For the first time in the playoffs that I can remember, each team comes into the postseason with some sort of baggage - none more so, than on Wild Card weekend. As I go through this weekend's match-ups, these picks feel like crap shoots due to the fact how these games can go either way, and it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Indianapolis Colts (1:35 PM/3:35 CT, NBC) - In one corner - the Colts have won four of the last five games to close out the regular season and have won their first AFC South crown under head coach Chuck Pagano and QB Andrew Luck, and their second trip to the postseaon in two years. Despite losing their best WR in Reggie Wayne for the year and not having much of a run game (Indy's pickup of RB Trent Richardson from the Browns hasn't paid dividends), Luck has still found ways to win ballgames with the lackluster talent he has at his disposal. Also, the Colts' D under defensive coordinator Grey Manunsky has performed exceptionally well, especially the prodution from veteran OLB Robert Mathis leading with 19.5 sacks this season. In the other corner - the Chiefs, under Andy Reid, have experienced a major turnaround from last year's dismal 2-14 season. First, they've finally found much needed stability at the QB position with Alex Smith. He doesn't have the completion percentage or QB ratings like with a Peyton Manning or Phillip Rivers, but he doesn't make too many mistakes with the ball (only 7 picks this year) and he has a great supporting cast of talent at his disposal, from wideouts Dwayne Bowe and Dexter McCluster to a potent run game with Jamaal Charles. Unfortunately, Kansas City's really cooled off, from being unbeaten at the break, to going 2-5 since. Add in injuries to core defensive plays Linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, and their defense went from being the best and most feared in the AFC, to banged up and losing that fear factor.
My pick: Chiefs - I like what Luck has done this season, but there's just not enough offensively for me to back them. KC's going to have fresh starters (Reid rested his key starters last week vs. San Diego) and they're getting back at least Houston as their pass rusher. I see Smith continuing to play solidly and a big game by Charles against an average rushing Indy D.
New Orleans Saints vs. Philadelphia Eagles (5:10 PT/7:10 CT, NBC) - Amazing the difference one year can do for a team that was trending downward. Owner Jeffrey Lurie fired Reid after 14 seasons with the Eagles and coming off his worst season as a HC, going 4-12 in 2012, and facing uncertainty with Michael Vick as their starter. In comes former Oregon Ducks coach Chip Kelly with his spread offense and a promising QB in Nick Foles who took the reins when Vick wend down with another injury, and the Eagles end up winning 10 games and clinch the NFC East on the last week of the season at Dallas. Even more impressive than the first-year head coach winning a division crown and Foles' being a surprising success is the fact that the Eagles (with WR's Riley Cooper and DeSean Jackson, TE Brent Celek, RB LeSean McCoy) have an offense that rivals Drew Brees's and Manning's. Speaking of New Orleans, the Saints took a tumble the last five games of the season, losing the lead on the NFC South and a potential bye week as the no.2 seed in the NFC playoff seeding (that went to Carolina). Adding insult to injury, the Saints have historically had problems winning away from the Superdome (they're 3-5 on the road in the postseason). Still, Brees and his arsenal (WR's Marques Coulston and Kenney Stills; TE Jimmy Graham; and RB's Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles) can still do serious damage. I'm expecting a shootout, even in the cold weather at Philly.
My pick: Saints - Philly's had an amazing run, but Foles is an unproven QB playing in his first postseason game, and Kelly's defense is going up against one of the elite passing attacks in football. Did I forget to mention that the Eagles on defense are dead last in opposing passing yards (289.8/game) and 29th in yards allowed (394/game)?