NFL Playoff Predictions
Could 8-8 equal a Super Bowl appearance?
By Adam Hoff
This has to be the most bizarre playoff situation in a long, long time. In the AFC we’ve got four legitimate title contenders and a combined record of 73-23 among its six playoff teams, while the NFC has virtually no real threats to win it all (although anything can happen once you reach the big game) and a combined record of 59-37. Yikes. As always, questions abound: Can TO get healthy in the event the Eagles reach the Super Bowl? Can Peyton Manning finally come through in the playoffs? Will an NFC underachiever like the Rams, Seahawks, or Vikings turns things around to salvage a long season? Is Shaun Alexander going insane? Will Randy Moss go over the middle … ever? Can Big Ben really out duel Brady with everything on the line? The list goes on. What will happen is anyone’s guess – here’s mine.
NFC Wild Card Round
St. Louis at Seattle. This is an extremely interesting matchup. Both teams are looking for a playoff win to validate their seasons, both have horrible issues in the coaching department, and both are extremely dangerous in the weak NFC. The Rams feature Stephen Jackson taking over the running game and punishing defenses, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce still operating as the best receiving duo in the game, and a quarterback in Marc Bulger that is coming off his best game of the season. The Seahawks, on the other hand, feature the league’s best running back in Monica Seles, I mean, Shaun Alexander. Look out Shaun, Holmgren’s got a knife! It will be interesting to see if his bizarre comments and the failure to win the rushing title will play a toll with this team’s emotions. They’ve been a bunch of head cases all year, so it’s unlikely that the latest controversy will roll right off their backs. The Seahawks appear to be coming in on a little bit of a roll, but you have to remember that they beat the mighty Arizona Cardinals and an Atlanta team that was just trying to avoid injuries. Not exactly a murderer’s row. Even though the Rams are being coached by the immortal Mike Martz, have a porous defense, are playing on the road, and are trying to pull of the very difficult task of beating a decent team three times in the same season, I still think they win easily. The ‘Hawks simply don’t have the Eye of the Tiger. Put another way, they have the Anus of the Skunk. Plus, their receivers can’t catch the ball. St. Louis 31-21.
Minnesota at Green Bay. Here we’ve got the never-say-die Packers against the woefully underachieving Vikings. Green Bay is the prohibitive favorite since they are playing at home and seems to be getting healthy at the right time. However, the old “hard to beat a team three times” factor comes in to play again, and the Vikings have to be feeling like it’s their time after two 34-31 losses in the regular season. Randy Moss is back in the mix stretching defenses, they have three running backs to choose from, and a defense that can take advantage of any forced throws from Favre. If the Packers pound the ball on the ground and stay patient, Minnesota probably can’t win. However, expect Green Bay to make some goofy mistakes and for the Vikes to cash in. It’s a season of second chances as our second 8-8 team marches to the second round. Minnesota 27-17.
AFC Wild Card Round
Denver at Indianapolis. Here’s the rematch everyone wanted to see! Yeah, right. I suppose anything is possible here, but considering that Peyton Manning is the QB for the Colts (even if he is a head case every January) and Jake “the Fake” Plummer is taking the snaps on the other side of the ball, you have to like Indy’s chances. With the three best receivers, the best running back, the two best tight ends, the best quarterback, and the best past rusher playing in the game, the Colts seems to have a slight advantage. The only wild card here is if Denver can use Tatum Bell and Rueben Droughns to form a 1-2 punch and destroy the Colts’ soft run defense. Even that is a stretch. Indy 38-24.
New York Jets at San Diego Chargers. This is the most intriguing game of the opening weekend, if for no other reason than that both of these teams are actually good. I know the Jets went 5-6 down the stretch, but they actually have the makings of a good playoff team. Steady quarterback that avoids mistakes and comes up big on third down? Check. A running back that can carry 30 times for 150 yards? Check. A back-up running back (Lamont Jordon) that can spell the starter and bust off critical runs ala DeShaun Foster? Check. Throw in a solid game plan, an underrated defense, and good special teams play and you have a legit team. The only area of weakness for the J-E-T-S, Jets! Jets! Jets! is that they have pretty brutal receivers, thanks to Santana Moss dying and coming back as Peter Warrick. The Chargers are another terrific team and everybody’s favorite sleeper in the AFC. They’ve become an offensive juggernaut and feature Pro-Bowlers Drew Brees, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Antonio Gates to go with an opportunistic D. The only problem here is that everyone thinks they are going to win – forgetting that none of the key Chargers have ever been in a playoff game before. The Jets, meanwhile, made a nice run deep into the playoffs just two years ago. You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts! Here’s your third road victor in the first round. New York 24-20.
NFC Divisional Round
Minnesota at Philadelphia. The Eagles put together a brilliant 12-1 start and secured home field advantage before kids start getting out of school for the holidays. What do they get for their trouble? Only a disastrous injury to Terrell Owens and the second most talented team in the conference showing up on their doorstep. The Vikings present all kinds of problems for Philly. They have the defensive speed to stop the Eagle’s spread offense and attack Westbrook out of the backfield. They have the big receivers in Moss and Marcus Robinson to abuse Philly’s smaller corners. And they have the knowledge that they very nearly defeated the Eagles on the road when both teams were at full strength. Although Philadelphia is still the team to beat in the NFC, the mixture of rust and horrible luck might cut them down before they can even get started. That said, I’m still going with the Eagles at home, simply because I can’t imagine the Vikings pulling their heads out of their butts long enough to win two consecutive road games. Philly 24-21.
St. Louis at Atlanta. This is a tough one. On one hand, the Rams will be the hot team with a newfound running game and two straight huge wins. Plus, they will be on the fast track of the Georgia Dome and will have Holt and Bruce running wild. However, the Falcons are a solid team. If Vick is healthy and doing his thing, they are most certainly the safest bet in the NFC. Note: that’s kind of a big if, especially with the mysterious numb hand problem that has developed in recent days. But with T.J. Duckett back to pound the line of scrimmage and team with Warrick Dunn in the backfield, the Falcons have three legitimate threats to score on any play. The receiving corps leaves something to be desired, but Alge Crumpler makes up for it with his sensational play from the tight end position. Plus, the defense is playing well with rookie DeAngelo Hall coming of age at corner. It says here the Falcons manage to avoid an upset and more importantly, we narrowly avoid seeing an NFC title game between the 5th and 6th seeds. Atlanta 27-24.
AFC Divisional Round.
NY Jets at Pittsburgh. Can’t you just see the Jets winning this game? They very nearly beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh a few weeks back and have the perfect team to do it again. With a physical defense, they are one of the few teams that has the ability to slow down Pittsburgh’s ground game, and with their play action attack on offense, they are able to take advantage of an over-aggressive Steelers defense. Make no mistake, Pittsburgh is going to be a tough out at home, but I just have the feeling that Big Ben will make one mistake too many at the absolute worst time and that the J-E-T-S will carry the day. I think I’m losing my mind. New York 16-13.
Indianapolis at New England. Well, the Colts are going to get their chance. After whining all offseason that they got pushed around in the AFC Championship game and then whining some more after being defeated on the NFL’s opening night of 2004, Indy will get yet another opportunity to prove they can beat the Patriots. With Manning firing on all cylinders, the best trio of receivers in the NFL, new rules put in place pretty much just for them, and Dwight Freeney pressuring the quarterback, they appear to have their best chance yet. But. The Patriots are still the reigning champs. They still have the proven big game QB. They have a running game that is ten times better than last year with Corey Dillon. And they have the best coach in the game. The shredded secondary could be a fatal flaw, the Charlie Weis distraction is a concern, and the loss to Miami seems to cloak the entire team in a weird aura, but they are still the champs. Like Barry Bonds and the NL MVP Award, I’m not changing my pick until something changes on the field. New England 31-24.
NFC Conference Championship.
Atlanta at Philadelphia. Could the Eagles really lose a fourth straight NFC title game? The Falcons (or the Packers, if they get by Minnesota) certainly could make a case for being the better team at this point. Without TO, the Eagles are back to being an east-to-west offense that can only stretch the field when their running back goes out of the backfield on a fly pattern. Not good. However, they have the right personnel to contain Vick’s scrambling ability, no stud receivers to worry about, and all the incentive in the world. Oh yeah, and home field advantage. Philly 24-13.
AFC Conference Championship.
NY Jets at New England. All the world wanted was a Big Ben versus Brady showdown, but Pennington and company spoil the party. Instead, the Pats get to put it on cruise control into the big game, running all over a Jets team that doesn’t have anything left for a third straight road game. New England 23-9.
New England versus Philadelphia. TO could be back. Ty Law could be back to cover him. We could have the best Super Bowl in years. It could be 10-9. It could be 42-38. Dillon could run for 200 yards. Westbrook could get that many receiving. Troy Brown could score … on an interception return. Anything is possible. But let’s face it; this is the game that needs to happen. The Eagles finally breaking through and getting McNabb on the biggest stage. The Pats going for their third title in four years. Good stuff all around. If TO’s back, the Eagles make this a game at the very least. However, since that is an unknown, I go with the champs. New England 31-23.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sitemail at adamo112.