I love the NFL playoffs. On a normal year, I think only the NHL playoffs supersedes it as the most exciting professional sports postseason (No disrespect intended to the MLB. Disrespect completely intended towards the NBA- make your league competitive). Today and tomorrow, I’ll give my thoughts on each team in the playoffs, along with my projected playoff bracket. There’s no true method to my madness, other than my gut. I’m not necessarily going by stats, but by favorable matchups. As you’ll be able to tell, I’m partial to two things- a reliable (not great) quarterback and a strong defense. We’ll start with the NFC.
It’s funny how the Panthers have only lost one game, but aren’t the overwhelming, consensus favorite to come out of the NFC. Carolina is funny, because despite the amount of Pro Bowl nods they have, I don’t find them to have the most overall talent in the NFL. They don’t have a dominant receiver or feature back, per say. Carolina does have Cam Newton, who should be the MVP this year in my opinion. He’s been the focal point of their offense and willed them to their record. No stranger to winning in college, I think this is the year that Newton finally turns the corner in the postseason, and leads Carolina deep into the playoffs. Defensively speaking, Josh Norman gets the headlines for butting heads with Odell Beckham Jr., but linebacker Luke Kuechly is truly the stud on this D. The Panthers are capable of winning, but what makes them special to me is that their defense is capable of stealing wins. If Carolina doesn’t win the Super Bowl, I think it will be due to either their relative inexperience or their lack of a dominant receiver when they face an elite secondary.
I think this team has the most consistent talent in the NFL on both sides of the ball. While teams like Carolina, Green Bay, New England and Denver grabbed headlines this year, the Cardinals have quietly put together an impressive season, losing only three times. Larry Fitzgerald has played like the generational receiver that he is all year long, with over 100 catches. Patrick Peterson is a great corner, but is also only one piece to this impressive defense. But sorry Arizona, I’ve got two words why you won’t see the Lombardi Trophy any time soon: Carson. Palmer. #3 has put a great season together, but he’s no stranger to exceptional statistics. Rather, he’s a stranger to both winning and leadership, having never played in a conference championship game. Just look at him last time out against Seattle when they, in theory, could’ve grabbed the #1 seed with a win (and a Panthers loss, which didn’t happen but is besides the point). 12 for 25, 129 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 pick. Lackluster, downright lackluster. I like the Cardinals team as a whole (minus Palmer, I’ve never liked him. I don’t like quitters, and he quit on Cincinnati), and I think that Bruce Arians is the best coach the NFL has to offer, save Bill Belichick. As long as Palmer is calling the shots though, I don’t see it happening.
Adrian Peterson. That’s their offense. Sure, Teddy Bridgewater, Stefon Diggs, and so on have potential to be really good. Potential, though, doesn’t win you games now. Due to the fact that they can’t throw (31st in the league in passing yards per game), they can’t afford to play catch-up. Since it’ll inevitably take the Vikings longer to score, the stress falls on the defense to hold teams to lower scores than usual. It’s not necessarily a bad winning formula. Old-fashioned, sure. But not bad. That is, unless they get down. If a team goes up by two scores against Minnesota, then it’s sayonara to the Vikings’ chances. While they won the division at Lambeau Field last Sunday night, it was a struggle. They deserved to lose that game every bit as much as the Packers did. It helps that they have a home game, but they get one of the toughest draws in the entire playoffs in the surging Seattle Seahawks.
You like that!! At the beginning of the year, I thought that hell would freeze over before the ‘Skins won the NFC East. But, low and behold, here they are with a home game in January to kick-off Wild Card Weekend. I don’t see them making any noise, but it’s funny the things that happen when you don’t have to travel. Anyways, offensively, Jordan Reed is dominant, and he ended the season off on an absolute tear. And while Kirk Cousins doesn’t necessarily look like a ‘franchise quarterback’, he looks like a bona fide starter. A few years back, Joe Flacco proved that you don’t need a franchise guy to go win you a trophy. If he can successfully avoid turning over the ball, Washington can hang in there. It helps too that their draw is the struggling and beat-up Packers at home, where the Redskins have been considerably better.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers’ history needs no introduction. Seemingly always a Super Bowl favorite, they never seem to put it all together in the playoffs, even when they do (still looking at you Brandon Bostick). If Aaron Rodgers is on your side, it’s usually really hard to go against him. It’s literally proven in #12’s career playoff statistics– in anything that a normal person would consider a ‘good game’, the Packers win. When Rodgers has struggled, they’ve lost. It really is quite that simple. Last week, at home and against a divisional rival, the Pack really struggled, looking sluggish on offense and vulnerable on defense. They’ve definitely got good names on defense, in guys like Clay Matthews and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. I think their injuries have caught up with them more so than other teams, like the Patriots for example.
Seattle has become a fixture in the playoff picture for the last three seasons. Seeking their third consecutive trip to the Big Dance. However, they’re taking on a different look. The Seahawks have been known because of their dominating defense and their ground-and-pound, bruising offensive play-calling centered around Marshawn Lynch. With Lynch either hurt or ineffective for most of the season, the entire offense had to call an audible and become more reliant on Russell Wilson. He hasn’t disappointed, going through the second half of the year white-hot. Lead by Richard Sherman, the best cornerback in the NFL, KJ Wright and others, the defense is still quite capable of winning them games. In my opinion, the ‘Hawks will go as far as Wilson takes them.
NOW FOR THE PREDICTIONS…
Wild Card Weekend:
Seattle Seahawks vs. Minnesota Vikings- Seahawks 34, Vikings 13
Green Bay Packers vs. Washington Redskins- Redskins 21, Packers 17
Seattle Seahawks vs. Carolina Panthers- Seahawks 27, Panthers 23
Washington Redskins vs. Arizona Cardinals- Cardinals 31, Redskins 14
Seattle Seahawks vs. Arizona Cardinals- Seahawks 28, Cardinals 27
I don’t think Seattle is the best team in the NFC. It remains to be seen how their running game will look, depending on the health of Marshawn Lynch and effectiveness of the plethora of other backs. The key to them will be Tyler Lockett- if he can play well with Doug Baldwin drawing more attention while continuing to contribute on special teams, then he will be a big-time impact player. I could also see Arizona and Carolina both making it, as unexciting as those picks might be, due to the fact that their teams are well-rounded. I think Washington is good, but eventually they’ll come back down to earth. The Packers are too injured and don’t have the necessary depth to overcome those injuries. And Minnesota is too one-dimensional. Stay tuned for my AFC picks tomorrow.
Cover photo courtesy of Bleacher Report.