The regular season has finally come to an end and we’re all set for the wild card round of the playoffs this weekend. If years past have taught us anything, it’s that on some level there are always surprises as the games shake out.
Additionally, there are some perceived surprises that truly aren’t surprises at all – at least not in the sense that recent history suggests otherwise. This year’s playoff tree is one that features 8 teams who were not in the post season last year, showing that changes in coaching and player development in some teams can unseat the mindset that continuity rules the roost in the league.
With that said, we have put together a few predictions for this year’s post season and how things could possibly play out with some surprises as well as some situations that may by just downright typical. Let’s get down to it.
Both 6-Seeds Advance Past Wild Card Round
This weekend we will all see a couple surprise 3-seeds in the Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Rams being in the advantageous position of hosting a playoff game which in some ways shocks their respective fan bases just as much as it does anyone else who has watched these franchises over the past several years. Their opponents, the Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Falcons could be considered surprises in their slots as well, though, for completely different reasons.
The Bills haven’t been in the playoffs since 1999 and were longshots to make it in this season up to, and including Week 17 for that matter. The Falcons, on the other hand, were in the Super Bowl last season – not exactly a playoff drought. However, aside from a change at offensive coordinator, they are largely the same team and have followed an immensely successful season in which they racked up 540 points, with a year in which they finished third in the NFC South in spite of finishing the season 10-6.
Their opponents have not been stalwarts in the recent past either though. The Jaguars have missed out on the post season since 2007 coinciding with the last season they put together a winning record. – and the Rams have been without a playoff appearance since 2004 and haven’t had a winning record since 2003.
The Jaguars and Bills, both, are near the bottom of the league in rush yards per carry and both are fairly uniform in allowing explosive plays through the air and both teams have very good running games to hang their hat on. Ultimately, this game likely comes down to finding some offensive efficiency and their respective quarterbacks taking care of the ball.
Blake Bortles has failed to end the season on a good not accumulating 5 interceptions and owning a 55.9% completion rate over the final two weeks of the season. Tyrod Taylor, after getting benched, came back and finished the final three weeks of his campaign with a 60.6% completion rate, 3 total touchdowns and the team hasn’t turned the ball over in his final three starts.
In a ‘what have you done for me lately’ league, to me, it appears that the magic that the Jaguars have collected this year in ultimately hiding Bortles with their running game has allowed him to fall back into some bad habits. These performances heading into the post season may just be the Jaguars’ fans worst nightmare.
Now for the Falcons versus the Rams.
This upset falls more in line with the thought that an experienced quarterback in Matt Ryan, and a second-year signal caller taking on equally good pass defenses. While the Rams are more opportunistic against the pass – forcing several more interceptions – the Falcons haven’t allowed nearly the 20-plus-yard plays that the Rams have.
Mixing that in with the fact that the Falcons’ run defense – on paper – is head and shoulders better than that of the Rams. Plain and simple, this Falcons squad has all of the mental motivation to rebound from immense disappointment considering how the Super Bowl played out last season. The Rams, on the other hand, may be feeling that they are just happy to be in the playoffs without the wounds to give them that extra chip on their shoulder. Additionally, I’m never a fan of sitting key starters at the end of the season in preparation for the playoffs.
This scenario, where both 6-seeds move on through Wild Card weekend is nothing new though. In the past 10 seasons this very situation has come to fruition 5 times. These two teams are very different in their makeup and experience and this is what will take the amazing season that the Rams have put together and unfortunately bring it to an early end despite their roster’s talent.
Vikings Become First to Play Super Bowl in Their Own Stadium
The Minnesota Vikings know about disappointment. They have never won a Super Bowl. They have struggled in a division where the Packers and the Bears have overshadowed them consistently. While they have been mired in quarterback issues through the years, Green Bay was gifted Aaron Rodgers to take the handoff from Brett Favre.
Teddy Bridgewater went down with a gruesome injury and Sam Bradford was brought in to replace him and played well above the expectations. Then, when things seemed on the uptick this season, they watched Bradford go down with another injury.
It hasn’t mattered. Under Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, Case Keenum has played excellently and WR Adam Thielen has had a breakout season. Football Outsiders has the Vikings listed as 5th in Offensive DVOA.
Then there is the defense. The secondary is nasty and opportunistic, and Everson Griffen is having a career year with 13 sacks. They have the number one defense in points allowed, and Football Outsiders has them 2nd in Defensive DVOA. Add to that the fact that they have locked up a bye and home field advantage and it makes this team a formidable opponent indeed.
They’ll first face the winner of the Saints and the Panthers. They’ve already proven capable of beating the Saints, having done so handily in the regular season. While they lost their first bout with the Panthers, it was on the road in a one score game. It seems likely they are up to the task of coming out on top the second time around at home.
If they come out of that matchup unscathed, they’ll face the winner of Philadelphia and either the Falcons or the L.A. Rams. As long as that team is not the Eagles, that game will be played in Minnesota and despite their success and talented coaching staff, my pick there would be the Vikings in a very fun game, whether it is the Falcons or the Rams. That would make them the first team to play the Super Bowl in their own home stadium in history and give Vikings fans something to really get excited about.
Patriots Become 8th Franchise to Win Back-to-Back Super Bowls
Tom Brady has become such an anomaly at this point in his career. It’s almost as if he’s getting better as he ages, and we all know that ‘the hoodie’ is widely accepted as one of best, if not the best coach of all time. With all of their success in recent years, the Patriots have put together their third-best point total of the past 5 years (only missing the top spot by 11 points) and despite their slow start on the defensive side of the ball, they have allowed their third-fewest points in the past 10 seasons.
Something that can’t be undersold, is that the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through Foxboro once again. Additionally, the conference has been quite unimpressive for the most part this season. The Bills haven’t impressed anyone enough to fear them, Titans have lost 3 of their last 4 games, the Chiefs – while coming in winning 4-straight – lost 6 of 7 in the belly of the season, and the Jaguars were 1-and-3 against playoff teams this season with an average loss of 12 points per game. This leaves the Steelers as their most probable foe in the conference championship game.
In that vein, the Patriots have gone 4-2 against playoff teams (including a win against the Steelers on their home turf), and have been winning comfortably since their bye week. In fact they’ve only had two one-score games since Week 10 and are +125 in point differential in that time span.
Make no mistake about it, the Steelers and Chiefs could legitimately give the Patriots a run for the conference championship, but this Patriots team – aside from a couple hiccups – has been the most consistent team in the conference all season without question. The Super Bowl has the potential to be an amazing game with some of the NFC’s playoff teams, but nothing about the Patriots taking back-to-back championships should surprise anyone at this point.