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NFL playoffs start with wildcard action

By AAP .
3 January 2014 03:33PM EST

SOMETIMES it's not who's hot but who's healthy that matters in the NFL playoffs.

The fact that teams playing in the wildcard round this weekend must win an extra game to get to the Super Bowl makes it even more difficult to avoid injuries.

Yet those teams have been successful. In seven of the past eight seasons, a Super Bowl qualifier played in the wildcard round.

Six times in that span, the eventual champion also came through the wildcard weekend.

On Saturday, it's Indianapolis taking on Kansas City, then Philadelphia against New Orleans.

On Sunday, Cincinnati welcomes San Diego, then Green Bay hosts San Francisco.

Players returning from injury will be huge in Green Bay and Kansas City.

The Packers' defence has been a sieve and is missing its top player, linebacker Clay Matthews, but the comebacks of passer Aaron Rodgers and receiver Randall Cobb for the regular-season finale lifted Green Bay into the post-season.

Rodgers, back from a broken left collarbone, and Cobb, who was out with a knee injury, combined on a fourth-down, 48-yard touchdown pass in the final moments at Chicago.

That touchdown gave the Packers the division title.

Their reward is a clash with last season's NFC champions, the 49ers, who are one of the strongest wildcard teams in recent NFL history.

San Francisco have no fear of going on the road, where they were 6-2. They beat Green Bay at Candlestick Park to start the season, and are on a six-game winning streak.

Kansas City, runner-up to Denver in the AFC West, got off to a 9-0 start, but then started getting hurt.

Top linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, tackles Branden Albert and Eric Fisher - the top overall draft choice last year - and receiver Dwayne Bowe were sidelined or hobbled at various times, and the Chiefs lost five of their past seven games.

"Big-time players want to make big-time plays in big-time games," Bowe said.

"These are the games you have to show up."

Indianapolis are relatively healthy. The Colts won their past three games by a combined 78-20 and committed the fewest turnovers (14) and fewest penalties (66) in the NFL.

The key for the unpredictable Colts is protecting quarterback Andrew Luck.

The one wildcard game where injuries are relatively a nonfactor is Philadelphia-New Orleans.

The Chargers, who won their final four games to sneak into the final AFC wildcard, have concerns about 1,000-yard rusher Ryan Mathews' ankle and receiver-punt returner Eddie Royal's toe.

Cincinnati, in the playoffs for a franchise-best third straight year, lost their top defensive player, tackle Geno Atkins, mid-season.

Current injury worries include most of the offensive line and tight end Tyler Eifert (neck).

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