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(2013 NFL final standings)
The NFL regular season is over. The 2013 season was filled with plenty of highlights, lowlights, record setting performances, suspensions, end of year head coach firings, exciting final weekend games, defending champions eliminated (Baltimore), December debacles (Dallas) and soon to be the first ever cold weather Super Bowl.
Playoff football is here. Wild Card games begin later this afternoon. Four sensational matchups (at least on paper).
Time to polish off my post-season crystal ball. Digger finished the regular season with 11 correct Week 17 picks finishing the year with 167-88 record (65.5%).
WILD CARD PREDICTIONS
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) @ Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
Which KC team is getting ready to take the field? The KC team which began the season 9-0 by playing flawless football? Or, the KC team that finished 2-5 during the 2nd half of the season? First year KC coach Andy Reid (previously Eagles) has done a masterful job. KC's offense is clearly centered around running back Jamaal Charles. Charles rushed for 1,287 and 5 yards per carry in 15 games. He also tallied 70 pass receptions out of the backfield. QB Alex Smith has thrived in KC. He's been playing an efficient ball control style methodically moving the Chiefs downfield. Playing indoors at Indy provides a very quick surface with big play capability. Charles will have every opportunity to shine. Andy Reid needs to execute a solid plan as Colts defenders primary objective will be to neutralize Charles from the get go.
Chief defense hasn't played well lately. No opponent score more than 17 during their 9 game winning streak. Unfortunately, no opponent scored less than 23 over the final 7 games. If their D can't step up today then it's going to be a long afternoon for KC fans.
The Colts are very talented and have beaten tough teams (SF, Seattle, Denver). They're led by QB Andrew Luck (60.2% completions) and WR T.Y. Hilton (82 receptions). Indy's short passing game is the key to their success or failure this afternoon. Indy's running game isn't good. Four different RB's have started games (mostly due to injuries) and none have provided enough pop to pry defenses from defending against Indy's passing game. Trent Richardson, recently acquired from Cleveland, gets the nod. Good news is even though opponents key on passing game, Luck found away to lead his team to the AFC North division title. Mistake free football is a must for the Colts if they're to win today.
3 keys and they're huge. Number's 1 & 2 will be to stop Jamaal Charles. Colts must contain him when taking handoffs and shut him down from catching passes out of the backfield. 3rd key is not to get faked out by precision play action passes. Not an easy task but if Indy can disguise their pre-snap D and players stick to their assignments then who knows how far these guys can go? One big potential problem is key DB's not 100% healthy.
Prediction: Lucas Oil Stadium will be rocking. Fans can be a tremendous help by keeping decibel levels high throughout this contest. KC's attack is better than Indy's. Indy's D is better than KC. KC pulls away late. KC 45-30.
New Orleans Saints (11-5) @ Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
Drew Brees is the man in New Orleans. Brees completed 68.2% threw for 5162 passing yards & 39 TD's all NFC highs. RB's Pierre Thomas (77 catches) & Darren Sproles (71 catches) took full advantage of defenders chasing WR's while Brees faced intense blitz packages leaving these two wide open. TE Jimmy Graham was Brees favorite target (team leading 82 catches, 16 TD). This offense is a defensive coordinator's nightmare. Saints biggest problem though is lack of a feared running attack which directly led to being held to 20 or fewer points in 6 regular season contests. Saints still looking for 1st playoff victory after winning Super Bowl XLIV (2010).
Saints defense played surprisingly well (4th lowest points against) when taking into account playing with a quick strike offense. This means, Saints D keeps fresh even though they're on the field with short in-game rest periods. Defensive End Cameron Jordan (12.5 sacks) & LB Junior Galette (12.0 sacks) keep opposing QB's off balance leading to 2nd best team pass defense vs pass (194 yds/game). Saints D will need to come up big vs rejuvenated Eagles offense playing in frigid conditions tonight.
If it wasn't for Peyton Manning's record breaking season then Eagles QB Nick Foles would be this year's MVP. Foles was 8-2 after taking over for Michael Vick and has everyone in Philly believing this is their year! Foles has been nothing short of the textbook definition of spectacular. 27 TD passes vs only 2 interceptions. Simply incredible. So is his QB rating of 119.2. Foles also led the NFL in TD% (8.5), yards per attempt (9.1) and yards per completion (14.1). And guess what? This is a run first offense paced by RB LeSean McCoy. McCoy led all RB's with 310 rushes for 1607 yards (100.4 yds/game). Toss in 52 receptions and he's one of the NFL's best. 1st year NFL coach Chip Kelly was mocked often for employing a NCAA style offense. Nobody should be mocking him any longer after Philadelphia won the NFC East! Saints D is facing their toughest task of the season.
This is a good news, bad news defense. Today's good news is their NFL 29th ranked D somehow manages to make big plays when the game is on the line. Today's bad news is they surrendered NFL high of 4,636 passing yards. Brees could have easy pickings unless Bill Davis devises a stellar plan to disrupt New Orleans air it out attack. 20+ degree weather should help a bit vs an indoor team with problems winning road playoff games.
Prediction: Eagles are hot. Saints are not. I have to go with Foles & McCoy here. A solid rushing attack can negate a vicious sack attack. Eagles pull it off, 30-27.
San Diego Chargers (9-7) @ Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
1st year coach Mike McCoy's team hit their stride just in the nick of time. The Chargers qualified as the AFC's final Wild Card team by winning their final four regular season games including a final game thriller vs KC (27-24). QB Phillip Rivers completed nearly 70% of passing attempts (69.5, NFL best) & 30 TD's. RB Ryan Matthews enjoyed a fine comeback season leading SD with 1,255 rushing yards. Rivers has many weapons for his passing attack: TE Gates (77 catches), FLEX Woodhead (76 yards), WR Allen (71 catches), WR Royal (47 catches). This offense should've been putting up big TD numbers all season long. For some reason they don't. Costly penalties coupled with 3rd & long don't help matters. Only 4 games scoring 30 or more points all season. Chargers finished 5th with 393.3 yards/game .. yet, only 12th with 24.8 points/game.
Finished 11th best with 21.8 points/game and unimpressive 366.5 yards/game (23rd). SD only had 17 takeaways in 16 games. Chargers D managed to stiffen up down the stretch after an ugly 1st 10+ games. They're hands will be full attempting to contain Cincinnati's offense in foul weather conditions (39 degrees, 90% precipitation forecast).
Coach Marvin Lewis rollercoaster tenure in Cincinnati was rewarded this year by a fine team performance on and off the field. Bengals won their 1st AFC North title since 2009 led by QB Andy Dalton and the two headed running attack of BenJarvus Green-Ellis & Giovani Bernard (combined 1,445 rushing yards, 12 TD). Dalton's favorite target is WR A.J. Green (98 receptions, 1,426 yards, 11 TD). When this offense is clicking, they're nearly unstoppable. They edged San Diego 17-10 in Week 13. Six games scoring 34 or more. Sunday will be more of the same.
Defensive End bookends Carlos Dunlap & Wallace Gilberry registered 7.5 sacks each and DT Gene Atkins had 6. They're a very tough front line unit. MLB Vontaze Burfict posted 112 tackles. This is a hard hitting, Johnny-on-the-spot defense. They held San Diego to 10 in their previous meeting. I'm not expecting the Chargers to survive tomorrow's contest either.
Prediction: Cincinnati's offense will be too much for Chargers defense to handle. SD's only chance is to win a shootout. Cincy 38-24.
San Francisco 49ers (12-4) @ Green Bay Packers (8-7-1)
Dangerous but not nearly as explosive as I believe they should be. QB Colin Kaepernick is exciting but should be better. Here's a guy who keeps defenses off balance. He has size, speed and strength. However, average reading passing d's and too many off balance off target throws stymies SF's scoring chances. The good news is they're on a 6 game winning streak and offense has played well of late (with great field position help from their defense). Kaepernick's favorite targets are WR Boldin 85 receptions, 1,179 yards) & TE Vernon Davis (52 receptions, 13 TD). RB Frank Gore is their featured back but too many shotgun formations taking attempts away from what should be a run first offense. One never knows from week to week how well they'll perform as a unit. Lately, they've been on their game.
SF will only go as far as their defense will take them. Defense is everything in SF. The defensive unit often sets up the offense with great field position. This is a very aggressive hard nosed unit which makes it very difficult for opponents to drive down the field.
Green Bay Offense
He's baaaaaaaack! Aaron Rodgers returned just in time for Packers nation. Rodgers returned to beat Chicago last weekend in a winner take all (loser's go home) battle. Green Bay prevailed 33-28 to lock up the NFC North with an anything but impressive 8-7-1 record. Rodgers began the season on fire leading Green Bay to a 5-2 record before getting knocked out of action vs Minnesota. After near misses, Rodgers wants a Super Bowl ring. Big challenge vs SF. I'm betting Rodgers is up to the task. Rookie RB Eddie Lacy enjoyed a fine inaugural season posting 1,178 yards (often while banged up). Rodgers will spread the ball out to many talented pass catchers. WR Jordy Nelson led GB with 85 receptions for 1,314 yards.
Green Bay Defense
They're rejuvenated now that Rodgers is back taking snaps. Frank Gore could have a field day unless these guys step it up. Packers surrendering 125 yards/game to backs, 372.3 total yards/game. Packers D could be described as bend but don't break. Whatever you want to call them they're much better when Rodgers & Co. are chewing up yards on offense with long drives.
Prediction: Game time temperature in Green Bay predicted to be -19 degrees. That's right, minus 19. Green Bay was 6-2 with Rodgers as starting QB. 2-5-1 without. SF was hot until facing -19. Crystal ball says Rodgers decisively, 28-10.