2016 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

An offensive-driven team is going to win the Super Bowl this year, but the defense that plays the best over the next two games is still going to be the one holding the trophy. I would expect a game-changing turnover to highlight this weekend.

Green Bay at Atlanta

Both games are rematches, but I think this one is more likely to resemble the first matchup, a 33-32 shootout won by the Falcons in Week 8. I think both offenses and quarterbacks are going to be very good, but I do have some concerns with the health of Green Bay’s receivers; Jordy Nelson in particular. I also think in a game with two bad defenses, Atlanta should be able to run the ball better with the duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman compared to Green Bay with Ty Montgomery. This isn’t going to be a game where one defense surprises everyone with a dominant performance. Both offenses are going to move the ball and score frequently. It’s just a matter of situational stops, like on third down, forcing a field goal attempt or coming up with an unexpected fumble recovery. If the Packers get the hot start they so need like in Dallas last week, Matt Ryan can’t afford to press and throw a terrible pick like he did to Tramon Williams before halftime in his last playoff meeting with the Packers. But that was a long time ago, and Ryan is playing the best ball of his career. He’s been the MVP this season. Aaron Rodgers has been on an incredible hot streak, but this is the time of year where I start looking at how teams have done against good teams. With Green Bay, you’re talking about a team that’s 9-18 on the road against teams with a winning record since 2011. There was a 2-15 stretch going there before these last two wins in Detroit (31-24 in Week 17) and Dallas last week (34-31). Last week was the first time Rodgers won a game in his career as an underdog when Green Bay allowed more than 26 points. He was 0-17 before that. The Falcons are favored at home and have scored at least 24 in every single home game this year. Similar research also led me to this crazy stat.

Packers are 0-35 with Aaron Rodgers at QB when trailing by more than one point in the fourth quarter against a team with a winning record.

ar035

We knew Rodgers had the 10-34 record at 4QC opportunities, but I was reminded this week that only two of the 10 wins came against teams with a winning record (2014 Cowboys in Dez Caught It game, 2015 Seahawks), and both of those were 1-point deficits erased early in the quarter. Throw out a 2008 Minnesota game where he only trailed by 1 late (28-27 loss after long FG missed by Mason Crosby) and a 2008 loss in OT to the Bears in which he only had the ball in a tied game, and that’s how you end up with 0-35. Matt Flynn led GB’s only win in this situation against the Lions in 2011 (his 6 TD game).

It’s very important for Atlanta to start hot. You might recall Ryan had the Falcons up 17-0 in his last NFC Championship Game (2012 against the 49ers), but that lead was blown and the Falcons came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl, or maybe Harry Douglas keeping his feet away from the big game. This time is the last game in the Georgia Dome. I think the crowd will understand the magnitude of this one and help the home team to victory in another high-scoring game.

Final: Packers 28, Falcons 34

Pittsburgh at New England

I already cranked out over 4200 words on this one at FO, so please read that. I rarely read my own articles, but I read this one on Friday evening and thought it came together very well. If you know me well, you know that I am sometimes not truthful in my game predictions in big games involving the Patriots. I always pick them anyway, but it’s hard to tell when I honestly believe them to win or I’m just conjuring up a reverse jinx. I think the first paragraph in my outlook for this game subtly hints at my real feelings about this one on Sunday night. But as I wrote back in Week 7, Tomlin vs. Belichick is like checkers vs. chess. If Tomlin wants to win this game as an underdog, he’s going to have to make some ballsy calls, whether it’s a fourth-down attempt at midfield or a two-point conversion try to win the game. And when Antonio Brown drops the game-winning 2PC in the final 20 seconds, maybe I start looking for work in a different field on Monday. But I think Brown will play well, Bell will play well, and Roethlisberger usually plays well against the Patriots, but not good enough to overcome the defense. Still, the loss of Gronk should be felt in this one, and I still believe the Patriots defense is vastly overrated and can be exposed by a top quarterback. We just need to see top QB play from Pittsburgh again, and it’s rarely been there even during this winning streak.

Go figure, I like the home teams, both of which I picked to get to the Super Bowl a few weeks ago.

Final: Steelers 21, Patriots 28

Season recap

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Wild Card: 4-0
  • Divisional: 3-1
  • Season: 166-98
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2016 NFL Divisional Round Predictions

I always say the divisional round is my favorite weekend of the NFL year. My past reasoning was that we get four playoff games matching the (typically) best teams of the season against four teams coming off a playoff win. However, it is a round where home-field advantage is the strongest, with the home team winning over 71 percent of the time compared to 63 percent in the Wild Card and 66 percent in the Conference Championship Game.

This week I figured out the real reason I think I love this weekend: the despair. While 2017 has gotten off to a pretty incredible start for me personally, I am a pessimistic person. So the cynic in me just loves to focus on the games where the home team choked in the divisional round. The dream seasons that died in an instant. While the other rounds have so many notable classic playoff moments, the divisional round is probably best known for epic home chokejobs. Think of Red-Right 88, 1996 Jaguars-Broncos, 2005 Steelers-Colts, 2007 Giants-Cowboys, 2010 Jets shocking New England, Rahim Moore on Jacoby Jones, etc. You remember the moments when the home team did not come through.

You can pretty much count on one home team to lose this weekend, but I think we have three fantastic games that could go either way, and one piece of shit to endure.

Seattle at Atlanta

Maybe he’s not dominating the headlines just because he is Matt Ryan, but I don’t think any other player is under more pressure to perform well this week. Ryan’s 1-4 in the playoffs, and the lone win was a home game against the Seahawks in 2012. That came on a late game-winning drive after Atlanta blew a 27-7 4Q lead. The Seahawks are tough, and #AllRussellWilsonGamesEndUpCloseEventually. Of course, you don’t know which Seattle team will show up anymore, and the offense has really struggled on the road. I still think Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin, combined with Wilson’s scrambling and playmaking are enough to give this Atlanta D some fits. I also think C.J. Prosise could be a big boost if he makes his return from injury, because receiving backs have been very productive against the Falcons’ young defense this season. But this game is really about Ryan continuing his MVP season — at least 7.91 YPA in every game — against a defense that dearly misses Earl Thomas. It’s also a scheme that Dan Quinn knows well, and it’s a defense that Ryan has had some of the best success against over the last six years.

I really wanted a rematch of this one after the Week 6 game ended, a game where I think DPI was clearly missed on Seattle that could have led to a Matt Bryant game-winning field goal. The fact that Atlanta hit big plays and got Julio Jones heavily involved in Seattle with Earl Thomas active is a good sign that the Falcons can have success again on offense. They’ll have to I think, because I see Wilson putting up at least 24 on this D in what could be the highest-scoring game this weekend. The Seahawks will be thankful for the start time not being 10:00 A.M. PST, but I think Atlanta gets off to a good start and puts the pressure on Seattle to play from behind, which can help Vic Beasley and the pass rush get through Seattle’s known weakness: the OL.

Final: Seahawks 24, Falcons 30

Houston at New England

Usually when you watch a playoff game, you can at least think of a feasible way for the underdog to win. In this one, I can’t think of any way Houston wins this game that wouldn’t involve a total fluke or some massive chokejob by the Patriots. Bill Belichick is not going to have his team put up a no-show performance either. This isn’t so much about New England’s greatness, because I don’t think this team is better than the 2014 and 2015 versions, especially without Rob Gronkowski available, but this is about how bad Houston is.

9-7? DOESN’T MATTER, BRIAN. YOU PLAYED IN THE AFC SOUTH

PLAYOFF WIN? DOESN’T MATTER BRIAN, YOU GOT THE OVERRATED RAIDERS WITH CONNOR COOK PISSING HIS PANTS

But you can see how this would satisfy the requirements to be the biggest NFL upset since the 1970 merger if Houston did win.

HOW DO YOU LOSE TO A TEAM THAT JACOBY BRISSETT BEAT 27-0 IN HIS FIRST START?

Oh, it would be hilarious to see Brock Osweiler move to 2-0 against Tom Brady, knocking him out at home before he turns 40 in what looks like a cakewalk Super Bowl year for this team. But how the hell does it happen? Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus would have to completely dominate this game and get multiple turnovers from Brady much the way the Ravens did in the 2009 AFC Wild Card game. I doubt that happens. I also don’t see how Houston scores more than 14 points, and that might be kind. They were already shutout in this building once this year.

I expect the Patriots to lead by 17+ points at some point in this game, but I’m not sure they cover. Garbage-time scores count too, folks.

Final: Texans 16, Patriots 31

Green Bay at Dallas

Reminder: the Dallas Cowboys, America’s Team, has not been to the NFC Championship Game since the 1995 season.

I don’t think that changes this year either. I’ve been picking nothing but home teams this postseason, but this is where I go with the road team. Out of all the matchups, this is the one where I worry most about momentum vs. rust. Some might view it as early mediocrity vs. rest, and Dallas already beat GB convincingly on the road this season. But the Packers have been in playoff mode since starting 4-6, and Aaron Rodgers is back to playing high-caliber football that few QBs could ever match. The Cowboys haven’t tried to win a game since the day after Christmas, and this is the first playoff start for rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. I don’t think the situation will be too big for them, but you never know how a player will respond to that pressure. Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t fare too well a week ago in a matchup he should have been able to dominate against Green Bay’s battered secondary.

The loss of Jordy Nelson is significant, but you should know I don’t put too much credit on star wideouts. The Cowboys were able to score 30 in Green Bay without Dez Bryant, and I would have said Bryant was more valuable to Dallas than Nelson was to GB due to the presence of Randall Cobb (great last week) and Davante Adams (Cowboys fans remember him well from two years ago). This is also a good matchup for Jared Cook, and someone like Geronimo Allison can be the Jeff Janis this year for the PAckers and step up in Nelson’s absence. The Packers still have weapons, and they still have an OL that can allow Rodgers to move around forever before finding an open receiver. The Cowboys are healthy on D, but simply have not been a SB-caliber unit at any time this season. They give up too many completions and don’t get enough pressure or takeaways. I was surprised at just how many bad plays Rodgers made in Week 6 in watching the game again Friday afternoon, but he has been playing much better since that point. I also noticed some DB’s falling for Green Bay on Dallas completions. It was a sloppy game.

I think the game will be lower scoring than expected, and I do see some struggles coming for Prescott in his playoff debut. Leaning on Elliott will be crucial, and I’m sure Bryant would love some revenge for the catch call two years ago, but I like Green Bay here.

Final: Packers 27, Cowboys 21

Pittsburgh at Kansas City

I wrote about 4300 words on this game at FO, so please check that out. Basically, if the Le’Veon Bell has a big game and Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t turn the ball over, Pittsburgh should be in good shape to win. However, I just think the Chiefs are going to get those takeaways to win a close one, and that Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are way more involved with the offense than they were in that Week 4 disaster at Pittsburgh. The change of venue will matter, and I think moving the start time to night because of weather will rile up the crowd even more under the lights, putting more pressure on Pittsburgh to communicate effectively in the no-huddle offense. This should be a great game.

Final: Steelers 17, Chiefs 20

Season recap

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Wild Card: 4-0
  • Season: 163-97

2016 NFL Wild Card Predictions

It’s playoff time, so let’s start crushing bad narratives and picking winners.

Oakland at Houston

Okay, so maybe the playoffs don’t actually start until Saturday evening. We have to spend three hours watching one of these teams line up to be slaughtered in New England next week. Seriously, this is not the caliber of playoff game we have come to expect, and it’s certainly the worst on paper that I can ever recall. Of course, injuries to three different quarterbacks in the last two weeks is how we’ve gotten to Connor Cook (first start!) against Brock Osweiler. I’d like to think we’ll see a lot of DeAndre Hopkins and Amari Cooper bailing out bad throws, but I frankly doubt either quarterback hits 250 passing yards. This needs to be a Lamar Miller game if you’re Houston, and a Khalil Mack game if you’re Oakland. Mack sacked Osweiler five times in Denver last year and had a big strip-sack in the end zone. He needs to create a splash play like that again to get some points for his team in what should be a low-scoring game. Frankly, I thought Houston should have won the matchup in Mexico City, but Bill O’Brien coached a horrible game and the referees didn’t help either. So I already think Houston, one of the worst playoff teams since 1989, had a decent shot in this matchup to begin with, but should be able to get the home win by relying on its defense against a complete unknown in Cook. Oakland’s offensive line and running backs are certainly good enough to carry Cook to a 13-10 win should that be the case, but I just feel like Oakland’s defense is not reliable enough to keep the score that low. Osweiler might also be surprisingly not horrific, and hell, he can’t be any worse than what Brian Hoyer did in this spot a year ago, right? Fuck, why are we always starting the playoffs with the Texans?

This is all Indianapolis’ fault.

Final: Raiders 13, Texans 20

Detroit at Seattle

Most of us have been trained to expect the Lions to lose this game. They already have the longest playoff losing streak in NFL history, and Seattle has clearly been one of the premiere teams in recent seasons, especially at home. However, I give Matthew Stafford a fighting chance after seeing him have a few successful moments against the Legion of Boom, which is just not the same without Earl Thomas. What do I tend to say beats Seattle? Short, quick throws combined with a willingness to make the big play down the field. That about sums up Stafford to a tee in Jim Bob Cooter’s offense. Yeah, he’s gone to a more dink-and-dunk attack, and Calvin Johnson is no longer there for the spectacular catch, but Stafford has done well to get more receivers involved and he’ll still make the occasional side-arm throw or risk that most passers won’t take. So he’s the right quarterback against Seattle without Thomas, and Eric Ebron needs to really step up since you figure Golden Tate will against his former team, and Anquan Boldin usually seizes these opportunities well. The white running back may not make much traction, but the Seahawks will respect him, including Michael Bennett.

Meanwhile, it’s really a matter of the Seahawks being able to flip the switch or not. The DVOA dynasty is dead. Seattle finished 9th in DVOA after leading the league four years in a row. Russell Wilson’s early injuries hampered his play, but the offense has still continued to sputter on the ground all year, and the recent loss of Tyler Lockett hurts. The defense has gone without Michael Bennett at times, and now Thomas is done. It’s just not going to be the same team when the superstars are not healthy. That’s just a fact of the game. So while I think Seattle should win at home, an upset wouldn’t shock me one bit. The competitive streak died at 98 games this year. The Packers completely blew this team out already. And yeah, Detroit likes to hang around in the fourth quarter, though the eight comeback wins are a little misleading. Seven of Detroit’s comebacks have been from a 1-4 point deficit, and only one was a 7-point deficit (Rams). If Seattle can get up double digits, it’s likely over, but can you really count on this offense to do that right now? Sure, the Detroit pass defense just allowed the worst completion percentage in NFL history, but you can always get Wilson to go off script and hold onto the ball, opening up the potential for sacks to stall drives. I see a pretty competitive game here, and I know the illegal bat penalty that was missed a year ago is going to be on some Lions’ minds, but I’m still going Seattle.

Final: Lions 16, Seahawks 24

Miami at Pittsburgh

I already put 3700 words down on this game for my FO preview, so please check that out. Basically, I think Pittsburgh has too many weapons for Miami to shut the offense down (unless they injure Roethlisberger again). It does sound like Ladarius Green might not play again, but the point still stands that the Steelers are at home and they’re finally healthy, so the pressure is on them to perform. As for Miami, I wouldn’t count out Matt Moore playing well, but I think Adam Gase needs to show trust in him. If the Dolphins come out trying to establish Ajayi early and often, then I think that plays into the strength of the Pittsburgh defense, and if the offense is doing its part, then the Dolphins could see things snowball quickly on the scoreboard. They have to start well and stay balanced. Pittsburgh just needs to protect the ball better and should get this win, but I sure as hell wouldn’t bet them with the 10-point spread. After all, this is a Mike Tomlin team in a game it’s expected to win comfortably. No thanks.

Final: Dolphins 17, Steelers 24

New York Giants at Green Bay

This is the most interesting game of the weekend. One that can go many different ways, and I honestly believe this could be the most pivotal game of the 2016 postseason. The winner here just might go all the way. Lambeau Field lost its postseason mystique years ago, and the Giants are a big reason for that. You know damn well Eli Manning won’t be bothered by the situation, but we have no idea how someone like Odell Beckham Jr. will handle his first playoff game. Does he go off like a Steve Smith or turtle up like a Marvin Harrison? The matchup is certainly good with Green Bay’s damaged secondary, but all year we have wondered why the Giants aren’t scoring more despite the talent on offense. This team brings the best defense to the playoffs, and the Giants’ DVOA variance is the smallest of any team since 1989. It’s basically always a close, low-scoring game where the defense has to hold on at the end. The Giants are 11-2 in close games this year. If you’re just a football fan, you’d love nothing more than to see Aaron Rodgers with the ball late in a 4-6 point game against this defense. But the Giants have to get to that lead first, and it’s certainly doable with the standouts in the secondary (Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie). These guys can cover Green Bay’s receivers, and they already forced Rodgers into one of his worst games of the season, at home nonetheless. Of course, Rodgers can still buy time and no matter how good your secondary is, receivers will get open. This pass rush is not on the 2007 or 2011 Giants level when they had guys like Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. This is more of a coverage defense, so Eli better bring some points to the table.

My line on Eli has been that he’s only able to make the playoffs when his team is good, and only able to win there when his team is playing great. The Giants are 0-3 in the playoffs when they haven’t gone on their two miracle SB runs. This is also Ben McAdoo rather than Tom Coughlin putting the team in position to go on a run, and I think that’s a negative. Not that Mike McCarthy is great, but you have to give a coaching edge to Green Bay here for experience. But hopefully this is a good game that comes down to the final possession. I really have wanted to pick the Giants, but I just don’t see the points coming in this one.

Final: Giants 16, Packers 20

Full Playoff Predictions

I figured I’ll go through my whole playoff predictions before things get started.

Wild Card:

  • Raiders at Texans
  • Lions at Seahawks
  • Dolphins at Steelers
  • Giants at Packers

Divisional:

  • Texans at Patriots
  • Steelers at Chiefs
  • Seahawks at Falcons
  • Packers at Cowboys

Conference Championship:

  • Chiefs at Patriots
  • Packers at Falcons

Super Bowl 51:

Patriots vs. Falcons

Super Bowl MVP: Matt Ryan

I regret picking almost all home teams, but this is an unusually crappy playoff field this year, and no regrets on this final pick. I think Matt Ryan is having his 2006 Peyton Manning season.

Do I think the Steelers can win in KC and NE? Absolutely, but I sure wouldn’t bet on it. Just like how I think the Giants could rip through all of these top offenses to get back to another SB, but that’s just not going to be my pick. My preseason pick was Seahawks over Patriots, and while it wouldn’t shock me if we ended up there again, I don’t have enough trust in this incarnation of the Seahawks. Finally, after such a shaky regular season, I hope we do see a great postseason filled with exciting finishes and upsets. If so many of these teams are unusually flawed, then it’s safe to say the top teams are flawed too. No one is that much of a juggernaut that they can’t go down in any given week.

Season recap

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Season: 159-97