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Road to North Jersey, Playoff Edition: Ten more questions as postseason gets underway

01.03.14 at 3:43 pm ET
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Colin Kaepernick and the Niners have to hit the road this postseason as a wild card team. (AP)

Colin Kaepernick and the Niners have to hit the road this postseason as a wild card team. (AP)

With the playoffs set to open Saturday night, here are 10 questions about the postseason party that should be answered over the next month, as we continue on the road to North Jersey and Super Bowl XLVIII. (Consider this the companion piece to the initial “Road to North Jersey” story we did a month ago.)

1. IS THERE A WILD CARD WHO COULD GO ON THE ROAD TO REACH THE SUPER BOWL?

The Niners are playoff-tested, playing well at the right time and have demonstrated that they aren’€™t intimidated by just about anything. The fifth seed in the NFC, the defending conference champs have to go on the road if they want to get back to the Super Bowl, but if there’€™s a wild card team out there with the cojones to pull it off, it’€™s San Francisco. Through the first 10 games, the Niners were something of a trick-or-treat team, going 6-4 out of the gate and causing some to believe they were incapable of duplicating last year’€™s success. But they won their last six games to head into the playoffs on a roll (in that stretch, Colin Kaepernick‘€™s average passer rating is 106.5, with 10 touchdowns and one interception) and now head to Green Bay for a wild card matchup with the Packers. Some of the Kaepernick’€™s best games have come against the Packers, including a 34-28 win in the 2013 season opener and a 45-31 win in last year’€™s playoffs.

2. IS ANDY DALTON READY FOR THE BIG STAGE?

There’€™s a lot to like about the Bengals. They have a young and aggressive defense, and have some of the best offensive skill position players in the league. The question is the quarterback: while Andy Dalton made the postseason in his first two years in the NFL, no one is sure he’€™ll be able to take a team deep into January. Surrounded by some terrific young offensive options in the league in A.J. Green and Gio Bernard and an impressive young defense, it appears that the time is now for Dalton. The 26-year-old has proven himself to be very good at times this season, and pretty bad at others — he had five games this year where he had a completion percent of better than 70 percent, and also had five games where he threw for at least 325 yards. Of course, on the flip side, he also had three other games where he threw at least three picks. Dalton will get his chance to come of age this January — if he can come through with some signature postseason moments, the Bengals could be one of the surprise teams in the AFC. If not, it could another offseason of questions in Cincinnati.

3. WHICH STAR HAS THE MOST TO GAIN AND MOST TO LOSE WHEN IT COMES TO HIS LEGACY?

We wrote it before the dawn of the playoffs, and it’€™s still true a month later — Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is directly in the crosshairs this postseason. Much of it depends on how the postseason plays out, but on the surface, it certainly has the most to gain and most to lose over the next month. On the heels of a record-setting regular-season performance, if he’€™s able to break through and win his second ring, it would create some separation from the rest of the field of quarterbacks and allow him some measure of vindication for past playoff failures. (That includes this year’€™s loss to Tom Brady and New England in the freezing cold of Foxboro, as well as the Broncos playoff defeat at the hands of the Ravens last year.) If he and Denver can’€™t seal the deal this time around, it will be viewed — fairly or unfairly — as yet another example of the quarterback coming up short with a title on the line.

4. CAN THE SAINTS FIND SUCCESS ON THE ROAD?

As a wild card team, New Orleans will have to hit the road if it wants to reach North Jersey — that journey would start Saturday night in Philly. That’€™s bad news for the Saints, as their home/road splits are as dramatic as any team in the playoffs: they were 8-0 at home and 3-5 on the road, they average almost twice as many points at home (34) than on the road (17.8), and scored a combined 36 points in their last three road losses. (By contrast, they scored 30 or more six different times at home this season.) Quarterback Drew Brees was the best home QB in the league with a 74 percent completion rate in the Dome, to go along with 27 touchdowns and just three picks. On the road, he completed 64 percent of his passes, with 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Not good for a team heading into a chilly Saturday night game in Philly.

5. ARE THE PLAYOFFS READY FOR CHIP KELLY?

Kelly will coach his first playoff game Saturday night when the Eagles host the Saints in an NFC wild card matchup, and the high-octane Kelly is ready to attack the postseason with an offense that’€™s looked pretty impressive, especially over the second half of the season. Following a 3-5 start, the Eagles turned to quarterback Nick Foles, who has led Philly to the top 5 of almost every major offensive category, including rushing (first at 160.4 yards per game), total offense (second at 417.3 yards per game) and scoring (fourth at 27.6 points per game). Foles had an amazing 27:2 touchdown to interception ratio on the year, and completed at impressive 64 percent of his passes while rolling to an 8-2 mark as a starter. (Of course, LeSean McCoy has a sizable role in the success of the Eagles, as his 1,607 rushing yards and 539 receiving yards make him one of the most impressive multidimensional threats in the game.) It’€™s uncertain as to whether or not the Eagles can keep those numbers rolling into the playoffs, but they’€™re going to be fun to watch as long as they hang around.

6. IS THERE A ROOKIE CAPABLE OF DELIVERING A SIGNATURE POSTSEASON MOMENT?

There are some really impressive rookies in the postseason, including Cincinnati running back Gio Bernard (56 receptions, 514 receiving yards; 170 carries, 695 rushing yards, eight total TDs), Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy (284 carries, 1,178 rushing yards, 11 TDs) and New Orleans wide receiver Kenny Stills (32 catches, 641 yards, 5 TDs). But the best of the bunch could be San Diego receiver Keenan Allen — the first-year Cal product has emerged as a game-breaker for the Chargers with 71 catches for 1,046 yards and eight TDs. If San Diego wants to go into Cincinnati and win on wild-card weekend, it will need a big performance out of Allen.

7. CAN THE CHIEFS SHOCK THE WORLD?

No one is quite sure what to think of Kansas City — despite their 11-5 mark, they only defeated one playoff team, and that was the 9-7 Eagles in the first month of the season. You can’€™t penalize them for not playing a lot of postseason teams, but they appeared to come up short in losses to the Chargers and Broncos. If they are going to pull it off, they’€™re going to need a heavy dose of running back Jamaal Charles. The 5-foot-11, 199-pounder out of Texas had a terrific year — he leads Kansas City in rushing (259 carries, 1,287 rushing yards, 12 TDs), as well as receiving (70 catches, 693 receiving yards, 7 TDs). He had four games where he rushed for 100 yards or more, and had four games where he had at least 50 receiving yards. The Chiefs have done a lot of good stuff on both sides of the ball this year, but they’€™ll get as far as Charles can take them.

8. ARE THE PANTHERS READY TO MAKE THE LEAP?

Riding a steady performance from Cam Newton, a solid defense that is equally impressive against the run and the pass and Riverboat Ron Rivera continuing to avoid coming up snake eyes, the Panthers look very dangerous heading into the playoffs. Newton wasn’€™t overwhelming statistically this season (the Panthers 190.2 passing yards was one of the worst totals in the league), but did a relatively good job taking care of the ball and leaning on the offensive options around him. Carolina also does a really good job playing complementary football — the Panthers were second in the league against the run (86.9 rushing yards allowed per game) and sixth against the pass (214.3 passing yards allowed per game). They played a lot of close games this year — seven of them were decided by seven points or less, and they went 5-2 in those games — so they’€™ll be ready if things get tight down the stretch.

9. ARE THE PATRIOTS THE BEST-SUITED TEAM TO WIN A COLD WEATHER SUPER BOWL?

It would appear to be the case — with a sneaky good running game that is now starting to bear fruit with the likes of LeGarrette Blount and a quarterback well-versed in what it takes to win in the cold, if the Patriots are able to make it through he AFC field and reach North Jersey, they would be better prepared than most to win a game that’€™s played in snow, ice and cold. Brady is 26-5 as a starting QB when the game-time temperature is 32 degrees or lower, throwing 53 touchdowns and just 22 interceptions.

10. IN THE NFC, CAN ANYONE STOP SEATTLE?

The Seahawks are the prohibitive favorite in the NFC for several reasons, including the fact that they’€™ll be at home for the duration of the postseason, and they enjoy one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL. Home-field aside, it’€™s hard to argue with what appears to be a well-rounded offense that boasts one of the best running games in the league (fourth at 136.8 yards per game) and an opportunistic defense that leads the league in takeaways (39) and turnover ratio (20). One thing to keep in mind is the fact that they finished the year as the league leader in penalties with 128. Only two other teams in the Super Bowl era — the 1974 Steelers and 1971 Cowboys — led the league in penalties and went on to win the title that same season. (The 1974 Steelers had a league-leading 104 penalties and still beat the Vikings in Super Bowl IX, while the 1971 Cowboys also had a league-leading 94 penalties, but still knocked off the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI.)

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