The NFL regular season is officially a wrap. Seventeen weeks of football and 256 NFL games in the books. The weak have been weeded out and we're left with twelve teams competing for Super Bowl XLVIII.
Returning from last season's playoffs are the Broncos, Patriots, Bengals, Colts, 49ers, Packers and Seahawks. There are five teams new to the party this year in the Chiefs, Chargers, Panthers, Saints and Eagles, who round out the postseason participants.
On any given Sunday, we all know that any team can win a game, so the following predictions are by no means a lock for you to go and bet the farm on. Nonetheless, I'll do my best to predict each round of this year's quest for the Lombardi Trophy, starting with Wild Card Weekend.
|Photo by: Getty Images|
The Chiefs came out of the gate screaming, running off a 9-0 start to the 2013 season. Impressive, when you consider the team won all of two times last year. They slowed up a bit at the end of the season, though, going 2-5 in their last 7 games to finish 11-5.
The Colts finished 11-5 for the second-straight year. The difference this season, is they had absolutely zero competition in their division, and by virtue of winning the AFC South, they have been awarded a home playoff game. Indianapolis has been inconsistent and have found themselves on the receiving end of some blowouts, including their worst home defeat since 2003 against the lowly St. Louis Rams, 38-8.
Indy went into Arrowhead and beat the Chiefs in their own building back on December 22nd. The game was never really in question, with the Colts laying a 23-7 drubbing on Kansas City. However, there is that old cliche that the playoffs are a brand new season. While I agree with that sentiment, I still like Indy's chances in this one. I've got them winning, albeit in less convincing fashion than the last time they met.
Colts: 24, Chiefs: 19
- New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles
The Saints finished last season at a dismal 7-9, good for last place in the NFC South. However, they are a much different team without their head coach, as the return of Sean Payton brought them to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth in 2013. New Orleans has always had an explosive offense, but the difference this year has been their defense, which has turned things around in a major way. Last season, they allowed a league-worst 440.1 yards per game. This year? 305.7 yards per, good for 4th-best in the league.
From NFC least to NFC beast, the 4-12 Eagles of 2012 are no more. Philly's offense has been rejuvenated under head coach Chip Kelly and sophomore phenom quarterback Nick Foles. Add to that equation a rushing title for LeSean McCoy and you've got a formula for winning football games. The Eagles won the NFC East with a mark of 10-6 and find themselves with a home playoff game on Saturday night.
Since 2001, the Saints hold a 4-2 edge over the Eagles head-to-head. Most recently, they defeated Philadelphia on November 5th, 2012 by a score of 28-13. However, these are two very different teams than they were last season, and it's no secret that the Saints are a much different squad on the road than at home. Drew Brees has yet to win a playoff game away from the Superdome in his storied career, and with the cold weather in Philly, I don't expect that to change.
Eagles: 31, Saints: 23
- San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals
The Chargers have been a thorn in my side all season. It's been a crapshoot all year long as to whether they'll win or lose, and I've been on the wrong side in all of my pools more often than not. With wins against playoff teams like the Eagles, Colts, Chiefs (twice) and Broncos, their 9-7 record is deceiving. If they can beat teams like that, how did they lose 7 games? Well, they were knocked off by teams like the Texans, Redskins, Raiders and Titans. That's how.
The Bengals find themselves in the playoffs for the third-consecutive season, with an 11-5 record and an AFC North crown. The good news for Cincinnati is they won't be eliminated from the postseason by the Texans for the third-straight year. The Bengals have played great football on both sides of the ball, and have proven they are a contender for years to come. The real question is, which Andy Dalton will we see this weekend?
Cincinnati has won the last three meetings between the two clubs, most recently, earlier this season, with a 17-10 victory in San Diego. They also went 8-0 this year at home, so there is reason to believe they've got a distinct upper hand here. Vegas agrees, as they have the Bengals as 7-point favorites. Still, I'm not sold. Like I said, the Chargers have been my Achilles heel all year, so this may be them sticking it to me one last time, but I'm going with the upset. San Diego wins big games and Cincinnati loses playoff games. Those are the simple facts.
Chargers: 24, Bengals: 23
- San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
In football's best division, San Francisco had a tough road just to make the postseason. The Seahawks took an early stranglehold on the NFC West and never looked back. The 49ers didn't even clinch a playoff berth until the second-to-last week of the season, despite their 12-4 record. While second-year starter Colin Kaepernick struggled with consistency the majority of the season, on the shoulders of their defense, the Niners found ways to win games, and enter the playoffs as one of the NFC's hottest teams, having run off six-straight wins to cap off the regular season.
The Packers slipped into the playoffs with the worst record of any postseason team this year. With a mark of 8-7-1, they were far from impressive most of the season. That said, it is largely in part due to the fact that this team simply isn't very good without former MVP Aaron Rodgers. With Rodgers under center, the Packers went 6-2. After he went down on the first possession against the Bears in Week 9, the Pack went 2-5-1 without their star quarterback.
Green Bay is lucky to have Rodgers back, and they are far from dead in the postseason. Despite their lackluster 2013 showing, they are still in the conversation, and for them, the season starts now. These two clubs met in San Francisco in Week 1, with the 49ers taking it 34-28. Kaepernick has had Green Bay's number in his short career, and if you recall, San Francisco shredded Green Bay's defense last year in the playoffs en route to a 45-31 win. I just don't think the Packers can hang with the Niners, even at Lambeau Field.
49ers: 35, Packers: 20
That does it for Wild Card Weekend. Check back with us next week for our Divisional Round predictions.