Wild-card Game Rankings: Plenty of cold, intrigue to start playoffs
Don't let the lack of tickets sales fool you. There's plenty to like about the opening round, like the Niners in frigid Lambeau and Payton vs. Kelly in Philly.
It's the playoffs, baby. Nothing but footlongs to go around.
The normal Hoagie Scale (and, the heartiest of welcomes to our new sponsor, Jimmy John's, purveyors of only the finest meats and cheeses), does not apply come January, but it's still worth evaluating each of these games and dissecting them a bit. And, given that one of the stories of the week in the NFL is the inability of teams to sell out these games without assistance, well, heck, better time than any to make the case for "Why to Watch" for each of them. Perhaps in the future I will have to amend that category to "Why Pay to Watch."
Anyway, the weather should be another topic to watch in these games, or at least the ones not being played in a dome. A bitter chill is settling over a wide swath of the country, with record lows expected in Green Bay. (Is there something that connotes frigid temps more than "Frozen Tundra?" Because it sounds like it will be even colder than that at Lambeau this weekend). How do the San Francisco 49ers handle those conditions? In Philadelphia the cold will be more moderate -- low 30s -- but is even that too much for the dome-fortified New Orleans Saints to overcome? Will the San Diego Chargers be able to avoid any and all clips of a frozen Dan Fouts and balls dying in the wind from their trip to Cincinnati for a playoff game nearly 32 years ago? It won't be quite like that in the Jungle this time around, but it won't be San Diego, either.
So, without further ado, here is a look at the four games on the docket this weekend, ranked in order of possible excitement level, but without our normal categories of Footlong, Six Inch, Wrap and Slider:
San Francisco at Green Bay
Sunday, Jan. 5, 4:40 p.m. ET (FOX)
Why To Watch: Who can forget these two meeting a year ago, on a night when the history and home field advantage of Green Bay was trumped by this hotshot, novice quarterback who ran them up and down the field. Colin Kaepernick produced one of the all-time legendary playoff performances with his arm and his legs, the 49ers physically dominated the Green Bay Packers and sent Green Bay's coaching staff into the offseason in a quandary as to whether to study the game film relentlessly or merely burn it in the parking lot. It was that kind of beating. And when those teams met again in Week 1 this season, San Francisco's offense was pretty darn unstoppable, with Anquan Boldin in particular going bonkers. Oh, and on the other side of the ball all Aaron Rodgers did in his first game back in two months was produce an epic comeback win to lift Green Bay to the NFC North division title and force this rematch. Not bad. This game figures to have plenty of scoring -- Green Bay's defense ain't what it used to be -- and the 49ers unit remains stout, but isn't quite as menacing as in years past. The Packers newfound running game is one dramatic difference between last year's version and this year's, and the 49ers offense figures to be even more robust than the unit that beat the Pack in Week 1, with WR Michael Crabtree back and thriving now.
What To Watch For: I know the read option is dead and all, but, man, any chance the 49ers bring it back this weekend? It was a big part of their dismantling of the Packers a year ago, and Kaepernick outside the numbers running with the football, against a defense not loaded with burners, could be a big advantage for the 49ers. Was Jim Harbaugh holding something back for the playoffs? Might this particular match-up, and how much the Packers struggled with the option stuff a year ago, prompt him to integrate it more this week? ... How much of a factor is the weather? Is the biting cold something that sways things to the head team's favor? ... Rodgers seemed to get more and more comfortable with each quarter a week ago, and he clearly was rusty early on. Another week of practice will only help and, as expected, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb started becoming big-play receivers again with him back in action. That will give the 49ers pause ... How much can Rodgers pick on the nickel and dime corners of the 49ers? San Francisco has been shuffling a lot of personnel with its depth in the secondary due to injuries … Just have a hunch that Aldon Smith makes his presence felt in this game and rises to the occasion ... Lot of pressure on Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers to come up with something here to both muster a pass rush (with Clay Matthews out) and help out in coverage, where there have been issues all season. Not an easy task ... Have a feeling the Packers stay ground-based if possible, and make every effort to get Eddie Lacy going early on. Rodgers or not, in these conditions, it might be an old school kind of a day.
New Orleans at Philadelphia
Saturday, Jan. 4, 8:10 p.m. ET (NBC)
Why To Watch: A meeting of the man widely considered to have been the greatest offensive mind of this past decade -- Sean Payton -- and the man who had that same moniker in the college game, only now he's doing it in the NFL, too. Chip Kelly delivered more than anyone could have been expected in his rookie season, especially considering his lack of any previous time spent in this league, while Payton led a dramatic rise of his own, back as the Saints coach after a year's suspension and lifting them back to the playoffs after a lost 2012. You won't find two more innovative, tactically aware, bold and brash guys. They are calculated risk takers who aren't afraid to run contrary to groupthink. I would expect this contest to bring out the best in both of them. They have no shortage of offensive weapons to maneuver. Of course, the Saints' struggles on the road will color the lead-up to this game, and rightfully so. If they are able to conjure the kind of prolific attack that comes so easily in SuperDome on the road, then we might be treated to one of the more entertaining displays of offensive football that we've seen in quite some time. Payton and quarterback Drew Brees often do some of their best work when others doubt them, and this is a challenge they might well meet.
What To Watch For: The Philadelphia Eagles defense, save for a misstep at Minnesota, has been beyond effective in the second half of the season. They have adjusted to Billy Davis' scheme and, while not overloaded with individual brilliance, clearly believe in their collective prowess. It will take a few individuals, however, like Trent Cole , Connor Barwin and Cary Williams to step up at critical times. Tackle Fletcher Cox and linebacker Mychal Kendricks are at the heart of most everything they do, but getting some sustained outside pressure against a vulnerable Saints line will be imperative … To that end, how does New Orleans rookie LT Terron Armstead , just promoted to the job late in the season, hold up in this environment on the road in the playoffs? No doubt Davis has schemed up particular stunts and twists to test him. Will the Saints have to go with more conservative protection schemes because of it? ... Rob Ryan loves to bring the all-out blitzes for the Saints, but it hasn't worked as well down the stretch and Kelly is the kind of play-caller who will anticipate it and eat you up. Is this the gonzo-Ryan we've come to expect, or might Payton temper him some? ... Will Nick Foles just have a bad game? He's human. You would think at some point he throws three picks, because, well, it's just something that all quarterbacks do, much less young ones in the postseason for the first time ... Riley Cooper remains a legit deep threat for the Eagles and if Ryan does bring the heat a few times too often, it could be to Cooper's benefit ... The Saints offense was coming back to WR Marques Colston late in the season. Only three times all season was he targeted at least 10 times in a game and all three came in the final four weeks of the season, including 13 in consecutive games ... How do the Eagles match up with TE Jimmy Graham ? How much does Davis mix and match different linebackers and safeties? I suspect quite a bit ... How healthy is Darren Sproles ? The Saints dynamic back caught fewer balls down the stretch. He didn't take a screen pass over 20 yards since scoring from 28 out against Dallas Nov. 10.
San Diego at Cincinnati
Sunday, Jan. 5, 1:05 p.m. ET (CBS & CBSSports.com)
Why To Watch: The Chargers had a ridiculously slim mathematical chance to make the playoffs back in Week 12, and yet managed to do so anyway. They enter the playoffs as hot as any team in the AFC. After the missed calls and missed kicks and bizarre stuff that happened against the Kansas City Chiefs B-Team last week, to still win that thing makes me think maybe they are here for a reason. Philip Rivers is coming off the season of his rebirth and he can certainly present problems, though the Cincinnati Bengals defense held him largely in check when these teams met in the regular season. The other quarterback, Andy Dalton , enters this weekend with arguably more on his shoulders than anyone else. This is his third year in the league and third straight trip to the postseason, but the last two years have ended in exceedingly tepid outings by him and the Bengals offense, and quick exits to the Houston Texans . Expectations are much higher now, and Dalton basically finished the season strong, except for continuing to throw picks (like four last week). That can't happen now if the Bengals are going to prove they are more than just a team that's happy to get into the dance. It just can't. All eyes are on him and how he starts the game. He opened with consecutive picks against a Baltimore team that was so inept offensively it could not cash in. How he begins the game could go a long way to determining how he finishes it.
What To Watch For: Chargers safety Eric Weddle has a knack for showing up at the right spot at the right time, and that will be tested by this Bengals attack. A.J. Green absolutely, positively, cannot be allowed to roam behind the safeties, and eliminating those chunk yards will be a huge part of the Chargers' game plan ... Ryan Mathews ran very, very hard in the second half of the season. He's a little banged up right now and that could be significant. He has earned the full trust of the Chargers coaching staff after struggling to do so under their former regime ... Gio Bernard looks ready to explode. He has been dominant in the screen game and the Chargers are loaded with explosive edge players on defense. This could be a mismatch. The Bengals will emphasize getting the ball in his hands at least 15 times ... The Bengals' two-tight end offense never really emerged, but plenty of other slot and outside guys did. Marvin Jones , in particular, is in great form right now and has some chemistry going with Dalton ... The loss of Geno Atkins hurt the Bengals' inside pass rush, but watch how often Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are disruptive on the outside, often just by getting their hands up in the air to smack passes down ... How much pressure do the Chargers bring against Dalton? In the past that hasn't been a bad approach, and while he was decent enough against the blitz this season -- 13 TDs and a 91 rating in 2013 -- he did throw seven interceptions. Only Eli Manning (10) had more ... The Bengals have had to juggle punters lately, and that's caused an issue or two. I tend to think something quirky on special teams plays a role in at least one of these games this weekend ... Tend to think Antonio Gates has to have a big game if the Chargers are going to win what could be a track meet ... Does Bengals coach Marvin Lewis blow all his timeouts or challenges early, or over-react in any way managing this playoff game? It's been an issue in the past.
Kansas City at Indianapolis
Saturday, Jan. 4, 4:35 p.m. ET (NBC)
Why To Watch: Andrew Luck seeking his first playoff win after a quick ouster a year ago, while the Chiefs capped the most dramatic turnaround in the league by reaching the playoffs after securing the first-overall pick in 2012. What everyone will be talking about, however, is what happened a week ago when Kansas City coach Andy Reid yanked pretty much every key starter and his reserves still damn near won at San Diego in overtime in a must-win game for the Chargers. So, does that in some way help them here, or, does the fact that Alex Smith and Jamaal Charles and everyone else who matters for KC got an impromptu bye last week take away that mental edge a bit and leave them less sharp for this rematch? Because a few weeks back, when the Chiefs went to Indy, they absolutely got shut down in a 23-7 defeat. The reality is this: They enter January having lost two straight and with their only win over a playoff-bound opponent coming at Philadelphia way back in September. The Indianapolis Colts quietly found their way late in the season and seemed to overcome the mental hurdle they suffered when star WR Reggie Wayne was lost for the season. The teams that gave them trouble during their doldrums were overly physical squads (St. Louis, Tennessee, Arizona, Cincinnati), and the Chiefs aren't quite built that way, and can't get after the passer the way those teams can.
What To Watch For: After being relegated to holding a clipboard for the 49ers playoff run a year ago, is this redemption time for Alex Smith? Will he have a big game on a big stage? He's plenty rested, that's for sure ... Injuries to T Eric Fisher and the juggling of the Chiefs' offensive line could be an issue. I would expect Chuck Pagano to do whatever possible to put Robert Mathis in the best position possible to get to Smith. That dome, sold out or not, will be loud as hell ... Huge disparity in playoff experience between Reid, who went to five NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl, and Pagano, whose remarkable return from cancer last year allowed him to coach in a playoff game at Baltimore, his first as a head coach. Does that manifest itself in any way on Saturday? ... Do Tamba Hali and Justin Houston have their "A game" after battling injuries, and if the Chiefs cannot concoct a pass rush, can they hold up in coverage. Their secondary has picked up some nagging injuries of their own in recent weeks? Will this be a big game for CB Sean Smith , who has been a steal for them as a free-agent signing? ... Any chance Trent Richardson makes something happen here to reward the Colts for trading a first-round pick for him? ... While the Colts won rather easily over the Chiefs a few weeks back, they didn't exactly contain Charles. He rushed 13 times for 106 yards (8 yards a carry), and the key will be getting him established early and trying to avoid falling behind. Charles took his second carry 31 yards for a TD in that game, and then had just five more carries in the half as the Colts compiled exhaustive, time-consuming drives. The Colts suffered against teams dedicated to the run in the second half of the season, with Arizona, Cincy, St. Louis, Tennessee (twice), and KC having nice games on the ground against them.
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