In the past, I’ve always done one big NFL Preview in which I try to forecast the entire tournament all the way through the Super Bowl. This year I decided to go the more traditional route, with weekly picks, starting with this weekend’s Wild Card Round, which of course features my beloved Niners in their now bi-annual Holy War with the Green Bay Packers. We’ll save that one for last.
San Diego at Cincinnati
The Chargers have been maybe the most schizo team in football this year. They beat the Broncos in Denver, but they lost to the Raiders and the Titans. They needed a ton of help last week to make the playoffs, and then after Baltimore and Miami both obliged with losses, the Chargers still needed a missed field goal, a couple of very questionable calls, and overtime to win a home game over a Kansas City team that was sitting its starters. I’m not impressed. Meanwhile, the Bengals went 8-0 at home, have a great defense, and have offensive playmakers in A.J. Green and Gio Bernard to attack a woeful Chargers defense. I wouldn’t want to bet money on Andy Dalton (San Diego definitely has the QB advantage with Phil Rivers) but everything else says Cincy to me. Bengals 34, Chargers 17.
Kansas City at Indianapolis
I wouldn’t pay too much attention to the Colts 23-7 win over the Chiefs from a few weeks back, except to note that it’s part of a trend of the Colts playing much more solidly in the last quarter of the season after a major midseason slump. The Chiefs, meanwhile, have gone just 2-5 since their 9-0 start (although two of those losses came against the Broncos, and one was to the Chargers in the aforementioned game, which didn’t matter to K.C. at all). The Chiefs were, on the whole, the better regular season team, and you’d think their pass rushers would be able to get by the Colts offensive line to put pressure on Andrew Luck. Plus, Jamaal Charles is the best skill-position player on either team. But I think the Colts are playing a bit better than the Chiefs right now, and when I look at the QB matchup … look, I’m a longtime Niners fan: I like Alex Smith. I’ll be rooting for him. But who would you rather put your money on: Smith or Luck? Combine that with the Colts having homefield, and I think this does end up looking something like their previous matchup. Let’s say Colts 21, Chiefs 10.
New Orleans at Philadelphia
This one’s gonna be fun. Philly has the league’s most innovative offense, and the best one outside of Denver. On the other hand, the Eagles have an awful defense, one that gave up 48 points a couple of weeks back to a Vikings team that had no Adrian Peterson and was starting Matt Cassell at quarterback. The Saints, as always, have a great passing attack behind Drew Brees and his corps of receivers, and Rob Ryan—as much as I hate to give that fat camera hog credit—helped bring their defense back to respectability. I think the Saints are a better team, and on a neutral field I think they’d win, but New Orleans went just 3-5 on the road this year, and their offense has been much worse when they have to play outdoors. And it’s gonna be cold in Philly. I’ll take the Eagles, 33-24.
San Francisco at Green Bay
Speaking of cold. Ye gods. A high of 0!!! A low of -18!!! Ironically, though, the awful weather will probably hurt a Packers team that depends on throwing the ball more than it will hurt the team from California, as it accentuates the biggest advantage for San Francisco: The Niners are the more physically dominant team on both the offensive and defensive lines. It’s not a coincidence they’ve beaten the Packers three straight times. Plus, in the last few years Lambeau hasn’t been quite the house of horrors it once was for visiting teams: Green Bay has lost several home playoff games in the last decade, including to the New York Giants in the Divisional Round two years ago, a week before the Kyle Williams Game.
Look, I’m crazy nervous about this game. I predicted to my attorney more than a month ago that Aaron Rodgers would return in time to rally the Packers to the playoffs and that the Niners were going to end up having to go to Lambeau, and now here we are, in what I referred to then as “the nightmare scenario.” But Green Bay’s defense is terrible, especially against the run, and now Colin Kaepernick is playing with confidence and has all his weapons healthy. I’m abjectly terrified of Rodgers—I still think he’s the best QB alive, and by the fourth quarter of the Bears game last week he had shaken off the rust to lead a couple of clutch touchdown drives. But I think the Niners hold too many advantages, I think the poor conditions will end up accentuating those advantages, and I think the Niners will win 23-20.