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Life’s been difficult away from home for Sean Payton, Drew Brees and the Saints’ high-powered attack. They’ll try to right their road woes against Chip Kelly’s red hot Eagles in the city of brotherly love.
AFC/NFC Wild Card Playoff Round
Saturday, January 4
AFC Wild Card Playoff 4:35 PM ET – TV: NBC
Kansas City Chiefs (5) 11-5 @ Indianapolis Colts (4) 11-5
When both squads battled on the gridiron in Week 16 at Arrowhead, I was expecting the Chiefs, who added more punch to their offense by opening things up within the west coast system by taking shots downfield, finding an extra element to stretch defenses to come out victorious. Well, it appeared that way on Kansas City’s opening drive that finished with a Jamaal Charles 31-yard touchdown run off one of them zone-runs the Chiefs’ running game has been almost picture-perfect on executing. After that, it all went downhill for Andy Reid’s bunch that ended up getting owned at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. And how does the line of scrimmage fare between the two in this matchup? Kansas City gets Branden Albert back to protect Alex Smith’s blind-side that could potentially up and better Smith’s chances against the Indianapolis pass-rush this time around. The Colts sacked Smith five times in their 23-7 win over Kansas City on Dec. 22, and the main area we need to look at here is Kansas City’s rookie right tackle Eric Fisher on the edges against Indianapolis’ dynamite speed-rusher Robert Mathis. I don’t think they leave Fisher all alone on an island with the advantage largely going to Mathis one-on-one. Using an extra chipper to help Fisher’s side would be a wise choice and approach in Andy Reid’s game-plan on passing downs. And when the Chiefs hand the football off to Jamaal Charles, expect them to run plays away from Mathis’ side to try to take him away from the ball and neutralize him from getting after Smith. Mathis is the player that makes it happen to ignite the defense, and Indianapolis’ defensive coordinator Greg Manusky uses him in various ways at the line and on stunts that opposing quarterbacks need to eye on before the snap. Obviously, things begin and end with Charles for Kansas City to move the chains by keeping Smith out of low-percentage passing downs. When Charles is making plays, Smith is efficient on third down with the short passing game and using his feet off the play-fake. The story in the shadows of the 2013/14 season is first year offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton on how he’s managed to get Andrew Luck to adjust to things without key parts of the offense due to injuries. No Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw, then throw in Trent Richardson, LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen, Da’Rick Rogers, Donald Brown as the replacements and an offensive line that’s starting to protect Andrew Luck, and you have a team aligned to win at home come playoff-time. Unless Kansas City’s pass-rush rises from the dead, I’m leaning towards Indy on the fast-track of Lucas Oil Stadium to be better at stretching the field over Kansas City, vertically.
Pick: Colts 30, Chiefs 24
NFC Wild Card Playoff 8:10 PM ET – TV: NBC
New Orleans Saints (6) 11-5 @ Philadelphia Eagles (3) 10-6
Although the Saints are still deep enough at the skill-positions without Pierre Thomas (Back), he still is an important factor missing for their offense. He and Darren Sproles utilized in the screen-game is a key element of the New Orleans offense that forces lots of attention from opposing linebackers to shadow in pass-coverage. However, this could strangely end up being a blessing for the Saints that have struggled away from Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Why? You can look at all the statistical factors and deficiencies the Eagles have had in the secondary, but being home in front of their home crowd puts them on the plus side of things. And Mark Ingram, who is likely in line for a bigger role with Thomas out, has shown flashes of being able to pound the rock when his number has been called upon. When Ingram carried the football 10-plus times in a single game during the regular-season, he managed 83-yards on Dec. 22 at Carolina and 145-yards on the ground against Dallas in Week 10. Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ unit has an approach on using their speed and gambling at the line of scrimmage with pressure packages. His main-guy used in these packages is linebacker Mychal Kendricks, a major part of Davis’ scheme in a bend but don’t break defense. Backing Kendricks off the line of scrimmage will be vital for the Saints in this matchup, and they’ll need the running game to create balance and keep Drew Brees away from the Philadelphia speed-rush. Brees is one of the more intelligent signal-callers on reading coverage’s at the line and making quick decisions. If the offensive line protects him, he should find tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Marques Colston in favorable matchups, and Darren Sproles leaking out, if Philadelphia’s linebackers are dropped back in coverage on Graham. On the defensive of the ball for Rob Ryan’s group, the Saints defense needs limit league-leading rusher LeSean McCoy from gashing them between the tackles and in open space as a receiving option in Chip Kelly’s system, with Nick Foles operating off the zone-read. The Saints have defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks on the edges that can create havoc, along with linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne that can run down the ball-carrier, but I’m going with the team that has the better offensive line. You see those running lanes created by Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce and Todd Herremans on the interior for McCoy to run through? Philadelphia has the running game and balance on offense to keep drives going, keeping Brees and the Saints high-powered offense off the field, forcing them to play ketchup on the road.
Pick: Eagles 34, Saints 27
Sunday, January 5
AFC Wild Card Playoff 1:05 PM ET – TV: CBS
San Diego Chargers (6) 9-7 @ Cincinnati Bengals (3) 11-5
Good coaches make adjustments and find the right pedigree for success on both sides of the ball. San Diego’s head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt are a great mix in formulating game-plans with multiple spread-sets to attack opposing defenses with a vertical stretch. Since their last loss against Cincinnati on Dec. 1, the offense has been much more balanced with Ryan Mathews becoming a 20-plus attempt back, averaging 127-yards over his last four games, and in those games, San Diego has won them all, including a huge upset win over the Denver Broncos in Week 15. Cincinnati’s offense has been much better in their own house at Paul Brown Stadium in racking up points, and I’m expecting coach McCoy and Whisenhunt electing to give Ryan Mathews a heavy dose of work in trying to control time of possession, the same plan used in their win over Denver that kept Peyton Manning and the Broncos explosive offense off the field. Mathews carries the ball 29 times in that contest and kept Philip Rivers upright on passing downs. They’ll need Mathews to be effective if they want to put Rivers in good shape on passing downs with positive runs off the spread-sets on early downs to potentially negate Cincinnati’s talented defensive front that features Domata Peko, Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. San Diego’s offensive line is getting healthy at the right time with King Dunlap back at left tackle and rookie D.J. Fluker going back to his natural tackle spot on the right side of the line. Those two need to bring their boxing gloves to the ring going up against Cincinnati’s bull-dozing rush on the edges. Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator Jay Gruden will continue to run BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard with their power-style of running between the tackles, but how effective Bernard is out of the backfield in the screen-game in open space will be vital for Cincinnati to open things up. If Bernard is making plays by catching screens and gaining yards in open space, this could have San Diego’s safety Eric Weddle cheat up towards the line away from doubling receiver A.J. Green for Andy Dalton to be able to hit his star-receiver over the top. Tight ends Tyler Eifert (Shoulder) and Jermaine Gresham (Hamstring) are listed as questionable, but are expected to play. Having both of them present will also be important, particularly in the redzone. I like what San Diego’s offense has been doing by throwing a balanced attack into their playbook and Philip Rivers making music with receiver Keenan Allen, but Cincinnati has the advantage at the line of scrimmage and should be able to move the football methodically with the running game, short passing game that will formulate a favorable matchup downfield. With all the attention on receiver A.J. Green, look for Andy Dalton to turn to the silent x-factor of this matchup, Marvin Jones.
Pick: Bengals 27, Chargers 20
NFC Wild Card Playoff 4:40 PM ET – TV: FOX
San Francisco 49ers (5) 12-4 @ Green Bay Packers (4) 8-7-1
Usually, a west coast team wouldn’t be equipped to play in the “Frozen Tundra” of Lambeau Field. With temperatures expected to be below freezing, it’s time to turn to the running game, and Green Bay and San Francisco have that with Eddie Lacy brining a ground and pound formula to the Packers’ prolific attack, and the 49ers leaning on Frank Gore’s power to sustain drives. In their Week 1 meeting out west, Colin Kaepernick was able to dissect Green Bay’s secondary by finding receiver Anquan Boldin on multiple targets that proved to be the deciding factor in San Francisco’s 34-28 win in a shootout. In that contest, Dom Capers, Green Bay’s defensive coordinator’s game-plan was focused in on limiting Kaepernick from making big-plays with his feet like he did in last year’s divisional playoff round. His unit needs to bring their A-game by being able to man up with physical receivers, Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. Having Crabtree back makes the 49er offense well-rounded. San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman will throw Crabtree and Boldin out right, left and in the slot, and wherever they’re lined up, Green Bay’s corners, Sam Shields and Tramon Williams need to be able to press them at the line to disrupt their routes. Advantage Boldin and Crabtree there. Crabtree will be the receiver likely to receive double teams, and when he’s doubled, Kaepernick should find favorable matchups with tight Vernon Davis that can also get separation downfield. Facing Aaron Rodgers is always a world of concern for any defense, including a top-flight group like San Francisco’s. The Packers play upfront on the offensive line has improved, particularly on the outside by using extra blockers, an area where coach McCarthy using his three-receiver sets, working out of the shotgun with the backs in the backfield is an element that could neutralize San Francisco’s dynamic linebackers Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman. Running those toss-sweeps to Lacy with Rodgers in shotgun has kept defenses guessing on the run and pass with their spread-alignments. You don’t want San Francisco’s linebackers around the line making plays, but keeping them on their toes and dropping them back in coverage should be the plan for Green Bay’s offensive approach. The combination and effectiveness of James Starks and Eddie Lacy changing paces will be the focal point of Green Bay’s success on trying to keep Rodgers out of long distance passing downs. If Clay Matthews (Thumb) was healthy, I’d like Green Bay’s chances on pressuring Kaepernick on passing downs, and since he’s out, the 49ers, a better team in trenches at the line of scrimmage has me banking on their ground game and Kaeprnick’s pocket to be much cleaner than Rodgers’. Rodgers is always capable of making dazzling-plays with his arm, but he needs Eddie Lacy to be the show, and San Francisco’s defense is much better at stopping the run and pressuring the pocket. The better defense wins these kinds of battles in the freezing cold.
Pick: 49ers 24, Packers 20
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt