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Monday, January 6, 2014

Tuesday's Gone: Week 18 #NFL Predictions Review: WILDCARD ROUND

Kansas City Chiefs  #5 (+2) @ Indianapolis Colts #4 (46.5): Chiefs 28-27 Colts 45-44
Saturday, 4:35 PM, Lucas Oil Field, Indianapolis, IN (Weather: Indoors)

Reasons: The Chiefs lost to the Colts 23-7 two weeks ago at home, so you can imagine they're not too confident going into Indianapolis to kick off the 2014 NFL playoffs. Vegas apparently doesn't think much of that game, giving the Colts just two points at home; you might chalk that up to playoff experience, or the simple fact that KC is a better team on paper. The Chiefs boast a top-10 rush defense and are the 5th-ranked scoring offense and 6th-ranked scoring defense. Don't believe the hype (numbers) quite yet though, because the Chiefs are team of two halves. Before the bye week (Week 10) KC was 9-0 beating their opponents by an average score of 24-12; but after the bye week KC was 2-5 (losing twice to #1 seed Denver) and the average score had soared to 31-28, thanks to the resurgence of Jamal Charles (offense) and key injuries (defense). Averaging another TD on offense is significant; letting up more than two TDs on defense is alarming. The Colts on the other hand seem to be clicking at the right time, winning their last three games to end the season, including a win v. these Chiefs, although the other two came v.  HOU and JAX, the two worst teams in the NFL. The Colts are nothing to marvel at statistically (14th-ranked scoring offense; 24th-ranked scoring defense), but the Chiefs only average 2.5 ppg more and are ranked 6th, so we can't look too deeply into the numbers - these teams are pretty evenly matched. Both teams played games v. six playoff teams during the regular season, and both teams even played the last two teams out of the playoffs (KC - DAL; IND - ARZ). The only thing separating these two teams might be playoff experience, in which KC might have a slight advantage (don't think teams, think current players and coaches). The game should be much closer than the Week 16 meeting.

The Colts have pulled off arguably the greatest comeback in NFL playoff history. The Bills came back from 32 points to beat the Houston Oilers in 1993, but that was an OT game. These Colts came back from 28 points in regulation in one of the most incredible football games played in the last few years, let alone a playoff game. Andrew Luck was a different QB in the second half, going from a turnover machine into a TD machine, throwing four TDs in the second half after throwing an INT to close the first half and another to open the second half; Luck even recovered a Donald Brown fumble at the 5 yard line and somehow managed to plunge into the end zone for the 4th of his 5 second-half TDs. Talk about Luck. The Colts had a 0.9% chance of winning the game when the Chiefs led 38-10. Talk about the 1%. But before we get too excited about the Colts, let's remember one major thing: The Chiefs lost SIX OF THEIR KEY PLAYERS IN THIS GAME. You read that correctly. Jamal Charles was lost immediately - he was the hottest player in the NFL. Back-up Knile Davis was injured during critical clock-eating time, forcing Cyrus Gray to pick up the slack. Never heard of him? Nobody has. Donny Avery was lost after dusting the Colts secondary for a 79-yard bomb. Both of the Chiefs starting CBs were lost for the second half (Flowers and Robinson), which just so happened to be the half Luck went off. Justin Houston, who wreaked havoc on Luck in the first half, was lost in the second half. To use injury excuses throughout the course of a season isn't becoming, but it makes some sense when it occurs to half of your key starters. Imagine it all happening in one half of one game? That's the only reasonable explanation one can muster for this ridiculous comeback. Then again maybe you could say it could only happen to a guy named Luck with a horseshoe on his helmet.

New Orleans Saints #6 (+2.5) @ Philadelphia Eagles #3 (54): Eagles 28-24 Saints 26-24
Saturday, 8:10 PM, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA (Weather: 80% rain, low-40s)

Reasons: This game has the makings of an instant playoff classic. The Eagles have the 9th-ranked pass offense, the top-ranked running game, the 10th-ranked rush defense, and the #4 scoring offense in the league. The only thing they're bad at is defending the pass (ranked last), which happens to what New Orleans excels at (ranked 2nd). The Saints also have the 2nd-ranked pass defense, and boast the leagues #10 scoring offense and #4 scoring defense. Unfortunately for the Saints the game is on the road, where they're 3-5 this season and average a ridiculous 16 fewer ppg than at home. Even worse is the weather will be awful - cold and rainy. The only real chance the Saints have v. the surging Eagles is that somehow the 2013 Eagles were worse at home (4-4) than on the road (6-2), and apparently that was enough to give the Saints one more point than otherwise usually afforded.

The Saints had the ball for nearly ten more minutes in this game, none more critical than the last two, and out rushed the fabled Eagles running game by over 100 yards (185 to 80), averaging 1.5 yards more per carry. So even though Drew Brees continued to stink up the joint on the road in bad/cold weather (250 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs), the Saints didn't really need him as they controlled the clock, controlled the run game, got first downs when it mattered (7 for 13 on 3rd down) and let their 4th-ranked overall defense stifle the Eagles offensive attack when it mattered (Eagles were 3 for 12 on 3rd downs, although interestingly they were 2-2 on 4th down). LeSean McCoy managed only 77 yards on 21 carries and although Nick Foles continued his highly efficient season (105 passer rating, no turnovers) he wasn't exactly lighting it up. Poor clock management and inefficient use of TOs (again) seemed to doom the Eagles, because this game basically belonged to late-season pickup Shane Graham, who replaced Garrett Hartley during the season, and ended up kicking four FGs, including the game winner as time expired. Remember when I claimed this game had the makings of an instant classic? I meant the Colts-Chiefs game.

 
San Diego Chargers #6 (+7) @ Cincinnati Bengals #3 (47): Bengals 31-24 Chargers 27-10
Sunday, 1:05 PM, Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, OH (Weather: Sunny, cold, mid-30s)

Reasons: Let's be honest, the Chargers backed into the playoffs in one of those SUVs that does it automatically. They had won four straight games, but the Chiefs held a Week 17 24-14 lead at halftime, then missed a 41-yard FG that would have won the game and sent the much less talented Steelers to Cincinnati. Actually, that might have made the Steelers' AFC North little brothers nervous. But the Chargers inexplicably won and backed into the 6th seed, where they face the most underrated team in the AFC, maybe the NFL. The Bengals have the 8th-ranked passing game and 6th-ranked scoring offense to go along with one of the five top overall defenses in the NFL. And don't let the 18th-ranked run game fool you, Law Firm and back up rookie sensation Giovani Benard get after it. In addition to being one of the best teams in the league on paper, they're unbeatable at home, going 8-0 in 2013. The Chargers are essentially the same team on the road (4-4), perhaps even slightly better offensively, but the Bengals are lights out at home, averaging 34.4 ppg - I don't see that changing.

This game was 10-7 Bengals at the half and Andy Dalton had a TD and no turnovers. Things seemed slow, but OK for the Bengals. However, Giovani Benard fumbled at the 4-yard line with 1:47 left in the half, and instead of leading 14-7 they were scrambling to get the ball back so they wouldn't be down at the half. The stellar defense managed a three-and-out stop, the offense got the ball back, and kicked a 46-yard FG as the first half expired. The damage was done though. Somehow the Bengals never recovered from that Benard fumble, and the Bengals were outscored 20-0 in the second half, while Dalton threw two INTs and lost a fumble. If I told you that Philip Rivers threw for only 128 yards on 16 attempts (completing 12 of them) v. this Bengals defense you'd assume they lost, but clearly that wasn't the case. The Chargers run game stole the show in the second half, ending the game with 196 total yards on 40 uncharacteristic carries (SD ranked 30th in the NFL with only 23.5 carries per game). I still believe in Andy Dalton as a legit threat at QB, but these Bengals need some help, possibly starting with a change of scenery at head coach. The Chargers head to Denver to try and beat them for the second time this season. (Note: the three remaining AFC playoffs teams were the only teams to beat Denver this season)

San Francisco 49ers #5 (-3) @ Green Bay Packers #4 (46.5): 49ers 30-27 49ers 23-20
Sunday, 4:40 PM, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI (Weather: Frigid, 0 degrees)

Reasons: Imagine being the 49ers: You win 12 games, win your last seven straight games, beat division rival Seattle at the most critical time of the season, go 6-2 on the road, and end the season ranked in the top 10 in nearly every important statistical category (3rd-ranked rush offense, 11th scoring offense; 7th-ranked pass defense, 4th-ranked rush defense, 3rd-ranked scoring defense) and have to travel to Lambeau Field in January to win a playoff game, just as Aaron Rodgers begins to get back into the groove. It's a horrible scenario for the 49ers, who literally drew the shortest stick in the first round of these playoffs (think 2010: 7-9 Seahawks v. 11-5 Saints). The game time temperatures could be below freezing, and it almost never reaches that temperature at 4 AM in SF, let alone any given game time. So the 8-7-1 Packers that not one person on Earth outside of Green Bay, WI gave a chance to even make the playoffs now has a chance to win the round one game they incredibly get to host. Who said parody was dead in the NFL? I don't like the weather predictions, but then again the Packers defense is horrendous (24th overall) and SF can't throw the ball anyway (ranked 30th), so the 49ers will rely on their 3rd-ranked run game to carry the frozen rock to victory, as they're a slightly better offense on the road anyway (8 ppg above season scoring average). If you're a Green bay fan (or a few experts with valid opinions) you have to like your chances on the Frozen Tundra with ARod back. If you're anyone else in the world you like the angry 49ers to show the world that the last place they should be is Green Bay, WI.

This game was not as cold as advertised and Aaron Rodgers wasn't as deadly as I expected him to be. Rodgers managed only 177 passing yards and one TD on 26 attempts, but was sacked four times. The 49ers are obviously a far better team, especially on defense, besting the Packers in total yards, efficiency (7/13 on 3rd/4th down), and yards per play. This game was all about Colin Kaepernick, who had 336 total yards and a TD, and Phil Dawson, who kicked four FGs, including the game winner as time expired. Dawson finally accepted that it's better in SF than Cleveland. Things turn up next week as two nearly identical teams take the field in Charlotte for the NFC Divisional Round.

Stay tuned Friday for the Week 19 #NFL Predictions (w/ spreads & analysis): DIVISIONAL ROUND.
PHAULKNER

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