NFL Conference Championships

3-1 last week. Not bad considering I was certainly gambling by taking the inexperienced, underdog Panthers in a game the Niners most certainly were primed to win.

I’ll have to keep it relatively short and sweet this week even though the match ups are considerably more exciting.
Patriots at Broncos
Brady vs. Manning. Part 500 or whatever. The last iteration of this epic rivalry was a frigid Patriot win that saw them storm back from 24 down to eke it out in overtime. Here’s what you need to know for this game. The weather will unlikely play a significant role which means that the game will have to be played in the air and not just on the ground as New England was able to do last week against Indy. Look for the Broncos to rush out to a quick lead behind their killer passing attack (healthier than it was on November 24th) and the Patriots will have to pass in order to keep up. Even with Peyton’s ability to make the deep throw, the Bronco offense thrives between the hashes and the Patriots have a strong defense in there and if they are able to jam up Thomas and Welker, they may be able to slow this offense down enough to make a difference. The game can either be a 31-17 Bronco win where the Patriots simply run out of time clawing back into it or a 34-31 late game heroic Prater kick. Either way, I think Denver is going to the Super Bowl even though I was feeling New England for most of the past week. It’s hard to bet against the most explosive offense in the history of the game in such a spot at home. 

49ers at Seahawks
What really needs to be said here? We’ve seen these two play twice a year every year and twice again this year in what were two very spirited contests. The Seahawks, as expected, dominated the Seattle game and the Niners won a tough one 19-17 in San Francisco a couple months later. Part III is clearly a deciduous game in more sense than just in terms of the conference championship as it also decides the victor of their personal rivalry that runs all the way from their head coaches to the symbols on their helmet. As for what to expect in tonight’s game, it’s quite simple really: if the refs call the game tight and are generous with the flag on pass interference and defensive holding, then the score will be run up into the 20s and maybe even the 30s each, the Seahawks losing the advantage that their physical, imposing secondary has and the Niners have a strong chance of winning. If the refs don’t call everything, the Seahawks will dominate the receivers, both teams will rely mostly on the run and it becomes a Lynch vs. Gore tilt in which the advantage, though slight, will be in Seattle’s favor and they win a low scoring, defensive game. Both teams have very talented offensive lines… but Seattle’s is very heavily penalized at times and, again, the whistle could determine the outcome. My gut reaction tells me Seattle wins this game and not just because of their notorious 12th man. The Niners have been getting it done on the road all postseason long and that is quite impressive but I’m not sure they can overcome the top defense in the NFL for a fourth consecutive road playoff win (Week 17 was a must win).

So there you have it. The league’s best Offense vs. the league’s best Defense in the Super Bowl. 
dig it.

NFL Divisional Playoff Weekend

And this is why they play it out on the field. I went an unimpressive 2-2 during Wild Card weekend and how can you blame me? Three of the games were decided by three points or less. The fourth was an inexplicable meltdown by a heavy favorite. The Chiefs/Colts game was probably one of the best playoff football games I’ve ever seen. The Saints/Eagles consistently felt like the team with the ball last was going to win… and that’s exactly how it turned out. The Niners Icy win at Lambeau was a very tough game to lose and an impressive one to have pulled off, sending the Niners on a very nice trajectory. The Chargers spirited win over the heavily favored Bengals in Cincinnati may have indeed been an inexplicable playoff meltdown on one side of the field but has to also be seen as one of the tougher, grittier show-ups of the first round on the part of San Diego’s. Playoff football isn’t for the faint of heart, eh?
Now we find ourselves in the Divisional Round with another four excellent matchups in store and don’t be shocked if we have even better football around the bend.
Saints at Seahawks
I’m not going to outright write the Saints off. Brees was less than stellar in windy, cold Philadelphia against a decent but scary defense and was able to eke out a win. As impressive as it was that the Saints could win on the road in bad conditions given their proclivity for being a home/dome team, they get those same challenges ten-fold when they travel to Seattle where it is colder, wetter and even tougher to win… and against a much better defense.
The Seahawks aren’t an explosive offense in the style of, say, the Saints but they have scored upwards of 30 and 40 points during the regular season including a 34-7 thrashing of these same Saints in Seattle . As we’ve learned over the years, it is hard to bet against the Brees/Payton team and Payton’s return has resumed New Orleans as one of the NFC Powers. However, this is a tall order. The Seahawks are looking for their sixth consecutive playoff win at home and the 16th of the last 17th overall at Qwest. Queue the 12th man. It will be loud, cold and rough.
Colts at Patriots
There is something truly special about Andrew Luck’s game and he’s barely getting started. He’s scary good and showed the Chiefs just how much so. That said, he isn’t going up against Andy Reid and Alex Smith anymore. Bill Belichick is the master of gameplanning top flight QBs into mediocrity. Will the Colts resort to the run if that happens? Furthermore, one has to wonder if Indy’s defense isn’t going to get absolutely shredded by Tom Brady. The last time Brady and Luck went head to head, the Pats blasted the Colts with a sixty burger, 59-24. Sure, he doesn’t have the weapons he’d normally like to have but he does have a nice group of running backs and a lot of playoff moxie. Any way you look at it, the Colts also gave up a ton of points to a Chiefs offense last week that didn’t even have Jamaal Charles going. If Indy is to pull off a win in Foxborough, it would have to be behind a brilliant performance by Robert Mathis. He has chased Tom Brady plenty of times through the years and Brady’s been sacked more this year than he has since he was fresh. Oh and Mathis had a RIDICULOUS 19.5 sacks on the year.
It’s possible that the Colts fall behind early again and are forced to rely on Luck’s arm and theatrics. If it’s close late, it’ll be hard to root (or bet) against the kid. However, they can’t afford to fall behind by more than two scores quickly; the Patriots won’t let the Colts back in the same way the Chiefs did.
Niners at Panthers
This won’t be a popular pick. The Niners are favored as the road team which isn’t surprising considering they are on a seven game win streak, on the verge of a third consecutive NFC Championship, and have one of the league’s best defenses. The odds are surprising only because the Panthers also have one of the top defensive units in the game including the league’s top pass rush and one of its most talented linebackers, and have one of the most dynamic and exciting QBs in the game in Cam Newton.
The Niners will be pressed to get it done on the ground against the Panthers who are very tough against the run and especially at home. This means Kaepernick has to have a much stronger game than he did the last time these two played. The concern for the Panthers on offense is whether or not Steve Smith will be limited by injury to where he won’t be the difference maker Cam needs him to be. The Panthers have sailed beneath the radar for the most part due to having a fairly unassuming offense with the occasional highlight play typically courtesy of Cam. This doesn’t mean they can’t score.
It’ll be a close contest, of course. Lots of great defensive plays on both sides. But Cam is better than Kaep and that will show.
Chargers at Broncos
Nearly every year a team gets hot at the right time, sneaks into the playoffs and makes an unpredictable run. And it usually starts with defense. For the Chargers, this is fairly good news; after all, it is behind their suddenly effective unit (that’s been getting healthier down the stretch) that they are stringing must-wins. While the Broncos are certainly one of the best teams in the game, the Chargers have to be thrilled their opponent is such a familiar foe. They just beat them recently so it’s entirely possible they can repeat the feat (especially if their defense, led by Eric Weddle, frustrates Peyton and the Broncos again) but will attempt to do it without a major part of why they won in the first place; Ryan Mathews.
Last week, the Chargers imposed their will in the run game upon one of the best front sevens in the NFL with backup Ronnie Brown and Rich Ohrnberger who stepped in to hold it down at Center when Hardwick went down. That may not get it done against Denver as the Cincinnati defense looked out of sorts all day anyway and there’s no guarantee Ohrnberger and Brown get it done again.
The previous match up was a low scoring, defensive affair. This one won’t be. It’s true that the Chargers not only play the Broncos well but play Manning rather well also (as exemplified by Weddle who has picked Manning off three times in his career). The Chargers will have to keep up with Denver as the Manning machine scores just shy of 30 points… with the Charger offense struggling to balance itself without the run and unable to keep up on the scoreboard.

NFL Wild Card Weekend

Wait, what’s this? Gone since Week 6, back in time for the playoffs? What is this madness…

Honestly, I’ve only got myself to blame but life is also sort of at fault. Amidst playing a few handfuls of roles inside and outside the realm of plausibility, I was still able to manage five fantasy football teams, four more successfully than one… one more successfully than the other three. I’ve of course followed the season very closely and just couldn’t pass up this opportunity to let y’all in on my crystal ball of football future.

Or my best guess.

This Wild Card weekend starts with

Chiefs at Colts
So let me get this straight. The Chiefs, who started the season on a tear and then withered down the stretch trading wins and losses (including a 23-7 shalacking AT Arrowhead), face a suddenly hot Colts team that has won four of their last five including that stunner in KC. Let’s be fair though: they’ve beaten three divisional rivals, two of which are pretty bad and one which is mediocre at best. They had two challenging opponents, got tore up by one (the Bengals) and beat the other who was ravaged by injuries and mired in a slump (their opponents this weekend).

Sure, the Chiefs are getting considerably healthier but without Tamba Hali out there, I am not sure that they’ll be as impactful on defense against Andrew Luck as they’ll need to be to win in Indy. Suddenly the fact they were unable to hold onto control of the AFC West after the bye week makes all the difference in the world. The Colts are playing much better defense than they had all year and are going to be fired up at home. They also don’t make many mistakes on the other side of the ball (lead the league with the least turnovers committed).

The Chiefs are so infinitesimally favored that I can hardly call this a true upset but the Colts ought to win this one at home. The Chiefs should be commended for the sharp turnaround they made this year with Alex Smith and new head coach Andy Reid but this is where the train stops for 2013/2014.

Saints at Eagles
Like the Chiefs, stumbling down the stretch ensured the Saints would have to win on the road, something they aren’t particularly good at doing (they only were able to barely beat a Tampa team that isn’t good, barely beat an Atlanta team that also isn’t good and a Chicago team that doesn’t play defense). A 8-0 mark at the Superdome says it all. Conversely, they now have to travel to Philly who, after starting the season rough at 3-5 and beleaguered with injuries and bad defense, have gone 7-1 while blowing pretty much everybody out of the water and really playing much better defense than their boxscores would indicate.

Ok so I get it, Nick Foles has been outstanding. The kid’s been absolutely on fire and it looks like the tear is going to last at least another weekend in January. The Saints are great at avoiding giving up big plays which is the bread and butter of this Eagles offense with the abilities of DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy to rip big gains and scores. I don’t think this does anything but keep their point total under 30. Maybe. But I don ‘t know if it’ll be enough.

The Eagles are going to move on to the next round.

Chargers at Bengals
The Chargers sure are fortunate to be here. They barely survived the Chiefs’ second team and did so on a couple of questionable calls/no-calls… AND they got all the help they needed from other teams winning and not winning games they needed to win or not win in order for the Bolts to sneak in. And on top of that they draw possibly the most balanced team in the AFC field in their house. Not a good look.

Still, the beauty of the game is that, on any given Sunday, anybody can win if they play hard and well enough. So it stands to be proven whether the Chargers who’ve flourished in the McCoy system and finally received the sort of season out of Ryan Mathews they envisioned when first drafting him can make a run at the Super Bowl running on fumes and house money. That said, as hot as the Chargers have been down the stretch, they do run into a team in the Bengals that is even more so and has possibly the best defense in the AFC, a strong running game and an underrated passing game. Like the Saints, the Bengals are undefeated at home. Unlike the Saints, they get to play this round at home and as a result, I like their chances a lot more. They come in having won five of their last six including a low scoring struggle in San Diego a month ago.

The emergence of the running game for the Chargers has been the revelation for them down the stretch and stopping that is where Cincy excels. Dalton played poorly in their last meeting but should do much better at home in what could be Cincinnati’s first playoff win since I was TEN. Against San Diego’s terribly secondary, that is a strong possibility.

Niners at Packers
The Niners are the better all around squad here, no doubt. They’re built for postseason success with strong defense, an emphasis on the ground game and a game manager QB with multiple receiving options. Where they might run into trouble is playing on the road in one of the toughest places for any team to win; legendary, icy Lambeau. The Pack got their super stud QB back last week and A-Rod rewarded Packer nation for their patience during his absence (and their curious survival of the NFC North while the Bears and Lions fumbled away opportunity after opportunity to take hold of the division) with gutsy fourth down conversions, his trademark game management and, of course, a win against the Bears.

They are vulnerable defensively which is really where their only visible weakness remains. Eddie Lacy is as good a rookie running back as we’ve seen in a couple years and finally gives this offense the balance it has long needed. Getting Randall Cobb back was also huge for this offense as they look to take their fortuitous playoff berth to the next round.

It won’t be easy, though. There may be questions about Colin Kaepernick’s follow up campaign and his inability to show the same confidence in using his legs to complement his arm as he had last year but this Packer defense doesn’t stop many folks. Worse yet for the Pack is the fact that the Niner defense, in the likely frigid conditions of Lambeau, is not the sieve that the Bears defense was and while he shook off some of the rust from a seven game layoff, one has to wonder if he’s shaken off enough for a critical, challenging playoff win.

A road game at Green Bay in Icy conditions normally wouldn’t bode well for a Kaepernick led offense in my mind but I have a feeling they pull it out in a tightly contested, low scoring affair that’ll be a treat for all of us.