NFL Conference Championship Predictions

Part of me is happy the AFC game is on first Sunday, but I also feel like…wait, wasn’t this how I started the preview from two years ago? If you were hoping for an update to that one, then you’ll be disappointed. I did not write nearly as much today, though don’t worry. We’ll tackle some of this stuff very soon where anyone can read it.

New England at Denver

Naturally, I already wrote a 5,000-word preview for this game at FO, so please check that out. Read Aaron’s NFC preview here.

As for my personal thoughts on the game, I agree with the Patriots being a slight road favorite, but I really do not buy into the thought that they’re just going to walk all over the Broncos in Denver.

“Given the injuries both teams have had, the Patriots have to feel good about a rematch with Denver — but not so much if that rematch takes place in Mile High, their house of horrors.” – My words after Denver’s Week 12 overtime win. If we know anything about the NFL playoffs, it’s that home field and a top defense matter. That does not mean you win just by showing up, but I have a hard time seeing New England breeze by a Denver team that has three comeback wins from 14 points down this year and went 11-3 in close games. Even down 17-0 in Indianapolis, the Broncos made that 24-24 in the fourth quarter. The defense rarely let down outside of playing Pittsburgh, and that offense is built much differently from this New England attack.

I know it won’t happen, but if I was Wade Phillips, I would shrink the field and dare the Patriots to run the ball and throw deep passes. Focus the attention on Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. If they beat you with Steven Jackson, James White, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola, then hats off to them, but I don’t think they can. Where defenses have problems is with the way the Patriots attack your weaknesses with their best players, getting them in favorable matchups with linebackers and safeties. That’s why I would shadow Edelman with Chris Harris, assuming he’s healthy enough for this matchup. I would use Aqib Talib at times on Gronkowski just to get a better athlete on him. I’d make the ball go elsewhere, and I don’t think the Patriots can do their ultra-pass happy attack on the road as well as they do it at home. I hate Denver’s “IN-COM-PLETE!” chant, but the crowd noise is a factor and the altitude tends to become a factor later in the game. Denver also could use a really huge (legal) hit early in the game on someone like Edelman just to set a tone for the day. Tackling well is going to be key.

We know Peyton Manning is 5-11 in the games against Brady, but nothing would be more satisfying than to retire with a 3-2 playoff record given we’ve heard for the last 12 years how only the playoffs matter. The problem is Manning had to play his ass off in those five wins against Bill Belichick’s defense. He threw for 321, 326, 349, 327 and 400 yards in those games with his teams scoring 40, 27, 38, 35 and 26 points. If you’ve watched Manning since December 2014, he just does not seem capable of having those games anymore. This offense also isn’t good enough to get those types of performances from him anymore, which is why they have to scrap with the running game, take what the defense gives them and protect the ball. This game could only get out of hand with a multi-turnover day.

I compared this to a role reversal of the 2003 AFC Championship game where it’s now Manning leaning on his great defense while Brady leads the prolific passing game. We could see that, or it could be like the 2004 AFC Championship Game, the only time in nine tries that Tom Brady had a great game in this round. That year the Steelers beat New England in the regular season, but Deion Branch and Corey Dillon were out that day. In the rematch in Pittsburgh, those two players were big and Ben Roethlisberger (rookie year) made some costly mistakes early with interceptions. New England won 41-27. Maybe the return of Edelman and some other players out from the Week 12 matchup leads to a similar turnaround, but these teams are both as healthy as they have been in a while.

The Bill Belichick vs. Gary Kubiak matchup just does not sit well with me, and while I expect the Denver offense to be sharper than last week’s sloppy seven-drop effort, I’m not sure it can score enough points without a New England turnover fest. The Patriots have not had more than two turnovers in any game this year while the Broncos have oddly only forced seven takeaways at home (21 on the road). But if the top-ranked pressure defense can get after Brady enough, this one should be close and winnable for Denver like most games this season.

Carolina at Arizona

As nice as a third meeting between Arizona and Seattle could have been, this is the right NFC Championship Game for this season. These teams last met in the 2014 NFC Wild Card, but you can burn that tape since it’s infected with Ryan Lindley disease. These teams are much better than they were that evening.

I was nervous about Arizona more than any other team last week, and sure enough they had a very shaky game against Green Bay, but deserve credit for pulling it out behind a monster effort from Larry Fitzgerald. I hate to say a guy raises his game in the playoffs since it infers he’s not giving full effort the rest of the year, but Fitzgerald’s postseason resume has been incredible. He’ll need to be big again here, but this game really comes down to how well Carson Palmer is protected and his decision making. Palmer and Cam Newton are two of the most blitzed quarterbacks in the league in 2015, but Palmer actually had better stats under pressure and was pressured a little more often than Newton. The problem is he does not have a track record of doing well under pressure like a Ben Roethlisberger does. You saw him throw some really questionable passes last week against Green Bay, and he should have had multiple red-zone interceptions in the fourth quarter alone. His first go-ahead touchdown was a lucky deflection. If you saw the way Carolina’s front seven — and it sucks that Jared Allen got hurt, but I don’t view him as a big-time player anymore — lived in Russell Wilson’s face early last week and forced some big interceptions, I definitely fear for what Palmer might do this week. David Johnson has also been shut down against Seattle and Green Bay, and the Carolina front seven is arguably better than both. Throw in a field that may be crappy and the fact that it’s Palmer’s first road playoff start (and the biggest game of his career), and you could have a struggling passing game.

Fortunately, Carolina has a problem in the secondary after some late-season injuries, and has struggled to keep some big leads this year. As Indy, Green Bay, Giants and Seattle showed, if you have a good quarterback and some receiving talent, you can rally against this defense. The Cardinals have that with the three wide receivers to attack this secondary. Fitzgerald spends a lot of time in the slot, which means he won’t see much of Josh Norman. That’s a great matchup for Arizona to exploit this week, but Palmer must be sharper and they have to get more out of the running game for sure. But even if Carolina goes up big again, don’t count out this offense. It can score in bunches quickly.

On the other side of the ball, this is a matchup where Arizona will really miss versatile safety Tyrann Mathieu. He’s one of the few guys athletic enough to keep up with Newton as a blitzer, and we know Arizona blitzes an NFL-high 45.1% of the time this year (source: ESPN Stats & Info). The Cardinals may want to dial it back this week, though definitely get an athlete like Deone Bucannon after Newton. This is not a deep receiving corps. Patrick Peterson should be able to shut down his assignment, whether it’s Ted Ginn, who may be compromised by a Week 16 injury, or the likes of Jerricho Cotchery and Devin Funchess. Greg Olsen could be a problem, though Arizona ranked 7th against tight ends.

Carolina is the most run-based offense left, and that includes Newton’s rushing contributions. Seattle kept him under wraps pretty good last week, and I would expect the same from Arizona. The problem lately has been standard runs as Christine Michael and Eddie Lacy (should have had more yards) played well the last two weeks against Arizona. You know the Panthers will feed Jonathan Stewart the ball and he just broke a season-long 59-yard run last week against Seattle. I think the weather and field will favor the more physical team, and by no means is Arizona soft, but I think Carolina may just come out more physical after getting pissed about last week’s 24-0 second half from Seattle. This team needs to finish a game strong for a change. We know Arizona can as Bruce Arians is 31-1 in games where he has to protect a one-score lead in the fourth quarter.

Newton can bait a defense with the read-option and play-action, so if Arizona blitzes, they better not hesitate at the mesh point or you might see some receivers running wide open down the field. But I really would not blitz much in this one, making Newton hold the ball and think about it as this secondary should hold up against these receivers. The Panthers are not a high-efficiency passing offense. Newton is looking for big plays and has generally avoided the turnovers this year.

I would pick Arizona on a neutral field, but that’s not how this works.

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Another 3-1 week, though I actually nailed the PIT-DEN score.

  • Patriots over Broncos, 23-17
  • Panthers over Cardinals, 27-21

Season Results

  • Week 1: 10-6
  • Week 2: 6-10
  • Week 3: 14-2
  • Week 4: 11-4
  • Week 5: 9-5
  • Week 6: 8-6
  • Week 7: 10-4
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 4-10
  • Week 11: 9-5
  • Week 12: 8-8
  • Week 13: 11-5
  • Week 14: 10-6
  • Week 15: 11-5
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 8-8
  • Wild Card: 3-1
  • Divisional round: 3-1
  • Season: 162-102 (.614)
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2015 NFL Divisional Round Predictions

Hands down, this is the greatest weekend of the NFL year. Four crucial games with the eventual Super Bowl winner somewhere in the mix.

This year’s final eight have a collection of starting quarterbacks that are among the best the round has ever seen. I haven’t figured out a good way yet of combining the colors to account for people who accomplished multiple feats, but we have a table below (click it to enlarge) to show their accolades. I think 1993 is the best competition for this year. The 2015 group includes four future HOF locks, three MVP winners (about to be four), five Super Bowl winners and four No. 1 overall picks (one in each game).

DIVstarters

Of course, Ben Roethlisberger enters this week on shaky ground with the shoulder injury. Tom Brady did not have a stellar second-half finish this year (59.8%, 6.96 YPA, 89.7 PR, 4-4 record with a dropped game-ending INT vs. Giants). Alex Smith 2.0 is still Alex Smith 2.0. Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning had their worst seasons as starters, and you really don’t know what to expect from either this weekend. Cam Newton, Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson all thrived with their best season yet in 2015. But collectively for their careers, this is a fascinating group of quarterbacks.

All the road teams won last week, but you tend to favor the home teams in the divisional round. However, there has been at least one road upset in every year since 2005.

Seasons where three home teams lost in the divisional round (2): 1971 and 2008

Seasons where two home teams lost in the divisional round (12): 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1987, 1995, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010

Seasons where zero home teams lost in the divisional round (9): 1973, 1974, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2004

Kansas City at New England

Some probably think the key to winning in New England is to outduel Tom Brady in a high-scoring game. Historically, that has not been the case. Brady has only lost 16 home games in which he played to completion since 2001. The key ingredient to a win is defense as the Patriots were held to 21 points or less in 14 of those 16 games. Brady played below average in the majority of these games.

TBHML

Do the Chiefs have the defense to make this one of these games? I think so, but I would feel more confident if Justin Houston was healthier. There is talent at every level for the Chiefs, but this team is so dependent on takeaways and field position. You don’t expect to get many takeaways from the Patriots, who had a league-low 14 giveaways with never more than two in any game. Pressure is a great equalizer however, and the Chiefs don’t have to blitz to get it. When the Chiefs don’t blitz, they have forced QBs into a league-low 37.7 QBR. When the Chiefs get pressure, QBs have a 3.8 QBR, second-worst in the league. Pressure is going to be crucial in this one, which is why the return of Julian Edelman is so key. He’s the safety valve for Brady, someone who can easily catch 8-10 balls and fight for YAC most receivers don’t get. However, he hasn’t played in two months and who knows what we’ll be getting from him today. There is also the case of Rob Gronkowski’s surprising injuries this week. He is questionable and the Chiefs have done a great job against tight ends all year. James White has done a very good job of replacing Dion Lewis’ contributions in the receiving game, but the Chiefs rarely let receiving backs do much damage against them. Those are the three areas the Patriots like to throw the most, but the Chiefs seem to have a solid answer at each level.

I don’t expect the Patriot offense to be razor sharp. It hasn’t been for half a season as the injuries piled up, and don’t forget the OL situation. In the last 9 games, NE’s offense has not topped 28 offensive points. Surprisingly, the 28 came in that home loss to the Eagles, but we know the Eagles won that thanks to three return touchdowns. You don’t ever expect that, though the Chiefs know a lot about non-offensive scoring this year. It has been crucial to their 11-game winning streak,  a streak I question the competition from, but a win here would be extremely impressive regardless of the Patriots finishing 2-4 down the stretch.

While the Chiefs have won 11 in a row, the Patriots are 11-0 in the playoffs against a new opponent and 10-8 in a rematch since 2001. The last meeting between these teams of course was early in 2014 when the Chiefs routed the Patriots, but I don’t think that game plays a factor here. It was too long ago with many different players.

Not to keep going back to that weird Philadelphia game, but the Eagles broke NE’s streak of 94 consecutive home wins when leading by 8+ points at any time. Regardless, you still don’t want to fall behind in Foxboro, and the Chiefs are not an offense built to come back. A good start is going to be key, as is winning that turnover battle (hell, Eagles lost that too). The Chiefs are a good candidate to win that TO battle since their differential is +14 this year.

Alex Smith has not thrown for 200 yards in any of his last six games, and that might suit the Chiefs okay if they are running the ball well and playing with the lead. However, I think he needs to make some more plays in this one, even if it’s with his legs. Andy Reid needs to get creative with jet sweeps and zone-read in this one. Spencer Ware has looked like KC’s best back, though he too has been banged up this week. I think the Chiefs can replace Jeremy Maclin better than most teams could replace their No. 1 WR, just because they don’t throw as much as other offenses. Maybe Maclin plays, but it is hard to see him being productive with a high ankle sprain. Travis Kelce has to play a huge game and rookie Chris Conley must step up. That’s why I think a smart running attack is going to be key to this offense. You’re not going to expect Smith to throw for 300 yards today with this cast against an underrated defense fully capable of carrying the Patriots to a win here with their own sacks against a conservative QB. You don’t think Belichick can figure out a way to take away Kelce and pounce on the leftovers? That’s why turnovers and field position are likely to be the decisive factors. If you feed the Chiefs great opportunities, they take advantage with a very efficient red-zone offense.

Unless Edelman is a bust in his return and Gronkowski is really ineffective, then I think the Patriots will do just enough to get by here in a low-scoring game.

Green Bay at Arizona

While I don’t expect this to look like the 38-8 Arizona win from Week 16, I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid that “the Pack is back” after beating lowly Washington. Aaron Rodgers still averaged a Joey Harrington-like 5.83 YPA last week and has lost Davante Adams, who played one of his best games this year. This game goes as the Green Bay offensive line goes. All the sacks and fumble-sixes from the last game ended that one in the third quarter. You expect better protection with a different lineup this time, but that Arizona defense is still great even after the loss of Tyrann Mathieu, who did not play in Week 16. If Eddie Lacy and James Starks can get going, then we should have a competitive game, but I just don’t trust the GB running game against this front.

Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer are seeking their first playoff win. The Week 17 loss to Seattle was shockingly bad from this team, which was arguably the best in the league heading into that game. Sure, it was a game they may not have necessarily approached with 100% will to win with starters for 60 minutes, but Seattle owned them by halftime. Now with a bye week to stew, Arizona enters this week in a weird position as the only team without a recent playoff win under its belt. Palmer’s only bad game this season was in Week 17 as I voted him the league MVP for his amazing consistency. He’ll need to rebound here and I think he will. His receivers are healthy and David Johnson has been a great addition as the workhorse back. Chris Johnson’s injury was a blessing in disguise. The Cardinals should bring great balance to this game and can beat you in multiple ways. Short of Rodgers turning in a classic performance, I’m not sold Green Bay can outscore this offense.

If you punch the Packers in the mouth early, they’re not a team likely to get back up. I think Arizona accomplishes that and advances to the NFC Championship Game.

Seattle at Carolina

There may have been a difference of 5 wins between these teams in the regular season, but I still think the Seahawks have the better coach, better quarterback and better overall roster. Does that translate to a victory with Carolina having the bye and not having to travel after playing in the freezing cold last week? Not sure about that, but it should be close again as these teams have played tough, close games since 2012. Sure, the 31-17 final in last year’s playoffs looks lopsided, but Carolina had the ball in a 17-10 fourth quarter in that one. With Seattle, you just cannot expect to ever blow that team out as it has an NFL-record 87-game streak of being at least within one score in the fourth quarter.

This does not feel like your usual matchup of highest-scoring offense vs. highest-scoring defense. Maybe it’s because Carolina started the season with a great D/not as great O and Seattle ended the season with great O/great D. Both teams have been scoring a lot more since the midseason point, but Seattle’s defense got stronger while we saw some more cracks from Carolina, especially against the pass after suffering some defensive back injuries. I think Russell Wilson, who seems destined to play in close playoff games every time, can make some big plays here to his wide receivers. Backyard football may be the strategy again, because I don’t see the Seattle OL holding up well against Carolina’s rush. Marshawn Lynch is expected to return, but he really has not had a good season. I would be surprised if he had a big game as the offensive load is going to fall on Wilson here. Jonathan Stewart is also expected back for Carolina, but I think the Seahawks can contain that part of Carolina’s offense. The bigger question mark is Newton’s rushing, which you know he’ll go all out for with the season on the line. Then again, Newton has rushed for 24-42 yards in his five meetings with Seattle (1 TD), so they have contained the big plays. I don’t expect Ted Ginn Jr. to do much in this one, especially if lined up with Richard Sherman.

The X-factor seemingly is Greg Olsen. Not only is he Carolina’s leading receiver, but the tight end position has just been a weakness all year for Seattle, ranked 26th in DVOA. The crazy part is Kam Chancellor’s return did not fix that problem and he’s been beaten by the likes of Olsen and Tyler Eifert this year, and he essentially gave up game-losing plays to tight ends in Minnesota last week had the field goal been good. Olsen does disappear at times this season, though that’s really just a factor of Carolina being a run-heavy offense. I can’t imagine he won’t be a significant part of this game plan, though don’t you think Seattle knows that by now? Olsen did most of his damage in the fourth quarter of Carolina’s win in Seattle this year, a game the Seahawks led 23-14 before blowing a 4Q lead for one of five times this season. This has been a multi-year problem with the Seahawks with the defense losing it late. Newton can certainly get hot and do it to them again, which is why you fully expect a 60-minute game out of this one.

Seattle has better special teams, a unit that seems to pull horseshoes out of its ass based on some of these playoff endings, though this game will probably end with Steven Hauschka missing a chipshot field goal to pass on the NFC curse again like last year.

Pittsburgh at Denver

This was my preview at FO this week, so please check out that epic beast there. The injuries to Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger really suck, because we might not see a better matchup all year than the Pittsburgh offense vs. Denver defense. Last time, the Broncos were down three safeties. You get those guys back, take away Brown and Williams, and Denver’s defense should do much better at home here. I don’t really know what to expect from Peyton Manning and the offense, but playing a careful game would be wise. If this defense is as great as people have been saying all year, then they absolutely have to take care of these wounded Steelers at home. Brown was such a high-percentage receiver for Ben.

benab

You might be able to get some big plays from Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, but the consistency is not going to be there like it was with Brown. And it’s still an unknown just how far Roethlisberger can throw the ball, or what will happen after he takes some hits on it.

FINAL PREDICTIONS

I went 3-1 last week, though the scores left a lot to be desired.

  • Patriots over Chiefs, 20-13
  • Cardinals over Packers, 31-20
  • Seahawks over Panthers, 23-20
  • Broncos over Steelers, 23-16

Season Results

  • Week 1: 10-6
  • Week 2: 6-10
  • Week 3: 14-2
  • Week 4: 11-4
  • Week 5: 9-5
  • Week 6: 8-6
  • Week 7: 10-4
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 4-10
  • Week 11: 9-5
  • Week 12: 8-8
  • Week 13: 11-5
  • Week 14: 10-6
  • Week 15: 11-5
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 8-8
  • Wild Card: 3-1
  • Season: 159-101 (.612)

2015 NFL Wild Card Predictions

This weekend probably more than any is where you try to weigh the value of full-season statistics vs. recent performance when a team is playing much differently, such as in the cases of Chiefs-Texans and Packers-Redskins.

We can’t just ignore Green Bay started 6-0, but man that sure feels like a long time ago based on the way the last 10 games went. To some extent we’ve seen a turnaround from Minnesota too, but the last awful performance was unfortunately against this same Seattle opponent coming back to the scene of its 38-7 assault. But we also have a multi-year trend of Seattle blowing fourth-quarter leads, so that 2-4 start was not as shocking as it appears now. Seattle is a little more vulnerable than it was heading into the playoffs the previous three years in my opinion. Then you have a team like Cincinnati playing without its starting quarterback after a career season from Andy Dalton. Is it fair to put the same lofty offensive expectations on AJ McCarron? Of course not. Likewise, the data on the Pittsburgh running game basically gets thrown out the window with DeAngelo Williams unable to go this week after an ankle injury. Do we worry about a one-dimensional Pittsburgh offense given that Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t had a stellar playoff game in five years and has his highest interception rate since he was 24 years old?

Then there is the process of tuning out the narrative-driven bullshit from the media at playoff time.

“The Chiefs have all the momentum; 10 wins in a row!” – Yeah, and the last four teams to enter the playoffs on a winning streak of 10-11 games all went one-and-done, and they were at home even. The last time the Chiefs won a playoff game, I had yet to watch a full NFL game in my life.

“Pittsburgh is the scariest team in the AFC; no one wants to play them!” – The 2015 Ravens wouldn’t mind, seeing as how two of their five wins came against this team, including Week 16 with a lot on the line. We do realize the Bengals are the 12-4 home team with better balance, right?

“Cancel the tournament, Seattle has already won according to big dog Mike Silver!” – Backwards-Hat Jeff Fisher would like to remind you he swept this team, including a Week 16 win with Case Keenum barely doing anything on the road. Think Teddy Bridgewater can hand off to Adrian Peterson at home in the bitter cold?

“Green Bay just sucks this year; how you like that!?” – Well, this one might be true, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to just start trusting the Washington Redskins to take care of business. What happened to our season-long ridicule of the NFC East?

But since this is the playoffs, people will boast about being proven right by the win-loss outcome even if they had all the wrong reasons. Let the play on the field this weekend speak for itself. What happened in Week 1 or last week really doesn’t matter at this point. The teams that play better on Saturday and Sunday will move on.

Chiefs at Texans

I wrote a good 4,300 words on this game as my preview at FO, so please check that out along with our other wild-card previews. We put a lot of work into them, including 1994 Royal Rumble references.

Houston has a fighting chance thanks to home-field advantage and having the best player on the field (J.J. Watt). You won’t impress me with AFC South wins, but holding Drew Brees and the Bengals to 6 points each was impressive. If the defense can keep this limited KC offense to 10 points, they definitely have a shot here. I just think Brian Hoyer’s struggles while pressured against a strong defense are going to put the Houston defense in a few bad spots for field position and that will be the difference again. But I’ll be pretty surprised if this isn’t low scoring.

Steelers at Bengals

You can probably look up my blog entries from the last few years and find me pointing out each time that Marvin Lewis is just 2-12 at home against the Steelers in his career. That’s incredible. I’ve come to expect Pittsburgh to play well in this building, and for the Bengals to play better in Pittsburgh. That’s just how it has been for a dozen years, and sure enough, the road team won each game this season. What seems to be the main difference for Pittsburgh is the play of Ben Roethlisberger. His numbers are much better in Cincinnati than they are at home against the Bengals, and again, we’re talking about over a sample size of 12 years and 25 games.

benroeth

The comp. % and YPA alone are big, but obviously the interceptions are the key difference. Roethlisberger has never thrown more than one interception in the 13 road games. He has five multi-INT games at home, including some of his worst home games ever. Now does he play better in Cincy because the team is playing better, or does the team play better because he is much more efficient? That’s a little chicken-or-the-egg dilemma, but Roethlisberger obviously has to show up big, which is not something he’s really done in the postseason since the 2010 AFC Divisional against Baltimore. Even that game had a bad first half to it.

For all the hype about Pittsburgh’s offense, 17 of its 28 turnovers have come on the road this year (at least one in every game). That could be a big problem. Roethlisberger has 5 TD to 9 INT on the road this year, though his other numbers look great. He’ll have to protect the ball better.

The other troublesome part here is Roethlisberger has not played that well against the Cincinnati defense this season, and he will likely have little support from a running game since DeAngelo Williams is out. Incredibly, this is the fourth time since 2007 that Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger go to the playoffs after losing the lead running back to injury in Week 16 or 17.

Pittsburgh went one-and-done the previous three times, though I would not put any of the losses squarely on the running game. Isaac Redman did a solid job in Denver in 2011, but Ben had a high ankle sprain to deal with and Dick LeBeau drew up an embarrassing defense for “Him” to throw for 316 yards on 10 completions. Let’s not even go there right now. Bad memories. I also cannot blame the Steelers this year for not having a backup plan since DeAngelo was the backup (and was excellent) to Le’Veon Bell, who also was lost this season. That also reminds me of something. Cincinnati fans point to the Bengals losing Andy Dalton and Tyler Eifert in Week 14, but in the first meeting this year, Roethlisberger was rusty in his return from injury and Bell went out early in the second quarter. So both teams have had some big injuries in the loss. Hopefully this game is the healthiest one yet.

I just do not have good expectations for Fitzgerald Toussaint, though it’s not like the offensive line stinks anymore. I think a pass-heavy approach like the Steelers used against Denver and Seattle, two superior pass defenses to the Bengals, should be the game plan here. Live and die by Ben’s arm with this receiving corps. I did not get the sense the Bengals have an answer for Antonio Brown based on that last game. I also think Markus Wheaton is gaining more confidence, Heath Miller has two 10-catch games vs. CIN this year, and Martavis Bryant, if healthy, will react well to the “call out” from Ben to play tougher. The offense has to be smart and take what’s there this game instead of forcing deep shots. The Bengals rank 1st against deep passes (thrown 15+ yards) and 27th against short passes. Let’s not overthink this. Be smart, Todd Haley.

Cincinnati’s defense is really the key to this game. If it plays well, the Bengals are likely to win. If this gets into a track meet, I’m not sure AJ McCarron won’t screw up enough times to blow the game. Marvin Lewis has gotten nothing out of his offense in six playoff games (never more than 17 points), so I’m curious to see how that pans out here. The drop-off from Dalton to McCarron is not as huge as it would be for some of these other playoff teams, but there is one. McCarron’s lack of experience causes him to hold the ball longer and be less decisive. That will open him up to more pressure, more sacks and takeaway opportunities. McCarron threw a really awful pick-six on a delayed play to William Gay in the last meeting. He should play better with more experience and prep, and he has a nice cast around him of receivers. I expect A.J. Green to play big, especially if Antwon Blake is anywhere near him. Well, that’s assuming Blake can catch up to Green after he’s beat after his 8-yard cushion. I don’t expect Jeremy Hill and the running game to do much, so McCarron will have to make plays against a defense that is totally reliant on takeaways and red-zone stops. On a per-drive basis, Pittsburgh’s defense is 13th in points allowed, 7th in takeaways, 3rd in red zone and 26th at forcing punts/three-and-outs. Pittsburgh only has 10 takeaways in 8 road games, though got a big trio of them in Cincinnati.

This does feel a little similar to last year when the Steelers lost to the Ravens. Pittsburgh brings the better quarterback, but the Bengals have a more balanced roster and can win the game in a greater variety of ways. I made the mistake of trusting the Steelers last year, though I also think Baltimore’s coaching and big-game history trumps that of the Bengals, who have a lot to prove here. A win would be huge for this franchise. I just wish it was Dalton getting the opportunity to do it for them.

Seahawks at Vikings

This is the game I have the least to say about, because I frankly just think Seattle has always been the better team this year and should win. Yes, it is really dumb that the NFL scheduled this for 10:00 A.M. PST, but I don’t buy that as a great excuse if Seattle doesn’t play well. They played at this time in the 38-7 beatdown in Week 13 in Minnesota. And how do you not get ready for a playoff game? It’s the season on the line.

This should be one of the coldest games in NFL history, so hey, great f’n timing on the roofed stadium, Minnesota. One year too late. But I don’t think the playing surface will be bothered and both teams should be able to run their usual offense, which is a lot of physical running anyway.

I just think Russell Wilson will handle the adversity and elements better than Teddy Bridgewater, who has been pedestrian for much of the year. Wilson won’t be as spectacular as he has been, though I don’t think he needs to be. I don’t see the Vikings scoring many points at all here. They were shut out the last game with Cordarrelle Patterson providing the only points on a return touchdown. This offense is just too limited to attack Seattle’s defense and the Seahawks can go all in at stopping Adrian Peterson, who hasn’t had many great games down the stretch here. It sucks that we won’t be seeing Marshawn Lynch in this one, but I think the Seahawks will manage in a game that might need the cold element to stay interesting since I think it will be the weekend’s most boring watch. Al Michaels might need thawed out by the fourth quarter.

However, I would warn that Seattle fans better hope the team’s head isn’t getting too big after all the hype following that domination in Arizona. You still have three road games to get to another Super Bowl, and Mike Zimmer is a tough coach. He’ll have his guys ready to hit in the cold and all it takes is a few fumbles to turn a game like this one. The hype, the early start time, the Lynch downgrade, the fact that Minnesota is playing much better since the last meeting…it all adds up for me to expect a much closer game than 38-7, but I still think Seattle should win. If they lose, we know it won’t be clinched until the final minute of the game.

Packers at Redskins

This is the weekend’s most volatile game. Stay away, gamblers, because you just don’t know if Aaron Rodgers will throw five touchdowns or if the Redskins will win by 17. Okay, both of those outcomes are pretty far-fetched, but I would be very careful about trusting either team in this one.

When you look at the stats this season, you’ll swear someone switched Aaron Rodgers’ stat line with Kirk Cousins’. I never thought we’d see Rodgers under 7 YPA until his old-man decline stage, but he finished the season at 6.68 YPA as Green Bay’s offense has really struggled for 13 games now. He’s at a horrific 5.97 YPA over the last 10 games, and that’s boosted a little by that Hail Mary in Detroit that shouldn’t have happened, dropping Green Bay to 3-7 in its last 10 games instead of 4-6. Rodgers just had the 5th-largest decline in YPA (2.22) in the last 10 games of a season vs. first 6 games since 1978.

Coinciding with Green Bay’s 10-game slump is Cousins’ “You like that!” moment in the comeback win over Tampa Bay. In the last 10 games, Cousins leads the NFL in completion percentage (72.38%) and YPA (8.72). He has 23 touchdowns to 3 INT, which again, looks like MVP-form Aaron Rodgers. This is crazy stuff, but I still have a hard time trusting him. Interceptions were his red flag coming into the season, and he threw multiple picks in four of the first six games before this hot streak. Did he turn the corner as a still relatively young quarterback, or is this just a hot streak against a soft schedule? Out of Washington’s 9 wins, the Bills had the best record at 8-8, and Rex Ryan’s defense was a huge disappointment this year. Cousins is pretty decisive. He gets rid of the ball quickly and with good short-throw accuracy, so he takes very few hits. He can hit some impressive passes down the field, but he’s not exactly Rodgers in the arm department despite the Rodgers-esque stat line. I think Jay Gruden is doing a fine job with Cousins and he’ll be more likely to continue his success for Washington than the smoke and mirrors of Robert Griffin’s rookie season, but I’m still a bit skeptical about him ever repeating these numbers again. It reminds me of where I stood on Nick Foles after 2013, though I don’t think Cousins will sink that low.

Can I see Cousins getting into some interception trouble and getting sacked a few times in this one from a Green Bay defense that is really the best part of the team? Yes, I sure can. And I think it will be necessary for Green Bay to win, because the offense cannot be trusted anymore. You know how I feel about Rodgers playing from behind, and I think that strengthens his slump this year since he’s not getting the hot start he wants, so Mike McCarthy struggles to adjust and games just snowball from there. That Arizona game was a disaster; easily one of the worst performances of Rodgers’ career. Washington can’t do that to him, but I think they’ll be stout against an unreliable running game and amp up the pass rush on Rodgers. James Jones might have a good game on broken plays, but you flat out cannot trust Randall Cobb at this point. Calling him a No. 2 wide receiver right now would be an excessive compliment.

In the way that Colin Kaepernick seemingly “let it all hang out” in the playoffs with his running a few years ago, I think Rodgers may have to scramble more in this game to make plays for his offense. That’s either scrambles for yards or to extend plays for some backyard football. There is no next week if you lose, so why not go all out? The traditional Green Bay offense is broken, and I don’t think simply adding Jordy Nelson is going to cure everything in 2016. The Packers will need to make some changes in the offseason, but winning a playoff game after this sustained stretch of poor play would be some achievement.

FINAL PREDICTIONS

There have been four seasons in NFL history (2004, 2005, 2010, 2013) where 3 road teams won on wild-card weekend, but never a year with four. The closest we came was in 2013 given the only home winner (Colts) had to come back from a 38-10 deficit. Hey, Chiefs. I feel like this slate has solid potential for four road winners, but I’m not going to pick it to happen.

  • Chiefs over Texans, 20-16
  • Steelers over Bengals, 23-16
  • Seahawks over Vikings, 17-6
  • Redskins over Packers, 27-20

Season Results

  • Week 1: 10-6
  • Week 2: 6-10
  • Week 3: 14-2
  • Week 4: 11-4
  • Week 5: 9-5
  • Week 6: 8-6
  • Week 7: 10-4
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 4-10
  • Week 11: 9-5
  • Week 12: 8-8
  • Week 13: 11-5
  • Week 14: 10-6
  • Week 15: 11-5
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 8-8
  • Season: 156-100 (.609)

This might have been my worst record since I started picking games a decade ago. Last season was one of my best.

NFL Week 17 Predictions

Earlier this week I posted a graphic on Twitter about the changing playoff picture for this year, finding that it’s really just another case of health (primarily at QB) determining the changes. The only real decay and growth came from the Lions and Vikings, which many expected to happen.

NewPOTeams

There was something the other day I thought I would build this Week 17 post around, but it has slipped my mind. It was not going to be a rant about the MVP, because Carson Palmer should have been leading that for several weeks. I’m tired of talking about that. It wasn’t about Carolina, which finally lost a close game last week. I’m not even sure it was about the Chiefs, who I just don’t think are anything special again this season. Was it about the prospects of a weak AFC playoff field practically rolling out a red carpet for the Patriots to the Super Bowl? No, I don’t think so. Was it some support for Marvin Lewis, who might have had a No. 1 seed if Andy Dalton and Tyler Eifert didn’t get hurt at the worst time? Probably not. I’m not nearly interested enough in Vikings-Packers to even preview it at this point, especially if we end up having to preview it again a week later.

Whatever it was, I’m sure I will get back to it eventually this month, which is usually my busiest of the year. The playoffs are coming, moving on from the weakest regular season I can ever remember following.

Which games are even worth focusing on this week?

Jets at Bills – that sure would be perfect for Rex Ryan to keep the Jets out of the playoffs with a season sweep. However, it’s been about five years since Ryan did something monumental, so why should we expect it now? Of course, the Jets are a team known for failing in ways worthy of Greek tragedy. But I think they get this one, because they really let the first meeting get away with some bad play calls and bounces. The Jets have a better offense and better defense than Buffalo. They also just may have the better coach too.

Steelers at Browns – so I’m not expecting the Steelers to get the help they need (a Bills win) to make the playoffs, but that’s why you take care of your own business and win the games you’re supposed to. The Steelers will naturally smoke Cleveland, getting the memo one week too late when they should have taken care of The Replacements in Baltimore last week. If they can’t even beat Austin Davis and a Cleveland team waiting to fire Mike Pettine, they shouldn’t even think of bringing Mike Tomlin back next year.

Patriots at Dolphins – the outrage over New England’s justifiable decision to kick off in overtime was funny to me. I guess the league will do what it takes to build up some Week 17 drama. That No. 1 seed isn’t in jeopardy at all. I know Miami has won the last two home meetings against the Patriots, but have you seen Miami play this year? Out of the ridiculous 10 scenarios the Colts needed to make the playoffs, Miami beating New England is probably the most far fetched of them all. The Patriots will win and the Texans, albeit a mediocre team at best, will win the AFC South.

Seahawks at Cardinals – it’s the DVOA Bowl. Seattle ranks 2nd and Arizona ranks 1st in DVOA in a tight battle with one game left. Seattle’s DVOA dynasty has been something else, leading the league three years in a row. That’s about the only thing on the line for Pete Carroll here, so I actually think he should rest starters. The NFC North winner followed by Carolina is a playoff path I wouldn’t mind starting out on, and why show the Cardinals your current offense this close to the playoffs? This could be the game that ends Seattle’s 85-game no blowout streak. Backwards hat Jeff Fisher came pretty close last week, which was a real surprise. But that also speaks to why this team does so well in DVOA. The Seahawks rarely have bad quarters, let alone bad games. They are always so competitive and never out of a game. They just may have their worst two-game stretch in a while here if they take this game lightly.

Vikings at Packers – doesn’t it seem like every Week 17 has the Packers in some crucial playoff seeding game? That’s what made me realize earlier this week that despite such a long run of HOF QB play and 10-win seasons, the Packers have only had a first-round bye three times since 1998. Even Jeff Fisher has done that (2000, 2002, 2008). This year’s team does not look like it’s headed anywhere far, but the Vikings are one team I can trust these Packers to beat by having the defense step up. Then again, Minnesota’s really seemed to have an 07 Giants-like surge from the confidence it gained in Arizona a few weeks back. Remember, the Vikings were supposed to get killed in Arizona on a short week with several starters out, but were down 3 points in the final minute in field goal range, not too unlike its loss in Denver earlier this season. Then Teddy Bridgewater had his most dominant game against the Bears and the Vikings embarrassed the Giants last week. Maybe this team is peaking at the right time, but this is a great test on the road where the Packers have already lost at home to the Bears and Lions this year. The Vikings have enough on the roster to win this one, yet my knee-jerk reaction is to still go with Green Bay.

So we’re not really set up for a ton of excitement on the final day of the regular season, but something worthwhile should happen.

2015 Week 17 Predictions

Keep in mind I am 3-12 at picking Tampa Bay games this year…And it’s about 10:16 p.m. on Saturday night and I don’t have a f’n clue who the Colts are starting at quarterback, yet I almost feel compelled to still pick them.

Winners in bold:

  • Redskins at Cowboys
  • Eagles at Giants
  • Saints at Falcons
  • Jets at Bills
  • Steelers at Browns
  • Patriots at Dolphins
  • Titans at Colts
  • Lions at Bears
  • Jaguars at Texans
  • Ravens at Bengals
  • Raiders at Chiefs
  • Chargers at Broncos
  • Seahawks at Cardinals
  • Buccaneers at Panthers
  • Rams at 49ers
  • Vikings at Packers

Season Results

  • Week 1: 10-6
  • Week 2: 6-10
  • Week 3: 14-2
  • Week 4: 11-4
  • Week 5: 9-5
  • Week 6: 8-6
  • Week 7: 10-4
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 4-10
  • Week 11: 9-5
  • Week 12: 8-8
  • Week 13: 11-5
  • Week 14: 10-6
  • Week 15: 11-5
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Season: 148-92 (.617)