Now that I’ve gone on record with my against-the-spread picks for Wild Card Weekend, it’s time to have a look at how I think the NFL playoffs might play out.
Postseason football is unique because it’s a single-elimination tournament, unlike the other major sports leagues. As we’ve learned time and again throughout the years, anything can happen in a three- or four-game span. Remember the playoffs two years ago, when the underwhelming Arizona Cardinals (they of the 9-7 regular-season record) and their prolific offense knifed through defenses en route to a Super Bowl berth?
This installment of the postseason, in particular, could lend itself to such an unlikely turn of events because of the profound parity in the NFL in 2010. The only team that clearly distinguished itself as a cut above the rest was the New England Patriots, and even they may be more fallible than we suspect — particularly on defense.
Further complicating things for us as we endeavor to peg the winners and losers is that, arguably, the three best all-around teams reside in the AFC — the Pats, Steelers and Ravens.
All of this is to say that if anything can happen in any given year, that is especially true now. As you’ll see below, I’ve gone off the beaten path for my Super Bowl entrants and eventual winner. In part, I’ve done this because I figured, what fun is it to pick the Patriots and Falcons to play in the big game? But also, if there were ever a year to go all contrarian, this is the one.
Wild Card Weekend
Saints-Seahawks: No surprises here. New Orleans, despite dealing with more than a few key injuries, should handle its business without much difficulty. Seattle’s bizarre/fortunate ride to the postseason in its first year under Pete Carroll ends resoundingly at the hands of the defending Super Bowl champs.
Jets-Colts: For all the flack they’ve taken (deservedly so, at times), I think the Jets have a great opportunity here. Mark Sanchez showed some really encouraging signs in his final two starts of the regular season, and if Rex Ryan can cure whatever ailed the defense vs. the Bears, the Jets can be quite dangerous. The Colts are not the same team that went to the Super Bowl a year ago; the offense is entirely one-dimensional, and the smallish defense can be bullied around. Gang Green avenges last year’s loss.
Ravens-Chiefs: This is another case in which the division system penalizes the far better team. The Ravens are light-years better than the Chiefs, but because they had the misfortune of residing in the Steelers’ division, Baltimore is on the road, in noisy Arrowhead (the Saints have been victimized by this, too). No matter, the Ravens aren’t especially spectacular in any phase, but they have few glaring weaknesses, if any. The Chiefs’ feel-good turnaround ends here.
Packers-Eagles: Funny how I always hated the Packers during the Brett Favre era in Green Bay (i.e. nearly the entirety of my NFL fandom). Then, they gave Gray Beard the boot and promoted an exponentially better and humbler player in Aaron Rodgers. Now, they’ve become my pet team. But the Pack is hardly a one-man show: The secondary is superb, led by Charles Woodson, and they have a speedy linebacking corps, which should make things tough on the elusive Michael Vick. The Packers narrowly eked their way into the playoffs, and it’s a shame that it came at the Giants’ expense, but Green Bay may be as good as any team in the NFC. The Pack pulls off the upset.
Packers-Falcons: The Packers, the No. 6 seed in the NFC, earned the “right” to play the No. 1-seeded Dirty Birds in Atlanta. Fortunately for Green Bay (and its fanboys, like me), Atlanta is not a prototypical No. 1 seed. The sledding won’t be easy for the Packers, as the Falcons are tough at home and will be well rested, but Green Bay has a date with destiny. Woodson will clamp down on Atlanta’s lone receiving threat, Roddy White, making things much tougher on Matt Ryan. The Pack pulls out their second upset of the postseason. Onto the NFC title game for Green Bay.
Ravens-Steelers: The kids like to call this one “smash-mouth” football. Both of these teams’ regular-season matchups were decided by three points. Baltimore won the first time, when Ben Roethlisberger was still serving a suspension, and it had the second one in hand until Troy Polamalu went all game-breaker on us and set up the go-ahead, final score. The rest will have served the Steelers well, but nothing can cure what ills their spotty offensive line. Baltimore goes into the Steel City and earns its second consecutive road playoff win, advancing to the AFC Championship Game.
Saints-Bears: The Bears may be the weakest team in the playoffs aside from the Seahawks, but they managed to land a first-round bye and this home game. They’ll continue to masquerade as a legitimate contender, beating the visiting, injury-riddled Saints, who never seemed to hit their full stride in the wake of their Super Bowl win last year. Chicago will host Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field in the teams’ third meeting this year.
Jets-Patriots: If you thought the Jets were insufferable before, wait until they march into Gillette Stadium and knock off the top-ranked Pats. It won’t be easy, but the Jets account for one of New England’s two losses this year, so it can be done. Of course, the Pats are a different team now than they were then, but with Sanchez finally up to snuff, the Jets can move the ball and control the clock against New England’s shaky defense. Green Bay left something of a blueprint, one Gang Green would be wise to follow: Sic a top-flight corner (Darrelle Revis) on Tom Brady’s go-to guy, Wes Welker. Rex Ryan earns the best win of his career, and the Jets move on to the AFC title game, in Baltimore.
Packers-Bears: With a full head of steam from consecutive road wins, Green Bay rolls into Chicago and knocks off the division-rival Bears. Don’t think of it as such an upset: The Packers gave away these teams’ first matchup, then beat Chicago the second time around in Week 17. Jay Cutler reverts to his turnover-prone ways, and Rodgers exposes a competent but soft defense. The Packers advance to their first Super Bowl since Favre awkwardly sported adult braces in the late ’90s.
Jets-Ravens: Just as the season began for Gang Green, so too shall it end — with a loss to Baltimore. This game will be a tad more enjoyable to watch than the 10-9 slopfest on Monday Night Football in Week 1, but those sturdy Ravens will plug up the Jets’ power running game and limit Sanchez to modest output in what’ll be a close-to-the-vest nail-biter. With Anquan Boldin blanketed by Revis, Joe Flacco squeezes enough out of his possession types like T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Derrick Mason and his tight ends to clinch a Super Bowl berth.
Packers-Ravens: The Packers eke out a close one in what will be our fourth consecutive entertaining Super Bowl. What spells defeat for the Ravens? Their penchant for close games. Despite winning 12 in the regular season, Baltimore never quite seemed to put its foot down on the throat of its opponents. Rodgers, the game’s MVP, leads Green Bay down the field for a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Favre officially announces his retirement the day before the game, but no one cares. Rodgers’ revenge is complete.