If you’re unfamiliar with the current way the NBA All-star teams are decided, here’s a rundown:
-The two teams are organized by Conference
-Each Conference gets 12 roster spots
-The 5 starting players on each team are decided by fan vote.
-Fans vote in 3 “forwards” and 2″guards” for each starting team.
-The 7 reserve players on each team are decided by NBA coaches.
So, first things first, the 2016 fan-voted NBA All-star starters are:
Guards: Stephen Curry (GSW) and Russell Westbrook (OKC)
Forwards: Kobe Bryant (LAL), Kevin Durant (OKC), and Kawhi Leonard (SAS)
Guards: Kyle Lowry (TOR) and Dwyane Wade (MIA)
Forwards: LeBron James (CLE), Paul George (IND), and Carmelo Anthony (NYK)
I won’t get into who “deserves” to be an All-Star. I get that it’s a fan vote. These rosters are weird and for as many teams seem to be moving into “position-less” basketball, these rosters are just kind of bizarre. Kobe as a “forward” makes little sense. But, to be fair, Kerr started 3 guards last year with Klay Thompson, James Harden, and Stephen Curry in the game last year.
There are plenty of melodramatic things to say about what might be the last time Peyton Manning and Tom Brady compete in an NFL game, but the real competition in this game is the Brady/Gronk duo vs. the Broncos‘ defense. The Broncos’ defense has been great, and the Patriots have had trouble running the ball. So, I suspect the Broncos’ defense will have to find a way to keep Brady from getting the ball to Gronkowski if they want to win this. That said, I really hope Peyton can pull off a fantastic performance, but even in his prime, he has rarely been a great post-season quarterback. Another ting to keep in mind: the Patriots have had trouble playing in Denver in recent years. The Patriots lost in Denver this season on November 29, 2015 and lost their last playoff game in Denver on January 19, 2014. I think this will be a close game, but the Broncos just won’t be able to put enough points on the board to keep up with the Patriots.
Prediction: Patriots win
NFC Championship Game
Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers
Sunday January 24 at 3:40 PST (6:40 EST)
This is, by far, the toughest game to predict of this post-season. Partly because I really like both teams, and mostly because both of these teams have been fantastic this season. The records speak for themselves, the Panthers‘ 15-1 record speaks for itself. Their only loss coming against the Falcons, which was clearly a fluke. The Cardinals have also had some funky losses: losing first to the Rams, then losing to a Pittsburgh Steelers team with Landry Jones at quarterback, and ending the regular season with a 36-6 loss to the Seahawks. The Cardinals and Panthers last met in the first round of the playoffs last year on January 3, 2015 in Charlotte. The Panthers won, but Ryan Lindley played quarterback for the Cardinals, in place of an injured Carson Palmer. Thankfully, Palmer will be available to play this time. Both Palmer and Carolina’s quarterback, Cam Newton, have had unbelievable seasons. I worry that Palmer’s finger is still injured, which may have led to his struggles in their game last weekend against the Packers. While Cam has been stellar, the rest of the Panthers’ offense isn’t quite as consistent as the Cardinals, who have Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Andre Ellington, and Troy Niklas. The Panthers are totally reliant on Cam on offense. On the flipside, the Panthers’ defense is superior to the Cardinals’. Both Bruce Arians and Ron Rivera have had fantastic seasons. I can see either of these teams winning, but give the slight edge to the Panthers, as I think Cam has proven to be a better playoff quarterback, even if there isn’t much of a sample size.
There are so many variables to consider here. Can Peyton Manning play a full playoff game against a good team? He might be able to pull it off on two weeks rest. Will Ben Roethlisberger be cleared to play? If so, can he? And the questions aren’t just at quarterback, will the Steelers also be without their stars Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams after Brown suffered a concussion and Williams’ current foot injury? Beyond Manning, the biggest question for the Broncos is whether or not their defense can perform at their early season levels. DeMarcus Ware‘s status and overall health will certainly be a factor. While the Steelers’ were billed as the most-feared Wild Card AFC team coming into the playoffs, they may just be too banged up to make it out of this round.
Prediction: Broncos win
Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals
Saturday January 16 at 5:15pm PST (8:15pm EST)
Are the Packers back? After a rough first quarter, they seemed to have no problem exposing a Washington team that, much like the Texans, just happened to be the team that won their division. It’s tough to say if the Packers are actually back to being able to perform at the level they could in the first 6 games of the season, or if they were simply able to exploit an easy opponent and their just a better-than-average team. Better-than-average certainly won’t be able to beat the Cardinals. That’s not to say the Cardinals didn’t have a bizarre ending to their own season. While the December 27 matchup between the Cardinals and Packers was a 38-8 blowout by Arizona, the Cardinals saw a similar fate against the Seahawks, who beat them 36-6. It’s possible this Arizona team saw no real reason to try (or expose anything in their playbook), considering they likely knew they would be the 2-seed. Nonetheless, it was a weird note to end such a great season on. As we saw with the January 10 Wild Card matchup between the Seahawks and the Vikings, I think despite a regular season blowout, this ends up a much closer game, but still a victory to the previous winner, in this case, the Cardinals (although probably not quite the same circumstances).
Prediction: Cardinals win
Seattle Seahawks @ Carolina Panthers
Sunday January 17 at 10:05am PST (1:05pm EST)
The Seahawks had to overcome a lot of disadvantages in their Wild Card matchup with the Vikings: an early away game in extreme weather, without Marshawn Lynch. But they got the ultimate stroke of luck when it really mattered on a missed 27-yard field goal. This weekend they’ll see another early away game, but likely mild weather. Their third away game in a row might be a bit much and Lynch’s status is unknown. But, overall, this matchup will likely be a better indication of who the better team is, this week at least. In their October 18, 2015 matchup, The Panthers came from behind in the 4th quarter and we able to beat the Seahawks 27-23. Despite last year’s playoff matchup between these teams, the teams have generally been close since Cam Newton and Russell Wilson have been the quarterbacks for these teams, despite the Seahawks winning most of the games. Cam has been unbelievable this year, and could be the league MVP. Wilson may not have been as impressive early in the season, but has been fantastic in the last couple months and has clearly proven himself in the playoffs. I can see this going either way, but find myself doubting the Seahawks just a little bit, as they may have a limited offense going up against Carolina’s excellent defense. Regardless, this should be an exciting and competitive game.
Both of these teams got off to pretty rough starts this season. The Chiefs went 1-5 and lost running back Jamaal Charles, who many would consider their best player, to a season-ending torn ACL. The Texans had a 1-4 start and have a number of quarterback issues throughout the season. Since their respective starts, the Chiefs have won 10 in a row and the Texans have gone 8-3. I would love to see Alex Smith make a deep playoff run after taking the 49ers to an NFC Championship game four years ago and Andy Reid get a chance at another Superbowl after taking the Eagles to Superbowl XXIX. That said,Hard Knockshad me rooting for the Texans this season (despite JJ Watt becoming almost insufferable). I think DeAndre Hopkins is one of the most exciting receivers in the NFL and it will be great to see him in a playoff game. But, the bottom line is the Chiefs are the better team. Despite Alex Smith and Andy Reid not always being reliable, I think they have proven that they have something special this year, and I see them taking this to the next round.
Prediction: Chiefs win
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals
Saturday January 9 at 5:15pm PST (8:15pm EST)
A lot of this depends on whether or not Andy Dalton can play, and if he can play with a busted thumb. As of right now, AJ McCarron is starting. If that’s the case, I don’t see how the Bengals can beat the Steelers. To be fair, Andy Dalton has had trouble winning in nationally televised games and playoff games anyway. So far, Dalton is 0-4 in the playoffs with the Bengals. This year, he played in their 11/5/15 Thursday Night Football game against the Browns, which they won, but again, was against the Browns. The Bengals lost both Monday Night Football Games this year. Dalton on ply played in the first on 11/16/15 in Houston. The Bengals were held to 6 points from two field goals. The Bengals split the season series with the Steelers, winning 11/1/15 in Pittsburgh (16-10) and losing 12/13/15 in Cincinnati (33-20), the game in which Dalton was injured. All that is to say, I do not really even need to get into all the advantages that Pittsburgh has; unless Mike Tomlin makes some bizarre decisions that give the game away, the Bengals may not have a chance with or without Andy Dalton.
Prediction: Steelers win
Seattle Seahawks @ Minnesota Vikings
Sunday January 10 at 10:05am PST (1:05pm EST)
It’s hard to say if either of these teams really have an impressive win. But, if I had to choose one for Seattle, it might be their only head-to-head matchup with the Vikings this season on 12/6/15. The Seahawks won in a 38-7 blowout. I really want Minnesota to win this, and I think that they can. But, with Seattle getting Marshawn Lynch back, I think they’re in for another win in Minnesota, but I expect this to be a much closer game.