The holiday season is well known according to certain carols as the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. But when you are experiencing the Student of the Game’s NFL Match-Up Mania on a weekly basis, there’s a solid argument against this declaration. Nothing makes the blood boil, the heart race, or the soul sink quite like playoff football. While we had glimpses of it in through the “play-ins” of Week 17, all of the games on the Match-Up Mania here on out force a team to win or go home.
Chargers v Bengals
For the past 2 seasons, QB Andy “The Red Rifle” Dalton has taken his team to the promised land of playoff participation, and twice the Houston Texans have eliminated them. Despite Dalton taking Cincinnati to the postseason in each of his 3 years, the ‘Who Dey’ nation is foaming for some advancement in the tournament; something not seen in Cinci sense 1990 in a win at Riverfront Stadium over the Houston Oilers. (For those that don’t know, that’s what mommies and daddies used to call the Tennessee Titans).
As the Bengals are a team that seems to play up and down to the talent they face, so too are the San Diego Chargers. QB Phillip Rivers has had a year under new Head Coach Mike McCoy that has him in the discussion for Comeback Player of the Year throwing to Rookie of the Year candidate WR Keenan Allen and future Hall of Fame TE Antonio Gates. Having toppled top teams in the AFC West to sneak into the Wild Card spot with the resurgence of a relatively injury-free RB Ryan Matthews supported by RB Danny Woodhead, the Bolts are a team whose defense is unpredictable.
But then, the Bengals offense can go from Dalton distributing darts to Pro Bowl WR AJ Green, TE Jermaine Gresham or TE Tyler Eifert to delivering duds to his targets from one week to the next. At times, the only thing saving the inconsistent performance moving the chains is the running corps made up of Rookie of the Year candidate RB Giovanni Bernard and Veteran RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis. On the other side of the ball, the defense is one of the best in the league despite DT Geno Atkins and CB Leon Hall landing on IR. A lot of that has to do with the ascension of LB Vontaze Burfict delivering a Pro Bowl performance.
While the Chargers pulled off the ‘W’ in OT against the Cheifs ‘B’ squad to make the playoffs, I don’t think they’ll be able to bolt past the Bengals whose defense has stood tough all year. If the Red Rifle fails to win this game, however, the talks of him being over-rated and unable to win the big game will begin to whirl about Paul Brown Stadium.
Colts v. Chiefs
QB Andrew Luck did not make the Pro Bowl. On the surface, his being the first team to clinch a playoff spot thanks to an otherwise anemic AFC South is a fair way to lessen the credit give to Luck and his team. But the Colts have beaten the Seahawks, the Niners, the Broncos, and also the Chiefs. In fact, Indianapolis toppling RB Jamaal Charles and Kansas City 31-7 was among the most dominant victories they secured on the year.
I’m not taking anything away from Head Coach Andy Reid and the Chiefs who improved their record 9 games from 2-14 to 11-5. It may be a feat worthy of a Coach of the Year award for Reid — but it is only fair to mention that they are 1-4 against teams with winning records. And it is a team’s performance against the best opposition that determines how a playoff game will go in my mind.
In a year where making the playoffs is a stunning achievement, be prepared for fans in KC to start threatening other teams’ supporters with the cry of “What ’till Next Year” after they are beaten by Indy.
Niners v. Packers
This time 9 weeks ago, the Lords of Lambeau Field were lavished in lament. They faced a calamity the Green Bay Packers franchise hadn’t comprehended in this millennium previously — a starting QB going down and missing multiple starts. After the revolving door at the position featuring QBs Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzein, and Matt Flynn, they still found themselves forcing a play-in game (with some help from the rest of the NFC North collapsing) to allow Rodgers to come back and throw a game winning 48 yard bomb to WR Randall Cobb and take the division with an 8-7-1 record.
Their reward? Facing the San Francisco 49ers against whom they’ve lost the last 3 contests. While Rodgers has returned, the Packers are still down rookie sensation RB Eddie Lacy as they face a solid San Francisco defense (Still scary without DB Carlos Rodgers playing due to his injury vs. Arizona last week). It’s not to say that the Packers are helpless on offense . . . but on defense, it’s another story. Their top player LB Clay Matthews is struggling with a thumb injury and as a squad they’re tied for 8th in most points allowed with the Houston Texans for the regular season.
Meanwhile, the 49ers are even better then when they played the Packers last since they have WR Michael Crabtree back to form, WR Anquan Bolding has shown preseason rumors of his demise have been exaggerated, and TE Vernon Davis is still catching TDs on a regular basis. But the Niners as a run first offense will certainly mix in some ground and pound from RBs Frank Gore, LeMichael James and Kendall Hunter even with FB Bruce Miller missing due to troubles with his shoulder.
If Rodgers manages to throw the ball all over the field to WR Jordy Nelson, Cobb and company, that may open up RB James Starks for some run yards as well. But even if that occurs, the Green Bay defense will have to play far better than expected to tarnish the Golden Helmets.
Saints v. Eagles
I’ll admit it up front . . . if you told me that the Eagles will make the playoffs back in September, I would have assumed it was on a telephone call placed from Colorado or Washington where marijuana is now legal. In other words, I would have assumed you were high if you thought rookie Head Coach Chip Kelly was going to lead Philadelphia to hosting a post season contest. And that was before they lost both starter QB Michael Vick and back up QB Nick Foles at one point in the season, forcing them to start 3rd string rookie Matt Barkley. But after scrapping by the Cowboys 24-22 last week, people are calling Kelly a Coach of the Year candidate.
An offense that has scored 30 points or more 8 times through the season, they eventually transitioned away from Vick as the starter in lieu of Foles who presided over an offense that dropped 54 on the Bears in Week 16. A complete receiving roster in WR DeSean Jackson, WR Riley Cooper, TE Brent Celek and rookie TE Zach Ertz supported by RB LeSean McCoy on the ground, even with their defense slightly improving by year’s end, the Philly Offense will see themselves in a game that will likely be a cold weather shoot out.
But when you talk about shoot outs, there’s few offenses that are more potent an opponent than the New Orleans Saints. Future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees is a talent that makes the most of his supporting stars TE Jimmy Graham, WR Marques Colston, and RB Darren Sproles. Even with Head Coach Sean Payton’s return from suspension in 2012 and its impact, in my mind the coach who made the biggest difference on the Saints sideline is Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan. New Orleans was a tradition of bad defense often bailed out by Brees and the offense. This year, Ryan has brought his defense up to a level that may just be good enough to advance through the conference if they were hosting all the playoff games in the Merceds-Benz Super Dome.
However, as the 6th seed in the NFC thanks to losing to the Carolina Panthers in week 16, the Fighters of the Fleur de Lis won’t find themselves in a “Big Easy” playing in a cold weather contest at Lincoln Financial field. And it is that home field advantage that will enable Philadelphia to advance past the first round of the playoffs.
Kyle Nash — @TheSoTG on Twitter
Founder and host of The Student of the Game show
VP of Operations and Editor for The National Gridiron Network
COO and NFL Contributor for The Sports Chronicles
Special Contributor for Pro Player Insiders
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