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NFL Playoff Preview: NFC Wild Card
By Matt Horkman

No. 6 New Orleans Saints (11-5) at No. 3 Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

Key Matchup: Most of the talk surrounding this matchup centers on New Orleans’ inability to win away from the Superdome. Specifically, their defense doesn’t play as well on the road as it does at home, which could give Chip Kelly’s offense an advantage. Still, despite the success of Kelly’s offense, Philadelphia’s defensive play is more crucial to their success. The Eagles rank 20th in sacks and allow 289.8 passing yards per game. They did force 31 turnovers, though, and the Saints do struggle to protect the ball on the road. In fact, the Saints have 10 turnovers in their three road playoff games under head coach Sean Payton. All of them were losses.

X-Factor: Away from the Superdome, New Orleans is 3-5 and averaging about 18 points per game. Sticking with the turnover theme, quarterback Drew Brees has 12 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. There’s no going back now, as the Saints are the NFC’s sixth seed, so they’ll have to win three consecutive road games just to reach the Super Bowl.

Stat Watch: Over the first four games of the season, Philadelphia was 1-3 and their defense allowed 34.5 points per game. They’ve gone 9-3 since, in larger part because of their defensive turnaround. The Eagles are allowing just 20.3 points per game since Denver dropped 52 on them in late September. Only the Minnesota Vikings (48 points) scored more than 24 points against them in the final 12 weeks.

Prediction: About a month ago, most probably figured New Orleans as a Super Bowl contender, while Philadelphia’s playoff hopes were undecided. Now, the Eagles are one of the NFL’s hottest teams and the Saints have lost two of their last three. Nevertheless, you can’t gloss over Philadelphia’s 48-30 lost to Minnesota in week 15. The Vikings were without Adrian Peterson, yet they still moved the ball at will on Philadelphia’s defense. The Eagles’ defensive woes remain an issue heading into this game, especially against an offense as good as the Saints. Can New Orleans win on the road, though? They can and they have. They won three games on the road, including a 26-23 victory in Chicago. Soldier Field isn’t exactly the most offensive-friendly stadium, either. The Saints are a good team. Their issues on the road threaten their ability to make a deep playoff run. Nonetheless, they have enough offensive firepower to win in Philadelphia, even with the weather forecast calling for a game-time temperature of 17 degrees.

Saints 31 Eagles 27

No. 5 San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at No. 4 Green Bay Packers (8-7-1)

Key Matchup: Stopping San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is only half the battle for the Packers. The 49ers are averaging 137.6 rushing yards per game. There’s no doubt Kaepernick’s running ability inflates that stat, but even if you subtract his 524 rushing yards, the 49ers still average about 105 rushing yards per game. In addition, they possess arguably football’s best offensive line, as both offensive tackle Joe Staley and offensive guard Mike Iupati are Pro Bowlers. During film study, you can bet head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman took note of Chicago’s ability to run at Green Bay’s defensive front. In fact, in the second half, Chicago went 70 yards on five plays on their opening drive. All of the plays were runs.

X-Factor: This game is gearing up to be one of the coldest games in the history of the NFL. Right now, the forecast calls for a potential subzero temperature around kickoff. The 1967 NFL Championship between Dallas and Green Bay -- commonly known as the Ice Bowl -- had a game-time temperature of negative 15 degrees. The 2007 NFC championship between the Giants and Packers had a game-time temperature of negative 1 degree. What sort of impact will the weather have on each Colin Kaepernickteam? Many believe the cold will not phase San Francisco. They cite Kaepernick’s success at New England in a week 15 game last year. By comparison, however, the temperature of that game was a balmy 34 degrees. There’s a major difference between 34 degrees and subzero temperatures. Simply put, we don’t know how Kaepernick, Aaron Rodgers, their receivers, or anybody else will adapt to the harsh cold.

Stat Watch: In two games against Green Bay, Kaepernick has been unstoppable. The San Francisco quarterback has 878 yards of offense, including a 160 rushing yards in last year’s divisional win over the Packers, and 413 passing yards in a week one victory over them earlier this season. If Green Bay can just limit Kaepernick to ordinary, they’ll have a chance to pull the upset.

Prediction: Two of football’s greatest franchises, the temperature dropping below zero, and the most iconic pro football stadium in the world make this game must-see television for any sports fan. San Francisco owns three consecutive victories over the Packers. In terms of talent and how these teams matchup with one another, the 49ers have the advantage. Defensively, the Packers are one of eight teams to allow at least 2,000 rushing yards this season. They’re also one of three teams (Dallas and Jacksonville) to finish the regular-season 24th or less defending both the pass and run. Offensively, the Packers showed they could move the ball on San Francisco in week one by racking up 385 total yards. Moreover, that was before they found out what they had in Eddie Lacy as their No. 1 running back. The record disparity does stand out, but you can’t judge Green Bay by their record, for this is only the second time since week six that Rodgers, Lacy, and Randall Cobb will all start together. Unfortunately, for them, they’re playing a bigger, strong, and faster team. The 49ers are superior in almost every facet, so it’ll take a legendary performance from Rodgers and the harsh cold hindering San Francisco’s play for Green Bay to secure to the win. That scenario is possible, but not likely.

49ers 34 Packers 24

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