Yesterday was the final day of the 2009 NFL regular season. Now comes one of the most exciting time of the year: the NFL Playoffs.
Let me briefly summarize the final week of the NFL regular season: the Ravens and Jets clinched the two Wild Card spots in the AFC, the Cowboys blanked the Eagles to win the NFC East, and the Vikings thoroughly embarrassed the Giants on their way to a first-round bye.
The playoffs are always unpredictable, and as a result, every sportswriter will be making their picks for the postseason. I’m no different, so here’s what I think will go down.
AFC: Ravens at Patriots, Wild Card Weekend
New England won the AFC East a year after missing the playoffs entirely, albeit with one fewer win than last year. The Ravens return to the playoffs for the second year in a row, led by a strong performance from Ray Rice.
Based on what most analysts would have you believe, the Patriots should be the favorite in this matchup. They have the third-most passing yards per game and 12th-most rushing yards per game in spite of having no true star in the backfield.
However, Baltimore’s defense has been much better this year than most people realize. The Ravens are fifth-best against the run and eighth-best against the pass, as compared to the Patriots, who are 13th-best against the run and 12th-best against the pass.
In other words, New England’s defense is still good, but nowhere near the elite squad associated with the Patriots Super Bowl teams of the past.
It also hurts their chances to consider Tom Brady’s most effective weapon, Wes Welker, tore his ACL and MCL yesterday, and will not participate in the playoffs.
Welker’s greatest strength is his ability to draw the coverage away from Randy Moss, enabling Tom Brady to throw the ball deep. Without Welker in the game to catch the ball in traffic early and often, the Patriots’ passing game will suffer.
Considering the effectiveness of the Ravens two-headed rushing attack of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, don’t be surprised if this one gets ugly in a hurry.
Especially if Ed Reed is healthy and playing up to his ball-hawking standards.
Prediction: Ravens 34, Patriots 13
AFC: Jets at Bengals, Wild Card Weekend
Last night, fighting for their playoff lives, the Jets humiliated the Bengals by a score of 37-0. The Jets won their final regular-season home game at the Meadowlands, and by doing so, clinched their spot in the playoffs and denied the 9-7 Texans—who valiantly came from behind to beat the Patriots—their first playoff appearance.
Clearly last night wasn’t the Bengals’ best effort. They had already clinched the division and saw no need to go for the No. 3 seed and risk injuring key players on offense, considering their defense is already looking thin.
Regardless, I’m not sure how much I like Cincinnati’s chances.
The Jets proved last night they can win without throwing the ball. They finished 31st in the NFL in passing yards per game, indicating this is a run-first team. The two-back system is effective, especially in the case of the Jets with Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene.
It also helps having the best defense in the league in terms of points per game.
The way I see it, the Bengals are in real trouble. With the injury to Chad Ochocinco, (who played like the more mundane Chad Johnson after not catching a single pass against Darrelle Revis last night), Carson Palmer is praying his No. 1 receiver will be able to play this weekend.
Ochocinco led the team in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. No matter how hard they try, Andre Caldwell and Laveranues Coles can’t fill the void left by No. 85.
If Chad doesn’t play, the only way the Bengals will have a chance is if they find a way to cram the ball down New York’s throat. While Cedric Benson and Larry Johnson may give them a chance to do so, it’s a long-shot.
Last night was proof that the Bengals’ defense can’t stop the Jets’ rushing attack. There’s too many injuries to their front seven, and even at home, I can’t give the Bengals any chance of winning. Expect a repeat performance.
Prediction: Jets 28, Bengals 10
NFC: Packers at Cardinals, Wild Card Weekend
Aaron Rodgers has become the franchise in Green Bay. Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense has been the league’s best at stopping the run. And Charles Woodson is reminding everyone why (in 1997) he became the first combination defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy since Ernie “The Express” Davis in 1961. (Note: Davis was primarily offense, but did play linebacker.)
In spite of the incredible receiving talent of the Cardinals, they only finished 12th in passing yards per game this year. Even Eli Manning and the disappointing Giants had more yards through the air.
To cut to the chase, this one won’t even be close. It’s pick your poison for the Cardinals’ defense: let Ryan Grant pound it down your throat or let Aaron Rodgers pick you apart with the triple threat of Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and Jermichael Finley.
Prediction: Packers 41, Cardinals 3
NFC: Eagles at Cowboys, Wild Card Weekend
Didn’t we just see this one?
While three out of the four Wild Card matchups will be repeats from January 3, I see this game as being the only one that will have a different result.
One of my bold predictions this year involved the Eagles not having the level of talent the league analysts had come to expect. While they surpassed my expectations, the fact that they finished sixth in the NFC instead of gaining a first-round bye (or even a division title) confirms my suspicions.
DeSean Jackson had an amazing season. With his help, in addition to a breakout performance from tight end Brent Celek and strong performances by Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy, Donovan McNabb had one of the best seasons of his career.
Yesterday, however, the Eagles fell flat against a superior Dallas Cowboys defense. Tony Romo finally held it together in December, trusted his top two targets (Jason Witten and Miles Austin), and let Marion Barber and Felix Jones control the tempo of the game.
I don’t think DeSean Jackson will be stopped like that again, but he won’t explode for a 50-yard touchdown either. McNabb is no stranger to playoff victories and Romo has choked in his two playoff appearances.
Honestly, these are two solid teams. This game could go either way. In the end, however, I think the Cowboys defense is just too much to handle. They gained momentum from handing the Saints their first loss of the season, and kept it snowballing by shutting out the Redskins and Eagles in consecutive weeks.
The defense will win this game for the Cowboys.
Prediction: Cowboys 17, Eagles 10
That covers the Wild Card games. If these predictions are correct, the Divisional Weekend should have the following matchups: Ravens at Colts, Jets at Chargers, Green Bay at New Orleans, and Dallas at Minnesota. Let’s keep things rolling with predictions for the divisional weekend.
AFC: Ravens at Colts, Divisional Weekend
This one is not a lock for Peyton Manning and the Colts.
Head Coach Jim Caldwell chose to sit his players rather than go for perfection, citing the needlessness of personal milestones. Yet yesterday, he played Manning as well as Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark long enough for both receivers to record 100 catches each on the season.
Aren’t we sending mixed messages here?
In spite of that, Peyton Manning is no stranger to the playoffs. He’s already won a Super Bowl, so that weight isn’t on his shoulders. He’s dominated this season despite not having Marvin Harrison, but has had to personally lead multiple comeback efforts late in the fourth quarter.
If the Ravens are in this position, beating New England in Foxboro will boost their confidence and allow for momentum coming into this game. The Colts have zero momentum, having lost their final two games.
This shouldn’t be a problem for Peyton Manning, but it could be if the Colts get off to a slow start. Gary Brackett and Dwight Freeney need to put the pressure on Joe Flacco early to force mistakes. They need to create turnovers and keep the ball away from Ray Rice, the play-making power back of the Ravens.
The Colts are only ranked 24th against the run, and if they can’t stop Rice and McGahee, this one could turn into a shootout, the winner being the team with the final possession.
Prediction: Colts 24, Ravens 23
AFC: Jets at Chargers, Divisional Weekend
Even playing their backups for the majority of yesterday’s game, the Chargers were still able to beat the Redskins. Even resting their starters after clinching the first-round bye, the Chargers haven’t lost since Week Six.
How’s that for momentum?
The Jets will try their best, but this is a veteran team with postseason victories. LT may not be as good as he was two years ago, but he’s still effective enough, and when balanced with Darren Sproles and the strong arm of Philip Rivers, it’s too much for any team to handle.
Don’t forget the monsters on defense either. Shawne Merriman, in spite of a down year, is still an X-Factor, and Shaun Phillips recorded seven sacks as well as forcing seven fumbles. Factor in Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie and Mark Sanchez won’t know what hit him.
Prediction: Chargers 27, Jets 7
NFC: Packers at Saints, Divisional Weekend
My faith in the Saints is fading fast. After losing a shocker to Dallas, choking against Tampa Bay, and just plain not showing up against Carolina, the Saints have gone from the verge of perfection to a three-game losing streak.
The Saints, like the Bengals, are riddled with injuries at the moment. Pierre Thomas, Darren Sharper, Jonathan Vilma, Sedrick Ellis, Jeremy Shockey, Jahri Evans, and Randall Gay are just a handful of the players currently listed on New Orleans’ injury report.
Granted, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush can handle the load at running back, but what about the rest of the team?
Without Vilma and Ellis, the Saints have no effective way to apply pressure to the quarterback or stop the run. Factor in the big loss of Sharper, currently having an unbelievable season with nine interceptions and three touchdowns, and Aaron Rodgers should be able to rip this defense limb from limb.
Expect a shocker at the Superdome.
Prediction: Packers 35, Saints 21
NFC: Cowboys at Vikings, Divisional Weekend
Easily the most entertaining game of the weekend, Brett Favre is going to have to take down the Cowboys once again if he wants a chance at one more Super Bowl.
During the 1990s, Favre’s Packers were knocked out of the playoffs three years in a row by Troy Aikman’s Cowboys. He has history with the team, and just because he’s wearing a different uniform now doesn’t mean this game won’t be any less intense.
Favre came out of retirement because he wanted to win one more championship and thought Minnesota was his best chance. Considering the dominance of their defense and his chemistry with Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice, and Percy Harvin, it’s hard to argue with that logic.
The defenses seem to be evenly matched, and both have a powerful rushing attack. This game will come down to the quarterbacks, and even at 40 years old, Favre can still go toe-to-toe with any passer in the league.
Expect more playoff magic from possibly the greatest player to ever take a snap from under center.
Prediction: Vikings 21, Cowboys 17
This leaves the following matchups for the league championships: Chargers at Colts, Packers at Vikings. Both games have potential to be some of the greatest NFL games ever played. Let’s start the league championships with the AFC.
AFC Championship Game: Chargers at Colts
Without apologies to Michael Vick, this one is going to be a dogfight.
Philip Rivers has become the bane of Peyton Manning’s existence. The Chargers have knocked the Colts out of the playoffs two years in a row now, both games decided by a touchdown or less.
Neither team has a top-notch rushing defense, so expect the running backs to take over this game. The quarterbacks will play a factor, of course, but don’t expect a 300-yard game from Manning or Rivers. If that does happen, however, I’d expect that quarterback’s team to have made this one a no-contest.
The Colts backfield is made up of veteran Joseph Addai and rookie Donald Brown. Addai has had injury problems in the past, and if the Chargers hit him hard enough to prompt an early exit from the game, Brown may have a hard time carrying the load.
LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles work well as a team. What Sproles lacks in height, he makes up for in elusiveness. If he gets on a roll, it won’t be easy for the Colts, or anyone else, to stop him.
This game should be close and low-scoring. Either team has a chance to win it, but in the end, I think the stability of the Chargers’ secondary and toughness of their linebackers will force the Colts to fall just short of a return to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: Chargers 13, Colts 12
NFC Championship Game: Packers at Vikings
More so than any other game this season, the third meeting between Favre and his former team will be a classic.
Green Bay will be on a serious roll, having beaten the Cardinals twice in a row and taking down the top-seeded Saints. The Vikings will be more confident in their star quarterback than ever. It’s going to be a battle of willpower.
Aaron Rodgers has evolved to franchise quarterback status much faster than anyone could have predicted. Over the course of two seasons, he’s gone from being booed at home games to the unquestionable leader of the NFL’s most storied franchise.
Not many guys can fill a legend’s shoes that fast.
The key to this game will be pressure on the quarterback. Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and Pat Williams are the fiercest defensive line in football, and for a guy that was sacked a whopping 50 times this year, including 14 times by the Vikings (eight times in Week Four, six times in Week Eight), the Vikings D-line becomes a living nightmare.
Favre, by comparison, has only been sacked 34 times this year—none of which came at the hands of the Packers. Green Bay also failed to intercept a pass from Favre in their two regular season meetings.
Clay Matthews, Green Bay’s only player with double-digit sack numbers, will be the key to the pass rushing. Nick Barnett and AJ Hawk will contribute at times, but Matthews needs a big game for the Packers to have their best chance to win.
At the same time, Green Bay can’t overlook the highly underrated Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards. He finished second on the team with 8.5 sacks this year, only behind fellow defensive end Jared Allen. If the Packers don’t contain Edwards, Rodgers will be drilled all day long.
In an emotional NFC Championship game, it doesn’t matter that the Vikings swept the season series against the Packers. It’s one of the NFL’s best rivalries, and both teams will play harder than any other game all year.
In the end, however, I think Green Bay needs another year or two before they reach the Super Bowl. This has been Favre’s year, and he should play an amazing game.
Prediction: Vikings 28, Packers 20
Super Bowl: Vikings vs. Chargers
Sticking with my preseason prediction, I think Minnesota and San Diego will reach the big game, and we’ll have a first-time Super Bowl winner. The big question is whether Rivers becomes the last of the 2004 first-round quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl this year or Favre leads the Vikings to their first Super Bowl championship in five attempts, and finally retires, having accomplished his goal.
Both teams will have played emotional conference championship games on their way to the Super Bowl, and this one has the potential to be the best we’ve seen in a long time. That’s a tall order considering the late-game heroics by Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning in the previous two Super Bowls.
Each team has a high-powered offense. San Diego has a statistically stronger passing attack, but they have the second fewest rushing yards per game. The Vikings are better balanced, scoring more points and having a much better ground game.
San Diego’s defense struggles against the run, but frequently shuts down the passing game. Minnesota dominates against the run, but doesn’t always capitalize against the pass.
So what happens? Adrian Peterson pounds the ball, opening up play action for Favre, while Rivers has the mismatch of tight end Antonio Gates against the Vikings linebackers.
There’s cause for concern when a 3-4 defense can’t stop the run. As long as Peterson holds on to the ball, he’ll have a big day on an even bigger stage.
Meanwhile, in spite of an average secondary, Minnesota’s front four will dictate the pace of the game. If they can manage to tear through San Diego’s offensive line and force Rivers to get rid of the ball in a hurry, they’ll have an overwhelming advantage.
This is a situation where special teams may be the key to victory. Ryan Longwell and Nate Kaeding are two of the league’s best kickers, and both sport high percentages from 40+ yards. Longwell has the statistical advantage, but the fact that he plays indoors makes that statistic misleading.
Outdoors in Miami, all it takes is a perfectly-timed gust of wind to ruin your chances of returning home a winner.
In the end, Minnesota has better receivers, and in spite of Cromartie and Jammer playing great coverage, it’s going to be the difference-maker. The Vikings will win a close one, and Favre walks away from the game Elway-style: after throwing the game-winning touchdown.
Prediction: Vikings 24, Chargers 20