Sunday, January 20, 2013

2012-2013 NFL Playoff Predictions - Conference Championships

Last week was an all-or-nothing situation.  I bombed Saturday, whiffing on both the Broncos and Packers, but won Sunday with Atlanta and San Francisco.  That brings my season record to 149-82-1.  If this week’s games are half as exciting as last week’s, we’re in for another week of fantastic football.

San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1) @ Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
Sunday (3:00, FOX)

David v. Goliath?

Despite earning the NFC’s #1 seed and taking down the game’s hottest team last week the Atlanta Falcons head into the conference championship game as four point underdogs, at home.  Yes, the team that went 7-1 at home this year (only loss was that meaningless finale against Tampa Bay) and is 34-6 in the Georgia Dome during Matt Ryan’s career is getting more than a field goal on their own turf.  Are the Falcons still not that believable, or are the Niners just that good?

If last week is any indication, it’s the latter.  After throwing a pick-6 on his first possession of the game, Colin Kaepernick responded the way leaders do.  He ran one in from 20 yards out to tie the game at six and give him his first of four scores on the day.  Kaepernick outplayed Aaron Rodgers and dominated a Packers defense that forgot you’re allowed to make in-game adjustments when the opposition is whipping you up and down the field.  I’m talking to you Dom Capers.  Kaepernick set a league record for most rushing yards in a game by a QB with 181 and added another 263 through the air, including two TD tosses to Michael Crabtree.  If the Falcons are as stubborn as the Packers were, San Fran fans can start making reservations for New Orleans.

The second year QB is getting a ton of talk, as he should.  Not only has he kept a championship caliber team on course after the controversial QB change, but he’s given the Niners an explosive rushing dimension which has means success for the Niners and nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.  Crabtree has loved life with Kaepernick on the giving end of passes, but you’ve got to wonder how focused he’ll be Sunday.  It was announced Friday that the Niners standout receiver is being investigated for an alleged sexual assault.  He’ll play Sunday, but as Kaepernick’s overwhelming prime target, any slip in focus could take away one dimension of a hot offense and give the Falcons a break they need in this matchup.

Atlanta enjoyed a 20-0 halftime lead on the Seahawks but needed to drive 41 yards in 31 seconds and have Matt Bryant to hit a 49 yard field goal to live another week.  Whether it was the Falcons getting lax on defense, conservative on offense, or the west coast Seahawks finally waking up, Atlanta nearly lost a game that had no business being close in the fourth quarter.  Russell Wilson’s spectacular season ended last Sunday, but he went out with a bang.  The rookie threw for 385 yards and two TDs while adding another 60 yards on the ground and a rushing score.  Wilson had all day to throw in that game, and if the Falcons let Kaepernick and the Niners enjoy that same comfort, there won’t be a 20 point lead on which the Falcons can rest. 

The Falcons did defeat the strength of the Seahawks, their read option run game.  Wilson got his, but Marshawn Lynch was held to just 46 yards on the ground, his lowest output since week six against the Patriots.  Lynch didn’t practice in the week leading up to the game, dealing with a foot sprain.  Frank Gore won’t be nearly as gimpy as Lynch clearly played last week.  Gore gashed the Packers for 119 yards and a score on the ground and also had 48 yards receiving.  He’s the downhill type of runner that spells trouble for Atlanta.  They’re not terribly strong up front and will have a tough time against San Fran’s massive front and hammering rusher. 

With the Falcons committing to the edges to stop Wilson and Lynch, Zach Miller had the middle of the field to himself, as his 8 catches for 142 yards and a TD illustrate.  Vernon Davis hasn’t been high on Kaepernick’s radar, but he’ll destroy the Falcons if they give him the same ground they gave Miller.  Like the zone read last week against the Packers, look for this week’s surprise from Jim Harbaugh to be a steady diet of Davis in the intermediate game.  San Francisco isn’t a pass-heavy offense, but I do expect Harbaugh to exploit what I believe is a slow Atlanta secondary, be it with the spacing of Crabtree, Davis, and Randy Moss or the legs of Kaepernick on the edges.  You saw how he ran last week against the Packers secondary when he got to the second and third levels.  The Packers are much quicker than the Falcons in the back end which is very bad news for Atlanta if (when) a Niner breaks free with the football.  With a gimpy John Abraham as their only pass rush threat, it could be a long afternoon for the Falcons defense.

It’s no secret that Atlanta’s fate lies in the hands of Matt Ryan and the passing game.  Still, they had to love getting a combined 162 yards rushing from Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers last week against Seattle.  Turner surprisingly slashed the Seahawks for seven yards a carry, with Rodgers not far behind at 6.4.  Call me cynical, but I don’t see that happening two weeks in a row.  Yes, it gives the Niners defense something else to think about, but they’ll only go as far as Ryan’s trio of receivers takes them.  Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez combined for 17 catches, 186 yards, and 2 TDs against Seattle’s highly publicized secondary.  The Niners secondary might (I stress might) be a notch below Seattle’s, but not by much.  They cover a lot of ground, and their safeties love to hit people.  Will Ryan be able to survive the rush in his face and continually make plays downfield?  If he does, will Atlanta’s receivers hold up to San Fran’s physicality?

After getting out to that big lead last week, the Falcons got away from what they do well.  They tried to shorten the game by throwing less which led to too many short drives and too much time of possession for the Seahawks.  Wilson dominated a Falcons defense that isn’t known for its stoutness or ability to put teams in long yardage situations.  An already soft defense played entirely too soft in surrendering 21 points in less than 13 minutes and owe a big thank you to Bryant for making them participants rather than viewers this week.  Atlanta is far and away the weakest of the four remaining defenses, and that’s not a good sign for this matchup. 

For a franchise with such a steep history of winning, a victory in Atlanta on Sunday would vault the Niners to their first Super Bowl appearance in 18 years.  Kaepernick was seven years old when Steve Young lit up the Chargers in Miami

All of the matchups, with the possible exception of Ryan against the Niners secondary, favor San Fran.  If I went with the Falcons, I would be doing so simply as a guess.  Sure they could pull off the win.  Hell, I already referenced their toughness at home.  I just simply don’t see the Falcons being able to trade punches long enough to keep this one close, unless Kaepernick has a down game.  We saw how he responded to last week’s opening pick-6, and that had to give him an extreme amount of confidence.  I don’t see him struggling in this one.  This one ends up closer on the scoreboard than it actually is.  One Harbaugh brother makes it to the Super Bowl. 

Niners 27
Falcons 20

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) @ New England Patriots (12-4)
Sunday (6:30, CBS)

So we meet again…

Familiar foes face off for the third time in a calendar year, with Baltimore heading to Foxboro to decide the AFC’s half of the Super Bowl equation.  The Ravens and Patriots split the last two contests, and the total margin of victory in their last three meetings is seven points, with no game being decided by more than three.  That said, the oddsmakers aren’t expecting this one to be as close.  The Patriots opened as ten point favorites which is a greater margin than the seven point combined win-loss margin I just mentioned.  I’m not sure I agree with the wise guys. 

How did these teams reach the AFC finals?  Baltimore is coming off the huge upset of Denver, and the Patriots had their way with the Texans for the second time in a month.  Soon to be free agent Joe Flacco made himself a lot of money last Saturday, capping off another playoff victory with three TDs including the instant classic overtime forcing deep ball to Jacoby Jones with 30 seconds remaining in regulation.  Rahim Moore just became famous for all the wrong reasons.  Houston kept it close on the scoreboard for a half, but New England pulled away in second frame, scoring three unanswered TDs to go up 25 with less than a quarter to play.  Who needs Gronk?  When Rob Gronkowski went down early in the game with an injury to his recently-healed forearm, the Patriots stuck to their tradition – next guy up.  That guy in this game was backup RB Shane Vereen.  Bill Belichick and company intelligently used Vereen in the passing game, lining him up at receiver and exploiting mismatches.  Vereen finished the game with three scores; two in the passing game, and one on the ground.

If you’ve been listening to sports talk radio this week you’ve likely heard multiple mentions of the fact that Flacco has outplayed Tom Brady in their recent meetings.  Over the three game stretch mentioned above, Flacco threw for 973 yards compared to Brady’s 866 and had a 7-2 TD to INT ratio compared to Brady’s 2-4 ratio.  Now I’m not going to sit here and try to convince anyone that Flacco is a superior QB to Brady because he isn’t, but Flacco’s numbers in these matchups combined with his career postseason success and the wave of momentum the Ravens are currently riding leads me to believe that Baltimore definitely has a shot of doing what they couldn’t do in last year’s playoffs, beat the Patriots in Foxboro. 

In knocking off the #1 seed Broncos last week in the cold of Mile High, the Ravens survived two huge Trindon Holliday TD returns and three scoring passes from Peyton Manning.  Like a championship boxer, they withstood flurries from the Broncos and responded with even more damaging production of their own.  Flacco continued his hot streak, tossing three TDs and no INTs, with two of those scores, including that highlight heave, going to Torrey Smith.  Four receivers caught at least three passes, and five of them were targeted at least four times.  Flacco is going to need to spread the ball around like that again to take down the defending conference champs.

He’s also going to need another big game from Ray Rice.  The Rutgers rusher totaled 131 yards on 30 totes and scored once in Denver last week.  He’s averaged nearly 28 touches a game in the last three hookups with the Patriots and will need to repeat or exceed that number for the Ravens to get the win.  Backup Bernard Pierce comes into this one a little banged up, so Rice will likely be asked to shoulder more of the load in the backfield. 

Baltimore’s defense is really clicking.  Whether it’s them getting healthy or rallying around Ray, this group has made the plays when it has counted this postseason.  Lewis had a whopping 17 tackles last week, and Terrell Suggs added 10 of his own along with two sacks.  Often overlooked Dannell Ellerbe keeps taking care of business.  He’s been the biggest key to the Ravens hanging on, stepping up big time in Lewis’ absence and now making plays along side of him.  To make a deep playoff run you’ve got to get some guys to step up, and that’s exactly what Paul Kruger and Corey Graham have done.  The former recovered that huge Manning fumble, and the latter gave the Ravens their first lead of the game by returning a Manning interception for six and got him again in OT to set up the winning kick. 

New England’s defense doesn’t get a lot of talk, possibly because of how strong they are on the other side of the ball, but this is a unit that, while not statistically outstanding, makes the necessary plays at the necessary time.  They forced two turnovers in the regular season finale against the Dolphins and another one last week against the Texans.  They’re led up front by veterans Vince Wilfork, Rob Ninkovich, and Jerod Mayo and rookies Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower.  Ray Rice is going to have his hands full finding rushing lanes.  In their one win in the last three of these meetings, Rice ran for 101 yards and a TD.  In the two losses, he totaled 155 yards and zero scores.  I don’t see them stopping Flacco, but the Patriots like their corner combo of Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington which allows Devin McCourty to be a presence at free safety.  Look for Talib to shadow Torrey Smith and keep him from burning the Patriots like he did the Broncos.  If Talib is able to contain Smith, Baltimore will need a big game from Anquan Boldin in the slot against Arrington.  I expect to see the Ravens spread out the Patriots secondary and target Boldin over the middle quite a bit. 

Tom Terrific is going to have to put that moniker on display Sunday to slow down this Ravens freight train.  As I’ve pointed out, he’s struggled recently in these matchups, but I’d argue that this is a drastically different Patriots team.  It’s still an offense that exploits mismatches, but they’re now a very strong running team and play with a tempo that is impossible to keep up with when Brady is at his best.  I believe they’re really going to push the tempo early to see how tired these Ravens defenders are after logging a ton of snaps over the last two weeks, and I expect to see New England to a lot of run run running in the up tempo offense. 

Baltimore surrendered 152 yards on the ground to the Colts in the Wild Card round and another 125 to Denver last week.  Vick Ballard and Ronnie Hillman combined for 174 yards on 44 carries for an average of four yards per rush.  No offense to Ballard who had a strong finish to the season, but he’d be down the depth chart in New England.  Hillman was a non-factor all year until stepping in for an injured Knowshon Moreno last week.  In a note I saw on Rotoworld, New England is 13-0 when they rush for 100 yards as a team and 0-4 when they don’t.  Given the Colts and Broncos success on the ground against the Ravens, you better bet Bill Belichick is going to call Stevan Ridley and the aforementioned Vereen’s number early and often. 

New England totaled 122 rushing yards last week against Houston’s stout rush defense, and I think the success of Ridley and Vereen, rather than the arm and mind of Brady, will end up being the Patriots strength in this one.  This is the matchup that I believe tilts a very even contest in New England’s favor.  The Ravens don’t wilt, but the Patriots prove why they’re the conference’s best team.  I said that last week would be Ray Lewis’ swansong, but I was wrong.  Maybe they’ll pull out another one and advance to New Orleans, but I truly believe this is the end of the line.  What a great ride it’s been.

Patriots 31
Ravens 27

Saturday, January 12, 2013

2012-2013 NFL Playoff Predictions - Divisional Round

So I went 3-1 last week in the Wild Card round to bring my season total to 147-80-1.  That loss was the Bengals bumbling and stumbling in Houston.  I guess I should have known better than to count on Andy Dalton (14-30, 127 yds, 0 TD, 1 INT).  I’m not sure how exactly you expect to win when you don’t target AJ Green even once in the entire first half.  Mindboggling. 

In a bit of history, this is the first time that a conference has repeated its final four from the previous year.  The AFC did that with Baltimore and Houston moving on to face Denver and New England.  The NFC side of the bracket isn’t too shabby itself as each of the remaining teams could make a viable argument for winning it all.  I think we’re in store for some exciting football this weekend, especially in the two NFC matchups.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) @ Denver Broncos (13-3)

Saturday (4:30, CBS)

He’s baaaaaack! Peyton Manning is in the playoffs again with a team that’s currently favored to get to New Orleans and win the big game.  He has come back from multiple neck surgeries, led his team to the best record in football, and will undoubtedly be one of the finalists in the MVP voting.  He isn’t doing it alone though.  Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker have flourished with Peyton, and the former looks like he’s on the verge of joining the best of the best.  Knowshon Moreno was a pleasant late season surprise, taking over the backfield when Willis McGahee sustained an MCL tear.  He went from a weekly healthy inactive to a critical, productive piece of the offense.

The defense is pulling its weight as well.  They’re among the best in the league against both the pass and run.  Denver ranked fourth in scoring defense, and only the Steelers gave up fewer yards during the regular season.  Teams continue to ignore Champ Bailey in the passing game, but they’re not having any luck on the other side either where Chris Harris and Tony Carter have combined to be a force of their own.  The duo totaled 24 PDs and 5 INTs, and Carter was statistically one of the toughest corners in the league to complete a pass against.  Oh they still get after the passer too.  Their 52 sacks were tied with the Rams for best in football.  Von Miller followed up with 11.5 sack DROY season with another 18.5 (3rd best) this season, and Elvis Dumervil tallied 11 of his own.  The cherry on top has been the play of Wesley Woodyard.  Taking over for DJ Williams, Woodyard made plays all over the field and was one of the more effective defenders in football. 

So does Baltimore stand a chance?  Sure they do, but they must control the action out of the gate, or this one could have an Alabama / Notre Dame déjà vu ring to it.  I like the Ray Rice / Bernard Pierce pairing and believe Baltimore’s fate lies in their hands.    The Ravens rode the combo for a combined 28 carries, and in all likelihood they’ll need to add another 10 totes to that total to escape Denver with a win.  You know Rice is going to bring an extra special something this week after fumbling twice last week against the Colts.  They must be able to run the football, move the chains, wind that clock, and keep Peyton on the sidelines.  No sane Raven wants to see Joe Flacco go throw for throw with the Broncos QB. 

I think the Ravens, especially on the defensive side of the ball are going to have trouble bringing the same level of emotion that they played with last week.  I’m in no way questioning the heart of these veterans, but it’s got to be tough to get as up this week as they were for Ray Lewis’ last home game.  The Broncos are rested and focused.  They beast this team once already, and I have no doubt that Peyton Manning has figured out a few more ways to attack that defense since their meeting.  That’s a week the Ravens would love to forget, as they got pushed around rather easily 34-17 on their home turf. 

Knowshon ran for 115 yards on 21 carries against this defense in week 15, and if the Ravens commit too much to the pass, he’ll gash them again.  I love Anquan Boldin, but I don’t see him having back-to-back big weeks.  I have trouble seeing any of Baltimore’s wideouts posting huge numbers; not against Bailey, Harris, and Carter.  If anyone, Dennis Pitta is likely to lead the Ravens in receiving this week.  Look for Denver to cede gains to the tight end and restrict the big plays to the Ravens receivers.  I also don’t see Flacco having a ton of time to complete passes with Miller and Dumervil in his face. 

Rice and Pierce combined for 173 on 28 carries against the Colts, but Denver held Rice and Pierce to a combined 58 yards on 17 carries in the first meeting.  I believe they do much better this week and that this one will end up closer than the experts think.  Still, Denver wins and moves on.  Thanks for the memories Ray!

Broncos 24
Ravens 20

Green Bay Packers (11-5) @ San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)
Saturday (8:00, FOX)

Here we have our second rematch from a regular season tilt, and again, the first affair was one of the one-sided variety.  San Francisco rolled into Wisconsin and pushed around the Packers.  Frank Gore had 112 yards on the ground which was his second best rushing performance of the year, and the recently replaced Alex Smith was most efficient throwing for 211 yards and 2 TDs and completing 77% of his passes.  It was a near perfect game for the Niners.  They scored on four of their five first half drives and forced the Packers to punt on six of their first seven.  Green Bay knows they can’t get into another early hole, especially in San Fran, or it’s going to be another long four quarters.

How can Green Bay avoid a repeat of that disaster?  Well for starters they at least have a semblance of a running game now with the emergence of DuJuan Harris.  The Troy Trojan totaled exactly 100 yards against a formidable Vikings defense and is the hot hand in a backfield that has him splitting carries with Ryan Grant.  It’s no secret though that Green Bay’s offense runs through Aaron Rodgers and the passing game.  They go as he goes.  Last week was the first time in a long time that all of his receivers were healthy.  Jordy Nelson is a little banged up this week, but even if he’s not able to go, Rodgers will be able to spread the field with Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, James Jones, and Jermichael Finley.  Not a lot of faces have changed, but this is definitely a different Packers team than the one that San Fran whipped in week 1. 

The Packers defense better bring its A-game as well.  In addition to a power running attack led by Gore, they have to keep a really close eye on Colin Kaepernick getting outside the pocket.  The Niners haven’t become a high flying offense under Kaepernick, but he averaged 6.6 yards on 63 carries compared to Smith’s 4.3 on 31 carries.  That’s the kind of speed and athleticism that extends drives and keeps Rodgers on the sidelines.  Michael Crabtree is loving life with his new QB.  After breaking the 100 yard barrier once and scoring three TDs with Smith under center, Crabtree totaled 100 yards three times and scored six TDs with Kaepernick.  He’s also been targeted at least eleven times in four of his last five games.  While Crabtree and Kaepernick have been on the same page, phenom TE Vernon Davis had a total of 11 targets in his last five games. 

I’ve got to think the Niners are going to try and pound away at Green Bay’s front as long as they can pick up four yards a play.  The Packers will need to put San Fran in long yardage situations and avoid letting Kaepernick use his legs to pick up first downs.  Conversely, I expect the Packers to spread the field and mix formations, specifically swapping Cobb and Jennings between slot and wide positions. 

I also really believe the Packers are going to run early right at Justin Smith.  Let’s find out just how healthy he is and how much attention he needs from the get-go.  The veteran stud defensive lineman is just a few weeks removed from a partial tear of a triceps injury.  I’m not the guy’s doctor, but you’ve got to think he’s going to be far from top form, especially when you consider Ray Lewis missed ten games with a similar injury.  If Justin Smith isn’t Justin Smith, that’s going to make things easier for the Packers and tougher for Aldon Smith.  It’s no coincidence that the second year pass rusher has registered zero sacks since the veteran was injured.  The Niners have also given up 753 yards, 66 points, and 48 first downs in the six quarters Smith’s missed.  If the Packers can get anything out of Harris in the running game it will considerably increase their chances of advancing. 

This is Kaepernick’s biggest game as a pro, while Rodgers has been there done that.  You know Dom Capers is scheming the hell out of the youngster this week, and they’re a whole different defense with a healthy Clay Matthews.  I like Green Bay’s chances of slowing down (not stopping) the run game and forcing San Fran to throw more than they’d like.  When they do, I like how the Packers stack up in the secondary, especially at corner and specifically rookie Casey Hayward.  Look for him to make a big play or two in this one.  They’re finally healthy with the return of Charles Woodson, whose impact, I believe, will come more so in the run game against Gore.  I’m a Kaepernick guy, but I think he’s going to have an untimely mistake or two. 

The Packers are the healthier team, and if the offensive line can keep their MVP upright and ahead of the chains this game could go either way.  I think this will be the most exciting matchup of the weekend and that Rodgers will show why he’s the best in the business.  Randall Cobb scores twice, and Jordy Nelson catches a back shoulder fade late in the game for the winning TD.   

Packers 27
Niners 23

Seattle Seahawks (11-5) @ Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
Sunday (1:00, FOX)

Can the Falcons finally do something in the playoffs?  They own the NFC’s #1 seed, started the season on an 8 game winning streak, and tied the Broncos for best regular season record,.  Matt Ryan took to Dirk Koetter’s offense beautifully and has enjoyed spreading it around to Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez.  All three finished the season with at least 124 targets and 79 receptions and are as dangerous as any other offensive trio remaining in the playoffs.  That’s wonderful, but if the Falcons pull another one-and-done this postseason, it’s going to be an incredibly long offseason in Atlanta

This game will feature two of the league’s best scoring defenses.  Seattle ranks 1st overall, and the Falcons are a respectable 5th.  I think the fact that Seattle’s offense has faced much stiffer, more consistent tests throughout the season will be a big plus for them in this one.  While the Seahawks face San Francisco (2), Arizona (17), and St. Louis (14) in their own division, Atlanta didn’t have nearly as tough a schedule.  From week 8 on, the highest ranked defense the Falcons faced was the Giants at #12.  They smoked those Giants, but a lot of those points came off Eli.  Here’s who they faced and where those teams ranked in scoring defense – Eagles (29), Cowboys (24), Saints (31), Cardinals (17), Bucs (23), Saints (31), Panthers (18), Giants (12), Lions (27), Bucs (23).  

There’s no question who will control the ground game.  Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson combined for 199 yards rushing against the Redskins, who had boasted a stout run defense, and held RGIII and Alfred Morris to a combined 101 rushing yards.  The Falcons finished the year 21st overall in rush defense and allowed 142 to Doug Martin in week 17.  They picture isn’t pretty on the offensive side either.  Only the Cardinals, Cowboys, and Jaguars ran for fewer yards during the regular season.  Michael Turner isn’t nearly as threatening as Morris and had just two 100 yard rushing games (barely) on the year.  I think you’ll see more Jacquizz Rodgers than Turner, but regardless, it’s obvious that Falcons offense runs through Ryan and the passing game. 

Undoubtedly the biggest injury in this contest is Seattle’s loss of pass rushing end Chris Clemons.  I don’t know if it’s the west coast thing or what, but Clemons may be the most underrated pass rusher in football.  With him out for the rest of the year Bruce Irvin now needs to be a full time player.  Will the rookie slide in seamlessly, or will Clemson absence be glaring?  For the Falcons, John Abraham sprained his ankle in the meaningless season finale against the Bucs, but he’s back at practice this week. 

I love Seattle’s defense, but I don’t think Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are going to be able to out-physical White and Jones.  As much as I don’t like the matchup for the undersized Falcons defense against Lynch and the running game, I do like the White-Jones-Gonzalez arsenal’s chances against the Seahawks defense.  Given his gimpy knee RGIII was unable to get after Seattle’s secondary much, but Brandon Browner definitely looked rusty.  I fully expect the Falcons to test him often in this matchup. I believe that if the Falcons are going to advance they must take control of the momentum early on.   

Two of Seattle’s scores last week came off turnovers, and they were trailing a highly ineffective RGIII until the fourth quarter.  Atlanta is more dynamic offensively than Washington and will vary formations to get their weapons in the best position to make plays.  I believe Atlanta is going to play this one with a ton of pride and give Seattle everything they’ve got.  Will all the travel have an impact on the Seahawks?  How badly will they miss Clemons?  Can they overcome another early multi-score deficit?

I know I picked the Seahawks last week to advance to the Conference Championship round, but I changed my mind.  They’re the popular underdog this postseason, but call me crazy.  I’m going to ride with what I expect to be a Falcons team giving maximum effort.  Koetter’s game plan works fabulously as Atlanta’s dynamic passing game puts Seattle in another early hole, one which they’re unable to escape a this time.  Ryan and company get the win and host the Packers next week for the right to go to New Orleans.

Falcons 27
Seahawks 20

Houston Texans (12-4) @ New England Patriots (12-4)
Sunday (4:30, CBS)

Our second AFC game of the weekend is another rematch of a mismatch.  New England stomped the then 11-1 Texans 42-14 in a game they owned from the outset.  Houston didn’t score until more than halfway through the third quarter, and by that time New England had 28 points.  In addition to getting out to an early lead, the Patriots did a nice job of taking away Arian Foster and the Texans running game.  The scariest part of that beating was that the Patriots did it without their biggest offensive weapon, Rob Gronkowski. That game was a mere month ago, and the Texans have been soundly beaten three of the last five times they’ve taken the field. 

They won last week, but I can’t say I was terribly impressed with the Texans in their win over the Bengals.  They scored just 19 points and finished with less than 20 for the fourth time in their last five games.  Foster had a huge game, but other than the victory, there wasn’t much to get excited about if you’re a Texans fan.  They had trouble exploiting a Bengals defense that was on the field far too much due to Andy Dalton’s complete ineptitude as a passer.  That won’t fly this week. 

New England is getting healthy at the right time.  Gronk came back in week 17, so now the Patriots have him, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Danny Woodhead, and Brandon Lloyd, in the passing game.  Against Cincinnati the Texans only had to worry about AJ Green and Jermaine Gresham.  The Patriots lit up this secondary for 296 yards and 4 TDs a month ago, will be playing at home, and have Tom Brady at QB, a bit of an upgrade over Dalton.  How can the Texans flip the script in this sequel?

It comes down to two players – Arian Foster and JJ Watt.  Foster has to at least double his 85 total yards from scrimmage in their last meeting for the Texans to have a chance in this one.  New England is going to score, and the ability for Foster to move the chains and slow the pace is going to be their best chance of limiting the Patriots scoring opportunities.  If the Texans hope to hold New England well under 42 this time, Watt has to be a big factor.  The Patriots did a tremendous job of sliding blockers his way wherever he lined up, holding him sackless.  To illustrate how fine a job New England’s offensive line did in that game, Watt had four sacks in the two games prior to that one and five sacks in the two games after it.  If I’m picking a Texan to turn things around it’s Foster.  They’re going to have to feed him the ball, and I believe he’ll be more of a factor this time.  I don’t see New England skunking them in the first half again, nor do I see Gary Kubiak abandoning the run as soon this time.  Watt on the other hand is in for another long game in my opinion.  I think the Patriots veteran front played a near perfect game against him last time, and they’re going to stick to what worked.  With the way the rest of this unit is playing, I’m not confident that someone else is suddenly going to step up. 

With one more win Brady passes Joe Montana as the winningest QB in postseason history.  A Packers/Broncos championship matchup looks like our destiny.  The Texans will again blitz and blitz and blitz, and Brady will again throw touchdowns.  Houston doesn’t look like a championship team to me.  They’re the least cohesive (from a production standpoint) team remaining in the playoffs in my opinion.  I don’t think the Texans stay establishing a dominant run game, nor do I see them turning Brady over multiple times.  Without those two things happening, Houston’s offseason starts Monday.

Patriots 34
Texans 17

Revised Predictions

Denver and New England look really strong to me.  I don’t see either Baltimore or Houston pulling off the upset, even though we’ve had a few of those in recent playoff history.  The NFC games are toss ups, but I believe that Rodgers will outplay Kaepernick with a strong performance from the Packer defense and that the Falcons will show everyone that their 13-3 record wasn’t a mirage.  All of the remaining eight teams are strong squads, but a Broncos/Patriots and Falcons/Packers championship weekend could be one for the ages.  Here’s to hoping it happens. 

AFC Conference Championship
Patriots @ Broncos – Broncos

NFC Conference Championship
Packers @ Falcons – Packers

Super Bowl XLVII
Broncos v. Packers – Packers

Saturday, January 5, 2013

2012-2013 NFL Playoff Predictions

Ok, so my projections didn’t exactly pan out.  Green Bay lost to the Minnesota which got the Vikings in and cost the Packers their bye.  Houston lost to Indy which cost the Texans home field advantage and a first round bye.  Washington capped off the week by beating the Cowboys and winning the NFC East.  Where do we stand now?

            AFC                                        NFC
1) Denver Broncos                     1) Atlanta Falcons
2) New England Patriots           2) San Francisco 49ers
3) Houston Texans                    3) Green Bay Packers
4) Baltimore Ravens                 4) Washington Redskins
5) Indianapolis Colts                 5) Seattle Seahawks
6) Cincinnati Bengals                6) Minnesota Vikings

Looking at the brackets, a couple of teams stand out on each side.  In the AFC the Broncos are the hottest team in football, winning their last 11 games, scoring 30+ in 9 of those games and holding opponents under 20 in 7 of them.  Peyton looks poised for a deep playoff run.  Conversely, the Texans stumble into the playoffs having lost 3 of their last 4 regular season games.  Granted, each of those losses (@NE, vMIN, @IND) came to teams in the playoffs, but Houston was visibly outplayed in all three of those games.

The Redskins may have been the last team to punch a postseason ticket, but they own the game’s second longest current wining streak at 7.  Everyone’s in love with Seattle, and while I’m not saying I won’t necessarily pick Seattle to win that matchup, I’m certainly not going to ignore what RGIII and Alfred Morris have been doing offensively and what Jim Haslett has been scheming defensively.  The Falcons have been doing their best Rodney Dangerfield impression, getting no respect from the football world during their 13-3 season.  Lots of names are being tossed around as potential champions in this wide open race, but it usually takes a while to get to the Falcons.  Will they pull another disappearing act, or is this their year?

Wild Card Predictions

Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) @ Houston Texans (12-4)
Saturday (4:30, NBC)

No other playoff matchup pits teams going in such polar opposite directions as does this one.  I already mentioned the Texans’ slide.  Their opponent Sunday has won 7 of their last 8 games including three in a row (@PHI, @PIT, vBAL).  The Texans look horribly out of synch on offense and all of a sudden aren’t the ground game juggernauts we’re used to seeing. 

Houston has the better defensive reputation, but they’re struggling to stop the opposition and aren’t getting big plays from their linebackers.  JJ Watt is likely going to be the NFL’s Defensive POY, but he can’t do it alone.  Cincinnati on the other hand is keeping their opponents off the scoreboard, not allowing a single team to score more than 20 during their last 8 games.  That’s not what a Houston team that scored 16, 6, and 14 in those three recent losses wants to see. 

This is a rematch of last year’s AFC Wild Card round; same teams, same place.  Houston won that game 31-10 with a dominant second half defensive effort.  When I think about the word “dominant” and how it applies to these two teams right now, I’d say the Bengals defensive line is the unit playing at the highest level.  Will a struggling Texans run game be able to get back on track against Geno Atkins and company?  The Texans must be able to run the football if they’re going to make a run in the playoffs. 

Momentum means a lot this time of year, and I’m simply going with the team that’s playing the best football.  There are no bad teams in the playoffs, and there’s no reason to think the stage will be too large for the Bengals.  They’ve been playing playoff football for over a month.  I’m also trusting that Andy Dalton will perform better in his second playoff appearance.  I don’t think the Texans will be able to flip the switch.  Houston’s season comes to a crashing halt.

Bengals 23
Texans 17

Minnesota Vikings (10-6) @ Green Bay Packers (11-5)
Saturday (8:00, NBC)

Does Adrian Peterson have your attention Packers?  The freak of nature tallied 409 rushing yards and three total TDs in his two games against Green Bay this season.  Last week’s win in Minnesota was huge for both teams.  The Packers lost the game and both the #2 seed and bye week, while the Vikings needed the win to get the NFC’s last spot. 

The keys for both teams are obvious.  The Packers will want to get out to an early multi-score lead and reduce how much the Vikings are able to lean on Peterson.  That’s the best way to take him out of the game.  Conversely, the Vikings are going to need their defense to travel and allow them to feed Peterson repeatedly on offense.  For me, it’s about Christian Ponder.  Will he repeat his week 17 masterpiece, or will he struggle badly like he did a month ago in Green Bay?  I really don’t see him being nearly as efficient with the ball as he was in last week’s upset. 

Green Bay must do a better job of controlling the edges of the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.  In my mind that’s the biggest reason they lost to the Vikings last week.  I don’t see the Packers falling into another early 13-0 hole at home this week, and I don’t see the sledding being as easy for Ponder and the Vikings as it was last week. 

Charles Woodson and Randall Cobb will be back.  The Packers are fielding their full arsenal of receivers for the first time since week 4.  With Greg Jennings, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, and Cobb all in the mix you’ve really got your hands full.  Talk about picking your poison. 

Colder temperatures generally means slower offense, which I think will hurt the Vikings more so than the Packers, despite the Vikings being the run-heavy team.  Ponder’s play action mid-range passing game won’t be as efficient in the projected frigid conditions.  Rodgers is Rodgers.  He’s used to this.  The Packers can’t have the defensive lapses they had in the Metrodome or the Vikings will take them out for the second week in a row. 

You’ve got to appreciate what Adrian Peterson has done this season.  He’s the best running back in the game and is poised to possibly win both the MVP and Comeback POY awards.  How insane was the year he had coming off a torn ACL?  He’s the epitome of “you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him”. 

I think Peterson gets his, but I don’t see the Packers going one and done for the second year in a row.  I’m going with the big game team to win a big game. 

Packers 34
Vikings 23

Indianapolis Colts (11-5) @ Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Sunday (1:00, CBS)

This is the emotional game of the week.  In one corner you’ve got Andrew Luck’s storybook season of taking a 2-14 football team from worst of 2012, to projected poor 2012 squad, to an 11-5 playoff team.  Then you’ve got Colts coach Chuck Pagano’s battle with leukemia and how that has inspired his football team to play above their heads for much of the season.

Baltimore isn’t without inspiration.  Future HOFer Ray Lewis announced this week that this will be his last season.  Lewis will be back on the field this week, returning from a torn triceps that has sidelined him since October.  This is a guy that gets amped up every game of his life.  Imagine how much harder those veteran Ravens, especially on the defensive side of the ball, are going to play for Ray this week, not wanting to see their teammate’s career come to a close. 

Indy has won 9 of 11 with their only losses coming to the conference’s #2 and #3 seeds.  It’s not pretty, but they have been doing what it takes to win games.  They rank 22nd in rushing offense, 29th in rushing defense, and 21st in passing defense.  Luck may not be as flashy as RGIII, but he’s my Offensive ROY.  RGIII has Alfred Morris and a solid offensive line.  Russell Wilson has Marshawn Lynch and a beast of a defense.  Luck was maestro on offense, chugging out yards, extending drives, and putting up points; all this while being sacked 41 times on the season (4th most in football). 

You really don’t know what you’re going to get from the Ravens right now.  Even if you take away last week’s meaningless game against the Bengals when they sat everyone, the had lost 3 of 4 before that.  They made the Giants look bad in week 16, but the Giants also got spanked the week before by AtlantaBaltimore lost huge momentum with that week 13 loss v. the Benless Steelers.  They lost a late lead the next week at Washington and eventually lost the game in OT.  The Broncos then smacked them around at home.  Was that Giant game an aberration? 

Joe Flacco is as flaky as they come, but he does have a winning (5-4) playoff record.  They won’t be able to go deep in the playoffs against the likes of New England and Denver with Flacco playing schizophrenic football.  Ray Rice is unquestionably the best player on offense for Baltimore, and he’s the key to the game in my opinion.  The Ravens must feed him the football and pound away at this sieve-like Colts run defense.  I believe we’ll see the Ravens do just that early and often, dictating the tempo and wearing down Indy’s defense in order to control the latter half of the game. 

I have great appreciation for what Indy has done this year, but Baltimore’s veteran show up and play a very Ravens-like game. 

Ravens 31
Colts 17

Seattle Seahawks (11-5) @ Washington Redskins (10-6)
Sunday (4:30, FOX)

Now this one should be entertaining.  You’ve got the rallying Redskins, led by the zone read combo of RGIII and Alfred Morris, and the Seahawks, led by the zone read combo of Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch.  Both teams are red hot.  As I mentioned earlier, the Redskins 7 game streak is second best to the Broncos 11, and the Seahawks have won 7 of 8, including several dominating efforts. 

Seattle heads into this one as the only road favorite in wild card round.  Does that mean anything?  They’re a much better home team than road team, but given the way they’re executing on both sides of the ball, does it really matter where they’re playing? 

If you watched RGIII against the Cowboys on SNF, he’s clearly not 100%.  Unless he’s gotten a lot more stability and confidence in the knee this week, I don’t think he’ll be as effective against Seattle’s defense as he was against DallasSeattle is big and quick, and the ability of the guys in their secondary will allow them to commit more defenders to the line of scrimmage in an attempt to slow RGIII and Morris.  I expect Seattle to stack against the run and force RGIII to make plays in the passing game with his limited weapons. 

I don’t think Seattle will be forced to make as many adjustments on offense as Washington will.  That’s where I think the Seahawks will have the key edge.  They’ll be able to do what they do best more often than the Redskins.  Washington’s QB gets more of the rookie QB spotlight, but I trust Wilson with the football more than RGIII.  He has veteran focus already and doesn’t make mistakes that put his defense in bad spots or his offense in catch up mode.  In his last 8 games, Wilson has a 16-2 TD to INT ratio.  Are you kidding me?! 

Seattle was the league’s only team to go undefeated at home.  That doesn’t help them a bit, as they’ll be on the road throughout the playoffs unless the Vikings make an unlikely deep run.  Their biggest flaw is their lack of positive consistency on the road.  This season they lost at Arizona, St. Louis, San Francisco, Detroit, and Miami.  Only San Francisco made the playoffs, and the other teams combined for 23 wins.  So this is going to be the same old story right? 

When picking this game, I ask – who do I trust more?  In my mind it’s no question.  I love the way Seattle is winning football games right now.  They’re peaking at the absolute right time in every phase of the game.  I think this elite defense will be too much for a limited RGIII and that their offense will handle Haslett’s incessant blitzes.  Seattle marches on.

Seahawks 27
Redskins 20

Remaining Games 

Bye Week Teams
Here’s my take on the chances of the four teams on a bye:
Broncos – sitting pretty; road to New Orleans goes through a tough home field.
Patriots – will be even more dangerous with Gronk back; I like their chances.
Falcons – show me; likely to draw tough Seattle defense in second round.
49ers – appreciating the bye more than anyone; they need Justin Smith.

If these results hold true, that would set up the following matchups next week:

            AFC                                        NFC
Bengals @ Broncos                  Seahawks @ Falcons
Ravens @ Patriots                    Packers @ 49ers

My predictions for the rest of the way (that I’m sure I’ll have to adjust next week):

Divisional Round
Bengals @ Broncos – Broncos
Ravens @ Patriots – Patriots
Seahawks @ Falcons – Seahawks
Packers @ 49ers – Packers

Conference Championships
Patriots @ Broncos – Broncos
Seahawks @ Packers – Packers

Super Bowl XLVII
Broncos v. Packers – Packers