While it’s tough to trust Alex Smith and Andy Reid in a playoff game, they should be able to beat up on the weak opponent that is the Tennessee Titans. This might be slightly less depressing than the Raiders vs. Texans game last year, but less one-sided than Chiefs vs. Texans from the year before.
Prediction: Chiefs win
Falcons @ Rams
The Falcons were able to squeak out a few good wins and slide into the last Wild Card spot, but they’re desperate to be put out of their misery. The Rams might be young and inexperienced, but they actually want to win. This might start off close, but I expect the Rams to blow this open in the 2nd half, if not the 2nd quarter. I hope we get to see a few awesome Todd Gurley playoff games.
Prediction: Rams win
Bills @ Jaguars
As much as I love that one of these teams HAS to win, I hate that one of them has to lose. The Bills have a pretty good chance of winning if LeSean McCoy can play. The Bills have the better Quarterback and possibly the better running back, depending on health. If the Bills defense plays decently or if Blake Bortles gives them the ball more than he does to his own team (I’m a Bortles Believer, but also not blind). I think the Jags ultimately win, but this has a decent chance of going either way.
Prediction: Jaguars win
Panthers @ Saints
The Saints have had a great year and won both of their regular season games against the Panthers. The Panthers have been inconsistent, but I think the Panthers are the better team and Cam can win this one by himself if he has to. Of course it’s possible Brees and Kamara both have great games and pull off another win against the Panthers, but I don’t think they pull it off a third time this season.
After the Broncos barely beat the Patriots to take the AFC and the Panthersdominated the Cardinals to take the NFC on Sunday, January 24, I was much more sure about my pick to win Super Bowl 50. I was sure this game would be more or less a re-run of Super Bowl 48, where the Seahawks just annihilated the Broncos, 43-8. But, the difference this time is that the Broncos have an even better defense than the Panthers (who are also great on defense). Thomas Davis having a broken arm (said to be starting) may also be an issue for the Panthers.
Another factor to consider is the Panthers’ habit of letting teams come back. The Divisional Round game against the Seahawks was an extreme example, but it happened a few other times this season. Allowing the Broncos to come back might just allow the Manning to find a way to win. More likely, if it’s close, the Broncos’ defense might be able to keep the Panthers from making a late run to decide the game.
But, as much as a 2nd Super Bowl win for Peyton Manning would be the perfect way for him to end his potential “last rodeo,” I think it’s more likely that Cam Newton becomes the first starting quarterback to win an NCJAA Championship, an NCAA Championship, win the Heisman, an NFL MVP award, and a Super Bowl… maybe even a Super Bowl MVP.
The Panthers will probably get off to a hot start. Manning will likely be forced to try and make big plays if the Broncos are playing from behind, and that isn’t likely to end well for the Broncos.
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.