The NFL field has been whittled down to worthy set of 12, and the wild ride to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII begins this weekend. Make no mistake about it, this will be a wild ride and the Patriots will be right in the thick of the madness. We’re talking twists and turns and all the electricity that will be sure to fool us as the NFL playoff teams are further pared down en route to Dixieland.
We know the Patriots will be at the forefront of crazy playoff expectations, doubt, and possibly even hate. The hoodie’s shadow looms long. But we also have to consider the other guys, their lust for glory, and the miracle of happenstance that may dupe us along the way. We have to consider that there are three rookie quarterbacks to evaluate on such a grand stage, two second-year QBs, a refurbished MVP quarterback, the two most amazingly reconstructed knees in NFL history, and an imploding front-runner that still might have some fight left.
There are no New York Giants to consider as repeats, nor runaway favorites (despite what Las Vegas may offer), and no tingling fear of God emanating from the field of competition.
So who will be standing on that stage at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome when the confetti is dropping? Let’s not just take a look, let’s be bold. Let’s make some predictions.
Seahawks will stop Redskins
The Seahawks defense will suffocate the Redskins’ running game, bottling up Alfred Morris and keeping Robert Griffin III in the pocket for Sunday’s wild card game.
Look, if the Seahawks can shut down the 49ers’ running game, the Redskins don’t stand much of a chance either. This is playoff time, when players are doing their jobs with their utmost focus. The Seahawks have the cornerbacks in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner to handle man-to-man coverage while Bobby Wagner and the gang can dedicate themselves to tracking down the two rookie of the year candidates.
Griffin III has certainly been astounding, but there’s no escaping one of the best defenses in the NFL against both the run (No. 4 overall) and the pass (No. 6 overall). Add in a Seahawks offense that has put up 38.6 points per game in its last five games, and it’ll be tough for the Redskins to keep the ground game going when they’re playing catch up.
Seattle will win the NFC
Speaking of Seattle, the Seahawks have an unfortunate path to New Orleans with the prospect of three road games, starting in the District of Columbia before moving on to the division round and then the NFC championship before they can even whiff the gumbo. That’s what happens when you have the No. 5 seed.
But methinks, despite the odds, Seattle is destined for a private tour in the French Quarter and the inner canals of the Superdome. Their route is one that will be paved with hard wins against opponents they match up well against, including the 49ers, Packers, and Vikings.
The Seahawks went 3-0 against each team — yes, that includes the infamous “Fail Mary” 14-12 victory over Green Bay — and Seattle is certainly capable of throttling the lower-rated Falcons.
49ers will drop Akers
The 49ers will dump kicker David Akers before the playoffs are over, maybe even before San Francisco takes the field.
Nobody wants anybody to lose their job, but there is just no such thing as a normal arrangement with two place-kickers on the roster. The 49ers signed — get this — Billy Cundiff to back up Akers after he’d gone 29 of 42 this season, including 9 of 18 from 40 yards or more. Cundiff, if you recall, missed the game-tying field goal against the Patriots in the AFC championship while with the Ravens.
After getting cut in the offseason (and was essentially blamed for the loss), Cundiff was picked up by Washington, where he went 7 of 12 before getting canned after five games. He’s worked out for seven teams this season. If he doesn’t stick now, with a kicker on a downward spiral to compete with, he never will.
Packers will beat Vikings
Aaron Rodgers will unleash his trademark heavyweight title belt against the Vikings before moving on to the NFC divisional playoff round.
The Packers had a tough go against their NFC North rival, giving up 217 yards rushing in a Week 17 loss. But Rodgers was able to carve up Minnesota, throwing for 365 yards and four touchdowns. The Packers just got off to a slow start, allowing Minnesota to take a 10-0 lead and coach Leslie Frazier the option to just keep feeding Adrian Peterson.
If it’s one thing I believe, it’s that teams will need to be able to throw the ball in the playoffs because running the ball, even with a miraculous player like Peterson, will not come easy or natural or anything near the productivity we’ve seen in the prior 17 weeks. When Christian Ponder (2,935 yards, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 81.2 quarterback rating) drops back to pass, there’s no telling what kind of efficiency through the air Minnesota will see. But you always know what you’re getting with Rodgers.
Ravens will beat Colts
Ray Lewis’ announced retirement will have its intended effect on the Baltimore Ravens, inspiring the team to play well for its spiritual leader in his last hurrah.
Lucky for the Ravens (pun intended), they take on the Indianapolis Colts in their wild-card matchup and their rookie quarterback is quite giving. Andrew Luck tossed 18 interceptions this season and gave up five fumbles.
We’re not saying the Ravens’ defense is as fearsome as it was in Lewis’ heyday (they finished the season as the No. 17 overall defense), but we are saying that it can handle Luck while Joe Flacco and Ray Rice do their jobs on offense. Add a dash of Torrey Smith and Baltimore is in the second round easy.
It’ll be Texans-Patriots
The Houston Texans will reach the AFC divisional round, but shall go no further.
In their rematch with the Cincinnati Bengals from the 2011-12 playoffs, the Texans find themselves in favorable circumstances. They’ve lost three of their last four games and appear to be imploding, but the Bengals have yet to beat a playoff caliber team. The Bengals won six of their last 10 games, all against non-playoff teams, with their Week 17 win coming against the Ravens who were resting their stars.
Andy Dalton, the Bengals’ second-year quarterback, has had trouble with consistency. It’s like a match made in heaven for the suddenly struggling Texans, who have too much talent to let the Bengals come away with an upset. The problem is the next matchup for the Texans gets significantly harder. There’s no way the Texans can come into Gillette Stadium (they’ll face the Patriots next if they beat the Bengals), or travel to Mile High Stadium and pull out a win against two of the most solid teams in the league.
Right now, with the way Matt Schaub is playing (84 of 131 passing, 946 yards passing, 1 TD, 3 interceptions, 78.6 quarterback rating in last four games), that’s just unbelievable against Tom Brady and Peyton Manning led football teams.
Broncos will be upset
Led by Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos’ confidence is running on high after 11 straight wins. But given the team’s strength of schedule and a noticeable lack of quality opponents (how bad is the AFC West?), the Broncos seem primed for an upset.
In the 11 wins since they lost to the Patriots, the Broncos have beaten up on some struggling teams, including the Chargers (7-9) twice, the Chiefs (2-14) twice, the Raiders (4-12), Saints (7-9), Panthers (7-9), Buccaneers (7-9), and Browns (5-11). But they’ve also downed the Ravens (10-6) and the Bengals (10-6). That’s two or three (maybe even four, if you like) quality opponents since facing the Patriots.
When the Broncos see their next opponent, a team that will certainly have gone through the gauntlet to face them in the AFC divisional game, will they be ready for a dogfight? I doubt it. Manning can only do so much.
Patriots will win AFC
If you’ve been following along, I’m predicting the AFC and NFC divisional matchups will feature the Patriots taking on the Texans, the Broncos taking on the Ravens, the Falcons facing the Seahawks, and the 49ers facing the Packers. The Patriots should win that matchup, much like they won their Week 14 game against Houston. The Broncos are in a good position to be upset by the Ravens, and the Seahawks and 49ers should advance to the NFC championship.
Should that scenario come to fruition, the Patriots will have the upper hand against the Ravens after a season of growth and strategic changes on defense. The Seahawks will once again trounce the 49ers and then the two teams from the farthest points on America’s football map will meet in the deep south for some super hardware. And there’s no reason why the Patriots won’t be ready for that rematch.
This should be their game, barring any unforeseen injury.
Of course, I could be all wrong. That’s the danger of prophesying. So who do you think will win it all? Come on, be honest.