NFL Playoff Predictions 2015: Expert Conference Championship Picks

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 12, 2015

NFL Playoff Predictions 2015: Expert Conference Championship Picks

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    And then there were four.

    After last weekend's divisional round, only two games remain before Super Bowl XLIX. On Sunday, the Halas and Hunt trophies will be awarded to the champions of the NFC and AFC, respectively.

    It isn't the Lombardi, mind you. But it beats a blank.

    That also means that only two more weeks of predictions remain for the intrepid Division Lead and National Lead Writers here at Bleacher Report.

    Here's a look at who they've tabbed to take the field Feb. 1 at University of Phoenix Stadium in the Super Bowl.

Roll Call/Standings

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    Tom Puskar/Associated Press

    Logjam City.

    That's where our panel resides two weeks into the postseason, with a gaggle of scribes (Didn't know that's what a group of writers were called, did you? Well now you do—unless I made it up, which I did.) sitting at 6-2 through eight games.

    There was a chance for that jam to get busted last week. For example, NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse was the only member of our panel to correctly forecast that the Indianapolis Colts would upend the Broncos in Denver on Sunday.

    Unfortunately, Kruse was also one of two pundits who picked the Baltimore Ravens to win in New England on Saturday.

    So it goes.

    Matt Bowen: NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (6-2)

    Gary Davenport: NFL Analyst 3-1 (6-2)

    Mike Freeman: NFL National Lead Writer 2-2 (5-3)

    Erik Frenz: AFC East Lead Writer 2-2 (4-4)

    Brad Gagnon: NFC East Lead Writer 2-2 (5-3)

    Andrea Hangst: AFC North Lead Writer 2-2 (5-3)

    Christopher Hansen: AFC West Lead Writer 3-1 (5-3)

    Zach Kruse: NFC North Lead Writer 3-1 (6-2)

    Rivers McCown: AFC South Lead Writer 3-1 (4-4)

    Matt Miller: NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (6-2)

    Ty Schalter: NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (6-2)

    Michael Schottey: NFL National Lead Writer 3-1 (6-2)

    Chris Simms: Former NFL Quarterback, NFL Analyst 3-1 (5-3)

    Brent Sobleski: NFC South Lead Writer 2-2 (5-3)

    Mike Tanier: NFL National Lead Writer 2-2 (5-3)

    Sean TomlinsonNFC West Lead Writer 3-1 (6-2)

    Aggregate: 3-1 (6-2)

NFC Championship Game

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    No. 2 Green Pay Packers (13-4) at No. 1 Seattle Seahawks (13-4)

    When: Sunday, Jan. 18, at 3:05 p.m. ET

    Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle

    TV Coverage: FOX

    Line: Seattle (-7.5)

    Last Meeting: Week 1 (Seahawks 36, Packers 16)

    Offense versus defense.

    That's the story of this NFC title tilt. On Sunday in Seattle, a player many consider the best in the game at his position will face off against the league's best defense.

    Of course, that's hardly the only storyline swirling around the NFC Championship Game. For starters, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers (that best player in the NFL at his position I mentioned) isn't exactly in the best condition right now.

    Rodgers is battling a calf injury that clearly affected his mobility in Green Bay's divisional-round win over the Dallas Cowboys, but the 31-year-old insisted to Jason Wilde of that he'll be ready to go in the Emerald City on Sunday.

    “I think I've got 120 minutes left in me,” Rodgers said. “So I'm going to do everything I can to make sure I can play all those minutes.”

    After hobbling through the first half of the Dallas game, Rodgers turned it on in the second stanza against the Cowboys, drawing raves from head coach Mike McCarthy.

    “His performance in the second half...that’s as good as it gets,” McCarthy said to Wilde. “What he’s done in this stadium the last two games with the condition of his calf is spectacular.”

    Of course, the Packers need Rodgers to be as close to 100 percent as possible, especially since even with a healthy Rodgers, Green Bay was pounded by the Seahawks back in Week 1.

    As John Boyle of The Everett Herald recently pointed out, the Seattle defense hasn't eased up even a little since that opening week beatdown:

    Here are a few of the numbers that illustrate Seattle's defensive dominance.

    267.1 — Yards per game allowed by Seattle's defense this season, by far the fewest in the NFL. No other team held opponents under 300 yards per game. That's a slight improvement over last year's very impressive defense, which gave up 273.6 yards per game.

    15.9 — Points per game allowed, another league best for Seattle's defense, though just off last year's mark of 14.4 points per game.

    — Teams this century (the 2001 Colts, the 2008 and 2009 Lions, and the 2011 Buccaneers) that allowed more points in a single season than the 485 points the Seahawks gave up in 2013 and 2014 combined. …

    — Consecutive seasons in which the Seahawks have allowed the fewest points and yards in the NFL, making them one of four defenses in history to accomplish that feat along with the 1954-55 Browns, the 1969-70 Vikings and the 1985-86 Bears.

    — Consecutive seasons in which the Seahawks have allowed the fewest points in the league, a feat that hadn't been accomplished since it was done by the 1969-71 Vikings. Only the 1953-57 Browns have led the league in scoring defense for more than three consecutive seasons.

    Add in the fact that the Seahawks have lost all of twice at home in the past three years, and the Packers face an uphill climb.

    So can Rodgers and Green Bay pull off the upset?

The Pick

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Seattle Seahawks (14-2)

    In the opinion of our panel, no.

    Granted, it wasn't a unanimous vote. NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter is one of two writers who believes Rodgers will lead the Packers to an upset on the road:

    It’s hard to see anyone defeating the Seahawks with the way they’re playing, but Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are an interesting matchup. Much like the Dallas Cowboys, the only team to beat the Seahawks in Seattle, the Packers have plenty of size and speed at receiver, a lights-out quarterback, a physical offensive line and a workhorse running back. The Packers should be able to test the Seahawks vertically and still move the chains underneath.

    Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch should also be able to generate points against the Packers defense, but I like Rodgers and the Packers to score just one more touchdown.

    However, the vast majority of our panel sided with the Seahawks. For NFL National Lead Writer Mike Tanier, Seattle's zone-read offense makes all the difference:

    My first thought entering this game is: How option-ready is the Packers defense? The Seahawks confounded Green Bay in the opener with both options and play-action passes built off the option. The Packers did not face too many other teams with heavy option packages. They caught the Panthers when everyone was injured. The New York Jets had some offensive success against them.

    The option is a notorious playoff bugbear for the Packers since Colin Kaepernick torched them a few years ago. Of course, they will be better than that, but there are some defenses that match up well against a team like the Seahawks. The Packers don't appear to have that kind of defense. They aren't stout enough up the middle and they aren't patient or talented enough on the edge after you get past the front-line of Matthews-Peppers.

    NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse thinks downing the "Legion of Boom" is just too tall an order for a one-legged quarterback:

    Aaron Rodgers at somewhere near 50 percent was good enough to beat Dallas at home. It's a different story going into Seattle and beating that fast, aggressive, confident defense without half of your personal arsenal. Anything is possible with Rodgers, but asking him to conquer the Seahawks in that stadium—and on just one leg—is probably too much.

    NFC West Lead Writer Sean Tomlinson agrees with Kruse:

    Beating the Seahawks in Seattle during the playoffs—where they've won three straight postseason games while giving up an average of 16.3 points—already requires health and near perfection. The Packers can pull off one of those things offensively, but the former is an issue with a one-legged and nearly immobile quarterback.

    A healthy Aaron Rodgers posted only 5.7 yards per pass attempt back in Week 1, down significantly from his season average of 8.4. If the league's third-ranked run defense during the regular season contains Eddie Lacy again, Rodgers will have to be wearing a cape for the Packers to win in Seattle.

    Meanwhile, for AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst, it's the totality of the circumstances that gives the Seahawks the edge:

    Even with a completely healthy Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers would have a tough time overcoming the Seahawks in Seattle. But with Rodgers hobbled by a calf injury that cannot feel much better after his team's defeat of the Dallas Cowboys, it's going to be an even taller order for the Packers.

    Repeat Super Bowl contenders don't happen very often. It's a difficult task that requires everything—including a bit of luck and timing—on the defending champions' side. But the Seahawks have been a strong team all season, one that has only gotten stronger as the season wore on and gave way to the playoffs.

    While not flawless, their level of execution in all three phases has been impressive. It's simply something the Packers cannot match. Seattle's defense gives up the fewest points per game (15.9) in the league, while Green Bay's offense scores the most (30.4). However, Seattle's offense scores 25 points per game on its own. Granted that Seattle plays to its own averages in the NFC Championship Game, a second straight Super Bowl appearance for the Seahawks seems to be their destiny.

    And as we all know, you can't argue with destiny.

    Packers: Schalter, Schottey

    Seahawks: Bowen, Davenport, Freeman, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, Kruse, McCown, Miller, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson

AFC Championship

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    No. 4 Indianapolis Colts (13-5) at No. 1 New England Patriots (13-4)

    When: Sunday, Jan. 18 at 6:40 p.m. ET

    Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

    TV Coverage: CBS

    Line: New England (-6.5)

    Last Meeting: Week 11 (Patriots 42, Colts 20)

    The old guard versus the young gun.

    That's the prevailing storyline for Sunday evening's AFC title game. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will make his ninth (yes, ninth) appearance in the AFC Championship. Andrew Luck of the Colts will make just his first.

    As the Patriots head to their fourth straight AFC title game (while trying to shake off the stink of losses in the last two), head coach Bill Belichick told Mark Maske of The Washington Post there's no one he'd rather have under center than the Golden Boy:

    Tom’s a great, clutch player with tremendous poise, vision, accuracy. So he’s done it with a lot of different receivers, a lot of different situations, against a lot of different defenses. I think that speaks to his greatness and his ability to perform consistently under pressure. [There’s] no quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady. …

    …You play to win your division. You play to be in the postseason. And then you play to be in the AFC championship game and see what happens after that. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what you work all year for is to get to this point. Thankfully we’ll be playing next week. We’ve had Tom through all those years that I’ve been here. Again, it’s great to have him and his ability and his poise and presence as our quarterback. And obviously he’s done a tremendous job today and through all those years.

    The Patriots became the first team in NFL history to erase a pair of 14-point deficits and win a playoff game Saturday, but the Colts may actually have even more momentum entering this game.

    That's because Indy is coming off the biggest win of the Andrew Luck era—an impressive 24-13 win over the Broncos in Denver that has many pundits calling the game a "passing of the torch" among NFL signal-callers.

    Among those pundits? Bleacher Report's own Ty Schalter:

    The King is dead; long live the King!

    While monarchic rules of succession usually transfer the crown from king to heir at the moment of death, football rarely gives us moments that so clearly define the end of one era and the beginning of another.

    [Sunday], Andrew Luck and his Indianapolis Colts went into Denver and showed the reigning AFC champions who's boss.

    However, Grantland's Robert Mays wrote that of the four teams left standing, Luck's Colts have the least chance of making the trip to Glendale in a few weeks:

    That Luck’s trip to the AFC Championship Game had to come at Manning’s expense makes the succession story almost too convenient. Luck refused to talk about his game as it related to Manning’s, just as he’s avoided any sort of comparison in the past. At this point, how one relates to the other isn’t important to the Colts, aside from Manning’s 2011 injury allowing them to stumble into life with Luck. The Colts will be underdogs again in Foxborough next week, and despite their showing in Denver, this is still a roster that falls a level short of what the Patriots, Packers, and Seahawks have built. It’s likely the Colts will still have to wait for their Super Bowl run. At quarterback, though, they’re all set. Asking Luck to live up to all he was supposed to be for Indianapolis was close to an impossible task, but he is everything we were told he’d be. And he might be more.

    So which will it be? A first trip to football's biggest game for Luck or a record sixth Super Bowl start for Brady?

The Pick

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    New England Patriots (15-1)

    Well, if our panel is correct, it'll be half a dozen trips to the Super Bowl for Mr. Bundchen.

    Granted, once again the blanket had a hole. This time it came in the form of NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse, who is the Bleacher Report pilot for the Colts bandwagon in these playoffs:

    Of our 16 voters, I was the only one to pick the Colts over Peyton Manning and the Broncos last week. You just get the feeling Andrew Luck is embarking on his own 'Aaron Rodgers in 2010' playoff run, vanquishing old foes and establishing himself as the cream of the crop among AFC quarterbacks. Luck and the Colts haven't played the Patriots well in three previous meetings (all losses by 20 or more points), but there's a first time for everything.

    However, Kruse is alone on that bandwagon. NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon feels that beating the Pats on the road is a more difficult task than winning in Denver:

    In January, and with Peyton Manning's playoff track record as well as his injury factored in, winning in Denver isn't tantamount to winning in Foxborough. The Patriots aren't perfect, but the Colts don't appear ready for the Super Bowl just yet.

    NFC South Lead Writer Brent Sobleski looks for age and experience to trump youth Sunday evening:

    Both of these teams are flawed, and their performances during the divisional round of the playoffs were perfect examples of their inadequacies. The two teams combined for 2.8 yards per carry. Both offensive lines have been filled with stopgap solutions. And both defenses proved to be inconsistent throughout the season.

    When these two teams met previously, the Patriots dominated in the trenches, and a strong effort from Jonas Gray proved to be the difference. However, the Patriots were unable to get their ground game working Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens and only managed 14 yards on 13 carries.

    If neither team can establish a balanced attack, that's where the Patriots eventually gain an edge.

    Even as we watch the ascendancy of Andrew Luck into elite quarterback status, the Colts signal-caller simply falls short on experience. Tom Brady's ability to bring the Patriots back from being down 14 points twice against the Ravens underlines the importance of his playoff demeanor.

    Luck's time is coming, but not if Brady has anything to say about it this year. And he does.

    AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen, on the other hand, expects turnovers to turn the tide:

    The Denver Broncos failed to expose the weaknesses of the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round, but Bill Belichick's squad won't make the same mistake.

    The New England Patriots knew the Baltimore Ravens' front seven would bring it and came up with a wide receiver screen pass by Julian Edelman to Danny Amendola and an offensive set with four offensive lineman and an ineligible wide receiver. That was a special wrinkle for the Ravens, but Belichick will have to come up with a different plan for the Colts now that he's tipped his hand.

    Chuck Pagano's team has had problems holding onto the ball all season. They were tied for most fumbles with 31 and the most fumbles lost in the league with 15. The Colts were frequently spotted carrying the ball in the inside arm against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round, and starting running back Dan Herron fumbled twice.

    Expect the Patriots to place an emphasis on punching, ripping and knocking the ball away from the ball carriers, particularly Herron and Andrew Luck. Assuming fumble luck doesn't considerably favor the Colts, the Patriots should roll at home with a few extra possessions for Tom Brady and Co.

    For AFC West Lead Writer Erik Frenz, it's the Patriots' recent dominance over Luck's Colts, including Week 11 this year and last season's divisional round:

    The Patriots are not the team the Colts want to face in the AFC Championship. Not only have the Patriots asserted their dominance by an overwhelming 101-44 margin, but Andrew Luck has been fairly unlucky with six touchdowns, eight picks and a 67.7 passer rating against the Patriots.

    The Patriots have run it down the Colts' throats for more than 240 yards in each of the past two games against them. If the Patriots can get the ground game going after a historically bad outing last week, they should be able to notch a trip to their sixth Super Bowl since 2001.

    And there you have it. In the opinion of the pigskin prognosticators here at Bleacher Report, the top seeds in each conference will advance to the Super Bowl.

    The Patriots, searching for their fourth world championship. The Seahawks, aiming to become the first team since the Pats in 2003 and 2004 to go back-to-back.

    Who will win the Lombardi trophy?

    Well for that info you'll just have to check out the Super Bowl picks, won't you?

    Colts: Kruse

    Patriots: Bowen, Davenport, Freeman, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson