*Note that while the calendar currently reads 2013, the league considers this a continuation of the 2012 season, and thus, for all intents and purposes, these are the 2012 playoffs.
Looking at the NFL playoff picture, one thing is certain: We will not have a repeat champion this year. Although the New York Giants matched last season’s record of 9-7, that wasn’t enough to make the playoffs in the NFC this season, thanks to Week 17 wins by the Vikings, Bears and Redskins. That said, I really think the National Conference is up for grabs this year–and not just due to New York’s absence. The NFC-leading Atlanta Falcons came from the conference’s worst division–one whose second-best team finished 11th–and still managed to lose to the Panthers, Saints and Bucs. Meanwhile, the pack behind them couldn’t be much tighter, as the only thing separating a first-round bye from a Wild Card spot was a Patriots comeback that came up seven points short against the Niners. If New England wins that game in Week 15, Seattle finishes second. As it stands, they ended up fifth–but I don’t think anyone’s sleeping on the Seahawks after their red-hot December finish…
Over in the AFC, we seem to be heading towards a showdown between Peyton Manning’s Broncos and Tom Brady’s Patriots. The Houston Texans, who stormed out of the gate at 10-1, ended up without a bye by finishing the season with ugly losses to New England, Minny and Indy. Frankly, I don’t think they’ll even make it out of the first round. But I also don’t see anyone else who can challenge the Broncs or the Pats, not if their Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks come through in the clutch–something both have a habit of doing. So, who ends up across the sidelines from each other in Super Bowl XLVII? Read on to find out!
Vikings @ Packers, January 5th: This matchup is particularly interesting considering that the Vikings had to beat the Packers in Week 17 just to earn a playoff berth–and they did so in dramatic fashion, hitting a last-second field goal to walk off 37-34 winners. Mind you, that was within the friendly domed confines of the Mall of America Field, not the frozen tundra of Lambeau, where they must travel for the rematch. And Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is another one of those QBs who comes through when it counts; in fact, he threw for 365 yards in last week’s near-comeback loss, which cost the Bay a bye. On the other side of the ball, the Packers defence could barely hold Adrian Peterson below the single-season rushing record, giving up 199 yards–but let’s see how AP runs in the snow. I think the Packers squeak this one out, but it’ll be closer than you think. 28-27 Pack.
Seahawks @ Redskins, January 6th: Of all the teams in the NFC playoff picture, the Skins are the one I least wanted my Hawks to face. After all, the only National team with a longer season-ending streak than Seattle’s five wins is Washington, with seven. Both sides boast explosive rookie quarterbacks and top-three rushing offenses, but the biggest difference is on D, where Seattle allowed the fewest points and fourth-fewest yards in the league this season. The Skins finished 22nd and 28th in those respective categories, giving up nine more points and 70 more yards per game than Seattle. But Washington is most vulnerable against the pass; in fact, their 96 rushing yards allowed are seven fewer than the Seahawks. The biggest question is probably whether Seattle can win on the road, as they were just 3-5 away from CenturyLink. But statistically speaking, the Redskins have the worst homefield advantage of any NFC playoff team, dropping three games at FedEx Field this season. Methinks that’s a good omen. Seahawks 24, Redskins 20.
Packers @ 49ers, January 12th: In the very first week of the 2012 season, the Niners traveled to Green Bay and pulled off a stunning 30-22 upset en route to a 4-1 start. But they sorta stumbled down the stretch, tying the Rams once and losing in OT a second time, getting starched by the Seahawks and nearly coughing up a 28-point lead to the Pats. The Pack fared a bit better, winning four straight up to that Week 17 loss, although in their toughest post-bye-week test, they got crushed 38-10 by the Giants. But with a few key Niners a bit banged up, the biggest question is at quarterback, where second-year player Colin Kaepernick makes his first playoff start. The man across the field from him, well, you could say he’s done this before. Advantage Rodgers and Green Bay, 32-23
Seahawks @ Falcons, January 13th: Assuming they beat the Redskins in the Wild Card round, Seattle will have vanquished every NFC playoff team this season–except for the Falcons, the lone great unknown. And while Washington was barely batting above .500 at home this season, the Falcons only lost once in their roost–a meaningless Week 17 setback to Tampa. Atlanta lives and dies by the pass, finishing fourth from the bottom in rushing, and while they give up a lotta yardage on defense (365.6 ypg), they finished fifth in fewest points allowed (18.7 per). Of course, the Hawks led the league in the latter category, while surrendering a meagre 203 passing yards per game as the NFL’s sixth stingiest team in that regard. While not evenly matched, the two teams appear to match up well on paper. But again, it might come down to the quarterbacks. As much as Russell Wilson has improved this year, he put up much-better numbers at home than on the road. And while Matt Ryan has never won, or even been to, the big one, he had a steady season of 4,700 yards and 32 TD passes. Given the homefield advantage over a team that lost to Miami and Detroit on the road, I think he and the Falcons will prevail, handing Seattle another close, disappointing loss. Falcons 28, Seahawks 24. (We’ll get ‘em next year, though!)
Packers @ Falcons, January 20th: Last year, I had the Pack beating the Saints in a high-scoring, 52-48 affair. As it turns out, the Pack only put up 20 points–and lost by 17 to the Giants. But this year’s NFC championship has all the makings of another shootout, as the fifth- and seventh-highest scoring offenses do battle, led by the sixth- and ninth-ranked passing attacks. Matt Ryan may have put up some 325 more yards than his Green Bay counterpart on the season, but I hafta give the edge to Rodgers’ scintillating 39-8 TD-to-INT ratio. Which doesn’t necessarily mean Green Bay wins, mind you. In a game like this, you gotta look for an X-Factor, and I’m looking at Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez. The all-time leading pass catcher at his position, he’s pretty certain that this will be his last season. Remember when the Steelers went into “Win it for Bettis” mode in the ’05 playoffs? As a Seahawks fan, I’d rather not–but I think the inspiration, if not the refs, will factor into this one. Did I mention that Atlanta hasn’t lost a meaningful home game all year? Falcons 37, Packers 32.
Bengals @ Texans, January 5th: Oddly enough, these two teams met at the same stadium in the first round last year. Circumstances were slightly different, however, as Houston was stuck with T.J. Yates at quarterback and they stumbled down the stretch with three straight losses–yet they went on to spank Cincy 31-10. And while the Texans did struggle again this December, at least they’ve still got Matt Schaub. But they’re also facing a better Bengals team in 2012, one that finished with back-to-back signature wins over Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Thus, I am once again picking Cincy, hoping that this time, I’ll get it right. Bengals 28, Texans 20.
Colts @ Ravens, January 6th: The Ravens are another team that backed its way into the playoffs, losing four of their last five games to playoff contenders Cincy, Denver, Washington and Pittsburgh (the Steelers ended up in seventh place). While those other teams had to win down the stretch to get in, Baltimore did so by losing–though they still managed to capture the AFC’s most competitive division. That said, the vaunted Baltimore defense took a step back towards the middle of the pack this year, giving up 351 total yards (17th) and 123 rushing yards (20th) per game. On the other hand, you have the exciting young Colts, a team that parlayed a 2-14 finish a year ago into the number one pick, and have turned things all the way around to 11-5 under Andrew Luck. The Stanford product didn’t have stellar statistics, with 23 TDs and 18 INTs and a 76.5 QB rating–but he did set a new rookie record for passing yards. What’s more, he always seemed to find ways to win, leading his team to several dramatic victories (albeit over mediocre competition). Against a team that’s hardly done anything but lose in December, I think Luck will add to his legacy. Colts 27, Ravens 23.
Bengals @ Broncos, January 12th: Let’s face it, if Cincy makes it to this point, they’re probably just happy to be here. This is a team that has had little in the way off playoff success since the days of Ickey Woods, Cris Collinsworth and Boomer Esiason. And with their 22nd ranked offense (in yards per game), this year’s edition isn’t bound for postseason glory, either. On the other side, you’ve got a Broncos team that put up the second-most points and fourth-most yards per game this season, all while giving up the third-fewest yards against both the run and the pass. The top seed in the AFC has not been defeated since the first week of October, and their only three losses came to teams with a combined record of 37-11. Cincinnati is simply not in that category. Broncos 31, Bengals 10.
Colts @ Patriots, January 13th: Now, this should be a good one, The Chosen One against The Next Big Thing. Or so CBS would have you believe. The reality is that when Indy went down to Foxboro in Week 11, they got their asses handed to them, 59-24. And forget about a fourth-quarter comeback–the Pats outscored Indy 35-7 in the second half! As they showed in that game, the Colts’ 26th ranked defense simply can’t stop Tom Brady, while Luck finished 27-for-50 with three interceptions. Like the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, the Colts QB will walk away from 2012 with an impressive rookie record, but tis not the time for playoff domination just yet. Patriots 35, Colts 14.
Patriots @ Broncos, January 20th: CBS scored the prime-time Sunday night slot for the AFC championship, and this here’s the reason why. It doesn’t take a whole lotta hype to sell an audience on a matchup of the two highest-scoring teams in the NFL, particularly with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady at the helm. But while the Broncos matched their offensive output with an almost-equally impressive defensive showing this season, the Patriots D gave up the fourth most passing yards in the league. Uh-oh. Does it even need to be mentioned that Manning had an MVP-caliber season, racking up 4,659 passing yards and 37 TDs? I don’t think this game will be as ugly as, say, Patriots-Colts Week 11, but with the homefield advantage, methinks Denver will avenge its Week 5 setback. Broncos 37, Patriots 24
SUPER BOWL XLVII
Broncos vs. Falcons @ New Orleans, February 3rd: Super Bowl 47, should things play out as I anticipated, would not be the first matchup between Denver and Atlanta in The Big Game. Super Bowl XXXIII, way back in 1999, saw a Denver team quarterbacked by John Elway win its second straight championship over a Dirty Bird Atlanta squad whose tight end was a Canadian kid outta Kent State by the name of O.J. Santiago. Now, Santiago’s career numbers of 1,041 yards and nine TDs would be considered a pretty good season for Tony Gonzalez, the current Atlanta TE and Jerome Bettis of Super Bowl XLVII. But hey, the refs aren’t gonna screw Peyton Manning, are they?
In any case, they probably won’t have to. With their high-powered offense and stifling defense, the 2012 Broncs could very well repeat Elway’s 34-19 butt-kicking of Atlanta in ’99, a game that was over by the time Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (remember when swing was back in?) took the stage at the half. That one also featured another future Hall-of-Famer, record-holding tight end in Shannon Sharpe, although he was also on the winning side. Of course, with his second-straight Super Bowl victory, Elway rode off into the sunset, but methinks Peyton probably has another one left in him. So does Matt Ryan, perhaps, some day. But not so for Tony G–unless the refs whistle Manning for a low block after he throws a pick.
(No, I will not ever get over that call. I am taking it to my grave, along with “We want the ball, and we’re gonna score” and the ghostly spectre of Rick Mirer!)
Wait, where was I? Oh yeah, Broncos 34, Falcons 19 for old time’s sake. Hey, it’s the other Manning who wins those close championship games–and his team’s not even in the playoffs…
UPDATE: 01/07: Well, my Wild Card predictions didn’t go so well. I blew both AFC games, big time, and the Packers-Vikings wasn’t nearly as close as I predicted. Of course, had I known that Christian Ponder wouldn’t play, I might have bumped up Green Bay’s margin of victory… The only game I did get right was the Seahawks and Redskins. As it turns out, I nailed Seattle’s final point total, but I gave six points too many to the Skins, calling it 24-20. Oh well, I can live with that. Interestingly enough, 24 turned out to be the magic number of the first round; three of the four winning teams scored exactly 24 points this weekend. That’s quite the trifecta!
UPDATE 01/12: And with a field goal that barely squeaked past the upright in double overtime, my Super Bowl champions have been eliminated in their first playoff game. Peyton Manning showed some flashes of brilliance, but he definitely didn’t look like a young Peyton Manning out there. That loss-inducing pick was almost Tebowesque–except Tebow tends to complete that pass in overtime. Anyways, I expect he’ll be fired up to give it another go next season, but on the other hand, after today’s performance Champ Bailey might wanna go ahead and announce his retirement.
Anyways, since I need to make a new Super Bowl prediction now, I gotta go with Ray Lewis 28, Tony Gonzalez 17 in the goodbye game…