Wild Card Sunday
Ok, so while the games Saturday were absolutely phenomenal, my picks were, well, not. I had the Colts winning a much lower scoring game (though to be fair, I did call there being a key defensive stand by Indianapolis near the games end), and had Philly winning by four (though, again fair, I picked Philly based on how well they run the ball because of the weather, and New Orleans actually, uncharacteristically [26th in rush attempts per game], ran the ball well). But, that was so much fun, I figured why not do it again. Here’s my take on Sunday’s games.
SD at Cincy
The San Diego Chargers (9-7) snuck in last weekend with a win over the Chief substitutes and get to play against the Cincinnati Bengals (11-5) this weekend. Phillip Rivers (NC State) looks to get a playoff W after three years without a game in January, while the young Andy Dalton (TCU) looks for his first playoff win, and the franchise’s first since 1990. The Chargers emerged out of the fierce AFC West (3/4 teams made the playoffs) after ending the year on four straight wins. That stretch turned out to be a string of what were basically playoff games for the Chargers, because they needed each of those wins (and a few losses by others those weeks) to get in. Rivers helped out by finishing the year with a completion percentage of 69.5%.
The Bengals went 8-0 at home this year, so earning home field advantage was a big deal Cincy. The Chargers are going from warm and sunny San Diego to Cincinnati, Ohio. While the weather could be a lot worse, high thirties with light rain will be a lot different than sunny So Cal. On top of that, the Pats, Packers, and Ravens all went into Cincy and came away with L’s. Further, Cincinnati beat the Chargers in San Diego this year, 17-10 (San Diego’s last lost). The Chargers had 250 yards through the air but Ryan Matthews (Fresno State) was held to 61 yards rushing. If Saturday showed us anything, it’s that being able to run the ball effectively wins playoff games. They’re going to have to get the ground game going in order to win in Cincinnati. Conversely, in that game, BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Ole Miss) and Gio Bernard (UNC) combined for 150 yards on the ground, with “The Law Firm” adding a rushing touchdown.
My Call: 28-14 Bengals. All put together, it seems like an uphill battle for the Chargers. They’ve had a tough last month just to get here, including the overtime win last week. Many would say that the last few Super Bowl champions have entered the playoffs hot, but this is different. It took them an overtime field goal last Sunday to beat the Chiefs back ups, which strikes me as a bad sign. I’m going with the Red Head to get the Bengals over the playoff hump. They’ve got a dynamic Tight End duo, Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma) and Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame) of whom Dalton takes full advantage. Add in deep threat A.J. Green (Georgia), and Green-Ellis and Bernard on the ground, and they ought to be hard to beat. Again, I was wrong yesterday and the last few years of history would be on the side of the Chargers, but I think the Bengals have this one.
Thing you’re bound to hear from an announcer: The last time San Diego and Cincinnati met in the playoffs was in 1982. It was one of the coldest games in NFL history, as the Bengals beat Dan Fouts and the Chargers 27-7. Look for a nice montage of an old, freezing cold football game. Besides that, I’m sure they’ll mention a dozen times at least that Cincy hasn’t won a playoff game since 1990. And to be fair, coming from someone born in 1991, that’s a long drought.
SF at GB
A rematch of a playoff game last year. The 49ers (12-4) head to a frigid Green Bay (8-7-1) in the playoffs, again. But, if you are looking for Colin Kaepernick (Nevada) to run for 181 yards again, I’d hold your horses. Green Bay Coach Mike McCarthy is too good of a coach to allow them to beat him the same way in back to back playoffs. That being said, the team that runs the ball, as I’ve said in a couple of game previews, will come out with the victory today. That’s even more important in a game like today, where the temperature at kick off is going to be below zero. After factoring wind chill, some are predicting it to feel like a 30 below zero game. Kaepernick, while he has a strong arm, doesn’t throw the best ball in the NFL by any means. The Niners likely won’t get to utilize Anquan Boldin (Florida State) and Vernon Davis (Maryland) in the passing game like they usually do, I’m expecting a huge day out of Frank Gore (Miami). The matchup I’m paying the most attention to in this one is Frank the Tank and the Niners Offensive Line vs. B.J. Raji (Boston College), A.J. Hawk (Ohio St.) and the Packers defensive front. That could be the matchup that decides the game.
This is very different from the match up at the start of this regular season, when Kaepernick threw for 400 yards and 3 touchdowns. However, while I expect the weather to slow down Kaep, I don’t think it will have the same effect on a now healthy Aaron Rodgers (Cal). Rodgers is widely acclaimed to throw the best cold weather ball. Plus last week, in his first start since breaking his collar bone, though he looked rusty between the 30’s, in the red zone Rodgers was well, All-Pro Aaron Rodgers. He seems to have maintained his connection with wide-outs Randall Cobb (Kentucky) and Jordy Nelson (Kansas St.). Eddy Lacy (Alabama) expects to play hurt with a sprained ankle in the run game, so look for he and James Starks (Buffalo) to split carries against the stiff Niners run defense (gave up the 4th least yards per game on the ground this year). So, while I just said the weather may shrink the Niners Offensive playbook, the Packers will have to be more balanced, and can be with Rodgers abilities, than San Francisco.
My Call: 31-28 Packers. This was my hardest pick of the weekend (And I was wrong once yesterday…). At the end of the day, I can see the packers loading up the box and daring the Niners to throw one on one with the DBs. I expect Rodgers to out pass Kaepernick, and that should spread the defense out, allowing some power running game up the middle. I waffled back and forth on this one, but then I saw two things. 1) Green Bays record with Rodgers this year (6-3) than without him (2-5-1). 2) Both starting CBs for San Francisco are playing with hamstring injuries. In that cold weather, that will make it insanely hard to keep up with Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb.
Thing you’re bound to hear from an announcer: the inevitable thing will be that Kaepernick was a Packers fan as a kid (complete with a picture of him at Lambeau with a Favre jersey) and the Rodgers was a Niners fan (grew up in the Bay Area). Other than that, look for the replays of every cold playoff game, ever. I keep referencing the cold, but today in Green Bay should be no joke. ESPN reported hours before kick off that the high, which will be around or just before kick off, is -5°. No, that’s not a typo. It’s going to be freezing. The Packers are giving out free hand warmers and hot cocoa to the fans at the game as incentives to come bear the cold. It could create an interesting game though.