Richard Martin

Dusting Off The Crystal Ball For The Playoffs

Created on Dec. 30, 2013 10:01 AM EST

You can expect all the coaches of home teams in next weekend’s wild-card games to play the “disrespect” card when they’re talking to their players.

That’s because at least one home team, the Packers, will be favored to lose, and the other three will get at best slight edges from the oddsmakers.

It’s not that the home teams are chumps. It’s that the road teams are as formidable a bunch as we’ve seen in a while for Wild Card weekend. You can’t even call them dark horses – many commentators pick San Francisco to get to the Super Bowl and win.

The 49ers top the list of road warriors. The defending NFC champs are on a roll, winners of six in a row and 11 of 13, with a formidable defense and a dynamic offense. Colin Kaepernick is playing well after a tough stretch.

Next have to be the Chiefs, who visit Indy. They rested several of their starters against the Chargers and still almost won. Their offense has improved during the course of the year, but they need to regain their touch getting turnovers. They have a dynamic runner in Jamaal Charles and a terrific defense – at least they did until the end of the year.

Third in line are the Saints. Great team at home, but they haven’t done much on the road. They head to Philly and are likely to encounter bad weather. The Saints just aren’t that hot when the weather’s cold.

Finally, we have the Chargers. They won four in a row at the end of the season, even though they were lucky to beat the Chiefs (who rested some of their top players). They have a top-notch quarterback in Philip Rivers, who has plenty of experience in the postseason. But even the quality of foes is not the real reason for what are likely to be close games. All four home teams appear to have major vulnerabilities.

Start with the Bengals. Sure, they were undefeated at home. They have a great defense.

But on the other side of the ledger, there’s “Greedy Andy.” That’s one local nickname for their quarterback, Andy Dalton, who goes wild’n’crazy sometimes. He threw four interceptions Sunday, and those miscues kept the Ravens in the game until the end. Considering he’ll be matched against Rivers, well, that’s reason enough for worry. Then there’s the fact that the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in what seems like forever for their fans.

The Chargers are on top of their game. They beat the Broncos, Chiefs and Eagles on the road, and had some close losses. They lost at home to the Bengals, 17-10, on Dec. 1.

Next, take the Packers. Sure, Aaron Rodgers is back. But their defense has been poor for quite a while. They were fortunate to make the playoffs, with the Lions imploding and the Bears also hit hard by injuries. (Many in Chicago think it was a mistake to go back to Jay Cutler after Josh McCown played so well. I agree with them.)

The Packers play a stingy 49er defense that is likely to harry Rodgers. The rush the Bears put on Sunday is nothing compared to what he will face next weekend. Green Bay’s defense has been wretched. They’ve given up at least 26 points to every team they’ve played the past eight weeks, including 38 in a home loss to the Steelers.

The visiting Chiefs play the Colts in a rematch. Both team shored up serious issues – the Chiefs with offense and the Colts on the offensive line. At least we’re led to believe so. I think one of the keys is whether Andrew Luck will have enough time to throw. Another is whether the Chiefs are able to use a balanced attack against the Colts. It won’t be enough to just run the ball with Charles.

The Chiefs were a better on the road than at home, going 6-2. One thing’s for certain: The Chiefs, the only playoff-bound team to rest players, will get lots of criticism if they can’t beat the Colts.

Then we have the Eagles. They barely beat a crippled Cowboys team. Like the Packers, they won a division that was much weaker than in years past. They won seven of eight down the stretch, though several of those games were against mediocre NFC North foes. They played three AFC West playoff teams early, and lost all three games.

On the other hand, the Saints haven’t done much of anything in outdoor stadiums recently. They had an unpleasant journey to Seattle; well, their trip to Philly might not be too fun either. However, they were 3-5 on the road, beating the Bears. They played well in losses at New England and Carolina.

The predictions, please.

I’ve just cut open the entrails of a chicken, and these revealed my picks. If I'm wrong, well, blame the chicken. Here goes:

49ers 34, Packers 17

Great team faces someone lucky to make the playoffs. Packers defense is lousy, Rodgers can't win all by himself and he faces severe pressure.

Eagles 24, Saints 20

Great matchup one of three pick-em games. Eagles prevail in the end as Saints play it tough.

Chiefs 31, Colts 28

Chiefs tap late-season offensive magic, get pressure on Luck.

Bengals 27, Chargers 24

Another close one. I think the Bengals get over the hump.

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