The new year is upon us, and that means five weeks of playoff football.
The NFL regular season is done for, and 20 teams have headed back to their homes for the offseason, hoping next season will be different. In the meantime, though, the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers are taking their weeks off and preparing for what should be an exciting divisional round of the 2014 playoffs.
Before those teams even get a chance to take the field, though, eight teams will have to duke it out in the wild-card round. So, while the excitement builds over this weekend’s four games, let’s try to get some insight on each of the eight teams playing as well as a few way-too-early draft thoughts.
**Editor’s Note: Each week, I’ll break down 10 thoughts from around the NFL in the NESN.com “First and 10.” That being said, here are 10 more thoughts from around the NFL after another week of football.
Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts:
1. All roads lead through Charles. When these two teams met a few weeks ago, Jamaal Charles gave the Colts more than they could handle. He busted out for a 31-yard touchdown run on the first drive of the game and put the Chiefs on top. However, he saw just 13 carries and 18 touches on the day in what turned out to be a 23-7 rout.
Charles, who led the Chiefs this season in both rushing (1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns) and receiving (70 receptions, 693 yards and seven touchdowns), will need to carry the Chiefs’ offense on Saturday. In games when Charles rushed the ball 16 times or more this season, the Chiefs were 10-2. In games when he ran it 15 times or fewer, excluding when he was inactive in Week 17, the Chiefs were just 1-2.
2. Mathis needs to bring the pressure. Alex Smith isn’t a game-changing quarterback, but he is more than capable of sticking it down defenses’ throats when he has time in the pocket. While the Colts will need to be focused on shutting down Charles on Saturday, keeping pressure on Smith will also be a key.
Robert Mathis, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks, and the Colts’ pass rush got to Smith five times in Week 16, forcing him to turn the ball over three times (one interceptions, two fumbles). If the Colts can pressure Smith enough, the Chiefs’ offense will become one-dimensional and limit Charles’ opportunities to influence the game through the air.
New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles:
3. Ingram is the key to an offensive turnaround. The Saints went just 2-3 over the final five weeks of the season, and that was because their offense wasn’t producing at the expected elite level. They did manage to throw up 42 points in a Week 17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but they weren’t exactly playing a top-tier defense. The Saints faced a top 10 defense in the other four games during the home stretch — the Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and Carolina (twice) — and they averaged fewer than 17 points in those games.
The key for the Saints turning their offense around as they head into the playoffs will be establishing a more consistent running game. In order to do that, they’ll need more production from Mark Ingram. Ingram hasn’t lived up to the hype of a first-round pick, but he has been the Saints’ most reliable runner this season. Pierre Thomas is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, and Darren Sproles just 4.2. Meanwhile, Ingram has managed a team-leading 4.9 yards per carry, and he’s proven more than capable of carrying the load when given more than a few snaps.
4. Philly thrives off turnovers. The Eagles’ offense gets all the praise for the team’s incredible turnaround this season, but their opportunistic defense has been equally important in their playoff run, especially during the second half of the season. Philadelphia has the third-best turnover ratio (plus-12) in the NFL and has forced the third most turnovers in the league (31) this season.
Over their final eight games, the Eagles went 7-1. During that stretch, they forced 18 takeaways compared to just four turnovers. In fact, the Eagles are 10-2 in games in which they won the turnover battle this season, while they are 0-3 in games in which they turned the ball over more. They’ll need to win the turnover battle again Sunday against the Saints to move on to the divisional round.
San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals
5. Rivers is insanely accurate. This season Philip Rivers led the NFL in completion percentage for the first time in his 10-year career. Rivers has only completed more than 66 percent of his passes one other time, in 2010, which was also the last time he threw more than 30 touchdowns in a season (he had 32).
Rivers completed an almost insane 69.5 percent of his passes this season. That included an incredible 72.7 percent in the Chargers’ nine wins compared to an almost equally impressive 65.6 in their seven losses. The 32-year-old is aiming for his first playoff win since 2008. A win in Cincinnati would mean a third game against the Broncos, whom San Diego beat in Week 15. That matchup is very winnable for San Diego, especially if Rivers maintains his elite level of accuracy.
6. Dalton needs to be almost perfect. The Bengals have lost in the wild-card round of the playoffs two years in a row — but both games were on the road.
Andy Dalton can be blamed for most of the Bengals’ struggles. In Cincinnati’s two playoff games, Dalton has completed just 57 percent of his passes while throwing no touchdowns compared to four interceptions. Dalton will be happy to compete in front of his home crowd Sunday.
San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
7. Kaepernick was at his best during the home stretch. The 49ers’ passing game was seen as their weak link for much of the season. However, over the last six weeks, Colin Kaepernick has completely turned things around.
First 10 games: 56.2 percent completion percentage (141 of 251), 180.2 yards per game, 11 touchdowns, seven interceptions
Last six games: 61.8 percent completion percentage (102 of 165), 232.1 yards per game, 10 touchdowns, one interception
Kaepernick transformed his game over the final six weeks, and the 49ers had better hope he can maintain that pace this weekend. Kaepernick has owned the Packers in their two meetings, leading the Niners to two wins, including one in the divisional round last postseason. He beat the Packers with his legs last year, running for 183 yards and two scores, and with his arm in the 2013 season opener (412 passing yards, three touchdowns). He’ll need a bit of both to take down Green Bay a third straight time this week.
8. Lacy, not Rodgers, is the key for Green Bay. While Aaron Rodgers sat on the sidelines for seven weeks, running back Eddie Lacy took charge on offense and kept the Packers in the NFC playoff picture. Lacy, who finished eighth in the NFL with 1,178 rushing yards this season, averaged 4.1 yards per carry and scored seven of his 11 touchdowns, including five in the final four games, during Rodgers’ absence.
Rodgers will be vital to keeping the 49ers’ defense at bay on Sunday night, but, with inclement weather and freezing temperatures in the forecast, Lacy’s bulldozing running style will be even more important against San Francisco’s fourth-ranked run defense. Balance will be the key to break the Packers’ two-game losing streak to the Niners, and it could be just what they need to go on a Ravens-like run this postseason.
9. Clowney is the best prospect in 2014 NFL draft. Ever since Jadaveon Clowney lit up Michigan running back Vincent Smith in last year’s Outback Bowl, NFL front offices have been salivating. Clowney was the No.1 prospect headed into this season, and he should still be the top player entering the NFL draft come May.
Clowney is a once-in-a-generation type of player, and he can be an absolute game changer for any defense next season, if not the next decade. His pure statistics might not be all that impressive, but Clowney has been a beast this season and is expected to be even more disruptive at the next level. Anyone questioning Clowney’s toughness or effort hasn’t been watching tape closely enough, and any team stupid enough to bypass his talent will be regretting it five, if not three, years from now.
10. Teddy is the top quarterback. Blake Bortles and Derek Carr are getting a lot of the attention as of late, but Teddy Bridgerwater is still the best quarterback available in this year’s NFL draft. While Bortles continues to decide whether to enter the draft and Carr develops even further as a quarterback, Bridgewater also is working hard to correct his flaws. Some top-rated quarterbacks have seemed overwhelmed by the moment during the bowl season, but Bridgewater grabbed the bull by the horns — just as he’ll do in the NFL.
Bridgewater might have been slightly outshined by Bortles this bowl season, but the Louisville quarterback is still the best signal caller college football has to offer and should garner plenty of attention from the Rams, Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders leading up to the big day. He could be a game-changer for a number of franchises — if they recognize it.