Football's Future? For Now, It's in the Wildcards

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 03, 2014



Two fortune tellers were having a pleasant cafe lunch. The first one said, “Lovely weather, isn’t it?”

The second replied, “Oh yes! Reminds me of the spring of 2019!”

 

Here’s what one tarot reader sees in the 2013 wildcards:

Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts (-2.5) – In their December meeting the KC offense consisted of a 31-yard Jamaal Charles scoring burst on its opening possession. That was it. Other key drives – there were three more – ended in missed FG, fumble, interception. An appalling 21:40 of possession time for the Chiefs. Alex Smith was sacked four times. All of this coming on their home field, in cold, swampy conditions that didn’t seem to bother the Colts, who won an easy one, 23-7.

The rematch? Well, momentum-wise you certainly don’t like the dark aura hanging over Kansas City – only two wins in their last seven games – while upstart Indy has gone 5-2 during the same stretch.

You can throw on the Chiefs... well, sorta. You hear how they’re a good sacking team – 47 on the season – and how their opponent QB rating was miserable (78.4). But if you can manage their outside pass rushers (Houston, Hali) and give your passer some time to look around, then the secret is that KC’s yards per catch allowed is the worst in football – nearly 12 yards a pop. Which means if you have your ship together you can inflict some damage on Kanas City through the air.

I’m sorry, but I can’t focus on the KC offense too much here. I don’t trust it, despite their big scores at Oakland (56) and Washington (45) in recent weeks. Smith, the quarterback, can come up sharp or flat at any time – it’s a coin flip with him. I expect the Chiefs will run the ball early, looking for second-and-short situations and keep the Indy defense guessing that way. It would surprise me if Andy Reid opened with a gameplan to bomb the Colts, trying to get a fast lead that way, but stranger things have happened.

This episode will be settled by pocket pressure – how well the Chiefs get after Andrew Luck, how often they knock him around and how effective they are at minimizing his escape routes. Luck’s a fine thrower on the run, so simply flushing him into open prairie isn’t enough.

Houston and Hali are still clearly listed on the casualty report (questionable, probable), but they’ve had two weeks to rest the wounds. Still, the Chiefs have other means of getting to the passer. In fact they have better people all around, more class at more positions. I think that will ultimately be the difference by day’s end. Chiefs 19, Colts 16

 

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles (-2.5) – The Saints are doomed, right? Their frigid, outdoor predestination. Receivers running routes like shivering chihuahuas in the snow. Drew Brees’ accuracy plummeting, his touch becoming an iron glove. All of this against a hot Philly team that’s won 7 of its last 8 contests. Why bother even playing it at all?

Except with Philly there are some drawbacks, as well. You’ve got a first-year coach entering his first postseason and a young quarterback making his first playoff start, and a team that isn’t the least bit dedicated to the concept of ball control. I’ve heard it a thousand times the last few weeks – “In Chip Kelly’s offense, you don’t care about time of possession.” Score and score fast

I look at the Eagles and think of old Loyola Marymount basketball, the Paul Westhead system,  an outfit that poured in 130 points per night and their guard Bo Kimble saying things like, “We like to shoot in less than 7 seconds. And we have no half-court offense. That’s the beauty…and the danger of it.”

I think the Eagles are in danger here. They looked beatable last Sunday night in Dallas, in their biggest pressure spot of the year. The Cowboys held them to a single touchdown in the second half. Kyle Orton hadn’t quarterbacked a game in years yet had a chance to win it late if he could move Dallas into field goal range. Of course, we all know how that one ended.

Dial up the Saints’ track record as visitors in frigid ballparks to build your case against them, but what you also have is a team with a playoff-seasoned head coach and a quarterback who is tired of his palm tree reputation and a defense that permitted the second-fewest passing yards in football.

Philly will load up with LeSean McCoy, the dandiest back in football, but I can imagine the Sunday morning topic being Nick Foles’ shaky day in the Eagle pocket, the Saint defenders scrambling up his reads, while Brees keeps his cool. Call it experience over expedience. New Orleans, the pick in a very casual upset. Saints 31, Eagles 23

 

San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals (-7.5) – Cincy, glorious and unbeaten at home, first time since the Ickey Shuffle and Esiason for MVP campaign of ‘88. Chargers a hot club since Thanksgiving, one of those suddenly “dangerous 9-7” teams we are so often warned about by the cliché spitters on ESPN and NFL Network.

Except I don’t feel the Chargers are all that dangerous in this spot. True, they had a swell December. They clawed out of a 5-and-7 hole. They stuck 41 on the Chiefs and upset them in their own building, then spun Peyton Manning around at Mile High.

But the Bengals thrive on balanced offense and clenched-fisted, bullying defense (tops in AFC, third overall), and the Chargers typically don’t like dealing with teams that try dragging them into the trenches. If anything this has been a terrific coaching job by the San Diego staff, lifting a collection of talent that many people – myself included – didn’t see getting anywhere near .500 in the win-loss. Still, history says you never pick the Chargers in a muscle game.

My only concern for Cincinnati is Andy Dalton at quarterback. He has been overmatched in his two prior playoff efforts – both bland losses to the Houston Texans. He’s 26 now. It’s time for him to grow up. Time to reach back and deliver the special throws, the January throws. He hasn’t yet. That’s why if it’s a tight game late and it comes down to quarterbacking, then I like my chances with Phillip Rivers – better arm, better instincts. But I’m guessing it won’t come down to that.  Bengals 26, Chargers 13  

  

San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers (+2.5) – The last two times Green Bay has dealt with Colin Kaepernick he a) gouged out 181 rush yards in the playoffs, and b) gunned for 412 through the air (this year’s opener). The Pack dropped both games, and Kaepernick had devastated them.

Kaepernick hasn’t devastated anybody else since that afternoon last September. Something has changed dramatically with him. A year ago the debate was whether you wanted Kaepernick or RGIII to be your new franchise quarterback. Live arms, sprinter’s legs. Now, nobody is saying much about either of them.

  You get the feeling Jim Harbaugh doesn’t trust Kaepernick’s arm/accuracy/decision-making to turn him loose anymore. But why? He got rid of Alex Smith because Smith couldn’t bomb away and make the dynamic downfield throw. Kaepernick was elevated to open up the offense. It was a decision that propelled San Francisco to last year’s Super Bowl.

Now Harbaugh has him operating like Smith once did – the control quarterback, the play-it-safe guy, the dreaded “game manager.” I think Green Bay is finally looking forward to playing Colin Kaepernick for once.

The Niners had to be inspired by the way Chicago’s Matt Forte gutted the Packer defense last Sunday night – 157 yards of cutbacks and inside bursts and swing passes that Green Bay couldn’t defend. But I don’t know if the Niners have anybody on their offensive roster who can duplicate it. Frank Gore is a straight-ahead banger, a bull loose in an alley. Kendell Hunter is an action guy but he’s a short-strider. The other backs on the roster don’t really play.

Meanwhile, I think things are suddenly breaking right for Green Bay. They have that look again, that winter gleam…the big comeback in Dallas…Aaron Rogers returning and launching the game-winner in Chicago…Randall Cobb again part of the receiving corps after a long injury.

They’re calling for a high of seven degrees in Green Bay this Sunday. Visions of Stalingrad. Bodies in the snow. I see the Kaepernick offense freezing up, stalling out, turning the ball over…as the Niner defense is slowly drained of its willpower. And the resurrected Packers taking over from there. Packers 31, 49ers 10

 

    Columnist Tom Danyluk joins FootballNation after nine years with Pro Football Weekly. He is an award-winning freelance writer and author of “The Super ‘70s,” which you can find on Amazon.com. Questions or comments? Please contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.


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