2013 NFL Wild Card Weekend: Sunday Game Previews

San Diego Chargers vs. Cincinnati Bengals

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No need to cover your faces in shame any longer, Bengals fans:  this year is the year it finally happens.  After 23 years, and about a dozen quarterbacks, Andy Dalton will finally help lead the Bengals to a playoff victory. The Ginger One will be beloved from here on out by the city of Cincinnati and the entire Bengals fanbase.

The Cincinnati offense isn’t spectacular, but it’s good.  Dalton isn’t a wildly impressive quarterback, but he’s improved each year he’s been in the league.  Dalton has some talent surrounding him on the offense.  A.J. Green is one of the best wide receivers in the game.  Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert are both talented, and I think this could be a dangerous tight end combo in the future.  The running back tandem of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Gio Bernard has been successful.  There’s plenty to like on the Bengals offense.

The Bengals defense is something special.  They rank among the top defenses in the league, both in yards allowed and points allowed.  The Chiefs got a lot of love for their defense this year, but the Bengals defense is right up there with them.  They have by far the best defense in the AFC North, and that defense is going to be the difference today.

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Coming off one of back-to-back seasons of less than stellar play, Philip Rivers has had new life under offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.  His quarterback rating, completion percentage, and touchdown numbers are all up and he threw just 11 interceptions this season.  Antonio Gates remains one of the best tight ends in the game and Keenan Allen had a great rookie season.  Ryan Matthews had a strong year.  The Chargers offense is one the better offenses in the game, but it’s not surprising to see it flourish under Whisenhunt.  The main concern for this offense is Rivers throwing an interception at a crucial moment.  I kept waiting for it to happen last week, and it didn’t.

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The Chargers defense isn’t great.  Their run defense is middle of the pack, but their secondary ranks among the worst in the NFL.  They almost allowed Chase Daniel and a team of second stringers to beat them a week ago.  Dalton doesn’t even need to be spectacular tomorrow to beat the Chargers defense.  He merely needs to limit his mistakes.  If he can do that, the Bengals will have their first playoff win in 23 years and will be punching their ticket to Foxborough.  Bengals 31, Chargers 24

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San Francisco 49ers vs. Green Bay Packers

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Two weeks ago, if I had been asked to pick the winner of this matchup, I would’ve certainly picked the 49ers.  Even in the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.  I never would have believed that Aaron Rodgers would come back and do what he did last week.  He threw two interceptions, but he had the crazy last-minute touchdown to Randall Cobb to win the game, the division, and a playoff spot.

The Packers offense begins and ends with Rodgers and I don’t need to reiterate here just what he can do.  In the cold weather conditions expected today in Green Ba.y, Eddie Lacy will also see his fair share of carries.  Lacy has been great all year (I’m honestly not sure the Steelers would’ve won their game against the Packers if Lacy hadn’t gotten injured).

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The Packers will be going against a great Niners defense.  The linebacking corps of Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, and Aldon Smith is one of the best in the league.  Their run defense has been especially strong this year, and it’ll be interesting to see how Lacy fares against them.

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On the other side of the ball is Colin Kaepernick.  Kaepernick is a great young quarterback.  He obviously had a great season last year and he’s an exciting player to watch.  Frank Gore had a drop off from the 2012 season, but was still effective this season.  Vernon Davis remains awesome, and tied his career high for touchdowns with 13 this season.

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Kap going against the Packers defense is certainly reason for concern if you’re a Packers fan.  This is not the vaunted Packers defense we are used to seeing.  Some of that has to do with Clay Matthews playing only 11 full games this season, due to a thumb injury.  He’s out for this game, and they’ll certainly miss him.

Despite all of that, I just can’t pick against Rodgers in Lambeau.  I just can’t.  It has nothing to do with a California team playing in frigid temperatures (as Mike Tomlin would say, I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking).  The Packers have been re-energized with the return of their quarterback, and he’s going to lead them to the Divisional Round.  Packers 24, 49ers 20.

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