The NFL regular season is officially over. For some, that means not seeing your favorite team play until next August, a thought so depressing that I think a part of me dies every time it enters my mind. For others, it means sitting on the edge of your couch, chewing your nails down to the nub, hoping your team extends its lifetime, one week at a time.
But regardless of whether or not your team will be participating this time around, playoff football is an exciting time to be alive. There’s something to watching a football game, knowing that it’s what both teams on the field have been working toward for the past eight months or so, that generates a sort of electricity in the air. Everyone on the field is giving everything they have on every play. It’s special.
So, without further ado, here’s what you need to know going into the games this weekend, and how I think those games (and those beyond) will go.
Wild Card Round
Saturday, January 7
Oakland Raiders (12-4) at Houston Texans (9-7)
The Texans emerged winners of the weak AFC south despite poor quarterback play from Brock Osweiler, but I think the most surprising thing in their path to the playoffs was the fact that they finished 1st in the league in defensive yards allowed, despite losing star DE JJ Watt early. A big factor in that development was former No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney stepping up, but this defense is very well-rounded and possesses playmakers across the field. If the Texans are going anywhere, the defense will need to carry them there.
The Raiders wouldn’t have had an easy time with this defense regardless, but the situation gets even messier when you consider that the Raiders lost their quarterback and MVP candidate, Derek Carr, for the year and will be forced to start rookie fourth-round QB Connor Cook for the first time. And it’s not like this team is outstanding outside the passing game: the trio of RBs Latavius Murray, Jalen Richard, and DeAndre Washington is good, but not great, and the Raiders were 26th in the league in yards allowed on defense despite having all-world edge rusher Khalil Mack. Losing Carr is a massive blow and it makes the Raiders a good candidate to get knocked out early.
Neither of these teams are particularly exciting at the moment, but one has to win. I think it’ll be a close game simply because they both lack the offensive potency to put up a lot of points.
Prediction: Texans 17, Raiders 13
Detroit Lions (9-7) at Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1)
Detroit limps into the playoffs after dropping their last three games, but there are some things that could propel them to a playoff run. First, QB Matthew Stafford had a rock-solid season and benefits from the wonders of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who may have the best name of any coach in any sport. Second, running back Zach Zenner has been a revelation in the wake of injuries to Theo Riddick and, much earlier, Ameer Abdullah. Third, this team has been very good on special teams, benefitting from wonderful return work from Andre Roberts. Unfortunately, that’s about where the positives end. The Lions have no momentum heading into the playoffs, and they suffer from one of the league’s most inept pass defenses (31st in passing touchdowns allowed). Matt Stafford threw for just 3 TD compared to 5 INT in the team’s last four games. The Lions could very well be an easy out.
The Seahawks, on the other hand, benefit from playing on their home turf, CenturyLink Field, which is one of the most hostile environments for anyone to play in (besides the Seahawks, of course). Seattle is also 7-3 in the postseason during the Russell Wilson era. Wilson had a season to forget in 2016, but, again, he will be playing against a very poor pass defense. The Seahawks finished 3rd in the league in points per game allowed on defense as well. This team may have some legs.
The Seahawks are favored to win by 8, which isn’t a stretch at all. I think the Lions make this a game: 13 of their 16 games were decided by 7 points or less, but I think it’s unlikely that they come out on top.
Prediction: Seahawks 27, Lions 17
Sunday, January 8
Miami Dolphins (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
The Dolphins lost quarterback Ryan Tannehill for the year in week 14, but losing their starting QB shouldn’t hurt them as much as it would many other teams. Backup Matt Moore has been steady, if not better, in relief, and it’s not like Tannehill was setting the world on fire when he was playing. The team has gotten surprisingly excellent play out of RB Jay Ajayi, and on special teams, rookie Kenyan Drake has contributed well on returning kicks. Additionally, the Dolphins beat the Steelers in week 6, which jumpstarted the run that got them into the playoffs (they were 1-4 at the time). However, the Dolphins were 29th in the NFL in yards allowed, and their secondary lacks any real threats. They’re certainly flying under the radar this year, but it would be surprising to see them go very far.
Meanwhile, many have pegged the Steelers to make a playoff run this time around. They rock the NFL’s best QB-RB-WR combo in Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown, and they have a good offensive line. The Steelers’ offense alone could be enough to take them far, but their defense is middling and doesn’t possess any elite players. Another area that can be improved on is special teams: the Steelers didn’t make many plays on punt or kick returns, and opposing teams average more than three yards more on such plays. Nonetheless, the “Killer B’s” make this team dangerous.
Six of the Steelers’ last seven playoff games under head coach Mike Tomlin (dating back to 2010) have been decided by a touchdown or less, so this ought to be a close game. Rookie head coach Adam Gase has done an admirable job bringing the Dolphins back to the playoffs and should have his team bringing their A-game.
Prediction: Steelers 27, Dolphins 24
New York Giants (11-5) at Green Bay Packers (10-6)
It’s hard to believe that just last year, the Giants had a historically bad defense. Now? New York is fresh off a 2016 season that saw them finish 2nd in the league in points per game allowed. It has been a tremendous turnaround. This front four is still great even after losing Jason Pierre-Paul to a groin injury, and Landon Collins is fantastic in the secondary. However, this offense is nothing to get excited about outside of Odell Beckham Jr. Eli Manning had an up-and-down season and the end result was middling, and though Paul Perkins has emerged as the lead running back, the Giants aren’t scaring anyone in that phase of the game. Still, strange things tend to happen when New York is in the playoffs.
The Packers, however, are a hot Super Bowl pick, and it’s understandable given that the team has won six games in a row, and since week 11, no one has played better than Aaron Rodgers. The Packers have a mediocre defense and have seen inconsistent results at RB, but who cares? They have the best QB in the league playing at the top of his game. No one wants to face Aaron Rodgers right now, and he could carry the Packers far.
This was a very hard matchup to predict. In 2007 and 2011, the two years the Giants won the Super Bowl, they went through the Packers both times, and the Giants are 8-3 in the playoffs with Manning. But this is Aaron Rodgers, who has shown the ability to play at an elite level in any climate, so it could go either way.
Prediction: Giants 23, Packers 20
Saturday, January 14
Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
The Seahawks were able to beat the Falcons in week 6 by two points, an indication that this game should be a close one. The big thing to watch out for here is location: in that game, the Seahawks were playing at home, but this time, they’ll play in the Georgia Dome. Russell Wilson’s passer rating was a stunning 103.5 at home, but a measly 82.1 on the road, and Seattle went 3-4-1 in such games, as opposed to 7-1 at home.
The Falcons were outstanding on offense in 2016, using Kyle Shanahan’s spread-the-wealth playcalling style to their advantage. Quarterback Matt Ryan had his best season ever, and the Falcons were able to utilize the tandem of RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman wonderfully. This team can attack in many different ways and they’ve done it against good competition. The problem here is the defense: Atlanta’s is young, and their secondary is soft, ranking 28th in both passing yards and passing touchdowns allowed. Relying on your offense can be a dangerous game when you play Seattle. Still, this potent attack gives Atlanta a chance to do some damage this year.
If it comes down to experience, Atlanta loses. The Seahawks have a recent playoff pedigree; the Falcons don’t. But that’s certainly not the end-all, be-all. And will the Seahawks’ road woes continue?
Prediction: Atlanta 26, Seattle 23
Houston Texans (10-7) at New England Patriots (14-2)
How Houston fares in this game depends a bit on whether or not Tom Savage will be under center. Yes, he threw zero touchdowns in 73 attempts, but he still managed a better passer rating than Osweiler (which is pretty sad), and did a much better job putting the ball in the hands of Houston’s playmakers. However, Houston is a team that relies heavily on the run offensively, and that’ll be a problem against New England.
The Patriots were really good in 2016, even by their lofty standards. Patriots QBs combined to throw for 32 TDs to just 2(!) INT. They ranked 4th in total offensive yards, and 3rd in rushing yards allowed, which, as previously said, can present serious problems for Houston. It’s also worth noting that the Patriots blanked the Texans 27-0 in week 3…without Tom Brady. This team is an all-around nightmare for its opponents thanks to the mastery of Bill Belichick, but it’s not unstoppable. A week 15 scuffle against Denver showed that Tom Brady is mortal, and I’ll remind you that the Texans had the number one defense in total yards allowed in 2016.
Still, while I don’t quite think that the end result will be as ugly as that week 3 game, this game shouldn’t be too close. The Texans simply don’t belong here; their presence in this game (hypothetically, of course) is mostly due to an injury on another team.
Prediction: Patriots 28, Texans 10
Sunday, January 16
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
When the Steelers are on their game, they’re very hard to put down, and that much was on display in week 4 when they walloped Kansas City 43-14 at Heinz Field. But the thing is, you never know which Steelers team you’re going to get: is it that team, or the one that lost to a 1-4 Miami team in week 6 and got steamrolled by the Eagles in week 3? This team closed the year out hot, but the Steelers only played 2 games on the road against winning teams in 2016 and lost them both.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, have been hard to beat at Arrowhead Stadium, losing just twice in their last 14 contests there. While this offense is incredibly boring, quarterback Alex Smith has quietly been a force in the playoffs over his career. Additionally, his 67.2 completion percentage in 2016 was a career high. Special teams can also be a factor, as dynamic rookie Tyreek Hill was named first-team all-pro as a punt returner. Still, this is Andy Reid we’re talking about here, so expectations must be tempered. While he’s a phenomenal coach, he’s frustrated many a fan in the playoffs.
This will be a true battle of opposing forces. The Chiefs intercepted the most passes of any defensive unit in 2016 (thanks in large part to cornerback Marcus Peters), and turnovers can be the difference between winning and losing anywhere. But nobody would blame anyone rolling with the Steelers’ offense.
Prediction: Chiefs 31, Steelers 23
New York Giants (12-5) at Dallas Cowboys (13-3)
Here we go again. Any matchup between NFC East foes is sure to entertain. Every game the Giants played against an NFC East rival in 2016 was decided by single digits, and all but one were by five or less points. In fact, 6 of New York’s 16 games were decided by four points or less. Eli Manning has been good against Dallas in his career, throwing for 48 TD in 25 career games and having a 90.7 passer rating. It’s safe to say that the Giants have a shot at this one.
Three of the five first-team all-pro offensive lineman were Cowboys (Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick). This team boasts the best offensive line in the league, and that’s the big reason they’ve had so much success on offense. Additionally, the Cowboys finished with the number 1 defense at stopping the run. Dallas being here is no fluke. There are, however, chinks in the armor: the Cowboys had the 26th ranked defense in pass yards allowed. Additionally, the key ingredient to stop this rushing attack is a great defensive line, and the Giants have that. If the Cowboys get past the Giants, they will be tough to stop.
The Cowboys lost their week 17 matchup against the Eagles mostly because they rested their starters, so they really only had two true losses in 2016. Both of those were at the hands of the New York Giants. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Giants are infallible here: they are 13-12 against the Cowboys in the Eli Manning era, so this is pretty much a coin flip. It’s anyone’s game.
Prediction: Giants 19, Cowboys 17
Conference Championships Round
Sunday, January 22
New York Giants (13-5) at Atlanta Falcons (12-5)
The Giants’ defense has what it takes to stop Atlanta. Limiting opposing teams to just 3.6 yards per carry, they should be able to handle the duo of Freeman and Coleman, and Landon Collins will likely be asked to bracket WR Julio Jones. These teams didn’t play each other in 2016, so this will be a test for both of them.
Still, the Falcons had the number 2 offense in total yardage and will be playing at home. Matt Ryan’s home-road splits show that he can play well anywhere, but playing at home should be an advantage. The big factor here is if the Falcons can maintain a lead: Ryan’s lowest passer rating came in the 4th quarter and he had a 40.1 passer rating when trailing with less than 4 minutes to go.
Four of the Giants’ five losses in 2016 came on the road, and that could be a big factor here. The Giants have all the tools to win individual matchups, but it can’t be overstated how good this Falcons offensive unit has been.
Prediction: Falcons 27, Giants 22
Kansas City Chiefs (13-4) at New England Patriots (15-2)
Nobody wants to face the Patriots anywhere, let alone at Gillette Stadium, but I think the Chiefs have what it takes to beat them. Linebacker Justin Houston should be back on the field at this point, and he can present problems for Tom Brady. Alex Smith should have a healthy stable of receivers to attack this secondary. Andy Reid will need to earn his paycheck here.
This is an interesting matchup pitting the team that threw the least amount of interceptions (Patriots) against the team that forced the most interceptions (Chiefs). If the Chiefs can force an interception, they’ll have a shot. But this is the Patriots, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Belichick finds a way to beat Marcus Peters and Eric Berry.
This one comes down to coaching: if everything goes according to plan, the Patriots should win. But the Chiefs thrive on the unscripted, so if they can throw a wrench in the game, they can take it.
Prediction: Chiefs 23, Patriots 21
Sunday, February 5
Kansas City Chiefs (14-4) vs. Atlanta Falcons (13-5)
The Falcons franchise has never won a Super Bowl, and they’ve only made it there once, in 1998. This team’s lack of experience could catch up to them here. The Falcons did play the Chiefs in week 13, and while Matt Ryan did fine, they still lost 28-29. If that game is any indication, we could be in for a treat in this hypothetical scenario.
Andy Reid has never coached his way to a Super Bowl win either, so something’s gotta give here. He did make it to the Super Bowl in 2004, losing to the Patriots 24-21. He’s got experience at this level, and he’s coaching players who have history in the playoffs. However, there’s a reason Andy Reid has been knocked out of the playoffs 11 times in 11 appearances. Will he get over that?
If it comes down to this, I think we’ll have a great game on our hands. Neither team should overpower the other and they’re both well-equipped to win. But I think experience wins out and the Chiefs win their first Super Bowl since 1969.
Prediction: Chiefs 28, Falcons 25