NFL Playoff Predictions: The 25 Most Important Games Left This Season

WesAnalyst IOctober 24, 2011

NFL Playoff Predictions: The 25 Most Important Games Left This Season

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    Detroit looked awful in a 23-16 loss Sunday afternoon against Atlanta at Ford Field.

    The loss will trigger fans to wonder if this is the beginning of a collapse for the Lions. It will also add to their charm and cause more people to pull for one of the most beleaguered franchises in all of professional sports.

    You might as well call Detroit "America's New Team." It's the team everyone wants to see in the playoffs.

    Regardless of the outcome, Detroit is the story of the year, and as a result five of their final nine games appear on the list, including two of their games appearing in the top four.

    Before the games are unveiled here are the predictions:

    NFC

    1. Green Bay
    2. New Orleans
    3. San Francisco
    4. Dallas
    5. New York
    6. Atlanta

    AFC

    1. San Diego
    2. Baltimore
    3. New England
    4. Houston
    5. Pittsburgh
    6. Buffalo

    Out of a possible 153 games here are the 25 most important left on the schedule.

No. 25: Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati (Sunday, November 13)

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    It's hard to imagine the Cincinnati Bengals are on this list, but they belong.

    At 4-2, Cincinnati has a legitimate shot to make the playoffs as a Wild Card team, and they have an outside shot to win the division. If they plan on qualifying for the postseason they will likely have to edge out the defending AFC champion and division rival Pittsburgh Steelers.

    The Bengals get their first crack against the Steelers at home.

    Andy Dalton may not be ready for this type of game at this point in his career, but the timing couldn't be better. Cincinnati catches Pittsburgh coming off back-to-back games against New England and Baltimore.

    That's the good news. The bad news is Pittsburgh has won seven of the last 10 meetings.

No. 24: New York Jets vs. Buffalo (Sunday, November 6)

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    Is Buffalo for real and are the Jets on the rebound?

    We get both answers in a couple weeks as the Jets head up to Orchard Park for a game that can easily begin a nosedive for the Bills or a winning streak for the Jets.

    New York has the benefit of a bye week before the game, but it might not matter. The Bills offer an offense that can run and pass, and they also possess a defense built on creating turnovers.

    It's hard to imagine Mark Sanchez walking away from this game unscathed. Most of it is due to Buffalo's defense and Sanchez's tendency to turn the ball over this year, but some of it is due to the Jets' offensive line.

    New York can't establish a running game for Shonn Greene or LaDainian Tomlinson because of their weak O-line. If things don't change, this game could actually turn into a blowout for the Bills.

No. 23: Tampa Bay vs. New Orleans (Sunday, November 6)

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    Tampa Bay is dangerously close to getting over the hump.

    A win against New Orleans in the Super Dome will give Tampa Bay an inside track to the division title and a shot to gain a first-round bye in the playoffs. A loss puts the Bucs in a mess with a handful of other teams battling it out for a Wild Card berth.

    The game has a lot of intrigue in the standings and the playoff matchups, but it seems like no one really believes Tampa Bay can actually go into New Orleans and complete the season sweep.

    The Bucs don't do any one thing great, but they do a lot of things very well and maybe that's their downfall in catching on with the public. In an era when fans see the elite teams putting up gaudy numbers on offense or defense, the Bucs don't do either.

No. 22: Dallas vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, October 30)

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    The NFC East will become a two-team race between Dallas and New York if the Cowboys walk out of Lincoln Financial Field with a win. Or it will be a cluster bang, with the exception of Washington.

    Sorry Redskins fans, but John Beck and Rex Grossman are worthless.

    The question going into this game is which force will be greater: Andy Reid's perfect 12-0 mark after the bye week or the Eagles' embarrassing defense?

    The defense wasn't exactly playing well last year, but Reid somehow found a way to rally the troops and pick up a win at home against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. This year the quarterback is a significant downgrade, but it's hard to say how good or bad the Cowboys actually are.

No. 21: Tampa Bay vs. Atlanta (Sunday, January 1)

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    This is yet another opportunity for the Bucs to prove their worth on the road against a divisional foe.

    Atlanta could actually be dead in the water heading into this game, but it will not make things any easier for Tampa Bay.

    The Falcons have enough talent offensively to pressure the Bucs offense into scoring points.

    It seems unlikely to call this a showdown for the NFC South, but it could definitely be an elimination game for both teams. And with this being the last game of the season, it's hard to ignore this matchup.

    At some point everyone will realize how good the Bucs are and can be.

No. 20: New York Giants vs. New England Patriots (Sunday, November 6)

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    This is the first time these teams have met in the regular season since Super Bowl XLII.

    The Giants ended the Pats perfect season and in the process fans witnessed one of the most unbelievable finishes in NFL history.

    It was one of the greatest endings because few people saw the Pats losing the game. This time around, no one will be shocked if the Giants travel to Foxboro and pick up a win.

    New York has an explosive enough offense to win in a shootout. And if the Giants don't want to go that route, Tom Coughlin proved he has a game plan to win by running the ball and the clock.

No. 19: Philadelphia vs. New York Giants (Sunday, November 20)

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    The matchup between the Patriots and Giants is sexier, but this game carries more weight.

    Philadelphia will find itself fighting to save its season or fighting for its coach's job. New York will be in the midst of a brutal stretch of games that could end their season or give them enough momentum to make a run through the playoffs.

    The series has been dominated by consecutive wins from both sides. If the trend continues, New York will win its second straight against the Eagles before ripping off four more.

    Andy Reid and the coaching staff had better sure up the defense by this point, otherwise Eli Manning and company could hang a number on the Eagles.

No. 18: New England vs. New York Jets (Sunday, November 13)

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    This game is more about the head coaches than the actual teams.

    But the rivalry between Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick is strong enough right now to make this a compelling matchup. At least for now.

    Soon all of the talk from Ryan will fall on deaf ears if the Jets don't find a way to win and make the playoffs. No one will care if the Jets occasionally beat the Patriots and then do nothing with it.

    This game could very well mean the season for the Jets, and it could also mean the future for Ryan in New York. How many times is he going to guarantee a Super Bowl before that gets old too?

    He's a mighty big boy calling wolf far too often.

No. 17: San Francisco vs. Baltimore (Thursday, November 24)

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    This game seemed like it would be more about the matchup between brothers Jim and John Harbaugh coaching against each other.

    The 49ers were supposed to stink while the Ravens were predicted to contend for the Super Bowl. All of sudden both teams lead their respective divisions and Jim is considered a Coach of the Year candidate.

    Wait, which one is Jim?

    Oh, right, the guy who lost his mind shaking hands with Jim Schwartz?

    He's also the guy who is making Alex Smith a serviceable quarterback and has the 49ers off to a 5-1 start. Those are the things he should be known for at this point instead of going ballistic after beating the Lions.

    It's hard to imagine San Fran going to the East Coast on a short week and hanging with the Ravens. Then again, no one out there thought the 49ers would win in Philadelphia and Detroit.

No. 16: Buffalo vs. San Diego (Sunday, December 11)

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    In the past, a game like this would be viewed as a chance for Buffalo to go on the road and get shellacked.

    This year, however, the game is seen as an opportunity for Buffalo to establish itself as a contender in the AFC and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.

    If the Bills pull off the win, no one can chalk it up as the Chargers choking because this is the time of year when San Diego plays its best football. The only thing fans may question is who the best team in the AFC actually is.

No. 15: Detroit vs. New Orleans (Sunday, December 4)

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    Just as Buffalo needs to prove itself on the road, so do the Detroit Lions.

    A trip to the Super Dome will let everyone know who the Lions really are. It's one thing to win at home and to beat a couple decent teams on the road. It's a completely different category to knock off a premier team in the NFC at one of the toughest venues.

    If there was ever a time for the Saints to run the ball more than pass it, this would be the game. Detroit has not looked good against the run this year, and it may lead to their demise in the postseason if they are able to make it.

No. 14: Atlanta vs. New Orleans (Monday, December 26)

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    The previous two slides talked about teams proving their worth on the road.

    This one focuses on a player coming through away from home.

    Matt Ryan has four career road wins against a team that finished the regular season with a winning record. It doesn't exactly give Atlanta fans a ton of confidence heading into this marquee Monday Night Football matchup.

    Here's the catch: One of Ryan's road wins came against the Saints last year.

    Ryan played well as he threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns while Drew Brees had an up-down game consisting of 365 yards passing, three touchdowns and two picks.

    The Falcons also benefited from Michael Turner rushing for 114 yards and one touchdown.

    Will the Falcons lean on the run this time around, and will Brees falter enough to give the Falcons a much needed late-season win?

No. 13: Oakland vs. San Diego (Thursday, November 10)

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    Is it possible for the Oakland Raiders to actually win the AFC West?

    Can they possibly play against division rival Denver Sunday, go on the road to play San Diego on a short week and win?

    Everything is stacked up against Oakland in this game, but that's what makes it so interesting. If America loves the underdog and a great story, this game has all of the makings for it.

    Owner Al Davis dies midseason, quarterback Jason Campbell is lost for the season, Carson Palmer steps in and Darren McFadden carries the Raiders to the AFC West title with Hue Jackson at the helm.

    It sounds more like a Disney movie than reality, but it could happen.

No. 12: San Diego vs. Detroit (Saturday, December 24)

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    The NFL has a great slate of games for Christmas weekend, and this is arguably the best of the bunch.

    There is a chance people will say "Super Bowl preview" and "Detroit" in the same sentence.

    It doesn't matter how unlikely the event is from occurring. It only matters that it is a possibility.

    The AFC is wide open for the taking and San Diego is clearly a team capable of rolling through everyone to Indianapolis. Meanwhile the Lions will have to spring an upset or two, but the way things shake out in the playoffs it's not out of the realm of possibilities.

    Earlier it was mentioned how San Diego benefited from catching Oakland on a short week after a divisional game. This time Detroit will get a San Diego team playing on a short week after hosting the Baltimore Ravens.

    This is the perfect chance for the Lions to cement their place in the playoffs and build momentum.

No. 11: New England vs. Pittsburgh (Sunday, October 30)

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    Here's a quick question to think about.

    When Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady walk away from the game, who will have more Super Bowl rings?

    Big Ben wears two while Brady has three.

    It may seem like a no-brainer, but do you actually trust the Patriots defense to win another Super Bowl? At some point a team is going to expose New England for being soft and nothing more than a sieve.

    Queue up the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    Despite a shoddy offensive line, the Steelers will find a way to run the ball and give Roethlisberger enough time to pick apart the New England secondary with one of the most underrated receiving corps in the NFL.

    Then again, is it smart to go against Brady in a clutch situation?

No. 10: Detroit vs. Chicago (Sunday, November 13)

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    Detroit hosted Chicago for its first Monday Night Football home game in a decade. The Lions cruised to a 24-13 win and with it they started their season with a 5-0 record for the first time since 1956.

    There was no way Detroit would lose in that spot.

    This time around, Chicago gets Detroit at Soldier Field. And if Chicago wins there is a pretty solid chance the Bears will have the same record as the Lions in the NFC North standings.

    Detroit would hold a tiebreaker since it would be their first loss in the division, but if the Lions lose to Denver after the bye and then drop this game there might not be a need for a tiebreaker.

    But if Detroit can put together consecutive wins after the bye week they will have a stranglehold on a playoff berth.

No. 9: Green Bay vs. New York Giants (Sunday, December 4)

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    This game will carry huge implications for the NFC East.

    Yes, the Packers are in another division, but a Green Bay win could pry the window open for Dallas or Philadelphia to take the division away from the Giants.

    The fascinating thing about this game is the timing of it.

    Starting on November 6, the Giants go on the road to play New England and San Francisco, return home for a game against the Eagles and then go back on the road to play New Orleans before coming back to the New Meadowlands for this game.

    Oh, and then they have Dallas the following week.

    This game can absolutely make or break New York's season. It can also define Eli Manning.

    If the Giants can win two or three games before heading down to Dallas there is a great chance they sit in the driver's seat. If they go 1-4 or 0-5 through that stretch, the season is done for all intents and purposes.

    And if things take a turn for the worse everyone will question Manning's lone Super Bowl win that much more.

No. 8: Baltimore vs. San Diego (Sunday, December 18)

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    Both teams should have a playoff berth locked up.

    The drama surrounding this game involves which team gets a bye in the first round and the opportunity to play all of their postseason games at home.

    On top of it, eyes will be glued on both quarterbacks.

    Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco have not exactly been clutch over the years in the playoffs. And with this game carrying a playoff atmosphere each quarterback has the opportunity to build confidence heading into the postseason.

No. 7: Green Bay vs. San Diego (Sunday, November 6)

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    Forget the Super Bowl preview angle for a moment and focus on the possibility of Green Bay going undefeated this year.

    If the Packers can make it through this game, there is a chance they can pull it off.

    They would undoubtedly be a favorite in every game they play and there is no reason to think they would rest players at the end of the season. The second part is justified by looking at how the Packers played at the end of last season.

    Green Bay needed to win every game down the stretch to get into the playoffs. It allowed them to build momentum and eventually win the Super Bowl as a No. 6 seed. What makes you think they wouldn't want to carry as much momentum into the playoffs this year?

    All of the speculation goes out the window if San Diego wins, though.

    Regardless of the outcome, everyone will be enthralled with the possibility of these teams playing for the Super Bowl this year.

    And if they play each other and Rivers wins, who will fans view as the better quarterback?

No. 6: Dallas vs. New York Giants (Sunday, January 1)

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    Who's going to blink and buckle first?

    Eli Manning will be at the tail end of a brutally tough schedule while Tony Romo will be under the microscope of fans around the NFL.

    It's not the ideal situation for either quarterback to succeed and it will cause everyone to watch the train wreck unfold in front of millions.

    Hopefully one of them doesn't go into buckle-mode immediately and they wait until the final moments before giving the game away. But maybe that's how it should go this year for the NFC East. The division is a hot mess right now and it would be fitting to see the game end in such a fashion.

    This game is not on the list for the potential of watching a great football game. It is here for the high-drama factor involving two of the most scrutinized players and most popular franchises in the NFL potentially playing for a division title.

No. 5: Buffalo vs. New Englans (Sunday, January 1)

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    There is no way Buffalo sweeps the New England Patriots this year.

    None.

    There was also no way Tom Brady was going to throw four picks in one game, but that happened when the Patriots played at Buffalo.

    Bills fans will need a repeat performance from Brady, because this game could very well determine if Buffalo makes the playoffs.

    A 4-2 start is great, but the Bills still need to go 6-4 the rest of the way to at least have a shot at making the playoffs. With two games left against the Jets, and trips to San Diego, Dallas and New England looming on the schedule, Buffalo could be hard-pressed to win six more games.

No. 4: Detroit vs. Green Bay (Sunday, January 1)

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    Detroit has an unbelievably tough finish to their season.

    Five of their final six games will square them off against teams fighting for a spot in the playoffs. And of those five, three are on the road, including this one.

    As mentioned earlier it would make sense for Green Bay to play everyone on their roster through the final game of the regular season. If that's the case, Detroit is in trouble of missing the playoffs.

    Not only will "America's New Team" be grinding out the opportunity to play in the postseason for the first time since 1999 but Green Bay could be putting the final touches on an undefeated season.

No. 3: Tennessee vs. Houston (Sunday, January 1)

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    We have no problem attaching the choke moniker to the Texans, so why not go after the guy running the show and the quarterback?

    Gary Kubiak and Matt Schaub fold better than Eli Manning, Tony Romo or Donovan McNabb on their worst days.

    And yet despite all of that the duo has a chance to win a weak AFC South thanks in large part to Peyton Manning's neck injury, Jacksonville's ineptitude and Tennessee's inconsistency.

    With a win, Houston may punch its first postseason ticket in franchise history. A loss on the other hand has to bring about change, including Kubiak and Schaub being shown the door.

No. 2: Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh (Sunday, November 6)

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    It's a shame the two games between these teams will be off the schedule halfway through the season.

    This is one of the few rivalries where both teams are good, both teams win their fair share of games and both teams genuinely have bad blood toward each other. It's also one of the few rivalries everyone around the league cares about.

    We tune in to see a rare defensive battle filled with big hits. Who cares if some of the games are based on field position and protecting the football? It's good to see a game like this from time to time instead of shootouts.

    It's not like this series lacks drama either. Just look at last year's comeback in the playoffs.

    Pittsburgh finds itself in a tough spot as it plays Baltimore on the heels of hosting New England.

    The Steelers need to avoid a potential two-game losing skid, otherwise their chances of making the playoffs look bleak.

No. 1: Green Bay vs. Detroit (Thursday, November 24)

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    It wasn't long ago when debates arose about Detroit not being a regular on the Thanksgiving Day ticket.

    This year, the debate will be if the Lions can shock the world and upset the Green Bay Packers on one of the biggest stages of the season.

    Watching the Lions and Cowboys play on Thanksgiving has become a part of the American culture. Dinners are served around games and families fall asleep thanks to the tryptophan and lackluster performances from the Lions.

    This year is different.

    Detroit will have everyone's attention as they try to knock off the defending Super Bowl champions and possibly find themselves in first place of the NFC North.

    The thought of Detroit leading the division post-Thanksgiving by virtue of beating the Packers is intriguing enough. To get the division lead Detroit will need the Packers to lose at least once thanks to a home loss over the weekend to Atlanta.

    The Lions can certainly pull off the upset, as they pushed Green Bay to the brink last year due in large part to knocking Aaron Rodgers out of the game.