By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
The playoffs are just around the corner so we thought we’d treat all of you, our faithful readers, to some mortal lock, expert predictions. Why? Because we love you. So without further ado here come some playoff teams, seeds, matchups and final records. Mark it, dude.
AFC: 1. Indianapolis (15-1), 2. San Diego (12-4), 3. Cincinnati (11-5), 4. New England (10-6). 5. (Wildcard #1) Denver (10-6), 6. (Wildcard #2) Pittsburgh (9-7).
Despite their recent troubles, the Patriots will hold off the Dolphins and take the AFC East by one game. A lot of pressure is off of the Broncos thanks to their last two wins and now, finishing up at 2-2 in their final four games will get them in. The final spot will go to either the Steelers, Ravens or Jaguars. Given each team’s schedule, Pittsburgh is the likeliest choice, as they get Cleveland, two home games, including one against Baltimore in which they could bounce the Ravens, and a visit to Miami for a game that will be meaningless to the Dolphins.
Wildcard Round: New England over Denver, Pittsburgh over Cincinnati.
The Patriots may not be the same team as they’ve been for much of the decade, but they still won’t lose a second game to the same team in the same season, especially if that game is in Foxboro. Pittsburgh knows something about going into Cincinnati as a six-seed in a Wildcard game and coming out alive. Add that to the difficulty level for one team to beat another three times in one season, and the stars are aligned for the Steelers.
Divisional Round: Indianapolis over Pittsburgh, San Diego over New England
The Steelers just don’t have enough firepower on defense to stay with the Colts this year, though if Troy Polamalu is back, this game will be close. The Chargers are owned by the Pats in the playoffs and Norv Turner vs. Bill Belichick is and has always been a coaching mismatch, even if Belichick isn’t having his best year. But with the game in San Diego, the Chargers healthy and more experienced than when the Pats beat them out there in a Divisional game in 2006 and the New England defensive problems, this will be the year the Chargers get past their biggest East Coast nemesis.
AFC Championship: San Diego over Indianapolis
Yes, I just picked Norv Turner to go to the Super Bowl. But the Chargers own the Colts, especially in playoff games. No one matches up with them better these days on both sides of the ball. And the Colts just become a different team come playoff time, especially when they’re the favorites. Once again, all their regular season accomplishments will go for naught.
NFC: 1. New Orleans (16-0), 2. Minnesota (13-3), 3. Arizona (11-5), 4. Philadelphia (11-5), 5. (Wildcard #1) Green Bay (10-6), 6. New York Giants (10-6)
The Eagles schedule is the most favorable of any NFC East team and they have a couple of tiebreaker advantages that will carry them. Green Bay may need a little help getting out of the six-seed but their schedule looks OK as well. And the Giants, even though they have a multitude of troubles, don’t have as many as the team they will beat out for the last berth. Which team is that? See below.
Wildcard Round: Arizona over New York Giants, Green Bay over Philadelphia
The Cardinals are head and shoulders better than the Giants this year, will be at home for the game and have now gotten some experience in big games, having been just over a minute from winning it all last year. That, and they’re slightly less inconsistent than in the past, which means good things for their near future. Philly will have several advantages over the Packers if that meeting happens. But they also will have Donovan McNabb under center and a newly-extended Andy Reid making wacky decisions. Against a team which has nearly equal if not better talent than them, that’s the difference between winning and losing.
Divisional Round: New Orleans over Green Bay, Minnesota over Arizona
This is the Saints’ year. And if you want actual, cogent analysis to go with such an abstract claim, they also have too much on offense for the Green Bay D to deal with. Also,with the home field advantage, they should be able to slow down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense enough. As far as the other game goes, I don’t really believe my prediction. Minnesota will be out for revenge from last week and the game will be in the Metrodome. But I just trust Kurt Warner more than Brett Favre. That being said, I’m staying with the pick because the thought of Favre at Brees in a Championship game is too good to pick against.
NFC Championship: New Orleans over Minnesota
The Saints defense is a swarming, turnover machine that will have both its injured starting corners come playoff time. Brett Favre is also a turnover machine, especially in big games with a lot of pressure. Plus, in case you forgot, this is the Saints year.
Super Bowl XLIV: New Orleans over San Diego
It was hard enough to write that Norv Turner will even get this far; I can’t possibly then pick him to win. Plus, this is the Saints year, if you haven’t heard already. And playing down in Miami with the weather likely ideal for Drew Brees and their passing game, will be a lot like a home game. Saints win it all.
THIS WEEK’S FIVE BEST TEAMS
1. New Orleans: Now 12-0 following an amazing comeback win at Washington primarily possible due to a Redskins missed field goal from – wait for it – 23 yards (!!??), could the Saints be leading a charmed life? Could it be their year? Also, you have to love how they are embracing a run at 16-0. It will give them more motivation to play hard and stay sharp down the stretch in games that would be otherwise meaningless.
2. Indianapolis: The Colts dropped the dramatic, comeback act against the Titans, winning a more conventional, Indy-style game in which they beat down red-hot Tennessee from the opening kickoff. They are now 12-0 too, but it’s hard to feel good about their approach. It seems like every time they get into this kind of position, they downplay it, rest guys, get rusty and lose early in the playoffs (their Super Bowl came in a year when they didn’t have that luxury) and this year looks to be no different, at least based on what they’re saying publicly.
3. San Diego: The Chargers have now won seven straight and haven’t lost in December since 2006, winning 15 in a row in the 12th month. They are as hot and as dangerous right now as both New Orleans and Indianapolis, have their own quarterback playing out of his mind and will play Dallas, Cincinnati, Tennessee and Washington to close out their year. Watch out.
4. Minnesota: Finally, Favre submitted a classic, late-season, big game, Favre-ian performance in last week’s drubbing at Arizona, doling out two vintage, awful picks and padding his stats with a late, meaningless TD pass. Was it a one-week aberration or a sign of things to come? The Cardinals completely took away Adrian Peterson in that game and if the Vikings upcoming opponents can do that too, hence put the game completely in Favre’s hands, it will likely be the latter.
5. Cincinnati: The Bengals are sort of coasting right now, which is fine given they haven’t lost, save for that terrible, late-game hiccup at Oakland a few weeks ago. But they have to go play at Minnesota and at San Diego in the next two weeks, both games they have a better chance to lose than to win. They are in no danger of missing the playoffs but the real issue will be how they bounce back and close out the year.
THIS WEEK’S FIVE WORST TEAMS
1. Cleveland: The Browns were better last week, leading the Chargers early and then making a game of it after falling behind 27-7. And Brady Quinn had another promising game, throwing for 271 yards and three TDs. But they are still the Browns, losers of seven straight and 19 of 21 games. Still the worst.
2. Tampa Bay: This week’s most mystifying stat comes straight out of Tampa with the Bucs gaining 469 total yards yet only managing six points in last week’s loss to Carolina. That’s 469 yards, six points?!?! It doesn’t seem physically possible. But they did it (perhaps partly on account of rookie QB Josh Freeman’s five INTs), which is one of many reasons why they are 1-11.
3. St. Louis: 139 points scored in 12 games, 0-6 at home, one win all season. That’s the Rams for ya. But since they’re my favorite bad team, I’ll go out on a limb and say they have at least one more win in them this year, next Sunday when Houston comes to town. Mark it, dude.
4. Detroit: The Lions may stink something fierce, but you have to hand it to rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford, who’s managed to last almost the entire past two weeks despite a separated shoulder. He’s a pretty good building block – along with receiver Calvin Johnson, and running back Kevin Smith – for a team that’s a viable pass defense away from being halfway decent.
5. Kansas City: Ah, the plight of the bad team. Coming off back-to-back November wins over Oakland and Pittsburgh, the Chiefs have dropped their last two by a combined score of 87-27 and had to bench starting QB Matt Cassel last week against the Broncos after he managed only 84 yards on a stunning 29 pass attempts, good for a disgusting 2.9 YPA.
– Bruce Gradkowski, Raiders: In easily the wildest stat line/final result of the season, Gradkowski returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh as the field general of the woeful Raiders and went 10-of-16 for 188 yards and three TDs in the fourth quarter and threw the game-winner to rookie receiver Louis Murphy with nine seconds left, to stun the Steelers, 27-24. Whether Gradkowski is the long term answer for Oakland or not, his recent play is as damning evidence as any that JaMarcus Russell must go.
– The Redskins offense: Their 30 points against the Saints was their most since Week 16 of 2007 and they’ve managed 87 in their last four games after putting up just 79 in their first six. The NFL being a copycat league, look for owners to start following Washington head man Daniel Snyder’s lead and send representatives to the bingo halls of old folks homes across America in search of the next Sherman Lewis.
– The Colts: With the win over Tennessee, Indy tied the Patriots league record of 21 straight regular season wins and have now won 12 or more games in seven consecutive years. Amazong stuff. It’s sort of mind-boggling, though, that with that kind of success, the Colts haven’t won more championships. Proof positive that there’s a reason the regular season is the regular season and the playoffs are something entirely different altogether.
– Adrian Peterson, Vikings: 13 rushes for 19 yards against the Cardinals. No 100-yard games since Week 10 against the Lions and only three all year, one of which was Week 1 at Cleveland. Yes, he’s great and warrants opposing defenses loading up to stop him. But the best back in the league? Hardly.
– The Steelers secondary: Troy Polamalu has missed six games this year and Pittsburgh’s record in those games is 0-6. They allowed the afore-mentioned Gradkowski that ridiculous stat line, with cornerstone Ike Taylor several steps behind and chasing guys like Murphy and Chaz Schillens (who???) all over the place. The Steelers have some problems but the biggest one is the absence of Polamalu and the subsequent toll it’s taken on this group.
– The Ravens: Surprisingly, the Ravens made headlines this week for bitching about the officiating during and after a loss to Green Bay. 13-year veteran Derrick Mason lead the way, saying, “It’s getting ridiculous with the non-calls. It seems like with us, it happens every time and we never get the call.” As Mike Florio pointed out on ProFootballTalk.com, the Packers were flagged 11 times in that game. This is an epidemic with Baltimore, going back at least as far as their Monday night near-miss against the Patriots two years ago, after which some of them (Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Bart Scott, Mason and more) went so far as to flat out suggest that the officials fixed the game for New England. Perhaps the Ravens, who are now nine years removed from their Super Bowl win and in danger of missing the playoffs, should stop running their mouths about how unfair it all is and just play.
It’s December, Cowboys fans, and you know what that means. Dallas has already started its Waterloo month on the wrong cleat, losing to a reeling Giants team last week in game that featured quarterback Tony Romo putting up career-best numbers. Since 1997, the Cowboys are 19-35 after November and 0-5 in the playoffs. They are king-sized gaggers and their leader in the choking department, head coach Wade Phillips (who may have been tainted by working for the king of all chokers, Marty Schottenheimer, for a few years) is already hearing it from the Dallas media. Now, they get San Diego, who as previously mentioned, are the kings of December, followed by a trip to New Orleans of all places, a visit from Eagles and a trip to Washington, which may seem like an easy task, but won’t be thanks to the rivalry factor, the fact that it will likely be played in crappy weather and Dallas’s inability to win games of import, which this one will be. It’s completely conceivable that the Cowboys, who entered this month at 8-3, will finish 8-8, which would not earn them a postseason berth by any stretch. The result of such events will be another new coaching staff in Big D as well as yet another failed year for America’s team.