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Stretching the Field: Wild Card round loaded with talent
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - You have to play to win when it comes to the lottery.
You have to reach the playoffs in order to win the Super Bowl.
For those fortunate enough to earn a first-round bye (Seattle, Carolina, Denver, New England), the others get their championship dreams started this weekend. After a postseason ticket is punched, it's anyone's game.
Three out of the four Wild Card games will be played in frigid conditions, as the New Orleans Saints visit the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cincinnati Bengals host the San Diego Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers make a stop against the Green Bay Packers. The Indianapolis Colts will be in the climate- controlled confines of Lucas Oil Stadium to host the Kansas City Chiefs.
All eight teams feature plenty of play-making stars and below is a glimpse of just a few who will have an impact.
LESEAN MCCOY - It's appropriate the NFL's leading rusher will make an appearance this postseason after having a record-breaking campaign. McCoy ran for an Eagles single-season best 1,607 yards and had seven 100-yard rushing performances this season. He will try to continue the surge Saturday against a New Orleans defense rated 19th in rushing yards allowed.
COLIN KAEPERNICK - The quarterback of the 49ers shined in his first full season as a starter and hopes to lead his team back to the Super Bowl. Forget about his gun-slinging right arm, Kaepernick has the intuition to know when to throw or take off with his legs. He passed for 3,197 yards with 21 TDs and eight INTs, and also ran for 525 yards. Kaepernick joined Steve Young as the only 49ers with at least 3,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards in the same season.
JAMAAL CHARLES - Many thought that when Andy Reid took over in Kansas City touches for running back Jamaal Charles would dwindle. Not quite. Charles helped the Chiefs to a 9-0 start, one year after finishing with the worst record, and led the AFC in rushing for the second consecutive season with 1,287 yards. Charles, who is a threat catching passes out of the backfield, had an NFL-best 19 total TDs (12 rush, 7 rec) and averaged a conference-best 132 scrimmage yards per game.
ANDY DALTON - Will Dalton finally get the Bengals past the first round of the playoffs? Who knows, but he enjoyed a superb 2013 campaign. Dalton led Cincinnati to its first AFC North title since 2009 and an 8-0 home mark by setting the franchise record for passing yards (4,296) and touchdowns (33). Dalton is 30-18 as a starter, the highest winning percentage by a Bengals quarterback in franchise history (minimum 20 starts). He is 2-0 against the Chargers and lucky to have wide receiver A.J. Green to throw to.
JIMMY GRAHAM - What a weapon he has been for future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. The 6-foot-8 Graham, a former basketball player, is a nightmare for defenses and can beat practically any type of coverage with his leaping ability and hands. Graham recorded 1,215 yards and a career-high 16 touchdown catches, and became the first tight end in history with at least 1,200 yards and 10 scores in two different seasons. He had six 100-yard games in 2013 and looks to continue that mark Saturday against an Eagles defense rated last in passing yards allowed. Graham could snag a few TD passes this weekend.
ROBERT MATHIS - You probably thought Andrew Luck would be here, huh? He deserves to be, but DE/LB Robert Mathis will be the difference maker for the Colts on defense. Mathis will try to slam Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith on his back this weekend and racked up 19 1/2 sacks this season. You read that right. Mathis was a monster on the field once again and has posted 10 or more sacks five times in his career and has shown no signs of age. Mathis has 111 career sacks, surpassing Dwight Freeney's club record (107.5), and the Deacon Jones Award winner has three sacks against Kansas City. Look for more Saturday.
JORDY NELSON - Nobody is probably happier to have quarterback Aaron Rodgers back than Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson. The gritty wideout led Green Bay with 85 catches for 1,314 yards and eight TDs, and came up huge in an NFC North-clinching win over the Chicago Bears, racking up 161 yards on 10 receptions. Nelson is one of many weapons on the Packers, joining Rodgers, James Jones, Jarrett Boykin, Eddie Lacy, Randall Cobb, Andrew Quarles. Nelson registered five 100-yard performances in 2013, including 130 yards and a touchdown on seven catches in a Week 1 loss at San Francisco. He hopes to have similar numbers versus the 49ers, but this time in a win.
PHILIP RIVERS - Ryan Mathews was tough to push aside with 1,255 rushing yards, but Rivers draws the most attention with his arm, attitude and desire to win. Rivers is closing in on Dan Fouts' touchdown mark of 254 and will most likely get that next season. But for now, Rivers is on a mission to move the Chargers through the playoffs in their first appearance since 2009. He is the sixth player in league annals to post five 4,000-yard seasons and owns 783 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions in three career postseason games. Rivers faces a stiff and chilly challenge at Cincinnati and will be up to the task.
HONORABLE MENTION - Kansas City's defense, T.Y. Hilton, Darren Sproles, DeSean Jackson, Keenan Allen, Vontaze Burfict, 49ers linebackers, Mason Crosby.
01/03 12:49:19 ET
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