Time to finish up the season preview posts with my projected NFL playoff bracket for the coming season. I’ve determined what records I think every team will end up with this season and the subsequent playoff seedings. Here are my playoff predictions. Continue reading
Here are my predictions for how the 2017 NFL season will play out. I went through and picked who I think will win each game and these are the final records, standings and playoff seedings. Thanks to the NFL Playoff Predictor for making it easy to track everything. There were some changes in my thinking from wen I was writing the team previews through the summers based on signings, trades and other news items from recent weeks, as well as general changes in my opinions of some teams.
AFC Playoff Seeds
NFC Playoff Seeds
It’s been seven months since the Patriots beat the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, the first time the game went to overtime. With the championship, the Patriots earn the honor of hosting the first game of the NFL regular season, with the Thursday night Kickoff game before the rest of the teams play on opening weekend. With the Falcons on New England’s home schedule this season, there was a possibility of starting the season with a Super Bowl rematch for the second straight year, but the league chose to save that game for later in the season. Instead, the Chiefs will face the Patriots as they open the season at Gillette Stadium.
Both teams will be without a key member of the offense. For the visitors, RB Spencer Ware suffered a season-ending knee injury in the team’s third preseason game. That was the same week that Patriots WR Julian Edelman tore his ACL, ending his season before it could begin. Rookie RB Kareem Hunt is expected to get the bulk of the work at running back for the Chiefs, while a number of players could see more action on the field for New England to fill in for Edelman, with WR Chris Hogan among the likely possibilities.
QB Alex Smith isn’t the flashiest quarterback in the league, but he is a game manager who doesn’t turn the ball over, averaging fewer than 10 interceptions per season in his career. TE Travis Kelce had more than 1,100 receiving yards last season on 85 yards, but there wasn’t another pass-catcher who surpassed the 1,000-yard mark. WR Tyreek Hill was the closest, with 593 yards. He needs to step up his game this season, and a primetime showcase against the Patriots is a fine time to show that he is able to take the next step in his career in 2017. Having the rookie Hunt as the likely bellcow in the backfield could pose problems for the Chiefs. He’ll have to face a strong Patriots defense in his first career game. Even before Ware’s injury, people thought Hunt would play a role in the offense — but not necessarily in Week 1. It’ll be a tough challenge for him to have a good showing in his debut performance. RBs Charcandrick West and C.J. Spiller could also see some time on the field.
The Patriots, of course, have one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL in Tom Brady. While losing Edelman takes away Brady’s top pass-catching option, he still has plenty of other players who he can throw to, led by TE Rob Gronkowski, whose biggest weakness is being able to stay healthy on the field. That won’t be a problem in Week 1, though, barring an in-game injury. Expect a monster game from Gronk. The running game is a bit of a mess for New England, with Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, Dion Lewis and James White all expected to be a part of it. I think Burkhead will have the best stats of the group by the end of the season, but there’s no telling what could happen with the running backs in Week 1.
Both defenses finished in the top 10 of points allowed last season, with the Patriots No. 1 in the category and Kansas City ranking seventh. The Chiefs were in the bottom 10, however, in yards allowed while the Patriots were eighth in the league. The Patriots are clearly the better team on both sides of ball. Both teams have question marks in the run game, but I think the Patriots’ group of veterans can outperform the Chiefs’ rookie. Andy Reid is a good coach but not as good as Bill Belichick. All signs point to the Patriots being the better team in this game.
The over/under is 42.5; I’ll take the over on that number. The Patriots are 8.5-point favorites, according to ESPN’s Pigskin PIck’em. While I like the Patriots to win, I’ll take the Chiefs to keep it within the spread.
Stay tuned later in the week for my season and playoff predictions, along with the rest of my Week 1 picks.
Despite QB Tom Brady being suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season, the Patriots ended up winning the division and eventually pulled off an epic comeback to beat the Falcons to win the first Super Bowl to go to overtime. Despite winning yet another championship, the Patriots weren’t content to stick with the roster they had last year. In the offseason, they acquired WR Brandin Cooks and TE Dwayne Allen in trades with the Saints and Colts, respectively. They also made a trade with the Panthers to get DL Kony Ealy. Other additions they’ve made since the season ended include the signings of CB Stephon Gilmore and RBs Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee. They added to both the offense and defense, and both units were already near the top of the league last season. Their main losses on the offense were RB LeGarrette Blount and TE Martellus Bennett
In the 12 games he played last season, Brady completed 67.4% of his passes for 3,554 yards and 28 touchdowns with just 2 interceptions for an impressive 14:1 TD:INT ratio. WR Julian Edelman had 98 receptions in 13 games for 1,106 yards and 3 touchdowns. With New Orleans, Cooks had 78 receptions for 1,173 yards and 8 touchdowns. TE Rob Gronkowski was limited to eight games due to injuries. He had 25 catches for 540 yards and 3 touchdowns in the games he played. With the Colts, Allen had 35 receptions for 406 yards and 6 touchdowns in 14 games. Blount was the team’s leading rusher and no other running back had more than 64 carries, but RB James White was a significant part of the passing game, catching 60 balls for 551 yards and 5 touchdowns. The offense scored the third-most points in the league and the defense allowed the fewest points.
If Gronk can stay healthy this year, he will obviously be a much bigger part of the offense and Edelman should have his usual season of being in the range of 100 receptions. Cooks provides an upgrade at receiver over WR Chris Hogan, but he likely won’t get quite the numbers he had in New Orleans last season because he was the main focus of the receiving game for the Saints and the Patriots have more players to whom Brady can pass the ball. Allen should be a good No. 2 at the tight end position and could be a viable No. 1 if Gronk misses significant time again this year. Allen does have a history of injuries himself and hasn’t played a full 16-game season since his rookie year in 2012. White and RB Dion Lewis, who missed nine games last season due to injury, will likely split the bulk of the time at running back, with White getting more reps on passing downs so Lewis will likely have to step up with Blount gone. Burkhead and Gillislee will likely provide depth at the position.
The Patriots’ schedule begins with the traditional Thursday night game prior to the first Sunday of the season, giving the Super Bowl winners a season-opening showcase. This year, the Patriots host the Chiefs in that first game. They visit the Saints in Week 2, and the Texans come to town in Week 3 for a rematch of the AFC Divisional playoff game from January. The Panthers are up next for another home game in Week 4, then the Patriots visit the Buccaneers for a Thursday night contest in Week 5. The first divisional game comes in Week 6 at the Jets, followed by the anticipated Super Bowl LI rematch between the Patriots and Falcons in Week 7. That’s a Sunday night game in Atlanta. The Patriots get their bye in Week 9, then they head to Denver to take on the Broncos in Week 10’s Sunday nighter. The Patriots head south of the border in Week 11 when they take on the Raiders in Mexico City, then return to Foxboro to host the Dolphins in Week 12. The Patriots then have three straight road games, at the Bills in Week 13, a Monday night game at the Dolphins in Week 14 and an AFC Championship rematch at the Steelers in Week 15. The Patriots end the regular season with two home games, against the Bills in Week 16 and the Jets in Week 17. I think the Patriots can win 12 or 13 games this season and should easily win the AFC East for the ninth straight season. The real question for the Patriots is can they become the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since they did it in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX?
Update (8/26): In the Patriots’ third preseason game Friday night, Edelman suffered a torn ACL that will cause him to miss the entire 2017 season. That is a blow to the team’s offense and will require the likes of Hogan and WRs Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola to step up their games as they advance up the receivers depth chart. Hogan had the best stats of that trio last year, with 38 catches for 680 yards and 4 touchdowns. None of those three is likely to match the production the Patriots would have gotten out of Edelman, but they can combine to make up some of the numbers the team is losing. Even with Edelman out for the year, I don’t think that changes the fact that the Patriots are the best team in the division and should still win it. The team also released Ealy, so the Patriots traded for him but he didn’t play in a single regular season game for them.
For the first time in four years, the Super Bowl does not consist of the two No. 1 seeds going against each other. It’s the AFC’s top-seeded Patriots — going for the franchise’s fifth title, which would tie the team for second-most all-time behind the Steelers — taking on the Falcons, the No. 2 seed from the NFC, who are playing in just their second Super Bowl and looking for their first title. The Patriots, on the other hand, are playing in their NFL-record ninth championship game. Patriots QB Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have each been part of the Patriots’ four prior championships and are making their seventh overall Super Bowl appearances, the most in league history for a player or coach.
Neither team struggled to win its conference championship game, both more than doubling their opponent’s score. The Falcons defense stifled QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense and Green Bay’s defense couldn’t stop QB Matt Ryan and the rest of the Atlanta offense as the Falcons won 44-21. Brady and the Patriots put up 36 points on the Steelers defense and limited Pittsburgh’s offense, which played without RB Le’Veon Bell for most of the game when he exited early with a groin injury. New England won the game by a final score of 36-17.
With two of the league’s best offenses playing in Super Bowl LI, it looks to be a high-scoring game, which is reflected in the 59 over/under in Vegas, which is up from the already-high 56.5 where it opened. The Patriots are three-point favorites in the game, which opened as a pick ’em. Heading into the final game of the postseason, I am 9-2 picking games straight up, 6-4 against the spread and 5-5 on over/unders.
The Falcons had the league’s top scoring offense during the regular season and have kept up the offensive attack through their first two playoff games, scoring 36 and 44, respectively. The Patriots can put points on the board, as well, scoring 34 and 36, respectively, in their first two games of this postseason. Both quarterbacks are MVP candidates after putting up big numbers during the season but I’ll give the advantage of the Brady and the Patriots. It’s hard to go against the clutch performances he has put up throughout his career and the four Super Bowls he has one. I say the Falcons have the advantage at the receiver position with WR Julio Jones, who is one of the best in the game, gaining more than 1,400 receiving yards with 6 touchdowns during the season and adding another 4 touchdowns in his two playoff games so far this season. The question is how healthy he is, as he has been limited in practice this week. WR Julian Edelman should have a good game for the Patriots, but a key for them could be WR Chris Hogan repeating the performance he had in the AFC Championship, when he had 9 receptions for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Steelers. Falcons RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 19 rushing touchdowns in the regular season, but Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount ran the ball into the end zone 18 times himself while rushing for more than 1,100 yards. The Patriots rushing attack hasn’t been able to get much going yet in the postseason, which could hurt them against the Falcons if they can’t keep up with the Freeman-Coleman combo. I think the running games are pretty even between the two teams.
The Patriots had the top scoring defense during the regular season and the Falcons defense has improved in recent weeks, having allowed 21 points or fewer in five of their last six games. Other than the Packers last week, though, they didn’t face a team with as strong of an offense as the Patriots have so New England will present a big challenge for the Atlanta defense. For the Patriots defense, CB Malcolm Butler — who made the game-winning interception in Super Bowl XLIX — led the team with 4 interceptions during the regular season. Patriots have the advantage at defense.
There’s no doubt that the Patriots have the advantage at head coach, with Belichick coaching in his record-setting seventh Super Bowl. Although Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is in his first Super Bowl as a head coach, he was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator when they made it to Super Bowls XLVIII and XLIX so he knows what it’s like to be on the sidelines for a Super Bowl. But it’s Belichick who is considered by many to be the best coach in NFL history. He knows how to come up with a game plan that helps to limit the opponent’s best weapon. If he can do that on Sunday, it’ll likely mean Jones has a subpar performance.
This should be a close game, but I think Brady and Belichick will lead the Patriots to the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl title. I’m predicting a final score of 31-27 Patriots so I’ll take them to cover and that’ll be under the 59. Blount is named MVP.
(Spread and over/under from Vegas Insider)
We’re down to the final four teams of the NFL season, who need to win just one more game to advance to Super Bowl LI in Houston. Sunday’s action begins in the NFC with QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers heading to Atlanta to take on the Falcons, led by QB Matt Ryan, in what will be the final game at the Georgia Dome before the Falcons’ new stadium opens next season. In the AFC, QB Ben Roethlisberger leads the Steelers to Gillette Stadium to take on QB Tom Brady and the Patriots, who are playing in their sixth straight AFC Championship game. This foursome features three quarterbacks — Rodgers, Ryan and Brady — who are in the conversation for league MVP and three — with Ryan being the exception — who already have Super Bowl titles in their careers, with Brady going for his fifth. With these four teams still alive, my preseason pick of the Packers meeting the Patriots in Super Bowl LI is still alive. I went 3-1 against the spread, straight up and on the over/unders last weekend to bring my totals for the postseason to 5-3 against the spread, 7-1 straight up and 4-4 on over/unders.
No. 4 seed Green Bay Packers at No. 2 seed Atlanta Falcons (-5.5, over/under 60.5)
On Sunday, the Packers played in one of the best playoff games in recent memory, beating the top-seeded Cowboys in a game that saw three 50-plus yard field goals made in the final 93 seconds, two of which — including the game-winner — came off the foot of Packers K Mason Crosby. The Packers struck early in the game, taking a 21-3 lead in the second quarter before the Cowboys came back with a touchdown by WR Dez Bryant and a Dan Bailey field goal to make it 21-13 at halftime. The Cowboys’ big comeback came in the fourth quarter, scoring 18 points to tie it and force Crosby to make the final kick from 51 yards out at the end of regulation to win the game without having to go to overtime. Rodgers was 28-for-43 for 356 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. Both of his touchdowns were thrown to tight ends, Jared Cook, and Richard Rodgers. Cook was the team’s leading receiver with 6 receptions for 104 yards and the score; he also caught the pass that set up Crosby’s game-winning kick. R. Rodgers only catch was the 34-yard touchdown that put the Packers on the board in the opening quarter. While the Packers didn’t get many rushing yards, RB Ty Montgomery did score a couple of rushing touchdowns among his 11 carries, which went for 47 yards; he also added 34 yards on 6 receptions. S Micah Hyde led the way defensively, with an interception and a sack; LB NIck Perry accounted for the Packers’ other sack of Cowboys QB Dak Prescott en route to the 34-31 win in the nailbiter.
Following the Falcons’ first-round bye, Ryan didn’t miss a step from the numbers he put up during the course of the season. throwing 3 touchdowns without an interception on a 26-for-37, 338-yard performance against a decent Seahawks defense that was suffering through some injuries. WR Julio Jones had 6 receptions for 67 yards with a touchdown before sitting out part of the fourth quarter after aggravating a toe injury that was affecting him late in the regular season. Ryan’s two other touchdowns went to WR Mohamed Sanu and RB Tevin Coleman. RB Devonta Freeman was the team’s top receiver for the game, with 4 receptions for 80 yards, including a 53-yarder. Although he didn’t get a touchdown reception, Freeman did score on the ground, with a one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that highlighted his 14-carry, 45-yard rushing performance. He had the most carries for the Falcons but Coleman totaled the most rushing yards, with 57 yards on 11 attempts. The defense intercepted two of his Seahawks QB Russell Wilson’s 30 passes, with LB Deion Jones and S Ricardo Allen recording them. The team also sacked Wilson three times in the 36-20 victory.
Offense is what both of these teams do best so it should be a high-scoring game, as evidenced by the 60.5 over/under total. Rodgers and Ryan were the top two in the league in passing touchdowns during the regular season, with 40 and 38, respectively. With both quarterbacks able to rack up the passing yards, the running game could be key to victory in this one. That is an area in which the Falcons have the advantage. Even though Freeman didn’t have great numbers against the Seahawks, he ranked in the top 10 in both rushing yards and touchdowns in the regular season, and Coleman is among the best No. 2 running backs in the league who can put up numbers when Freeman needs a breather. The Packers, on the other hand, have struggled in the running game all season, including totaling just 87 yards on the ground on Sunday. The Packers did fine without WR Jordy Nelson last week and it’s not looking good for him to play this week. WR Davante Adams has an ankle injury and has not been practicing this week,but he is expected to play. For the Falcons, Jones should be able to take the field despite his toe injury. I think the Packers be able to win without Nelson, though it would be tougher if Adams is limited. Give me the Packers with the points in a 31-27 game, so under the 60.5.
No. 3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 1 seed New England Patriots (-6, over/under 50.5)
The Steelers beat the Chiefs, 18-16, despite not scoring a touchdown. K Chris Boswell was a perfect 6-for-6 on field goal attempts, the longest from 45 yards, to account for all of Pittsburgh’s scoring. RB Le’Veon Bell was the team’s best offensive player as he improved upon his Steeler-record 167-yard game in the wild-card round with a 170-yard performance on 30 rushes last week. Roethlisberger was 20-for-31 for 224 and 1 interception in the game. Not surprisingly, WR Antonio Brown was the top receiver, totaling 6 receptions for 108 yards. TE Jesse James had a good game, with 5 catches for 83 yards. The defense did a good job of containing Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill, who I called the X-factor in my preview of the game. In terms of defensive stats, LB Ryan Shazier had an interception of Chiefs QB Alex Smith and LB James Harrison recorded a sack.
The Patriots didn’t look great in the first three quarters but pulled away in the fourth to beat the Texans 34-16 in the divisional round. Brady threw two interceptions, which was as many as he threw in his 12 regular-season games, on the way to finishing 18-for-38 for 287 yards and 2 touchdowns. WR Julian Edelman had 8 receptions for 137 yards, and Brady’s touchdown passes went to RBs Dion Lewis and James White. Lewis also scored on a rushing touchdown and a kick return touchdown, but he did fumble the ball twice, losing it once. The Patriots didn’t get much production on the ground, with fewer than 100 rushing yards. The defense grabbed 3 interceptions against Texans QB Brock Osweiler and sacked him three times, with CB Logan Ryan recording both a sack and interception.
The Patriots seem to be the most-balanced team in this foursome, with a strong offense and defense. Even at 39 years old, Brady is playing at the top of his game and while Roethlisberger is a good quarterback, he hasn’t been playing well lately and can’t match the numbers Brady is putting up. Bell will have to have a third straight game of more than 100 yards if the Steelers want to pull out the upset because I think he is the team’s best offensive weapon. That might be tough,though, facing the Patriots’ stout defense. Field goals won’t cut it this week. If they can’t score when they get into the end zone, it’s not going to go well for the Steelers. It’s a six-point spread and I think the Patriots can cover it. I’ll take them to win 30-21, which will be just over the over/under.
These results would keep my preseason Super Bowl LI pick — Packers versus Patriots — alive. The Packer injuries worry me a little, but it’s hard to go against Rodgers with the way he’s been playing of late, particularly since Ryan doesn’t have a great track record in his postseason career. I’m more confident in my Patriots pick because Roethlisberger hasn’t been playing well of late and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick usually does a good job of stopping the opponent’s best offensive weapon, which in this case is Bell.
(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)
With the wild-card games in the books, the top two seeds in each conference take to the field for the first time in this postseason. That means the Patriots, Chiefs, Cowboys and Falcons host games coming off of their first-round byes. For a team like the Patriots, that means veteran QB Tom Brady, one of the best in the postseason, takes on a Texans team with a mediocre offense while Cowboys rookie QB Dak Prescott not only gets his first taste of the playoffs but also the first truly meaningful game of his career, as the Cowboys led the NFC East virtually all season. The Falcons and Chiefs, meanwhile, have veteran quarterbacks — Matt Ryan and Alex Smith, respectively — who haven’t achieved a great deal of success in their postseason careers, save for Smith helping the 49ers reach the 2012 NFC Championship game. After finishing two games over .500 with a 129-127 record against the spread (and 156-98-2 picking games straight up) in the regular season, I went 2-2 against the spread (and 4-0 straight up but just 1-3 on the over/unders) last weekend.
No. 3 seed Seattle Seahawks at No. 2 seed Atlanta Falcons (11-5, NFC South champions) (-5, over/under 51.5)
The Seahawks are coming off of an impressive win in the wild-card round against a Lions team with a quarterback that has been dealing with a broken finger for the last several weeks. This week, they’ll have a tougher matchup against a squad led by Ryan, who is a leading candidate for league MVP honors. RB Thomas Rawls was the Seahawks’ main offensive weapon last week, running for 161 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. QB Russell Wilson was 23-for-30 for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns. Catching nearly half of those completions was WR Doug Baldwin, whose 11 receptions led to 104 receiving yards and a touchdown. WR Paul Richardson put up decent numbers for him, with 3 catches for 48 yards, including a touchdown on an impressive catch in the end zone, making up for a lack of production from TE Jimmy Graham.
Ryan is coming off of a career year in which he threw for 4.944 yards and 38 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions, giving him a NFL-best passer rating of 117.1. He hasn’t had much success in his postseason career, though, going 1-4 with a 9-7 TD-interception ratio in five starts, and he has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in three of those five games. Looking at what the rest of the Falcons offense did during the season, RB Devonta Freeman led the way on the ground, carrying the ball 227 yards for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns. No. 2 RB Tevin Coleman added another 520 yards and 8 scores on the ground on 118 rushes. WR Julio Jones had another of his typically great seasons, with 83 receptions for 1,409 yards and 6 touchdowns in 14 games. WR Mohamed Sanu added another 59 grabs for 653 yards and 4 touchdowns, and Freeman had good production in the air game out of the backfield, with 54 catches for 462 yards and 2 touchdowns. Defensively, the Falcons are among the worst in the league,ranking in the bottom 10 in both points and yards allowed.
This game is a battle of the league’s best scoring offense in the Falcons against a Seahawks defense that allowed the third-fewest points in the league during the season and gave up just 6 against the Lions last week. If the Seattle defense can’t keep the Falcons from getting into the end zone, which I don’t think they will, I think the key offensive weapon for the Seahawks will be Rawls. He’ll have to have another good game, like his 161-yard performance against Detroit, if the team has a chance to win. I don’t think Wilson will be able to keep up with Ryan in the air so it’ll be up to the rushing attack to outplay Freeman and Coleman, in my opinion. I don’t think they’ll be able to do it. Falcons win the game, 30-24, to advance to the fifth conference championship game in franchise history. They’ll cover the five-point spread, and the game will go over the 51.5.
No. 4 seed Houston Texans at No. 1 seed New England Patriots (14-2, AFC East champions) (-16, over/under 44.5)
In a rematch of a Week 3 game that saw the Patriots — with QB Jacoby Brissett starting — shut out the Texans at Gillette Stadium, the Texans head back to Foxborough for a chance at redemption as they try to make it to their first AFC Championship game in team history. Last week, the Texans beat the Raiders at home behind a strong showing by the defense — particularly DEs Jadeveon Clowney, who recorded his first career interception, and Whitney Mercilus, who had 2 sacks and 5 tackles in the game. CB A.J. Bouye had an interception of his own in the winning effort. The offense, as has been the case all season, wasn’t very explosive, although QB Brock Osweiler did show some promising signs at times, making a couple of nice throws to WR DeAndre Hopkins, who had 5 receptions for 67 yards and 1 touchdown on 9 targets. Overall, Osweiler was 14-for-25 for 168 yards and 1 touchdown. Not impressive but the lack of interceptions was a good sign because he had more interceptions than touchdown passes — 16 vs. 15 — during the regular season. The Texans couldn’t get much done in the running game; RB Lamar Miller was only able to get 73 yards on 31 carries, though he did get into the end zone once.
After missing the first four games of the season while serving his suspension for Deflategate, Brady put up impressive numbers, leading many to make him their MVP pick despite missing a quarter of the season. In his 12 starts, Brady had a 28-2 TD-interception ratio while throwing for 3,554 yards. Unlike Ryan, who hasn’t done well in the postseason historically, Brady almost seems to up his game in January. He has won 22 of his 31 starts — including four Super Bowl victories — and thrown 56 touchdowns compared to 28 interceptions. With TE Rob Gronkowski missing most of the season to injury, WR Julian Edelman was the team’s leading receiver with 98 receptions 1,106 yards and 3 touchdowns. TE Martellus Bennett stepped up in the second half of the season after Gronk went on IR. He finished the year with 55 catches for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns. RB James White was productive in the passing game out of the backfield, with 60 catches for 551 yards and 5 touchdowns. RB LeGarrette Blount was the team’s leading rusher, carrying the ball 299 times for 1,161 yards and an impressive 18 touchdowns. As if having one of the league’s best offenses wasn’t enough, the Patriots also had the best scoring defense during the season, giving up only 250 points — 34 fewer than the next best team, the Giants.
On paper this game seems like a blowout, and that is reflected as well in the 16-point spread. The Week 3 shutout doesn’t do much to refute that. While I don’t think this game will be close, I find it hard to give a team 16 points in the playoffs. The Texans defense will have to keep Brady and the Patriots in check if they want to have any chance of pulling off the upset because the Texans offense may be hard pressed to get into the 20s against a Patriots defense that allowed an average of 15.6 points per game during the regular season. Patriots win the game easily, but with a 27-13 score I’ll take the Texans with the points, and that will also be under the 44.5.
No. 3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 2 seed Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, AFC West champions) (-1.5, over/under 44)
The Steelers easily took care of the Dolphins in the wild-card round to earn the trip to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs. In Sunday’s game QB Ben Roethlisberger didn’t have a great outing, going 13-for-18 for 197 yards and 2 touchdowns with 2 interceptions, but he didn’t have to be at the top of his game thanks to RB Le’Veon Bell, who set a Steelers postseason record by rushing for 167 yards and 2 touchdowns on 29 rushes. WR Antonio Brown helped the Steelers jump out to an early lead with a couple of first-quarter scores. Overall, he had 5 receptions for 124 yards and those 2 touchdowns. The defense had three turnovers, including an interception by LB Ryan Shazier.
For the Chiefs, Smith set a career high this season with 3,502 passing yards, though that resulted in just 15 touchdowns and he threw 8 interceptions, which was his highest total since throwing 10 in 2010. RB Spencer Ware was the team’s leading rusher, getting the start in 14 games and carrying the ball 214 times for 921 yards and 3 touchdowns. TE Travis Kelce caught 85 passes to lead the team with 1,125 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. It was WR Tyreek Hill who was the Chiefs’ breakout star on offense this season. He had 61 receptions for 593 yards and a team-high 6 touchdowns in the passing game, but that’s not the only part of the game in which he was active. He had 24 carries for 267 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he added another 3 touchdowns on special teams, returning two punts and a kickoff for scores. Defensively, the Chiefs allowed 311 points during the season — seventh best in the league — but was in the bottom 10 in yards allowed.
The 1.5-point spread indicates that this game is expected to be close. The Steelers have the better offense with the Roethlisberger-Bell-Brown triplets, but the Chiefs have the better defense, which the team will rely on to keep the Steelers out of the end zone as much as possible as Smith and Ware can’t compare to Roethlisberger and Bell. The X-factor for the Chiefs is, of course, Hill. If he can continue the strong second half of the season that he had, it could be enough to get the Chiefs the win If he can score on a kick or punt return, that would certainly help take some of the pressure off of both the offense and defense. In the end, though, I don’t think the Chiefs will be able to score enough points to pull out the victory. The Steelers are the slight underdogs so I’ll take the points. I think Pittsburgh wins, 23-20, and I’ll go under the 44.
No. 4 seed Green Bay Packers at No. 1 seed Dallas Cowboys (13-3, NFC East champions) (-4.5, over/under 52.5)
The Packers pulled away from the Giants in the second half of their wild-card game last week and ended up winning by 25 points, but they may have lost a key player in the process. WR Jordy Nelson left the game early with what was later determined to be fractured ribs. Even without Nelson playing the entire game, QB Aaron Rodgers had a big game for the Packers, going 25-for-40 for 362 yards and 4 touchdowns. He had two receivers cross the 100-yard mark; WR Davante Adams had 8 receptions for 125 yards and 1 touchdown, while WR Randall Cobb came back after missing a couple games with an injury and had 5 receptions for 116 yards and 3 touchdowns, including one on a hail-mary pass just before halftime. The running game struggled, as it has most of the season, with RBs Christine Michael and Ty Montgomery splitting the touches almost evenly but totaling just 74 rushing yards between them. On defense, LB Clay Matthews had a sack and a forced fumble and CB Damarious Randall intercepted an Eli Manning pass.
Led by rookies Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys had their best season since 2007 with a 13-3 record. Prescott threw for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns with 4 interceptions. He also had 6 rushing touchdowns on 57 carries. That was nothing compared to what Elliott did on the ground, carrying the ball 322 times for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. WR Cole Beasley was the team’s leading receiver with 75 receptions for 833 yards and 5 touchdowns. Veteran TE Jason Witten added 69 receptions for 673 yards and 3 touchdowns while WR Dez Bryant had 50 catches for 796 yards and 8 touchdowns in 13 games. The defense was the team’s weak point during the season, allowing both the fifth-most points and yards in the league.
Both teams have good offenses and questionable defenses so points should be easy to come by in this one. Nelson’s availability is a big question mark for the Packers. The team is saying he likely won’t be able to practice until Saturday, so a decision on his status for the game won’t be known until the weekend. If he can’t go, that would be a blow to the Packers offense and would require the likes of Adams and Cobb to repeat their performances from last week. I give the Cowboys a slight edge in this game because of Elliott. The Packers run game can’t come close to the production he is likely to put up, and that could be the difference in the game. Cowboys win, 30-27, so they don’t cover the spread but do advance to the NFC Championship game. And that score means I’m going over 52.5.
If these results happen, it’ll eliminate the possibility of my preseason Super Bowl LI pick — Packers over Patriots — from happening. With the Patriots likely beating the Texans, that prediction will stay alive if the Packers can manage to beat the Cowboys.
(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)