Picking the four games this weekend, with the key elements in each:
Philadelphia 27, New Orleans 20, at Lincoln Financial Field (Saturday). The Eagles’ offensive line—one of only three units in the league to start the same five players in all 16 regular-season games—has to keep Nick Foles clean from a challenging Saints’ rush and to clear a path for a 100-yard day by LeSean McCoy.
I like the best all-around left tackle in football, Jason Peters, to lead the way. Amazing year Peters has had, coming off a 2012 with two torn Achilles tendon surgeries; after the second, he was told he might not play again. That's why he's my comeback player of the year. With Peters, left guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce leading the way—all have played an all-pro level this year—Philadelphia has the best left side of the line in football. Peters will have his hands full with Cam Jordan at right end, but Peters will have help. Over-under on Nick Foles sacks: two. “We’re a young team, and we play fast,’’ Peters said the other day. “To have five guys healthy for the whole season, especially in an offense with so much to learn so fast, is real big.’’ Peters said he feels fresh, and coach Chip Kelly’s emphasis on sports science gets some of the credit. When Peters got back from Dallas just before dawn last Monday morning after the AFC East-clinching game, he went directly to the training facility to get in the cold tub. “Maintenance,’’ he said. Whatever works.
Indianapolis 26, Kansas City 24, at Lucas Oil Stadium (Saturday). I know their reputations are not this way, but I think Andrew Luck will play more efficiently, with fewer mistakes, than fellow first overall pick, Alex Smith.
Everything about Luck is something north of admirable. He loses Reggie Wayne, he takes a month to adjust, he adds a bunch of latecomers to the roster to his route tree (Trent Richardson, LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen, Da’Rick Rogers), and he completes 47 balls to them in the past four games—three Indy wins—including seven TD throws. Good quarterbacks adjust and win, and that’s just what Luck has done, and he’s won the past three by 22, 16 and 20 points. Not only that, but he’s gotten great protection—three sacks in his past 155 pass drops—and he’ll have the home crowd shushed as the Colts try to win their first playoff games in four years. I understand the Chiefs have Jamaal Charles, and there’s no runner-receiver like him in football right now, and the game’s on the fast track of the indoor FieldTurf. But I think Luck’s playing too well right now for the KC pass-rush and Charles to beat him.
Cincinnati 30, San Diego 20, at Paul Brown Stadium (Sunday). Andy Dalton’s weapons will make more plays than Philip Rivers’ weapons … assuming the sleety weather doesn’t neutralize every quick player’s speed.
Love Keenan Allen. Love Danny Woodhead. Love Rivers completing 69.5 percent of his throws, and I can see the Chargers making enough plays to be pesky Sunday afternoon. But the Chargers have allowed 4.6 yards per rush this year, and the Bengals have the most important player in this game, rookie running back Gio Bernard, to gash them. Add Marvin Jones (not a misprint: A.J. Green 11 touchdown catches, Jones 10) and the short-yardage presence of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and I think the Bengals have enough offense to win. Now there’s Dalton too. And in two previous playoff games, he’s played just poorly enough to make Bengals fans very nervous. In 23 offensive possessions, Cincinnati has scored 23 points in two wild-card losses to Houston … and Dalton has thrown zero touchdown passes and four interceptions. This is January gut-check time for Dalton and the Cincinnati offense. If he plays poorly again, he’ll be rightfully questioned about ever being able to lead the Bengals to a playoff win. I say his supporting cast is too good for that to happen.
San Francisco 25, Green Bay 20, at Lambeau Field (Sunday). I say the Packers’ only chance is to force two turnovers or more, and to hold the Niners to eight possessions—and when that’s your best chance, I don't like your chances. This will be a Frank Gore game.
A couple of bad things for the Pack: Rookie running back Eddie Lacy, a Louisianan by way of Alabama, is playing with a bad ankle already, and he told me this week he had to leave the game in Chicago last Sunday briefly because his hand got numb and he feared not being able to feel the ball; well, it’ll be about 20 degrees colder this weekend. And the Pack’s allowing 4.6 yards per rush. That fits right into what Greg Roman, the San Francisco offensive coordinator, likely wants to do: run Frank Gore 28 times. This shapes up as a runner’s game, and I’ve seen Gore dominate too many times to think in a game when the ball’s as hard as a brick he won’t be able to dominate against a bad run defense again. Could Aaron Rodgers makes this a shootout? Maybe. I just can’t see the Niners not being able to get to him, and I can’t see Rodgers being able to have a great day in a stiff breeze when the wind chill’s around minus-20. All in all, I’ll be glad to be watching this one on TV.
Player You Need to Know This Weekend
Terron Armstead, left tackle, New Orleans (number 72). Armstead has a professional pass-rusher, Trent Cole (last seven seasons: 66 sacks), coming outside his left shoulder all night in Philadelphia, where the crowd will make it hard for Armstead to hear his quarterback, Drew Brees. In his first two games as a starter, Armstead, a rookie third-rounder from Arkansas-Pine Bluff, has allowed either three or four sacks, depending on your source, and was a nightmare in protection two weeks ago at Carolina. You can be sure if the Saints pull the upset at Philadelphia, Armstead will play better than his first two games show.
Sound Bite of the Week
“Any way possible I could get a signed jersey from you?’’
—Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, to Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez during Gonzalez’s last career game Sunday, as captured by NFL Films. Gonzalez said sure—after the season.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The weather. And not just in Green Bay, where it’ll be below zero and breezy Sunday afternoon at kickoff. Had the NFL scheduled Cincinnati’s home game against San Diego for Saturday afternoon (a recent playoff tradition), it would have been about 40 with the sun setting. But Sunday it’s supposed to be sleeting or snowing all afternoon, with temps around 33. Saturday night in Philly: No precipitation, but about 24 degrees with 10-mph winds. Not Breesian, in other words. Dome in Indy. Inhumanly cold in Green Bay.
2. The coaching jobs. Titans drag feet. Raiders likewise. Browns fact-find, try to convince Josh McDaniels it’s a great job. Lions shrouded in secrecy. Vikes too. Washington carpetbombs. And will Penn State steal an NFL coach with Nittany roots, like Jim Caldwell?
3. And while we’re at it, Josh McDaniels. He’s gotten hot again, though his rep was badly tarnished by The Tebow Experiment. It’ll be interesting to see if the team that makes the most sense for him—Detroit, with a just-add-coaching quarterback in Matthew Stafford—gets serious about McDaniels. And he about them.
4. Bob Stoops. If he’s interested in an NFL head-coaching job, he’s got a lot of friends in the NFL—and his Oklahoma team’s seven-sack, 45-point bowl display against Alabama Thursday night won’t hurt.
5. The draft. It’s 18 weeks away, but if Blake Bortles of Central Florida declares for it in the coming days (and don’t try to hide that you’re coming out, Johnny Manziel), there could be a gold rush on top-10 quarterbacks: Teddy Bridgewater, Bortles, Manziel and Tajh Boyd all will contend to go to Houston (picking first), Jacksonville (third), Cleveland (fourth), Oakland (fifth), Minnesota (eighth) … and maybe second overall, if St. Louis can find a ransom partner.
6. The new Tampa Bay braintrust. Lovie Smith will coach, Jeff Tedford (tutored Kyle Boller, Joey Harrington, Aaron Rodgers, which is quite a triumvirate) will offensively coordinate, and now we’ll see how much more of the Dungy Era Buccaneers can be scotch-taped back together to try to challenge three better teams in the NFC South.
7. The Kluwe fallout. The former Vikings’ punter, Chris Kluwe, writing on Deadspin, accused his special-teams coach in Minnesota, Mike Priefer, of using homophobic slurs after Kluwe very publicly supported gay marriage. One of the rants Kluwe accused Priefer of going on was positively brutal. Priefer denied it all. This story’s not over.
8. Jeff Triplette has a wild-card game … in Cincinnati. That’s where, four weeks ago, he botched a replay review as badly as a replay review can be botched. And five weeks ago, he got reprimanded by the league for messing up the last series of the Giants’ game at Washington, signaling for third down while two of his wing officials said it was first down. It’s bizarre enough he somehow earned a playoff game, but going back to Cincinnati?
9. The Jay Cutler deal. Let the debate commence: In exchange for not guaranteeing him a dime after the third season, and thus being able to cut him then, the Bears handed their incumbent quarterback (who has missed 12 games due to injury in the last three years) $54 million over the next three years. After that, the contract for the next four years is non-guaranteed, and he can be cut without a cap hit. Maybe it’s me. Seems excessive.
10. Fate of the ‘Fins. While Stephen Ross ponders, all Dolphins coaches and brass wonder about their future … and what in the world is taking so long for the NFL investigation into the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin ordeal to finish. Could Ted Wells be watching every frame of the 2012 “Hard Knocks” footage?