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

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