By Mike Ivcic, UltimateCapper Contributing Writer
By now, you all should have had plenty of time to digest my picks and develop fully coherent, intelligent arguments against whatever prediction you find most inaccurate. Truth be told, I’ve never landed more than 75% of playoff teams correct in the almost full decade I’ve been writing, so there’s a good chance that at least three teams I picked to reach the playoffs will ultimately fall short. Still, there’s nothing like shooting for perfection, so let’s just generously assume that I am spot on with both my NFC and AFC outlook and move on to picking the eventual Super Bowl champion – this way there’s even more about which to argue!
AFC Wild Card Round
3) Baltimore over 6) Kansas City
5) Cincinnati over 4) Indianapolis
Because of a better conference record, the Patriots get a bye over the Ravens, and because of a better record against common opponents, the Bengals get the fifth seed over the Chiefs. That means we’ll have one AFC Wild Card game that turns into a shootout – one where I think Andy Dalton can finally pick up his first-ever playoff win – and one that turns into a defensive struggle. It’s that game that I would find much more appealing, especially considering the heartbreaking way that Kansas City coughed up last year’s playoff game in Indy. This time, it probably wouldn’t be a miraculous second half comeback that trips them up. It’s significantly more likely that both teams would batter and bloody the other until one deep ball from Joe Flacco to Torrey Smith sets up the game’s only touchdown in something like a 13-9 win for the Ravens. Either way, it will be one of the year’s few “throwback” games to when the league actually allowed teams to… you know… play defense.
NFC Wild Card Round
3) Green Bay over 6) Carolina
5) San Francisco over 4) Washington
While the Packers no longer maintain the most dominating home environment when it comes to playoff games, it’s hard to imagine a Panthers offense that seems so inept at the most opportune times walking into Lambeau and beating Aaron Rodgers. It wouldn’t be the most shocking playoff result in NFL history, but I feel much more comfortable playing the odds here and going with the home team. I can’t say the same for the Redskins, though, as I just think the 49’ers are bound and determined to get over the hump and win a Super Bowl. The window may be closing – not necessarily on the team’s overall talent, but on their ability to withstand the harshness of Jim Harbaugh – and the Niners defense may slowly be aging, but it’s good enough to win a road game against a solid-but-flawed Washington team.
AFC Divisional Round
1) Denver over 5) Cincinnati
2) New England over 3) Baltimore
Let’s take these games in reverse order. Over the last few years, the Ravens have slowly morphed from a bone-jarring defensive forcefield with a middling offense into an offensive juggernaut with a slowly-deteriorating defense. That’s probably the right combination move to make given the current state of the NFL and the predilection towards offense, but it doesn’t bode well for winning a road playoff game against Tom Brady and the Patriots. Baltimore used to have a winning recipe for that situation, but I just don’t think trying to beat Belichick and Brady in a shootout in Foxboro is a successful approach, and that’s what the Ravens will be forced to do. Imagine something like a 44-38 Pats win in this one, which should set up another Brady-Manning showdown in the AFC Championship. The Bengals are good, but like the Ravens they would be facing the prospect of winning a high-scoring affair on the road in the postseason. Andy Dalton is good, but he’s not Peyton Manning – and that makes all the difference.
NFC Divisional Round
5) San Francisco over 1) Seattle
2) New Orleans over 3) Green Bay
There is one crucial point I would like to make to justify my first pick. If there’s a round where it’s most likely that a top overall seed will lose to a lower seed (i.e. not like last year’s Super Bowl between two #1 seeds), it’s the divisional round, where they’re coming off a bye while the other team is coming off of an emotional playoff victory. That dichotomy simply cannot be underestimated. Add in that it would be a rivalry and revenge game after last year’s NFC Championship, and if Seattle is going to lose, this is the game. Combine that with the fact that only the Patriots have managed to repeat in the last 15 years, and I’m going with the upset here. That should open the door nicely for New Orleans, who rivals Seattle and Denver for the best home field advantage in the entire league. I like the Packers but I still love the Saints, especially on offense. I still think there’s one more run left in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, and this year looks as ripe as ever for New Orleans to make that move. It’s a deep NFC, but as long as they get this coveted first-round bye, they’ll put themselves in great position to play on into February.
AFC Championship Game
1) Denver over 2) New England The Patriots are still a very good team, but they have actually struggled in recent years to replace some of the better players that have been traded, retired, or left via free agency. The wide receiving corps are still sub-par, and even with Darrelle Revis the secondary is also slightly suspect. That’s not good news when facing Manning, the twin Thomases, and Wes Welker – regardless of what substances he may or may not be taking. This Broncos team is built to win now, which is why they grabbed DeMarcus Ware to improve their defense in the hopes of having a more balanced team this season. In a weak conference, these two teams (and, really, these two QB’s) stand out above the rest, but in reality this is still Denver’s title to lose. And I don’t think they will.
NFC Championship Game
2) New Orleans over 5) San Francisco
San Francisco will do the Saints dirty work, and then the grind of playing three straight road playoff games, the last two of which in quite possible the two most difficult venues in the league, will take its toll. It’s a virtual draw in the three main comparison areas – head coach (tie), quarterback (Saints), and defense (Niners) – so the tie goes to the home team, especially when the home team calls the Superdome its home. It might ultimately lead to the end of the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco and put the 2011-14 version of the 49’ers in the same category as the 1990-1993 Bills and the 2001-2004 Eagles as one of the most dominating four year runs that never resulted in a Super Bowl victory, but winning in New Orleans seven days after winning in Seattle is almost unthinkable.
Super Bowl XLIX
1) Denver over 2) New Orleans
Once upon a time I picked the Angles to be the Giants in the World Series in two consecutive seasons. The first year, the Giants got there and the Angels didn’t. The next year, neither team got there. Well, as Yogi Berra would say, it’s dÃ©jÃ vu all over again. This was my Super Bowl pick last year, and only Denver held up their end of the bargain, so this year we’re running back the same pick in the hopes that we get the opposite result of my baseball pick and both teams make it. It would provide a small amount of poetic justice if Manning could beat the team that kept him from winning a second championship in Indianapolis, or it would vindicate Drew Brees’ inclusion in the discussion as being at least in the same ballpark at Manning and Brady for this generation’s legacy QB’s. Either way I think it would be a supremely entertaining game with lots of points – which sounds like just what the doctor (and Roger Goodell) ordered – and would likely be decided by which team could get one big defensive stop. If that holds true, I would have more faith in Denver’s D to get that crucial hold, so we’ll project something like 38-34 Broncos and a second ring in the illustrious career of Peyton Manning.