By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) And then there were 12. Since the 12-team format debuted in 1990, at least four teams qualified for the playoffs that weren’t in the postseason the prior year. This season, there are five new teams – New Orleans, Carolina, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and San Diego – participating for a shot at the title.
Here’s my take on how the Wild Card Weekend plays out.
(Home team in all CAPS)
Chiefs 24, COLTS 23 – Saturday 3:35 PM
Just over eight months ago, the Chiefs were making the first pick in the 2013 draft. This Saturday is the culmination of their impressive turnaround, in which they’ve gone from 2-14 to 11-5 in the span of one season. Their opponent is no stranger to turnarounds either. In 2011, the Colts were a two-win team. In the subsequent two seasons, they’ve amassed 22 wins and back-to-back playoff appearances. Quarterback Andrew Luck deserves the most credit for the Colts’ success. Despite being short on weapons, Luck has delivered all season, particularly over the last month. However, the Chiefs defensive front is loaded with talent and creative with their fronts. On a fast track, look for the Chiefs pass rush – bolstered by the return of Justin Houston – to feast on the Colts leaky offensive line.
Saints 34, EAGLES 31 – Saturday 7:10 PM
The Saints have been in this position before. Twice they’ve been in playoff shootouts on the road against rookie head coaches, coming up short in both contests. This game has striking similarities. With two of the league’s most creative offensive minds and efficient quarterbacks, it should be yet another shootout. The Saints offensive success is predicated on creating conflict with pre-snap shifts and motions to single up their myriad offensive weapons in advantageous matchups. The Eagles make precise pre- and post-snap reads to take what the defense gives them and force a defense to cover the entire field. While they’ve played better, the Eagles defense – particularly their secondary – is vulnerable, and Sean Payton and Drew Brees will capitalize.
BENGALS 27, Chargers 23 – Sunday 12:05 PM
The Bengals look to break their two-year streak of one-and-done playoff runs as they welcome the Chargers to the unfriendly confines of the “Jungle” on Sunday. The Bengals went a perfect 8-0 at home in 2013, playing stingy, opportunistic defense. Just four weeks ago, the Bengals offensive line dominated the Chargers defensive front and held Philip Rivers and company to a season-low 10 points. That loss woke the Chargers up, as they haven’t lost since, earning their first postseason bid since the 2009 season. The Bengals are simply a better team in the trenches on both sides of the ball and will earn their first playoff win under Marvin Lewis.
49ers 27, PACKERS 24 – Sunday 3:40 PM
The old adage says that defense wins championships. If that holds true this weekend, the 49ers will beat the Packers for the fourth time since September of 2012. The 49ers have reeled off three-straight against the Packers primarily due to astute coaching and game-planning. In each contest, Jim Harbaugh and his staff remained a step ahead of Mike McCarthy, deploying one of the most creative and varied running schemes, paved by one of the league’s most physical offensive lines. The Packers run defense has had issues containing misdirection and counter plays all season long, so look for a steady dose of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter from the 49ers. Rookie Eddie Lacy has revamped the Packers running game, but will his injured ankle hold up? Anything less than Lacy at full-strength will hamper the Packers, as Aaron Rodgers showed rust in his first start since breaking his collarbone. Close game, but the 49ers are the more talented team and will grind out a win in frigid Lambeau.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin
Season Record: 167-88-1