San Diego @ Cincinnati
Sunday 1:05 ET
Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt's Chargers offense evolved and morphed over the course of 2013, turning from a pass-happy early-season attack into a run-based unit featuring bellcow Ryan Mathews. Mathews led the NFL in carries (121) over the final five weeks, with only LeSean McCoy (598) gaining more yards (534). Even against Cincinnati's top-five run defense, expect McCoy to continue leaning on Mathews to exploit a Bengals defense that lost critical DTs Geno Atkins (ACL) and Devon Still (back) to injured reserve over the course of the year. ... As Mathews' workloads and snaps increased down the stretch, Danny Woodhead's lessened. Reduced to a passing-down specialist and little used change-of-pace back, Woodhead hovered between 7-12 touches in the season's second half. Mathews averaged 29 touches over the final month. Mathews is an RB1 in fantasy playoff leagues. Woodhead is a PPR-dependent flex option. ... I expect San Diego to have a tougher time generating explosive passing offense than picking up first downs on the ground Sunday. When the Chargers and Bengals met in Week 13, Cincinnati held Philip Rivers to 252 yards on 37 attempts (6.81 YPA), one touchdown, and one pick in a 17-10 Bengals victory. McCoy and Whisenhunt called the game ultra conservatively, likely in fear of Cincy's talented defensive front. Expect a similar approach in the Wild Card round as Bengals DEs Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are athletic mismatches for Chargers OTs King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker.
Rivers' odds of a monster game seem long, but go-to guy Keenan Allen's don't versus a shaky Bengals secondary still missing LCB Terence Newman (MCL sprain) and starting burnable Pacman Jones at right corner. The Bengals will replace Newman with failed 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick, a liability in spot duty throughout 2013. Allen dropped an 8-106 line on Cincy in Week 13 and had 100-plus receiving yards and/or a touchdown in each of San Diego's last six games. ... San Diego's No. 2 wideout job has devolved into a rotation of Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal. Brown did not start either of the final two regular season games, while Royal experienced an uptick in snaps. Both are possession receivers. ... Antonio Gates faded down the stretch of his age-33 season, failing to top 50 yards in any of the last six weeks. Cincinnati allowed the third fewest yards (674) in the league to tight ends during the regular season. ... No. 2 TE Ladarius Green's passing-game role is highly volatile. McCoy and Whisenhunt often utilize Green as a blocker, as two-tight end packages make life difficult on enemy offenses when both players are receiving threats, as Gates and Green are. Via Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, Stevan Ridley in 2012 felt the same advantages Mathews is now experiencing. Green remains a dynamic threat whenever McCoy schemes him the football. Green scored a 30-yard touchdown off play action in San Diego's Week 13 loss to Cincinnati. He's a definite X-factor for the Wild Card round.
Pre-Game Weather Update: The National Weather Service anticipates snowfall for the entirety of Sunday's contest, with 4-8 inches of on-field snow buildup. It's a concern for space backs Danny Woodhead and Giovani Bernard. Unfavorable weather conditions are always worrisome for limited-arm passers like Cincinnati's Andy Dalton.
The primary reason San Diego lost in Week 13 was due to its inability to halt the Bengals' run game. Cincinnati poured 164 yards and a BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushing score on the Chargers, rushing 38 times compared to 24 Andy Dalton pass attempts. Playcaller Jay Gruden certainly has a matchup favorable enough to redo that approach against a Chargers defense that finished 2013 ranked 27th in YPC average allowed (4.59). I expect Gruden's plan of attack to be balanced to run heavy. ... Wildly streaky third-year quarterback Dalton's matchup is even more attractive on paper than the running game's, but Dalton is hard to trust coming off of a four-pick season finale, and just five weeks removed from managing 190 passing yards, one score, and an interception against this same Chargers defense. Dalton is the kind of quarterback who can find a rhythm and light up an opponent when he's hitting his back foot and delivering, but goes in the tank when the defense gets him off his spot. He's a week-to-week dice roll. I wouldn't want to lean on Dalton in a fantasy postseason league. ... Dynamic rookie space back Giovani Bernard was limited to 66 scoreless yards on 15 touches in Week 13, but I'd look for much more impact in this Wild Card round game. Gruden no longer has to worry about Bernard's smallish stature holding up over a 16-game schedule. If Bernard out-touches Green-Ellis on Sunday, no one should be surprised.
While the Chargers aren't particularly stout in any area on defense, they are easily weakest at outside corner. Now starting Dolphins castoff Richard Marshall at RCB and Shareece Wright on the left side, San Diego fields two first-team cornerbacks who both ranked in the bottom ten of Pro Football Focus' ratings among 110 qualifiers. A.J. Green is a virtual lock for a big-time game, and Marvin Jones is an intriguing, cheap FanDuel pick priced at $5,300. Jones started the Bengals' Week 17 victory. ... Playmaking slot man Andrew Hawkins hovered in the 16-33 snap range over Cincinnati's final four contests. He's a limited role player, but has homerun potential any time he gets the football. ... The Chargers' lone defensive strength is in tight end coverage, where they limited enemy TEs to the sixth fewest catches (64) in the league this regular season. Bengals tight ends Jermaine Gresham (hamstring) and Tyler Eifert (shoulder) both missed Week 17, although Gresham is expected to play against the Chargers. Eifert looks like a game-time decision.
Score Prediction: Bengals 23, Chargers 20
San Francisco @ Green Bay
Sunday 4:40 ET
Sunday's late game pits against each other teams that have squared off twice over the past 12 months, with San Francisco coming out on top both times by results of 45-31 and 34-28. In those two affairs, Green Bay's Dom Capers-coordinated defense was burned by Colin Kaepernick for a combined 44-of-70 passing (62.9%), 675 yards (9.64 YPA), and a 5:1 TD-to-INT ratio, with 203 rushing yards and two more end-zone trips on the ground. Kap frustrated 2013 fantasy owners with low yardage numbers in frequent 49ers blowout wins, but has played his best football of the season over the last month and a half. Even at frosty Lambeau Field, Wisconsin native Kaepernick shouldn't struggle to pour yards on the Packers' No. 24 pass defense, which is without top pass rusher Clay Matthews (thumb surgery). ... Capitalizing on Matthews' absence, look for Vernon Davis to run a high volume of pass routes rather than staying in to block; Niners LT Joe Staley won't need as much help on the edge. On FanDuel, Davis is my favorite Wild Card round tight end pick. ... Kaepernick's target distribution with Michael Crabtree back in the starting lineup for the last five games: Anquan Boldin 44; Crabtree 33; Davis 23; Frank Gore 4; Quinton Patton 3.
Pre-Game Weather Update: I dropped my total score projection for this game based on the weather forecast, which as of Saturday morning called for a high of one degree with a windchill around 20 below. There is no expectation of precipitation, but forecasted 18-20 MPH winds are somewhat concerning as well. This game will be played in extreme cold.
Boldin eviscerated rookie slot corner Micah Hyde and SS Jerron McMillian for a 13-208-1 line on Opening Day. McMillian has since been cut, and Hyde now has 16 games under his belt. Boldin remains a decent bet for a solid Wild Card game, but his matchup isn't quite as attractive as it was in Week 1. The Packers may also consider shading LCB Tramon Williams inside on passing downs. Williams played a fair amount of slot corner in the second half of the season. ... X receiver Crabtree will run most of his routes against Packers RCB Sam Shields, who had an up-and-down contract year and wound up grading 50th among 110 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus' cornerback ratings. It'll be a far more favorable matchup than Crabtree experienced last Sunday, when Patrick Peterson shut him down for 29 yards on three receptions. ... Rookie Z receiver Patton could be an X-factor in Sunday's game. The fourth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech totaled 60 yards on three offensive touches in San Francisco's Week 17 win over Arizona, playing 13-of-61 snaps in Mario Manningham's (injured reserve) old third receiver role. ... While the 49ers' offense is very much capable of Week 18 passing success, playcaller Greg Roman's philosophy remains balanced to run heavy featuring Gore. In Gore's last three meetings with Capers' defense, he's piled up 275 yards and three touchdowns on 60 carries (4.58 YPC). The Packers finished the season ranked 25th against the run and allowed 4.63 yards per attempt, the fourth leakiest average in the league.
Pre-Game Injury Update: The 49ers are reeling at slot corner. Starter Carlos Rogers (hamstring) didn't practice all week and is no longer expected to play Sunday night, while backup slot CB Eric Wright suffered his own hamstring pull during the practice week and is listed as questionable. The Niners may have to lean on usual dime back/special teamer Perrish Cox for major snaps. Cox played under 100 defensive downs during the regular season.
Despite the losing streak to San Francisco -- Cali-born Aaron Rodgers hasn't beaten his favorite childhood team since the Mike Singletary era -- the Niners haven't exactly found a way to shut him down. Rather, Capers' unit has been to blame for Green Bay's losses. In three career clashes with 49ers DC Vic Fangio's defense, Rodgers has completed 77-of-120 throws (64.2%) for 893 yards (7.44 YPA) and a 7:1 TD-to-INT ratio, averaging 27 points per game. It might require some magic for the Packers to pull this upset, but historical performance certainly suggests Rodgers is going to do his part. ... A matchup for Rodgers to exploit will be inside the numbers, where Niners slot corner Carlos Rogers is battling a balky hamstring. Dramatically reasserting himself with two touchdowns despite playing fewer than half of Green Bay's Week 17 snaps, Cobb roasted Rogers for a 7-108-1 line in these teams' Opening Day meeting. And he now may face an injury-bothered version. I like Cobb's chances of leading the Packers in Wild Card round catches. ... Jordy Nelson remains Rodgers' favorite pass-game target for field-stretching plays, and lit up San Francisco for 130 yards and a touchdown on seven Week 1 receptions. With Cobb re-taking over inside, expect Nelson to run more intermediate and vertical patterns against the 49ers, primarily challenging Rogers on early downs and LCB Tarell Brown in sub-packages. ... This was Rodgers' target distribution in last week's win at Chicago, his first game back from a fractured collarbone: Nelson 16; James Jones 7; Andrew Quarless 6; Jarrett Boykin 4; Cobb, James Starks, and Eddie Lacy 2.
Because Green Bay's offensive line is at risk of domination in the trenches by San Francisco's superior defensive front, expect Quarless to play a minimal passing-game role and spend most of Sunday on the line blocking. In the regular season, Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman's Niners allowed the seventh fewest receiving yards (750) in the league to tight ends. ... Look for Jones to run most of his routes against RCB Tramaine Brock, who earned a top-seven coverage grade in PFF's 2013 corner ratings. I'd view Nelson and Cobb as better bets than Jones for Wild Card receiving stats. ... With Cobb likely to be a near-full-time receiver again, Boykin will be reduced to playing in four-wide sets. Boykin saw single-digit weekly snaps before Cobb fractured his right fibula in Week 6. ... Formulating a sustainable run game will be a tall task against San Francisco's No. 4 run defense, which held its final three regular season opponents to a combined 183 yards and one touchdown on 52 carries (3.52 YPC). The Niners limited Lacy to 41 yards on 14 runs (2.93 YPC) in the Week 1 tilt. Lacy is going to get volume -- coach Mike McCarthy is committed to feeding his chin-checking hammer back -- but efficiency will be more difficult to come by. I think this is a game the Packers will have to win with their passing offense. And I think they can do it.
Score Prediction: Packers 23, 49ers 20