By Owen Tedford
We’ve reached the end of another NFL season and that means that it’s time for the playoffs. The 12 teams have been decided with the Patriots, Chiefs, Steelers, Texans, Raiders, and Dolphins representing the AFC and the Cowboys, Falcons, Seahawks, Packers, Giants, and Lions representing the NFC. Every team has had their share of ups and downs but they’ve all made it to the final stage where records mean nothing and all that matters is what they do going forward, as this is what will make them remembered.
Using the metric that I came up with, outlined in this earlier article here, the playoff teams are ranked as follows: Patriots, Raiders, Cowboys, Chiefs, Steelers, Giants, Falcons, Packers, Seahawks, Dolphins, Texans, Lions. These rankings would lead to a playoff bracket, assuming the higher ranked team won, that looks like this:
However, these rankings don’t tell the full story as the Raiders, for one, aren’t the same team that won all the games with Derek Carr as he’s out with a broken leg. Therefore, we’ll look beyond these rankings and try to sort out who really will win the playoffs.
Starting with the AFC wildcard matchup of the Texans vs. the Raiders, we find two teams who have questions at the quarterback position. The Raiders lost Derek Carr, an MVP candidate, to a broken fibula during their Week 16 game against the Colts. Backup Matt McGloin came in and finished that game, but unfortunately injured his shoulder during the Raiders’ Week 17 matchup against the Broncos. This brought in rookie Connor Cook who struggled against a good Denver defense throwing one interception and losing two fumbles. This does not bode well for the Raiders going up against a Texans defense that ranks first in yards allowed. It looks like Connor Cook will be making his first NFL start in the playoffs next week, which makes him the first NFL player to do so. Despite the Raiders win earlier this season over the Texans, I don’t think that this one will go their way as while the Texans did bench Brock Osweiler earlier this season, he played well when he came in against the Titans in Week 17. Thus, the Texans should win this matchup, especially if Lamar Miller is able to come back and play, as is expected, providing the Texans with an offensive boost they badly need.
In the other AFC matchup, we have the Steelers vs. the Dolphins. Earlier this year, the Dolphins beat the Steelers in Week 6, which began Jay Ajayi’s breakout season and helped to turn the Dolphins season around after a 1-4 start. The game had the opposite effect on the Steelers as this started a four-game losing streak for them, almost costing them a place in the playoffs. I think this game will go differently from the Week 6 matchup as the Steelers are fully healthy in the playoffs for the first team in the last two years with Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Ben Roethlisberger ready to go. Beyond these headliners, the Steelers have been able to find a few more contributors on their offense, especially this past week against the Browns. I would expect the return of defensive end Stephon Tuitt for the Steelers to make a big impact and help in shutting down the Dolphins running attack.
On the NFC side of the bracket, we turn our attention to the Packers vs. the Giants first. In what is perhaps the most intriguing, and competitive, matchup in the wildcard round, at least on paper, I think that the Giants defense will continue to hold strong and the Packers’ run of 6 straight wins, led by Aaron Rodgers throwing for fifteen touchdowns and zero interceptions during that time, to come to a tough end. Despite missing Jason Pierre-Paul, the Giants D was still able to get four sacks and force two interceptions against the Redskins this past Sunday. Beyond this, the Giants defense smothered the Redskins offense in the first half allowing just four first downs and 83 yards. What could hold the Giants back is if they get in a shootout with the Packers, as their offense has not scored more than twenty points in the last five games, and have not scored more than thirty all season. Compare this with the Packers who have scored at least thirty points in the last four games. Clearly, something must give, as this matchup is strength against strength, I think the Giants defense will hold and the high-flying Packers will be shut down in Lambeau.
In the last wildcard game, we have the Seahawks vs. the Lions. Both of these teams would not have expected to find themselves here two weeks ago as the Lions were hoping to win the NFC North and the Seahawks were looking at a first-round bye as the two seed. Unfortunately for the Lions, though, this matchup looks very good for the Seahawks. Though the Seahawks have been streaky at times this season, they have proved they can play with the best teams in the NFL, even beating the Patriots in Foxborough. The Seahawks are 7-1 at home this season, and I don’t expect that trend to change this week. The Lions have lost their last three games in a row against playoff teams (Giants, Cowboys, Packers), and have only beaten one team with a winning record all season, the Redskins. Yes, the Lions have won nine of fifteen games after, in which they trailed during the fourth quarter, this trend has gone the wrong way in the last two weeks as they Lions have had terrible second halves against the Cowboys and Packers. Part of the reason for this recent trend is that Matt Stafford injured his middle finger on his throwing hand during the Lions December 11th game against the Bears. Since this injury has thrown five interceptions and only three touchdowns, having to wear a custom glove, something he does not normally do. Going against the tough Seattle defense, even without Earl Thomas, will prove to be a challenge too big for the Lions to overcome.
With the Texans and Steelers winning, the AFC matchups in the divisional round are the Chiefs vs. the Steelers and the Patriots vs. the Texans. Starting in Kansas City, I think the Chiefs will get revenge for their earlier loss. With the bye week, they will be able to rest up some of their key players including Justin Houston, Spencer Ware, and Eric Berry. These players will most certainly be difference makers, in particular, Houston and Berry if the Chiefs defense is going to stop the Steelers offense. The Chiefs defense has the most takeaways of any defense in the NFL and the return of Houston and a healthy Berry will only make them better. An interesting note about Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid is that he is 16-2 after bye weeks in his career and is 3-0 in the divisional round after a first round bye. Expect Reid to push that to 4-0 after a victory over the Steelers. One other thing to look for in this game is Chiefs’ explosive rookie Tyreek Hill who has touchdowns of more than sixty yards in four straight games, joining Dante Hall as the only players to do that in NFL history.
In the other AFC matchup, we have the Patriots vs. the Texans. These teams played earlier this year in Week 4, when the Patriots, led by rookie Jacoby Brisset (Tom Brady was finishing his Deflategate suspension), rolled to a 27-0 victory. With the return of Tom Brady, nothing should change for the Patriots. Brady has been on fire since he returned setting the record for the best touchdown to interception ratio in league history at fourteen, throwing twenty-eight touchdowns and two interceptions. On Sunday, against the Dolphins, he also passed Dan Marino for fourth on the career passing yards list, as well as tying Peyton Manning for most career games with three touchdowns and no interceptions at 51 games. With Brady back at the helm, the Patriots should have no trouble rolling past the Texans into the AFC Championship.
In the NFC, with the Giants and the Seahawks winning, this gives us the Falcons vs. the Seahawks and the Cowboys vs. the Giants in the divisional round. In Atlanta, I would expect to see the Falcons come away with a win and avenge their earlier defeat in Seattle. The Falcons offense has been led by a balanced attack with MVP candidate Matt Ryan at quarterback and Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman working in tandem at running back. Together, these two backs have combined for over two hundred yards from scrimmage in the last three games. When the Falcons have won the division and had a bye in the past, they’re 3-1. Compare this with a Seahawks’ road record of 3-4-1, I expect to see the Falcons in good shape. In addition, without safety Earl Thomas, the Seahawks secondary will be vulnerable to Julio Jones and the other Falcons’ receivers. Perhaps the Seahawks biggest flaw is their unbalanced offensive attack with deep threats in the passing game of tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Doug Baldwin, but questions at the running back position. Thomas Rawls has been fighting through injury, forcing rookie Alex Collins to step up. It is not a good sign that against the worst defense in the NFL, the 49ers, who average giving up 170+ yards per game on the ground, the Seahawks were only able to manage 87 yards on 25 carries, with two of those being runs of 26 and 17 yards, which, without those big breaks, the Seahawks averaged 1.9 yards per carry. This is part of a larger trend where over the last three games, as Seattle has averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in the rushing game. It seems they have yet to find a replacement for Marshawn Lynch so far.
In what would be one of the more anticipated divisional round matchups, the Cowboys take on the Giants for the third time this year. Can the Giants win for the third time against their divisional rival? Yes. The past two times the Giants have played, they’ve shut down one facet of the Cowboys game, shutting down the running attack the first time they played only allowing Ezekiel Elliot to gain 51 yards and shutting down the passing attack the second time they played picking off Dak Prescott twice. The Giants defense has proven reliable down the stretch in being able to prevent their opponents from scoring, as well as stopping the run, only allowing the Redskins to gain 38 yards on the ground. The Giants question mark though is their offense. If they can get Paul Perkins running on the ground like they did in Week 17, when he ran for 102 yards, then this will open things up in the passing game for Eli Manning and the electric Odell Beckham, Jr. Prescott and Elliot have played well so far this season, but they are rookies after all, and I think they will come crashing back to Earth in the divisional round.
In the AFC, the championship game would see the Patriots vs. the Chiefs. A rematch from last year’s divisional round, in which I see the outcome being the same with a Patriots victory. Despite losing Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots have been able to find other receiving targets for Tom Brady, most recently Michael Floyd. Floyd had a big impact in the game against Miami on Sunday scoring his first touchdown as a Patriot as well as getting a key block to spring Julian Edelman free for a seventy-seven-yard touchdown. In addition, the Patriots should see receiver Danny Amendola return, giving them a multitude of options at that position that should more than make up for the loss of Rob Gronkowski. As of right now, it seems that the Patriots offseason acquisitions of Chris Hogan and Martellus Bennett are paying off well. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have not changed much from last years’ matchup but will be able to boast a healthy Justin Houston, as well as the explosive rookie Tyreek Hill. Containing Houston will be important for the Patriots in order to protect Tom Brady, who has only been sacked fifteen times since his return in Week 5, an average of 1.25 sacks per game. Equally important will be slowing down Hill, whose explosive nature matches up well against the bend-but-don’t-break mentality of the Patriots defense. Ultimately, though, I think the Patriots will have too much offensive firepower and will win in what will likely turn out to be a shootout to advance to the Super Bowl.
In the NFC, we would see the Falcons matched up against the New York Giants. To reach this point, the Giants will have won two road games and will have to win a third in order to advance to the Super Bowl. Led by their star quarterback Eli Manning, the Giants have done this before during the 2007 season when they ultimately went on to beat the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Giants have proved an ability to win on the road during the regular season as well, winning at the Cowboys and at the Redskins. Imperative to their win over the Falcons will be their ability to slow down Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense. Stopping the Falcons’ offense starts with stopping their running backs, something the Giants have had success with so far this season. This forces Atlanta into obvious passing situations, which the Giants’ secondary, led by Pro Bowlers Janoris Jenkins and Landon Collins. Likely, the Giants won’t be able to win in a 10-7 game as they did against the Cowboys in Week 14, but if Eli Manning and Odell Beckham, Jr. are able to connect, expect the Giants to be able to put enough points to come away with the victory.
This would create a matchup in the Super Bowl that all NFL fans are dying to see, the Patriots vs. the Giants for the third time in nine years (2007 and 2011). The Giants have won the previous two, once ending the Patriots undefeated season. This time, however, I think the story will be different. The Patriots defense has allowed the fewest points per game in the NFL this season, just ahead of the Giants. However, the offenses facing these defenses are of a different caliber. The Giants are just starting to get a rushing attack going with their first one hundred yard rusher of the season, against the Redskins. Against the Patriots, the Giants would find tough going, as New England is third in rushing yards allowed per game, tied with the Giants. With the rushing attack likely struggling, the Giants would look to turn to a passing attack, which hasn’t been spectacular either, with Eli Manning throwing for 300+ yards four times this season and throwing for less than 200 six times. The Patriots, meanwhile, have found LeGarrette Blount to be a reliable running back rushing for over one hundred yards four times this year. While this will face a stout Giants run defense, the Patriots passing attack led by Tom Brady will be the difference maker in this matchup. Brady has thrown for 300+ yards five times this season, including throwing for more than 400 twice, while only throwing for less than 200 once. What will allow Tom Brady to outplay Eli Manning is that he has more targets around him than Eli does, making it harder for a defense to stop him. Therefore, a Patriots passing attack led by Tom Brady will be able to get by a tough Giants defense and exact revenge for Patriots fans after the last two teams these teams have met.
All of these results will create a playoff bracket that looks like this: