NFL Playoff Predictions: Projecting Every Matchup, Every Round
The playoffs are only two weeks away, and the postseason picture is beginning to take shape. The Patriots, Steelers, Bears and Falcons have already clinched but there is still some uncertainty about the remaining eight teams.
Assuming the playoff leaders take care of business against their subpar competition, we have a good idea of what the first-round playoff games will be.
So without further ado, please read on as we examine every playoff matchup from every round before crowning a Super Bowl champion.
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Bye: Patriots (14-2), Steelers (12-4)
Division Winners: Colts (10-6), Chiefs (11-5)
Wild Card: Jets (11-5), Ravens (12-4)
Bye: Falcons (14-2), Eagles (12-4)
Division Winners: Bears (11-5), 49ers (7-9)
Wild Card: Giants (11-5), Saints (11-5)
AFC Wild Card Round: New York Jets vs. Kansas City Chiefs
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These two teams did not face each other this season and could make for a fantastic playoff game. The Chiefs lead the NFL in rushing with 168.2 yards per game, while the stout Jets run defense ranks fourth, allowing just 92.7 yards per game on 3.6 ypc.
Ultimately, this game could come down to which Mark Sanchez decides to show up. The Jets have far more talent on both sides of the ball, but if Sanchez plays like he did against New England and Miami, New York would be hard-pressed to emerge victorious.
Brandon Flowers is one of the NFL’s elite corners, and could make things difficult on the second-year quarterback.
Still, Darrelle Revis should shut down Matt Cassel’s top target—Dwayne Bowe—and Cassel could struggle to find his secondary targets.
Prediction: 20-17 Jets.
AFC Wild Card Round: Baltimore Ravens Vs. Indianapolis Colts
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In a classic battle of offense versus defense, the Colts will battle the Ravens. Assuming the Colts win out against Oakland and Tennessee, they would win the tiebreaker with Jacksonville and sneak into the playoffs. Once there, Peyton Manning is always a serious threat. Unfortunately, his teammates are all banged up right now.
Austin Collie suffered another concussion on Sunday, Dallas Clark is out for the season, Joseph Addai has been battling neck problems and even backup running back Mike Hart has had ankle problems.
The Ravens sport one of the league’s top defenses and should be able to hurry Manning’s decisions. The Colts rush defense has been anemic all season, and last year against the Patriots we saw what Ray Rice was capable of (22 carries for 169 yards and two touchdowns).
Prediction: 27-21 Ravens.
NFC Wild Card Round: New York Giants vs. Chicago Bears
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When these two teams squared off for their Week 4 matchup, the Bears were beat up and humiliated on a public stage. The Giants defense recorded 10 sacks, sending Jay Cutler to the bench in the process.
The athletic defensive end tandem of Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck were dominant, recording six sacks, while Ahmad Bradshaw (23 carries for 129 yards) shouldered the burden for the offense in a 17-3 victory.
Chicago’s offensive line has been anemic all season long, allowing Jay Cutler to be sacked 44 times. If Chicago has any hope of capitalizing on home-field advantage and advancing in the playoffs, they will have to change their blocking schemes or have Cutler make quicker reads.
Either way, New York looks to have the advantage in this game and should come out triumphant.
Prediction: 20-10 Giants.
NFC Wild Card Round: New Orleans Saints vs. San Francisco 49ers
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The defending Super Bowl champions from last season are all but assured of facing off against the lowly winner of the NFC. If my predictions for the season's final two weeks are correct, that would pit the Saints against a 7-9 49ers team.
All season long, the 49ers have vastly underachieved. This team has tremendous offensive weapons with Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and the surprisingly spry Brian Westbrook. Add in a defense with All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, talented end Justin Smith and a declining, but still talented Nate Clements, and this team should be at least 9-7.
The problem, however, lies with their signal caller. Alex Smith has been an utter disappointment, throwing for just under 220 yards per game with just 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. In fact, he may not even start their postseason game with Troy Smith available off the bench.
Regardless of who starts for the Niners, the Saints should win this game. Drew Brees has been consistently extraordinary for the past two seasons and should have no problems against an underachieving San Francisco ball club.
Prediction: 25-18 Saints.
AFC Divisional Round: New York Jets vs. New England Patriots
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After being thrashed by the Patriots 45-3 only three weeks ago, Rex Ryan most assuredly wants retribution. Tom Brady picked apart the Jets zone coverage, but perhaps the Packers' performance last week offered a potential blueprint on stopping the Patriots.
Although New England scored 31 points, seven of those points came from a fluke 71-yard return by offensive lineman Dan Connolly and another seven were scored after Charles Woodson dropped an easy interception. Add that to the seven points scored via the pick six, and the Patriots offense only earned 10 points on Sunday.
Still, Belichick is the best mind in football and always adapts to a defense after seeing it a second time. This is a team that rebounded from a 14-point loss by posting a 42-point win. Deion Branch and Wes Welker are amongst the best zone-busters in the game, while rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez is a matchup nightmare against zone coverage.
There is very little that can be done to stop this offense, so look for the Patriots to roll once again.
Prediction: 31-17 Patriots.
AFC Divisional Game: Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
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In another epic divisional showdown, the Ravens will travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. Despite matching records, the Steelers have the superior divisional record, thus earning them the tiebreaker.
These two teams have met already twice this season with both games coming down to the wire. The first time around, the Ravens traveled to Heinz Field, where Joe Flacco connected with T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 34 seconds left to win 17-14.
In their second game, Ben Roethlisberger threw a nine-yard touchdown strike with nearly three minutes remaining as the Steelers held on to win 13-10. If these two games provide any insight into their playoff matchup, this should be another tightly contested, low-scoring game.
Both teams rank amongst the top five in most defensive categories, but it’s Pittsburgh that holds the edge offensively. Roethlisberger has already won a Super Bowl and will be calm and composed in his home stadium. The young Joe Flacco has been much improved this season, but lacks the experience of Big Ben.
Prediction: 16-13 Steelers.
NFC Divisional Round: New Orleans Saints vs. Philadelphia Eagles
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With arguably two of the game's best and most exciting quarterbacks duking it out, you can count on fireworks in this game. The Eagles have arguably the best offense in football right now, leading the league in yardage while ranking second in scoring.
Michael Vick has put up an MVP-caliber season, DeSean Jackson has continued to be the best big-play receiver in football and Jeremy Maclin has emerged as one of the league’s most unheralded receivers. Add in the dynamic LeSean McCoy (1,036 rushing yards on 5.3 yards per carry) and the Eagles offense looks unstoppable.
Asante Samuel should be able to quiet Brees' favorite target—Marques Colston—and the Saints could struggle to keep pace with this electric Eagles offense.
Prediction: 34-24 Eagles.
NFC Divisional Round: New York Giants vs. Atlanta Falcons
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The Falcons may have needed a great deal of luck to win some of their games (San Francisco and New Orleans quickly come to mind), but this is an extremely talented team.
Matt Ryan is a pinpoint passer with a high football IQ and an uncanny work ethic. In only his third NFL season, he has developed a chemistry with Roddy White that is matched by few QB-WR combos.
Tony Gonzalez is no longer an elite tight end, but can still create matchup problems and help move the chains. Michael “The Burner” Turner has been a workhorse this season, carrying the ball 300 times for 1,256 yards and 11 touchdowns with two games still remaining.
The Falcons' ability to pass on play-action could help neutralize the Giants pass rush, while free-agent acquisition Dunta Robinson has helped Atlanta shore up their secondary.
Prediction: 24-17 Falcons.
AFC Championship Game: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New England Patriots
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These two teams faced each other earlier this season with New England traveling to Pittsburgh and thumping the Steelers by a score of 39-26. In that game, Tom Brady was immaculate, completing 70 percent of his passes for 350 yards with four total touchdowns and no turnovers.
The Steelers allowed 100 yards rushing for the first time on the season and Big Ben was sacked five times. It was an utterly dominant showing in which the final score gave no justice to the teams' performance.
If New England was able to pick apart the Steelers' highly touted defense in Pittsburgh, imagine the results when the two teams play in Foxboro (where the Pats are undefeated this season). The Patriots' young defense has been playing better since the two teams last met, with rookie CB Devin McCourty proving to be one of the top young cover corners in football.
The Steelers struggled matching up against Rob Gronkowski, who hauled in three touchdowns, and could once again have difficulty matching up against the Patriots' young tight ends.
Final Score: 34-20 Patriots.
NFC Championship Game: Philadelphia Eagles vs. Atlanta Falcons
In the midst of his best career season, Michael Vick may have to travel back to the Georgia Dome to face his former team in the NFC Championship Game. Emotions will be running high as the once-prodigal son returns—this time as the opposition.
The Falcons and Eagles have already met once this season, with Philadelphia winning 31-17. Unfortunately for comparison sake, that game was played in Philly with Kevin Kolb starting (and dominating) for the Eagles.
Despite losing top receiver DeSean Jackson to a vicious hit from Dunta Robinson, Kolb threw for 326 yards with three touchdowns and just one interception. After seeing his backup post those astronomical numbers, the pressure will be on Vick to deliver.
The Falcons have never seen a quarterback with Vick’s mobility before, and their young and inexperienced linebackers could struggle.
Prediction: 28-24 Eagles.
Super Bowl XLV: Philadelphia Eagles vs. New England Patriots
This is the matchup that most fans have been waiting for all season. The league's top two quarterbacks and MVP contenders—both with unique paths to the NFL.
Brady was given nothing, turning a sixth-round selection into three Super Bowl victories and the single greatest season a quarterback has ever achieved.
Vick was given the reins to the Falcons franchise after being selected with the first overall pick, only to have to rebuild his image and career after spending nearly two years in jail.
The Eagles are a team built around speed, athleticism and the big play. The Patriots methodically shove the ball down your throat with a series of quick reads, screen passes and crossing routes.
Vick should have a field day against the porous New England secondary, which allows 263 passing yards per game (second-worst in the NFL). However, coach Belichick always finds a way to quiet an offense that has seemed unstoppable. He used seven cornerbacks to silence the Rams and their “greatest show on turf.” He’s made Peyton Manning look like a rookie again. Whatever the task, Belichick always rises to the challenge.
The Patriots have a tremendous special teams unit that could neutralize DeSean Jackson’s return ability and their defense has a slew of young and fast players that could be used to spy on Vick. There is no way to stop an exciting and dynamic player like Vick, but if the Patriots can just contain him, Brady should be able to victimize a hurting Eagles secondary.
Prediction: 30-27 Patriots.