NFL Playoff Predictions at the Midseason Mark

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistNovember 1, 2018

NFL Playoff Predictions at the Midseason Mark

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    Playoffs? Yes, let's talk about the playoffs. At the midway point of the 2018 season, it's time to separate the contenders from pretenders. 

    Multiple teams decided to take an aggressive approach leading up to the trade deadline to strengthen their rosters for a potential postseason run. Will the acquisitions pay off? 

    It's often said that teams kick into high gear following Thanksgiving. Inclement weather changes game plans, players have to push through injuries to suit up for critical matchups and the playoff picture begins to take shape. 

    Before it all unfolds, we will take a look at early projections for each round with records and scores for all the matchups. Among the clubs that fell short last year, which made the cut? Who's booking a spot at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII? 

    Keep these receipts for future reference.

AFC Wild Card Round

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    No. 6 Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at No. 3 Houston Texans (11-5)

    According to's Dan Graziano, there are whispers about head coach John Harbaugh's unstable job security. He'll quiet the noise, leading his team to a postseason berth for the first time since the 2014 campaign. 

    In Week 8, we saw the first glimpse of what quarterback Deshaun Watson looked like last year before tearing his ACL at practice. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas' presence opposite DeAndre Hopkins should propel the Texans to an AFC South title.

    Points may come few and far in between in this contest. For those who don't want to see two offenses run up and down the field, this is your type of matchup. Nonetheless, Hopkins will give the home crowd some highlights.

    Over the last two weeks, the Texans offensive line has played well. Watson only took one sack in that span, and running back Lamar Miller ran for at least 100 yards in both games. It's a potential sign of improvement for a much-maligned unit coming into the season.

    Watson's ability to evade pressure, plus the improvements in the trenches, is the key to dissecting the league's No. 1 defense. 

    Baltimore's offense took a step forward with wideouts Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV, but quarterback Joe Flacco has only thrown 12 touchdown passes in eight games.

    It's difficult to trust the Ravens passing attack against a top-10 defense, especially with J.J. Watt playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level (eight sacks). He'll lead the charge in a defensive battle en route to a Texans victory.

    Prediction: Texans 23, Ravens 21


    No. 5 Los Angeles Chargers (11-5) at No. 4 Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5-1)

    Consider running back Le'Veon Bell the X-factor here. He must report to the team by Week 10 or forfeit accruing this season toward free agency, which nullifies his reason for holding out this late into the year.

    Bell will show up at some point. During the playoffs, expect the Steelers to roll him out with James Conner for a strong one-two punch to the gut of run defenses.

    The Los Angeles Chargers finally make it back to the postseason for the first time since the 2013 term, but it's not going to end well. 

    The Chargers would have ample offensive firepower and a relatively fresh Joey Bosa at defensive end, since he missed half the season with a foot injury. The Steelers can match the scoring output and field the league's sixth-ranked run defense to neutralize running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler.

    The head coaching battle clearly goes to Mike Tomlin. He's won a Super Bowl and led this franchise to the playoffs in each of the last four seasons. It's Anthony Lynn's first postseason rodeo in his position. 

    These two teams match up evenly, but Tomlin outcoaches Lynn in a tight battle.

    Prediction: Steelers 31, Chargers 27

NFC Wild Card Round

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    No. 6 Philadelphia Eagles (10-6) at No. 3 Minnesota Vikings (11-4-1)

    The reigning champions head back to the postseason to defend their crown against a club they lost to in Week 5 at Lincoln Financial Field. This time around, quarterback Carson Wentz will have an extra offensive threat in wideout Golden Tate. The Minnesota Vikings should have defensive end Everson Griffen.

    The duel between Wentz and Kirk Cousins will draw headlines, but it's important to keep your eyes on the pass rush for both squads. While Griffen tended to mental health matters, Danielle Hunter developed into a premier defensive end. He's one of six players tied for second in sacks with eight. The Eagles lost one of their pass-rushers in Derek Barnett (torn rotator cuff) for the season.

    Here's another reason to watch the trenches. Both offensive lines have struggled to protect their quarterbacks. Cousins has taken 23 sacks, while Wentz went down via the sack 21 times in six games.

    Hunter, Griffen and a few timely safety blitzes should rattle Wentz on the road. It's too early to trust a running back trio of Josh Adams, Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood to neutralize an aggressive front.

    Cousins wins his first playoff game against the reigning champions. "You like that!"

    Prediction: Vikings 34, Eagles 30


    No. 5 Carolina Panthers (11-5) at No. 4 Washington Redskins (11-5)

    We saw this matchup in Week 6. The Washington Redskins jumped out to a 17-0 lead and almost blew it. Their secondary could give the Carolina Panthers some difficulty with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix joining the No. 5-ranked scoring defense. 

    We must also acknowledge quarterback Cam Newton's significant improvement as a passer under offensive coordinator Norv Turner. He's completed a career-high 66.4 percent of his throws with 13 touchdown passes and only four interceptions.

    Expect the playoff matchup to look similar to the regular-season tilt between these two teams. With that said, how much can you trust a 33-year-old running back carrying the load for an offense with the 26th-ranked aerial attack? Quarterback Alex Smith has only thrown eight touchdown passes in seven games. It's a shaky proposition in Washington.

    Smith doesn't have a history of making critical postseason throws in Kansas City. Newton's strides as a passer and his willingness to run lead the Panthers to victory.

    Prediction: Panthers 23, Redskins 21

AFC Divisional Round

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    No. 4 Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5-1) at No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)

    With or without Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers would need some timely stops to slow down the Chiefs in this contest, which they struggled to do at Heinz Field in Week 2. Kansas City punted twice in that game.

    Expect offensive fireworks in this projected contest, but Eric Berry, who is recovering from a torn Achilles that ended his 2017 season in Week 1, could become the X-factor. According to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, the team remains confident the three-time All-Pro safety will play this season. If he does, his presence is crucial to a deep playoff run.

    Quarterback Patrick Mahomes may have some early-game jitters, but he's played this team and won on the road. With the Chiefs securing home-field advantage in this scenario, the 23-year-old should be able to weather the ripples in his first postseason outing. Don't forget, he has the 2017 rushing champion to lean on for support.

    The Steelers' 24th-ranked pass defense, which has allowed 17 touchdowns in seven games, pops up as a concern here. Tomlin won't have the coaching edge as he did against Anthony Lynn in the AFC Wild Card Round. Head coach Andy Reid will exploit Pittsburgh's secondary for the victory.

    Prediction: Chiefs 42, Steelers 38


    No. 3 Houston Texans (11-5) at No. 2 New England Patriots (13-3)

    The New England Patriots beat the Texans in Week 1 at Gillette Stadium. At this point, both squads should perform at a higher level compared to their first meeting considering the natural progression through a season.

    Secondly, the Patriots didn't have Sony Michel and Josh Gordon in Week 1. The rookie running back sat out recovering from a procedure on his knee, and the front office acquired the 27-year-old wideout after Week 2. Houston just added Demaryius Thomas before the trade deadline. Julian Edelman served a four-week suspension to begin the season. He's second on the team in receiving yards (251) since his Week 5 return.

    At 41 years old, quarterback Tom Brady hasn't skipped a beat. Now having to deal with a featured running back in Michel and another viable target in the passing game (Gordon), the Texans may have trouble keeping the Patriots out of the end zone.

    Brady can utilize running back James White as a receiver out of the backfield in the short passing game to take advantage of the Texans pass rush bursting through the trenches. Expect head coach Bill Belichick to limit DeAndre Hopkins, Watson's main option in the aerial attack, to frustrate Houston's offense.

    No surprise here. The Patriots advance to their eighth consecutive AFC Championship Game—yawn.

    Prediction: Patriots 33, Texans 24

NFC Divisional Round

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    No. 5 Carolina Panthers (11-5) at No. 1 Los Angeles Rams (14-2)

    To win this matchup, the Panthers have to target the cornerback opposite Marcus Peters. The team placed Aqib Talib on injured reserve after he underwent ankle surgery, and even though the All-Pro cornerback could rejoin the team in Week 13, his return isn't a certainty. 

    Cam Newton has improved his passing prowess, but he doesn't have the top-level wide receiver to exploit a weakness on the boundary. First-round rookie wideout D.J. Moore continues to make strides, though he's not a consistent contributor opposite Devin Funchess. 

    The Rams also added Dante Fowler Jr. before the trade deadline, which gives defensive coordinator Wade Phillips an athletic defender off the edge to pressure and chase Newton on the run.

    Running back Todd Gurley could struggle to reach 100 rushing yards against the Panthers' eighth-ranked run defense. He'll find some holes in the 17th-ranked pass defense as a receiver out of the backfield.

    Quarterback Jared Goff has the ability to spread the Panthers defense thin. The Rams take the victory.

    Prediction: Rams 34, Panthers 23


    No. 3 Minnesota Vikings (11-4-1) at No. 2 New Orleans Saints (13-3)

    The New Orleans Saints already put a kibosh on the talk about the Minnesota Miracle in a 30-20 win over the Vikings on Sunday. They'll draw the same opponent in the NFC divisional round in consecutive years—this time at the Mercedez-Benz Superdome.

    The Saints ground attack picked up steam once Mark Ingram returned to action after serving his four-game suspension to open the year. Quarterback Drew Brees beat the Vikings while throwing for just 120 passing yards in their regular-season meeting. Remember, the Vikings pass defense isn't playing as well as last year even with cornerback Xavier Rhodes healthy.

    Minnesota may have running back Dalvin Cook—who's missed four games with a hamstring injury—at this point, but he could struggle, along with Latavius Murray, against the league's No. 1 run defense. New Orleans hasn't allowed 100 yards on the ground since Week 1.

    The Saints ground attack, combined with Brees' accuracy, keeps Cousins off the field. Ingram and Alvin Kamara control the tempo and the game en route to a victory.

    Prediction: Saints 33, Vikings 28

AFC Championship Game

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    No. 2 New England Patriots (13-3) at No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)

    In Week 6, the Patriots and Chiefs put together a Sunday Night Football thriller that ended 43-40 in favor of New England. Spectators would see a similar contest with two high-powered offenses pulling out all the stops for a spot in the Super Bowl. 

    Home-field advantage isn't enough to give the Chiefs an advantage in this contest. The defense will need Eric Berry available on the field. If he plays, Kansas City should check out the film from Week 1 of the 2017 campaign. Coincidently, it was the All-Pro safety's last game before suffering the Achilles injury that he's yet to come back from.

    Pats Pulpit's Evan Lazar outlined how the Chiefs committed to covering Rob Gronkowski in the passing attack. If Berry isn't available for this game, Andy Reid can double-team or hang an extra defender over the 6'6", 268-pound tight end, forcing Tom Brady to look elsewhere in clutch moments.

    According to Football Outsiders, the Chiefs are far more effective defending against the top two wide receivers in an offense, allowing 69.8 yards per game to the No. 1 option and 50.4 yards per game to the No. 2 option. With a chance to correct some mistakes from Week 6, the Chiefs win this rematch. 

    Prediction: Chiefs 38, Patriots 34

NFC Championship Game

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    No. 2 New Orleans Saints (13-3) at No. 1 Los Angeles Rams (14-2)

    Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald leads the league in sacks with 10, but he'd go up against one of the top offensive lines. Football Outsiders ranks the Saints' group sixth in pass protection. There's a reason Brees throws darts from the pocket. For the most part, he has time to do so and uses his mobility to extend the play if necessary. 

    Whether it's a clean pocket or Brees evading the pass rush, he'll be able to find that weak spot in the Rams pass defense that the Panthers couldn't exploit in the NFC divisional round. Unlike Cam Newton, the Saints signal-caller can rely on a top-notch receiver in Michael Thomas to win one-on-one matchups. The Pro Bowl wideout has an astounding 90.6 percent catch rate.

    If Marcus Peters covers Thomas, rookie Tre'Quan Smith could put his stamp on the postseason as a deep threat against Troy Hill, Sam Shields or Aqib Talib. The rookie third-rounder ranks sixth in yards per reception (19.1) among receivers with at least 10 catches.

    The Rams offensive line has faltered as of late. Jared Goff has been sacked 11 times in the last three weeks. Sheldon Rankins, Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport have the ability to force quarterbacks out of their comfort zone with 13 sacks between them thus far. This pressure would mask some of the holes in the secondary.

    Brees and his running back duo outlast Jared Goff and Todd Gurley in a tight game.

    Prediction: Saints 34, Rams 31

Super Bowl LIII

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    No. 2 New Orleans Saints (13-3) vs. No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)

    A Saints vs. Chiefs Super Bowl matchup showcases two prolific offenses, featuring a proven title winner in Drew Brees against Patrick Mahomes, a rising star. In addition, one side features the reigning rushing leader and arguably the best running back duo will be on the opposing sideline. 

    Both defenses have glaring flaws. In 2017, the Saints finished with 20 interceptions. Currently, the unit has just three. The Chiefs have issues covering running backs catching the ball out of the backfield, allowing 70 receiving yards to tailbacks per contest, according to Football Outsiders

    Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram would test the middle of the Chiefs defense throughout the contest, especially with cover linebacker Terrance Smith (ACL) out for the season.

    Don't underestimate wideout Tyreek Hill's ability to scorch the Saints pass defense, which ranks 28th in the league in yards allowed. The front seven would have to create pressure to keep Mahomes off balance.

    The Saints have three defensive linemen, Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport, who can collapse the pocket and force ill-advised throws, leading to turnovers. With extra possessions, New Orleans edges Kansas City with a successful late-game scoring drive.

    The Saints flip their postseason fortunes from being on the wrong side of the Minnesota Miracle last year to winning Super Bowl LIII. 

    Prediction: Saints 41, Chiefs 38