And then there were 12.
With the long, grueling regular season completed, the NFL playoff picture has come into focus. There are a handful of surprises (Dallas as the top seed, Oakland in the playoffs for the first time since 2002) and some familiar faces (New England, Pittsburgh, Green Bay), as well as a few less than sexy (Houston, Detroit) participants.
How will it all play out? You’ll know in about four weeks. But here’s one man’s guess at the outcomes of, what is to many, the best time of the year: the NFL playoffs.
Oakland at Houston:
In this day and age of legendary quarterback play, it’s quite remarkable a playoff game will feature such unimpressive signal callers. The Raiders’ Connor Cook has never started a game in his short NFL career, and the Texans’ Brock Osweiler, who lost his job last month only to regain it by way of Tom Savage’s concussion, hasn’t started a playoff game. So expect this game to be a painfully sloppy, low-scoring affair. And while the Texans defense ranks far higher (it’s actually first in overall yards allowed), Oakland’s defense has something Houston lacks: a star. This game will be a coming out party for Khalil Mack, who is the best individual defender remaining in the postseason.
Prediction: Raiders, 17-13
Detroit at Seattle:
The Lions had no solutions for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Sunday night, and while Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson isn’t playing quite as out-of-this-world right now as the potential three-time MVP, his game is similar. Wilson possesses even more mobility than Rodgers and similar accuracy and arm strength on the run. That, in addition to the matchup of a weak Lions offense and the stellar Seahawks defense makes this game a total snooze.
Prediction: Seahawks, 34-10
Miami at Pittsburgh:
The last time these teams met the Dolphins manhandled Pittsburgh, 30-15, but both of these clubs are much different than they were in that Week 6 showdown. The Steelers lost that game with an ailing Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, and it’s worth noting that he has been far better at home than on the road this year. The Dolphins won with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, but he is likely out with a knee injury. Still, the more important storyline will be the Dolphins running game, which racked up 222 yards in their first meeting, against Pittsburgh’s much improved defense. With a healthy Ryan Shazier, who missed Week 6, and the emergence of Sean Davis at safety, the Steelers will contain Jay Ajayi this time.
Prediction: Steelers, 27-17
New York Giants at Green Bay:
By far the most compelling matchup of the weekend, this showdown between former Super Bowl MVPs also comes with tremendous history. Twice, Giants quarterback Eli Manning has gone into Lambeau Field in January and toppled the favored Packers. But as good as the Giants defense has been this season, it does not have the presence upfront to slow down Rodgers, who has been on fire for six weeks. In a game that might very well feature less than 20 combined rushing attempts, expect Rodgers and Manning to sling it close to 100 times and star in a classic “whoever has the ball last wins” endings.
Prediction: Packers, 30-27
Seattle at Atlanta: The highest scoring offense in the NFL against one of the best defenses in the NFL. A great matchup that we already saw once this year. Seattle did very little to contain the Falcons in that Week 6 showdown, letting Matt Ryan throw for 335 yards and 3 touchdowns, but they did pressure him, and more importantly contained the Falcons running game. And while Atlanta’s defense has been far improved and will showcase young star Vic Beasley, expect the master (Seattle coach Pete Carroll) to outdo his former student (Falcons coach Dan Quinn) in a game that culminates with a furious offensive explosion.
Prediction: Seahawks, 38-34
Oakland at New England:
Fifteen years after the Tuck Rule Game, this time it’s the Raiders who come to Foxborough, Mass., as the scrappy newcomer with a young, unproven quarterback. But Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has developed just a bit since that January 2002 overtime victory and New England won’t need a controversial non-turnover or two miracle kicks in the snow to outlast the Raiders. In fact, Brady won’t need to play a huge role for a victory. New England’s power running game will manhandle a Raiders run defense that has given up at least 180 yards on the ground three times this season. It’s a shame, too, because with a healthy Derek Carr at quarterback the Raiders — with their outstanding offensive line — were an intriguing foil for the Super Bowl favorite.
Prediction: Patriots, 40-7
Pittsburgh at Kansas City: Much like their wild-card game, the Steelers’ Divisional Round game will be a rematch that barely resembles an earlier regular season showdown. Pittsburgh embarrassed Kansas City on a Sunday night in early October. But the Chiefs have been one of the best teams in the NFL since losing 43-14 at Heinz Field, winning nine of their next 11 (and losing twice by a combined four points). With the emergence of wide receiver Tyreek Hill and a growing passing game, the Chiefs can score enough points to keep pace with Pittsburgh. But as it has proven so many times in 2016, the Steelers offense in the fourth quarter of close games is as dangerous as any in the NFL. Twenty-three years ago Pittsburgh lost an overtime playoff thriller at Arrowhead Stadium to a future Hall of Fame quarterback, Joe Montana. This time, Roethlisberger returns the favor.
Prediction: Steelers, 30-27 (OT)
Green Bay at Dallas: Speaking of famous playoff showdowns, here’s an even more memorable one. A year before their famous Ice Bowl victory at Lambeau, coach Vince Lombardi’s Packers traveled south to warm Texas for a NFL title game against the Cowboys at the Cotton Bowl. Fifty years after Tom Brown picked off a Don Meredith pass in the end zone in the closing seconds of a 34-27 Packers win — which advanced Green Bay to the first-ever Super Bowl — the Cowboys find a measure of revenge. As great as Rodgers has been, he doesn’t play defense. And all those people claiming, “no one wants to play the Packers in the playoffs,” seem to forget how bad the Packers pass defense has been. Running back Ezekiel Elliott and Dallas’ dominant offensive line will control the line of scrimmage, while quarterback Dak Prescott torches a weak and injury-riddled secondary that helped Green Bay surrender the second-most yards through the air this season.
Prediction: Cowboys, 30-20
Pittsburgh at New England: Three months after the mouth-watering matchup that never happened thanks to Roethlisberger’s injured knee, the Steelers and Patriots square off with much more on the line. The two most consistent franchises in the NFL this century (nine combined AFC championships, 22 combined division titles) meet for the third time with a Super Bowl berth on the line. And just like those two previous meetings, both in Pittsburgh, the road team celebrates on the home team’s field. Although both defenses have played far better than people realize, have no illusions: This will be one of the great shootouts in playoff history. Both teams have future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, tremendous offensive lines, an elite inside receiver (Julian Edelman, Antonio Brown) and outstanding pass catchers out of the backfield (James White, Dion Lewis, Le’Veon Bell). So who will make the difference? If he’s healthy, Steelers tight end Ladarius Green, who can draw attention over the deep middle will be the X-factor.
Prediction: Pittsburgh, 37-36
Seattle at Dallas: Ten years later, Tony Romo is not the quarterback and certainly not the holder on field goals for the Cowboys. That’s not all that has changed since the Cowboys and Seahawks met in the last game Bill Parcells ever coached. Dallas has the best running game in the NFL, Seattle has the best secondary in the NFL, and both clubs have fast learners at quarterback. The Cowboys defense been drastically overshadowed in 2016, whether it’s by Prescott, Elliott or the offensive line. But against Seattle, the Dallas defense will take center stage. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s aversion to sending blitzes will actually benefit the Cowboys against Wilson. He’s so good at escaping late pressure that it’s pointless to send additional rushers. Against one of the weaker offensive lines in the NFL, Dallas will pressure Wilson with just three or four, and the extra traffic in the secondary will hamper his ability to make plays downfield.
Prediction: Dallas, 24-13
Super Bowl LI:
Dallas vs. Pittsburgh: Do you see a pattern here? Although this pairing would have been more appropriate last year, during the 50th edition of the Super Bowl, it’s the half-century anniversary that delivers the most fitting matchup. Dallas and Pittsburgh have already met in the Super Bowl three times (X, XIII, XXX) and each of those times the more dynastic franchise prevailed. This time, in a rematch of one of the most exciting games of the 2016 regular season, it’s the team with far less recent championship success that emerges. Pittsburgh’s run defense may be much improved from earlier in the season, when Ajayi gained 222 yards, but they’re still painfully thin on the defensive line. Without Cam Heyward they have been relying much more on aging veterans James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons to make plays near the line of scrimmage. The Steelers unusual blend of rookies and (old) age becomes an easier target for Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s play calling and Pittsburgh fails to slow Dallas in the second half. The Steelers’ nine-game winning streak ends how it started: with a loss to Dallas.
Prediction: Cowboys, 35-27