NFL Playoff Predictions including Super Bowl XLVIII Winner (Hanson)
As always, there are plenty of interesting story lines heading into the postseason.
We have teams like the Chiefs and Eagles with new head coaches leading their teams to remarkable turnarounds — and one of those teams is as hot as can be while the other was mired in a late-season slump.
The Broncos have the league's most prolific offense ever and if they hold serve on the AFC side, they may have to face one of the league's elite defenses like the Seahawks, 49ers and Panthers have in the Super Bowl.
It's certainly possible that we get another Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady matchup, which is great for any reason, but it would be especially more compelling after the in-season collapse by the Broncos (or comeback by the Pats, depending on your perspective).
With all that said, let's get to the predictions for the final 11 games of this NFL season.
Wild Card Round
Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts
Although they began the season with a 9-0 record, the Chiefs limp into the playoffs as losers of five of their past seven games. Coincidentally, those five losses were to playoff teams (Broncos twice, Chargers twice and the Colts). On the other hand, the Colts are on a three-game winning streak heading into the playoffs and hold several quality wins this season against elite teams like Denver, Seattle and San Francisco, the top three teams in our final consensus power rankings of the year.
Even though the Chiefs have one of the league's most dynamic backs in Jamaal Charles, who has 100-plus yards from scrimmage in 13 games and a total of 19 touchdowns, both of which are league highs, I expect Andrew Luck and the Colts to hold serve at home. Colts win, 24-16.
San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals
From an against-the-spread perspective, I like the Chargers getting seven points on the road. San Diego enters the playoffs on a hot streak having won their past four games. Not only is Philip Rivers having a bounce-back season, but Ryan Mathews is one of only three running backs with more than 1,000 rushing yards since Week 6. And along with Green Bay's Eddie Lacy, Keenan Allen is in the running to be the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
While Andy Dalton is one of only five quarterbacks to have thrown 20-plus interceptions this season, he set the franchise's single-season records for passing yardage and touchdowns. Third-year receiver A.J. Green is the most talented receiver in this round of the playoffs and the Bengals have one of the league's best all-around defenses. Although they will advance to the next round, this game will be closer than Vegas expects. Bengals, 23-20.
New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles
The Saints are a tale of two teams: great at home and not-so-great on the road. As an example, Drew Brees has compiled a 27:3 TD-to-INT ratio, 9.12 Y/A and 126.3 passer rating at home; those numbers drop to 12:9 TD-to-INT ratio, 6.86 Y/A and 84.8 passer rating on the road.
The Eagles have the offensive firepower with Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson to keep up with the Saints in the event that this game turns into a shootout. Based on odds from Sportsbook.com, this game is expected to be the highest-scoring game of the weekend with an over/under of 54 points (no other game has a higher O/U than 47 points). Eagles win, 30-24.
San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
The 49ers are one of the hottest teams in the league as they have won their past six games and 11 of their past 13 games. All four of their losses this season have come to playoff teams. Despite a mediocre season, Colin Kaepernick has shredded the Packers in his previous two games, both of which have been in San Francisco. Now, Kaepernick returns home to Wisconsin to face the Packers.
The Packers got a shot in the arm in Week 17 as the return of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb allowed them to literally clinch the NFC North. The duo connected on a go-ahead score with less than a minute to go in the win-or-go-home matchup last weekend. As tough as the 49ers defense is, the Packers offense with Rodgers and Cobb back with Jordy Nelson and Eddie Lacy make this a tough game to predict. The 49ers escape with a one-point win, 24-23.
The divisional round of the playoffs is my favorite weekend to watch football.
Not only is there one game on at a time, but it's the last time that we will have two games on Saturday and two games on Sunday and it features what in theory should be the best eight teams in the league.
Cincinnati Bengals at New England Patriots
The Bengals were one of three teams to go unbeaten at home this season. Earlier in the year when they hosted the Patriots (in a bad-weather game), they won 13-6. Unfortunately for the Bengals, one of the other unbeaten teams this year at home is New England.
The Patriots have suffered numerous key injuries this season, but they have managed to compile the second-best record in the conference despite the adversity. It's hard, perhaps foolish, to bet against Belichick, Brady and the Patriots at home in the playoffs when they have an extra week to prepare as much as I may want to believe in the Bengals. Patriots win, 31-17.
Philadelphia Eagles at Carolina Panthers
Winners of 11 of their past 12 games, the Panthers have done it largely with defense. Not only do they rank second in total defense (301.3 yards allowed per game), but they rank second in scoring defense (15.1 points allowed per game) as well. Led by tackling machine Luke Kuechly, they have been great against the run (second in league) and the pass (sixth in league). On the other hand, the Eagles rank second in the league in total offense (417.3 YPG) and scoring offense (27.6) so this is one of those class strength-on-strength matchups.
When it comes to the other side of the ball, the opposite is true for both teams: the Panthers rank 26th in total offense and the Eagles rank 29th in total defense. While I worry about the Panthers' lack of playmakers on offense and the Eagles play well on the road, I think the Panthers escape this game with a narrow victory. Panthers, 20-17.
Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos
As noted earlier, the Colts had several wins in the regular season over upper-echelon teams including a win over the Broncos at home. That was an emotional return to Indianapolis and one of only two games this season in which Manning completed less than 60 percent of his pass attempts. (The other was on the road in New England.)
With such a talented group of weapons (Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno, etc.), Peyton gets his revenge here and leads the Broncos to the AFC Championship Game. Broncos, 42-27.
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
In the regular season, these two teams split their two games with each team winning their home matchup. Seattle's 12th Man has generated a significant home-field advantage for the Seahawks, who are a combined 15-1 at home over the past two seasons.
Although the Seahawks have not looked nearly as dominant lately, I think they win a tough, hard-fought battle at home in overtime to advance to the NFC Championship Game. Seahawks, 16-13 (OT).
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Championship Game Round
NFC Championship Game (past results): Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks
This game has the potential to be a 9-6 defensive battle and/or offensive struggle as both teams rank first and second in defense. It's unclear what the Seahawks will get from Percy Harvin in the playoffs, but he's expected to play despite initial reports that he may have ended up on Injured Reserve. With Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and Harvin, the Seahawks have more offensive firepower than the Panthers. Once again, the 12th Man helps the Seahawks win a close hard-fought game at home to advance to Super Bowl XLVIII. Seahawks, 17-13.
AFC Championship Game (past results): New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
Unlike the NFC Championship Game, this one is unlikely to be a defensive struggle. Or to be clear, I expect both defenses to struggle in a shootout between two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
Earlier in the regular season, Manning and the Broncos dominated the Patriots in the first half (24-0) and then allowed a comeback of historic proportions. This time around, they will be more consistent from beginning to end as they face another one of the teams that had beaten them in the regular season. Broncos win, 37-35.
While the Super Bowl is nearly a month away, there are already concerns about the weather forecast for that weekend and the Meadowlands is already known for its swirling winds. I don't have any specific rooting interest in this game, but I'd like to see Manning do well in part to answer some of the criticism he has long faced, but this has the potential to end badly. Facing a swarming and suffocating defense in (likely) less-than-ideal conditions, I can see Manning having his worst game of the season in this scenario. Seahawks, 24-21.