Way-Too-Early NFL Playoff Predictions
Like any NFL team's chance at a playoff run, win-loss predictions can fall apart with one injury, especially at quarterback.
Before the 2019 campaign started, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck retired. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, New Orleans' Drew Brees and Carolina's Cam Newton have all since suffered injuries that will change their franchise's trajectory.
Two weeks into the season, we're also prone to overreactions—prematurely crowning MVP candidates and Super Bowl contenders.
Remember, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos all went 2-0 to start 2018, but none of them finished the season with more than seven wins. Conversely, the Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans lost their first two contests and reached the playoffs.
Some teams haven't faced the high-end competition needed to earn the front-runner position in their division. Other squads have clearly taken a big step in the right direction. An easy schedule and a few breaks because of injury can open a path to January action.
Based on a small sample size, we'll go through early projections for the 2019 playoff picture with seeds and scores for each matchup leading up to Super Bowl LIV.
AFC Wild Card Round
No. 6 Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) vs. No. 3 Houston Texans (10-6)
The Los Angeles Chargers went down in a tough loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 2. That outcome may raise some skepticism about their chances at a push back to the playoffs, but they should have help on the way.
According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, running back Melvin Gordon will return to the team this season. Safety Derwin James, who's on injured reserve, could make a full recovery from foot surgery and suit up after Week 8.
The Texans lost a hard-fought contest with the New Orleans Saints to open the season and subsequently won a 13-12 matchup against a physical Jaguars team. They look battle-tested.
The Chargers host the Texans this Sunday, which means the AFC Wild Card Round will be a rematch of their Week 3 meeting.
While the Houston Texans seem like a more complete team right now, quarterback Deshaun Watson will likely have to account for James in the secondary during the playoffs. Gordon and fellow back Austin Ekeler should pose a threat to the Texans' 23rd-ranked run defense.
In a tight margin, the Chargers win this game with a strong ground attack.
Prediction: Chargers 33, Texans 30
No. 5 Baltimore Ravens (9-7) vs. No. 4 Cleveland Browns (10-6)
The Baltimore Ravens offense jumped off to a good start against Miami and Arizona, two teams that may pick in the top five of the 2020 draft.
However, quarterback Lamar Jackson has shown improvement in his willingness to throw downfield. The front office made a solid choice pairing him with this year's No. 25 overall pick, wideout Marquise Brown, who stretches the field.
In Week 1, the Cleveland Browns lost by 30 to the Tennessee Titans. They regained their footing against a New York Jets squad that took the field without quarterback Sam Darnold and lost backup signal-caller Trevor Siemian after he exited in the second quarter with a serious ankle injury. Cleveland didn't look impressive in the 23-3 victory, though.
Still, the Browns have a soft schedule after Week 8: Denver, Miami, Arizona, Cincinnati twice and Pittsburgh without Roethlisberger twice. They'll start slow and finish the season on a strong note.
NFL teams can't put talent together and expect all the parts to click right away. The Browns have high-end playmakers with quarterback Baker Mayfield, wideout Odell Beckham Jr. and defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Myles Garrett, but this squad will take its lumps in the form of a playoff loss.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has been through several postseason runs and won a Super Bowl with his squad. Jackson had a taste of the playoffs while Mayfield watched from home in January. Between these two clubs, experience tips the balance in favor of Baltimore.
The Ravens will run the ball directly into the Browns defensive line with Mark Ingram, and Jackson will take a few shots downfield for the win.
Prediction: Ravens 26, Browns 20
NFC Wild Card Round
No. 6 San Francisco 49ers (10-6) vs. No. 3 Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
We shouldn't overreact to the San Francisco 49ers' victories over the Buccaneers and Bengals, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy, and the defense has played well, ranking eighth in points allowed.
The Atlanta Falcons recorded a quality win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2. The offense has to take care of the football, though, with six giveaways in eight quarters. Quarterback Matt Ryan will likely settle down after throwing five picks; he hasn't thrown more than 12 since 2015.
In a playoff setting, viewers can expect a lot of points scored. On one side, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan will draw up clever plays to exploit the Falcons' 16th-ranked run defense. Ryan can respond with deep throws to wideouts Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu.
Both teams will run up and down the field, but the Falcons offense will outlast the 49ers' upstart squad at home. Ryan should avoid cornerback Richard Sherman and test Ahkello Witherspoon, though the third-year player has looked good early.
Prediction: Falcons 35, 49ers 34
No. 5 Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) vs. No. 4 Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
It's a good old NFC East showdown. The Dallas Cowboys and Eagles will meet for the third time with raised stakes in January.
Quarterback Dak Prescott looks phenomenal, although he was gouging the New York Giants and Washington Redskins' bottom-tier pass defenses. Nonetheless, he's thrown seven touchdown passes and leads the league in completion percentage (82.3).
Center Travis Frederick sat out the 2018 campaign with lingering effects from Guillain-Barre syndrome, and his return to the offensive line upgrades the Cowboys' ground attack.
The Eagles have experienced multiple lapses in pass defense (31st) and have the 22nd-ranked rushing offense. On the flip side, they're third in the league at defending the run and have talented quarterback Carson Wentz, who can pull this team out of deficits.
Philadelphia's inconsistent run game will put pressure on Wentz too many times this year. The Cowboys can force the Eagles into a one-dimensional offensive approach.
On the other side of the ball, watch out for Prescott throwing to a solid wide receiver trio, featuring Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb and Michael Gallup, assuming he returns from arthroscopic knee surgery within a month as expected, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
Unless Philadelphia acquires cornerback Jalen Ramsey—who recently requested a trade from the Jaguars, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen—the Eagles pass defense will be their downfall.
Prediction: Cowboys 28, Eagles 24
AFC Divisional Round
No. 6 Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) vs. No. 1 New England Patriots (14-2)
The New England Patriots signed wide receiver Antonio Brown to a one-year deal earlier this month and released him Friday. Despite the blow to their offense, they have a strong defense that's allowed the fewest points through two weeks, holding the Steelers—with Roethlisberger—and Dolphins to a combined three points.
The Chargers will draw the Patriots in consecutive postseason trips. Following another win in the Wild Card Round, Los Angeles encounters an offensive buzzsaw with Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett catching passes from quarterback Tom Brady.
The Patriots can also test the Chargers' 28th-ranked run defense with running backs Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and James White. Either way, New England beats Los Angeles again in the AFC Divisional Round.
This defeat would count as quarterback Philip Rivers' fourth loss to the Patriots in the playoffs. He's been unable to clear the New England hurdle so far, and at this point, it's questionable if the 37-year-old ever will.
Prediction: Patriots 35, Chargers 23
No. 5 Baltimore Ravens (9-7) vs. No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs (13-3)
If receiver Tyreek Hill fully recovers from his clavicle injury, quarterback Patrick Mahomes should have enough weapons to lead his team to a 13-win season. But even without the All-Pro wideout, he still looks sharp, throwing seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions while completing 71.4 percent of his passes.
Coming off his first playoff win, Jackson will have a second shot at beating the Chiefs in the 2019-20 campaign, this time in a win-or-go-home situation. Despite his strides as a passer, the Ravens continue to run an offense that emphasizes the ground attack: Baltimore ranks first in carries and 24th in pass attempts.
In what could be Jackson's third career matchup against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, he'll have more poise in the pocket, so don't expect the home crowd to rattle him.
Nevertheless, Kansas City's offense operates on another level with Mahomes, who could win MVP honors in consecutive years. Baltimore's secondary, with safety Earl Thomas lurking in center field, will force a turnover or two, but the Chiefs make one more play than their opponent and win by a field goal.
Prediction: Chiefs 30, Ravens 27
NFC Divisional Round
No. 4 Dallas Cowboys (11-5) vs. No. 1 Los Angeles Rams (12-4)
The Los Angeles Rams will enter the playoff picture with a 12-4 record. Head coach Sean McVay's offense doesn't look as explosive due to running back Todd Gurley's lighter workload, but the defense ranks ninth in scoring and fifth in yards allowed. This isn't a pure finesse team; they can also win physical matchups with a tough secondary.
But Rams quarterback Jared Goff hasn't played at a high level to start the season. So far, he's thrown two touchdown passes and an interception. Perhaps the fourth-year signal-caller has to adjust to Gurley as an ordinary component of the offense as opposed to a workhorse in the backfield.
Los Angeles may struggle against Dallas in a physical matchup. Unless Goff shows he's capable of putting the offense on his back, solid defenses could find ways to limit the Rams' offensive attack.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' unit allowed the Carolina Panthers to rack up 127 yards on the ground in the season opener. Dallas tailback Ezekiel Elliott will experience similar success, and possibly more with a healthy offensive line and Prescott's ability to tuck and run the ball if necessary.
The Cowboys redeem last year's divisional round loss and upset the Rams with a physical game plan.
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Rams 24
No. 3 Atlanta Falcons (11-5) vs. No. 2 Green Bay Packers (12-4)
In the first two weeks, the Green Bay Packers beat two division rivals, the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. More importantly, they won with strong defensive performances.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers continues to absorb head coach Matt LaFleur's offense, even wearing a play sheet on his wristband, which is a new look for him. Meanwhile, Green Bay's defense has limited its opponents to 19 points in two outings, good for second in the league.
As time progresses, expect Rodgers to pick up the offense and gradually dissect defenses with his football intellect and a fresh outlook from LaFleur. The rushing offense, which ranks 19th in yards, should also come along with the team's commitment to running the ball (12th in total carries).
If Atlanta hosted this contest at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Falcons would have a chance to turn this game into a track meet, but Green Bay holds the edge in Lambeau Field. In January, these clubs will be playing in cold temperatures with the chance of inclement weather.
In those conditions, the better ground attack usually comes out on top. During offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's first stint with the Falcons (2012-14), the rushing offense ranked 29th, 32nd and 24th. Now, the unit is 28th in the league, while the Packers ran for 144 yards against the Vikings in Week 2.
Green Bay's commitment to the run juxtaposed with Koetter's inability to establish that aspect of the offense gives the Packers a clear advantage at home.
Prediction: Packers 28, Falcons 23
AFC Championship Game
No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs (13-3) vs. No. 1 New England Patriots (14-2)
The Chiefs and Patriots meet in an AFC Championship rematch after last year's thriller went to overtime. We may not see an extra period this time around, but these clubs will battle down to the last seconds of the game again.
The Chiefs defense made a transition from Bob Sutton to Steve Spagnuolo. If the new coordinator's players make any mistakes at this level, they'll pay the consequence in a contest against Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Furthermore, Brady has enough in Gordon and Edelman on the perimeter along with Burkhead and White out of the backfield to pose a significant threat to the Chiefs defense. The veteran quarterback can throw downfield or toss a bunch of short passes to test the linebackers.
If rookie wideouts N'Keal Harry, who's on injured reserve with an ankle issue, and Jakobi Meyers find their way in the offense, the Patriots will post big numbers in the passing game. Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Bashaud Breeland can't cover all those pass-catchers.
Mahomes' arm will keep Kansas City close in this battle, but the Chiefs have to upgrade their pass defense, which ranks 20th after two weeks, if they want to beat the Patriots.
New England's top scoring defense will make a couple of stops to thwart a late drive and advance to a fourth consecutive Super Bowl.
Prediction: Patriots 35, Chiefs 33
NFC Championship Game
No. 4 Dallas Cowboys (11-5) vs. No. 2 Green Bay Packers (12-4)
Once again, in Green Bay, the ground game will be the focal point for each team. The Packers would have to rely on running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, while the Cowboys are accustomed to putting the ball in Elliott's hands in crucial moments.
The Packers' improved defense won't allow Prescott to show off his arm and downfield weapons, but the unit did surrender 198 yards on the ground to the Vikings in Week 2. Assuming Elliott stays healthy, he can feast on Green Bay's defensive front. The 24-year-old has been the best in the league in that regard, leading all players in rushing yards (4,212) since 2016.
The Packers will enjoy an impressive 12-4 season, but the offense and revamped defense will fall short to a tough Cowboys squad. Prescott may not throw a single touchdown pass, but one run for a score, two handoffs to Elliott leading to points and a field goal will put Dallas in the big game.
Prediction: Cowboys 24, Packers 21
Super Bowl LIV
No. 4 Dallas Cowboys (11-5) vs. No. 1 New England Patriots (14-2)
The Cowboys make it to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995 and prove an NFL team can reach this point without scoring 31-plus points per game. Prescott's timely strikes to Cooper, Gallup and Cobb will do enough to keep opponents off balance.
Dallas' defense may not be as stout as New England's, but linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch can cover in space. In the secondary, defensive backs Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods don't allow many back-breaking big plays over the top.
The Patriots' balanced roster should lead them to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami for a showdown between America's team and the league's most successful club in the 21st century.
Like Goff in his first Super Bowl appearance last year, Prescott may look tight in some spots. The Cowboys can't afford to start slow against Brady and his offensive weapons.
So far the Patriots have jumped out early on opponents, which encourages quarterbacks to throw in an effort to keep pace. New England's defense has ranked top 10 in points allowed every year since 2012; Belichick will prepare his group to stop Elliott and force Prescott to throw downfield, which isn't his strong suit in catch-up mode.
Furthermore, the Patriots' opportunistic defenders will cause some issues for Prescott. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, safety Devin McCourty and linebacker Jamie Collins already have five interceptions between them. New England has played against lesser opponents in the first two games, but the defense deserves credit for flipping the field with takeaways, which gives Brady more possessions.
The Patriots also do a great job of neutralizing their opponent's best offensive weapons. If Elliott has anything less than a stellar outing, the Cowboys will fall short on the big stage. In a battle between Prescott and Brady, take the six-time champion, who's been under the Super Bowl lights plenty of times.
New England wins back-to-back Super Bowls with the defense as its strength through the postseason.
Prediction: Patriots 26, Cowboys 21