Can Tom Brady and New England avenge last year's Super Bowl loss? The answer may depend on the health of a certain tight end.
We are set to begin Week 14 and NFL playoff predictions remain just about as speculative as they were prior to Week 1.
Denver and New England might be the two best teams in all of football at the moment, but there’s a strong possibility they will meet in the Divisional Round rather than in the Conference Championship. So who joins them?
Are any of the NFC elite capable of dominating for consecutive weeks? The hottest teams right now are Atlanta and Washington. The former is frequently labeled “overrated” while the latter would miss the playoffs if the season ended today.
There’s much to consider as the playoffs near. Here’s how I see the entire postseason unfolding.
Obviously, before we can get into the predictions for the entirety of the playoffs—a task that is nearly impossible to nail in its own right—there must be a discussion on where every team will stand after the final regular-season snap.
I predicted where every playoff team would finish last week. Although there were a few developments after this past weekend’s action, things are the same for many of the league’s contenders. For the sake of brevity and avoiding redundancy, here’s where I see the league’s best falling.
1. Houston Texans—Sizable lead, winners of six straight.
2. New England Patriots—Own head-to-head over Denver, will be home for remaining difficult games (Houston and San Francisco).
3. Denver Broncos—Only thing that can stop them now is a desire to rest Peyton Manning.
4. Baltimore Ravens—Difficult games for the duration, just not as good as Denver or New England.
5. Indianapolis Colts—Two very winnable games remaining (vs. Tennessee, at Kansas City) and already have one game wild-card lead.
6. Cincinnati Bengals—Surprise! Pittsburgh has more unknowns, Cincinnati has won four straight.
1. Atlanta Falcons—Nearly insurmountable lead in conference.
2. Green Bay Packers—Aaron Rodgers hasn’t lost to an NFC North team since September 27, 2010, three left within the division.
3. San Francisco 49ers—Travel to New England and Seattle in Weeks 15 and 16.
4. New York Giants—Could go 1-3 or 3-1 over final four, 2-2 should be good enough.
5. Chicago Bears—Need two more wins, one home game left.
6. Pick ‘em—I like Tampa Bay as Bucs are home for Philadelphia and St. Louis and travel to a clinched Falcons team in Week 17.
And this was the easy part…
The Week 9 rematch will feature two of the NFL’s most under-appreciated defenses.
I have been critical of BenJarvus Green-Ellis for much of the season, calling him, “one of the worst starting backs in the NFL” in mid November. He averaged just 3.4 yards per carry through the first 10 weeks of the season.
But, Green-Ellis has turned things around. He has averaged 4.7 yards per game over the last four and, not surprisingly, Cincinnati has won them all.
However, this game will ultimately come down to Peyton Manning vs. Andy Dalton. It’s not even worth asking who wins that.
Denver 31, Cincinnati 17
Last season marked the first time since 2006 that the home teams won all four Wild Card games. Of course, that doesn’t acknowledge Denver’s defeat of Pittsburgh. Surprises are inevitable and bound to happen—it’s just about making the right selection.
While Baltimore is still one of the top home teams over the past few seasons, the mystique may be gone. The Ravens also must endure a grueling final four games, and they will need to delicately balance pushing through injuries and saving players for the postseason.
It’s a precarious situation. The Ravens could be injured, rusty or both.
More tangibly, though, the Colts should be able to take advantage of Baltimore’s damaged secondary and pass rush—so long as they don’t commit too many turnovers. Last week’s game with Detroit was the first time the Colts won a game in which Andrew Luck tossed multiple interceptions.
Indianapolis 24, Baltimore 21
It is very interesting that this matchup is yet to happen in the 2012 season. Indianapolis and Houston will play twice over the final four.
We will get a better sense of how they measure up in the coming weeks. Right now, I predict a dominating Houston victory.
The Colts are a streaky bunch who revel in each victory. Give Houston tremendous credit—there are few teams as stoic or consistent from week to week, despite the fact that the franchise has as many memorable moments as the current near-unwatchable season of Dexter.
The Texans’ secondary has been suspect the past three games, which could make this an interesting matchup. However, J.J. Watt can fix many defensive woes.
He formally announced himself in the 2011 postseason. What will he do in 2012 now that he is already in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion?
Houston 31, Indianapolis 20
Spoiler alert: Whoever wins this very-likely second-round matchup is my Super Bowl pick.
New England defeated Denver 31-21 in Week 5, but the Denver team of Week 14 is not the one of mid October. The same could be said about the Patriots.
At the time, Denver and New England were two teams that anyone with even the slightest shred of football knowledge could tell were among the conference’s best—they just couldn’t seem to string together four complete quarters.
Since then, both teams have been borderline unstoppable. They are a combined 13-1 since the meeting.
I could talk about Denver’s good defense and how it will harass Tom Brady. Brady has a rating of 90.1 in games in which he takes multiple sacks—23.7 points lower than in games with one or zero.
I could also talk about New England’s improved running game: The Patriots are currently ranked 12 spots higher than in 2011.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though. This game is about the two incontestably greatest players since the retirement of Jerry Rice.
If only we could be so lucky to get another installment in the “rivalry.”
I like the Patriots because they’re at home and Brady has been a little bit better in 2012.
New England 32, Denver 31
The Patriots have very quietly built a top-10 rushing defense this season.
Part of this is because the offense is on such an absurd tear that teams are forced to abandon the ground game relatively early. However, it goes the other way as well—the obvious strategy when facing New England is to keep Tom Brady off the field.
There’s something to be said for the fact that, despite a desire to control the time of possession, opposing teams are rushing for just 101 yards per game (16 fewer than in 2011).
Arian Foster will not have an easy game. Foster gained just 29 yards in Houston’s lone loss of the 2012 season.
The Packers, it should be noted, are not unlike the Patriots. Defensively, they rely on big plays, while the offense is all about an MVP-winner.
Houston’s recent struggles in the secondary is the biggest reason that I am going with New England. The Texans have overcome 1,128 yards against them through the air over the last three, but there’s a big difference between surviving an onslaught from Chad Henne, Matthew Stafford and Jake Locker and doing the same against Tom Brady.
New England 34, Houston 25
Tampa Bay, Seattle, Washington—whatever—San Francisco should advance to the Divisional Round regardless of who it plays.
Maybe it’s because the Giants are the defending champs and play in New York, but San Francisco’s embodiment of inconsistency has been buried beneath a national focus on Big Blue.
The 49ers’ front seven give them an edge against any opponent. With an average age of just 25.5, San Francisco’s starting linebackers are still two, maybe three years away from their collective peak.
San Francisco 27, Tampa Bay 20
This game comes down to one thing: Turnovers. The Bears and Giants have combined for 64 takeaways this season, but also and 36 giveaways.
But which quarterback is going to feed the D?
Chicago may have the more aggressive defense: Saying, "Charles Tillman is great at forcing fumbles" has been bashed into our collective skulls about as much as the fact that nobody knows Geno Atkins is great—but New York will find it easier to anticipate ball location.
Hint: Jay Cutler likes to pass to someone whose name rhymes with Spandon Parshall.
Things won’t be so easy for the Bears. Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Martellus Bennett each have at least one game of over 70 receiving yards in the past month.
New York 28, Chicago 25
It’s pretty safe to say that all four current NFC division leaders have been inconsistent. Yet, for all the head scratching, Atlanta is still 11-1.
So, when I tried to envision how the postseason will go in the NFC, I first wondered, who’s most likely to bring its A-game?
But that’s not the right question. The correct question is, who’s most likely to win if they don’t?
Matt Ryan has 13 interceptions this season, but they’ve come in just seven games.
Are the Falcons ready to get it done in the playoffs and avenge their embarrassing 2011 postseason defeat? If Ryan avoids disaster, the answer is yes.
Atlanta 20, New York 14
At first glance, this looks like a recipe for disaster for Green Bay. Aldon Smith might break the single-season sack record while the Packers seem utterly incapable of keeping Aaron Rodgers upright.
The reigning MVP has been under constant pressure this year. He has been hit 64 times (fifth most) and sacked more than three times on four occasions this season. Green Bay is 1-3 in such games.
However, outside of Smith, San Francisco has produced just 12.5 sacks. The Packers are an experienced bunch and can focus their attention on the league’s leading sack-man.
Of course, that’s easier said than done—I’m sure Chicago had a similar philosophy in its game with San Francisco.
The Packers are coming on strong. With the exception of the game against the Giants, who apparently just have their number, Green Bay has been consistent for basically the entirety of the season—or at least what qualifies as consistent in 2012.
Most importantly, the Packers could have Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson back.
I don’t think they will go 0-for in the postseason again.
Green Bay 26, San Francisco 20
The Atlanta Falcons remind me quite a bit of the Green Bay Packers from 2010. Records aside, the narrative is similar.
In 2010, up-and-coming Aaron Rodgers broke out for 261 yards per game with a QBR of 69.2 and passer rating of 101.2. Matt Ryan is currently sitting at a season average of 299 yards, 73.9 and 94.9.
Even more interesting, both teams were smart enough to realize that the offensive approach needed to change with the growth of their quarterback. Atlanta had the No. 17 rushing offense in 2011 but is currently ranked No. 28. Green Bay went from No. 14 in 2009 to No. 24 in 2010.
Defensively, the trend continues. Atlanta has the eighth-most takeaways. Green Bay was No. 7 in that department.
The defenses were also stingy. Atlanta is allowing 19.1 points per game—four more than the 2010 Packers.
The Falcons have much in common with the 2010 Packers. They will also likely have something the 2010 Packers did not: Home field throughout.
Atlanta 27, Green Bay 24
Up to this point, every matchup is subject to change based on where the 12 postseason teams finish the season. But, no matter where they may ultimately be seeded, this is my Super Bowl (which I predicted in early September).
One key matchup, were this game to take place, would be the linebackers and safeties of Atlanta against the tight ends of New England.
Similar points were made last year and Rob Gronkowski’s injury may have cost the Patriots a Super Bowl. It won’t be long before the we-need-Gronk-back-now chatter surfaces among Pats fans.
Atlanta has given up the eighth-most yards to tight ends this season (54.8 per game), and it has come in chunks. The Falcons allow 4.8 receptions per game to the position—No. 16 in the NFL.
Gronkowski makes his living off huge gainers. The only tight end with more yards per target than Gronkowski is Fred Davis, who only made it seven games into the season before being sidelined with an injury.
New England will be able to get it done without Gronkowski, but having him and Aaron Hernandez could be too much for Atlanta.
Just for fun, I’ll stick with my original summer prediction.
New England 37, Atlanta 31