Way-Too-Early Predictions for the 2014 NFL Playoffs
It's June. The league just finished OTAs, and some teams are just beginning their mandatory minicamps.
Yet, here we are predicting the playoffs.
Yes, it may seem far too early to predict exactly what will transpire in the months of January and February—and, on some level, it is. But no, that will not stop me from doing it anyway. And regardless of how early it may seem, the truth is, the season will be here before you know it.
So here is one man's prediction on what the playoff field will look like and how things will shake out from there.
1. Denver Broncos
2. New England Patriots
3. Houston Texans
4. Cincinnati Bengals
5. Indianapolis Colts
6. Miami Dolphins
A good deal of consistency in the seeding here, with a little change at the bottom.
The rise of the next generation of quarterbacks has officially begun, as three of the six teams in the AFC playoffs feature a quarterback who was drafted in the past three seasons.
The AFC North figures to be a highly competitive division, and there could be as many as three playoff-caliber teams from that division. Those teams could find it hard to make it into the playoffs, however, if they're not able to put together a strong showing against their division rivals.
The Dolphins, on the other hand, could be similar in performance, but they have a better chance at a winning record in division because the AFC East is weaker at the bottom.
1. Green Bay Packers
2. San Francisco 49ers
3. Atlanta Falcons
4. Washington Redskins
5. Seattle Seahawks
6. New York Giants
Just like in the AFC, five of last year's six playoff teams return to the postseason.
The Minnesota Vikings miss the playoffs this time around, because I'm just not sure Adrian Peterson can carry the whole team on his back two straight years. They were average or below average in every area except rushing, where they were near the top.
Peterson is superhuman, but the Vikings could miss out when competing with a more complete team like the New York Giants for a wild-card spot.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks could just as easily be the No. 2 seed as the No. 5, but such is the life of a very good team in a division with a great team.
AFC Wild Card: Miami Dolphins (6) at Houston Texans (3)
This could be the most interesting matchup of Wild Card Weekend, as it pits a team that has slowly risen to the ranks of the top teams in the conference against a team that is trying to make that ascent in short order.
The Texans have built largely through the draft, while the Dolphins have gone famously heavy in free agency. Overall, though, the matchup favors the Texans.
Sure, quarterback Ryan Tannehill was great under pressure last year, but the Texans aren't just any pressure defense—they are the pressure defense. They blitzed 48.3 percent of the time in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins offensive line will be under a magnifying glass all year, but this will be a big test for that unit in particular, where left tackle Jonathan Martin remains a question mark.
The Texans love to run the ball, and their offense functions largely through its ability to gain consistent yards behind Arian Foster. That could be a problem if the Dolphins defense is as good against the run as it was in 2012 (4.02 YPA ranked 10th in the NFL). But with the addition of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the Texans could expose Miami's struggles in stopping big pass plays.
Prediction: Texans 27, Dolphins 13
AFC Wild Card: Indianapolis Colts (5) at Cincinnati Bengals (4)
The Colts made the playoffs in Andrew Luck's first year at quarterback, but they were handily bounced from the postseason by the eventual Super Bowl champions. Andy Dalton and the Bengals have experienced that same dejected feeling in the postseason each of the past two seasons, albeit at the hands of the Houston Texans.
Thus, both Luck and Dalton will be searching for their first playoff win.
The Bengals defense is synonymous with pressure. The unit registered 51 sacks, the third-highest total in the NFL in 2012. Opponents struggled to move the ball through the air as a result, averaging just 5.6 net yards per pass attempt, the sixth-lowest average last season.
The defense lacks elite talent in the secondary, but as long as it can take away wide receiver Reggie Wayne (easier said than done), enough pressure up front will do the trick.
If the Bengals offense is to function through the two tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, the Colts linebackers and safeties could have trouble. They ranked 30th in the NFL covering tight ends last year, according to Football Outsiders.
Even without the two tight ends, any shot the Colts have of stopping the Bengals starts with shutting down A.J. Green, and chances of that happening appear slim at best.
Prediction: Bengals 20, Colts 16
NFC Wild Card: New York Giants (6) at Atlanta Falcons (3)
The New York Giants find themselves traveling to the unwelcoming Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons in a rematch of a 2011 wild-card matchup that took place on the Giants' home field. Last time, the Falcons needed Eli Manning to take an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone to score their only two points of the game on a safety.
With a 34-0 win over the Giants last year, the Falcons took a big step in proving that that playoff loss was a fluke. This will be the rubber match, and it looks to be in Atlanta's favor.
The Falcons have a great pass-rushing front four, and getting pressure on Manning has never been easier than over the past two years. The question will be whether the Falcons have the firepower in the secondary to keep up with wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.
That's where rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant figures into the equation, and we'll have a much better idea of where he stands in January.
Prediction: Falcons 24, Giants 17
NFC Wild Card: Seattle Seahawks (5) at Washington Redskins (4)
Here, we have our only rematch from the 2012 playoffs thus far.
The Redskins offense had its way with the Seahawks in the first quarter, scoring a touchdown on their first two drives. It looked like the Seahawks would have to adjust, until the Redskins adjusted for them, with RGIII essentially becoming a one-legged quarterback.
This time, they likely won't need the help.
The Seahawks have been one of the offseason's busiest teams, adding bookend pass-rushers along with athletic receiver Percy Harvin, accompanied by a strong draft haul to complement their talented roster.
The Redskins haven't been silent this offseason, and they'll get better with the return of outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and defensive lineman Adam Carriker, but will their secondary be able to hold its own against a deep group at receiver?
Whether RGIII has two legs or one, one thing is clear: Shutting down the running game is a great place to start against the Redskins. Against Seattle's top-10 run defense, the Redskins could find it hard to get their offense going.
Prediction: Seahawks 27, Redskins 21
AFC Divisional: Cincinnati Bengals (4) at Denver Broncos (1)
This game should be a lot closer than you think.
In fact, this game was very close last year when the two teams met in the regular season during Denver's 11-game winning streak. The Bengals defense held the Broncos offense to just 10 points through the first half.
Peyton Manning threw a pair of picks, but he was largely unstoppable, completing 77.1 percent of his throws and putting up a 105.8 passer rating. Why? According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he was pressured on just three dropbacks.
The Bengals defense is predicated on its ability to get pressure on the quarterback. It may have a hard time against an offensive line that allowed Manning to be the least pressured quarterback in the NFL last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The Broncos defense has struggled against offenses that employ two-tight end sets (specifically the Patriots), so if the Bengals can target that weakness, they could have some success on offense. Enough to keep up with Manning and the Broncos? Not likely.
Prediction: Broncos 34, Bengals 31
AFC Divisional: Houston Texans (3) at New England Patriots (2)
This would be the fourth matchup between these two teams in the past two years. Last year, the Patriots looked like they had the Texans' number, flat-out dominating both contests on the scoreboard by a combined score of 83-56.
Basically, Tom Brady looked so effortless against the Texans in their last meeting that it truly kicked off the discussion that he might be putting together an MVP-caliber season. His mastery was even more evident when the Texans sent extra pressure, and as mentioned previously, they liked to blitz more than almost any other team in the NFL.
The Texans, meanwhile, were far too one-dimensional to get things going against the Patriots. New England's defense is built better to stop the run than the pass, but the Texans offense is predicated on its ability to run the ball and consistently gain yards. So when that didn't work, the Texans were sunk.
If they can't find a game plan that works, they could be in over their heads yet again.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Texans 21
NFC Divisional: Seattle Seahawks (5) at Green Bay Packers (1)
This game will undoubtedly be hyped as a rematch following last year's controversial end-of-game call by the replacement referees.
In that meeting, it took 36 minutes and 49 seconds for the Packers' No. 5 scoring offense to finally put points on the board. While the team scored over three touchdowns per game on average, it did not reach the end zone once against Seattle.
It didn't help that Rodgers was sacked eight times in the first half alone.
Granted, that meeting was early in the season during an early stretch where there were questions about the production in the running game and on the offensive line, but the Seahawks got a good taste of what works against the Packers: relentless pressure on Rodgers.
If the Seahawks are looking to continue their run-heavy offense from 2012 (ranked first in the NFL in attempts, third in yards, fifth in yards per attempt), they should have some success against a Packers run defense that was very average last year (13th in attempts, 17th in yards, 23rd in yards per attempt). Something tells me the vaunted Packers offense could run into another postseason road block.
Prediction: Seahawks 20, Packers 14
NFC Divisional: Atlanta Falcons (3) at San Francisco 49ers (2)
This marks the third rematch from the 2012 playoffs in my scenario, as the Falcons get a shot at retribution against the 49ers for eliminating them in the NFC Championship Game. In fact, these two teams will be almost exactly the same squads that took the field last year, with neither team having to deal with too much turnover on its roster.
The 49ers haven't been unstoppable at home, but they've rarely lost in San Francisco and boast a combined regular-season and postseason record of 15-3-1 over the past two years.
The Falcons have been good enough on the road, but at 10-7 over the past two years, they're much closer to average than their home record of 13-4.
This will be a higher-scoring game than the 49ers might like. The Falcons offense did a better job of stopping itself than the 49ers did in the NFC Championship Game. The difference, however, will once again be the Falcons' Achilles heel in run defense.
Prediction: 49ers 38, Falcons 35
AFC Championship: New England Patriots (2) at Denver Broncos (1)
The way it should be: Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning, with the winner going to the Super Bowl.
Wes Welker gets his shot at postseason redemption with his new team. The only problem: Wes Welker doesn't play defense.
Brady has lit up the Broncos defense every time he has faced the unit recently, completing 72.7 percent of his passes for 906 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception (126.9 passer rating).
In his past three games against defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio (Broncos and Jaguars), Brady's numbers are even better. He has completed 84.7 percent of his passes for 752 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions (134.9 passer rating).
The Patriots defense was able to put the breaks on the Broncos offense early in the 2012 season, and that was well before the team started playing better down the stretch of the season.
Recently, Peyton Manning has started slow against the Patriots but has caught fire as the game has worn on. This time, his team falls short in a comeback attempt.
Prediction: Patriots 35, Broncos 31
NFC Championship: Seattle Seahawks (5) at San Francisco 49ers (2)
The NFC West was one of the worst divisions in football just a few short years ago, but now, the two top teams in the division look poised to lock horns (sorry, Rams fans) in the playoffs.
The Seahawks added two stud pass-rushing defensive ends in Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, but there's one small problem: Neither of them is stellar against the run, as both excel at getting upfield and putting pressure on the quarterback in the pocket. If they try too hard to get pressure, though, that's where 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will burn them (just ask the Packers, who had the same problem last year).
The Seahawks do have one thing going for them, though: They were one of only two defenses (along with the very same Rams that I just lovingly mocked) that held the 49ers to under 27 points when Kaepernick took over.
Teams did not try to run the ball much against the Seahawks last year, but Seattle's defense still gave up an average of 4.5 yards per carry (23rd in the NFL). If the 49ers stick with a balanced attack, they'll be moving on to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: 49ers 17, Seahawks 16
Super Bowl: San Francisco 49ers vs. New England Patriots
The last time these two teams met was at a rain-soaked Gillette Stadium in one of the wildest games in recent history.
The elements could be a factor in the Super Bowl, which will be held at MetLife Stadium on February 2 in the first open-air Super Bowl.
The 49ers are built to deal with the elements, though, with a physical and explosive running game and a stout defense.
Tom Brady put up his lowest passer rating of the 2012 season against the 49ers, throwing just one touchdown and two picks while completing 55.4 percent of his passes. The 49ers didn't get much pressure on Brady, however, and his receivers dropped five passes. Brady also made a bone-headed throw, which led to a pick, lobbing one into double coverage to Wes Welker down the seam.
So, if the protection holds up and if the receivers hold onto passes, the Patriots offense should look a lot better than it did in that early stretch against San Francisco.
The Patriots defense, however, could struggle against the 49ers offense. Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald could thrive against a Patriots defense that has struggled to cover tight ends over the middle. And with both Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin on the perimeter, the 49ers offense should have success against New England.
Prediction: 49ers 38, Patriots 37
Super Bowl MVP: QB Colin Kaepernick