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

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