Ah, the NFL playoffs. A high-pressure event in which crappy teams will get in, some good teams will get left out, Eagles fans will lament they haven’t seen a championship since before the days of color television, and the fans of every AFC East team besides the Patriots get to be sad. I can’t just go by the odds of what will happen in the playoffs, nor can I go by NFL.com’s standings after only 13 games have been played by each team. But here’s my best guess as to what will happen in the NFL’s postseason.
The AFC in 2014 is probably one of the most competitive conferences in league history. Basically every team that isn’t the Raiders, Jaguars, Jets or Titans is fighting for a playoff spot (holy crap, that’s actually accurate). In the AFC North, no team in the division has a losing record, while in the AFC South, the Colts are basically ahead of everyone else, while the Texans are caught behind the race, although they deserve credit for turning themselves from a miserable 2-14 team that lost 14 straight games into a team that has near-legitimate playoff hopes. In the AFC West, three overweight, KFC bucket-carrying teams are trying to wedge themselves through a doorway at once, with Oakland outside the building begging for money/draft picks. The Broncos and Chargers are in my opinion the two teams who will make it out, with the Chiefs beginning to bog down behind their pompous “we don’t throw touchdowns to wide receivers, we ground and pound like it’s 1972” style of play and a crippling divisional loss to the 0-10 Raiders a week or so ago. As for the AFC East, the Patriots are once again in command, while the Dolphins and Bills are struggling to catch up but are more competitive than they’ve been in years. The Jets are busy flopping around on the floor, hoping they’ll get a good coach and a better quarterback next year. Marcus Mariota, get ready for the New York spotlight.
By the way, ignore the mid-season “How they’ll finish” post, this is what’ll happen now.
Wild Card Games
10-6 San Diego Chargers @ 11-5 Pittsburgh Steelers
I said the Chargers were my pick to place second in the AFC West, and this is because with a win over Kansas City in the final week, they’ll be able to hopefully put another notch in their L column, critical to the Bolts’ playoff hopes. The critical factor here is Pittsburgh, who also play Kansas City a week before the Chargers get to play them. I have confidence in my mind that the Steelers will be able to beat them, landing Kansas City’s record (with a win over the Raiders) at 8-8.
For Pittsburgh, I think they’ll be able to beat Atlanta and Kansas City, and although every man, woman, child and lamp in Pennsylvania would gladly form an angry mob to take me down if I said Cincinnati will beat the Steelers in Week 17, it’s genuinely what I think is going to happen. This may or may not cost Pittsburgh a division title, and even if they do win it (which there is a likelihood of happening), the competition in the AFC might limit them to a Wild Card team. I think Cleveland and Baltimore will be watching the playoffs at home, but I think the Bengals will pull off the win.
In terms of the game, I think weather will be a big factor here. The California-located Chargers will have trouble in the cold weather, as they have historically (see: Championship, AFC, 1981), and although it might not be a scintillating offensive game from either side, Pittsburgh has grit, an accurate passing game, and most importantly, a running game if the air route falters, which San Diego doesn’t have the luxury of falling on.
Final: Pittsburgh 20, San Diego 13
11-4-1 Cincinnati Bengals @ 12-4 Indianapolis Colts
Even though I like to tease the Colts for playing in a “babby” division with the bottom two teams combining for only 4 wins, the Texans are a competitive team, albeit a non-threatening one, but certainly one that could bother Indianapolis in years to come. I think the Colts can win their last three games (against the Texans, @ Dallas and @ Tennessee) to finish 12-4 and win their division. A win over Dallas way down in Texas won’t be easy, and with any luck it’ll be a high-scoring affair, but I think the Colts have enough to win out over the Cowboys if they have a good day.
The Bengals, meanwhile, might be able to win their division by a hair if they can win their final three games, including a Week 17 game over Pittsburgh, a team that just picked them apart for six touchdowns. The Bengal’s unfortunate tie with hopeless Carolina might actually help them in the long run, and while they could have won the game and currently sit at 9-4, a tie is better than a loss under any circumstances. With drive in their final three games, Pittsburgh falling to them and the Ravens hopefully getting tripped along the way, Cincinnati can win their division but will fall prey to a wild card spot.
Since I’ve picked the Colts to finish with a better record by a game, the two teams will square off in Lucas Oil Stadium, where weather isn’t a factor. What will be are the fired up Indianapolis fans, who still remember their 27-0 shutout win over the Bengals earlier this season quite fondly. Although I don’t think the Colts will pick another shutout over Cincy, I do think they’ll have enough to get through at home, further elongating the Bengals’ playoff game losing streak to 25 years.
Final: Indianapolis 27, Cincinnati 20
11-5 Pittsburgh Steelers @ 13-3 New England Patriots
For me, although the AFC is a brutal conference and we have competitive teams all over the joint, New England is the class of all of them. The offense found its way after staggering through a terrible 2-2 start, and New England has now gone 8-1 after the rocky start. Their home field advantage is nearly uncontested, especially later in the year when it gets colder. The rest of New England’s games are against divisional foes, first at home against the 7-6 Miami Dolphins on the road against the 2-11 *gag* New York Jets, and at home against the admittedly tough 7-6 Buffalo Bills. Not to take anything away from those teams (except the Jets, I’ll take everything away from them), but New England is just better. I think they’ll be able to sweep the Bills and Jets while likely putting the fatal L in Miami’s season in terms of playoff hopes. Tom Brady is playing great football, even though he acts like a petulant toddler on the sideline, while the defense and home field advantage both hit you like a ton of bricks.
Although the Steelers will be accustomed to cold weather, there’s nothing quite like an East Coast whip-up of sleet and bitter cold, especially when you have to play the fearsome Patriots in an away game. Some people who think they’re smart will jump and say Pittsburgh is in a position to pull a big upset, and indeed they are, but what is the likelihood of that happening? Very little, and even when New England plays a bad game, it’s better than some teams’ best. In order to win, Pittsburgh would have to start fast and never look back, work the clock and try to keep Brady off the field. That’s tough when you’ve got snow stuck in your facemask, Vince Wilfork snarling at you and a bunch of obnoxious East Coast hooligans ready to take the ball and jam it down your throat. I can’t see Roethlisberger pull this one out, no matter what he’s done this year.
Final: New England 31, Pittsburgh 20
12-4 Indianapolis Colts @ 13-3 Denver Broncos
After the Colts win at home in the comfy indoor atmosphere at Lucas Oil, it’s off to Sports Authority at Mile High Stadium, where the Denver temperatures are bound to be brutal. The Colts already lost to Denver earlier in the year, and that was indeed at home. Although the Colts may have the offense, they don’t have the defense, really. Or a running game. But they have Andrew Luck, which is more than a lot of teams can say.
The Broncos are having some trouble themselves, as Peyton Manning is clearly wearing down at age 38. After a brutal performance in St. Louis, it was clear that Manning can’t really throw anymore. His passes are losing velocity with every game, and all of them seem to float right into the hands of the open defensive back. His 51-game steak of a touchdown pass was broken last Sunday against Buffalo, and he threw 3 interceptions. Luckily, the Broncos have C.J. Anderson, who after running all over the yard against the Dolphins has clearly shown he’s the best runner Denver has. The team relies more on him and the defense nowadays, and even if Peyton Manning doesn’t win the big one this year, it’ll likely be his last year.
In terms of the game, it’s a hard one to pick, but the Colts are a pretty good team, disregarding the cushy home field…and the defense…and the running game…okay, they’re not a good team, but they have a great passing game and Adam Vinatieri, who hasn’t missed a kick yet. Good enough. The Colts can toss their running game out the door against Denver, as they won’t need it. What Indianapolis needs to do to win is shut down Denver’s running game. This is absolutely, positively, undoubtedly the key and deciding factor of the game. Even if the Colts hold C.J. Anderson to 52 yards on 15 carries, that’ll be sufficient. If Denver can’t run, they have to pass, and although I have every respect for Peyton Manning and one of the best ever, he’s losing his touch. His floater passes will have even more trouble in the Denver weather, and once the run game is shut down, Manning will have to throw all the time and risk turnovers, which seems to happen often. If the Colts can stop the run and score on offense no matter the pace, they can win the game, and that’s what I think will happen.
Final: Indianapolis 31, Denver 28
AFC Championship Game
For this game, home field advantage is once again a big factor for the Patriots. The Colts are an indoor team, and Andrew Luck struggles mightily when outside in the cold (such as Cleveland). Tom Brady and the Patriots, meanwhile, are used to the temperatures and the noise of Gillette Stadium. There’ll be snow, there’ll be noise, and there’ll be tough football played. The Patriots just are too good for the Colts to beat them, in my mind, and although the Colts are an AFC Championship worthy team, they’re not a Super Bowl team yet. Just give it a few years.
Final: New England 28, Indianapolis 17
The NFC is much less competitive than the AFC. There are terrible teams (Redskins, Giants, Bears, the entire NFC South), mediocre teams (Rams, Vikings, 49ers), and then there are the tough squads. Let’s start with the NFC South. This division is just embarrassing in both a present day and historical sense. This could very well be the first time we’ve ever seen a 6-10 team win a division…and possibly host a playoff game. That shouldn’t happen. They don’t deserve it. It’s wrong. Not whiny Sean Payton, not dopey Mike Smith who doesn’t understand how clocks work, not the overrated Ron Rivera and certainly not the aimlessly confused Lovie Smith deserve a home field playoff game with a 10-loss season. The entire division is a shamble, and it warms my overly-critical heart to see the once awesome division that everyone predicted would have three playoff teams before the season, one that everyone bought into as “elite” and “dominant” is now a smoldering mess of losing and joke butts. Give me a break.
As for the NFC North, the Packers are the cream of the crop in the NFC, sitting at a 10-3 record thanks to some early-season mishaps. The Packers are somewhere between “otherworldly” and “playing Madden on rookie difficulty”, and although their defense needs an obvious tune-up after Julio Jones pulled an Anthony Carter on them, this is a Super Bowl team. The Lions are in second place with four losses, but it really should be more. These guys are not a good team, I don’t care what you say. They’re not the “Cardiac Cats”. They’ve had close wins over a bunch of crappy teams, and haven’t done anything to really distinguish themselves from say, the 49ers. The sad part is, they’ve fallen behind to said crappy teams. 23-10 to the ugly Saints, 21-0 at halftime to the imploding Falcons, and it took a last-minute drive to beat the Dolphins on a bad day in your own stadium. The Vikings aren’t a very good team right now, although they have rebounded from a hideous start to the season. They’re going to be a contender in a few years, as the young talent is finally adjusting and showing potential in recent games. As for the Bears, they’re just awful. The defense is atrocious and it seems like Jay Cutler doesn’t care about holding onto the ball, he just wants his ridiculous, bloated paycheck on Monday. The NFC East has two really good teams and then two nauseating ones. The Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys are both having really good seasons, and Philadelphia is likely going to win the division after smoking Dallas 33-10 on Thanksgiving. The Cowboys do deserve credit though, finally escaping from 8-8 mediocrity and making a name for themselves behind DeMarco Murray. Then there are the Giants, who have fallen from Super Bowl Champs in 2011 to a .500 team, then plummeted this year to a 4-9 record. It took a blowout win over the pitiful Titans to get them slightly back on track, and it’s physically impossible for them to make the playoffs at this point. The Redskins are predictably in last with a 3-10 record, suffering through a mix of incompetent coaching, no quarterback play to speak of and a defense that’s still suffering from it’s 2013 hangover. Finally, there’s the NFC West, who has a division leader nobody expected: the 10-3 Arizona Cardinals. The Seahawks struggled early on but are back with a 9-4 record after their defense found their swagger again, while the 49ers are busy middling around and ruining expectations. The Rams are showing signs of improvement but often come up short on tests against better competition.
Wild Card Games
12-4 Arizona Cardinals @ 7-9 Atlanta Falcons
The Cardinals, unexpectedly to most, are my pick to place second in the NFC West as opposed to first. After Carson Palmer got hurt, the Cards just haven’t generated enough offense to…well, function as an NFL team. Arizona has only scored 38 points in the last three games, coincidentally the three games they’ve had to play after Palmer’s injury. That’s an average of only 12.6 points-per-game, a terrible amount that’s now placed them 22nd in the league in scoring offense. The defense is great, though, and it’s enough to carry them to two more wins over the Rams and 49ers.
This is just terrible. A total fallacy. A 7-9 team shouldn’t host a playoff game, absolutely not. I know the Seahawks did it and won, but…that should only happen once every 75 years or so. After New Orleans and Atlanta both lost in Week 14, it assured us that the winner of the NFC South will indeed have a minimum of 8 losses. I think Atlanta can take down the Saints and Panthers, but lose to the Steelers, bringing their record to…yes, 7-9. Disgusting, isn’t it?
The Cardinals and Falcons are virtually opposite: the Cardinals’ offense is like a water pistol, but their defense is stout and forces turnovers that can at least get Drew Stanton and Co. at least 3 points. The Falcons can move the ball against almost anyone if their offensive line plays well, but their pass defense is ranked last in the league. This game is actually a tougher one to pick than I expected, and although the old mantra is “offense sells tickets, defense wins championships”, you at least need a little offense to get you by. The Cardinals do not have this, and if Julio Jones and the crew are healthy for the playoff game, I can see Atlanta upsetting Arizona.
Final: Atlanta 21, Arizona 16
11-5 Detroit Lions @ 12-4 Philadelphia Eagles
This one took a little more research than I thought, and once I learned it would come down to conference record, I then thought to myself: “Wait, Philadelphia already clacked Dallas this year.” The Eagles did indeed clack Dallas, 33-10 on Thanksgiving, and ultimately it might cost the Cowboys a playoff spot if Detroit finishes with a better record. Regardless, here come the Eagles into the playoffs with a 12-4 record. They’ve beaten Dallas, Washington and New York in the final weeks of the season and are feeling mighty high. They have a home playoff game in front of the brutal, Donovan McNabb-hating Eagle fans who still go mental at every opportunity and instill memories of Veteran’s Stadium. Philadelphia has a really, really good no-huddle offense that took a while to smooth out the cracks, but once it did, it was nearly seamless.
Napoleon Dynamite Nick Foles got hurt, which forced none other than Mark Sanchez into the starting job. Even though Sanchez shows signs that he’s still Mr. Butt Fumble sometimes, he’s unexpectedly played very well and can lead Phillie to the playoffs.
Then there are the Lions, whom I take particular distaste. They don’t deserve to be called the Cardiac Cats or anything like that, they haven’t done enough to merit the nickname. They have a knuckle-dragger of a quarterback who sometimes looks like he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat, and even though everyone raves about Reggie Bush, I’ve honestly never seen him contribute anything other than fumbles and failed 3rd down runs. Some people will say I’m hating just because the Lions put the kiss on the Dolphins, but really, that has nothing to do with it. Detroit’s defense is the star attraction of the team, often gruffly telling the offense to get out of its own way, score a few touchdowns and let them do the work. It usually works that way, and even if Matthew “Chowderhead” Stafford throws 3 picks and completes 14 of 29 passes, they can still win the game thanks to a brick wall of a defensive unit.
As for the game itself, the Ford Field covered Lions won’t have a huge amount of trouble in Philadelphia, although it’ll be a small factor. The real story here is about the quarterbacks. Mark Sanchez might morph into Nick Foles for the game, or he’ll be the Mark Sanchez that played for the Jets. Matthew Stafford might be hot and play like he did on Thanksgiving, or he could turn right back into his usual self and start throwing more high fastballs than Scott Mitchell in a two minute drill. I’m going with the latter for Stafford and neither for Sanchez. Although he’s sort of a chucklehead, Sanchez did prove he can win playoff games while he was in New York, and actually won four road playoff games over two seasons…his first two. There isn’t really a doubt in my mind that Sanchez will be able to handle the playoff pressure, but that doesn’t mean he’ll play great, either. I don’t think he’ll be the star attraction, giving us more of a 19-of-32 afternoon for 213 yards, a touchdown, a pick and a fumble. This will be enough though, as I think LeSean McCoy and the offense will manage to get past Ndamukong Suh. I pick the Lions to struggle offensively, something that will ultimately cost them the game.
Final: Philadelphia 23, Detroit 10
7-9 Atlanta Falcons @ 13-3 Green Bay Packers (yes, I know, the helmets are backwards)
Green Bay is just awesome. They’re playing at that 1996 level where they had Brett Favre, Reggie White and Desmond Howard. Aaron Rodgers is just playing at a level that hasn’t been seen before in the NFL, going into Week 15 without an interception at home. Eddie Lacy is coming into his own, and even though the defense sometimes struggles, they did hold Tom Brady to 21 points and the Eagles to 20. With Green Bay’s win on Monday Night against Atlanta, they were one of three teams to go over 400 points scored on the year (joining New England and Indianapolis), and currently lead the league in scoring.
The Falcons did put up a good show in Green Bay on Monday Night, rallying from a 31-7 halftime deficit to ultimately lose 43-37. It was a respectable performance though, and even though the Falcons might know Green Bay’s weaknesses, the Packers know Atlanta’s. There’s no conceivable way the Packers will lose this game, but I don’t think it’ll be a blowout.
Final: Green Bay 34, Atlanta 17
12-4 Philadelphia Eagles @ 12-4 Seattle Seahawks
This will probably be one of the better playoff games in this year’s post-season, and although Philadelphia hung tough against Seattle just last week, they lost by 10. The Eagles still have their smooth offense and their defense that isn’t that great, and that’s about all I have to say.
The Seahawks were written off after a 6-4 start following a loss in Kansas City, but they’ve rebounded in a big way. They beat the Cardinals and 49ers by a score of 19-3 and then beat the previously mentioned Eagles 24-14. The Legion of Boom has gotten its swagger back, as has the rest of the defense, and while the offense struggles sometimes, the ‘Hawks always seem to do enough to win.
This game won’t be a huge offensive shootout, especially not for the Eagles. I have a bad feeling Mark Sanchez won’t be able to handle the Seahawks’ defense, and Philadelphia’s defense just isn’t good enough to stop Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson. It’ll be a close game, but I think in the end Seattle will come out on top.
Final: Seattle 24, Philadelphia 16
12-4 Seattle Seahawks @ 13-3 Green Bay Packers
The Packers are just a great all-around team, functioning in areas (the offense) where Seattle sometimes stutters. The offense is as consistent as the Seahawks’ defense, and this game will be a clash of both images and styles. It’ll be tough, it’ll be fun to watch, and it might not be close in the end, but we’re in for a real treat of a game. The key matchup to watch is Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb go up against the Legion of Boom, a fight that will likely decide the game. When the final tick goes off the clock, however, we’re going to see Green Bay heading to the Super Bowl.
Final: Green Bay 30, Seattle 23
The Super Bowl
I’d have to be nuts to try and pick the Super Bowl, but I’ll do it anyways. I’m not an oddsmaker, I’m not a betting person, but I do think this is how it’ll turn out. These two teams actually faced off in the Super Bowl in 1996, back when Drew Bledsoe was the quarterback for New England. The Patriots lost that game 35-21 but put up a good fight, something I think they’ll do against 2014’s Green Bay rendition. A defensive struggle is out of the question, as both coaches (Mike McCarthy and Bill Belichick) will have figured out eachother’s weaknesses on defense. The Patriots’ secondary is slow while Green Bay has trouble with big tight ends…like Rob Gronkowski. This game will certainly be exciting, and I’m almost guaranteeing there will be an unorthodox defensive touchdown in the game that might help decide the final outcome. Needless to say, it’ll be an exciting game if these two teams face off on the grand stage, and the team I pick to win it all is…
Final: Green Bay 33, New England 27