NFL play-offs: We look ahead to the four big match-ups on Wildcard Weekend
By Alex Williams. Last Updated: 31/12/13 5:55pm
The 49ers and Packers will do battle once again on Sunday
The NFL play-off picture has now been completed but there is barely time to reflect on Sunday's fireworks as thoughts have already turned to the start of the post-season.
Now the business end of the campaign begins, with the top two seeds in both the AFC and NFC able to put their feet up as the other four qualified teams in each conference battle it out on Wildcard Weekend.
The last three Super Bowl champions have all had to play in the first round of the play-offs so even though the best teams over the regular season have byes, this weekend can be as significant as any other.
The contests are split over Saturday and Sunday, with two taking place on each day. All four games can be seen live on Sky Sports.
AFC: Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) @ Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
The first play-off contest to take place this weekend will see the Chiefs - seeded fifth in the AFC - travel to Lucas Oils Stadium to take on the Colts, who finished third in the play-off standings. By the time the two teams take to field in Indianapolis just 13 days will have passed since their last meeting - a comfortable 23-7 victory for the Colts at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 16. After starting the season with nine straight wins Kansas City have lost five of their last seven games, although one of those was with their star players rested on the final day of the campaign.
Kansas City's defence was feared around the league at the start of the season but the stop unit was not as effective in the later match-ups with elite quarterbacks. Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers both engineered two victories against the Chiefs while Andrew Luck also came out on top against them. Luck, of course, will be under centre for the Colts on Saturday and will this time have the benefit of playing at home. The No 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft has played one play-off game so far in his young professional career, a 24-9 loss to Baltimore Ravens.
Much of the Chiefs' offence this year has flowed through running back Jamaal Charles, with quarterback Alex Smith perceived by some to lack the game-changing ability required in the play-offs. However, it must be noted that Smith was a key part of the San Francisco 49ers team which almost made the Super Bowl two years ago.
Sky Bet odds: Chiefs 6/5, Colts 5/7
NFC: New Orleans Saints (11-5) @ Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
After defeating the Dallas Cowboys on the final day of the regular season to win the NFC East, the Eagles will have home advantage against New Orleans, who had a better regular-season record but are given a lower seed due to the fact that they did not win their division. With Drew Brees pulling the strings from quarterback and a much improved defence under new coordinator Rob Ryan, few would argue against the Saints having the stronger team on paper. However, much of the build-up to this contest will focus on Saints' record away from home and especially outdoors.
New Orleans have not won an outdoor game since their victory over Chicago at the start of October, when conditions in the north of the country were significantly milder. With Saturday's contest at Lincoln Financial Field being an evening kick-off the temperature could well drop below freezing, which may blunt Saints' explosive aerial attack. Conversely, the cold could play right into the hands of the Eagles, who statistically speaking have the best rushing attack in the league by some margin. Philadelphia are also in great form overall having won seven of their last eight games.
All this has led to the hosts being favoured by the bookmakers despite Brees having nine play-off games and a Super Bowl victory under his belt. However, the 34-year-old's play-off record also counts against him as he has never won a post-season clash in a true road game. He is still a lot more experienced than his opposing signal-caller Nick Foles, who will be playing in his first play-off contest.
Sky Bet odds: Saints 6/5, Eagles 5/7
San Diego Chargers: Just scraped into the play-offs
AFC: San Diego Chargers (9-7) @ Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
The Chargers needed overtime, a blown call and another debatable decision by the officials to reach the play-offs, but may feel they have momentum on their side after recording five wins out of six to close out the regular season. The one loss in that span? Their home contest with the Bengals in Week 13. Cincinnati have themselves been in good form during the latter part of the season, bouncing back from two narrow overtime losses to win five of six heading into the play-offs. The fact they now have home advantage over a team they recently defeated on the road means they are the biggest favourites of any of the teams playing at the weekend.
But if they are to triumph, quarterback Andy Dalton will have to record the first play-off victory of his career. In each of the past two seasons, the Dalton-led Bengals have qualified for the post-season before falling at the first hurdle against the Houston Texans. The Texans should be long forgotten having posted the worst record in the NFL this season but this time they do face a stern test against an experienced quarterback in Philip Rivers and a Chargers defence which has improved lately.
Perhaps the most striking trend in the Bengals favour is the fact that they have won all eight of their home games this year and it would be a big surprise to see that run end against the Chargers.
Sky Bet odds: Chargers 5/2, Bengals 1/3
NFC: San Francisco 49ers (12-4) @ Green Bay Packers (8-7-1)
The final contest of wildcard weekend is a rematch of one last season's most spectacular play-off contests, a clash which saw the 49ers defeat Green Bay 45-31 in the Divisional Round. On that occasion, the San Francisco offence exploded for 579 total yards, quarterback Colin Kaepernick rushing for 181 of them in a record-setting display. Like three of the four games this weekend it is also a rematch of a regular-season contest, although San Francisco's victory over the Packers came all the way back in Week 1. The Packers also have home advantage this time having travelled to the West Coast for the two previous contests.
Green Bay may not seem to be a team in form having gone 3-5-1 over the last nine games of the season, but the return of Aaron Rodgers changes everything. The 2011 MVP came back from a broken collarbone to play in the NFC North-deciding clash with the Chicago Bears on Sunday and won the game with an incredible touchdown pass on fourth-and-eight late in the final quarter. With a strong running game finally at their disposal, the Packers offence is definitely a force to be feared in the post-season.
Despite their impressive record San Francisco have not been as dominant as they were during the 2012 season and must leave the pleasant conditions in California to play at a freezing Lambeau Field, where temperatures are forecast to dip as low as -15 degrees Celsius.
Sky Bet odds: 49ers 20/27, Packers 23/20