I think these teams are generally pretty evenly matched. The Patriots, despite not having a great defense, are a great all-around team and the Falcons have the best offense in the NFL. Ultimately, I think the Patriots will win because they’ve been able to win so much without Gronk and the Falcons will have a tough time with the injuries to Julio Jones and Alex Mack. Also, the Falcons are still the Falcons and the Patriots have so much Super Bowl experience. But, I would not be totally shocked if the Falcons win, given that they are such a great team.
Logically, the Falcons should win. They’re the better team overall on offense and defense than the Packers. The problem is, they’re the Falcons. Despite the fact that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Cubs have broken curses this year, I wouldn’t put my money on the Falcons overcoming a curse AND beating Aaron Rodgers. The Falcons have the talent to win, but I just can’t bring myself to pick them.
Prediction: Packers win
Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots
Sunday January 22 at 3:40pm PST
Neither the Patriots nor the Steelers looked great last year. The Patriots had trouble against the terrible Texans, but the Steelers couldn’t even score a touchdown. On the other hand, this week both teams will facing worse defenses, but much better offenses. My guess is it will be a close one, but I’m more confident in the Patriots. Ben Roethlisberger can be inconsistent and a decent portion of the Steelers’ roster might have the flu. The Steelers certainly have a chance to win, but the Patriots seem like the more likely AFC Champion.
I want to believe in the Falcons, and I don’t want to believe that the Seahawks are back. But, I just can’t bring myself to feel confident in the Falcons, and the Seahawks have been there. On the other hand, the Seahawks haven’t been great on the road this year. Yet, one of their three road wins was against the Patriots, so maybe they’ll get up for a big game. The Seahawks beat the Falcons in Seattle in Week 6 26-24, but the game ended in a controversial Pass Interference no-call. Considering the Falcons offense will be going up against the Seahawks defense on the road without Earl Thomas, I think the Falcons have a good chance to win. But still think they can find a way to blow it. I’ll say Falcons win this, but don’t feel super confident.
This game isn’t the only one that could go either way. But, I actually wouldn’t be surprised if this is actually a blowout either way. The Chiefs have been the more consistent team, by far, but lost to the Steelers43-14 in Pittsburgh in Week 4. The Chiefs have the better defense, but the Steelers’ offensive ceiling is so much higher than the Chiefs, it’s likely the Chiefs just won’t be able to score nearly enough to keep up, assuming Ben Roethlisberger is healthy and effective. The Chiefs definitely have a chance, but I think the Steelers are more likely to get the win.
Prediction: Steelers win
Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys
Sunday January 15 at 1:40pm PST
The Cowboys definitely had the better regular season, and beat the Packers30-16 in Week 6 in Green Bay. That said, I fear the Cowboys should’ve gone back to Tony Romo as soon as he came back from injury. Dak Prescott has had an incredible rookie season and will likely be the quarterback of the future for the Cowboys, but this could be a tough game for the Cowboys to have to lean on two rookies in Dak and Ezekiel Elliot to carry their offense. Maybe the rookies will rise to the occasion (and maybe Dez will have a great game), especially since the Packers’ defense isn’t great. But, I’ll lean towards Aaron Rodgers finding a way to win this game for the Packers against a rookie QB.
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.