The wild-card round of the playoffs features a pair of recently hot home teams in the AFC, a couple of road teams in the NFC that could be stronger than the teams that host them this weekend and a few surprise, last-minute entrants that can’t be taken lightly.
But first, a few words on coaching redemption.
Here are some of the more interesting storylines heading into Saturday’s and Sunday’s playoff games.
Coaches coming full circle
If you take a step back and look at the coaches who will be battling this weekend, there are some incredible stories.
Sure, we missed out on having Bruce Arians’ Arizona Cardinals make the postseason; that would have added to the coaching drama. But even without them, it’s an impressive lot.
Consider the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles. The story is well spun, but stunning nonetheless.
The Chiefs and Eagles fell into an abyss in 2012, lower than no other NFL teams. Andy Reid, the longest-tenured coach in the NFL, was fired by the Eagles. He found a home with the Chiefs quickly. The Eagles turned — after being spurned once — to Chip Kelly.
Reid won his first nine games, including an emotional return to Philly in Week 3. Kelly made a quick name for himself with his style, and, after some early bumps, came through with a division title. Their scripts can’t get much better.
The Indianapolis Colts’ Chuck Pagano made it back to the playoffs a year after Arians helped his team stay afloat. In case you wondered, Pagano can coach — and he has revived a Colts team that looked pretty lost a month ago. That was before they beat Reid’s Chiefs in K.C. two weeks ago and now have won three straight by double digits.
The San Diego Chargers were one of the more unlikely entrants, needing multiple scenarios of help to get in The Dance, but the light was shining on them Sunday. It didn’t look to be — several times — and their shaky performance against the Chiefs’ B-team (with an assist from the refs?) has a head-scratching element to it, especially in a season in which the Chargers lost so many close games.
But head coach Mike McCoy has done an exceptional job reviving Philip Rivers’ career and has weathered the storm with several holes on the roster. In any typical season, he might be a top-three Coach of the Year candidate, but he finds himself well down the list behind Arians, Reid, Ron Rivera and others.
Mainstays Mike McCarthy and Marvin Lewis also have done excellent jobs. McCarthy was forced to start four quarterbacks, and Lewis lost his best defender at midseason.
The New Orleans’ Saints Sean Payton returned to the league after a suspension in the finest form he knew how: by making the playoffs, even with some late drama to get in.
The player will be the one dictating postseason success or failure, but the coaching stories are intriguing as heck in Round 1.
The Chiefs and Colts met two weeks ago. The Chargers and Bengals faced each other a month ago. Both games were at the opposite venues that the playoff games will be at. So what did we learn from the first matchups?
The Colts dominated their game by winning the turnovers battle 4-0, keeping the pocket mostly clean for Andrew Luck and keeping Jamaal Charles under wraps after he broke out early.
The Bengals held off the plucky Chargers in San Diego and held them to one offensive play longer than 22 yards, forced two key fumbles and ran out the clock at game’s end with a great four-minute drive that highlighted the Bengals’ strong rushing attack.
In order to reverse what happened to them in the first matchups, the Chiefs and Chargers first must win the turnover battles.
It’s a statistic the Chiefs have thrived on this season. They were plus-18 cumulatively this season — but a minus-4 in the team’s five losses this season. We’re willing to chalk up the three-fumble game against the Colts as an anomaly; they lost only seven in the other 15 games.
The Chargers had 21 turnovers this season, which is not a horrible number at all. But where their problem lies is that they forced only 16 on defense and special teams. The Bengals have coughed it up a whopping 31 times, and the Chargers need to get in on some of those to have a chance to win. Getting in Andy Dalton’s head with an early pick would go a long way toward that end.
In the NFC, the Packers know their challenge: In order to move on, they must solve the 49ers riddle. In last year's playoffs and in this season's opener, the 49ers uncorked two deadly offensive approaches — the run game, then the passing game — and were extremely successful with both.
Rodgers might be the Packers' savior, but they will not move on if they don't come up with answers defensively right away. It's as simple as that.
Dalton, Smith in the spotlight
Speaking of Dalton, there is no quarterback on opening weekend more squarely in the spotlight.
If the Packers lose, no one will blame Aaron Rodgers. If the 49ers lose, Colin Kaepernick can’t be thrown under the bus as a still-ascending player. The same goes for the Colts’ Andrew Luck and the Eagles’ Nick Foles.
Philip Rivers has pressure on him, but in a season in which the Chargers came from far back in the pack, he can play free of expectations heading into Cincy. And Drew Brees is Drew Brees. He’s capable of running the table, and a loss this weekend does almost nothing to his legacy. He is as deadly as anyone throwing the ball still left standing — don’t forget that.
But Dalton is considered by some to be the biggest reason the Bengals might not make a run this season. Too often, Dalton’s play has vacillated from good to barely acceptable.
Dalton has a solid offensive line, a nice two-headed run game and options galore in the passing game — including perhaps the league’s most gifted receiver, A.J. Green. And yet his downfield accuracy has been poor at times, especially along the sidelines, and his penchant for untimely mistakes has been uncanny in his career. After two straight first-round playoff exits, Dalton needs to beat the Chargers — or the talk of his eventual replacement will begin in full force.
A close second to Dalton might be the Chiefs’ Alex Smith. Although Smith won in the playoffs in San Francisco, he wasn’t on the field in the last Super Bowl, was sent away and there too is this sense that he has a defined ceiling on his performance level.
Smith likely has more time than Dalton; the Chiefs almost certainly view him as their 2014 starter, even if he struggles early on. But both men have something to prove this weekend.
Weakness on weakness
The Packers’ defensive front was fortified on paper in the offseason. The 49ers’ offensive line was a bedrock unit that paced the Super Bowl team a year ago. So why have things turned so poorly for both groups?
It’s a testament to the teams that they were able to sidestep these issues to make the postseason. But one of those units will have to prevail Sunday in Green Bay.
The Packers appear to be in rough shape up front. Clay Matthews’ thumb kept him out Sunday and might do so again this week, and though Andy Mulumba played great in Chicago, the Packers need Matthews.
Nick Perry had a rough game against the Bears, and the defensive line seldom was heard from down the stretch. Despite some name players up front, they do shockingly little in the big-play department and give up consistent rushing yards and clean pockets for passers.
That’s bad news facing Kaepernick, who has torched the Packers twice now in the past calendar year, and Frank Gore and Co., who could have a big workload.
But the 49ers’ offensive line has been a disappointing group this season. Good pass rushes have overwhelmed them, and they give up too many no-gain and negative rushes for a team that uses so many heavy sets, extra blockers and is as committed to the run as anyone out there.
The edge would appear to go to the 49ers in this matchup because of experience and recent history, but neither group has been a team strength this season.
That hidden mojo — which teams have it?
We’ve seen teams come from the lower ranks and win it all in recent seasons. The past three champions all played in wild-card weekend.
So of the teams playing this weekend, which ones have that extra magic? Which ones might lack that killer instinct it takes to go on the road (eventually) and pull an upset?
The Packers have Rodgers, and he helped pull out a late miracle Sunday. That can’t be overlooked. But the 49ers have played some of their best football of late, have beaten Seattle and are tough to prepare for.
The Saints have won it all with this nucleus, were nearly the 2-seed and have the quarterback who can take a team on his back. But the Eagles also are a dangerous team with their pace, their aggressiveness and their take-on-the-world mentality. From purely a style and tempo standpoint, this appears to be the most exciting game on paper this weekend, no question about that. But which team has the mental edge? That could determine the winner.
The Colts have turned things around and can’t be taken lightly with a smart quarterback and a great motivator in Pagano. But the Chiefs have been as disrespected an 11-win team as there is, and they have a latent toughness people are forgetting about.
The two least intimidating teams are the Chargers and Bengals, but you see the talent on both rosters. Can they be mentally tensile enough?
Don't overlook the Chiefs, Eagles and Packers, given what they have overcome to get to this point.
Sometimes it’s that hidden factor that can’t be quantified, and looking back in recent years, the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, 2011 New York Giants and 2010 Packers all were gut-check teams that made plays when they absolutely had to. There are enough steady-pulse and nervy teams in this opening-round bunch to think that one will exceed expectations and end up in the Super Bowl.
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