Following an entertaining Week 17 when the final four playoff spots were clinched and two division winners were crowned, the field is set for the NFL playoffs.
For a league that prides itself on parity, this year's crop of postseason teams is a good display of the NFL's top contenders. From top to bottom, each team can make its case to win it all.
Trying to play Ms. Cleo with NFL playoff matchups is always a risky proposition, but here's a complete prediction of the postseason, from this weekend's Wild Card Round all the way up to Super Bowl XLVIII in New York.
Super Bowl XLVIII: Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos
In the end, I suspect the top seed from each conference will defend its home-field advantage en route to the Big Apple for the NFL's first cold-weather Super Bowl.
Soon-to-be MVP Peyton Manning has posted one of the greatest single seasons ever (5,477 yards, 55 TDs, 10 INTs) while leading the Broncos' high-octane offense that averaged a league-best 37.9 points and 457.3 yards per game. Conversely, the strength of Seattle's team this season was its top-ranked defense, which gave up 14.4 points and 273.6 yards per game in the regular season.
If these two teams are to meet, it would be a great clash of two of the great powers of the NFL. While Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks would certainly be able to put up points against the Denver defense, I think Manning and the Broncos are unstoppable this year and destined to win it all.
Prediction: Broncos win 34-28
|NFC Playoffs Predictions|
|Conference||(3) Philadelphia Eagles||(1) Seattle Seahawks||Seahawks|
|Divisional||(5) San Francisco 49ers||(1) Seattle Seahawks||Seahawks|
|Divisional||(3) Philadelphia Eagles||(2) Carolina Panthers||Eagles|
|Wild Card||(6) New Orleans Saints||(3) Philadelphia Eagles||Eagles|
|Wild Card||(5) San Francisco 49ers||(4) Green Bay Packers||49ers|
|Alex Espinoza's Picks|
Following 15 straight home wins to begin his NFL career as a starter, Wilson finally suffered a defeat at CenturyLink Field in Week 17 when the Seahawks fell 17-10 to the Arizona Cardinals.
Still, the sound from the 12th man in Seattle makes it hell on earth for opposing teams and gives the Seahawks a big edge in any game. After their first-round bye, I expect Seattle to squeak past the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round matchup of NFC West rivals before it fends off the upstart Philadelphia Eagles in the conference championship due to its talented defense.
The Eagles clinched their postseason spot with a 24-22 victory over the Tony Romo-less Dallas Cowboys in Week 17, winning the NFC East in the process. As a division winner, I expect Philadelphia to benefit from playing in front of its home crowd in a tough Wild Card Game against the New Orleans Saints.
Nick Foles and the revamped defense should take the Eagles into the second round, where I suspect they will steal a road victory away from the stingy Carolina Panthers. But the road for the Eagles ends in Seattle, where the well-rounded Seahawks will be waiting.
"Riverboat" Ron Rivera might have given the Panthers some swagger in his third season as head coach, but I think Carolina will be one-and-done in the postseason and fall to the Eagles in the divisional round. Earning a first-round bye in the top-heavy NFC is certainly an accomplishment, but I don't think the Panthers will be able to put up enough points to keep up with Philly.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are a dangerous No. 5 seed entering the playoffs and should win their fourth straight game over the Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card Round. But CenturyLink Field has been a house of horrors for San Francisco recently, as the Niners have been outscored 71-16 in their past two contests in Seattle, both blowout losses. As such, I see their season ending at the hands of their divisional nemesis in the second round.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers returned from a collarbone injury just in time to save his team's playoff hopes, guiding the Packers to thrilling 33-28 comeback over the Chicago Bears in Week 17 to win the NFC North. But I don't think the Packers have enough to compete with the well-rounded and fast-charging 49ers, who have won six straight entering the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints were inconsistent down the stretch of the regular season with three losses in their final two games, including a Week 16 defeat to Carolina that cost the team the division crown and a first-round bye. New Orleans will feel the repercussions of that loss this weekend when they have to go on the road to face the streaking Eagles, who have won seven of eight entering the playoffs and should keep it rolling against the Saints.
|AFC Playoffs Predictions|
|Conference||(3) Cincinnati Bengals||(1) Denver Broncos||Broncos|
|Divisional||(4) Indianapolis Colts||(1) Denver Broncos||Broncos|
|Divisional||(3) Cincinnati Bengals||(2) New England Patriots||Bengals|
|Wild Card||(6) San Diego Chargers||(3) Cincinnati Bengals||Bengals|
|Wild Card||(5) Kansas City Chiefs||(4) Indianapolis Colts||Colts|
|Alex Espinoza's Picks|
The Broncos look like the favorite in any matchup at this point with Manning under center. They had an NFL-best point differential of plus-207 during the regular season with plenty of blowouts along the way, while their three losses came by a combined 16 points. Though the defense suffered a big blow with the loss of Von Miller to an ACL injury, the offense will welcome back Wes Welker after he missed the final three games due to a concussion.
If the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals advance like I predict, the Broncos would be matched up with Indy in the the divisional round. Though the Colts handed the Broncos a 39-33 loss at Indianapolis in Week 7, I don't see them doing it again in Denver. Manning should be able to outduel Andrew Luck before outclassing Andy Dalton in the AFC Championship before heading to New York.
Spearheaded by the NFL's leading tackler, Vontaze Burfict (171), the Bengals finished the regular season with the AFC's top-ranked defense in terms of points (19.1) and yards (305.5) allowed per game.
Though coach Marvin Lewis has never guided Cincinnati out of the first round during his 11-year stint on the sideline, I think this is the year the Bengals get it done. They have the right kind of personnel to knock around the Kansas City Chiefs at home in the first round and enough talent on defense to slow down Tom Brady and the Patriots to advance to the AFC title game.
New England Patriots
Even with the loss of Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots remain dangerous. They wrapped up the season with five wins in six contests, including an impressive 41-7 shellacking of the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16. New England clinched a bye with Sunday's 34-20 win over the Buffalo Bills in Foxboro, where I expect the Patriots to lose to the Bengals in the divisional round of the playoffs.
In three of the past four years, New England's season has ended at Gillette Stadium, and I think the Bengals will keep the trend going with a road victory in the second round.
The Colts have caught fire down the stretch of the regular season with three wins by a combined score of 78-20. One of those wins was a sound 23-7 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, and Andrew Luck should be able to captain his team to a repeat performance in the first round.
A win over Kansas City would put the Colts on the road against the Denver Broncos. Though Indianapolis dealt the Broncos their first loss of the year, it's hard to beat a quality team led by Manning twice in the same year.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs rode the power of their 9-0 start all the way into the playoffs, as the team finished 2-5 down the stretch, with only wins over the lowly Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins to show for it. Granted, coach Andy Reid rested a few of his starters in last week's 30-27 overtime loss to the Chargers, but the team's defense has to be a concern going into the postseason.
The unit looked like one of the league's best during the undefeated run to start the year, giving up just 12.3 points per game. But the Chiefs have given up 27.7 points per contest since, and Luck should be able to guide the Colts into the second round.
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers emerged from the four-team race on the final day of the regular season with a 30-27 overtime win against the second-string Chiefs. Still, a "W" is a "W," and San Diego edged its way into the playoffs by earning its ninth victory of the year.
San Diego is slated to face the Bengals in the Wild Card Round. Cincinnati claimed a 17-10 win in a matchup between these two clubs in Week 13, and I expect the Cincinnati defense to stifle Philip Rivers once again to end the Chargers' season.