NFL Playoff Predictions 2017: Chris Simms' Championship-Round Projections
One big kickoff return and my first career victory—the win I had dreamed about for over two decades—was in jeopardy. I looked and felt like the Redskins had gut-punched me.
That's when our offensive quality control coach came over and asked me a question I'd never forget: "Did you think your first win was going to come easy?"
Of course it's not easy to win in the NFL. My old quality control coach would know; his own father put in so much work to bring the Denver Broncos their first two championships. I knew right then that Kyle Shanahan was something special.
More moments like that would follow. He respectfully questioned Jon Gruden's calls on a number of occasions. I can't name you another quality control coach who had the cojones to try that. Then, in a later game, I couldn’t tell the difference between one opponent’s Cover 2 and Cover 4 looks. Then up walked Kyle with a stack of still photos and a list of tells that would help me make better reads.
Kyle was special then, and he's even better now. Look at the teams left standing this Championship Sunday; you'll see four offenses commanded by guys who know what they're doing and aren't afraid to think outside the box. There isn't a better hire out there for San Francisco.
Who’s THAT Guy?
Prediction: Ricardo Allen, Atlanta Falcons
Ricardo Allen might be the best safety Dan Quinn has ever tutored.
I repeat: The same man who brought Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor along out in Seattle is now doing the same thing with Allen in Atlanta. From what I’ve seen on tape, he’s every bit as impactful as those Legion of Boomers.
It’s only a matter of time before this kid is a brand-name defensive back. After all, Allen’s incredible range helped knock away at least one long Russell Wilson throw in the divisional round. If he can do the same with Aaron Rodgers’ long tosses down the seam, Atlanta will represent its conference in the Super Bowl.
Not This Time
Prediction: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
When these teams tussled in October, they were in two very different places.
For starters, Ben Roethlisberger sat with a torn meniscus. Backup Landry Jones was tasked with leading a Steelers offense that had not yet fully transitioned to its current run-first form. Mike Tomlin’s defense was fresh off its worst showing in Miami, too.
That defense faced a healthy Rob Gronkowski. And after Gronk scored his eighth touchdown in five games against Pittsburgh, New England pounded out a win with LeGarrette Blount.
Blount might be the only constant here on either side. Big Ben will play, Le’Veon Bell does the heavy lifting and a much-improved Steelers defense won’t need to deal with Gronkowski. It’s a totally different matchup.
We Must Protect This House
Prediction: Atlanta Falcons
The NFC South is the league’s hourglass division. It flips over, and the time spent on top is short-lived.
So consider these two weeks as Atlanta’s championship window. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is all but packed for San Francisco, leaving behind his historically great scoring unit. Who knows if the 2017 team can put up as many points as this one did?
If this campaign doesn’t result in a Lombardi Trophy, the Falcons are thrown right back in the pack with the Panthers, Saints and Buccaneers. That would be both a monumental waste of some dominant football and a sad way for the Georgia Dome to go out.
Prediction: Joe Thuney
Keep an eye on the A- and B-gaps when New England is on offense.
Pittsburgh’s inside linebackers are the most blitz-happy in football. They’ll attack rookie Joe Thuney, who struggled to keep up when the opposing defense brought pressure right up the middle in last week's game against the Texans.
Thuney can’t let that happen two weeks in a row. The North Carolina State product has to hold his own against Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons when they come, allowing Tom Brady to manipulate the pocket and step into his throws. If Brady can’t do that, the Patriots offense will struggle to move the football.
Prediction: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan is the maestro of the NFL’s most unstoppable scoring force since the 2007 Patriots. His Packers counterpart is the most unstoppable quarterback—period.
And both defenses that’ll take the field are very movable objects.
I like old-school slugfests, but the AFC Championship Game doesn’t measure up here. Packers-Falcons promises to be a shootout of super proportions, and who doesn’t love a shootout? The scoreboard operator won’t get a minute’s rest.
Neither will fans watching at home. Ryan has Julio Jones and a host of targets at his disposal. Aaron Rodgers has an emerging tight end in Jared Cook and an arm that just won’t misfire. Tune in or miss out.
Higher Completion Percentage: Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger?
Prediction: Tom Brady
Tom Brady had an un-Brady-like divisional round.
My reaction: So what? Houston’s coverage was far more formidable than anything the New England legend will see this Sunday. And he’ll have the added benefit of not worrying about Jadeveon Clowney coming after him. I say his completion percentage skyrockets.
Pittsburgh’s passing game isn’t in such a positive place. Ben Roethlisberger is now the least accurate passer left standing; Pittsburgh could only manage field goals thanks in part to a few erratic throws last weekend. It’s not like he’s under pressure, either; Pittsburgh's line is one of the best in the biz.
The truth is that Brady is throwing a far better football right now. I'll take him in this one.
More Completions of 15-Plus Yards: Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan?
Prediction: Matt Ryan
Green Bay’s offensive plan will read like a game of passing keep-away.
Aaron Rodgers’ passes will come short and often; his downfield throws will be calculated. Without a viable running attack, that’s the best option the Packers have to slow the league’s top scoring offense.
We know the Falcons can strike from anywhere once they establish the run. From there, Matt Ryan will have his pick of play-action throws against a Green Bay secondary that’ll be on its heels. I like Ryan to pick up yards in chunks Sunday.
Over/Under: Steelers' Total Sacks
Think we’ll see another round of Blitzburgh before Super Bowl Sunday?
Think again. Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels are too smart to let a much-improved Steelers front throw them off track. I have great faith in their ability to craft a strategy that counters all that pressure.
Two tenants of the Brady-McDaniels plan should be A) quick three-step throws designed to freeze Bud Dupree and Co. and B) a heavy dose of play-action passes that’ll get them moving in the wrong direction. That latter point is key; New England has consistently been a top misdirection/play-action offense under Bill Belichick, and that can act as an extra lineman sometimes.
This is one of those times. Pittsburgh has the talent to get to Brady four or more times, but New England should be one step ahead all game.
More Sacks: Atlanta or Green Bay?
Prediction: Green Bay
Desperation is not a disadvantage for Dom Capers’ defense here.
The Packers will throw eight kinds of pressures at Matt Ryan in hopes of disrupting Atlanta’s aerial attack. A few of them are bound to work given coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s admiration for long-developing play-action throws and bootlegs.
Green Bay has a wild card in the sack department, too: Micah Hyde. The slot cornerback showed off his blitzing skills in the divisional round; he’ll be a force off the edge on zone blitzes.
Capers’ unit was quietly sixth in football in sacks. Atlanta fields the NFL’s leading sack-getter (Vic Beasley with 15.5) but doesn’t have enough depth to circumvent Packers pass protectors.
More Total Touchdowns: Le'Veon Bell or Dion Lewis?
Prediction: Le’Veon Bell
New England uses Dion Lewis in so many ways—more ways than Pittsburgh uses Le’Veon Bell.
But the difference is in the defense. This Steelers back seven boasts some freak athletes, from linebacker Ryan Shazier to safety Sean Davis. Those guys can close the space Lewis has to operate in a hurry.
Meanwhile, Bell is setting playoff rushing records. I’m not sure a perfectly crafted Bill Belichick game plan could stop him from two end-zone trips in the AFC Championship Game.