NFL Playoff Prediction
Attention readers: Understand these predictions aren’t reflective of the entire staff at After Overtime, but just a single writer who may be very wrong.
Earlier this season I wrote a review of the top-5 teams in the NFL. The list included the Cincinnati Bengals, the New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos, the Carolina Panthers, and the Arizona Cardinals. Since then, not much has changed atop the NFL leaderboard.
New England faltered in the absence of a few key players, finishing the season on a 2-4 slide and with a record of 12-4, which was still good enough for the No. 2 seed in the AFC and, most importantly, an extra week to get everyone healthy. A healthy New England could spell trouble for the rest of the AFC.
Andy Dalton went down for the Bengals and is hopeful to return if the Bengals can get past the Steelers, but AJ McCarron has come in and done a fine job in his absence. He has led the Bengals to victories over San Francisco and Baltimore, and dropped a game against the No. 1 seeded Broncos 20-17 in a game that went to overtime.
I wrote in the article that Brock Osweiler would have to be a solid game manager, and not much else, for the Broncos to have a good chance at the Lombardi trophy. Osweiler played well for stretches, but when he struggled against San Diego, Peyton Manning stepped back into the line-up and led the Broncos to a much-needed victory – and boy did Manning look good. His passes had more velocity and looked sharp. It appears having that time to recover and not feel rushed back has indeed helped Manning quite a bit.
The Panthers did not remain undefeated, but only lost one game during the final stretch and finished with a league-best 15-1 record. This may be a blessing in disguise, as the team will not have to deal with the pressure of going undefeated all the way to a Lombardi trophy.
Finally, the Arizona Cardinals suffered a major loss when All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu went down with a torn ACL in garbage time against Philadelphia. The Cardinals received a beat down at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in week 17, but I am not convinced that is a sign of things to come in the playoffs. This has not deterred the team’s Super Bowl hopes, as they won the NFC West and earned the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Up next is my prediction for the NFL Playoffs, with game-by-game predictions, a Super Bowl prediction, and the team I expect to bring home the Lombardi.
First, we’ll start off with the AFC.
Wild Card Round
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Houston Texans
The Houston Texans went on an improbable run to win the AFC South. As a result of winning their division, they host a playoff game against the red hot Kansas City Chiefs who haven’t lost a game since October 18. This will be a rematch of the Week 1 game between the teams. In their first game, the Chiefs won in Houston 27-20. The popular pick in this game is for the Kansas City Chiefs to continue their run, going into Houston and beating the Texans.
Houston was a team struggling to find an identity early this season. They started the season 2-5 and got absolutely crushed in their October 25 game against the Dolphins. Something about the halftime break against the Dolphins changed the Houston Texans. The team allowed 41 points in the first half, but only 3 in the second half. This game served as a turning point for the team, and their defense finally came alive. Since this moment, the defense has been one of the best in the league. The team finished on a 7-2 run and held the Saints, Bengals, Jaguars, and the Titans (twice) to 6-points in their games. The only two losses they suffered were to the Bills and Patriots. The Texans went 5-3 at home, but after that Dolphins game they were 4-1 at home. This team has found an identity on offense, and their defense has come alive. It has proven to be the dominant force many expected coming into the season.
With the ability to slow the pass being a strong suit for the Texans, I predict them to beat the Chiefs. The Chiefs are without their best player, Jamaal Charles. If the Texans can do enough to get to Smith and prevent Maclin from having a huge game, this game will be won by Houston.
Texans win: 23-16
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Two weeks ago the Steelers lost to the Ravens in a game that many thought may have cost them their shot at the playoffs. A week later, the Steelers beat the Browns and the Jets lost to Buffalo, paving the way for Pittsburgh to throw their name in the ring as the 6-seed in the AFC.
As much as I like the Bengals, I was ready to give the Steelers this victory. However, the injury to Deangelo Williams really worries me.
Antonio Brown is as good as they come at wide receiver in the NFL, but I worry that he and Big Ben can’t do it alone. They’ll be going up against a Cincinnati defense that, while giving up 248 passing yards per game, is third in the NFL in interceptions and tenth in the NFL in sacks. It is a defense that will take the ball away from opposing quarterbacks if you give them chances. Cornerback Reggie Nelson is tied for the league lead with eight interceptions. The Steelers are going to have to rely heavily on their passing game in order to find success, as they are without Le’Veon Bell and now the resurgent Williams. A pass-heavy offense versus a defense that is good at getting to the quarterback and taking the football away? I give the edge to the defense.
The two teams split their games during the regular season, each team winning on the road. Andy Dalton was knocked out of the game against the Steelers, leading to AJ McCarron’s first playing time. He has started since then, and he has improved along the way and shown the ability to get into a rhythm with his best pass catchers.
Antonio Brown is going to have a big game. That is typically the case when he and Ben Roethlisberger are playing together, however the Cincinnati defense will do enough to prevent the Steelers offense from scoring over 30, and AJ McCarron will get his revenge for the loss he suffered in his first meaningful playing time of the season.
Bengals win: 31 – 28
Houston Texans vs. Denver Broncos
The Houston defense has been real good to end the season. They finished third in yards per game (YPG) allowed with 310, and their passing defense came alive to give them the third best pass defense at 210 YPG. You know who had a better defense than the Houston Texans? If you guessed the Denver Broncos, you are absolutely right. That is because the Broncos had the best defense in the entire league this season. They allowed a league-low YPG with 283, a league-low passing YPG with 199.6, and a third-best rushing YPG allowed with 83.6.
The Texans do not do anything exceptionally well on the offensive side of the ball. They have a young stud at wide receiver in Deandre Hopkins, but they are without arguably their best player in Arian Foster who was lost for the season in that game against Miami. With Aqib Talib and additional help likely shadowing Hopkins all game, I don’t foresee this being a great match-up for Houston.
Their defense may do quite a bit to frustrate Peyton Manning, but I expect this to be a game where you see Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson involved quite a bit and they will likely be leading the charge. The Houston defense excels at stopping the pass and frustrating good quarterbacks as we’ve seen against the Bengals, Saints, and Jaguars. (Yes, I consider Bortles a good QB and the Jaguars offense to be a formidable passing offense.) However, the Broncos have the ability to attack you from many different angles.
The Texans allowed an opponent to score more than 20 only twice in their last nine games. I think the Broncos make it a third time. Going into Denver and beating Peyton Manning and co. would be a huge feat for these Texans, I just can’t see it happening. The Texans are a solid up-and-coming team with a future that is bright, and a second round loss to the Broncos will be nothing to be ashamed of.
Broncos win: 27- 17
Cincinnati Bengals vs. New England Patriots
The New England faithful are confident that they will be playing for a Lombardi trophy this season. After injuries derailed a strong start to the season, the Patriots finished 2-4. New England looks to rebound in the playoffs with the hope that their team may finally be healthy. There is no doubt that a healthy Julian Edelman makes a big difference for the Patriots, but it still remains a question as to just how far along Edelman is in his recovery. Dez Bryant returned from this injury and was not the same player. Julian Edelman does a lot more planting and cutting than Dez Bryant does, so it will be interesting to see how he fares in his return.
Edelman is not the only Patriot making a return. The Patriots also hope to have Chandler Jones, Danny Amendola, Dont’a Hightower, Sebastian Vollmer, and others back and 100% healthy when they play after the bye week. It is a curious situation, having so many of their good players recovering from injury, and they can only hope that the return will be seamless.
The biggest question about this game is, who is starting at quarterback for the Bengals? There are few quarterbacks you can have faith in walking into New England in January and beating the Patriots. AJ McCarron is not one of them. Heck, even Andy Dalton isn’t a sure bet, but there is much more confidence in the Bengals if Dalton is at the helm, rather than if McCarron is. The Patriots are extremely tough to beat in Foxboro, especially in the playoffs.
If this Bengals team never lost Dalton to an injury, I would have said they could walk into Foxboro and pull off an improbable upset. Even if Dalton comes back from his injury in time for this game, it’s impossible to tell how well he will play, given that he hasn’t played in a month. A healthy Dalton will make this game closer, but I’m giving this one to New England at home.
Patriots win: 24-20
New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady XVII
The high-flying New England offense, finally healthy, goes against the defensive juggernaut known as the Denver Broncos. This is a rematch of the November 29 game between these two teams in which the Denver Broncos edged out the Patriots in overtime 30-24. Brock Osweiler led the Broncos to the victory against the favored Patriots. Patriots fans clamored about the number of injuries the team had suffered, but the Broncos were dealing with an injury bug of their own.
This time there will be no excuses.
New England will likely enter the game with all their horses on offense. Denver will be healthy also.
In the battle of Manning vs. Brady, the home team has won the game 11 of 16 times. Not since 2007 has the visiting team won in the opponent’s territory, a game in which New England went into Indianapolis and beat Manning’s Colts 24-20. This is a big deal, considering the game is going to be played in Denver this season. This is a direct result of the Patriots losing their final game of the season against Miami, and Denver winning their game against the Chargers. With the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Broncos have home field advantage. Expect that to play a large role.
Teams this season and in seasons past have proven that if you can get to Tom Brady, then you can disrupt the entire Patriots offense and the Patriots become very beatable. Why is this relevant? The top-ranked Denver defense leads the league in sacks with 52. They have the players to get to the quarterback, and that is the key to stopping New England. With Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount on IR, the Patriots are extremely thin at running back. If New England has to be one-dimensional and throw the ball a ton, that will not fare well for this offense.
Manning looked sharp against the Chargers and has a bevy of weapons to distribute the ball to. The Patriots pass defense was average at best, finishing No. 16 in the league in YPG allowed through the air, and taking the ball away only 12 times on interceptions. The Broncos defense is the best in the league and will look to prove that by shutting down the New England offense
Broncos win: 37-31
Now let’s take a look at the NFC.
Wild Card Round
Green Bay Packers vs. Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins find themselves as the winner of the abysmal NFC LEast. Jay Gruden turned this team around with Kirk Cousins at the helm, much to the surprise of many NFL fans. The Redskins offense has a ton of talent at the wide receiver and tight end positions. Jordan Reed has finally put together the type of season people expected from him before injuries in prior years had derailed him. He finished the season with 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 TDs, which is quite an impressive line from a TE. He is accompanied by Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon at the wide receiver position. The three make a formidable trio of pass catchers and should give the Packers defense headaches.
The Redskins offense has put up big numbers of late, and the Packers are coming off a pair of tough losses to Arizona and Minnesota. The Redskins aren’t a bad team, and they very well could beat the Packers.
Except there is one little factor I cannot ignore.
His name is Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers has not been the same guy we are accustomed to seeing, but he is still Aaron freaking Rodgers. He finished with only 3,821 passing yards, but still proved to be an extremely efficient quarterback, posting 31 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He also has a way of coming up in big moments and making us remember why we hold him in such high regard.
The moment may prove too big for these upstart Redskins led by Cousins. Rodgers has the experience, the poise, and all the ability in the world. The most important position in the game is the quarterback position, and I’m giving the edge to Green Bay in that department. In a game that should feature plenty of offense, Rodgers and the Pack are going to march into FedEx Field and beat the Redskins.
Packers win: 30-28
Seattle Seahawks vs. Minnesota Vikings
Even before news broke that Marshawn Lynch would not play in this game, I predicted the Vikings to win this game. The Seahawks have played at a very high level since their early season struggles, and they obliterated the Cardinals just last week. Russell Wilson has been unreal, and their defense returned to form as one of the elite units in the league. Their defense finished second in total YPG allowed, finished first in stopping the run, and second in stopping the pass. They destroyed the Vikings in the December 6 game in Seattle by a tune of 38-7.
I can understand why some fans are going to question why I have chosen the Vikings all along.
Call it a gut feeling.
Minnesota has been pretty good at home this year with a 6-2 record. Their two losses came against Seattle and Green Bay. The reason the Vikings have a good chance this weekend is because the way the Rams walked into Seattle in Week 16 and beat the Seahawks. They walked in and just punched them right in the mouth. The Rams showed an ability to get to the quarterback, which frustrated Russell Wilson and provided a bit of a blueprint to beat the Seahawks. Todd Gurley ran for 83 yards on 19 carries and punched one in for a score.
The Seahawks made many uncharacteristic mistakes in this game, but the Vikings defense has been effective in their own right at getting to the quarterback and causing frustration. An example of this was the 49-17 blowout of the Giants in which they forced Eli Manning into three interceptions. The Vikings also have Adrian Peterson, who should prove to be a valuable asset against the Seahawks. The Seahawks held Peterson to a paltry 18 yards on eight carries when the teams last met. That isn’t going to happen again.
It’s not often the home team is an underdog in a playoff game. The Seahawks are favored in this game, but I foresee a Minnesota upset.
Vikings win: 20 – 17
Green Bay Packers vs. Carolina Panthers
When these two teams met back in November, the Panthers got off to a hot start and were up big on the Packers. After a 24 point outburst in the second quarter gave the Panthers a 27-7 lead, the Packers held the Panthers to just 10 points after the half. A furious comeback attempt by the Pack ultimately fell short as Rodgers threw an interception in the redzone on a fourth down play with a little over a minute to play, and the Panthers walked off the field victorious with the final score 37-29. Two weeks later the Panthers would go on an absolute tear, blowing out teams and scoring more than 30 for five straight weeks before losing to the Falcons, and then destroyed the Buccaneers the next week 38-10.
The Panthers are as a hot a team as there is in the league. They had the best record in the league at 15-1 because of Cam Newton. Superman should be the MVP because of his performance this season. He led the Panthers, who many wrote off before the season, to the best record in the league and the No. 1 seed in the NFC. It wasn’t just the defense carrying the team anymore, as the Panthers became one of the more prolific offenses in the league.
The Panthers have one of the best defenses in the league. They finished No. 6 in YPG, No. 4 in rushing YPG, but No. 11 in passing YPG. Their weakness, if any, was the pass. They showed that they are vulnerable through the air a few times this season. Rodgers had some success against them when they finally got things going in the second half of the game they played earlier this season. Drew Brees threw for three touchdowns in a 38-41 loss to the Panthers in early December, and the Giants put up 21 in the fourth quarter against them in the December 20 game in which the Panthers won 38-35.
Good quarterbacks have found success against the Panthers at times this season, and I expect Rodgers to get revenge for the game the Packers dropped earlier this season. The Packers will have to go into Carolina in order to get the win. The home field advantage certainly favors the Panthers, as they will not have to travel to the frozen tundra and try to beat the Packers there.
The Packers found success against the Panthers in the second half and will likely use that as a template to try and beat the Panthers this time around. The Panthers’ incredible run will come to an end, too soon in the eyes of their fans and Cam Newton. Their shortcomings will be because of their lack of weapons on offense. Newton has done extremely well this year so far with limited options. Ted Ginn Jr. has been his best wide receiver, and Greg Olsen is the most notable name of Newton’s receiving options. The Panthers offense, devoid of much real talent aside from their quarterback and tight end, will finally run out of steam. Watch out for this team next year when Kelvin Benjamin is healthy again. For this year, it just won’t be enough. Aaron Rodgers will get it done again and show us why he is one of the best in the game.
Packers win: 34-30
Minnesota Vikings vs. Arizona Cardinals
When the two teams met on December 10, the Vikings fell short of an upset in Arizona 23-20. Carson Palmer threw for 310 yards and two touchdowns, while David Johnson had some success on the ground by rushing for 92 yards on 19 attempts. The Cardinals held Adrian Peterson to 69 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries. The biggest surprise was Teddy Bridgewater throwing for 335 yards and one touchdown against the stout Cardinals secondary which fueled the upset attempt.
Don’t expect a repeat performance.
Bridgewater has thrown for over 300 yards just twice this season. He has thrown for multiple touchdowns in a game just twice as well. It is very likely the Vikings will need a big game out of Bridgewater this time around if they hope to get a victory in Arizona during the playoffs, and he has not consistently shown this season that he is capable of such a performance. He is young and has a lot of good years ahead of him, but may not be ready at this stage of his career to lead the Vikings into Arizona and win a playoff game.
The Cardinals have the highest powered offense in the league, averaging a league-best 408 yards per game and a second-best 30.6 points per game. The Cardinals average 28.4 points per game at home, while their fifth-ranked defense has only surrendering 20.4 points per game at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Minnesota Vikings averaged just 22.8 points per game this season, while only averaging 20.5 points per game on the road. Those numbers don’t bode well for Minnesota and play right into the hands of the Arizona Cardinals.
The Cardinals are capable of putting up points in bunches, and settling for field goals is not a recipe for success against this unit. In their previous match up, the Vikings found themselves settling twice for long field goals and found the end zone only twice. While they managed to slow the Cardinals enough in the red zone to hold them to two touchdowns and three field goals themselves, the Cardinals high powered offense has scored 26 or more points in 11 games this season, and have scored 30 or more in nine games. The offense has weapons all around and will be too much for these Vikings to handle.
Cardinals win: 36 – 20
Green Bay Packers vs. Arizona Cardinals
For the second straight season, the Green Bay Packers are going to lose the NFC Championship game to an NFC West team.
These two teams met on December 27 when the Packers traveled to Arizona. The Packers were coming off three consecutive victories and were hopeful to get some momentum going into playoffs. The Cardinals came out and trounced the Packers 38-8.
The Cardinals defense held Rodgers to 151 yards passing, one touchdown, forced him into one interception, and got to Rodgers a whopping eight times. It would be foolish to expect a mirror performance by the Cardinals, but holding Rodgers to 260 yards and two touchdowns while intercepting him once or twice will go a long way towards granting Arizona the Super Bowl birth they’re chasing.
The chances of the Cardinals coming out and dominating Aaron Rodgers twice aren’t very high. The chances of the Arizona defense doing many of the same things right are. They sacked A-Rodg eight times and returned two of his fumbles for touchdowns. Expecting another eight sack performance is not likely, however the Arizona defense has consistently taken the ball away from opponents all season and will look to continue this trend in the NFC Championship game. They had the fourth-most interceptions in the league with 19, and were tied for the league lead in forced fumbles with 22. It is a very opportunistic defense that makes opposing offenses pay.
The Arizona offense should roll against the Packers suspect defense. Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown are a capable trio at wide receiver and are one of the best groups in the NFL. Rookie Running back David Johnson has come on strong of late and provided a much needed boost in the absence of Chris Johnson. The offense will do more than enough to win this game, and as long as the defense does not suddenly have a meltdown, the Cardinals will represent the NFC in Super Bowl 50.
Cardinals win: 34-17
Super Bowl 50
Denver Broncos vs. Arizona Cardinals
On February 7, 2016, Santa Clara, California will play host to the biggest football game of the year.
Manning vs. Palmer
Demaryius Thomas vs. Patrick Peterson
Larry Fitzgerald vs. Aqib Talib
The return of Chris Johnson.
There will be many story lines to this game, but none bigger than this: Two of the NFL’s premiere offenses will square off against some the best defenses in the league. The Broncos defense is No. 1, while the Cardinals defense is No. 5.
It has been a long road for these teams to get here.
Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald will have their first shot at a Super Bowl in their long and illustrious careers.
Manning will be looking to add to his already impressive resume among that ranks among NFL’s historical elite. Detractors like to point to his playoff record, and another Super Bowl ring would go a long way towards solidifying his name as one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Alas, the NFC West will once again prove to be the bane of Manning’s Super Bowl hopes. Two seasons ago, the Broncos went into the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks and got thoroughly embarrassed. The Seahawks beat the Broncos like a drum, the final score reading 43-8. This one won’t be nearly as lopsided, but the hard-nosed, physical play of the NFC West will rear its head and punch the Broncos in the mouth once again.
In a game that could turn very scrappy, with two tough defenses going against good offenses, the Cardinals have the edge. The Cardinals play against some of the scrappiest teams in the league every season in the NFC West, as divisional games are usually very tough and very hard earned.
This will give the Cardinals an advantage when the going gets tough in Santa Clara. Expect a tough game highlighted by several big plays. Manning’s early season propensity to turn the ball over will strike again at the worst time against a very opportunistic defense, leading to multiple Manning interceptions, while the powerful Cardinals offense will prove to be too much for the Denver defense to handle.
The Cardinals will raise the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl 50.
Cardinals win: 31-20