Pre-Draft Way Too Early Playoff Predictions
We are in the midst of my favorite three weeks of the year. Kentucky, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Duke are all about to meet for what will assuredly be a thrilling Final Four.
But while all of this is going on, another part of my brain is contemplating the upcoming NFL season. Whose offseason moves will pay off? Whose will implode? Well if you were wondering that as well, then think no more. I've solved the equation.
This is exactly how the NFL playoffs will turn out in 2016. You know, unless it turns out completely differently.
We'll see how the draft changes everything come May.
AFC Wild Card Round
No. 3 Denver vs. No. 6 San Diego
With Peyton Manning at helm - even in what could be his final season and with the losses Julius Thomas and Orlando Franklin - I like Denver to win the AFC West again. Those factors and the weaknesses from last year will keep the Broncos from being a favorite in the AFC, but they shouldn't hinder Gary Kubiak's team.
San Diego is looking to return to the playoffs after just missing out last season, and I think the additions of Orlando Franklin and Stevie Johnson along with the re-signing of Brandon Flowers will get it there, but just barely.
This match-up pits Manning making possibly his last postseason against a bitter division rival and a team looking to finally get over the hump after years and years of languishing outside the big game.
But these aren't the Chargers of the mid- to late-'90s. They're good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to get past Peyton Manning and company.
Denver 27 San Diego 21
No. 4 Pittsburgh vs. No. 5 New England
What do you mean New England doesn't win the division (something that has only happened twice since 2001)? Sorry Patriots fans, but your defense took too much of a hit for my taste when it lost Revis and Browner. Fortunately, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are still members of the Patriots so they'll at least make the playoffs.
The AFC North will be another messy affair this season, but Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers are my pick to escape. The Bengals don't have my confidence thanks mostly to their sub-par quarterback and the Ravens so-so offseason so far leads me to lean on Pittsburgh's side at this juncture in the year.
As for this match-up itself, Brady will make sure the new trend of Super Bowl champions winning a playoff game the following year continues for one more year after taking a decade to happen once. The Patriot offense will be able to overcome some predicted defensive woes in this one.
New England 34 Pittsburgh 30
NFC Wild Card Round
No. 3 Philadelphia vs. No. 6 St. Louis
Yes, after all the hullabaloo made by Chip Kelly and the Eagles this offseason, I believe it will pay off enough to win the division. The Giants and that Washington team are not quite where they need to be to challenge for the division crown — although New York is infinitely closer than Washington - and I think losing running back DeMarco Murray will hurt Dallas more than it realizes.
And, yes, that's not a typo. St. Louis will surprise everyone this year and reach the postseason. Dumping Bradford — who could potentially become above average if he can stay healthy — for Foles while also adding a draft pick was one of the best trades of the offseason in my opinion. Foles should fit better in the Rams' offense than in Kelly's and adding Nick Fairley to an already stacked defensive line certainly helps. Realistically, they might be a piece of two away from really pushing for a playoff spot, but I'll take a shot at them making it.
And because it will be Foles seeking revenge against the team that spurned him, I'll take Jeff Fisher's squad to pull the upset and walk away victorious.
St. Louis 20 Philadelphia 18
No. 4 Carolina vs. No. 5 Dallas
Dallas kept Dez Bryant. That's huge for them going forward. And it should be key for them reaching the postseason again. Greg Hardy, for all the trouble, will — for Dallas's sake — hopefully pick up where he left off after his criminal issues and hopefully abuse or other unlawful and despicable acts won't become his legacy. Hopefully, the Kraken's uncanny ability to sack quarterbacks and disrupt offenses will be all he is known for next season.
Carolina will get back to the postseason in much the same way that it did this year: by being the best of bad options. The NFC South hasn't done anything yet to show me that it will rise out of the mediocrity of last season and this is more of a shot in the dark at which team of the four will emerge as less than awful.
That said, the Panthers won't benefit this year from facing a team in the playoff that has a quarterback less talented than some college programs. They'll face Tony Romo and a solid Cowboys team, and they'll bow out rather quickly.
Dallas 31 Carolina 17
AFC Divisional Round
No. 1 Indianapolis vs. No. 5 New England
A rematch of the past two years, but this time Indy gets to host it, and this time the Colts emerge victorious. Revenge is sweet.
The Colts are going to run away with the AFC during the regular season this year. Luck will take another step toward challenging for the title of best quarterback in the league, Andre Johnson and Frank Gore will contribute significantly to the effort, and all the old faces we've come to know in Indianapolis will be just as strong as the new ones.
The passing game will be too much for New England to contain without Browner and Revis and without Wilfork in the middle, the Colts' running game will do enough to supplement the air attack. Neither defense is great and it should be scoring fest but in the end, Indianapolis will do enough to get back to the AFC championship.
Indianapolis 41 New England 30
No. 2 Buffalo vs. No. 3 Denver
Another surprise pick probably, but I'll take the gamble at the risk of being right. The Bills already had a very good defense before installing Rex Ryan as head coach, which -even without Kiko Alonso — should make it even better. Give the man credit where credit. Ryan is a great defensive mind despite all his personality quirks. LeSean McCoy, Charles Clay and Percy Harvin should transform the offense with the only question remaining being the quarterback.
But that lack of a quarterback — much like it did Arizona last year — will come back to haunt Buffalo.
Manning is still Manning and without a signal caller even close to the quality usually required to win a playoff game, Buffalo will make a quick exit but with a great season on its resume and only a piece or two away from being truly great in 2016.
Denver 23 Buffalo 16
NFC Divisional Round
No. 1 Green Bay vs. No. 6 St. Louis
Bias aside, I think Green Bay will be the best team in football next season. Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL, they kept Bulaga on the line and Cobb in the receiving core, and despite losing linebacker A.J. Hawk and cornerback Tramon Williams, they are poised to have one of the better defenses in the league. Clay Matthews will probably see more time at inside linebacker, which worked well last season, and Casey Hayward will see much more playing time as he emerged as one of the better defensive backs for the Packers last season anyway.
And that's why St. Louis's dream run ends at Lambeau. The Green Bay offensive line is stacked and will have two years experience playing together at this point barring any crazy injuries, which will help against the fierce defensive line the Rams will bring. The secondary will be opportunistic and take care of Foles.
Can you say NFC championship rematch?
Gree n Bay 31 Rams 15
No. 2 Seattle vs. No. 5 Dallas
Adding Jimmy Graham to an already solid offense brings a level of potency that should terrify every team in the NFL.
Marshawn Lynch is going to hang around for another year and the defense lost Byron Maxwell in the secondary, but it showed last year when Maxwell replaced Browner that it has plenty of players to step up on that side of the ball when needed. Wilson is turning out to not only be one of the best young quarterbacks in the league, but also one of the best young leaders in the game, which will help with a new offensive coordinator in charge for the Seahawks.
The Cowboys won't have enough offensively to get through the Seattle defense and the defense won't find a way to consistently shut down Graham and the Seahawk offense.
Yes. You can say NFC championship rematch. Just in a different location.
Seattle 27 Dallas 17
No. 1 Indianapolis vs. No. 3 Denver
Another Peyton versus his old club match-up. Manning is 1-2 including the playoffs against the Colts since joining the Broncos in 2012, and I don't like his odds of bringing that record back to .500.
The passing attack for Indianapolis will be too much for Denver to handle. An aging veteran for a better aging veteran looking to revitalize his career in a new place, a quarterback that continues to take huge strides forward with each successive season and a running game that added a solid ball carrier and excised Trent Richardson will be exactly what the Colts need to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since Manning left.
Indianapolis 31 Denver 23
No. 1 Green Bay vs. No. 2 Seattle
The rematch that I would think every NFL fan in America wants to see will happen. I don't see a way around it. One way or another, Green Bay will face Seattle in the postseason again and the Packers will avenge their mistakes.
By no means will this game be a blowout, though. It will be another instant classic with the game coming down to the final possession. But at the end of the day, I think Green Bay will find a way to make the play that counts and seals the game. Whether it will be an Eddie Lacy run for a first down, an Aaron Rodgers pass for a touchdown or first down, or a big play from someone on the defense no one knows, I can't be sure.
But I am sure that Rodgers will find a way back to the Super Bowl.
Green Bay 34 Seattle 33
Indianapolis vs. Green Bay
Rodgers will be 32 when the playoffs start this year. Luck will be 26. It's a match-up of the man who replaced the aging Manning and Brady as the best of the best and the kid who will one day replace him for the same right.
But it will be the current best quarterback in the NFL that will emerge victorious and claim his second Super Bowl. Don't worry, Colts. Luck will bring you a Lombardi Trophy soon enough. Just not this year.
Green Bay 38 Indianapolis 30