NFL Playoff Predictions 2015: Expert Consensus Divisional Round Picks
The tournament is underway.
The 2014 NFL playoffs began this past weekend, with four teams moving on while four more saw their seasons end.
In the case of the Arizona Cardinals, it happened in the most ignominious way possible.
For the most part, it was a week that went according to plan. Well, Las Vegas' plan anyway, as teams who were favored won three of four (although only two covered, per Odds Shark).
Will the same hold true in the divisional round, when the top seeds in each conference take the field? Or will upsets rule the day?
Here's how the Division Lead and National Lead Writers at Bleacher Report expect the weekend to play out.
With the dawn of the NFL's second season, we hit the reset button on our panel's selections. Everyone, from the first-place finisher to the last, started with a fresh slate.
One that the Pittsburgh Steelers then proceeded to muck up quite nicely.
Not a single one of our experts predicted that the Steelers would fall to the Baltimore Ravens in Pittsburgh on Saturday.
And so not a single one of our experts starts off the divisional round with an unblemished record.
Matt Bowen: NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Gary Davenport: NFL Analyst 3-1 (3-1)
Mike Freeman: NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Erik Frenz: AFC East Lead Writer 2-2 (2-2)
Brad Gagnon: NFC East Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Andrea Hangst: AFC North Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Christopher Hansen: AFC West Lead Writer 2-2 (2-2)
Zach Kruse: NFC North Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Rivers McCown: AFC South Lead Writer 1-3 (1-3)
Matt Miller: NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Ty Schalter: NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Michael Schottey: NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Chris Simms: Former NFL Quarterback, NFL Analyst 2-2 (2-2)
Brent Sobleski: NFC South Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Mike Tanier: NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Sean Tomlinson: NFC West Lead Writer 3-1 (3-1)
Aggregate: 3-1 (3-1)
Baltimore Ravens (6) at New England Patriots (1)
The Pick: New England Patriots (14-2)
You'd think the panel would learn.
If there's one thing the Baltimore Ravens excel at, it's winning playoff games on the road. In fact, Baltimore's 10 postseason road victories are tied with the Green Bay Packers for the most in NFL history.
And the Ravens didn't even exist until 1996.
The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, the Ravens knocked off a favored Patriots team in Foxborough. As Alex Marvez of Fox Sports reported, it was a game that ended with Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs talking some smack.
On his way to the locker room after the win, Suggs screamed at reporters to tell the Patriots to "have fun at the Pro Bowl" and then added, "Arrogant f-----s."
I know, T-Sizzle talking junk—it's a stunner.
Bleacher Report AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst believes that Suggs and the Ravens will have plenty to crow about Saturday as well:
The New England Patriots earned themselves a playoff bye week and home-field advantage. These two benefits should result in a well-rested, comfortable and ready opponent for the Baltimore Ravens. However, the Ravens aren't going to be cowed. No, Baltimore has been here before, both literally and figuratively—there's nothing to intimidate it about Foxborough, Tom Brady or Bill Belichick.
Their defense should stymie New England's rushing attempts, and the pass rush could frustrate Brady into having such a bad day that the Ravens secondary barely has to bat a lash. At the same time, Joe Flacco is back to generating playoff magic while Justin Forsett's career renaissance has continued into the postseason. At first glance, the Patriots seem like the favorite—and a favorite to reach the Super Bowl. But Saturday's matchup was built for a Baltimore win. And a win it will get.
AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz, on the other hand, disagrees:
This isn't 2009; this isn't 2012. The New England Patriots have lost two out of three playoff games that the Baltimore Ravens have played at Gillette Stadium, but those games have as much meaning now as the words "now available on VHS."
Ravens edge-rushers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs could be a handful for Patriots offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. But with Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Tim Wright at his disposal, Tom Brady has more than enough options to get the ball out of his hands quickly. If the Patriots can exploit the matchups with their tight ends against the Ravens linebackers, they should be able to make it to the AFC championship.
Most of the panel is with Frenz. Of course, it's the same panel that picked Pittsburgh a week ago, so...
Ravens: Hangst, Kruse
Patriots: Bowen, Davenport, Freeman, Frenz, Gagnon, Hansen, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
Carolina Panthers (4) at Seattle Seahawks (1)
The Pick: Seattle Seahawks (14-2)
Mock the two (non-strike year) sub-.500 division champs in NFL history all you want, but both the 2010 Seattle Seahawks and 2014 Carolina Panthers won their Wild Card Games.
Now, however, the Panthers face a much stiffer test than an Arizona Cardinals team with no quarterback. Saturday night, the Panthers travel to Seattle to face the NFC's top seed and defending Super Bowl champions.
Still, as Marvez pointed out, the Seahawks would probably rather have had Wild Card Weekend's last game end a bit differently:
Don't blame the Seahawks if they're bummed that Dallas posted a 24-20 comeback victory Sunday over Detroit. The Lions would have come to Seattle had they won. Instead, the Seahawks have to face a hotter opponent that has given them fits the past two seasons. Seattle won both of those matchups in Carolina but only by margins of 12-7 (2013) and 13-9 (2014). While their schemes and personnel are markedly different, the Seahawks and Panthers share plenty of similarities.
As a matter of fact, Bleacher Report NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon is one of a pair of pundits who thinks that the Panthers are going to shake things up in a big way this week:
I admit this is a gut pick, but the Carolina defense has been so good, and the Panthers have played the Seahawks extremely close in their two meetings the last two years. Those two one-score losses were at home and this is on the road, where Seattle is a powerhouse. But something tells me the Seahawks will get caught overlooking a team with a losing record here. Carolina is physical enough to hold Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch in check, and there's a reason why it's been a decade since anyone has successfully defended their title.
With that said, most of the panel is with NFC West Lead Writer Sean Tomlinson, who looks for the champs to roll at home:
The Seahawks were without two key defenders when these two teams last met in Week 8 (middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and cornerback Byron Maxwell). And they're now at CenturyLink Field, a place where playoff hopes and dreams generally go to die. Cam Newton struggled with poor mechanics against the Cardinals on his way to a 56.3 completion percentage. That's not about to get better against a Seahawks defense that's allowed only 39 points over the past six games.
Time for Cinderella to turn back into a pumpkin (and yes, I know she didn't turn into a pumpkin—danged literalists).
Panthers: Freeman, Gagnon
Seahawks: Bowen, Davenport, Frenz, Hangst, Hansen, Kruse, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
Dallas Cowboys (3) at Green Bay Packers (2)
The Pick: Green Bay Packers (13-3)
Sunday's first game has something for everyone. A Dallas Cowboys team that's undefeated on the road in 2014 versus a Green Bay Packers squad that didn't lose at Lambeau Field this season. A pair of MVP candidates in quarterbacks Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers.
According to Adam Schein of NFL.com, Romo's performance against a stout Detroit defense last week gives the Cowboys plenty of hope that an upset could be brewing:
Romo's always been great, but he's never been surrounded by the kind of structure and balance he's enjoying this season. On Sunday, despite taking shot after shot from the Lions' ferocious front, Romo completed 19 of his 31 passes for 293 yards (a healthy 9.45 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns. He finished the game with a 114.0 quarterback rating, a touch higher than his regular-season mark of 113.2 -- which, by the way, led the NFL.
Gary Mihoces of USA Today offers even more, in the form of Rodgers' injured calf:
The suspense now focuses on the left calf muscle of Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He injured it in Week 16 and then aggravated it during a division title-clinching win over Detroit on the final weekend of the regular season. We'll see how healthy Rogers is to operate against a Dallas defense that ranked 19th in regular season but made big plays when it had to.
However, while Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy divulged to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com that his star quarterback might miss some practice time this week, he insisted that Rodgers will be fine for Sunday's showdown:
Aaron? Practice reps? No, I'm not concerned. He's already started the preparation process. There's some things we went through today, self-scout and correction that we want to go [with], so he'll be prepared. I think the biggest thing is for him to rep the things that he feels that he may need another rep on. There won't be a bunch of new ideas or things that he hasn't seen or things he doesn't have the reps with his teammates with. So I'm not really concerned.
The same Aaron Rodgers who averaged over 291 passing yards a game at home in 2014, with 25 touchdown passes and zero interceptions.
That Aaron Rodgers.
Cowboys: Frenz, Sobleski, Tanier
Packers: Bowen, Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, Kruse, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Tomlinson
Indianapolis Colts (4) at Denver Broncos (2)
The Pick: Denver Broncos (15-1)
That's the call from Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter, as the future of the Indianapolis Colts travels to do battle with their past:
I really want to pick the Colts. I really, really want to pick the Colts. I want to say Andrew Luck’s tremendous performance in the Wild Card Round, combined with Peyton Manning’s flagging form, give the plucky AFC South champs a sparkling opportunity to go into Denver and send the Broncos home early (again).
Then again—maybe not:
Besides the inarguable fact that the Broncos are simply a much better football team throughout—roster spots one through 53—they’re getting a lot of key players healthy thanks to the bye. Linebacker Brandon Marshall and safety T.J. Ward, among others, will make Luck and the Colts’ job that much harder. Moreover, Manning’s already had his inexplicable disaster game (vs. Cincinnati) and should be a man on a mission against Indianapolis.
I hate to go chalk here, and it may finish close, but I still like Denver in this game.
It's awfully hard to argue with Schalter. Yes, the Colts blasted Denver in Indianapolis last season. But that was last season, in Indy. When these teams last met (back in Week 1 in Denver), it was the Broncos who emerged victorious, largely because the Colts had zero success pressuring Peyton Manning.
An Indy pass rush that finished ninth in the NFL in sacks got better as the season wore on, and Luck was phenomenal against the Cincinnati Bengals a week ago.
But only NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse sees that turning into a win for the visitors.
Broncos: Bowen, Davenport, Freeman, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson