Sunday, January 19, 2014

2014 NFL Playoff Predictions - Conference Championships

If you’re not enjoying these playoffs, then football apparently isn’t your thing.  Last Saturday saw the home teams hold serve, with the Seahawks surviving a late Saints rally and the Patriots running all over the Colts.  On Sunday San Francisco earned the only road win of the weekend, and the Broncos played most of their game against the Chargers on cruise control.  You’ll have a hard time finding someone who doesn’t think these are the four best teams in the league, and with both matchups oozing storylines, you know these are the games the NFL wanted to see championship week.  Will Brady get his 11th win against Peyton?  Will Harbaugh and Carroll finally trade fists?  Most importantly, will I go undefeated again this week?

AFC Championship Game
Patriots @ Broncos
Sunday (3:00, CBS)

Last Saturday’s second game was the Sucker Punch show.  The suddenly resurgent bruising back ran for a Patriot playoff record 166 yards and 4 scores in a 43-22 win against the Colts.  Tom Brady didn’t have a TD on the day, but, more importantly, he managed a perfect game, leading the offense to 23 first downs and 35 minutes of possession.  Playing with the lead throughout, the Patriots defense was able to force four Andrew Luck INTs and thwart any attempt at a comeback.  It was an excellent game plan against an offense that put up 45 points the week before.  They’ll need an even bigger effort this week against a Broncos team that had no trouble avenging an earlier home loss to the Chargers.  After a 27-20 defeat that saw San Diego befuddle Peyton and run through his defense, Denver dominated the action, holding the Chargers scoreless into the fourth quarter and limiting them to 65 rushing yards, or 112 less rushing yards than their last meeting.  They’ll need to bring that effort and then some this week against a Patriots team that has transformed itself into a power rushing team that can thrown when necessary.  

You can break this game down any number of ways, but you’ve got to start with the two future HOF QBs.  Brady is 10-4 in head-to-head matchups against Peyton’s teams, including three road wins in five contests.  Brady has also been the more consistent QB in their games, accumulating a 26-12 TD-INT ratio compared to 29-20 for Peyton.  One of the more memorable matchups was their last, the week 12 encounter that saw Brady rally the Patriots from a 24 point deficit to top the Broncos 34-31 in OT.  What historical moments will come from this edition?

Taking a look at the personnel, there are several significant differences.  Starting at the TE position, a regular season role reversal has taken place.  Now the Patriots are the team without theirs, as Gronk is on IR and Julius Thomas is active for this one.  Sucker Punch figures to be a factor in this one after totaling two totes in week 12.  Von Miller scored the first TD in that last meeting, but he’s out of this one with a torn ACL.  More importantly, in my opinion, the Broncos will be without their best corner, Chris Harris, who sustained a season-ending knee injury last week against the Chargers.  Not coincidently, San Diego started scoring after Quentin Jammer replaced Harris.  Think Bill Belichick might find a way or two to exploit Jammer?  As Steelers safety Ryan Clark pointed out this week, it’s more about chemistry and communication than skill in the secondary, and replacing Harris with Jammer had a negative impact on both the chemistry and communication.  That’s usually not something that gets cleaned up in a week of practice. 

One thing about this game that intrigues me is that either team can successfully play it out multiple ways.  Will the Patriots lean on the run game and try to keep Peyton on the sidelines, or will they try to match scores by throwing against a beatable secondary?  Will the Broncos rely on Peyton to read and confuse defenses with the pass, or like last time they met, will Knowshon Moreno (37 carries, 224 yards) have a huge game on the ground?  I think we’ll see New England look to keep the power run game going and throw when they need to, matching scores with Denver, albeit at a slower pace.  Denver will do what it does – thrown when you play run and run when you play pass. 

I look for Wes Welker and Julius Thomas to be the offensive keys for Denver in this one, with the latter presenting the biggest mismatch for the Patriots.  Thomas was second on the team in receiving TDs despite missing two games.  His ability to draw more than one defender will open things up for the trio of Welker, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker.  With Thomas and Decker drawing Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard out wide, look for Welker to draw a lot of targets against Kyle Arrington.  His ability to exploit that matchup could be the deciding factor.  For the Patriots, I look for Julian Edelman to run a lot of quick-cutting routes against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in an attempt to get the corner leaning.  Despite the 280 Denver rushing yards in week 12, I think the Patriots will be the more successful team on the ground this time around.  We know New England is missing Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and now Brandon Spikes, but as they’ve done in the past, the Patriots are playing next man up.  Sealver Siliga stepped into the lineup after that last Denver game and has done a tremendous job of holding his run gaps.  Dont’a Hightower has come on huge in Mayo’s absence, and rookie linebacker Jamie Collins is becoming more of an impact player every week.  New England features a much better offensive line than San Diego, and I think they’ll find success running straight at a Denver defense that isn’t very big behind Terrance Knighton.  If Sucker Punch is able to get past the line of scrimmage, he could run for a while.  Denver did a much better job against Mathews in the rematch, but he was significantly banged up, doesn’t bring the pop that Sucker Punch does, and runs behind an inferior line. 

The Broncos and Patriots face each other next season, so unless Peyton’s neck scan holds bad news, these legends will have at least one more showdown.  But will this be their last face-off on the conference’s biggest stage?  I’m extremely impressed with what Belichick and Brady have done this year.  I think they keep this one close and even lead at some point, but Peyton and his superior weapons will make just enough plays to squeak out a trip to the Super Bowl.  Welker scores the winning TD with a minute to go. 

Broncos 34
Patriots 30

NFC Championship Game
49ers @ Seahawks
Sunday (6:30, FOX)

Both of these teams bullied their way to the NFC title game.  San Francisco beat up and frustrated Cam Newton a week after withstanding the Packers in the cold, and Seattle made Drew Brees look silly for a second time, holding him to an unimpressive 39.4 QBR.  The Niners, playing their third road game in three weeks, made good on a three point halftime lead, shutting out the home team Panthers the rest of the way.  Vernon Davis’ replay reversal TD just before the break was the turning point in the game.  After that, San Fran took away Carolina’s run game and forced Cam to make plays in the passing game with a gimpy Steve Smith, a bracketed Greg Olsen, and Ted Ginn.  Offensively, Anquan Boldin continues to make plays in the postseason, catching 8 passes for 136 yards, while Frank Gore averaged just under 5 ypc on 17 totes.  Seattle, much like Denver, had an easy going through three quarters.  Marshawn Lynch was in Beast Mode, running for 140 yards and 2 scores, while their defense shut down the run game and forced Bres into uncomfortable situations all afternoon.  Jimmy Graham was limited to 1 reception on 8 targets, and aside from the one weekly deep ball to Robert Meachem, no Saint had a catch go longer than 25 yards.  Marques Colston put up the best stat line of the afternoon for New Orleans, but he’ll be remembered for his failed attempt at extending the game with a cross-field, game-ending forward lateral.

Unsurprisingly, these teams split their regular season matchups, with each holding serve at home.  Seattle had their way with San Fran in week 2, confusing Colin Kaepernick into 3 INTs en route to a 29-3 victory.  The California contest was much closer, with the Niners emerging with a 19-17 win in Michael Crabtree’s second game of the season.  This one is in Seattle.  Home field in the playoffs is an understood advantage, but the edge the Seahawks have at CentruyLink Field is one that cannot be understated or beaten with game planning.  The ability for the 12th man to constantly disrupt Kaepernick’s communication and keep the visitors at a disadvantage may be the best thing the Seahawks have going for them in this one.

There are a couple of key player updates on Seattle’s side.  First, the bad news.  Percy Harvin’s return to the field was short-lived.  The big play receiver suffered a couple of big hits and a concussion against the Saints and has not been cleared to face the Niners.  His absence means the Seahawks will rely on their regular season arsenal of Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, and Jermaine Kearse.  Not exactly the Three Amigos.  For the good news, linebacker KJ Wright is good-to-go after sitting out the last five weeks with a foot injury.  He may be limited, but having their best coverage linebacker on the field to provide support against Vernon Davis will be huge.  Kaepernick has gotten into a groove lately, and limiting his downfield weapons is Seattle’s best chance of keeping San Fran off the scoreboard.

The Niners will hope Kaepernick can stay in that groove and get them to the big game for a second straight year.  Since Crabtree’s return, the Niners have been, arguably (maybe), the league’s best team, winning seven straight.  Boldin is still the most physical receiver in the game and will destroy a defense if it doesn’t give him enough attention.  Davis doesn’t get the targets his skills suggest he should, but he’s nearly unstoppable in the red zone.  Just ask the Panthers.  Frank Gore just keeps making plays.  He totaled 110 yards on the ground the last time he visited Seattle and will need to put forth that kind of effort once again for San Fran to win their fourth straight road game. 

For Seattle, the offensive game plan is simple – Marshawn Marshawn Marshawn.  A week off did the big man some good, as he pounded away at the Saints and kept his offense in perfect down-and-distance situations throughout.  They may need an even bigger effort this week, given the recent uninspiring play of Russell Wilson.  Seattle’s QB got a win last week, but he was actually worse than Brees.  Numbers aren’t everything, but Wilson has had a sub-50% QBR in each of his last five games, two of them coming against the very beatable Giants and Rams.  In addition to being more efficient with the football and forcing the Niners to respect the pass, Wilson will undoubtedly have to move the chains with his legs.  I could see Seattle featuring quite a bit of zone read in this one to keep the Niners off balance. 

What can’t you say about these defenses?  Seattle led the league in fewest points and passing yards allowed per game.  Their league best secondary intercepted more passes (28) than any other team in the game and tied Carolina for fewest rushing TDs (4) allowed during the regular season.  They come at you from every spot up front.  When Bobby Wagner isn’t shutting down the run game, he’s coming up the gut and getting in the QBs face.  Wagner, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Clinton McDonals and Chris Clemons combined for 31.5 sacks and should be able to break through a Niners line that hasn’t had its best season.  Their ability to get after Kaepernick and force him into mistakes against Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor will go a long way to securing a win for Seattle.  Similarly, San Fran will hurt you all over the field.  This is a consistent unit that forces you be multi-dimensional.  The trio of Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, and Ahmad Brooks will look to get Wilson off his mark and funnel him into the arms of the best inside backer duo in the game, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.  The secondary got some good news this week with the return of slot corner Carlos Rogers. 

The battles between these two teams have become the most physical matchups in the NFL.  The fans don’t like each other.  The players don’t like each other.  Even the coaches don’t get along.  What’s your deal?!  There’s no reason to expect this game to be much different from their previous confrontations.  I’m counting on Marshawn to be Marshawn and for Wilson to make a few plays in critical situations.  The key for me will be Seattle’s ability to confuse and unsettle Kaepernick.  If they can force him into bailing out on plays and bad decision making, this crowd will be absolutely deafening.  As their collective voice rises, so does the playmaking ability of that Seattle secondary.  I love the run San Fran is on, and while they may be the best team in the sport at this point, I think the home team emerges victorious in the game’s hardest place to play.  Marshawn and the kicker handle all the scoring for Seattle.

Seahawks 16
Niners 13

Saturday, January 11, 2014

2014 NFL Playoff Predictions - Divisional Round

2-2 felt like a victory last week.  The two I missed put up easily the most disappointing performances of wild card weekend.  Andy Dalton continues to look be a postseason loser, and the Eagles flopped at home against a Saints team who has struggled on the road.  My good picks had Indy pulling the stunner against KC and the Niners winning by my projected margin in the frigid conditions at Lambeau.  Given recent history, we haven’t seen the end of the upsets.  Since 2005, #6 seeds are 5-2 against #1 seeds.  Which favorites fall this week?

Saints @ Seahawks
Saturday (4:35, FOX)

Much like the Niners with the Packers, the Seahawks have had the Saints number recently.  The 2010 wild card game is best remembered for Marshawn Lynch rushing through the entire Saints defense, and this year featured a 34-7 prime time pummeling by the NFC’s #1 seed.  Will the Saints finally figure it out and extend the recent success of #6 seeds? 

The forecast is calling for a lot of rain and a lot of wind.  Despite last week’s win outdoors in Philly, gaining a victory in horrible conditions in the loudest venue in the sport over a team that has owned you doesn’t sound like a promising scenario for the Saints.  Nick Foles didn’t turn the ball over last week, but he wasn’t able to generate any offense against a New Orleans defense at less than full strength.  I have more confidence in Russell Wilson’s ability to consistently move the offense against a squad that shouldn’t present him with too many mental quandaries.  Losing Parys Haralson last week won’t help the Saints slow down Lynch and the running game. 

One way the Saints can avoid another 27 point blowout is to take advantage of an absence on Seattle’s side.  KJ Wright, Seattle’s best coverage linebacker, will be sorely missed as they try to contain Jimmy Graham.  The massive tight end is my key player for the Saints in this one.  His ability to move the chains and make plays in the red zone will be the biggest factor in whether or not the Saints advance.  For Seattle I think the obvious key will be Lynch’s ability to control the tempo and field position of the game.  Him being able to consistently keep the Seahawks in manageable situations will help make up for a less-than-explosive passing game.  Said passing game could get quite the boost with the return of Percy Harvin who appears to be a go for this week.  While he’s sure to be a bit rusty after missing the entire regular season, you can never discount the potential impact of a player with his explosiveness. 

I think the weather and field conditions will keep the dome home Saints from being as effective offensively as they’ll need to be to earn the upset.  If Seattle can avoid a bye week hangover and not let Graham run free in the secondary, I think they get another decisive win against the boys from the bayou. 

Seahawks 30
Saints 17

Colts @ Patriots
Saturday (8:15, CBS)

This one has to be the most enticing matchup of the weekend.  Here we’ve got the up-and-coming Andrew luck against one of the best QBs of our era, Tom Brady.  The two have had one head-to-head matchup with Brady’s Patriots laying a 59-24 whooping on Luck’s Colts.  One impressive tidbit (for the Patriots) about that win was that it came right in the middle of what would have been an 8 game winning streak for Indy had things gone quite a bit differently that day in Foxboro.    

What can you say about Indy’s comeback against the Chiefs?  Being down 38-10 early in the second half and coming back with 5 TDs to earn the first playoff win of Luck’s career is one of the craziest halves of football I’ve seen.  TY Hilton was a one man receiving show, catching 13 of Luck’s 29 completions and scoring twice.  Luck was the hero that day, throwing for an insane 443 yards an 4 TDs, while adding another score on that head-shaking perfect bounce fumble recovery. 

While what Indy did against the Chiefs was incredibly impressive, I cannot see a Bill Belichick defense getting completely owned for just under 30 minutes like what happened to KC.  Even without the literal core of their defense (Wilfork, Mayo, and Spikes), I think New England has enough to keep the Colts from another offensive outbreak.  It’s no secret that Hilton is the only legit weapon Luck has, so expect to see Aqib Talib following and getting physical with him all over the field.  Luck won’t be able to win this one on his own.  Donald Brown doesn’t need to have 100 yards, but he’s got to keep Indy in manageable situations and keep New England honest. 

Some will try to convince you that Tom Terrific is working with a bunch of scrubs this year, but he has a better arsenal than Luck.  Julian Edelman has done a fine job making fans forget about Wes Welker, stepping in as Brady’s most reliable target on his way to  1,056 yards on 105 receptions.  Stevan Ridley is working his way back into Belichick’s good graces, and Sucker Punch has been the team’s biggest rushing weapon late in the season.  Shane Vereen is healthy and brings a little more physicality to what used to be Danny Woodhead’s role.  Gronk will obviously be missed, but Brady has enough weapons in his arsenal to get back to another big game.

In what forecasts as a very wet game, I think we see a lot of Ridley and Sucker Punch and an opportunistic Patriots defense that will force a couple of Colts turnovers.  New England gets out to an early lead and holds off another second half Indy charge.

Patriots 27
Colts  23

49ers @ Panthers
Sunday (1:05, FOX)

Old school fans who pine for days where teams actually played defense will want to tune into this one.  Carolina and San Fran are the 2nd and 3rd best scoring defenses in the league and already played a 10-9 contest in San Fran back in week 10.  While I expect a few more points to be scored in this one, it should be another close contest between two fairly similar teams.

Both teams feature QBs who can beat you with both their arms and legs.  Both like to lean on the run.  Both have brutish offensive lines, with the Panthers actually having the better year than the Niners (don’t take my word for it; check out  Both feature a productive, tenured receiver and athletic tight end in the passing game.  Both defenses shut down the opposing run game and don’t allow much through the air.  Both defenses feature two of the best linebackers in the game.  Both secondaries are unheralded yet consistently stingy.  And my favorite – Both teams feature head coaches who played for the Bears from ’87-’92. 

Carolina owned the most impressive win streak of the season, rattling off 8 straight from weeks 6 through 13.  They experienced both ends of the spectrum, winning both no and close contests.  They won games they probably shouldn’t, including their last two of the season against the Saints and Falcons.  As hot as they got during that streak, they had a rather unimpressive 3-0 end to the regular season.  Will they be able to flip the intensity switch against the Niners after a bye week preceded by a near-monumental letdown in Atlanta

If you watched last week’s SF-GB game, you witnessed a pretty enjoyable football game.  You also saw a San Fran team battling field-leveling weather conditions, referees who left their flags in the locker room, and a much better passing game than the one they’ll face this week.  In that previous matchup, the Niners were without Michael Crabtree from the start, and saw Vernon Davis, Eric Reid, and Ray McDonald depart with injuries prior to the final whistle.  Aldon Smith was on very limited snaps in his first game back.  San Fran is near full strength for this one, and you’ve got to think they’re focused and hungry for a return to the Super Bowl. 

If Carolina is to win this game, the biggest key in my opinion will be their ability to eliminate Colin Kaepernick as a runner and, conversely, get a lot of plays from Cam Newton’s legs.  Both of these QBs are 'rattleable'.  I think Frank Gore will do a better job of keeping his offense on schedule and that Cam will struggle to consistently make plays in the passing game with a severely limited or missing altogether Steve Smith. Carolina’s defense comes up with another strong effort, but Crabtree follows up his 8 catch, 125 yard game at Green Bay with another difference-making performance.  This time he scores the game-winner. 

Niners 20
Panthers 17

Chargers @ Broncos
Sunday (4:40, CBS)

Surprised that Peyton Manning is in the primetime, division round capper?  You shouldn’t be.  The most intriguing matchup of the weekend in my opinion has the Chargers seeking to continue their winning ways with a second victory of the year at Peyton’s place.  The Chargers pretty much owned the Broncos in week 15, rushing for 177 yards and limiting the Broncos to 9 offensive drives.  Repeating that performance is easier said than done, and personally, I don’t think they can follow that same script and get another road win. 

Peyton’s postseason struggles (8 one-and-dones) are well documented.  They can’t be ignored or excused.  Will it happen again?  Philip Rivers and Tom Brady are the only QBs with winning records against Manning, and Rivers is an extremely impressive 6-2 in Denver’s place.  San Diego’s head coach, Mike McCoy, was Manning OC last year, and Ken Whisenhunt might be the league’s best OC this year.  Ryan Mathews did more of the damage in that week 15 win, but he’s hobbled heading into this one.  He’s a longshot to put up another 127 against this leaky Denver defense.  I think Danny Woodhead will be the Chargers’ best weapon and that Rivers will attempt 50 passes for the first time this season.  Keenan Allen’s two TDs in week 15 were huge, but he’ll need to catch more than those two passes this time around. 

It’s scary just how bad Denver’s defense looked in that loss to San Diego.  They knew the run was coming, but they could do nothing to stop it.  That loss came on the heels of them surrendering a combined 90 points to the Patriots, Chiefs, and Titans.  And now they don’t have Von Miller.  I have no confidence in this unit’s ability to shut down Rivers and the Chargers, so Manning is going to have to pull off a rare feat and shine in the playoffs.  Demaryius Thomas is the best pass catcher still playing football.  He, Eric Decker, the medically-cleared Wes Welker, and Julius Thomas give him the weapons he’ll likely need to maximize to advance to the conference championship. 

John Pagano did a great job scheming against the Broncos in week 15, but this is still one of the worst pass defenses in the league.  I can’t believe that Peyton hasn’t figured out another way or two to exploit the Chargers secondary.  Vegas has this as the least competitive matchup of the four, but I don’t see it that way.  I believe in the Rivers-McCoy-Whisenhunt trifecta and think they’re going to give Manning and company another ulcer.  This one goes back and forth throughout, but Demaryius dominates and catches the game winner in a wild divisional round finale. 

Broncos 41
Chargers 37

Friday, January 3, 2014

2014 NFL Playoff Predictions - Wild Card Round

If the playoffs are anything like the regular season, we’ve got quite an unpredictable postseason ahead of us.  Denver and Seattle are the top dogs in their respective conferences, but with two #4 seeds and a #6 seed winning the last three Super Bowls, this could be anyone’s title.  Here’s how I see things playing out.

1) Denver Broncos
2) New England Patriots
3) Cincinnati Bengals
4) Indianapolis Colts
5) Kansas City Chiefs
6) San Diego Chargers

Wild Card Round

Chiefs @ Colts
Saturday, 4:35 (NBC)

This is first round matchup in which I am the least certain.  These teams met in Arrowhead just two weeks ago with the visiting Colts putting a stomping to the host Chiefs.  I’m not sure that outcome will have much of an impact one, but a trend remained true – KC doesn’t beat good teams.  They won 11 games this year but were a futile 1-5 against teams still playing football.  After a 9-0 start, they finished the year on a 2-5 slide which isn’t the way you want to be heading into the playoffs. 

Indy hasn’t been the same team without Reggie Wayne, and when they lose, they lose big.  Cincinnati, Arizona, and St. Louis beat them by a combined 120-47 score.  Ouch.  Their running game is an enigma with the limited Donald Brown and disappointing Trent Richardson combining for less than 1,000 yards rushing.  Stating the obvious, the Colts will go as far as Andrew Luck can take them. 

I’m not breaking news here, but expect to see a lot of Jamaal Charles left and Jamaal Charles right.  The Colts have one of the worst rush defenses in football, and Charles is one of the game’s top offensive weapons.  I’m not an Alex Smith guy, but you can’t count on him to lose the game.  The Colts will have to win it.  I think Andrew Luck feasts on a beatable Chiefs secondary and gets big plays from TY Hilton and Griff Whalen and puts KC in a hole too big to climb out of with a limited passing game.  That dome still gets loud.  The Chiefs’ turnaround season ends abruptly, while Luck gets his first playoff win as a pro. 

Colts 27
Chiefs 23

Chargers @ Bengals
Sunday, 1:05 (CBS)

Contrary to the other AFC matchup, this is the first round game in which I’m most confident in picking the winner.  This one also pits teams that faced each other late in the season.  Cincinnati won 17-10 at San Diego in week 13 in what turned out to be the Chargers last loss of the season.  From there they finished 4-0, including a solid whooping of the Broncos in DenverSan Diego also won at Philadelphia and Kansas City this year, so they won’t be overwhelmed in Cincinnati

The Bengals finish the year on as good of a run as just about anyone, winning 5 of their last 6 and scoring 41, 42, 42, and 34 in four of those wins.  That said, it’s still hard to buy into Andy Dalton.  One game he looks more than serviceable, and the next he’s throwing multiple interceptions in crucial situations.  What makes it easier to buy into Dalton is the weapons he has on offense.  AJ Green is one of the best receivers in the game, and Marvin Jones has really come on, solidifying his place as the #2 receiver.  Rookie Giovani Bernard can beat you as a runner or receiver.

San Diego will be able to minimize Cincinnati’s rushing game, so Dalton will need to make plays for the Bengals to win.  If he throws another 4 interceptions like he did last week at home against Baltimore, the Bengals postseason run will be a short one.  Philip Rivers and Ken Whisenhunt had a tremendous season, but I think the Bengals defense will force their offense into too many 3rd and long situations.  Cincinnati’s offense stays hot as they squeak one out at home and move on to face the Patriots next week.

Bengals 34
Chargers 30

1) Seattle Seahawks
2) Carolina Panthers
3) Philadelphia Eagles
4) Green Bay Packers
5) San Francisco 49ers
6) New Orleans Saints

Wild Card Round

49ers @ Packers
Sunday, 4:30 (FOX)

He’s baaaaaaaack!  Aaron Rodgers delivered a fatal body blow to the Bears last week, connecting with Randall Cobb for the game winner with less than a minute to go, sending the Packers to the playoffs; something that seemed like a pipe dream when Rodgers broke his collarbone in a week 9 home loss to the Bears.  Green Bay hasn’t fared well against San Fran in recent years, losing this year’s opener and twice in ’12.  Will the fourth time be the charm for the Packers?

Rodgers came out obviously rusty last week, throwing interceptions on his first two drives.  He got into gear after that; matching scores with Jay Cutler and company, including that do-or-die three-fourth down conversion game winning drive.  Offensively, the Packers look as good as anyone right now, and yes, I’m including the Broncos in that conversation.  Rodgers is the best talent at the position, and Eddie Lacy (who should win the Offensive ROY) is exactly what they’ve been looking for at running back.  In a game that figures to feature sub-0 weather against a defense like San Francisco’s, there won’t be a bigger moment for Lacy to put a stamp on what figures to be a Rookie of the Year season.  Jordy Nelson is a target magnet, and Randall Cobb is a difference maker.  Green Bay must establish the run and get vertical with Nelson. 

Where Green Bay still struggles is on the defensive side of the ball, and not having Clay Matthews in this one is going to really hurt them.  Colin Kaepernick got hot when Michael Crabtree got healthy, and the Niners finished the regular season strong by winning their last 6 games.  The biggest stars shine brightest in the playoffs, and Anquan Boldin is still a star.  Look for him and those vice grip hands of his to be the biggest playmaker on the football field Sunday.  I’d love to see Rodgers and the Packers pull out a home W, but it’s their defense that’s keeping me from picking them here.  I think Rodgers outplays Kaepernick, but the Packers defense won’t get off the field early and often enough to keep their season alive. 

49ers 30
Packers 27

Saints @ Eagles
Saturday, 8:10 (NBC)

Something tells me this one won’t be on any “Defensive How-To” videos.  Philadelphia enters the postseason as the potential “no one wants to face them” team.  Chip Kelly’s crew is red hot, winning 7 of their last 8 games, including last week’s division clincher at DallasNew Orleans on the other hand can’t be happy about having to go on the road, especially to what projects to be a cold and wet Philly field.  They have no one to blame but themselves, having lost 3 of their last 5, including ugly beatings at Seattle and St. Louis and a division-giveaway at Carolina

Nick Foles not only saved my fantasy football season, but he rescued the Eagles as well and has become Kelly’s franchise QB.  With an astonishing 27-2 TD-INT ratio in his 11 starts, Foles may have given Mr. Manning a run for his MVP money if he had played a full 16 games.  Things are going good for the Eagles if LeSean McCoy isn’t always the first player mentioned.  This year’s league leading rusher is usually the most exciting player on the field, and Shady is going to be a nightmare for a Saints defense that struggles against the run. 

Rob Ryan turned around last year’s league worst defense, but they’re without Kenny Vaccaro who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in week 16 against the Panthers.  That’s going to be a huge loss in my opinion, given what the underrated Jason Avant brings to the Eagles passing game.  The Saints project to be especially thin in pass coverage, and that’s not good against an Eagles passing game that features DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper, Avant, and Brent Celek who’s 15.7 ypg was 2nd in the league at TE behind Vernon Davis.  As with the Packers, the Saints are going to have to show me something before I can pick them with confidence.  Will New Orleans finally beat a good team on the road, or will the most intriguing playoff team advance to Carolina and try to do something the Saints couldn’t?  Pierre Thomas will miss this one, and I think that’s a bigger loss than it appears on the surface.  Not that the Saints want to play ground and pound, but Thomas was their best chance of keeping Philly honest defensively. 

Eagles 27
Saints 17

Remaining Playoffs

Divisional Round

Bengals @ Patriots
Cincinnati beats New England for the second time this season, as the Patriots’ tough (and often very fortunate) season comes to a close.  Are the Bengals this year’s Ravens, Giants, or Packers?  Bengals by 6.

Colts @ Broncos
Denver gets revenge for that butt kicking they got in Peyton’s return to Indy in week 7, avoiding a second straight first game playoff exit.  Luck looks great in a loss, but he can’t outscore Manning and company.  Broncos by 17.

Eagles @ Panthers
Carolina played as well as anyone in the league through the middle portion of the season, winning 8 straight to get ahead of the Saints, but there’s something about this Philly team that says watch out.  Eagles by 3.

49ers @ Seahawks
As well as the Niners look right now, I can’t pick them to beat Seattle on the road.  They were no match for the Seahawks in week 2 and needed some good fortune to beat them at home in week 14.  That said, if any NFC team is to keep Seattle out of the Super Bowl, I think it’s the Niners.  Seahawks by 13.

Conference Championships

Bengals @ Broncos
It’s close throughout as the Bengals match scores with the Broncos, but Dalton makes a mistake late to send Denver to Jersey.  Broncos by 6.

Eagles @ Seahawks
Chip Kelly’s rookie run comes to an end as Marshawn Lynch has a big game against a usually-stout Eagles rush defense.  Seahawks by 17. 

Super Bowl XLVIII

Broncos v. Seahawks
I had the Patriots beating the Packers in my preseason picks, and while they’re both still alive, I’d be surprised to see either one in New Jersey.  If weather projections are correct, this one is going to be cold and white.  Everyone knows that hasn’t been good news for Peyton in the past.  Conversely, you’ve got to think the Seahawks would like to have a game that’s more slug-it-out than sling-it-around.

Seahawks 23
Broncos 17
MVP – Marshawn Lynch