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2014 Wild Card Playoff Predictions

January 4, 2014

By Ross Mitchell

So last week’s article depicting Jay Cutler’s shot at redemption apparently fell on deaf ears.  Not that Cutler played poorly or that the Bears offense failed to show up.  It’s the fact the Bears defense did.  I know there’s the old adage that Bears football is “a running back and linebackers” or “built on defense”.  I’ve never bought into that.  Yes, certain teams have built a reputation for having a longstanding history at certain positions or possessing certain traits over an extended period of time.  The Steelers toughness.  The 49ers and the Packers long lineage at quarterback.  The Metrodome for collapsing (RIP Metrodome).  The Lions for offseason arrests.  That’s what the league was founded on.  That’s the lineage of the game that I love and appreciate.  But those days are over.

The NFL today compared to the NFL as recently as ten years ago has witnessed a greater shift in the foundation of the game surpassed only by the implementation of the forward pass.  Now all you need in the NFL to win is offense.  If you don’t agree with that opinion, I suggest you look at this year’s playoff field.  Look at the teams in contention for the playoffs.  Every single one had elite-to-great offenses and varying levels of defense.  Yes, having a good defense is nice to have, but it isn’t a necessity.  Isn’t that right Denver?  Isn’t that right San Diego?  Isn’t that right Green Bay?  Isn’t that right Philadelphia?  Isn’t that right Dallas?

Anyway, my point is that the Bears defense sucks and cost them the postseason.  And Shea McClellin’s nicknames should be “Crashdown”.  If you need that joke to be explained, watch every play where his assignment to hold containment on the line of scrimmage.

Let’s focus on the teams that are still playing.  Home team in bold:

Kansas City Chiefs over Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are the biggest unknown in this entire field.  They’ll either lose badly on Saturday or run the table and win the Super Bowl.  They’ll be unable to get out of their own way or win by double digits from now until February 2nd.  This season the Colts are 4-0 against San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, and Kansas City and 0-2 against Miami and St. Louis.  The Colts are a very good team but they’re inconsistent.  So is Andrew Luck.  There have been games where he’s been worthy of the title of number one overall pick in last year’s draft.  There have also been games where he has been nothing short of brutal.  If Indianapolis is going to win this weekend, they need him to be at his best.

Offensively, the Colts are essentially a one dimensional team.  Trent Richardson has yet to find his form in a Colts uniform.  Donald Brown has had flashes of brilliance but is mainly a weapon in the screen game and is hit-or-miss as a ball-carrier.

The Colts defensively are an enigma.  They rank 20th in yards and 26th against the run, but 9th in points allowed and 13th against the pass.  Robert Mathis won the NFL’s sack crown after recording 19.5 sacks but the rest of the team had 12.5 combined.  In terms of takeaways, they’re run-of-the-mill (27 for the season, tied with Dallas for 15th).  I know the Colts went into Arrowhead two weeks ago and handled the Chiefs to the tune of 23-7, but I don’t believe that will happen twice.

Why?  What’s the Chief’s M.O.?  Run the ball, ball security, rush the passer, turn the ball over.  The Chiefs have the second highest turnover +/- ratio in the NFL (second only to Seattle).  They are second in the NFL in takeaways, also second only to Seattle.  Alex Smith is having maybe his best season as a pro.  So is Jamaal Charles.  The Chiefs finished in the top-ten in rushing yards per game and seventh in time-of-possession (the Colts finished 21st and 22nd respectively).

What could be the deciding factor however are the Chiefs’ special teams.  They’re the best in the league and it’s not even close.  How Dave Toub doesn’t receive consideration for head coaching positions is something I cannot understand.  You can say “he’s just a special team’s coach”.  So was John Harbaugh.  How’s he doing?  If you had the benefit of watching NFL Red Zone this season (and if you didn’t, why?), you can attest to the obligatory Chiefs’ game changing special team’s play.  A blocked punt, a big return, solid coverage success across the board.  Dexter McCluster has transformed himself into the most dangerous and dynamic all-around weapon since Devin Hester’s first season at wide receiver.  This unit wins games.

I see the Chiefs in control most of the game.  Luck may orchestrate a few late drives to close the gap and make it competitive in the closing moments, but it will be too little too late.

Final Score: Chiefs 27, Colts 20

Philadelphia Eagles over New Orleans Saints

The Saints were my preseason pick to win the Super Bowl.  So for that reason alone they’ve been eliminated from contention.  Sorry NOLA, you’re a wonderful city!

I’m not going out on any limbs in saying I predict this game to be a shootout.  Two explosive offenses.  Two opportunistic defenses.  Two innovative, offensively minded head coaches who have dominated their field for the better part of a decade (Sean Payton in Dallas and New Orleans, Chip Kelly at Oregon and in Philly).  A Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees leading maybe the greatest passing offense of all-time versus two MVP runner-up candidates Nick Foles and LeSean McCoy.  Both teams can hit you from so many different directions.  Both teams can unleash formidable blitz packages that disrupt the timing of the opposing offenses.  This game will be one part chess match, one part prize fight.  Blow-for-blow, haymaker-after-haymaker.  Putting the opponent in a various states of check.

Final Score: 3-0.

Teams never want to back into the playoffs.  They want to be hot.  They want to be coming into their own.  At a point where they are truly mastering the caveats and wrinkles of their systems.  Philadelphia has been red hot since the start December (excluding the farce in Minnesota and the Snow Game against Detroit), winning 7 of their last 8.  They managed to keep the worst-to-first streak alive (when a team finishes in last place one season and first the next).  It’s happened every season since the NFL has gone to an eight division alignment.  What does it mean?  Nothing.  But it’s a fun factoid.

The Saints on the other hand were all but a lock to win the NFC South after stomping the Panthers 31-13 in Week 14.  All they had to do was win one of two road games against the Rams or the aforementioned Panthers.  They didn’t.  Now they’re on the road, a place where they’ve struggled all season (3-5 overall).  Could the Saints win?  Sure.  They’re an outstanding team.  A Super Bowl contender.  But Philly is playing as well as any team in the league.  In fact I’ll go so far as to say they’re playing better than any other team in the league.  They’re ninth in the league in passing offense and first in rushing offense.  The one red flag is…the Eagles are last in passing defense.  The Saints passing offense ranks second only behind the Denver Broncos.  They’re also second in passing defense.  Punch, counterpunch.

I touched on this earlier but Nick Foles has been awesome.  It would be hard to overstate this.  How unlikely is it to think that he might be the best quarterback from last season’s stellar class.  Think about it?  Heading into the season he was the second best quarterback on his team.  Now the only competition he has in my mind is Russell Wilson.  He’s been better than Andrew Luck.  He’s been better than Robert Griffin III.  He’s been better than Ryan Tennehill.  He’s been better than Ryan Lindlay.  Oh, scratch that last one.  He’s also been better than Tom Brady.  He’s also been better than Tony Romo, Phillip Rivers, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers (due to injury), Jay Cutler, and Matthew Stafford.  Now the question is whether or not he’s been better than Drew Brees this season.  I think he has been.  But why don’t we settle this on the field?

Final Score: Eagles 42, Saints 38

Cincinnati Bengals over San Diego Chargers

This is streak versus streak!  The Bengals undefeated home record versus The Team That Opens Against the Eagles Goes on to Win the Super Bowl.

Can we stop questioning Andy Dalton?  Two guys finished the season with more touchdown passes than he did, and their names are Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.  Six guys threw for more yards.  I’ll grant you that he threw too many interceptions.  But there’s something that needs to be addressed right now.  Interceptions are not nearly as backbreaking as they once were.  Every quarterback throws them.  And with the increased volume of passes throughout the NFL, why wouldn’t the number of interceptions go up as well?  They’re not good.  I don’t pretend that they’re ideal or to be overlooked.  But the Seattle Seahawks were unbeatable at home until Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals beat them in Week 16.  When both teams had something to play for.  By the way Carson Palmer threw 4 interceptions in that game.  Russell Wilson threw one.

Speaking of quarterbacks, how about the season Phillip Rivers has put together?  Four months ago he was a foot out the door, needing a change of scenery, or possibly even washed up, done, caput.  Guess who’s going to the Pro Bowl (or whatever the hell the Pro Bowl has become).  How about the season of Ryan Matthews?  On the verge of being cut, being labeled as a first-round bust, he finished 7th in the league in rushing yards.  Essentially on two downs with Danny Woodhead serving as the situational back in passing situations.  So if he’s in the game, defenses are thinking he’s running the ball, which means they’re stacking the box.  And he still averaged 4.4 yards per carry.  There are two guys in the league you can say that about.  Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch.  Good company.

I like the Bengals in this game.  I like them next week too.  The defense could have folded when Geno Atkins tore his ACL.  They didn’t.  This team has showed a lot of resolve to get to where they are.  They’ve also beaten a lot of good teams including the Packers (with a healthy Aaron Rodgers), New England, San Diego in Week 13, Indianapolis, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh.  In fact the Bengals played four teams with a sub .500 record.  They went 4-1 against those teams (1-1 against the Browns), 4-3 against teams that went 8-8, and 4-0 against playoff teams (or teams with a winning record).  It speaks volumes, to me at least, when you go undefeated against the upper echelon of the NFL.  San Diego put together a nice season.  They have a bright future.  But their season ends on Sunday.

Final Score: Bengals 34, Chargers 20

San Francisco 49ers over Green Bay Packers

I want someone to tell me how Green Bay is going to win this game.  Aaron Rodgers is arguably the best player in the league, but he’s not playing the Bears putrid secondary this weekend.  He’s going to have deal with an actual pass rush instead of whatever Chicago attempted to throw at him (which on 4th-and 8-would be everything).  Think of how Green Bay won last weekend.  They scored 33 points, six of which occurred on a fumble that the Bears picked up and dropped because they thought the play was over, and another six on the most poorly called, poorly relayed, poorly executed fourth down play I can recall in recent memory.  Give credit to Green Bay for taking advantage of the opportunities which presented themselves, but I sincerely doubt those same opportunities will present themselves against the defending conference champions.

This is simply a bad matchup for Green Bay.  The Packers are seventh in the league in total rushing yards thanks to the immergence of rookie running back Eddy Lacy and veteran James Starks.  Bad news.  San Francisco is fourth in rushing defense, allowing just 95.9 yards per game.  Green Bay is third in total yards per game offensively, but San Francisco is seventh.  Green Bay is eighth in the NFL in points-scored-per-game.  San Francisco’s defense is again third best, allowing just 17.0 points per contest.

Meanwhile San Francisco’s offense, a perfect balance of running and passing, ranks eleventh in PPG (25.4), third in rushing yards per game, and second league in giveaways, turning the ball on 18 occasions all season.  Green Bay was tied for 23rd in takeaways.  They were 25th in total defense in yards allowed (24th against the pass and 25th against the rush).  They gave up 2,000 yards rushing alone.  Now yards can be misleading.  What really matters is points allowed per game.  And…it doesn’t get any better.  The Packers allow 26.8 PPG, which was tied with Houston for eighth worst in the league.  The one area in which the Packers excel defensively is sacking the quarterback (9th best in the league).  But Clay Matthews is out with a thumb injury.  And when he’s been hurt the Green Bay pass rush just isn’t the same.

Green Bay could surprise people.  They’re playing a California team on (cue the audio) “The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field”.  The temperature will probably dip toward zero.  Aaron Rodgers is as dangerous as they come.  But I’m not buying it.  San Francisco has too many weapons.  Flat out, they’re just a better team.  And with their win, that sets up a third-and-final showdown between them and the Seattle Seahawks.  Let the hate-mail from Green Bay begin.

(I was going to say “commence”, but then I remembered people from Wisconsin would be reading it.  Boom!  I love you Wisconsin, you’re  good sports)

Final Score: San Francisco 37, Green Bay 28

Finally here are my playoff predictions.  I only got two games wrong last season.  I picked Minnesota over Green Bay in the wild card, not knowing Christian Ponder wasn’t playing.  Neither did the NFL as they fined the Vikings $250,000 for not putting Ponder on the injury report.  I also picked Houston over New England in the divisional round because I’ lack intelligence.

Wild Card Weekend (Read the article):

3. Cincinnati Bengals over 6. San Diego Chargers;  5. Kansas City Chiefs over 4. Indianapolis Colts

3. Philadelphia Eagles over 6. New Orleans Saints; 5. San Francisco 49ers over 4. Green Bay Packers

Divisional Playoffs:

1. Denver Broncos over 5. Kansas City Chiefs; 3. Cincinnati Bengals over 2. New England Patriots

1. Seattle Seahawks over 5. San Francisco 49ers; 4. Philadelphia Eagles over 2. Carolina Panthers

Conference Championships:

1. Denver Broncos over 3. Cincinnati Bengals

4. Philadelphia Eagles over 1. Seattle Seahawks

Super Bowl:

1. Denver Broncos over 4. Philadelphia Eagles

What Will Actually Happen:

1. Seattle Seahawks over 4. Indianapolis Colts

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