Here we are, heading into the divisional playoff round. We finally get to see what a first-round bye does for each conferences top-two seeds and if any of the wild card winners can keep up their momentum. In last week’s Wild Card Predictions, I finished 2-2. I missed on Baltimore and Indianapolis.
– I picked Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and was burnt on both. The injuries to Le’Veon Bell and A.J. Green, suffered in their Week 17 clash against each other) were too much for each team to overcome. Pittsburgh wasn’t balanced enough on offense to keep up with the Ravens and Cincinnati couldn’t get the Indianapolis defense off their backs as a season’s worth of injuries finally became too much. While the jury is out on Andy Dalton’s ability to lead the Bengals to a Super Bowl, this season’s loss wasn’t on him. There wasn’t enough around him with Green out.
This week’s gif is the highly controversial “no-call pass interference” during the Dallas and Detroit game. I personally don’t have an issue with a no-call as Brandon Pettigrew, the Detroit tight end, was going away from the ball and Anthony Hitchens was more in the way as opposed to illegally impeding. If he had been coming back to the ball, then it would have been a clear pass-interference in my mind, but as it looks, I think it floats the line enough to let it go. Now, I know the NFL vice president of officiating said Hitchens should have been called for defensive holding, but I have seen countless plays similar to this go uncalled. I have a bigger issue with the officiating crew picking up the flag so late. Even if they had thrown it and then picked it up before announcing the call, I would have been fine with it, but to be that late on the pickup is a problem. Also, I get why Detroit players, fans and other people are attributing the Dallas win to the controversial call due to it’s timing in the flow of the game, but the Lions had a 14-0 lead at one point in the game and then failed to stop the 24-6 run the Cowboys went on to pull off the win. The call gets the attention due to it’s timing, but Detroit also benefitted a bit from missed calls, which happen all the time, and had many opportunities to win this game before the flag was even thrown initially.
Saturday, 1/10 – 4:35 pm ET
Baltimore Ravens 10-6 @ New England Patriots 12-4
Prediction: New England Patriots
Ahh… who doesn’t love the parity of the NFL? An entire year of AFC North dominance headlined by Pittsburgh and Cincinnati ends abruptly in the first round while the Ravens soundly beat the Steelers on the road and become the only team from the division still in contention. To make the story even more interesting, it doesn’t have to end here. Most any other team, including the second seeded Denver Broncos, would/will/could be considered an underdog traveling to Foxborough, MA. The Patriots simply don’t lose there, particularly in the second half of the season. However, Baltimore has found success against the Patriots when making the trip in the past, so this matchup may not be as simple as it appears on paper.
The x-factor in this game is Baltimore’s quarterback Joe Flacco. Despite being rather pedestrian throughout the regular season, Flacco finds some way of turning it on during the playoffs. Flacco had a historic run in 2012 when Baltimore won the Super Bowl, having a touchdown to interception ratio that was 11:0 (and throwing for 240 and three touchdowns against Brady and the Patriots). Last week, on the road, in Pittsburgh, he was 18/29 with 259 passing yards and two touchdowns. When the playoffs come around, Flacco has dominated in recent appearances. Personally, I am not enamored by the Ravens on paper. The wide receiving core is good, but will be in a battle with a very good Patriots secondary this week and while I am a fan of Justin Forsett and what he has accomplished this season after many thought he was washed up, he isn’t the guy that carries a team on his back. Even the Ravens defense, though flush with talent, have struggled defending the pass for most of the season, ranking 23rd in the league. Although they stopped the Steelers on the ground, without Le’Veon Bell at Pittsburgh’s disposal, we can throw that out the window and keep in mind that Baltimore ranked 29th in the NFL stopping the run. Long story short, this game really comes down to Flacco’s success. If he dominates like he has been in the playoffs, Baltimore will likely put enough pressure on the Patriots to win. If he plays closer to his regular season form, I think the Patriots are simply too good to lose. And that brings us to New England…
The Patriots should win this game. They are stacked with talent and have enough top-tier players and enough balance on their roster to beat anyone, which is the reason why the Patriots were a clear favorite to represent the AFC when the playoffs began. I think New England wins this game. They will run the ball with power and setup easy throws for Brady. This isn’t to “hide” Brady, but simply because the weather and gameplan should dictate a run-first approach for New England. Brady will still find his guys and I expect Rob Gronkowski to play a huge role in this one, but the run game is key here for the Patriots. On defense, the secondary is one of the best and the defensive line and linebackers should be able to contain Forsett and the Ravens rushing attack. Neither team really has an advantage in special teams although Jacoby Jones is always dangerous for the Ravens. I expect the Patriots to run the ball, let Brady pick his spots and then rely on their secondary to limit Flacco’s “playoff magic”. The playoffs are always tight so I expect a close game, but the Patriots were too hot heading into the postseason to fall now.
Saturday, 1/10 – 8:15 pm ET
Carolina Panthers 7-8-1 @ Seattle Seahawks 12-4
Prediction: Seattle Seahawks
I’m going to keep this really short. Seattle will win this game. Don’t get me wrong… Carolina deserves to be here, but they simply don’t have an advantage in any facet of this game. Carolina’s success is dependent on their ability to run the ball and then Cam Newton’s ability to make key throws at key times. Even when things are going well, Carolina needs their defense to step up and control this game because Carolina simply can’t score points in bunches. Additionally, the Panthers made numerous mistakes last week, at home, against the Cardinals, which would have certainly doomed them if they had played any other playoff team. Carolina’s style of play could make this a game for awhile, but I don’t see Newton making the throws necessary to pull off the upset, especially because I don’t see Carolina being able to establish the run game.
Meanwhile, Seattle will look to establish the run game and then let Russell Wilson pick apart the Carolina secondary from there. The Panthers defense has played well as of late, but I don’t see them holding up on the road in Seattle. Wilson is playing lights out this season and is capable of winning a game by himself if need be. On the other side of the ball, Seattle’s defense has found their swagger again and fields one of the best units in football. They will shut down Carolina’s only true receiving options in Greg Olson and Kelvin Benjamin and the front seven will control the line of scrimmage. I foresee a close first half, but Seattle winning a game that is never truly in doubt.
Sunday, 1/11 – 1:05 pm ET
Dallas Cowboys 12-4 @ Green Bay Packers 12-4
Prediction: Dallas Cowboys
My first two picks above are the easy picks. Not in the sense that picking the Patriots and Seahawks are guaranteed to work in my favor, but in the sense that I am taking the number one seeds coming off their first-round bye. Now is where I’m going a little “out there”. Dallas and Green Bay will be the most interesting game of the weekend. The Packers have yet to lose at home this season and the Cowboys have yet to lose on the road. Something has to give and I think the Cowboys will be the ones to pull this out at the wire.
The Packers are incredible at home (they’re also incredible at other places too). Their offense is dynamic with Aaron Rodgers constantly connecting with Jordy Nelson for huge plays or finding Randall Cobb in the back of the endzone. Eddie Lacy found his groove as the season progressed and now is feeling as fresh as ever with his punishing running style potentially causing big problems for the Cowboys. The drawback in Green Bay is the defense, which is “good enough”. Playing at the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field brings out the best of the Packers defense, but the unit is still a clear weakness. They finished 23rd in the NFL against the rush and 10th against the pass during the regular season, but those numbers may be skewed due to their potent offense that pulled ahead in games so quickly causing teams to abandon the run and become predictable in the passing game. There is no doubt about it, the Packers are a great team and a team that could put up huge offensive numbers if Dallas lets them. That said, I’m taking Dallas and here’s why…
Dallas plays a style of football that can beat anyone. The Cowboys defense doesn’t matchup well with many teams, much less the Packers, but because of how the Cowboys play offense, we should see a couple key stops from the Dallas defense and that may be all they need to pull off the upset. I’ve said it all year, if Dallas is able to run the football behind their incredible offensive line, they control the game. If they have the ball, run it effectively and control the clock, Green Bay only has so many possessions to score. Limit those possessions, get a couple stops and you’re competitive against a team that scored 50+points in back-to-back weeks this season (Weeks 10 and 11 – at Lambeau). Tony Romo and Dez Bryant give the Cowboys the necessary firepower to put them over the top, but DeMarco Murray and that run game will decide this outcome. It is the same strategy that allowed the Cowboys to beat Seattle in Seattle, take down Philadelphia in Philly and hammer the Colts. Don’t get me wrong, this is by no means a given, but if Dallas can run the ball, and I expect them to find that success, the Cowboys could win this game. I think they will.
Sunday, 1/11 – 4:40 pm ET
Indianapolis Colts 11-5 @ Denver Broncos 12-4
Prediction: Denver Broncos
Andrew Luck vs. Peyton Manning. Well… not really. It’s more Luck against the Broncos defense and Manning taking on the Colts defense, but that’s not as much fun, is it? Either way, the headline is Luck facing off with Manning, but the game likely won’t be decided that way. The Colts are coming off a big win over the Bengals last week, while Manning and company had the week off. I think that week off, plus the talent on Denver’s roster, will allow the Broncos to pull this one out. Sure, it isn’t an exciting pick, but it’s my pick nonetheless.
Indianapolis goes as far as Luck takes them. That statement is used with other teams and other quarterbacks, but this time it is absolutely true. Luck is a phenomenal talent and will likely be one of the best to play the position with time (he’s already one of the best in the league now), but I think this is over his head personally. In the playoffs you need to run the ball and play sound defense. I know what everyone saw against Cincinnati a week ago, but the Bengals made both facets look better than they really are. Indy has struggled to run the ball all season (except against the Bengals) and their defense is actually pretty average. They still don’t have a consistent pass rush and their secondary is good, but not anything like New England’s or Seattle’s that can win games by their individual play. Vontae Davis is very good, but they simply don’t have the depth in the secondary. Now, if the Colts find a way to run the ball and if they get pressure on Manning, we have a game and one the Colts could very well win. I don’t think either happens though and while Luck plays his heart out and makes the game interesting, I think Denver will be able to pull this one out.
Now, how does Denver win though? Manning was beginning to look his age towards the end of the season and the Denver defense has been a rollercoaster ride for most of the year. The week off should help both. I expect Manning to come out throwing well and the defense to shut down the Indy run game. Aqib Talib is a great corner and should do well in limiting Luck, but the Colts will go to the air so frequently that I expect them to put up some yardage. Indy’s T.Y. Hilton should have a solid game as he is a menace to try and cover due to his speed. The x-factor with Denver though isn’t what the Colts are doing, but what they decide to do with their run game. A lot has been made out of Manning’s late-season struggles and how their success running the ball with C.J. Anderson would remedy that, but I think there may be some of the opposite occurring. The run game helps a quarterback and opens passing lanes, so there is no reason why Manning should be struggling with the run game as effective as it was towards the end of the year. That said, I think there is something to be said that Manning thrives when he is running the game his way. With emphasizing the run game, I think the Broncos got away from Manning’s comfort zone which is changing plays at the line and picking apart a defense his way. I think Denver will return to that style, but will still find a way to feature their powerful run game. Long story short, I like Denver in this one and I think Manning will look more like himself with a week off and a slight offensive approach change. I like Denver in this one.