NFL Playoff Preview: Championship Sunday

Welcome to the final four. The conference championships. There is nothing quite like it. The Super Bowl is always a great spectacle, but often these games are even more exciting to watch. Today we will get to witness all three MVP candidates on display, the best rivalry in football over the last 15 years and some of the most dynamic defensive playmakers the game has to offer. And all of it comes with a trip to Santa Clara on the line.

New England vs. Denver

Peyton_Manning
Manning has a career record of 12-13 in the playoffs. 

When you think of NFL MVP, it is hard not to think of Peyton Manning. The Broncos signal caller has won the award more times than anyone else in history, with five such distinctions. However, he is the only quarterback in Sunday’s games that isn’t in contention for this year’s award.

 

Tom Brady on the other hand is right in the thick of anpther MVP-caliber campaign. Even with some of his top weapons missing time this year, Brady managed to steer New England to a first round bye and has them playing some spectacular football yet again.

This game is being billed as yet another class Manning-Brady matchup but in reality, this is more a battle between Brady and the Denver defense. The last time Denver and New England met it was Week 12 at Mile High. The Denver defense did not do much to contain Brady that day, as he threw for 280 yards and three scores. However, the Broncos knocked Brady around a lot, hitting him on nine occasions, three of them being sacks. The Patriots also had no running game to speak of, as LeGarrette Blount led the way in rushing for New England with a measly 27 yards on the ground. Brady also struggled to find the mark in that game, completing only 54.7 percent of his passes.

Tom_Brady
Brady is 11-5 in his career against Manning, but is only 2-6 in career playing in Denver.

Today is guaranteed to be different though as New England has a different cast of characters in place. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are back healthy, after not competing in their previous contest with Denver. However, Blount and now middle linebacker Jerrod Mayo will not be suiting up for this one, as both are on season-ending injured reserve.

 

The most interesting wrinkle though is that Manning will be starting this game. In that Week 12 showdown, Brock Osweiler started and defeated the Pats. He had a lot of help from his running game, as Denver amassed 179 yards on the ground at a clip of 5.6 yards per carry, but Osweiler took a beating. If the Pats generate the same amount of pressure on Manning, I think he will either be forced into some mistakes or be knocked out of the contest.

In the end, I don’t think The Sheriff has enough left in the tank to outduel The Golden Boy one last time. I think it will be an extremely close game that goes down to the wire as both defenses win the day. I think even with a depleted arsenal, Brady will work enough magic to eke out a win and earn his first career playoff victory in Denver, 24-21. Sad day as this will also probably mark the end of an era.

Arizona vs. Carolina

Even with the 17th edition of Manning-Brady in store for us, I think this is the game of the weekend to watch. This game is equal parts high-flying offense, dynamic defense and attitude.

Cam_Newton
Newton suffered his last home loss on November 16, 2014. He is 12-0 in Charlotte since.

Enter Cam Newton into his first ever NFC Championship game. He is the front-runner for the MVP award this season with his ability to deceive and out-think defenses. Newton is a supreme athlete and always has been. However, this season saw SuperCam evolve into a much better quarterback. He set a career-high in touchdown passes with 35 and even slightly cut down on his turnovers. He also set new marks for Total QBR and passer rating. All of that culminated in his dominant performance against Seattle last week.

 

He has still kept his athleticism as an often-used weapon. Newton racked up 636 yards on the ground and scored 10 times when he kept it himself. Couple that with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert; suddenly, this Carolina ground game is very difficult to stop.

The Panthers will need to control the clock as much as possible in this game as well, mainly to keep Carson Palmer off the field. Palmer struggled a little against Green Bay last week, but that should not discount the MVP-like season he had.

Editor’s note: It was really difficult to think of other ways to describe Palmer and Newton as they both have a lot in common. Both are first number one overall picks and both won Heisman trophies in college. 

Carson_Palmer
This will only be Palmer’s fourth career playoff game.

Palmer was downright lethal this year, completing nearly 64 percent of his passes while throwing for a career high in yards. The 36-year old was beyond effective when throwing the ball this season as well, posting a league-high 8.7 yards per attempt average. Palmer tossed the same number of touchdowns as Newton this year too. He also piloted an Arizona offense that led the NFL in yards per game and was second in scoring only to Carolina. In short, we could be in line for a shootout.

 

And we probably would be, if it wasn’t for the defenses lining up across from these quarterbacks. Carolina has four Pro Bowlers on their defense and Arizona has three of their own. These two defenses ranked fifth and sixth in yards per game allowed and sixth and seventh in scoring.

One of the great matchups of the weekend will be Larry Fitzgerald against Josh Norman. Fitzgerald is coming of a worldly performance out in the desert while Norman developed into one of the league’s premier shutdown corners. Past Norman though, this is a Carolina secondary that could be vulnerable to the spread offense Arizona will run. Seattle exploited the Panthers’ lack of depth in the divisional round. I think the Cardinals will do the same, getting the ball to John Brown and Michael Floyd early and often.

Between that and the overall speed of this Cardinal defense, I think Arizona will be heading to Santa Clara. Cardinals upset the Panthers at home, 27-21.

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A vote against NFL playoff expansion

This first weekend of the NFL playoffs was interesting to say the least. Brian Hoyer looked colorblind. Aaron Rodgers returned to superhuman form. Blair Walsh missed a chip shot. The Bengals and Steelers got physical with each other. It was equal parts surprising and exciting. For the most part, it delivered on all of the hype.

Roger_Goodell
Roger Goodell has pushed for expanding the NFL season either by adding two more regular season games or two playoff games.

There were definitely things that could have improved the weekend. A better showing from Houston. Shorter games maybe. The one thing that definitely was not missing? Another set of games in each conference.

Over the past few years, there have been whispers about the NFL expanded its current playoff field to 14 teams from the 12-team format. The highlights of the plan would be to add another game, increase the suspense and make the road to the Super Bowl even tougher.

After this season though, I cannot imagine a reason to include two more teams. It simply seems unnecessary. The quality of the competition would drop. Already we saw what happened with the weakest division winners making the playoffs. Houston was embarrassed by Kansas City and Washington found Green Bay way too much to handle. Any games added by introducing more teams would likely be a bust. Sure, the Jets playing the Patriots in Foxborough would be exciting. Watching Arizona trash a .500 Atlanta team, that is something I could live without. It wouldn’t be good football. These mid-tiered teams would just be outmatched.

Moreover, they don’t deserve it. People spent a great deal of time complaining about how weak the AFC South and NFC East was this season. Across message boards and comment sections, there were calls for the NFL to reformat so that these teams that won each division would not automatically receive a bid to the postseason. The argument was that they did not have good enough records to make the playoffs. In the case of Houston, that turned out to be true, as the Jets had a better record, but the Texans made the playoffs instead. If those teams, who were division winners, were not good enough to qualify for the postseason, then why would teams even further down the list be considered in playoff expansion?

I am of the mentality that for a team to really be good enough to compete in the playoffs, they should have a winning record. Only one team that did not qualify for the postseason this year had a winning record. That was the Jets. Some others were close, like Atlanta and Indianapolis, but they finished at .500. In other words, they were average. It is pretty easy to argue that the Jets did not deserve to make the playoffs either. New York only beat two teams with winning records this year. In the NFL, we don’t want to see average teams make the playoffs. We want the best of the best so we can see some truly iconic and terrific games.

In the NFL, teams are made to be average. It is rare that there are 14 teams nowadays that have winning records. Only once in the past five seasons have there been at least 14 teams above .500 at the end of the season. It is not easy to get those kinds of results any more. The league is full of parity. It is also a bit ambitious to expect close to half the league to win more than half of their games.

The morale here? 12 is good. 12 is great. That potentially even more than we need. It is nice to keep the hope of some Cinderella teams alive (see 2007 Giants, 2009 Cardinals). However, introducing even more of them would just be overkill. It would detract from the postseason more than it would add to it. Let’s just keep this as it is and put this conversation of expansion to bed.

NFL Playoff Predictions: Wildcard Round

I wish I had a rooting interest in this year’s playoffs, but all the same, this is going to be a year to remember. There are tons of great storylines and some incredible games to be played and that starts today with Wildcard Weekend. Let’s start predicting some matchups.

Kansas City vs. Houston
2014 NFL Pro BowlFar from the sexiest matchup of the wildcard round. In fact, I would go as far as to say it is the least exciting. Still well worth watching though, which lets you know how great these playoffs will be. This projects to be more of a defensive struggle. Duane Brown’s injury is already a big blow to the Texans offense. Houston overall was lucky to make the playoffs. I think Alex Smith will show everyone his ability to handle the pressure of a playoff game. Charcandrick West and Stephen Ware should also help wear down a stout Texans defensive front. Mixing a mediocre Houston offense and the league’s third best scoring defense sounds like a recipe for disaster. I think the Chiefs will win this comfortably, 24-10.

Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati
DeAngelo_WilliamsNothing beats a divisional battle in the playoffs. If it couldn’t be Steelers-Ravens, (one of the best rivalries in NFL history) then I’m happy it could at least be Steelers-Bengals. These two split the season series, with the road team winning each matchup. I don’t think we are going to see that trend continue. I know Cincy is still without Andy Dalton but an even bigger blow comes on the other side. Pittsburgh will be without DeAngelo Williams, meaning that Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman will be carrying the load for the Steelers. For as much as this team relies on Ben Roethlisberger, I think they are going to be too one-dimensional. Throwing the ball constantly doesn’t allow you to control the game offensively and I don’t think the Steelers will be able to close it out late. A.J. McCarron has had a few weeks to learn the offense. Hue Jackson is one of the best offensive coordinators in the league and I think he will have a plan to upend the rival Steelers. Final score, Bengals 31 – Steelers 27

Seattle vs. Minnesota
Russell_WilsonMany are pointing at the midseason meeting between these two teams as the reason for why Seattle will win again. I don’t think it means anything how these two previously played. The Seahawks rode Thomas Rawls for a good portion of that victory. Rawls will not be playing on Sunday and neither will Marshawn Lynch. Russell Wilson is truly going to have no running game to support him in this one. Christine Michael will be the starting running back for the Hawks. Going up against a defense like Minnesota’s, that doesn’t bode well. That being said, this defense knows how to bottle up Adrian Peterson and will force Teddy Bridgewater to beat them with his arm. Bridgewater does not have a ton of weapons of his own in the passing game that will likely win one-on-matchups with this Seattle secondary. If this is a duel between Bridgewater and Wilson, I am taking Wilson every time. Seattle wins this blizzard bowl 21-10.

Green Bay vs. Washington
Kirk_CousinsThis is not a game many would have predicted at the beginning of the year. I for one though Washington would not come anywhere near the playoffs. I doubt many would have guessed that Green Bay would be on the road either. As much as I like Aaron Rodgers, especially in the playoffs, I don’t think he will be leaving the nation’s capital with a win. The Packers have failed to find any consistency on offense, whether it be running or passing. On the flip side, Kirk Cousins has been on fire for Washington. He’s been yelling, “You like that!” a lot, which is good news for this DC team. I think Washington’s passing attack will prove too much for an underwhelming Packers’ secondary to handle. Momentum has a lot to do with this one. Washington has won four straight while Green Bay has dropped its last two.  It will be close but I think Washington will win its first playoff game in 10 years, 27-24.

The legend or the new guy?

Editor’s Note: I started to work on this before the Broncos made their announcement. Still does not change how I feel about the situation. 

Peyton Manning or Brock Oswieler? This seems like a very simple question. It does not have a clear answer though. Over the past two months, the Denver Broncos accidentally created one of the biggest quarterback controversies we have seen in the quite some time in the NFL.

Peyton_Manning
Manning had the worst statistical season of his 17-year career in 2015.

Flashback to November 15, when Manning lead the Broncos against the rival Chiefs at home. Manning broke Brett Farve’s record for most career passing yards early in the game, but as the afternoon wore on, it became clear that he no longer looked like a future Hall of Famer. He looked a lot like Tim Tebow, if Tebow couldn’t run. Manning completed just 5 of his 20 passes and threw four of them to the wrong team. Peyton’s 17 interceptions are the second most by any quarterback this season, even though he only played 10 games. In the second half, Manning found himself on the bench and Denver gave Brock Osweiler his chance.

Brock Osweiler
Osweiler earned his first career start this season against Chicago.

The Broncos drafted Osweiler in the second round of the 2012 draft; the same one that produced Luck, RG3, Wilson and Cousins. Osweiler had waited a long three and a half years to get his shot at the starting gig. He made the most of it. He didn’t have the greatest second half against Kansas City, but the 25-year old showed poise as he helped Denver win four of their next six games. It seemed like Osweiler had the Broncos headed in the right direction. No one was looking to have Manning step back into the picture. It seemed like it was Osweiler’s team going forward.

Then Osweiler fell apart against San Diego. He had three turnovers in the first half. That led to Gary Kubiak pulling Osweiler in favor of Manning. The 39-year old played decently well in his first game action since November, but not enough to put the conversation to bed.

Now, Denver faces a very difficult situation. Do you play the young quarterback who carried you to the playoffs or do you return to the legendary five time MVP? It is not an easy question to answer.

Osweiler seemed to play well over his six starts before his benching. Manning struggled all season. However, Manning had a serious foot injury that he spent the last six weeks recovering from. Rumor is that he is completely healthy now.

Comparing their stats side by side makes it seem like Osweiler is the better option. On the season Peyton has 225 yards per game, 9 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in ten games played, with a completion percentage of just 59.8. Brock has 245.8 yards per game, 10 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in eight games played, with a completion percentage of 61.8. That is pretty easy to see on paper; Osweiler has outplayed Manning this season.

However, you have to take into account that Osweiler has never played in a playoff game before. Manning has played more than a full regular season worth of playoff games during his long career. Having playoff experience is priceless. The atmosphere is different. That is something Peyton is used to and Brock is not.

That being said, Manning’s career playoff record is far from stellar. He is 11-13 lifetime in the postseason. Those 11 wins are invaluable, especially when compared to Osweiler’s zero, but a losing playoff record does not inspire confidence.

Brock_Osweiler
Osweiler is in a contract year and will be an unrestricted free agent following this season.

While he is not in his best form heading into the playoffs, I think the Broncos should go with Osweiler at quarterback. I love Peyton. I love watching him play. I would love for him to get a second ring and retire on top like his current team president John Elway did all those years ago in a Broncos uniform himself. I also don’t see Manning returning to his pre-2015 form. All season he has struggled. For more than a year now, people have placed the cause of his declining play on injuries. Those injuries have been to his thigh and foot, never to his arm. He no longer has the same arm strength he once did. He constantly under throws receivers and often puts the target of the pass in a tough spot when he tries to compensate for the lack of arm strength.

I think Denver is trying too much to have a storybook narrative here. Yes, Peyton was one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever touch a football. That’s a general fact. It is also a fact that his prime is behind him and by delaying his assent to the throne, the Broncos are holding Osweiler back from entering his prime. Osweiler has shown he has all of the tools to be a great NFL quarterback and more playing time is the only way he is going to develop. He has already spent three plus years on the bench. There is not a whole lot more he can learn as a backup.

Denver has not had a strong running game for much of this season either and the offensive line has allowed for a ton of pressure to reach the quarterback over the course of the season. Peyton will not hold up under the constant siege. Osweiler, being 14 years younger and much more mobile, is better suited to run the Bronco offense right now.

The Broncos playing Manning should not discount their chances of winning the Super Bowl though. This is still the league’s best defense and Manning can make enough plays for Denver to win, especially when throwing to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. However, I think Osweiler gives them a much better chance to win, and less of the pressure then falls on the defense to be great.

Kubiak will start with Manning. If he struggles though, it will be interesting to see how long it takes before the Denver crowd forces him to change to the heir apparent.

 

Decision Day in the NFL

One last day will decide everything in the NFL. Ten of the twelve playoff spots have been locked up but there is still a lot of movement that could occur based on the results of today’s games. And that last playoff spot will be very interesting to watch. Here are all of the possible scenarios for the teams still alive in week 17.

AFC logoNew England Patriots:
With a win today against the Dolphins or a Denver loss against San Diego, the Patriots lock up homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. However, if the Pats lose to Miami and Denver hold of the Chargers, the Patriots drop to the second seed. That is as far as they can drop.

Denver Broncos:
A win today and a Patriots loss would place Denver in the top spot in the conference. If New England wins then the Broncos would have to settle for second, assuming they beat the Chargers. The Broncos can fall as far as the sixth seed though. A loss to San Diego paired with wins by the Chiefs and Jets would knock Denver down to the final wildcard spot. If Kansas City also loses Denver would still win the division but a win by the Bengals would push Denver to the third seed. Assuming that Denver loses still, they could end up with the fifth seed if Kansas City wins but the Jets lose. Denver really could end up all over the map after today.

Cincinnati Bengals:
This is much simpler. A win and a Denver loss would push the Bengals up to the second seed. A loss or a Bronco victory would keep them third, not landing a bye in round one. Those are the only possibilities for Cincy here.

Houston Texans:
A win would lock up the AFC South for the Texans and a trip to the playoffs. They could still make it if they lose with a Colts loss or a win by the Browns, Jets, Raiders, Saints, Chargers, Bengals or Patriots. Yes that is crazy. Houston will only be the fourth seed if they make it.

Kansas City Chiefs:
Entering week 17, Kansas City isn’t in line for a first round bye but they could get a home playoff game with a win against Oakland and a Denver loss to San Diego. Wins by both the Broncos and Chiefs would keep Kansas City at the five seed, as would a loss to Oakland as long as the Jets lost too.  If the Chiefs lose to the Raiders though and the Jets win against Buffalo, Kansas City drops to the sixth seed.

New York Jets:
It’s simple, win and they’re in. As long as the Jets beat Buffalo, they will secure a playoff spot. The Jets could lose and still make it, as long as Pittsburgh loses too. New York could only move as high as fifth, but they would need some help. A win over Buffalo paired with either a Chiefs loss, or a Chiefs win and a Broncos loss would jump them up a spot.

Pittsburgh Steelers:
Here is a team that does not control its own destiny. The Steelers need a win against the Browns and a loss by the Jets to get in. They can only be the sixth seed.

Indianapolis Colts:
Chuck Pagano might want to play the lottery because he has a better shot at winning that than making the playoffs. The Colts need a win and losses by the Texans, Jets, Browns, Saints, Chargers, Patriots, Bengals and Chiefs to make the postseason. If any of that goes wrong, the Colts are done.

NFC LogoCarolina Panthers:
This is pretty simple, win and they lock up homefield advantage. If Carolina loses to Tampa Bay, but Arizona falls against Seattle, they still hold onto the NFC’s top seed. A win by Arizona paired with Panther loss would drop Carolina to two though.

Arizona Cardinals:
A win over Seattle is meaningless unless the Panthers lose, as it would move them into first in the conference. Otherwise, Arizona will stay as the two seed in the NFC.

Green Bay Packers:
A win over the Vikings means the Pack get to host a home playoff game in the wildcard round as the three seed. A loss to Minnesota would relegate Green Bay to a wildcard spot. The Packers can only be the third or fifth seeds.

Washington:
This game is meaningless for them no matter what. They are the four seed in the playoffs.

Minnesota Vikings:
There is a lot on the line for Minnesota here. A win would give them the division and a home playoff game. A loss to Green Bay and a loss by Seattle would mean they stick as the five seed. However, if Minnesota loses and the Seahawks upset Arizona, then the Vikings will drop to the sixth seed.

Seattle Seahawks:
Seattle is in the postseason no matter what and they are going to be a wildcard team, this is just a matter of seeding. A win and a Viking loss would give Seattle the five seed and a matchup with Washington. A Viking win or a loss to the Cardinals would leave the Seahawks as the NFC’s sixth seed.

Those are all of the playoff scenarios on the line for Week 17. Hope you enjoy watching as the madness unfolds.