Wild Card Weekend could not be more aptly named. This weekend will bring excitement by the pound. Every game bears it’s very own subplot that makes for must see television. Are the Chiefs for real? Can Andrew Luck overcome last year’s disappointing playoff loss and this year’s loss of Reggie Wayne? Are the Eagles capable of winning in January with a first time starter and big game novice? Can the Saints march through the elements to a road playoff victory after failing to achieve a signature road win during the regular season?
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) @ Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
Kansas City has one victory this year against a team with a winning record. Their ability to beat the Colts will hinge on the capability of a defense that has name recognition and star power but is ranked in the middle of the pack against the pass (22nd) and the run (tied or 25th). The Chiefs are adept at taking the ball away however and sport a +13 turnover margin. Jamaal Charles is the powerful engine of an offense that is more bump and grind (10th in rushing) than flash and dash. Alex Smith has started in the playoff the last three years and should be in line for plenty of opportunities to make plays for his team. Dwayne Bowe goes up against a defense with balky starting cornerbacks (Vontae Davis and Darius Butler) so expect him to get opportunities to be a game changer.
Kansas City has proved they can beat bad teams. However, by and large, bad teams are excluded from the playoffs. Kansas City does nonetheless have the best player in this game, Jamaal Charles, and I expect him to get plenty of touches.
Indianapolis is a team that has gone toe to toe with the best in the league and emerged victorious. Denver, San Francisco and Seattle all lost to them. The same team got blasted by St. Louis, Arizona and Cincinnati. Who will show up this weekend? The absence of Reggie Wayne cannot proven that he can put the ball where it needs to be but will his targets make plays against a fast, aggressive group of linebackers and defensive backs? The Colts will not beat themselves, as a league low amount of turnovers (14) and penalties (66) suggests but will they make enough plays to beat the Chiefs? First overall pick Eric Fisher will be out with and injury so maybe the big plays will come from league sack leader Robert Mathis and an opportunistic defense.
In all, the Chiefs have put forth an incredible season. Andy Reid turned the team around more decisively than anyone could have imagined. To go on the road and beat a team that has slain giants all year may be asking too much.
Indianapolis, 20 – 16
New Orleans Saints (11-5) @ Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
The Philadelphia Eagles emerged from the absolute wreck that was the NFC East and will host a New Orleans Saints team eager to answer questions about what exactly they are capable of as a team.
New Orleans had victories snatched away in dramatic fashion at New England and Carolina. Losses on the road to the Jets and Rams were real head scratchers. Getting embarrassed by Seattle does not really need an explanation, but it looks even worse, because this team struggled vs. the Falcons and Buccaneers in road wins. Drew Brees will be without Pierre Thomas, a trusted target, whose 77 receptions led all NFL running backs. Marques Colston (who is perennially underrated) Jimmy Graham (the best pass catching TE in the league) and Darren Sproles (71 catches on the year) will produce in his stead. The Philadelphia secondary is not good against the pass (32nd in the league) and Brees has to feel confident he can move the ball. New Orleans will score, but will they score enough? Defensively, the Saints rank second overall against the pass but much of Philadelphia’s effectiveness through the air is a direct derivative of a NFL best running attack. The Saints’ defense is best in obvious passing situations when Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan (24 ½ combined sacks) get after the quarterback. They are average against the run and will have their hands full containing the Eagles in that aspect of the game.
The Philadelphia Eagles did not exhibit a marked advantage at home this year, as 6 of their 10 victories came on the road. However, they did win 7 of their last 8 games overall and are amazingly healthy as a team heading into the playoffs. Nick Foles is playing sound, mistake free football and LeSean “Shady” McCoy is carrying the load for Chip Kelly’s potent offense. Whereas, the previous regime seemed unwilling to build the offense around McCoy and use his amazing talents, the current group has no such misgivings. The Eagles will go to their All Pro running back early and often. DeSean Jackson may have submitted the quietest 1300+ yard receiving season ever, but the Saints secondary would be wise to know where he is on each and every play, because Jackson possesses game changing ability. On defense, Philadelphia must find a way to shore up their secondary. If the Saints are allowed to move the ball with ease through the air I don’t see how the Eagles win this game. Trent Cole will find favorable matchups against either New Orleans offensive tackle. Limiting the Saints aerial attack starts with him and rest of the defensive line creating pressure up front. While porous, the defense did secure 19 interceptions this year. Forcing turnovers against New Orleans at home will create the type of conditions necessary for Philadelphia to emerge victorious.
Brees and Payton figure out the secret formula to road success and spoil Philadelphia’s hot streak.
A shootout win by the Saints, 34-31.