jones, who came out of nowhere this year to score 10 touchdowns. The problem for Dalton is he's hardly been outstanding in the playoffs. In two first-round losses to the Houston Texans, the third-year quarterback put up a 48.6 passer rating, completing 41 passes in 72 attempts for 384 yards, no touchdowns and four picks. Given that he matched that four pick-total in the regular-season finale against the Baltimore Ravens (which the Bengals still won 34-17), it's possible that even San Diego's leaky defense could exploit Dalton when he's off his game.
"Offensively, I don't think we've done very well, but we haven't put a pretty complete game together," Dalton said this week. "This is the time. What you've done in the regular season doesn't matter anymore; it's all about what you're doing now. It's the team that gets hot that ends up winning it all. We've got to play to our potential, and good things are going to happen for us."
These teams met on Dec. 1 at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, and the Bengals pulled that one out 17-10 with a physical gameplan that led with their stellar defense and run game. Rivers was limited to 252 yards passing and posted his lowest quarterback rating of the year (80.0). Even without defensive tackle Geno Atkins, this Cincinnati defense is for real, and the Chargers are well aware of that.
“It was our last loss, and we are not far removed from that game, so you have to watch film," Rivers said Wednesday. "What you remember most from the game is we moved the ball decently, but we turned the ball over a few times down in there. Then we miss a throw here and there down in there that stop drives. We had the chance to take the lead and never did. It’s a tough opponent... It’s evident when you watch the tape that they are really good. They have won all eight of their games at home. We definitely have our work cut out for us.”
Indeed, and there's no margin for error for Rivers against the third-ranked total defense and tied for fifth-ranked scoring defense. San Diego's defense will have to step up ... or hope for one of those games from Dalton. -- DF
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No. 5 San Francisco 49ers at No. 4 Green Bay Packers -- Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET (FOX): Aaron Rodgers almost always grabs the majority of headlines for Green Bay, but the man really in the spotlight this weekend is defensive coordinator Dom Capers. He has yet to solve the 49ers' offense since Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2011, losing three straight times, including in last season's playoffs, with the 49ers averaging 36.3 points per game.
Perhaps the weather in Green Bay will help Capers' cause this year. Sunday's high is listed at a mere five degrees, with a low that night of minus-18. (The game kicks off a 3:30 p.m. local time.)
But outside of that, it will be up to Capers and his defense to find some way to slow Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco's QB humiliated Green Bay last postseason to the tune of 181 yards and two touchdowns ... and those were his rushing totals. Kaepernick also threw for 263 yards and another pair of scores in the 45-31 win. The weapons around him, which now include proven playoff performer Anquan Boldin, have returned to health just in time.
The same can be said, of course, about Rodgers. He shook off some rust in his first game back to deliver a late dagger in Chicago, which handed the Packers a division title. And even though he was slightly off his game versus the Bears (as evidenced by two interceptions), Rodgers still hit on 64.1 percent of his passes for 318 yards. He has been strong during this three-game skid versus San Francisco, too, connecting on 77-of-120 passes (64.2 percent) for nearly 900 yards with a 7:3 TD-to-interception ratio.
What Green Bay has now that it did not in last year's playoff loss -- or even, really, in its Week 1 setback against San Francisco -- is a formidable run game. Eddie Lacy rushed for 41 yards in that season-opening defeat, then averaged more than 80 yards per game from then on out.
If he cannot tip the scales in his team's favor, San Francisco's Frank Gore might do the trick. He, like Lacy, topped 1,100 yards rushing this season.
With Rodgers back in the lineup, the key injury of note for this game is that to the thumb of Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews. He will not play Sunday, robbing the Packers of their best defensive playmaker. Statistically, they're already well behind the 49ers' defense (San Francisco ranked third in points allowed; Green Bay 24th). Holding up minus Matthews will be a tall order. -- CB
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• Matchup to Watch:
-- Vernon Davis vs. ??? Sorry for the incomplete answer there. However, it remains to be seen what the Packers can do in hopes of limiting Davis. The 49ers' tight end scored twice with 98 yards receiving back in Week 1 versus Green Bay.
The real problem is that the Packers do not have anyone who matches up all that well with Davis. (Granted, few teams do.) A.J. Hawk's not a great answer, so the Packers may opt to bring a safety down for that responsibility. Likely, Green Bay will mix and match coverages with various defenders, hoping to at least give Davis some different looks. -- CB
-- Eagles OLB Trent Cole vs. Saints LT Terron Armstead. Saints head coach Sean Payton benched left tackle Charles Brown after New Orleans' Week 15 loss to the St. Louis Rams and replaced him with Armstead, the third-round rookie from Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Armstead became a scouting combine star for his athleticism, but he's had trouble solving NFL defensive lines and has allowed three sacks in two starts. Cole has been an underrated force for the Eagles all season -- his sack total (eight) doesn't pop off the stat sheet, but he's also an exceptional run-stopper.
Asked on Friday if the Saints would give Armstead help against him, Cole replied simply, "They'd better." -- DF
• Pressure’s On …:
-- Andy Dalton, Bengals. This may be too obvious an answer, but until Dalton starts getting the job done in the playoffs, there are going to be questions about the Bengals' ceiling with him at the helm. It would be unfair to hang all of Cincinnati's past two playoff exits on Dalton's shoulders, but he has a postseason QB rating of 48.6 and has yet to throw a TD pass in 72 attempts. For the Bengals to beat San Diego, Dalton must be on his game. -- CB
-- San Diego's defense. While Andy Dalton's playoff performances have been far from impressive, they came in two games against Houston Texans defenses that were optimally constructed to take streaky quarterbacks like Dalton out of his game. Dalton is still off-and-on, but he's got another year of experience, and second-year receiver Marvin Jones adds to his list of targets. Meanwhile, the Chargers have the league's worst defense per Football Outsiders' metrics, and they're in the bottom three against Nos. 1, 2, and 3 receivers. -- DF
• This Week’s Sleeper:
-- Mark Ingram, Saints. Remember him? He actually performed relatively well this season considering his limited chances -- 4.9 yards on 78 rushing attempts; 9.7 yards per reception. Pierre Thomas sat out practice Wednesday with a chest injury, meaning the Saints might need someone to provide a little boost in the ground game. Ingram could find himself with an increased role Saturday. -- CB
-- Riley Cooper, Eagles. No surprise that DeSean Jackson is Philly's most efficient and effective receiver, but the guy in second place may surprise you -- it's Riley Cooper, who has managed to regain the trust of his team after his regrettable racial outburst in 2013. Cooper is averaging 17.8 yards per catch on 47 receptions, and he's been a top-20 receiver when opponent adjustments are taken into account. If New Orleans' defense spends too much time worrying about Jackson and LeSean McCoy, Cooper has the talent to burn them. He's especially effective when asked to get open on seam routes, where quick cuts in space are the order of the day. -- DF
• Rookie Spotlight:
-- Eric Reid, 49ers. Reid had an interception of Aaron Rodgers and seven tackles in the 49ers' Week 1 win over Green Bay. San Francisco could use a similar performance Sunday, as the Packers figure to test Reid and his fellow defensive backs early and often. Randall Cobb's return to the lineup will make their job even more difficult, expanding the areas that Rodgers can attack. -- CB
-- Kenny Stills, Saints. Speaking of FO metrics, you'd probably guess for quite a while before coming up with the NFL's most valuable per-play receiver in the 2013 regular season. It's Stills, the fifth-rounder from Oklahoma who's tied with Marques Colston among New Orleans' receivers for touchdowns with five. No Saints receiver has had more deep targets than Stills' 14, and all five of his touchdowns came on plays in which the ball traveled 20 or more yards in the air. -- DF
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