Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos arguably have the most high powered offense in the National Football League. Will that pay off in the new year?
Regardless of whether one is an offensive guru or a defensive fanatic, everyone knows that championships live and die with quarterbacks. The 2014 NFL playoffs will be marked by familiar faces. Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Andy Dalton, and Andrew Luck have all led their teams to the starting gates in the race for the Super Bowl. This year, quarterbacks Phillip Rivers and Alex Smith also punch tickets to another postseason tournament. These veterans are joined by only two new faces: Nick Foles and Cam Newton from the NFC.
The teams in the conference championships and the Super Bowl do not get there without a competent, if not exceptional, defense (note the 49ers and Ravens from last year as just one example). Only the quarterbacks that outplay the stout playoff defenses– the ones that can make the right reads, make big throws in tight windows, and have short term memory when they make mistakes– make it to the promised land. Looking at any tournament bracket— and deciding its winner— is all about match ups between the quarterbacks and those defenses, for any championship caliber defense knows how to stop the run.
That is not to say that running backs LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, and Jamaal Charles (among others) should be overlooked. However, at the end of the tournament, no one talks about the running back. It is always the hot quarterback that leads the way to the Lombardi. With that in mind, I have made my predictions for this years playoffs.
I will provide detailed breakdowns of each game as the playoffs progress. For now, I will give a snapshot of each matchup.
Chiefs vs. Colts. The Chiefs defense will hold a depleted Colts offense (lacking a running game and weapons outside of T.Y. Hilton) to few points and will allow Jamaal Charles to rush and receive his way to a productive afternoon agains the Colts’ 26th ranked defense against the run. The Chiefs’ defensive performances in the last few games is questionable and a cause for concern. However, I believe that Andy Reid will ensure the Chiefs find their stride, with Alex Smith’s playoff experience and no turnover play paying off against the Colts’ defense. The Chiefs win on the road, in the dome, 31-17.
Saints vs. Eagles. It is criminal that Wild Card teams with better records have to go on the road against division winners (see the 49ers vs. Packers, with a win differential of 4 games!). Nevertheless, I expect this to be a close game, and it could go either way. However, I give a slight edge to the Eagles. The Saints offense relies very heavily on the passing game, ranking only 25th in rushing yards. The cold weather in Philly— combined with questionable performance on the road— will be the downfall of the Saints as Drew Brees will not score enough points against an improving Eagles defense, who are ranked fourth in Red Zone defense at home. The Eagles will give up points to Brees, do not get me wrong. I expect Brees to throw at least three touchdowns. However, the Eagles will control the ball with LeSean McCoy and an efficient quarterback in Nick Foles, even against the Rob Ryan defense. Ryan’s defense, although stout agains the pass, has given up over 110 yards per game on the ground. That’s not good enough against this year’s best running back and MVP candidate wearing green. Additionally, there are questions about whether Ryan’s defense shows up in big games on the road. His blitz-happy defense will bother Foles, and Foles will throw one— but only one—interception. However, the Eagles will be too much to handle with DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper on the edge as well. Chip Kelly will earn his first playoff victory by the thinnest of margins, with the Eagles scoring last in this game. Eagles win in frigid Philadelphia, 35-31.
Chargers vs. Bengals. The Bengals defense may be the best in the AFC. Although Phillip Rivers has had a fantastic season, ranking third in total QBR behind Peyton Manning and Josh McCown, he will have trouble against the stout front of the Bengals. The Chargers will not be able to run the ball effectively with Ryan Matthews, forcing Rivers to throw the ball too much against fifth ranked defense against the pass. Andy Dalton will not put on a stellar performance in his second playoff game, but will make enough plays to win with A.J. Green (expect him to play) and Marvin Jones on the edge against the Chargers defense, which is ranked 29th against the pass. Cincinnati ends the playoff win drought and defeats San Diego at home, 27-14.
49ers vs. Packers. The Packers should count themselves lucky that the Niners have to play them in -4 degree weather this weekend. As the 8-7-1 Packers host the 12-4 49ers, the weather will certain play a role when it is that frigid, as it will in Philadelphia. However, I will still give the edge to the Niners for two main reasons: their defense and the running game. I do not believe we have seen all of Kaepernick this season as Jim Harbaugh has kept him in the pocket quite often this year (probably to avoid injury). Expect to see more of the read option and quarterback scrambles— and a whole lot of Frank Gore— against this questionable Packers defense (without Clay Matthews), ranked 25th against the run and 24th agains the pass. Keeping the ball on the ground will keep the beast, Aaron Rodgers, off the field. Gore rushes for over 100 yards and Kaepernick has two total touchdowns— one in the air and one on the ground— as the Niners hold off the Packers offense with their third ranked defense, which will limit the ability of Mike McCarthy to balance the offense with Eddy Lacy. Expect to see Rodgers on the run a lot in this game, and the Niners will force fumbles in the cold weather. Kicker Phil Dawson has a big game in the cold (as the Niners often struggle in the Red Zone). Niners win and advance to Carolina, 23-17.
Chiefs vs. Broncos. This divisional matchup will not live up to the hype it inevitably will receive. During the regular season, the Chiefs were handled by the Broncos in both games. Peyton Manning will live up to his expectations in this game (scoring three touchdowns) as the high powered offense of the Broncos will make the Chiefs’ man-to-man defense look like it did at the end of the season. The Broncos defense— although questionable— will do enough to stop Jamaal Charles, ranked 8th in rush defense. Broncos win at Mile High, 34-21.
Bengals vs. Patriots. This matchup is an interesting one. The Pats, without Vince Wilfork, have been hopeless against the run (ranked 30th in the league, even behind Jacksonville and Buffalo!). Expect Andy Dalton to hand it off to the one-two punch of Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Giovanni Bernard. However, Aqib Talib and the Pats secondary will come up big against Dalton and A.J. Green. Dalton throws two interceptions as Tom Brady proves once again that he is one of the best in the playoffs. Brady outplays the Bengals defense and pulls off a victory at home with a late touchdown, winning 31-27.
49ers vs. Panthers. This will be a battle of brawn in Charlotte. The second (Carolina) and third (San Francisco) ranked defenses will square off in a classic fist-fight. Gore and Kaepernick will struggle against the front seven of the Panthers. Expect Special Teams to play a big role, as the Niners have significantly outplayed the Panthers in the punting game (expect a lot of punts this game). Andy Lee may be the best in the game. Niners kicker Phil Dawson has been hot of late, hitting a game winner in the season finale against the formidable Cardinals. Graham Gano has played well also. Expect it to be a battle of kickers this game. At home, I give the Panthers a slight edge, considering that they went into Candlestick and won a defensive game. In fact, the Carolina defense has— statistically— been even better than Seattle at home, giving up 12 points per game to Seattle’s 13.8. Cam Newton makes a late game rushing touchdown in the red zone to win as the Panthers finally return to the NFC championship game, winning 16-13.
Eagles vs. Seahawks. This battle of the birds will not be close. See the Eagles loss to the Vikings on the road to know how badly they can play on the road— now imagine them playing in Seattle. LeSean McCoy will struggle against the Seahawks’ front seven, and the ball will be in the Nick Foles’ hands too often. Foles will turn the ball over much more against the Seahawks secondary and pass rush. Russell Wilson has a big game against the Eagles in and out of the pocket, throwing for two touchdowns and running for one. Marshawn Lynch will turn on beast-mode and run for a touchdown. Seattle wins at home, 34-17, with the Eagles scoring a touchdown after the game is already well in Seattle’s hands.
The fact that I have the number 1 and 2 seeds in each conference game is not necessarily conservative. This is simply a result of the match ups in previous rounds (and home-field advantage).
Patriots vs. Broncos. Manning in the playoffs… does he defy history and make it back to the Super Bowl? I believe the only difference in this game will be home field advantage. At Foxborough, I take Tom Brady. At Mile High, I take Manning by the slightest of margins. It will be a shootout. Brady and Manning will spread the ball around to numerous targets in an ultimate display of quarterbacking against questionable defenses. The difference? The run game. The Broncos’ run game, without quesiton, has been better than the Pats’. Knowshon Moreno (who rushed for 224 yards against the Pats at Gillette Stadium) and the Broncos’ offensive line outplays LeGarrette Blount— who has a fumble in this game— as the Pats 30th ranked rushing defense gives up two touchdowns on the ground. Manning throws for three touchdowns and two interceptions (one to Aqib Talib) as the Broncos do just enough to win against Brady, who will also have at least a three-touchdown performance. Broncos win at home 37-34 with a late field goal by Matt Prater on a Manning-led 4th quarter drive.
Panthers vs. Seahawks. The Panthers challenge the Seahawks at home. I believe it come down to the performance of the defenses (like the previous round). The Seahawks defense— which has played slightly better at home than Carolina has on the road— outplays Carolina and holds Cam Newton to under 200 yards passing and are able to handle his mobility. Newton struggled having to throw from the pocket in their close win against San Francisco in the regular season, and he has similar struggles in this game. Russell Wilson’s playoff experience and poise in the pocket pays off as the 12th man celebrates another victory and a trip to the Super Bowl. Seahawks win at home and set up a number one seed showdown in New Jersey. Final score: 17-12.
Super Bowl XLVIII
Broncos vs. Seahawks. This matchup pitches best on best: the Broncos offense against Seahawks defense. So what will this game come down to? The team whose weaker side of the ball comes up bigger, wins. In this game, I will side with the cliché truism, “Defense wins championships.” This will be, by far, the best statistical defense the Broncos have faced all year (the Chiefs’ defense is good, but not nearly as good as the Seahawks’). The Seahawks have allowed less points against a much stronger NFC than any of the Broncos’ AFC opponents. Albeit, the Seahawks are a different team on the road. However, they still have only allowed 15.1 points per game on the road, the best in the league. And at a neutral site far from both Seattle and Denver, expect an even split between fan bases. Seattle wins a close game, and Peyton Manning must deal with questions about his ability to play in cold weather (although, that will not be the cause of this loss). Seattle’s zone defense and gap integrity against the run will keep the Broncos’ weapons under control, prevent the pick routes that their wide receivers love to run, and preclude Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball from getting in rhythm. Seahawks win the Super Bowl: 27-24.