Kansas City @ Indianapolis
Saturday 4:35 ET
These clubs squared off two weeks ago at Arrowhead Stadium, with Indianapolis coming out on top 23-7. Chiefs coach Andy Reid admitted after the defeat that Jamaal Charles didn't get the football enough, finishing with 106 yards and a touchdown but handling just 13 carries. Expect Reid to recommit to his offensive centerpiece as Charles returns from an off week after Kansas City rested its starters in Week 17. Run defense is Indy's primary weakness, finishing the regular season ranked 26th against the run with 4.47 YPC allowed, the seventh highest clip in football. Should-be NFL MVP runner-up Charles projects to go toe-to-toe with LeSean McCoy as the Wild Card round's rushing leader. ... A primary concern for Kansas City's Week 18 passing game is the health of LT Branden Albert (knee), who hasn't played in a game since December 1 and will square off Saturday with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Robert Mathis. Weak-side edge rusher Mathis led the NFL in regular season sacks (19.5) and forced fumbles (8), keying the up-front portion of Indianapolis' top-13 pass defense. Stats like this are not always predictive, but notable nonetheless: The Colts held Alex Smith to 153 scoreless yards on 16-of-28 passing in the Week 16 game, sacking him five times and forcing Smith into three turnovers. Whereas Charles has a mouth-watering Saturday matchup, the same can't be said for Kansas City's quarterback.
The Chiefs' pass catchers are beholden to Smith's checkdown-oriented passing style, which can effectively generate chain movement between the numbers but generally doesn't challenge the intermediate and deep sections of the field. Kansas City was the only team in football this year to be led in receptions (70), receiving yards (693), and touchdowns (7) by its running back. The likes of Dwayne Bowe, Dexter McCluster, Donnie Avery, and Anthony Fasano are role players whose big plays must be created by offensive design and/or run-after-catch opportunities. For instance, if "No. 1 receiver" Bowe tops 70 yards at Indianapolis, it'll be the first time he's done so all season. McCluster quietly enjoyed a career-best year in 2013 on both offense and punt returns, but he's a slot receiver who averages 9.6 yards per catch. If the Chiefs are going to pull off this road victory against a team that creamed them two weeks back at their place, they'll absolutely need a huge game from Charles, Smith to avoid turnovers, and an energized, opportunistic effort from DC Bob Sutton's defense. This has been Kansas City's formula all season, and will not change.
The Colts' 2013 skill-position corps was hit harder than just about any NFL team by year-ending injuries (Dwayne Allen, Reggie Wayne, Ahmad Bradshaw), and rookie OC Pep Hamilton's offense exhibited maddening game-to-game inconsistency that could be fairly blamed on head-scratching play calling and personnel usage. Hamilton seemed to find a late-year groove, however, as Indy topped 24 points per game the final seven weeks, winning five of its last seven. The one constant was Andrew Luck, whose supporting cast didn't always cooperate but still dramatically improved his completion rate (60.2%), TD-to-INT ratio (23:9), QB rating (87.0), and sack percentage (5.3) from his rookie year. Over the season's final month, Luck threw eight touchdowns compared to one interception, and in Week 16 picked apart Kansas City underneath while absorbing just one sack and five quarterback hits. The odds don't favor a huge box-score game from Luck against the Chiefs' at-times lethal pass rush, but Indianapolis obviously has a big edge under center. ... Indy's offensive uptick coincided with the late-year demotion of free-agent bust Darrius Heyward-Bey and promotion of Griff Whalen and rookie Da'Rick Rogers into major roles. This was Luck's target distribution from Week 14 on, with a revamped wideout corps: T.Y. Hilton 39; Rogers 23; Whalen 20; Trent Richardson 19; Coby Fleener 17; Donald Brown 15; LaVon Brazill 6; DHB 3.
Pre-Game Injury Update: The Chiefs are getting back OLB Justin Houston from a five-week elbow dislocation, but fellow OLB Tamba Hali did very little in practice this week and is listed as questionable with a knee injury. Hali has been mostly ineffective when attempting to play through injury this season. Kansas City's secondary is exploitable when the pass rush doesn't get home.
Rogers secured 4-of-6 targets for 42 yards in the Week 16 clash with Kansas City and will be a major X-factor in the Wild Card round. With a Brandon Marshallian skill set, 6-foot-2, 215-pound Rogers will have a compelling perimeter battle with RCB Sean Smith (6'3/214). ... Hilton is the Colts' target and big-play magnet, polishing off an 82-1,083-5 breakout sophomore season with at least five receptions in all but two of Indy's final dozen games. Kansas City's corners are big and physical, but don't run particularly well. Burner Hilton clocked a 4.34 forty at his 2012 Pro Day. ... Slot man Whalen tagged the Chiefs for 80 yards on seven catches in Week 16. Though limited skill wise, Whalen is now playing about 60% of the Colts' offensive snaps as an inside possession receiver. ... Despite elite tools, Fleener's game lacks physicality and he increasingly became a non-factor down the season's stretch. The physical Chiefs do not pose a favorable matchup for Fleener, holding enemy tight ends to the NFL's fourth fewest receptions (61) and second fewest yards (640) this regular season. ... Kansas City was highly inconsistent in 2013 run defense, ranking 22nd in yards allowed and permitting 4.49 yards per carry, the eighth highest clip in the league. Brown and Richardson will continue to form a near-even timeshare in Indy's backfield, with Brown playing in most critical situations. Brown stung the Chiefs for 110 total yards and two touchdowns on 12 touches two weeks ago and is the more dynamic running back at this stage of their careers.
Score Prediction: Colts 21, Chiefs 17
New Orleans @ Philadelphia
Saturday 8:10 ET
Saturday's late game will be a battle between offensive masterminds Sean Payton and Chip Kelly, who trotted out the NFL's Nos. 4 and 2-ranked offenses in 2013 total yards, respectively, and Nos. 10 and 4 in points scored. Not surprisingly, this game has the highest over-under of Wild Card weekend at 54 points, which still seems conservative. Kelly's prolific rushing attack has the premier matchup on either side of the ball, taking on a Saints defense that ranked 19th against the run this regular season and served up 4.61 yards per carry, the league's fifth most generous clip. Favored by three points, the host Eagles can pull off this victory if they stay committed to the run, something Kelly has no problem doing as Philly finished fifth in 2013 rushing attempts. If you're in a playoff fantasy league, you'll want LeSean McCoy on your team. ... The Saints' defense is much stouter through the air, where DC Rob Ryan's unit finished No. 2 in pass defense behind only Seattle, and No. 4 in sacks (49). Unless New Orleans builds a big scoreboard lead, I'd look for Nick Foles to operate primarily as a game manager Saturday night, seeking to avoid turnovers and taking only manufactured vertical shots while Shady pounds on the ground. The potentially high-scoring nature of this affair may ultimately require Foles to do more, but I don't think that's what Kelly wants as long as the game is in control. ... Foles' target distribution from Week 13 on: DeSean Jackson 37; Riley Cooper 28; McCoy and Zach Ertz 22; Brent Celek 19; Jason Avant 17.
The Saints lost a critical component of their defense in Week 16 when strong safety/slot corner Kenny Vaccaro fractured his left ankle. Kelly regularly formulates opponent-specific game plans, and will very likely attack the hole, which last week was filled by a combination of Trevin Wade, Roman Harper, and Rafael Bush. Exactly how Kelly goes about this remains to be seen, but I wouldn't be surprised if Ertz takes on a bigger Week 18 role than usual. In Week 17, Bucs TE Tim Wright dropped a 5-58-1 number on New Orleans, seeing ten targets. ... Look for Ryan to stick top corner Keenan Lewis on Jackson for most of Saturday night's game. D-Jax remains a solid bet for a long passing play -- he always is -- but this could be a difficult matchup for him. Lewis finished the regular season as a top-18 cover corner in Pro Football Focus' grades and allowed a 67.4 passer rating on throws into his coverage, the 12th stingiest mark in the league. ... On paper at least, the matchup favors a productive game from Cooper, who runs most of his pass patterns on the left side of the offensive formation and will face off with fill-in RCB Corey White, who is only starting because Jabari Greer tore his left ACL in mid-November. Cooper costs just $5,500 in FanDuel's Wild Card tournament and could be a cost-effective option in daily fantasy leagues.
Whereas the Eagles are a decidedly run-foundation team, Payton's Saints generally pass to build leads and run to close out wins. New Orleans ended the year second in passing offense and fourth in pass attempts. Philadelphia played more competitive pass defense in the second half of 2013, but still finished dead last in passing yards allowed and 20th in sacks (37). The Eagles are vulnerable to savvy passing attacks because DC Billy Davis relies on heavy blitzing, forcing Philly to sacrifice back-end coverage. With Peyton Manning on a bye, Drew Brees is the heavy favorite to lead all Week 18 quarterbacks in yards and touchdowns. ... Davis will also have to devote specialized coverage to freakish mismatch Jimmy Graham in order to compensate for below average safeties and undersized slot corner Brandon Boykin, who stands 5-foot-9 1/2 and 184 pounds to Graham's 6'6 1/4, 260. The primary box-score beneficiary could be Marques Colston, another size problem (6'4 5/8, 224) in the slot. If the Saints play passing offense as Payton ordinarily aims, Graham and Colston could feed off each other between the numbers and have huge games. Davis will have to get creative. ... Brees' target distribution since Colston returned from a knee injury in Week 10: Colston 71; Graham 68; Darren Sproles 41; Pierre Thomas 40; Lance Moore 29; Kenny Stills 22; Robert Meachem 16; Ben Watson 14; Mark Ingram 9.
Pre-Game Injury Update: The Saints on Friday announced that Pierre Thomas (chest) has been ruled out for the Wild Card round, leaving backfield duties to Sproles and Ingram, with some Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet potentially mixed in. Sproles is shaping up as a good bet for 12-16 touches, while carries behind him could be distributed any which way. As explained in the next paragraph, I liked Sproles as a FanDuel play this week before Thomas' absence was revealed. And I like him even more now.
Moore, Stills, and Meachem are all capable of random big plays and games, but trying to pinpoint which of the three rotational wideouts will deliver in a given week proved futile all regular season. And I wouldn't expect that to change in the playoffs. It is worth noting that Moore has been the most productive lately, with stat lines of 6-78, 3-47, and 4-73-1 in Weeks 15-17. ... In-season speculation among beat writers concerning Sproles' reduced snaps had the Saints doing so in an effort to keep him fresh for the postseason. If so, the Wild Card round would be a good time to unleash him. Eagles ILBs Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans struggle in coverage, and Payton is adept at getting Sproles matched up on linebackers. Sproles is my favorite Week 18 FanDuel pick at a bare-minimum cost of $4,500. ... Thomas is technically the Saints' primary early-down runner and screen-pass specialist, but his role wavers week to week and can depend on New Orleans building leads to milk clock. Sproles is a better bet for Saturday night production against a Philly team that scores points in bunches, but played top-ten regular season run defense and poses a tougher matchup for on-the-ground ball carriers (Thomas) than space backs (Sproles).
Score Prediction: Eagles 28, Saints 27
San Diego @ Cincinnati
Sunday 1:05 ET
Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt's Chargers offense evolved and morphed over the course of 2013, turning from a pass-happy early-season attack into a run-based unit featuring bellcow Ryan Mathews. Mathews led the NFL in carries (121) over the final five weeks, with only LeSean McCoy (598) gaining more yards (534). Even against Cincinnati's top-five run defense, expect McCoy to continue leaning on Mathews to exploit a Bengals defense that lost critical DTs Geno Atkins (ACL) and Devon Still (back) to injured reserve over the course of the year. ... As Mathews' workloads and snaps increased down the stretch, Danny Woodhead's lessened. Reduced to a passing-down specialist and little used change-of-pace back, Woodhead hovered between 7-12 touches in the season's second half. Mathews averaged 29 touches over the final month. Mathews is an RB1 in fantasy playoff leagues. Woodhead is a PPR-dependent flex option. ... I expect San Diego to have a tougher time generating explosive passing offense than picking up first downs on the ground Sunday. When the Chargers and Bengals met in Week 13, Cincinnati held Philip Rivers to 252 yards on 37 attempts (6.81 YPA), one touchdown, and one pick in a 17-10 Bengals victory. McCoy and Whisenhunt called the game ultra conservatively, likely in fear of Cincy's talented defensive front. Expect a similar approach in the Wild Card round as Bengals DEs Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are athletic mismatches for Chargers OTs King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker.
Rivers' odds of a monster game seem long, but go-to guy Keenan Allen's don't versus a shaky Bengals secondary still missing LCB Terence Newman (MCL sprain) and starting burnable Pacman Jones at right corner. The Bengals will replace Newman with failed 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick, a liability in spot duty throughout 2013. Allen dropped an 8-106 line on Cincy in Week 13 and had 100-plus receiving yards and/or a touchdown in each of San Diego's last six games. ... San Diego's No. 2 wideout job has devolved into a rotation of Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal. Brown did not start either of the final two regular season games, while Royal experienced an uptick in snaps. Both are possession receivers. ... Antonio Gates faded down the stretch of his age-33 season, failing to top 50 yards in any of the last six weeks. Cincinnati allowed the third fewest yards (674) in the league to tight ends during the regular season. ... No. 2 TE Ladarius Green's passing-game role is highly volatile. McCoy and Whisenhunt often utilize Green as a blocker, as two-tight end packages make life difficult on enemy offenses when both players are receiving threats, as Gates and Green are. Via Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, Stevan Ridley in 2012 felt the same advantages Mathews is now experiencing. Green remains a dynamic threat whenever McCoy schemes him the football. Green scored a 30-yard touchdown off play action in San Diego's Week 13 loss to Cincinnati. He's a definite X-factor for the Wild Card round.
Pre-Game Weather Update: The National Weather Service anticipates snowfall for the entirety of Sunday's contest, with 4-8 inches of on-field snow buildup. It's a concern for space backs Danny Woodhead and Giovani Bernard. Unfavorable weather conditions are always worrisome for limited-arm passers like Cincinnati's Andy Dalton.
The primary reason San Diego lost in Week 13 was due to its inability to halt the Bengals' run game. Cincinnati poured 164 yards and a BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushing score on the Chargers, rushing 38 times compared to 24 Andy Dalton pass attempts. Playcaller Jay Gruden certainly has a matchup favorable enough to redo that approach against a Chargers defense that finished 2013 ranked 27th in YPC average allowed (4.59). I expect Gruden's plan of attack to be balanced to run heavy. ... Wildly streaky third-year quarterback Dalton's matchup is even more attractive on paper than the running game's, but Dalton is hard to trust coming off of a four-pick season finale, and just five weeks removed from managing 190 passing yards, one score, and an interception against this same Chargers defense. Dalton is the kind of quarterback who can find a rhythm and light up an opponent when he's hitting his back foot and delivering, but goes in the tank when the defense gets him off his spot. He's a week-to-week dice roll. I wouldn't want to lean on Dalton in a fantasy postseason league. ... Dynamic rookie space back Giovani Bernard was limited to 66 scoreless yards on 15 touches in Week 13, but I'd look for much more impact in this Wild Card round game. Gruden no longer has to worry about Bernard's smallish stature holding up over a 16-game schedule. If Bernard out-touches Green-Ellis on Sunday, no one should be surprised.
While the Chargers aren't particularly stout in any area on defense, they are easily weakest at outside corner. Now starting Dolphins castoff Richard Marshall at RCB and Shareece Wright on the left side, San Diego fields two first-team cornerbacks who both ranked in the bottom ten of Pro Football Focus' ratings among 110 qualifiers. A.J. Green is a virtual lock for a big-time game, and Marvin Jones is an intriguing, cheap FanDuel pick priced at $5,300. Jones started the Bengals' Week 17 victory. ... Playmaking slot man Andrew Hawkins hovered in the 16-33 snap range over Cincinnati's final four contests. He's a limited role player, but has homerun potential any time he gets the football. ... The Chargers' lone defensive strength is in tight end coverage, where they limited enemy TEs to the sixth fewest catches (64) in the league this regular season. Bengals tight ends Jermaine Gresham (hamstring) and Tyler Eifert (shoulder) both missed Week 17, although Gresham is expected to play against the Chargers. Eifert looks like a game-time decision.
Score Prediction: Bengals 23, Chargers 20
San Francisco @ Green Bay
Sunday 4:40 ET
Sunday's late game pits against each other teams that have squared off twice over the past 12 months, with San Francisco coming out on top both times by results of 45-31 and 34-28. In those two affairs, Green Bay's Dom Capers-coordinated defense was burned by Colin Kaepernick for a combined 44-of-70 passing (62.9%), 675 yards (9.64 YPA), and a 5:1 TD-to-INT ratio, with 203 rushing yards and two more end-zone trips on the ground. Kap frustrated 2013 fantasy owners with low yardage numbers in frequent 49ers blowout wins, but has played his best football of the season over the last month and a half. Even at frosty Lambeau Field, Wisconsin native Kaepernick shouldn't struggle to pour yards on the Packers' No. 24 pass defense, which is without top pass rusher Clay Matthews (thumb surgery). ... Capitalizing on Matthews' absence, look for Vernon Davis to run a high volume of pass routes rather than staying in to block; Niners LT Joe Staley won't need as much help on the edge. On FanDuel, Davis is my favorite Wild Card round tight end pick. ... Kaepernick's target distribution with Michael Crabtree back in the starting lineup for the last five games: Anquan Boldin 44; Crabtree 33; Davis 23; Frank Gore 4; Quinton Patton 3.
Pre-Game Weather Update: I dropped my total score projection for this game based on the weather forecast, which as of Saturday morning called for a high of one degree with a windchill around 20 below. There is no expectation of precipitation, but forecasted 18-20 MPH winds are somewhat concerning as well. This game will be played in extreme cold.
Boldin eviscerated rookie slot corner Micah Hyde and SS Jerron McMillian for a 13-208-1 line on Opening Day. McMillian has since been cut, and Hyde now has 16 games under his belt. Boldin remains a decent bet for a solid Wild Card game, but his matchup isn't quite as attractive as it was in Week 1. The Packers may also consider shading LCB Tramon Williams inside on passing downs. Williams played a fair amount of slot corner in the second half of the season. ... X receiver Crabtree will run most of his routes against Packers RCB Sam Shields, who had an up-and-down contract year and wound up grading 50th among 110 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus' cornerback ratings. It'll be a far more favorable matchup than Crabtree experienced last Sunday, when Patrick Peterson shut him down for 29 yards on three receptions. ... Rookie Z receiver Patton could be an X-factor in Sunday's game. The fourth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech totaled 60 yards on three offensive touches in San Francisco's Week 17 win over Arizona, playing 13-of-61 snaps in Mario Manningham's (injured reserve) old third receiver role. ... While the 49ers' offense is very much capable of Week 18 passing success, playcaller Greg Roman's philosophy remains balanced to run heavy featuring Gore. In Gore's last three meetings with Capers' defense, he's piled up 275 yards and three touchdowns on 60 carries (4.58 YPC). The Packers finished the season ranked 25th against the run and allowed 4.63 yards per attempt, the fourth leakiest average in the league.
Pre-Game Injury Update: The 49ers are reeling at slot corner. Starter Carlos Rogers (hamstring) didn't practice all week and is no longer expected to play Sunday night, while backup slot CB Eric Wright suffered his own hamstring pull during the practice week and is listed as questionable. The Niners may have to lean on usual dime back/special teamer Perrish Cox for major snaps. Cox played under 100 defensive downs during the regular season.
Despite the losing streak to San Francisco -- Cali-born Aaron Rodgers hasn't beaten his favorite childhood team since the Mike Singletary era -- the Niners haven't exactly found a way to shut him down. Rather, Capers' unit has been to blame for Green Bay's losses. In three career clashes with 49ers DC Vic Fangio's defense, Rodgers has completed 77-of-120 throws (64.2%) for 893 yards (7.44 YPA) and a 7:1 TD-to-INT ratio, averaging 27 points per game. It might require some magic for the Packers to pull this upset, but historical performance certainly suggests Rodgers is going to do his part. ... A matchup for Rodgers to exploit will be inside the numbers, where Niners slot corner Carlos Rogers is battling a balky hamstring. Dramatically reasserting himself with two touchdowns despite playing fewer than half of Green Bay's Week 17 snaps, Cobb roasted Rogers for a 7-108-1 line in these teams' Opening Day meeting. And he now may face an injury-bothered version. I like Cobb's chances of leading the Packers in Wild Card round catches. ... Jordy Nelson remains Rodgers' favorite pass-game target for field-stretching plays, and lit up San Francisco for 130 yards and a touchdown on seven Week 1 receptions. With Cobb re-taking over inside, expect Nelson to run more intermediate and vertical patterns against the 49ers, primarily challenging Rogers on early downs and LCB Tarell Brown in sub-packages. ... This was Rodgers' target distribution in last week's win at Chicago, his first game back from a fractured collarbone: Nelson 16; James Jones 7; Andrew Quarless 6; Jarrett Boykin 4; Cobb, James Starks, and Eddie Lacy 2.
Because Green Bay's offensive line is at risk of domination in the trenches by San Francisco's superior defensive front, expect Quarless to play a minimal passing-game role and spend most of Sunday on the line blocking. In the regular season, Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman's Niners allowed the seventh fewest receiving yards (750) in the league to tight ends. ... Look for Jones to run most of his routes against RCB Tramaine Brock, who earned a top-seven coverage grade in PFF's 2013 corner ratings. I'd view Nelson and Cobb as better bets than Jones for Wild Card receiving stats. ... With Cobb likely to be a near-full-time receiver again, Boykin will be reduced to playing in four-wide sets. Boykin saw single-digit weekly snaps before Cobb fractured his right fibula in Week 6. ... Formulating a sustainable run game will be a tall task against San Francisco's No. 4 run defense, which held its final three regular season opponents to a combined 183 yards and one touchdown on 52 carries (3.52 YPC). The Niners limited Lacy to 41 yards on 14 runs (2.93 YPC) in the Week 1 tilt. Lacy is going to get volume -- coach Mike McCarthy is committed to feeding his chin-checking hammer back -- but efficiency will be more difficult to come by. I think this is a game the Packers will have to win with their passing offense. And I think they can do it.
Score Prediction: Packers 23, 49ers 20