2017 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

Going back to September’s preview, this 2017 season was my pessimistic “Eat Arby’s” and “Patriots vs. the NFL” season. Here we are for Championship Sunday and…it’s the Patriots again, and the Three Stooges/Sacrificial Lambs.

OK, that’s not fair to some really good defensive teams, and we should respect that Case Keenum had a career year for the Vikings, and that the Eagles essentially earned a bye before the Carson Wentz injury. Blake Bortles also can’t help that he’s Blake Bortles, but I still think this is one of the weaker simulations that the 2017 season could have spit out for us. Hopefully the games will actually be good, and I think at least one of them will be.

Jaguars at Patriots

You might say I saw this one coming a few months ago.

I’m not going to actually predict 20-9 as the final, but I think we have our story for how this one will be perceived. Tom Brady has a right hand injury. It was feared to be serious at one point, but now it’s sounding more like a cut that caused him to miss Thursday’s practice (he practiced Friday), and maybe he’ll wear a glove. A big deal? Doubtful, because we’re talking about a cut rather than some actual ligament damage or something that would impact his strength. It basically comes down to pain tolerance, and Brady often gets irritated on the field no matter how healthy he is. I’m chalking this up as a non-story, but that won’t stop Jim Nantz and Tony Romo from giving every throw and close-up replay the Zapruder analysis.

This also offers Brady a “he gutted it out against the No. 1 defense with a bad hand” storyline. Great. I will stick to my prediction that Brady won’t have a great game against this defense, which plays a Seattle style of defense and can rush the passer and cover without needing to blitz. I think Brady has seen several better defenses than this one, including the 2015 Broncos and 2009 Jets, but it’s a pretty talented unit.

Brady generally doesn’t impress in the AFC Championship Game, unless he’s playing the Steelers. I definitely like the under in this one, because I think the Jacksonville offense is going to struggle to score. This isn’t Pittsburgh. The Patriots actually figured out how to improve on defense this season after a bad four-week start. They’ve done everything they could to change the perception of how the season started, but those perceptions are hard to shake. This defense has caught some lucky breaks with dropped or overturned touchdowns, missed field goals, and the schedule easing up, but Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia have figured out how to keep the score (and yards even) down without the services of Dont’a Hightower. If you’re going to blame the Steelers’ defensive collapse on Ryan Shazier’s injury, then how do you explain the Patriots doing what they’ve done without Hightower? It’s just better coaching, simple as that.

Jacksonville’s running game isn’t efficient. Leonard Fournette is not that big of a difference maker as some think, and I expect the Patriots to contain him on the ground while taking away the play-action options for Bortles and forcing him into third-and-long situations. Bortles should try to scramble in this one as much as he can, but I just don’t think he has the receiving weapons to make plays against this defense that does still allow a good number of successful plays in some weeks. You absolutely have to finish drives for touchdowns instead of field goals and that’s really hard to do in Foxboro.

I think Bortles will flop in the biggest game of his career and those mistakes (setting up short fields) will be capitalized on by Brady and the offense. I’d be alarmed with how Jacksonville’s defense has given up a lot of big plays down the stretch of the season. They also haven’t played NE yet, and the Patriots are 14-0 in the playoffs since 2001 against new opponents. Jalen Ramsey might cover Gronkowski, but that’s not something the Jaguars are used to doing. I’d do it though, putting my best player on their best. Gronk is the player who can make some jaw-dropping catches like the Steelers did last week in their effort to hang 42 points on this defense. The 49ers also scored a lot on the Jags with Jimmy Garoppolo, but there was a return touchdown and some short fields involved in that output. Still, the Patriots can do the same thing, and they can do it by using their running backs and Gronk. If Brady tries to win this game by going bombs away to Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan, then I like the Jaguars in an upset, but we know the Patriots understand matchups too well for that to happen. It will be getting rid of the ball quickly and this is probably the deepest backfield in the NFL.

For Jacksonville to pull off the upset, it needs to control the game early with a turnover or two, don’t fall behind, and make sure Brady is getting hit repeatedly. Doug Marrone may even need to get brave with a big fourth down or fake punt or surprise onside kick. It’s all just asking too much from this team if you ask me. At least when the 2010 Jets won in New England with Mark Sanchez, they had the experience of the 2009 AFC Championship Game and already beat the Patriots earlier that year. When the 2012 Ravens won in New England, that completed a season sweep and we know they should have won the 2011 AFC Championship Game too (Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff had other plans). This is all still new for Jacksonville, who matched up well with Pittsburgh this year, but we’re talking about the Patriots here. That’s going from checkers to chess.

Final: Patriots 23, Jaguars 16

Vikings at Eagles

I previewed this game at FO, so definitely check that out for the stats and my thoughts. Basically, I think it comes down to which unlikely QB1 screws things up the most. I don’t think there’s enough of an advantage with special teams or the running games for it to be about that. It’s going to be about whether Nick Foles or Case Keenum throws a pick parade or takes some dreadful sacks or just has that one big giveaway in the fourth quarter that so often highlights a team’s run to the Super Bowl. I also think the Eagles’ front seven can be a tough matchup for Minnesota’s OL, so Keenum especially can’t panic and throw a terrible pick like he did last week at home.

While I lean towards Minnesota having the better team, I do think home-field advantage matters here. Not just playing outdoors with the rowdy crowd, but the Vikings also had a huge emotional win against the Saints thanks to the miracle play by Stefon Diggs. They need to come off of that with a good start on the road instead of playing flat. This should be low scoring with two strong defenses, but look for the turnover battle to be extra decisive.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t come down to a kicker, but I could definitely see that too.

Final: Vikings 20, Eagles 17

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2017 NFL Divisional Round Predictions

It’s my favorite weekend of the NFL year, but I fear we might not get a really good game to watch until Sunday this time.

Falcons at Eagles

It’s the first time a No. 1 seed is an underdog in the divisional round in this format. Obviously there are some unusual circumstances here with the Eagles losing their quarterback while they were leading the conference. The Falcons also have some clout after what they did in the playoffs a year ago and last week in Los Angeles. Atlanta was my only road dog I liked to win last week, but even I didn’t see a wire-to-wire 26-13 win where the defense was pretty impressive. The Falcons have flipped the script from last year when they were an offensive juggernaut and one of the worst defenses to reach a Super Bowl. The defense has improved in the second half of this season and the offense is still talented, but not nearly as productive. Still, the Falcons have grinned out 22-10 and 26-13 wins over Carolina and LA, two teams thought to be better than Atlanta this year.

But I can’t help but think this is going to be an ugly, low-scoring game. Maybe not as ugly as Eagles-Raiders from Christmas night, but nothing pretty about the offenses. I do take notice of the indoor team going to frigid Philly, which also features a pretty good defense in case we forgot. In 2016, the Falcons scored a season-low 15 points and really struggled that day. The Eagles will have to rely on defense to win this one, but at least Nick Foles has a playoff start in his past, and he did throw four touchdowns against the Giants. He didn’t screw up the LA game in the fourth quarter. Oakland game was awful, and he barely played in Week 17, so there’s a lot of doubt in Foles, which I can understand. He hasn’t been good on third down. The thoughts of him forcing 50/50 balls against this secondary is a scary thought. But if the Eagles can get Jay Ajayi and the RB stable going against a defense that is vulnerable to that position, then Foles may not have to do a ton in this game.

Again, it comes down to defense in this one. Matt Ryan’s had some bad luck with tipped interceptions this year, so if that were to continue today, I can easily see that being the difference. The Eagles are likely going to need a break like that. I think Vegas did another outstanding job with the spread, because this easily could be the closest game of the weekend, with an ugly 1-3 point win by the road team. That’s right, the team who barely made the tournament is the team I’m going to pick to go to the NFC Championship Game. Things have just broken the right way for Atlanta down the stretch here.

Final: Falcons 19, Eagles 17

Titans at Patriots

I don’t want to make it sound like the 2017 Patriots are a juggernaut (best of a weak bunch), but this would be a top 5 upset in NFL history if the Titans won. Tennessee was already so fortunate to get the comeback win in Kansas City., and yes, I’m still pissed we’re not watching Chiefs-Patriots tonight. The botched call (forward progress on a sack/fumble) went their way. The big injury (Travis Kelce) went their way. The lucky bounce (Mariota’s tipped TD pass to himself) went their way. The missed FG (KC) went their way. Good luck repeating that strategy in New England where you’re more likely to get screwed on a call, see your star get injured, suffer a bad bounce, and miss an important FG.

Somehow the Patriots have drawn a “double bye” so often since 2011. I think the 2014 Ravens and 2015 Chiefs were respectable divisional round opponents, but the other years were a joke. Some of the worst teams to advance in the playoffs have drawn New England. Think about the 2011 Broncos (Tebow), who won in overtime against a Pittsburgh team that was missing its RB (Rashard Mendenhall), center (Maurkice Pouncey), and Ben Roethlisberger was playing on a high ankle sprain. Safety Ryan Clark couldn’t play in that game in Denver’s altitude because of his rare sickle cell trait. The 2012 Texans slumped hard to end the year, but since everyone beats Cincinnati in January, they ended up going to New England first instead of Denver. Meanwhile, the Ravens knocked out New England a week later. The 2013 Colts were always a heavily flawed team led by the one-man show known as Andrew Luck. They were lucky to get past the Chiefs after trailing 38-10 in the third quarter. Then you have the awful 2016 Texans, who only got past Oakland thanks to a late injury to Derek Carr. Even in a game where Tom Brady played poorly, the Patriots still covered a 16-point spread last year.

Now the Patriots get the 2017 Titans, who were outscored by 22 points this season. This is a Dick LeBeau defense that ranked 32nd in DVOA against short passes and struggled with tight ends, and that’s what Brady and Rob Gronkowski get to feast on today. The recipe for a Tennessee upset is difficult to make. Derrick Henry would need to have the game of his life after arguably doing so a week ago. Running backs usually don’t dominate against the Patriots. You need a quarterback to step up, and Marcus Mariota has not been trustworthy enough this season. While the Titans keep every game pretty close, they lost 40-17 in Pittsburgh in that stretch, and this is the most similar caliber opponent to that game.

Reminder: since 2001, the Patriots are 13-0 in the playoffs against new opponents and 12-9 in rematches.

Final: Patriots 30, Titans 17

Jaguars at Steelers

This was my big preview at FO, so check that out. Simply put, the Steelers can’t play hero ball against the best defense in the league. Just take a conservative approach, shake off the rust from the stars who haven’t played since Christmas, and hope that Blake Bortles will screw up enough. I don’t think you can just dismiss Bortles in this one. Brett Hundley, Joe Flacco, and DeShone Kizer averaged 30 PPG with their offenses at Heinz Field late in the season. The Steelers might actually have the worst defense of the eight remaining teams in the playoffs. Still, I think the Steelers prove Week 5 was a fluke and win this game with a big second half that puts the clamps on Bortles.

Final: Steelers 24, Jaguars 16

Saints at Vikings

Perhaps the most interesting game this weekend. The closest thing we have to a quarterback duel without one major liability, though I’m still stunned that we’re talking about Case Keenum in these terms. Maybe he completely flops in the biggest game of his career, but he was No. 1 in passing DVOA this year. That’s not a six-game hot streak either. He had over 500 pass plays and still finished No. 1. Can he be as great as Sam Bradford was in Week 1 against this defense? Probably not, but the Saints were also playing worse than they are now on that side of the ball. The offense is obviously still dangerous too with Drew Brees, who is statistically the best active playoff quarterback in the NFL. He’s always up for games like this, but he’ll have to be great against a top defense.

The Vikings quietly recorded the best third-down defense since 1991, only allowing conversions just under 26% of the time. The Saints were able to score a lot last week without rarely getting to third down, but it’s also a down where Brees wasn’t as good as usual this season. He only ranked 14th in conversion rate on third-down passes, the first time he ranked out of the top eight in any season with the Saints. The Saints have been a much more conservative passing offense this season, and Brees had his first completion of more than 55 yards last week to Ted Ginn for an 80-yard touchdown. The great running back duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram was really shut down against the Panthers, and I think the Vikings can also do a good job against them this week.

It basically comes down to Keenum (or perhaps a Minnesota kicker) not shitting his pants, if we’re being honest. He has the skill players around him, he had the bye week to prepare, he has a great defense, and Mike Zimmer is one of the better head coaches in the league. I think Keenum can avoid some of the sacks that got Cam Newton in trouble last week, and he’ll make enough plays to get the Vikings this win and likely host the NFC Championship Game.

Final: Vikings 27, Saints 20

(My spread picks are PHI, TEN, PIT, MIN)

  • Week 1: 8-7
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 9-7
  • Week 4: 8-8
  • Week 5: 6-8
  • Week 6: 6-8
  • Week 7: 11-4
  • Week 8: 12-1
  • Week 9: 6-7
  • Week 10: 12-2 (Spread: 6-8)
  • Week 11: 8-6 (Spread: 8-5-1)
  • Week 12: 12-4 (Spread: 7-9)
  • Week 13: 11-5 (Spread: 10-6)
  • Week 14: 6-10 (Spread: 7-9)
  • Week 15: 14-2 (Spread: 7-6-3)
  • Week 16: 12-4 (Spread: 7-8-1)
  • Week 17: 10-6 (Spread: 8-8)
  • Wild Card: 3-1 (Spread: 2-2)
  • Season: 165-95 (Spread: 62-61-5)

2017 NFL Wild Card and Full Playoff Predictions

The Titans, Rams, Bills, and Jaguars are playing this weekend. Are we sure it’s the playoffs, or is it January 2000? I can’t help but feel that something strange is going to happen this postseason, but here we go.

Titans at Chiefs

I already did my big preview on this one at FO, so check that out. I just think the Chiefs are on a good run going into the playoffs and they should be able to get this win without too much trouble. Too much offense for the Titans to overcome on the road. Good offenses all put up 25+ on the Titans this year. This could be the start to an incredible playoff run by the Chiefs a la the 2011 Giants/2012 Ravens.

Final: Chiefs 27, Titans 17

Falcons at Rams

I think this game has the widest range of outcomes this weekend. The Falcons should have won the Super Bowl last year, and are lucky to be in the tournament this year. Don’t forget the dropped game-winning touchdown by the Bears in Week 1, the Golden Tate GW TD coming up inches short in Detroit, the way Seattle and Tampa Bay missed game-tying field goals at the end, or Drew Brees’ unthinkable pick in the red zone in a 3-point game. The Falcons can be 4-12 just as easily as 13-3 right now. It’s just been that kind of year.

Meanwhile, the Rams bring inexperience and unpredictability to the tournament. They rested starters last week, and this is all new for Sean McVay, Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Buffalo’s wide receivers, and Aaron Donald. The Rams had the highest weekly DVOA variance this season while the Falcons had the lowest. The Rams really stomped some teams, including Seattle in Seattle, and they play great special teams and give Goff incredible field position. They also struggled to get the offense going against some better defenses like the Vikings and Seahawks (first time when they were healthy).

The matchup seems to favor the Rams in that the Falcons were 25th in QBR against play-action passes, and Goff uses play-action more than anyone. He also loves throwing to Gurley, who is on a tear, and no defense gives up more catches to running backs than the Falcons. However, Goff still worries me. He had the third-highest rate of off-target passes this year according to ESPN Stats & Info. So you’re talking about a quarterback who relies heavily on YAC and play-action in a QB-friendly system. When it comes to making big throws in big moments, the Falcons have a big edge there with Matt Ryan, who’s had a stellar run in the postseason going back to 2012 even. Sure, this season wasn’t what we thought he could do, but he really did have an epic amount of tipped interceptions and some egregious touchdown drops. He’s clearly not leading an offense as great as 2016’s, but this is still a talented bunch who can score on this defense and won’t be afraid of the big stage. It also doesn’t sound like a strong home-field advantage is going to be there for the Rams yet, but win this game and that will change too in the future.

Atlanta’s only allowed more than 26 points once this season (31 to Seattle), so I think the game can remain close. This is the smallest spread this week at 6 points, and I really think Atlanta might be the underdog to back on that front.

Final: Falcons 26, Rams 23

Bills at Jaguars

Not only are the Bills and Jaguars in the playoffs, but one of these teams is guaranteed to advance to the next round. It’s too bad LeSean McCoy isn’t 100 percent, because he’s sorely needed in this matchup. Buffalo is a low-volume passing offense to begin with, but you don’t want to throw much against the top pass defense in football when you are so limited in receiving weapons. Not only could McCoy be a threat on the ground, but he can catch a lot of passes too. He led the Bills with 59 catches, 10 more than any other teammate. I’m sure McCoy is going to suit up to give it a go, but I can’t see him being too effective after his ankle injury. Tyrod Taylor gets pressured enough as is, but throwing him against the wolves of Sacksonville? It can’t be a pretty day for this offense.

So I think the only way for Jacksonville to blow this at home is for Blake Bortles to turn the ball over multiple times (or once for a touchdown). We have called Buffalo an opportunistic defense all season long with takeaways. Tre’Davious White is not just a guy who Gronkowski delivered a cheapshot to, but the rookie was involved in a lot of takeaways this year. The Bills were actually a subpar defense (26th in yards per drive, 23rd in points), but eighth in takeaways per drive, which really helped this team win nine games to sneak into the playoffs.

Look, the Jaguars held eight teams to 0-10 points this year. That’s impressive stuff. I think they’ll hide Bortles enough this week, lean on the running game and defense, and the Jaguars will go to Pittsburgh next week for a rematch.

Final: Jaguars 24, Bills 13

Panthers at Saints

Again, I think the AFC games are pretty one-sided this week, but the NFC ones could easily go either way. The Saints got the best of Carolina in both games this year, and neither was really that close. You always hear how it’s hard to beat a team three times in one year, but it’s not so hard if you’re already 2-0. In fact, it’s the expected result as it’s happened 65% of the time in this scenario. Part of what helps there is that usually the 2-0 team gets the third game at home in the playoffs. If this game wasn’t in the Superdome, then I could see trusting Carolina a lot more. But that’s not the case since the Panthers bombed in Atlanta last week when winning the division was possible.

Neither of these teams are charging ahead into the playoffs on a good note. Both lost in Week 17. The Panthers also nearly lost to Tampa Bay in Week 16. This is a real Jekyll and Hyde team, and it starts with the erratic Cam Newton. I think he’s had some downright incredible games this year (NE, DET, MIA, GB), but then you remember the 4 losses to CHI/NO/ATL/PHI where he threw 2 TD, 11 INT. Cam actually had a career-high in rushing yards (754), but I don’t think you can really trust him to deliver in this matchup. He’s also failed to pass for 200 yards in his last three games against this defense, and he’s only topped 260 passing yards three times in 14 career matchups with the Saints. Remember, there were a lot of terrible defensive seasons from the Saints in that span. Things have certainly improved this year, but like I said before, the Saints have looked like a .500 ball club ever since that dominant 7-game winning streak where none of the games were too close.

Mix in the familiarity these teams have with each other, and I think you could see Carolina find a way to pull this one out if Newton brings his A game. He needs to get Greg Olsen involved heavily again, who hasn’t been much of a factor in an injury-plagued season.

All I know is I’m just glad to see Drew Brees in another playoff game. It’s been a while, and he’s been one of the most prolific postseason passers ever (see below). I think he’ll get the job done at home.

Final: Saints 27, Panthers 21

(That means my spread picks are KC, ATL, JAX, CAR)

PODVOA

2017 NFL Full Playoff Predictions

This is where I pick the whole tournament. I came pretty close last year, only missing on KC beating Pittsburgh in the divisional round, and Atlanta beating New England in the Super Bowl (d’oh). You don’t know how badly I want to pick the Chiefs to get some revenge this year by knocking off the Patriots and Steelers, two teams who eliminated them the last two years.

Wild Card:

  • Titans at Chiefs
  • Falcons at Rams
  • Bills at Jaguars
  • Panthers at Saints

Divisional:

  • Falcons at Eagles
  • Chiefs at Patriots
  • Jaguars at Steelers
  • Saints at Vikings

Conference Championship:

  • Steelers at Patriots
  • Falcons at Vikings

Super Bowl LII:

Patriots vs. VIKINGS

Super Bowl MVP: The home crowd in Minnesota

  • Week 1: 8-7
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 9-7
  • Week 4: 8-8
  • Week 5: 6-8
  • Week 6: 6-8
  • Week 7: 11-4
  • Week 8: 12-1
  • Week 9: 6-7
  • Week 10: 12-2 (Spread: 6-8)
  • Week 11: 8-6 (Spread: 8-5-1)
  • Week 12: 12-4 (Spread: 7-9)
  • Week 13: 11-5 (Spread: 10-6)
  • Week 14: 6-10 (Spread: 7-9)
  • Week 15: 14-2 (Spread: 7-6-3)
  • Week 16: 12-4 (Spread: 7-8-1)
  • Week 17: 10-6 (Spread: 8-8)
  • Season: 162-94 (Spread: 60-59-5)