NFL Playoff Predictions: Entire 2012 NFL Playoffs Through Super Bowl XLVI

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIJanuary 7, 2012

NFL Playoff Predictions: Entire 2012 NFL Playoffs Through Super Bowl XLVI

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    If Nostradamus thought prophesying about the future was hard work, imagine how much grayer his beard may have been in an effort to predict the outcome of an NFL season.

    2011 was a mixture of the common (the Patriots finishing atop the AFC standings) and the unforeseen (the Bengals heading to the postseason), as well as the normal (Brady and Brees' assault on records) and completely absurd (who knew handshakes could turn into heads turned?).

    As I put on my gridiron prognostication cap, or "my gridnosticator," once more for the playoffs, I can't help but to recall the good, the bad, and all of the predictions in between that I made in August.

    Hopefully, a look back at my preseason selections for the upcoming year will inspire enough confidence for everybody to give me this chance for another "go-round with the NFL (Nobody Figured League)!"  My selections for both conference's champion are entering the playoffs as the top seeds in the real life tournament.

    Will I stand by my preseason Super Bowl selection, which can be viewed by clicking here

    Or have the revelations of another equally predictable and unpredictable NFL season caused me to change my outlook?

    Do I foresee shots being fired by patriotic fellows at Gillette?  Or will New England haters once again be able to make strange bedfellows with another surprise team upsetting Brady and the boys in Boston?

    Likewise, will I stand by my original prediction for the Pack to repeat?  Or am I going to make a cheesy change of opinion and Lambeau leapfrog to another talented team?

    Here are my selections for the winners of every NFL postseason game, reordered after the Wild Card Round based on league seeding and using my projected winners.

    Feel free to chastise me as the games complete themselves!

Before the Predictions: A Look Back at the Good from the Preseason

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    So, why should you take a few moments to consider the predictions of one guy out of thousands of self-proclaimed "know-it-all's" who each have an opinion that ranks as high in importance as music does on MTV?

    I think anybody worth their salt is willing to proactively take a look back at their own picks.  After all, so many "experts" formulate an opinion, but too few go back to critique their own work.

    As for myself, expert or not, it's time to take the good with the bad.  Let's start with the former!

    Here is a list of my finer projections heading into 2011:

    1) I selected the Houston Texans as AFC South Champions in 2011, an accomplishment they earned without starting quarterback Matt Schaub.  In fact, if not for his absence in the last month, Houston could easily be basking in the glow of the almighty bye week.  With an improved secondary anchored by Jonathan Joseph, I predicted a 10-6 record for the Texans, and this was prior to any knowledge of a Mr. Manning missing the entire season.

    2) I had the Ravens and Steelers within a game of each other atop the AFC North, though I did predict a Black and Gold crown atop the division.  I correctly selected the Steelers' final record as 12-4, amidst many local predictions of 14-2 and better.  With the race neck and neck throughout, the only difference here was a 92-yard march by Joe Flacco at Heinz Field, to which I simply bow and say "good work."

    3) In one of the easier selections, I projected New England to win 13 games and claim the AFC East Championship, per normal.  Guess what happened? 

    4) The Kansas City Chiefs were projected to fizzle to .500 football, and they finished 7-9.

    5) The Saints were picked to win the AFC South over the wild card Atlanta Falcons, a reality come January.

    6) I gave the Packers a bye week and predicted a return to the Super Bowl.  Currently, the Pack is 15-1, a huge favorite by many (if not most) to represent the NFC in Indianapolis.

    7) While I only predicted a 9-7 finish, I chose the San Francisco 49ers as my NFC West winner.  Many fans and analysts are now discussing them as a team with great talent that needed a great coach to match, which is the truth.  However, this was not the general notion about the franchise heading into 2011, through many may not admit their belief that the 49ers would struggle to win five games.


    PLAYOFF TEAMS: 8 of 12 correctly selected

    DIVISION WINNERS: 5 of 8 correctly selected

Before the Predictions: A Look Back at the Bad from the Preseason

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    Humble pie is not often self-served, so you have to give me credit for my willingness.  Therefore, I'll keep this brief!

    And, before I dissect what went wrong, I'm giving myself a pass with Indianapolis.  I had them finishing 9-7.  In my defense, Peyton Manning was slated for a Week 1 or 2 start at the time, and his contract negotiation was the buzz of the time.  With Manning, Indy would have finished with a record comparable to my prognostication.

    1) Like everyone else, I had the Bengals at 2-14.  There is something to be said for "cutting the fat" and infusing a franchise with talented players who want to prove themselves.

    2) I didn't view the Eagles as a championship team in January, but I figured they would dominate the regular season.  Instead, like many others, I failed to question the approach of putting a former college offensive line coach and NFL defensive mind in as offensive coordinator.  Likewise, I put as much stock in their free agent splash as the worst offenders, picking them to finish 13-3 and the top seed in the NFC.

    3) I gave the Chargers the AFC West with a 10-6 record.  Given their talent, I wanted to give them more victories, but felt compelled to lower my expectations.  I didn't lower them nearly enough, and I won't repeat the mistake again next year.  I say that every year.  Expect San Diego to perform in direct contrast to my expectations once again in 2012.

    4) While I had both missing the playoffs, I predicted the Bears and Vikings at 9-7.  For Minnesota, I though their talent would shine through with a determined McNabb, ferocious runner, and decent defense.  So much for that notion....

    Meanwhile, one would expect that I am admitting to overrating Chicago, but on the contrary!  Before Cutler fell to injury, the Bears were well on their way an 11-win or better campaign.  Sadly, Jay's stoic face left from behind center, and the rest of the Bears' faces began to match Mr. Cutler's passionless guise.

    5) So close!  I had the Cowboys making the playoffs and the Giants missing postseason play for a third straight season.  Naturally, Romo and company failed to show up for the opening 30 minutes of a do or die showdown in Jersey.

    I accept my faults and humbly applaud my successes.

    With any luck, my playoff predictions will be a bit more consistent!

WILD CARD: Cincinnati Bengals @ Houston Texans

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    In their match earlier this season, the upstart Texans trailed16-3 to the Bengals in the third quarter.

    Then, things changed.

    Andy Dalton fumbled, and Houston capitalized to cut the score.

    With Ben Tate making plays with his legs and T.J. Yates finding receivers with his arm, Houston chiseled the lead and put themselves in position for a late drive to decide everything.  With their Bengals ahead 19-13, fans in "the Jungle" watched in shock as a two-minute drill to end the game ended with a Texans game-winning touchdown.

    Houston went into the locker room, rejoiced as the Saints held on to beat the Titans, and reveled in the joy of victory as they became the official AFC South Champions.

    Having given the Texans a fun day in Western Ohio, the Bengals are hoping to force a return of the favor down in Texas.

    If they have any hope of getting vengeance, Cedric Benson will need to run hard, giving the Bengals manageable down and distances against a much-improved Houston secondary and defensive front capable of getting pressure despite the loss of Mario Williams. In the second half in Cincinnati, Benson's eight carries totaled negative rushing yardage. 

    Whether Benson is a consistent force on the ground against the Texans' run defense, Andy Dalton will need to make some difficult throws against Houston's improved secondary.  While A.J. Green is the main skill player star on the offense, Jermaine Gresham, Andre Caldwell, and Jerome Simpson have made key contributions in the passing game.

    Andy Dalton will need to play his best road game and utilize his weapons.  After all, on the other side of the field, T.J. Yates will be high-fiving former Bengals corner Johnathan Joseph before he hits the field with his best weapon, receiver Andre Johnson- who was absent from the last meeting.

    At Paul Brown Stadium, tight end Owen Daniels was a huge playmaker for Yates, finishing with 100 yards receiving.

    This game is certainly a close call, and the outcome could come down to a few key plays or mishaps.  Neither team has great playoff experience.  However, the running game of the Texans combined with a raucous home crowd to christen these playoffs could be the difference in a hot opening contest.


WILD CARD: Detroit Lions @ New Orleans Saints

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    Sean Payton is not going to allow his team to forget the embarrassment and heartache of last season's opening round loss to the Seahawks.

    As the Lions' offense put its heart onto the field in Week 17, the defense- including Ndamukong Suh- failed to sustain pressure on backup Packers quarterback Matt Flynn, who set himself up nicely to become the new and (hopefully) much improved Scott Mitchell of today's NFL.  His six touchdowns and narrow miss of 500 yards exposed a Lions secondary that had everything to play for against second-string talent at key positions.

    Not to say Flynn is a slouch-- he's not.  Just ask the Patriots, who nearly lost to the Packers backup at Gillette Stadium a year ago.  However, Detroit couldn't tank that badly in that game.  Make no mistake, the back and forth contest showed their desire to avoid a trip to New Orleans. That is exactly what was on display.

    And, like their inability to avoid that fate, the Lions will not be able to stop the rampant attack of Drew Brees and the Saints in the dome.  In fact, short of a miraculous evening by Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson in their first playoff game, this contest may not be as close as expected.

    Even if the Detroit defense decides to nickel and dime for account of the aerial assault ahead of them, they'll quickly be reminded of why Darren Sproles was the single best offensive acquisition of the NFL offseason.  It's a no-win situation trying to defend the Saints' juggernaut without a full arsenal of tools. 

    Detroit's only hope is to have the ball on offense in the final minutes of a 41-38 game, which would require a perfect effort from Stafford in his first postseason start.

    Despite the possibility of a blowout, no match will give fans more "ooh's" and "ahh's" than the showdown at the Superdome.

    While New Orleans' defense may be spotty at times, they able to ratchet and ramp up the juices at homes, and Gregg Williams will certainly work to bring the pressure on Stafford and company.  The Lions will score their points, but if the Saints can force any mistakes, it could be the undoing of Mo-town.

    Big plays and big scores will define both offenses, but it will be the pressure and a key turnover brought by the Saints' ball-hawking home defense that will open up the margin of victory for Brees and company!


WILD CARD: Atlanta Falcons @ New York Giants

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    Atlanta looked AMAZING in week 17.  Still, it was against the Bucs.  Nay, the "Yucks."  The sorry, quittin' 'yucks (lowercase y).

    A tough game against the G-Men is an entirely different assignment.

    Jason Pierre-Paul is proving a disruptive force, and he and his defensive mates will need to bring a nasty on-field disposition to the Meadowlands on Sunday afternoon.  Matt Ryan cannot be allowed a clean pocket to throw to Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, and Julio Jones, nor can Michael Turner and company be allowed to run the ball and establish a balanced Falcons offense.

    After all, when the Atlanta offense clicks, ala last week, the results can certainly be pretty.

    On the other side of the football, the story is the same.  The Falcons will hope to get pressure, something they have lacked in 2011, on Eli Manning, all the while stopping a Giants run attack that returned Ahmad Bradshaw.

    Eli Manning had the finest season of his career, and a bolstered running game should only enhance the chemistry he's developed with his receivers, namely Victor Cruz.

    While both defenses, particularly the secondaries, warrant questions and have seen their embarrassing stretches, I have more faith in the hometown Giants carrying the "Big Blue" tradition onto the field against Matt Ryan's 0-2 playoff record.

    Both quarterbacks will get passes into the hands of their playmakers, and both sets of backs will find running lanes in spots.  I believe the Giants defense will be slightly more disruptive to "Matty Ice" than the Falcons front will be disruptive to Eli.


WILD CARD: Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos

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    Isaac Redman will need to put on his running shoes this Sunday, avoiding turnovers while picking up yardage to move the chains and keep down and distances manageable.

    After all, the Steelers biggest advantage may be the disproportion in the quality of their starting quarterback against the opposing passer, and any advantage Big Ben has on offense only further skews the edge to Pittsburgh.  By keeping first downs within reach, the playbook opens up for Ben, keeping the potential pass rush of Von Miller and friends at bay with the threat of the run. 

    Likewise, Ben's ankle is reason for Pittsburgh to do everything in its power to keep Roethlisberger upright, and there is no secret that the passing game in the Steel City in recent weeks has seen a number of quicker routes and faster releases.

    If Pittsburgh can play balanced on offense, it will enhance Ben's ability to succeed despite his injury.  Likewise, it will minimize the possibility of damaging turnovers, a penchant that has plagued the Steelers in road games this season.

    With a run defense as capable as any of stopping Willis McGahee and the Broncos' bread n' butter rushing attack, there is no excuse for the Steelers' offense to take any unnecessary risks.

    The Steelers defense, still primed with Pro Bowl talent at nearly every position on the field, from Ike Taylor to James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, will be an enigma for Tim Tebow.  Lawrence Timmons will certainly be a huge aid for Pittsburgh in containing the edge from the athletic Tebow.

    If Pittsburgh can avoid mistakes, force Denver's famed quarterback to become Tim "Te-throw," and take an early lead, it could be a long day for the Broncos.

    Pittsburgh is not an optimum health, and the Steelers won't play their best game, but they will play a discipline game.  That will be enough.  A close game in the early going will lean violently toward Pittsburgh into the second half.

    It's been no secret that Tim Tebow has failed to freeze safeties with his eyes, giving away his target on a number of passing attempts in recent weeks.  Expect Troy Polamalu to haul in the critical interception that ends the competitive phase of the NFL's final Wild Card Game.


DIVISIONAL: Houston Texans @ Baltimore Ravens

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    While they may have dispatched the Bengals in the Wild Card Round, facing the ravenous Ravens defense in Baltimore is another challenge altogether.  With their ace quarterback and best defender in the lineup, the Texans would have struggled to win in the Wild, Wild East of Baltimore, Maryland.

    As it stands without those two faces, Houston will simply be outgunned.

    Ray Lewis, T-Sizzle, and the crew have salivated for a home playoff contest for three seasons, and John Harbaugh's crew will finally host a postseason affair.  They won't waste the advantage it provides.

    Eager to match the intensity of the defense, Ray Rice will play a huge X-factor, making plays on critical downs while Joe Flacco shows his "Jekyll side" in avoiding key mistakes.  In fact, the strong-armed Flacco will shed his "Fluke-o" nickname for at least one week.

    Meanwhile, T.J. Yates and the Texans offense will feel the full brunt of an energized and elite defense.


DIVISIONAL: New Orleans Saints @ San Francisco 49ers

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    The Jim Harbaugh influence has been undeniable.  Bringing Greg Roman from his Stanford coaching staff, the two have worked wonders on Alex Smith.  The quarterback has blossomed into a winner, avoiding the mistakes and follies that dominated his early years in San Francisco.

    Frank Gore has given support in the running game, while Vernon Davis has been a stalwart target from the tight end position.  With capable receivers and solid playcalling, the 49ers offense- despite its utter anemia in the red zone- has scored the points necessary to win behind a rocking defense.

    What other word can be used to describe the real San Francisco treat?  Rocking, both for their awesome performance and ability to "rock" opponents to sleep.  No, not that kind of rocking....this has nothing to do with cradles, or babying. 

    Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, and crew have sacked quarterbacks, stuffed runners, and wreaked havoc.  In fact, no rusher scored a touchdown on the San Francisco defense until their fifteenth game!

    And, while the secondary has seen 20 touchdown passes allowed, they have forced 23 interceptions.  From top to bottom, San Francisco is the model of improvement in 2011.

    The Saints defense is aggressive and opportunistic, but few would deny the 49ers have the edge in that department.

    However, New Orleans' offense is a superior product to San Francisco.

    The 49ers' special teams could well be a huge X-factor as it concerns giving them the boost needed to get over this tall hurdle.  Of his 78 punts, Andy Lee pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 28 times, and David Akers set the franchise record for scoring in a single season.  Of his 44 successful field goal attempts, seven were from a distance of over 50 yards.

    However, therein could lie the problem: for a team that kicks field goals, how many points are really enough to beat the Saints?

    At the end of the day, I like the two best teams in the NFC to play for the George Halas Trophy.  While the 49ers had a great 2011 season, I envision the offense driving to give David Akers an opportunity at a game-winning field goal.

    Sadly, this time, the drive ends at midfield instead of the 15-yard line, where so many 49ers drives have ended this season.


DIVISIONAL: New York Giants @ Green Bay Packers

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    The pressure of keeping up with the torrid pace of Aaron Rodgers can cause any quarterback to be wreckless. 

    With images of Week 14 in his mind, those of the Green Bay offense dicing the Giants secondary in mere seconds to kick the game winning field goal, Eli Manning may well feel those pressures at Lambeau Field.

    While the Packers are not an absolute guarantee to reach the Super Bowl from the NFC, I can't foresee the Loonies in Lambeau going home unhappy so early, especially against the team that prevented them from achieving their Super Bowl aspirations in Brett Favre's final game in Green and Gold.

    Unlike Brett's lollipop in overtime in that NFC Championship tilt, it will be Eli Manning ultimately forced to try to serve up the miracle, an effort that won't come easily in Green Bay.

    Repeating the same mistakes from their last contest, the Giants will fall to the Pack for the second time this season.


DIVISIONAL: Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots

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    In my preseason predictions, I foresaw a Steelers-Patriots AFC Championship in Massachusetts.  I wrote:


    The conference championship will be a rematch between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots.  After an era of mastery by Tom Brady over the Men of Steel, the headlines for this game will be many, including:

    Can the Steelers turn the tables on the Patriots, having lost the AFC Championship in Pittsburgh to New England... twice?

    Will Tom Brady and the Patriots have an opportunity for redemption after a stunning loss in Super Bowl XLII?

    Will the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger have the chance to go back to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in six seasons, avenging last year's loss?

    With a New England win, Tom Brady would become the first quarterback in NFL history to start five Super Bowls.  Likewise, Roethlisberger would tie Brady (as well as Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana) by making it to his fourth Super Bowl.


    After a four-year hiatus from the Super Bowl (remarkably, the longest such drought of his stellar career), Tom Brady will take the Patriots back to the NFL's ultimate platform.  In a gut-wrenching affair, the Steelers will fall just short, a Brady drive in the final seconds resulting in the winning points.

    Every subjective bone in my body hopes that I am wrong!

    While this is a projected Divisional Playoff, my Black and Gold blood hopes for an outcome that goes against my prediction above.  However, my objective mind expects a New England victory in this contest, even though the Steelers showed great fortitude in their 25-17 win over the Patriots earlier this season.

    However, with injuries at key positions on the Steelers roster and the added challenge of playing away in Gillette Stadium, the Patriots will end their three game playoff losing streak.  A hobbled Ben won't be able to exploit the Patriots' secondary QUITE as badly as he did in their first meeting, and Tom Brady will showcase the bitter aplomb that Steelers fans have tasted too often in critical moments.

    Maybe if the injury report changes or the Steelers play their best road game of the season, my opinion will change or I'll be proven wrong.

    My Black and Gold heart can only hope. 



AFC Championship Game: Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots

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    Two years ago, the Ravens handed the Patriots a playoff shellacking that was equal parts thorough and stunning.  Taking a 21-0 lead behind a brutalizing running attack and relentless defensive assault, the Ravens proved that the Pats were no longer the juggernaut of 2007.

    Last season, New England transformed from the days of Josh McDaniel and Randy Moss, foregoing the feats of Randy Moss past and finding new strategies and weapons with which to have success.

    In a rematch with the Ravens in 2010, Tom Brady rallied New England from a 20-10 deficit in a 23-20 overtime win at Gillette Stadium.  Since that Sunday, both teams have improved.

    Both offenses have found success with their own versions of the speedy receiver (Torrey Smith and Wes Welker), as well as tight ends.  In New England, Tom Brady found Rob Gronkowski to be an amazing target, and the tight end set records of his own this season.

    While the Patriots clearly have the higher octane offense, the Ravens defense is clearly superior to the Patriots.

    The question is:  is Joe Flacco effective enough to exploit the weak Patriots pass defense, all the while avoiding mistakes in the tough Boston setting?  Can Ray Rice bolster his chances with another great postseason effort against Belichick and crew, either through the air and/or on the ground?

    Also, while their defensive prowess is undeniable, can the Ravens slow down a Patriots offensive attack that shows occasional lapses, only to explode like TNT on opposing defenses?  Ask the Cowboys, whose defense held Brady and company in check until the final minutes.  Or touch base with the Dolphins, who blew what was nearly a halftime shutout as the Pats offense took control in the second half of their Week 16 battle.

    Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are hungry to win a championship after having a fourth title slip through their fingertips in Super Bowl XLII. 

    Likewise, the Ravens, fresh off of three years of bitter playoff defeats, want this season to be the culmination to the Jim Harbaugh plan.

    In an epic battle, only one can win. In this year of great quarterbacking, amidst the fall of so many records, I'm taking the Baltimore Ravens defense to stand tall and reaffirm an adage that so many have dismissed in 2011....

    Not that defense wins championships.  The adage I'm referring to is: you need a solid defense to win a championship.

    Besides, the Ravens have played to the level of their opposition all season.  In this case, that bodes well for them.


NFC Championship Game: New Orleans Saints @ Green Bay Packers

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    Many have argued that minus a kickoff return touchdown, the Packers would have lost to the Saints in spite of Aaron Rodgers's three first quarter touchdowns in Week 1.

    My rebuttal is that taking away the kick return is asinine.  After all, it would only have been replaced with another patented Green Bay drive, a Packers specialty that evening.

    Drew Brees also played like a maestro in that epic shootout to kickoff the NFL season.  His brilliant play nearly led to a New Orleans rally, and the Packers came within a failed goal line stand of being forced into a potential overtime.

    Actually, that sounds like a lot of "if's" and "potentials."

    There is no doubt that both teams have great firepower, and the Saints are likely the one team that poses the greatest threat to the Packers.

    However, as if a microcosm of their 2011 season, the Packers defense gave up big yardage on opening night only to step up huge when the biggest play had to be made.  In the end, the 15-1 Packers feature the "31st ranked defense."

    Don't tell them that, though.

    In another shootout between the NFL's two best teams, the result will be eerily similar.


Super Bowl XLVI: Baltimore Ravens vs. Green Bay Packers

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    En route to this decade's NFL dynasty, the Packers will defeat the Baltimore Ravens for their second consecutive championship.

    While the picture above says it all, I will simply warn succinctly: get ready for another offseason of the "Discount Double Check," NFL fans.

    The Ravens will give the Packers their best shot, even frustrating Aaron Rodgers for stretches of the game.  However, in the most key moments, as was the case in Super Bowl XLV, the uncanny arm of Rodgers will throw through the frickin' key holes (nay, pinholes! ...can you tell I'm a Steelers fan?) to find his receivers.

    Third and 10.  Grrrr....

    Meanwhile, the Packers defensive front will get just enough pressure to force a critical late mistake by Joe Flacco, who won't be able to fully "exploit" the Packers lowly ranked secondary.  Plenty of teams have done it, and those are not the squads that beat the Pack.  Likewise, Flacco simply won't defeat an elite quarterback for a second straight championship game, great defense in his back pocket or not.

    Ray Rice will make his customary big plays, and the Ravens defense will have their shining moments, but the NFL MVP Rodgers will ultimately find a way to bring home the Lombardi Trophy to Title Town once again, improving his playoff record to 7-1 and quickly blossoming into the most prolific playoff quarterback of all-time.