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NFL Playoffs: Wild-card Round

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The regular season has now ended, and the twelve teams for the playoffs have been settled. While Denver, New England, Seattle and Carolina get a week to rest up, the other eight have to go straight into battle this weekend for the right to play one of them. Here, we examine the fixtures taking place this Saturday and Sunday, and try to predict (in a decidedly unscientific manner) who is likely to emerge, and who will be going home after a one-and-done showing.

AFC Wild Card Round:

Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts (Saturday, 21:35)

Indy have managed to secure a home game in the playoffs for the first time since 2010, but you only have to look at the divisional records of the other teams to see that this was not any great feat. Anyone who got to play six games facing the Jaguars, Texans and Titans should have been half way towards a playoff berth. But this Colts side has beaten it’s share of top sides too, having won against the Seahawks, Forty-niners and Broncos, as well as the Chiefs in week 16. The Colts have a top young quarterback in Andrew Luck, but their mid-season trade for running back Trent Richardson looks like a waste of a first-round pick. How much of this is the young runners fault and how much is down to a questionable offensive line remains to be seen. Dontari Poe may have fun trying to answer this question on Saturday. On the defensive side, the Colts did only concede twenty points combined in the last three games, so if this underrated unit shows up on Saturday, the Chiefs may be in for a long day.

The Chiefs have had a truly peculiar season. They came in off the back of a 2-14 record in 2012, and had the first overall pick in this season’s draft. A change of head coach brought in Andy Reid after a long spell in Philadelphia, and quarterback Alex Smith was acquired from San Francisco, and they brought about a staggering turnaround as they started the season 9-0. This was largely attributed to their defense though, as the passing game struggled to take off. Since then however, they have lost five out of seven games, and the suggestion is that they can’t beat a team with a quality quarterback. The offense has started to click, as the defense has started to fall apart. In a year without a record-smashing Peyton Manning playing, Jamaal Charles would be in the running for league MVP. If the Chiefs can finally get their defense and offense to show up on the same day, they would be a match for anyone.

Pick: Chiefs

San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals ( Sunday, 18:05)

The Bengals return to the playoffs once more, but this time have the comfort of home-field advantage, at least for the wild-card round. The Bengals have been trending upwards in recent years, and have started to emerge from the shadow of the traditional big teams of the AFC North, the Steelers and the Ravens. The Bengals have only missed the playoffs once since 2009, and have amassed a squad of great depth and a particularly rugged defense. They added new weapons at tight end and running back in this years draft with Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard. Yet for all that, the Bengals are a slave to their quarterback and his whims. Andy Dalton is capable of anything in the pocket. He threw twenty interceptions in the regular season, including four bad ones against the Ravens last weekend with the Bengals still giving them hope of grabbing the no.2 seed and a bye for this weekend. They still won the game, but it was in spite of their quarterback. There is only so far a team can go without the right man behind centre, and yet the Bengals appear happy with Dalton. But it is about time he proved them right when it matters most.

San Diego got in to the playoffs on the back of losses from Miami and Baltimore, while only scraping past the Chiefs second-string themselves. In fact, had Ryan Succop not missed a late field goal attempt in that game, the Chiefs would have won and Pittsburgh would have taken the Chargers place. San Diego have been up and down all season long, mixing losses against Oakland, Houston and a game they threw away against Washington, to finish the season with four wins in a row (including knocking off the Denver Broncos at Mile High). Philip Rivers is resurgent under new head coach Mike McCoy, and armed with new weapons like Keenan Allen, as well as a huge return to form for Antonio Gates, San Diego are a great example of a wild-card team, and they have a lot of momentum behind them coming in. Expect them to give the Bengals a tough time of it.

Pick: Bengals

NFC Wild Card Round:

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles (Late Saturday/ Early Sunday, 01:10)

Philly squeaked their way to the NFC East crown with a narrow win over the Cowboys late Sunday night. That makes it three years in a row that the Cowboys have been on Sunday Night Football in Week 17 playing for the divisional title and lost, once to each of the other three teams. But, unfortunately, we aren’t here just to laugh at Dallas. Philly are another team to have benefited from a change of coach, with Chip Kelly bringing a fast-paced “college offense” to the NFL this season. Even though Andy Reid is in the playoffs with the Chiefs, it seems clear both are better off for the change. For as much as the Eagles defense has been scraped together in hope more than expectation, the offense is something special. Led by Shady McCoy in the backfield, they have been explosive. They often line up in peculiar fashion, with tackles on the outside as wide outs, either for blocking or pure decoys. They also found a QB in Nick Foles, who stole the show when Michael Vick went down hurt. People questioned whether Foles would have the mobility for this system, but he has shone in it. The acid test will come this weekend though, as the Eagles drives go at speed. If they stick with this, as I’m sure they will, it just gets Drew Brees and that dangerous offense on the field for longer. That will be a big ask for the Philly D.

Things have fallen away badly for the Saints recently. As recently as week 13 they went to Seattle looking to take top spot in the NFC Conference. That loss was followed up with further ones to the Rams and Panthers, leaving the Saints falling all the way down to a wild-card spot. It has been a bad fall, but the Saints were pretty comfortable in defeating Tampa on the last day and securing their spot. They have a much improved defense this year with Rob Ryan in as coordinator, and their offense is lethal, with weapons appearing from all over. If Jimmy Graham has been slowed down at tight-end, he gets helped out by the likes of Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles from the back field, as well as a seemingly endless line of wide receivers. The Saints are wounded, and every last pundit will tell you that they don’t play as well away from home. Yet this might be the game where they catch everyone’s attention once more. It is folly to overlook Sean Payton and Drew Brees.

Pick: Saints

San Francisco Forty-Niners at Green Bay Packers (Sunday, 21:40)

Let’s be clear. The Packers are here courtesy of the incompetence of the Chicago Bears and, even more so, the Detroit Lions. The Lions crushed the Pack on Thanksgiving and swept the Bears, but threw the division away. Chicago had the division lead going into week 17, but couldn’t take advantage of the rusty Aaron Rodgers as Green Bay won when it mattered. Hard to think a team who has lined up Scott Tolzien, Seneca Wallace and Matt Flynn behind centre for a lot of the season would be here, but they got in. And now the Packers are dangerous. Rodgers shed the rust the further that game went on, and he led them on a fairly heroic late drive to take the lead. But the step up in quality of opposition this weekend will be stark. Whereas the Bears can’t stop the run against anyone, the Niners have a dynamic front seven that doesn’t let anyone run on them. So the Pack are back putting the ball in the hands of Aaron Rodgers and hoping that’s enough. Pretty sure that always has been their gameplan. But with Clay Matthews missing on the other side of the ball, they are probably going to need running back Eddie Lacy to get going to keep the pressure off Rodgers.

The Niners are here to play. Last year’s Superbowl runners-up, San Francisco has had to settle for a wild-card spot having seen the Seahawks dominate their way to top spot in the division and the conference. Yet the Niners managed to beat Seattle in their most recent fixture, one they had to have or they may not have made it this far. People question the importance of the linebacker position in the modern NFL, but the all-star cast San Francisco have shows just how relevant the position remains. The Niners are smashmouth football through and through, with Frank Gore carrying the load up front. Colin Kaepernick has overcome early season struggles and is moving the ball much better, although the return of quality receiver Michael Crabtree is probably the big reason behind this. San Francisco is a strong team who could go a long way, but it’s never easy to go into Lambeau Field looking for a win.

Pick: San Francisco

All kick-off times are Irish time.

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