2012 NFL Playoffs: Bold Predictions
The NFL regular season has officially ended and the playoff matchups are finally set. All of the speculation is done; no more teams are “in the hunt” or “jockeying for position.”
The AFC has five of the six teams from last year’s playoffs returning—New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals—including all four division champions. The NFC has three teams returning—San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons—including two division champions.
The Broncos come into the playoffs as the hottest team in football, winners of 11 in a row and 12 of their last 13. They control the top seed in the AFC and are arguably the favorites. However, as we know in the NFL, nothing is a guarantee.
Teams like the 2007 New York Giants and the 2010 Green Bay Packers have proven that going on the road in January is not a death sentence.
Now that the games are set, here’s how I see the road to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII playing out.
AFC Wild Card
Bengals at Texans
The Bengals will travel to Houston for a rematch of last year’s AFC Wild Card game. Houston took last year’s game, 31-10, using tough defense—four sacks and three interceptions—as well as 188 yards on the ground.
The Texans have been leaking oil (pun intended) for the better part of a month now. After an 11-1 start, they’re 1-3, having lost by a combined score of 93-36 in the three losses.
In the last four weeks, they’re averaging 16.2 PPG on offense while surrendering 27.5 PPG on defense, compared to 29.2 PPG and 18.4 PPG in the first 12 weeks, respectively. They’ve been terrible on third downs (30.6 percent), and 13 of the 23 sacks allowed this season were in the last four weeks.
The Bengals come in winning three straight and seven of eight. In that eight-game span, the Bengals have allowed 14 or more points only twice. They are also among the league leaders in sacks with 48.
It’s hard not to like Cincy going into this game. It's playing its best football of the season and fell one game short of winning the division.
The Texans look uninspired, and while their 6-2 home record is difficult to ignore, Matt Schaub has been under constant duress and has looked out of sync for weeks now.
Bengals 24 Texans 17
Colts at Ravens
It’s safe to say that the Colts have exceeded expectations. After winning two games last season, the new-look Colts have returned to the playoffs, winning nine of their last 11 games. Quarterback Andrew Luck is a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year.
Meanwhile, the Ravens are back in the playoffs with some unfinished business. They fell just short of their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history last season.
The Colts have succeeded this season with their stellar quarterback play and contributions from their corps of young skill players—rookies Vick Ballard, T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen.
However, they’re playing 4-4 on the road and 0-2 against playoff teams, and none of their road wins were against an opponent with more than four wins. The Ravens are an experienced playoff team, and the tandem of Joe Flacco and Ray Rice are making their fifth playoff appearance together.
The Ravens offense is averaging over 30 PPG at home this season, and with Ray Lewis looking to come back in time for the playoffs, their experience and the intense playoff atmosphere will be too much for the Colts to overcome.
Ravens 31 Colts 16
NFC Wild Card
Vikings at Packers
You don’t get much better than a division matchup in the playoffs, especially after the exciting Week 17 game we just witnessed. The two teams split the season series, with the home team winning each game.
The Vikings rode Adrian Peterson all the way to the playoffs. He came up nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s 28-year-old rushing record. It has helped the Vikings offense stay afloat in spite of having the worst passing offense in the NFL.
The Packers have dealt with injury issues all season—Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson and Charles Woodson, just to name a few—yet they have become one of the best teams in the NFC.
The Packers have not lost at home since Week 1 against the 49ers.
Adrian Peterson has rushed for 409 yards and two TDs in the two previous meetings. Quarterback Christian Ponder has been hit or miss all season.
His passer rating in Week 13 at Green Bay was 41.9, and his completion percentage was less than 50 percent.
Lambeau Field is not where teams dream of playing in the playoffs, and the Vikings are 0-4 on the road outdoors in 2012. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is 4-2 in the playoffs, but has yet to win a home playoff game.
The Packers were a heavy Super Bowl favorite last year before a tough loss to the Giants in the divisional round. Peterson will likely have a great game, but it will not be enough to make up for the shortcomings in the passing game.
Ponder threw two interceptions in the first meeting and ran for his life; expect more of the same.
Packers 27 Vikings 10
Seahawks at Redskins
Well, I’ll admit, I thought the home team I’d be writing about here would be one from the Lone Star state.
The Seahawks and Redskins are coming into the playoffs as two of the hottest teams in football. Both have winning streaks of at least five games, and both boast a spectacular rookie quarterback.
The Seahawks have won five straight and seven of eight. Marshawn Lynch has led the running attack with nearly 1,500 rushing yards, and quarterback Russell Wilson continues to lead the team to wins.
The Seahawks defense has been a stingy unit all season, allowing 20-plus points in only five games this season.
The Redskins simply can’t be stopped right now. Robert Griffin III has been phenomenal this season. The Redskins have won seven straight, including five wins against divisional opponents.
Running back Alfred Morris rushed for over 1,600 yards this season and has been a huge reason as to why this team continues to win.
While Pete Carroll has his team playing at a high level right now, Seattle won’t have one of its biggest strengths against Washington: the 12th man. The Seahawks finished a perfect 8-0 at home, winning by an average of 18.5 PPG, and thrive on creating a hostile environment for opposing teams.
In contrast, the ‘Hawks are 3-5 away from CenturyLink field, and their points per game drops from 30 at home to 21 on the road. This game will be won by the quarterbacks. The edge goes to RG3, whose team is averaging 30 PPG during its winning streak.
The ‘Skins have defeated the Vikings and the Ravens at home, who both have great rushers and experienced defenses. They should match up well against a Seahawks team who has been fairly average on the road.
Redskins 27 Seahawks 20
Ravens at Patriots
These two teams have a detailed history in the playoffs. The Ravens came up just short against the Pats last season in the AFC title game. The Ravens squeaked out a one-point win in Week 3 this season. Flacco threw for three scores and outplayed Brady for the second consecutive game. Can he do it again?
Brady is one of the best playoff quarterbacks in NFL history. The Patriots defense has tightened up since the last time it faced the Ravens.
The Ravens finished the regular season 1-4 and will be coming into New England to play a Patriots team at full strength on offense with the return of Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots also bring an added feature this season, a respectable running game.
This will be close, but once again for Baltimore, it's just not meant to be.
Patriots 31 Ravens 27
Broncos at Bengals
Peyton Manning is back in the playoffs. The Broncos have been blowing through three quarters of the season and don’t appear to be slowing down. They won 11 straight to end the season.
The Bengals finished 3-1 against the AFC West this season. Their one loss: the Broncos. The Broncos sacked Dalton five times and intercepted him once. They held the Bengals to 91 total rushing yards.
The Broncos have been brutal at home, scoring at least 30 points in seven of the eight games—all seven were wins.
Manning has been great, but the defense has played well, allowing 20-plus points only twice in the last eight games. The Broncos are rolling and won’t be stopped by the young, upstart Bengals.
Broncos 34 Bengals 17
Redskins at Falcons
The NFC road to the Super Bowl goes through Atlanta. The Falcons have few supporters among fans. Their recent playoff debacles have people wondering if this season will be any different.
The Redskins will bring in a full head of steam into this match, winning eight straight. RG3 will be going into a tough, indoor playoff environment unlike anything he’s seen so far.
The Falcons finished the season 13-3 with the best record in the NFC and also hold a win over the Redskins in Week 5 in Washington.
While the Falcons have looked a bit vulnerable at times, they are 7-1 at home this season and 13-3 over the last two seasons.
The Falcons are 13-0 against non-division opponents this season. They’ve defeated the likes of Cam Newton, Drew Brees and even Peyton Manning at home.
The Redskins' dream season will end here.
Falcons 30 Redskins 23
Packers at 49ers
It’s the greatest NFC title game that no one saw. The Niners and Packers were expected to battle it out last season as the top two teams in the NFC. The Packers didn’t hold up their end.
Instead, we were treated to a season-opening matchup between the two that ended with the Niners taking an eight-point road victory.
The Niners have continued their home domination under head coach Jim Harbaugh. They are 6-1-1 this season and 13-2-1 in the Harbaugh era. Colin Kaepernick is the entrenched starter and will now try to prove that Harbaugh made the right choice in picking him over Alex Smith.
The Packers' best chance in this game will be to put the pressure on San Fran’s playoff-newbie quarterback. If they’re able to get Charles Woodson back, it would strengthen their secondary, making it difficult for the already undermanned Niners receiving corps.
This matchup will be tough, but the Niners defense will put the pressure on Rodgers similar to the first game. The question will be if Kaepernick can handle the playoff atmosphere.
49ers 24 Packers 20
Patriots at Broncos
We all knew it would come down to Brady vs. Manning. Brady leads the series 9-4, but is 3-4 in the last seven contests. Brady is 2-1 against Manning in the playoffs.
Manning outplayed Brady statistically, throwing for 324 yards and three touchdowns. The difference was the 251 rushing yards and three touchdowns by the Patriots.
The Broncos were down 31-7 before Manning turned into…well, Manning. The Pats held on to win 35-22.
You can never go wrong with Brady vs. Manning for the right to go to the Super Bowl. The one thing we can bank on is that this will be four quarters of football, with the winner likely decided by a late scoring drive.
The Patriots will be facing two familiar opponents from last season’s playoffs, with similar results.
Patriots 31 Broncos 28
49ers at Falcons
The Falcons will play in the franchise’s third NFC title game and the first since 2004. They welcome a former division rival from their pre-alignment NFC West days.
These two teams last met in 2010, with the Falcons taking a two-point win at home. The Niners will play their first road playoff game in 10 seasons. They bring their tough defense and an elusive quarterback with lots of big-play potential.
The Falcons offense has plenty of weapons, and the hostile playoff environment may prove too much for the young Kaepernick, as was shown in a similar situation against the Seahawks in Week 16.
Disclaimer: As a football fan and a fan of one of the teams in this game, I naturally believe in jinxes, so unfortunately, my selection for this game will not be disclosed. Sorry for the inconvenience.
Super Bowl XLVII
Patriots vs. NFC
The Patriots will be going for their elusive fourth Super Bowl title. Brady is 3-2 in the big game, and for the first time since 2004, it’s not the Giants standing in the way of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady reaching a place only a selected few have made it.
No matter who represents the NFC, the Pats will face a significant challenge on offense. One advantage they will have is the presence of a healthy Rob Gronkowski, which could’ve made all the difference in last year’s Super Bowl.
Either matchup could be intriguing, the NFC’s underestimated top seed in the Falcons or Brady’s childhood favorite in the 49ers.
Follow Walt J as he comes to you on his blog “Live From AREA 49″ with his rants on the world of sports from the fan perspective. Whether it’s picks against the spread, fantasy football tips, or sheer frustration with your team, AREA 49 has a place for you. Follow him on Twitter at @a49_waltj and @area49sports, and on Facebook.