Sunday Playbook by Milt Northrop: Road to championship has begun on wild-card weekend for some - The Buffalo News
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Sunday Playbook by Milt Northrop: Road to championship has begun on wild-card weekend for some

What are the chances that any of the four winners on the NFL’s wild-card weekend will take home the Lombardi Trophy come Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium?

Surpringly good. Six of the last eight Super Bowl champions played on wild-card weekend including the last three (Ravens, Giants and Packers).

Playoff seedings are almost meaningless, it turns out. Since 2002 only two No. 1 seeds have ended up winning the Super Bowl. They were the 2003 Patriots and 2009 Saints. The last three teams to win the big one were not even division champions.

Both of today’s wild-card games will be played in cold weather. Perhaps, it’s good preparation for a Super Bowl in the New Jersey Meadowlands in the dead of winter.

Nasty weather is predicted in both Cincinnati and Green Bay. Only the hardiest will survive today and move on to the divisional round next week at such cozy locales as Foxborough, Mass., Denver, Charlotte and Seattle.

A look at today’s games

Chargers (9-7) at Bengals (11-5)

TV: Ch. 4, 1 p.m.

The line: Bengals (-7)

The scoop on the Chargers: The NFL used to hand out winter pullover knit caps to the media in cold weather playoff games in places such as Soldier Field and Ralph Wilson Stadium. Can’t help thinking back and the San Diego followers wearing Chargers ski caps in Cincinnati for the coldest (wind chill minus-37) game on record in the NFL. That was the 1981 season AFC Championship Game won the Bengals, 27-7, at old Riverfront Stadium. It might be just as forbidding for the Chargers’ first playoff game against the Bengals since then. … The Chargers earned the reputation as the NFL’s most under-achieving team in the 21st century, but they got rid of that tag this year, finishing strong and getting a lot of help to snag the final AFC wild-card spot on the last day of the season. … They did it largely because of a superb season by QB Philip Rivers (4,478 passing yards, 32 TDs, 11 INTs), the blossoming of RB Ryan Mathews (1,255 yards), a return to health of TE Antonio Gates (77 catches), the signing of free agent RB Danny Woodhead and drafting of WR Keenan Allen (71 catches). Allen had eight catches for 108 yards in a 17-10 loss to the Bengals on Dec. 1, but that was in sunny San Diego, not on the frosty shores of the Ohio River. … St. Francis grad Tom Telesco, the GM, gets a lot of credit for the Bolts’ success, but to be fair 12 of the 22 starters, including Rivers, Mathews and Gates, were drafted or signed by former GM A.J. Smith, who left the Bills for San Diego when the late John Butler departed.

The scoop on the Bengals: Instead of fading as some thought would happen, Cincinnati seemed to get stronger as it went along, especially QB Andy Dalton and a defense which lost Pro Bowl DT Geno Adkins and CB Leon Hall during the season. … Cincinnati went 9-3 after starting 2-2 and won five of its last six. The loss came at Pittsburgh, 30-20, with the division title virtually in the barn. Two of the Bengals’ losses and their win over the Bills came in overtime. All three were on the road. Cincinnati went 8-0 at Paul Brown Stadium. … Dalton was especially brilliant the second half of the season and finished with 33 TD passes and 4,296 yards. … WR A.J. Green has caught 260 passes in his first three seasons, the most ever for any NFL receiver in his first three years in the league. Also rookie RB Giovanni Bernard (1,209 yards) provided an explosive running threat along with former Patriot Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis. … There aren’t many, if any, more active linebackers in the NFL than tough Vontaze Burfict, who was undrafted out of Arizona State in 2012 because of questions about his attitude and character. He is the leader of a very physical defensive unit.

Outlook: The Chargers aren’t bred for winter cold. They are a physical team, but not as rough and tough as the Bengals. Cincinnati, 27-7.

49ers (12-4) at Packers (8-7-1)

TV: Ch. 29, 4:40 p.m.

The line: 49ers (-2)

The scoop on the 49ers: The Niners head into the playoffs with more momentum than any of the 12 postseason teams. San Francisco won its last six games, including a home win over Seattle (19-17). They opened the season with a 34-28 win at Green Bay but that was in September, not on the Frozen Tundra that Lambeau can become in December when the wind is howling off nearby Lake Michigan. No Cioppino and Napa Valley wine and cheese in hardy Northern Wisconsin. … Niners QB Colin Kaepernick had an uneven season, not as sensational as his breakout in 2012. Still he passed for 3,197 yards and 21 touchdowns with only eight interceptions and ran for 524 yards and four touchdowns. … The big difference in this Niners team and the one that lost in the Super Bowl last February is veteran WR Anquan Boldin, who caught 85 balls for a 13.9 average and 7 TDs. Also the Niners got Michael Crabtree back from injury in December and TE Vernon Davis (13 TD catches) can be a game changer. RB Frank Gore soldiers on (1,128 yards, 9 TDs). He’s carried the ball 2,187 times for 9,967 yards in the regular season since he entered the league in 2005. ... The Niners ranked fifth in the league with a defense led by LBs NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith and defensive tackle Justin Smith. The kicker is reliable Phil Dawson, the ex-Cleveland Brown.

The scoop on the Packers: Aaron Rodgers returned from his collarbone fracture just in time to lead the win in Chicago last week that put the Pack in the playoffs. He won it with a late pass to Randall Cobb, who was activated off injured reserve for the game. ... Rodgers threw for 17 TDs with six INTs in his abbreviated season. His No. 1 target is Jordy Nelson (85 catches, 15.5 average, 8 TDs) although veteran James Jones was a clutch receiver for a Green Bay team that had close games most of the season. The Pack went 4-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less. … Rookie RB Eddie Lacy gave Green Bay a workhorse running back. He carried 284 times for 1,178 yards. Niagara Falls’ James Starks carried 89 times for 493 yards and a 5.5 average. The Packers were fourth in the league behind Philadelphia, the Bills and New York Jets with a 133.5 rushing average. ... Green Bay gave up 428 points, 197 more than the Seahawks who led the league. … Green Bay’s key defenders are linebackers Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk.

Outlook: When the ground gets hard at Lambeau, bet on the Packers although in this century they’ve lost postseason home games to Atlanta, Minnesota and the New York Giants they were favored to win. Packers, 20-17.

Saturday’s results: 0-1 outright, 1-0 versus spread (pending outcome of Saints-Eagles game). Season’s record: 134-104-1 outright, 116-116-7 versus spread.


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