NFL Playoff Predictions: 8 Big Surprises You Will Not See Coming
Every football season proves that the NFL is actually an acronym for "Nobody Figured League."
The 2012 NFL season has been a wild and zany roller coaster ride full of twists and turns. While the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons have enjoyed a smooth steel coast, teams such as the Pittsburgh Steelers have endured a rough, rickety wood trek.
And who can forget Seattle's Hail Mary win over the Green Bay Packers, who cried foul after an alleged Monday night corkscrew?
The first ten weeks of the regular season have revealed a number of surprises, but as the final weeks pass, the playoff picture should begin to come into focus. Just as every regular season reveals its fair share of surprises, the league's recent postseasons have been equally unpredictable.
For example, top seeds in the both respective conferences are a combined 6-8 since 2005. In other words, the majority of teams in both the AFC and NFC that finished the regular season with the respective best record haven't won a single playoff game. In fact, if you take away the favorite-friendly 2009-10 playoffs, two-thirds of top seeds have lost immediately.
What shocking developments can intrigued football fans expect this winter? Here are eight surprising developments that you may not see coming this postseason.
The Patriots Will Not Win a Playoff Game
Nobody is naive enough to believe that the Patriots will not win the AFC East, but many may be surprised to find out that I do not foresee them winning a single playoff game. Though they hold a tiebreaker over the Denver Broncos, who share a 6-3 record, Manning and crew's more favorable schedule should put them ahead of New England in the final standings.
Translation: Blown games against the Cardinals and Seahawks (which are preventing New England from competing for the top AFC seed) will come back to haunt the eventual 11-5 Pats, who will host a playoff game on Wild Card Weekend.
The Ravens' loss to the Texans was a bit of an abberation, their dominance rekindled this past week. I suspect Baltimore will continue to hold its edge on Pittsburgh through the end of the regular season, securing the third seed ahead of New England. And, if the Ravens were to fall to second in the AFC North standings, I believe that momentum would carry the resurgent Steelers to a 12-4 record.
With the Colts, Bengals, Dolphins and Chargers vying for the sixth and final playoff spot, the fourth-seeded Patriots will square off against the second-place team in the AFC North, either the Steelers or Ravens.
Last season, Big Ben riddled the New England secondary, and the Steelers are finally developing into a balanced team with a dimensional offense and capable defense. Once again, the Pats are among the league's worst pass defenses, allowing 19 touchdowns and surrendering a near-100 quarterback rating to opposing passers.
Further, Pittsburgh's ball control tendencies are only improving with the dramatic resurgence of their running game, dominating time of possession and thus, catapulting their defense to a top ranking. A Tom Brady on the sidelines is the best type of No. 12 for the opposition.
If they can get healthier by January, the Men of Steel would pose an absolute threat to the Patriots, owing them some postseason payback for past losses in January.
Meanwhile, the Ravens have already rallied from a double-digit deficit against New England, they have tasted victory at Gillette Stadium and they have the added motivation of last year's narrow playoff defeat still lingering in their collective memory banks.
The Texans Will Improve to 3-0 All-Time in Home Playoff Games
Translation: The Texans will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVII, the team's first ever Super Sunday. For their great success to date in 2012, I still hear little water cooler talk that truly validated Houston as a legitimate championship contender.
Last season, many fans predicted that Houston, minus quarterback Matt Schaub and suffering through other injuries, wouldn't even get past the upstart Bengals during the Wild Card playoffs. Instead, the Texans romped over Cincinnati before a raucous crowd at Reliant Stadium, and it was clear that the synergy between this balanced team and its home fans was a real factor.
Unlike the "Luv' Ya Blue" and "House of Pain" Oilers, who broke the hearts of Houston fans over a span of two decades, the home team will give the natives reason to finally rejoice. In my preseason predictions, I projected Houston as the favorite to win the AFC, and its play has served as evidence to this distinct possibility.
Jonathan Joseph and crew have been stout against the pass, J.J. Watt and friends have kept the front ferocious (even in the absence of Brian Cushing), Arian Foster continues to make his case as the finest back in the AFC (if not the NFL) and Matt Schaub has the necessary weapons to make plays in the passing game.
Aside from a clear setback against the Packers, which could have hurt the psyche of a less determined squad, the Texans have sprinted to an 8-1 record. A lopsided win over the Ravens served notice to their status as legitimate title contenders and Lamar Hunt Trophy favorites. Adding their tough-fought defensive win over the Bears, it is clear that Houston can win in a variety of styles.
Living up to the logo on their helmets, this team is certainly no one-trick pony. Stunningly, it will not be the only Texas team to make the playoffs this season (next slide).
The Giants Will Miss the Postseason
Every year, the defending champion carries a target on its chest, a bullseye that serves as a litmus test for opponents. Teams know the true measure of their ability comes against the incumbent Lombardi Trophy winners.
Unlike other Super Bowl winners, this Giants team is dealing with distractions and challenges of a much greater magnitude. I can't claim to be inside any of the player's heads or to have the ability to truly empathize with their recent plight. Still, it isn't hard to imagine that the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is having an impact on the team.
Big Blue has looked downright blue-spirited in the last couple of weeks. Players have had their families in hotels, displaced by the disastrous storm or worse, and that doesn't even include the pressure that rests on their shoulders to help alleviate the pain felt by their community.
While other franchies, such as the Saints, have returned to help foster rebuilding (including emotionally) for a community, no team has had to be the beacon of hope all while enduring the direct aftermath of the storm. The Saints were displaced and went 2-14 directly subsequent to Katrina, and the Giants are surely suffering... despite what they may want to project to all onlookers.
Add to that the fact the the G-Men have traditionally struggled in November, and their 0-2 record this month is hardly easy to overlook. Meanwhile, the Cowboys' win over the Eagles brings their record to 4-5, a mere game and a half behind New York.
Dallas is a few plays away from a 6-3 record, while the Giants are arguably a few plays from 4-6 (comeback over the Buccaneers and last-minute touchdown against the Redskins). The Cowboys, unlike the Giants, tend to be gangbusters in November.
The two teams tend to switch trends in December, or at least the Cowboys go from victors to chokers. Everyone remembers Tony Romo's misfire on a deep pass to Miles Austin against the Giants in 2011, a missed opportunity that would have ultimately cost the Giants a key divisional game, playoff berth and eventual championship. Once again, New York would take advantage, rallying against Dallas and fighting their way into the postseason, while Dallas collapsed.
I expect this season to be a complete role reversal. Having already split the season series with New York, the Cowboys have only one game left against a winning opponent, the Steelers on December 16.
Conversely, the struggling Giants' very next game comes against the Packers, with the Falcons and Ravens still waiting on the schedule.
The Broncos Will Earn a Bye Week
"Any given Sunday."
It's an adage that NFL fans know too well. Any given week, any particular team can lose, no matter their momentum, talent, record or opponent. However, if I were tied up and forced to predict the Broncos final record, my answer would be 12-4, if not 13-3.
In fact, one look at their meager schedule, particularly compared with the tough onslaught of playoff-caliber foes that was their early going, would indicate that the roll Denver is on won't end anytime soon.
With the lone exception of a December 16 affair in Baltimore, the Broncos will be favorites, if not heavily so, in every game they play. They could very well win out.
Like the 2011 Steelers, who coasted from a 2-2 start to a 12-4 record on the benefits of a lackluster second-half schedule, these Broncos are gaining momentum just in time to face inferior competition.
Scarier yet, Manning's offense isn't the unit carrying the majority of the load; Denver's defense and special teams are contributing to the team's turnaround from a 2-3 start. The new age "Orange Crush" (perhaps overstating things a bit) nearly held the Saints offense to seven points, and they put up points against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
If these bucking Broncos continue to get contributions from Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller and crew, opponents will be hard-pressed to take out this Manning at Mile High.
The Surprising Seahawks and Colts Will Both Qualify for the Playoffs
Depending on your stance regarding these two squads, this may or may not come off as a bold prediction, but it will be a reality.
The Colts are doing the little things well, and the end result is team synergy where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Adding in their additional motivation to win for ailing coach Chuck Pagano, who gave one of the most motivating speeches I've heard in my entire life (above), and this Indianapolis squad will have ample fight through all 17 weeks.
Andrew Luck will steal the "would have been" Rookie of the Year honors from Robert Griffin III. Quietly, Luck has been just as impressive as his draft peer, and his ability to lead a formerly 2-14 squad into the postseason will have earn him rookie honors.
In Seattle, Pete Carroll's enthusiasm and energy can be seen in the way his team plays. The 12th man is often given reason to celebrate, with Seattle's defense playing like a unit possessed.
Adding to that is the fact that Russell Wilson continues to get better week to week, Golden Tate and Sidney Rice are making plays and Marshawn Lynch is already a 1,000-yard back, and it is evident that Seattle is a team that nobody can take lightly down the home stretch.
I don't foresee either squad winning a postseason contest, but this 2012 season could serve as a catalyst for even bigger accomplishments down the road.
Will Matt Ryan Win a Playoff Game?
For all of the ice-cold temperatures that allegedly defines his steely resolve as a quarterback, Ryan has yet to win an NFL playoff game.
As the projected top seed in the NFC, the Falcons have earned their position as a result of many nail-biting wins over inferior opponents. You can only beat who is on your schedule, but Atlanta's game-by-game performance hasn't sold me on its overall ability to defend home-field advantage.
While many point to this year's Falcons team as a team with a new resolve and increased capability, I cannot forget their prior failures. Like an ex-girlfriend asking for another chance, fans have hope that the team's ways have changed, but it's certainly hard to overlook past sins.
The penchant in recent seasons has shown Wild Card winners utilizing their momentum to overthrow the top conference seeds. Unlike the American Conference, where I have full faith in the Texans, I don't foresee a change in the trend in the NFC.
Once again, Mike Smith, Matt Ryan and the Falcons will lose in the playoffs.
The New Overtime Rules Will Have Their First Real Impact
What can I say? It's simply overdue.
Whereas to date, the new overtime rules haven't caused a postseason winner to result that would have otherwise been a loser in the past, the time has come for one of the more significant game/rules changes of the past few years to have bold impact.
Here's the scenario: If a team received the ball to start overtime in the past, scoring was pure sudden death. Kicking a field goal on that opening possession would result in a win, and the other team would not have a chance to respond.
Now, if a team scores a touchdown at any point of overtime, first drive or otherwise, it automatically wins. However, an opening possession field goal does not automatically result in victory, thus giving the opponent their shot at a four-down drive to win, lose or draw (continue the overtime).
Last year, the lone playoff game to go to an extra session resulted in a quick touchdown strike from Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas, and the Broncos defeated the Steelers.
I can see the press conference now, with Russell Wilson, Jay Cutler, or your pick of the quarterbacking litter stating blatantly for all to hear, "When we kicked that field goal, I thought we won. Isn't that how it's always been?" It will be a classic "Donovan McNabb moment," recalling the ex-Eagle's classic commentary about not being aware of the possibility for a tie in regulation during the regular season.
Personally, I'm not a fan of the overtime rule changes. While I can understand the notion of giving a team a chance to answer with their own possession, isn't the only reason they once forfeited that right was their own inability to win in regulation? If that's the chance you take going to an exciting sudden death session, how can anyone complain?
Yet more than anything, I think the former rules were fair for one simple reason. Everyone agrees that all phases of the game are important, and any one weakness can cost a team. And, no matter what, every team always had the opportunity to get the job done with at least one phase of its game and, more often, two (special team and offense or defense).
I boldly predict that this year's playoffs will feature the first losing team that would have won just two years earlier.
Packers-49ers II Will Be the Game of the Playoffs, And...
...it will decide the eventual winner of the George Halas Trophy.
The 6-3 Packers have found their swagger, something which was lost in the early season. Despite their slow start, they still handled the Bears, 23-10. They've had a decided edge in games against Chicago, their criticized pass defense seeming to always save their best effort for Jay Cutler.
With only a game edge over Green Bay, I predict the Pack will win the NFC North and earn a bye week as the NFC's second seed.
With Atlanta at the top and the NFC East winner the likely fourth seed, this leaves the NFC West-winning San Francisco 49ers as the third seed. In other words, a home playoff win for Jim Harbaugh's fiery squad will earn them a playoff berth in Milwaukee!
SCORE! After the 49ers decisive opening day win over the Packers at Lambeau Field, Green Bay will be highly motivated to get even. Meanwhile, San Francisco is almost unarguably the NFL's most physical team, and it will view the classic playoff duel as a battle for pride. There is no doubt that the 49ers, even with their respect for Green Bay, see the Packers as a finesse squad. They'll be hungry to beat them again.
Like the 49ers and Saints last playoff season, San Francisco will be involved in another classic divisional playoff duel. Any true NFL fan should be salivating at the possibility of this rematch, particularly pitting Patrick Willis' defense against Aaron Rodgers' offense.