One of the best things about the NFL playoffs is the amount of turnover from the previous season.
Since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002, there have been at least five new playoff teams every postseason. This season is no different, with Carolina, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Kansas City, and San Diego all making it in after missing the playoffs in 2012.
The NFL regular season always brings its share of surprises. In the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs finished last season at 2-14 — mostly due to some awful quarterback play — and earned the first overall pick in the draft. One year and a new quarterback later, they’re the fifth seed in the AFC with an 11-5 record. The Houston Texans, meanwhile, suffered the reverse fate. After going 12-4 last season and winning their division, they ended 2013 with a 2-14 record and will be enter 2014 with a new head coach and starting quarterback.
The NFC tells a similar story. Two teams that missed last year’s postseason — Philadelphia at 4-12 and Carolina at 7-9 — rebounded to win their divisions. Even more incredible, considering that both started 2013 with 1-3 records and looked nothing like playoff contenders. The New Orleans Saints are also back after a tumultuous 2012 season spent without head coach Sean Payton and with one of the worst defenses in recent memory. Tumbling out of the playoffs in a big way was last year’s first seed, the Atlanta Falcons. Already suffering from depth issues, a rash of injuries left them with a 4-12 record.
Surprises in the playoffs are no different. Not even Baltimore fans could have anticipated last year’s Ravens going on the road and beating Denver and New England on their way to a Super Bowl title. But that’s the beauty of playoffs — once you’re in, anything can happen. All bets are off from here on out.
One can’t help but question the scheduling of this week’s Wild Card games. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a set time for matchups to be played (The AFC has played the first postseason game since 2011, but the order of the other games has varied). Even a week in advance, conventional wisdom said to play Cincinnati-San Diego Saturday night (expected low temperature of 27 degrees in Cincinnati) and make each of the early games NFC matchups. With Indianapolis playing indoors anyway, they could (and probably should) play at night.
Instead, we’re going to get frigid temperatures all around. The temperature at kickoff for tomorrow night’s Philadelphia-New Orleans game is expected to be around 26 degrees. On Sunday in Cincinnati, we’ll likely see a wintry mix. But Green Bay will, by far, have the worst conditions. On Sunday, the city will see a high of just four degrees with possible wind chills of -30. Couple these conditions with the fact that all three visiting teams come from seasonal climates or indoor stadiums and it’s safe to say that weather will be a factor this weekend.
No doubt that one of the stories on Monday will be the weather and the possibility of a cold, inclement Super Bowl. I, personally, love watching games played in inclement weather (Week 14′s East Coast winter storm made for some of the most entertaining football I saw all season). But when it comes to the postseason, especially the Super Bowl, I would hate for the weather to play a factor in the outcome. Let’s hope this week isn’t a sign of things to come on February 2nd.
Of course, all of the postseason games will be nationally televised, but a quick reminder as to where and when. Both of Saturday’s games will be on NBC, starting with Indianapolis-Kansas City at 4:30. On Sunday, we go back to the 1pm start, with Cincinnati-San Diego on CBS and Green Bay-San Francisco on Fox. Now let’s pick.
Kansas City over Indianapolis
Even for a team like the Chiefs, who haven’t exactly been postseason locks lately, it’s amazing to think that their last playoff win came nearly 20 years ago. In order to break the streak they’ll have to go into Indianapolis and beat the Colts, who beat them at home just two weeks ago.
The key for this one is which team is going to show up tomorrow? Will we get the dominant pass rushing Chiefs or the Week 15 squad? Same goes for Indy, who are the most schizophrenic team in the playoffs. I’m actually leaning KC this time around. They’ll certainly need a heavy dose of Jamaal Charles on offense and defensive pressure to do it. The notion of Alex Smith not being able to win games is slowly dying, but they’re still in a much better position when the pressure is off him. Getting production in the run game and the pass defense would almost guarantee a win, but a solid performance from either still spells trouble for Andrew Luck and a Colts team I’m not ready to buy into yet.
Philadelphia over New Orleans
The story has been the same all season with the Saints. At home, few teams are better. But on the road, they look like a completely different team. And in such cold conditions, the advantage goes to Philadelphia. The key matchup will be the Eagles pass defense versus Drew Brees and his receivers. The Eagles can’t afford to get into a shootout with New Orleans, so slowing Brees and the passing game down is imperative. Of course, they’ll also look toward LaSean McCoy to have a big game on the ground and take some of the pressure off of Nick Foles. I like their chances.
Cincinnati over San Diego
The only home team this week that went unbeaten at home during the regular season? Surprisingly, it’s Cincinnati Bengals. They’ll still have their hands full this week with Philip Rivers and the Chargers though, winners of four straight to close out the season. San Diego experienced something of a renaissance on offense with a much-improved offensive line and the addition of rookie Keenan Allen. This led to a nice bounce back season for Rivers and a healthy Ryan Matthews, among others.
The problem I have with this Chargers team lies in their secondary. Their cornerbacks have underperformed all season in coverage and they’ll have their hands full against A.J. Green and Marvin Jones. If they can jump out to an early lead, the Bengals will finally win their first playoff game since 1990.
San Francisco over Green Bay
The most intriguing game is saved for last this week. It really wouldn’t surprise me if the winner of this game winds up in New York, so both Seattle and Carolina are probably hoping for the winner of New Orleans-Philadelphia. The story all week has been the sub-zero temperatures and how the Niners will respond to them, but not much is being discussed about how the Packers will perform. Yes, they are used to playing is cold temperatures, but no one is used to playing in what feels like -30 degree weather.
If that’s the case, extra emphasis will be placed on the run game, where San Francisco still holds the edge with both Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick leading the charge. Kaepernick burned Green Bay for 181 rushing yards last season and with no Clay Matthews for the Packers, he could be on his way to another big day. I really want to take the Packers here, considering the elements which are in their favor, but I think the 49ers end up advancing.