The NFL regular season schedule came to an end over the weekend.
For some teams it was merciful relief from seasons gone horribly, wretchedly, wrong. We’re looking at you Buffalo, Cincinnati, Arizona and Carolina.
For others, just another day at the office as they did what everyone expected, like New England, which one its seventh in a row and finished with the best mark in the league at 14-2.
What is troublesome about the post-season aren’t so much the match-ups, but injuries to key personnel at the worst possible time for teams many thought might run the table.
Oakland, for instance, will have to do without the services of Derek Carr AND Matt McGloin, which means third-stringer Connor Cook as the helm against Houston on Saturday. The Texans are no better off with Brock Osweiler, who was completely underwhelming after taking the big bucks in Texas.
The playoff picture has many potential pitfalls and just as many points of exploitation for a few teams. In the end, though, there can only be one winner. Here are the 12 playoff contenders (and pretenders), ranked from 12th to first in terms of their chances.
No matter which way you look at Saturday’s AFC wild card tilt between the 12-4 Oakland Raiders and 9-7 Houston Texans, it’s pretty much a dog’s breakfast. As we noted in the preamble, Oakland will most likely be starting third-string pivot Connor Cook, who has thrown the ball just 21 times and has inspired zero confidence in Raiders nation. Houston’s quarterback, on the other hand, has been the totally mediocre Brock Osweiler. Between the two, we think the mighty Oz might just have enough in him to drag the sorry Texans into the next round. The only way the Raiders win is if they play good defence and kicker Sebastian Janikowski out-boots Houston’s Nick Novak — which could be the marquee match-up in a game that might likely finish 9-6. Speaking of defence, Oakland was pretty horrible, finishing 26th in yards against (6,001) and 20th in points against (385). Houston? First in yards against and 11th in points against. Bye bye, Raiders.
The Lions don’t have a hope in hell. Why? Because Seattle. The Lions limp into the wild card game Saturday (which they have never won, going 0-8) at hostile CenturyLink Field, also with the dubious distinction of not having won an outdoor game this season (0-3). Need further advance proof the Lions won’t get it done? In the Super Bowl era, they have never won a road playoff game, going 0-10. The Leos also dropped three straight clinkers to finish the year 9-7, starting with an odious 17-6 loss to the Giants on Dec. 18 and followed by defeats to Dallas (42-21) on Boxing Day and 31-24 to Green Bay on New Year’s Day. Detroit’s only hope rests on the arm of Matt Stafford, who was better (compared to his previous two outings) against Green Bay, but that is relative, considering most of the Packers’ secondary was in the MASH unit. What’s troublesome about Stafford is the fact he’s thrown five of his 10 interceptions in the last four games and Seattle comes in with the eighth best pass defence. Good as gone, they are.
In what was essentially a meaningless game Sunday, the New England Patriots sent a message to the Miami Dolphins in a 35-14 shellacking. That message was: “Come back next year when you’re serious.” The Fish were one of the NFL’s hottest teams going into that contest, having won nine of 10 after starting the 2016 season 1-4. But Tom Brady was Tom Brady, efficiently picking apart the Dolphins’ defence for three TD passes and 276 yards. This weekend, Miami marches into a frozen Heinz Field to face Pittsburgh in the wild card, where the temperatures will be nothing like they are in SoBe and the opposition no less fearsome. The Steelers sat all their important people against Cleveland and still won their seventh straight game, 27-24. Which means that Ben Roethlisberger et al will be well rested and hungry to get revenge on a Miami squad that laid a 30-15 loss on them in mid-October. Gills up.
Here’s the thing. The Packers are rolling in hot, having closed out 6-0 and beating arch rival Detroit on Sunday to secure first place in the NFC North. But, their secondary is a mess and Eli Manning — who never met a superstar opposition QB he couldn’t outdo — and the New York Giants are coming to the Frozen Tundra. The Pack lost corners Quinten Rollins (neck), Damarious Randall (knee) and Makinton Dorleant (knee) and all are liberally labeled as “questionable” for this weekend’s wild card clash at Lambeau. Thus, Manning may have a field day flinging the ball downfield to Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard against a no-name Packers’ secondary. On the other side of the ball, Aaron Rodgers, who was pretty near perfect through those six wins, will be harassed all day by the superb edge-rushing of Olivier Vernon. Adios, Green Bay.
Since we predict them to beat Oakland, it’s only with trepidation we even rank them ahead of Green Bay, but we have to. And by the time they’ve used up whatever mojo they have to beat Oakland and a no. 3 quarterback, the Texans will have to tangle with New England, most likely. The vaunted Texans defence, which was first overall in yards allowed from scrimmage (4,821) but may be missing the services of Brian Cushing and Jadeveon Clowney, will be severely tested and thoroughly worn out, considering Brock Osweiler will cause a lot of three-and-out’s to put them back on the field. That said, the talents of DeAndre Hopkins and RB Lamar Miller are wasted heading into the post-season. Osweiler, who signed that big deal in the off-season, logged a lousy 72.2 rating (due to 15 TD to 16 INT ratio) and was even benched in favor of back-up Tom Savage (who won’t start because he’s hurting now). One round and out for Houston.
Should our predictions come true, the Atlanta Falcons will likely face a determined New York Giants team in the NFC semi-finals. Not to say the Falcons aren’t formidable, having won four in a row to close out the season and earn the second seed in the NFC and a bye. However, there is something to say about being warm and if the Falcons have to face Eli Manning coming in off a win over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, they will be in tough. It could likely come down to a gun-slinging shootout, as Matt Ryan comes in scorching on the heels of his best season ever. And while he he did throw for 4,994 yards, 38 TDs and a 117.1 rating, all career highs, the Falcons defence gave up a boat load of points, 408 to be exact (the Giants allowed a NFC low 284). The big fly in the ointment, though, is Ryan’s 1-4 playoff record. His only victory came in 2012 and he could be facing Eli Manning, who is 8-3 and has won two Super Bowls. Thus, when it comes right down to it, does Ryan have the goods to deliver the Falcons to the NFC championship for the first time since 2012? We think not.
The Seahawks shouldn’t have much problem taking out the Detroit Lions in the wild card game this weekend. They topped the mediocre NFC West at 10-5-1 and were the second stingiest team in the conference, surrendering just 292 points. Of those 292 points against, Seattle spotted good teams big points on the road, like the 38 to Green Bay on Dec. 11 in a 38-10 loss and the 24 to New England in a 31-24 victory. Thus if as we stated they beat Detroit, they will face Dallas, no matter who wins the other game. And the 13-3 Cowboys will be a rested crew with a 7-1 home record and with a defence that was first against the rush (just 83.5 yards per game). This will force Seahawks’ QB Russell Wilson to put the ball in the air more often, which isn’t a great proposition, since he threw a career high 11 interceptions this season, against just 21 TDs, his second lowest total ever. On the defensive side, Seattle was really good, with Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman and Cliff Avril harassing opposing offences all year. They will have to on point, however, to defeat the likes of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in Big D.
If Houston beats Oakland, as we’ve foretold above, the no. 2 AFC seed Kansas City Chiefs could have he unenviable task of beating a Pittsburgh Steelers team likely to be on an eight-game winning streak after disposing of Miami in the other wild card game. And we would give Pittsburgh the edge in this proposed matchup, considering the Chiefs have not been very good against the pass (18th overall, 247.4 yards per game) and even worse against the run (26th overall, 121.1 yards/game). Offensively, the only guy who punched above his weight was TE Travis Kelce, who caught 85 passes for 1,125 yards and four TDs. QB Alex Smith was boringly efficient, throwing just eight interceptions, but only 15 TDs for a 92.1 rating. Overall, the Chiefs were middle of the pack on offence, that is 20th in the air and 15th on the ground. We think the Chiefs will be one and done.
No matter what they do leading up to the AFC championship game, it will be the end of the road for the Steelers. Why? Well, they will likely (spoiler alert), face the New England Patriots in Foxboro. Now, it will be a battle of the NFL’s two hottest teams but Pittsburgh owns a 1-3 record against New England in the post-season, that win coming in 1997, long before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick rolled into town. The only hope the Steelers might have of upending the Patriots would be the fact that New England’s two losses this season came at home. And if Pittsburgh intends on marching into Massachusetts and laying one on the Pats, the focus will be squarely on Roethlisberger and offensive all-stars Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Bell rolled up 1,268 yards on the ground and seven TDs, along with 616 receiving yards and another two scores. Brown caught 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 TDs and will be counted on to give Roethlisberger a deep threat against a New England secondary that surrendered just 238 yards per game (12th best). Don’t count on them beating New England, though.
This won’t be a semi-Cinderella year for Eli Manning and the Patriots. Manning has taken two Giants teams from wild card to Super Bowl champion, the last time being 2011, when he was 30. Now 35 with a bit of skill fade creeping in (his passing yard totals were nearly a 1,000 yards less than his 2011 totals), we’re not sure he has enough in the tank to run the table by first disposing of Green Bay this weekend. And the NFC final, according to us, will be in Big D, since the Cowboys should use the bye to their advantage, get some rest and win the divisional game at home. What they do have going for them is the fact they are 2-0 against Dallas this season, but their overall road record is just 4-4. The Giants chances at victory go through the air. Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard are a slick one-two punch, delivering a combined 2,050 yards and 18 TDs. Otherwise they will have to be as stingy on defence as they have all season. Yet, we can’t shake the feeling the Giants are good for only three games in the post-season.
Not many people gave Dak Prescott a seal’s chance against great white sharks of leading the Cowboys to a NFC East title and a first round bye in the playoffs. Yet, the rookie QB surprised everyone, including himself, throwing for 3,667 yards, 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He was helped ably by fellow freshman, RB Ezekiel Elliott, who also turned the NFL on its ear by running for a league high 1,631 yards and 15 TDs. He added 363 receiving yards and another score, coming oh so close to 2,000 combined yards. Otherwise, Prescott did a good job sharing the wealth with his receivers, hitting Dez Bryant for a team high eight passing TDs. Defensively, the Cowboys are sack-by-committee, which seems to have worked out well. Benson Mayowa led all defenders with six sacks, and Sean Lee led everyone in tackles with 145. They didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher all year and situationally they have been superb. They will make it to the Super Bowl, but will have a beast of an opponent to beat there.
Yah, it’s boring, always predicting the New England Patriots to win it all. But, why mess with a good thing? It’s not like the Pats haven’t earned our praise, either, coming off a 14-2 season where they didn’t have Tom Brady in the line-up for the first four games. And by the time Super Bowl LI rolls around the Patriots will be firing on all cylinders, with a nine-game winning streak (including the seven in a row to end the year) on the line. Tom Terrific has been nothing short of superb in his 12 games. The 39-year-old passed for 3,554 yards, 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions. LaGarrette Blount, who has also known trouble, rushed for 1,161 yards and a mind-blowing 18 touchdowns this season and receiver Julian Edelman was a man on fire, catching 98 passes for 1,106 yards and three TDs. This is a team to be reckoned with, if Bill Belichick has any tricks left up his sleeve.