After a crazy ending to the regular season, we have four intriguing matchups this weekend – all of these teams are relatively evenly matched, and there are many instances of top offenses facing top defenses this weekend. Let’s analyze each game:
Kansas City at Indianapolis (-2.5)
The weekend starts off with what I believe is the closest, hardest to predict game of this round. Which Chiefs team will show up…the version that started 9-0, or the version that finished 2-5? On the other hand, that 2-5 included two losses to Denver and a meaningless (for them) loss to San Diego last week while resting starters. An even closer look reveals that the 9-0 Chiefs were already living on ‘borrowed time’, having played perhaps the weakest opening nine games in the league (only the Eagles finished with a winning record among their first nine opponents). In fact, for the season KC went 10-0 against opponents that finished .500 or worse…but 1-5 against teams with winning records. Their defense went from the best in the league, allowing 17 points or less in their first nine games, to allowing 23 or more in six of their last seven.
But the Chiefs look downright predictable compared to the Colts! Indy took down the heavyweights of the league this season – Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, Kansas City (the latter two on the road!)…yet got blown out by St. Louis and Arizona, and struggled in games against the Raiders, Texans, and Titans. This is a team that seemed to run extremely hot and cold most of the season – they looked like the league’s best team at times, particularly in their dominating win over the 49ers – but they showed significant flaws at other times.
The teams are actually quite similar statistically – KC gave up 19 points per game and the Colts 21, and their yards allowed per play were similar at 5.5 and 5.6. KC averaged 27 points scored per game while Indy averaged 24.4, but Indy outgained the Chiefs on the season by a few yards. Both teams did well in turnover margin, +18 for KC and +13 for the Chiefs.
What’s most interesting to me is how well the Colts ran the ball…as long as they weren’t giving it to Trent Richardson. As a team they rushed for over 1700 yards and averaged 4.3 yards per carry – but Richardson significantly lowered that average, as he gained only 2.9 yards per carry on 157 carries as a Colt. Barring an undisclosed injury, I think it’s fair to call him a bust at this point; Donald Brown and Ahmad Bradshaw both fared significantly better with the same personnel around them.
The Chiefs have the opposite situation – they are a great rushing team as long as they ONLY hand the ball to Jamaal Charles. Excluding QB carries (and Alex Smith is an excellent runner for a QB), no other Chief averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry, while Charles averaged 5.0 per carry.
Both QBs had solid seasons – Alex Smith completed 60% of his throws for 3300 yards, 23 TDs and only seven INTs. He’s not an elite QB by any means, but he does take care of the football. Andrew Luck had almost the exact same season as Smith, completing 61% of his passes for 3800 yards, 23 TDs and nine INTs. With the season-ending injury to Reggie Wayne, both teams have one true threat at wide receiver – Dwayne Bowe for KC, T.Y. Hilton for Indy.
Defensively, the Colts are still a work in progress – they are much better than they were two years ago, but still average at best in most facets. The Chiefs showed signs of dominance as mentioned, but the tougher schedule and injuries brought them back to the pack somewhat. I’d still rate KC has having the better ‘D’, but it’s closer now than most people would think – and if defensive end Tamba Hali cannot play or is ineffective, KC’s chances really will suffer.
Honestly, before I did the research and analysis I was leaning towards picking the Chiefs – but after looking at the numbers, I think they will need to get some breaks to win this game. The Colts led the league in protecting the ball – they committed only 14 turnovers all season – and if they can protect the ball that well on Saturday, I think they will key on Charles, force KC’s passing game to beat them, and I do not think the Chiefs have the weapons to make that happen. I like the COLTS to WIN BY SEVEN.
New Orleans at Philadelphia (-2.5)
There are several things that make this matchup extremely intriguing to me. If you look at the entire season, New Orleans is pretty clearly the better team. They outscored their opponents by 110 points while Philly only was +60, they excelled at pass defense – only the Seahawks allowed fewer passing yards this season – and their own passing attack was once again elite, second only to the record-setting Broncos in most categories.
HOWEVER, the Saints were really two teams – the home version was absolutely dominant, going 8-0 and outscoring opponents by 148 points. Only two home games were won by less than 18 points! On the road, the Saints went 3-5 and suffered embarrassing losses to the Jets and Rams. Drew Brees completed a whopping 73% of his throws at home, but only 63% on the road. The Saints have a bevy of excellent receiving weapons, but the biggest threat is TE Jimmy Graham – he is still listed as a tight end, but he lines up ‘wide’ most of the time. Either way, he’s a matchup nightmare for any defense.
The running attack was anemic home or away, but that became especially critical when they were faced with less-than-perfect throwing conditions away from their beloved Superdome. Finally, the most important chink in the Saints’ armor – they allowed 4.6 yards per rush, 28th out of 32 NFL teams. You will see in a moment why this is especially important this week.
Philadelphia also was two teams this season – the first-half Eagles were 3-5 and finished with terrible consecutive home losses to the Giants and Cowboys in which their offense generated 10 points total. The second-half Eagles went 7-1 and scored 24+ points in every game, eclipsing 40 points twice and 50 once. The first-half Eagles committed 15 turnovers in eight games, the second-half version committed only four. Not coincidentally, Nick Foles started every game in the second half, and completed 64% of his passes with 27 TDs and only two (!!!) INTs. The defense had some problems all season, particularly against the pass (dead last in passing attempts against and passing yards allowed), but the one constant all season was the running game.
Philadelphia EASILY led the league in rushing yards with 2566 yards, 250 more than second-place Buffalo. The Eagles averaged 5.1 yards per carry, and most of that was due to LeSean McCoy, who has become the best all-around back in the league. McCoy ran for 1600 yards and also caught 52 passes for 540 yards. The matchup of the Eagles’ run game vs. the Saints’ run defense is likely the one that will decide the game – if the Eagles run for 200+ yards – and I think this is likely – I don’t see any way the Saints can win the game, especially if the weather is rainy as is forecast.
As usual, turnovers are the true wild-card here – and if the Saints can jump out to an early lead, they have a fighting chance – but I cannot ignore the Saints’ road woes and their porous run defense. The Saints will put up points, they always do, and this should be the highest-scoring game of the weekend – but in the end, I like the EAGLES by SIX.
San Diego at Cincinnati (-7)
There are a lot of Steeler fans in these parts who see Cincy in a playoff game and write them off as ‘same ol’ Bungles’. Ladies and Gentlemen, these are NOT your daddy’s Bengals – this team is the real deal. Cincy finished in the top 10 in offensive yards and points, and in the top five in defensive yards and points. They went 8-0 at home and scored 34+ points in six of those games. Rookie RB Giovanni Bernard was eased into the lineup, but he averaged over four yards per carry in his limited use. More impressively, the Bengals finally found other targets to ease the burden on WR AJ Green – five different receivers caught 46 or more passes, led by Green’s 98 receptions. Andy Dalton will never be a great QB, but he has the skills to be successful when he has this many weapons around him.
The Bengals defense was decent against the run but particularly effective against the pass – they racked up 43 sacks and 20 INTs, both ranked in the top five of the NFL. Only two teams passed for 300 yards against them, and only one team amassed 400 yards of offense against them all year. In short, while it’s not a dominant defense, the Bengals’ D is very much above average.
San Diego is all about offense – they amassed 400+ yards eight times and were not held below 300 yards after Week 1. Their run game is average to slightly above – Ryan Mathews finally stayed healthy and had a 1200-yard season – but it’s their passing game that set them apart this year.
After a few ‘down’ seasons, Philip Rivers was back in a big way in ’13, completing 69% of his passes for over 4400 yards, 32 TDs and 11 INTs. If not for Manning’s dominance, I believe Rivers would (and should) be in the MVP conversation – he was that good this year. WR Keenan Allen will likely win Offensive rookie of the Year – he caught 71 balls for 1046 yards and eight TDs, and at only 21 years old he is primed to be a star for years to come. Antonio Gates had one big season left as well, with 77 catches for 872 yards.
The problem for the Chargers is their defense – simply put, they didn’t have much of one this year. They allowed 4.6 yards per rush, 66% of opposing passes were completed (for almost 4400 yards), and for the season they allowed 395+ yards six times. To their credit, they did improve down the stretch – they throttled the Broncos, in Mile High, to an extent no other team came close to matching – but overall, the defense ranked 11th in points allowed but 23rd in yards allowed. When I see a gap like that, generally I lean towards the yardage number as being more indicative of the defense’s true quality.
Given Cincy’s offensive dominance at home, I think San Diego will need 30+ points just to make this a game. I like Rivers and I like this offense, and I think they can keep it close if they win the turnover battle…but Cincy already beat the Chargers in San Diego, and I think they can do it again in ‘The Jungle’. CINCY WINS, but the CHARGERS COVER…BENGALS by FOUR.
San Francisco (-3) at Green Bay
OK, I’ll come right out and say it…this is the most surprising line of the weekend, and is an obvious sign of respect for Aaron Rodgers. If Flynn were starting this game for Green Bay, I’d expect the 49ers to be favored by at least seven. With Rodgers, the Pack have a fine offense – no one can deny his greatness. He missed seven games but completed 2/3 of his passes for 2500 yards and 17 TDs against six INTs – all in line with his career stats. Rodgers has a plethora of targets – seven Packers caught 35+ passes, and eight receivers hauled in at least one TD pass. Green Bay also has a revitalized running game, as rookie Eddie Lacy made an immediate impact – he rushed for almost 1200 yards and 11 TDs. Green Bay’s offense was in line with their performance over the last seven seasons – excellent.
The problem is the defense – the Packers have, BY FAR, the worst defense in the playoffs. They allowed 25+ points in 10 of 16 games, and in eight of their last nine. They ranked between 24th and 29th (out of 32) in yards allowed, points allowed, completions, Pass TDs, INTs, rushing yards allowed, and yards per carry. They allowed the most points by a Green bay defense since 1983!! In short, they were one of the league’s worst defenses across the board – and their best pass rusher, Clay Matthews, will be out for this game.
San Francisco is excellent on defense – they rank top-10 in every category I mentioned above, and top-5 in several. Only six opponents scored 20 points against them, and none got to 30 – in fact, the Packers’ 28 points in Week 1 was eclipsed only by Seattle in Week 2 for their season high in points allowed. Their run defense is particularly stout – seven of their final 10 opponents ran for under 100 yards, including the last four.
On offense, the 49ers are a running team that has a few weapons through the air – moreso now that their best receiver, Michael Crabtree, is finally healthy. Frank Gore rushed for 1128 yards in what could be his last good season, and Kendall Hunter was excellent in a backup role. Anquan Boldin caught 85 passes and TE Vernon Davis hauled in 52, but no one else on the team caught more than 25 (Crabtree caught 19 in his five games back). The ‘9’ers only threw 21 TD passes, and 20 of them went to Boldin or Davis. They are not a flashy or a deep team, but they can grind you down and Colin Kaepernick’s running ability is the variable in their offensive equation.
I see the Packers putting up 20-25 on the 49ers, but I just don’t see how the porous Packer defense can keep the 49ers under 25 – and I think it’s likely SF gets 30+. Barring injuries or the ever-important turnovers, I think this should be a relatively easy win for the ‘9ers – SAN FRANCISCO by TEN.
More analysis next week for the divisional round!!
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.