What started back in the heat of summer will soon conclude in the dead of winter, as the NFL’s playoffs start this weekend. Here’s my look at how everything will shape up, starting with this weekend’s Wild Card round all the way to the Super Bowl on Feb. 3.
This weekend’s games:
Cincinnati at Houston: Much has been made of the Texans’ rapid decline (after an 11-1 start, there was a 1-3 finish) and the Bengals’ late hot streak (Cincinnati won seven of its last eight), and certainly the Texas have to be concerned with the late-season decline of quarterback Matt Shaub (and his team’s inability to protect him) and running back Arian Foster. But the Bengals have some issues, too; running back Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis has been banged-up, and quarterback Andy Dalton hasn’t been playing well, either. Look for reversions to the mean, with the Texans (who had the playoffs wrapped up long ago) winning, 24-21.
Indianapolis at Baltimore: Everyone’s eyes will be on Baltimore’s future Hall of Fame linebacker, Ray Lewis, who returns after losing the last 11 weeks to a triceps injury. Lewis announced his retirement earlier in the week, making each game potentially his last. I love Colts’ QB Andrew Luck, but he turns the ball over too much, and turnover margins (Baltimore is plus-9, with Indy minus-12) could be a huge factor. Plus, there’s the fact that the Colts don’t stop the run well coupled with the fact that the Ravens have one of the game’s best runners in Ray Rice. Baltimore 27, Indianpolis 20.
The AFC semifinals:
Houston at New England: The Patriots thrashed the Texans by a 42-14 count in Houston on Dec. 10. It won’t be that bad this time around in Foxboro, but between New England’s takeaway ability (an AFC-high plus-41) and the machine that is Tom Brady, the Pats should cruise into the title game. New England 34, Houston 20.
Baltimore at Denver: Everyone knows what Peyton Manning has done for the Bronco offense, but I bet you didn’t realize that the Broncos ended the season second in total defense, and fourth in scoring defense. The Broncos are on a roll, and will prove too much to stop for a Ravens defense that isn’t what it once was. Denver 34, Baltimore 17
AFC title game, New England at Denver: I can’t imagine a title game that would draw more interest than Brady v. Manning. This one should be a shootout, and the fact that New England has a small edge in offense, and a big edge in turnovers (plus-25 vs. minus-1) swings the scales in coach Bill Belichick’s favor. Patriots 31, Denver 27
This weekend’s games:
Minnesota at Green Bay: A rematch of last week’s game, which the Vikings had to have just to get in the playoffs, I expect Green Bay, playing at home, to fare much better this time around. Containing Adrian Peterson is obviously a concern, but it’s hard to win in the NFL if you can’t pass consistently, and the Packers and Aaron Rodgers have a huge, huge edge there. Green Bay 31, Minnesota 20
Seattle at Washington: Not only were these two of the NFL’s surprise teams, they’re also two of the league’s hottest quads – Seattle has won its last five, and the Redskins, their last seven. Both teams, led by rookie quarterbacks, can pile up the points, but there’s not much comparison between the Seahawks’ fourth-ranked defense and Washington’s No. 28 unit. Seattle 31, Washington 24
The NFC semifinals:
Green Bay at San Francisco: Statistically, the 49ers have a slight edge due to a better defense and a home-field advantage. But the Packers also have maybe the best QB in the NFL in Aaron Rodgers, and it’s just a gut feeling on my part that he’ll be the difference on this day. And let’s not forget, the Packers won three games on the road to get to the Super Bowl (which they won) just two seasons ago. Packers 27, 49ers 23
Seattle at Atlanta: The Falcons quietly got the No. 1 seed, while Seattle just ripped a bunch of teams to shreds (including the 49ers) down the stretch with a great defense and solid play from quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch. The feet of those two will give the Falcons (who gave up 4.8 yards per carry) fits, and the surprising Seahawks will advance to the NFC title game. Seattle 27, Atlanta 24
NFC title game, Seattle at Green Bay: Everybody remembers the controversial finish of the Sept. 24 game between these teams, with Golden Tate being generously awarded possession of a jump ball that Wilson threw to the end zone with time expiring. The two offenses performed almost identically, and Seattle’s defense was better, but again, this is a hunch that the Packers and Rodgers are getting hot at the right time. Green Bay 30, Seattle 23
The Super Bowl New England vs. Green Bay
It’s hard to believe that the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl since 2005, though it has gotten there and lost twice since. The Packers have their own recent heartbreak, going 15-1 heading to last year’s playoffs before being stunned by the Giants. This game would be a TV network’s dream matching perhaps the two most successful franchises, and probably two eventual Hall of Fame quarterbacks as well. The difference? New England’s offense, led by a better running game, brings coach Bill Belichick his fourth Super Bowl title. New England 31, Green Bay 27