NFL Mid-Season Playoff Predictions
Who will win Super Bowl XLVIII? As we reach the halfway point of the NFL season, today on the blog Paolo Bandini delivers his mid-season NFL playoff predictions.
For most teams, the NFL season is at its half-way stage. Some already have a pretty clear idea of where they are headed. The Kansas City Chiefs, at 8-0, would need an unprecedented collapse to miss out on the playoffs. The Jacksonville Jaguars, at 0-8, probably would not get in even if they won all of their remaining games (which, of course, they will not).
But for others there is more ambiguity. The Atlanta Falcons refused to even contemplate trading away Tony Gonzalez before Tuesday’s deadline, because coaches still believe that there is life left in their season yet – despite a 2-5 start. Indeed, most bookies still have them at shorter odds to win the Super Bowl than the 4-4 New York Jets.
Personally, I do not like either team’s chances of making the the postseason. Here are my predictions for the rest of the year:
AFC East winner: New England Patriots (Projected record: 12-4)
AFC North winner: Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
AFC South winner: Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
AFC West winner: Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)
AFC Wildcards: Denver Broncos (13-3), Miami Dolphins (9-7)
There might be only one playoff spot left in this conference that is truly up for grabs. The Patriots and Colts already boast two-game leads at the top of their respective divisions, while Cincinnati have a similar situation in the AFC North. Defeat to Miami on Thursday night dropped the Bengals to 6-3 – meaning that they still have three more wins than Baltimore (3-4), but the Ravens now have two extra games left to play.
Of the three, Cincinnati look the most vulnerable, not so much because of that loss as the injuries they have accrued. Two weeks ago the Bengals lost Pro Bowl cornerback Leon Hall to a torn Achilles, and on Thursday defensive tackle Geno Atkins – one of the most disruptive players in the league – snapped the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Even so, I am not convinced that the Ravens, or anyone else in that division, can win consistently enough to catch them.
The AFC West is at least a two-horse race, between the Chiefs and Denver Broncos. It might be settled by their two head-to-head match-ups over the next month, but it is also quite conceivable that the Chiefs could drop both games and still win the division. Denver, after all, have already lost one game, and have an additional road game in New England to contend with.
Either way, it is hard to imagine the runner-up missing out on a Wildcard berth. That would leave just one place open for the likes of the Dolphins, Jets, Bills, Ravens, Titans or Chargers. Right now I would nominate San Diego as the most complete team in that group, but they also face the most unforgiving schedule, with two games against each of Denver and Kansas City still to come.
It is quite possible that the final wildcard team in this conference will not even finish above .500, but I like Miami to sneak in with a record just above that – just so long as coaches keep putting the ball in the hands of running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas.
Projected AFC playoff bracket:
Wilcard round: Broncos over Bengals, Colts over Dolphins
Divisional round: Colts over Chiefs, Broncos over Patriots
AFC Championship game: Broncos over Colts
Seeding is not everything. Denver would likely be favoured to beat Cincinnati in this scenario, and the Bengals’ injuries on defense leave them vulnerable to such an explosive offensive team. A Broncos victory would set up a tantalising Tom Brady v Peyton Manning reunion in the divisional round; the former’s lack of offensive weaponry this year has me once again favouring the road team.
On the other side, I think Andrew Luck might just have the nous to dissect Kansas City’s defense at Arrowhead. He has already out-gunned Manning once this year, too, but that does not mean he will do it a second time. The fact of having returned to Indianapolis once already should help Manning to process the emotions more readily and focus on business this time around.
AFC Championship Odds - Odds as at 2nd November 2013.
NFC East winner: Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
NFC North winner: Detroit Lions (12-4)
NFC South winner: New Orleans Saints (12-4)
NFC West winner: Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
NFC Wildcards: San Francisco 49ers (12-4), Green Bay Packers (11-5)
Remember when Chip Kelly’s explosive Philadelphia offense was hailed as the future of the NFL? What a glorious half of football that was. Sadly, since blowing away Washington on Kickoff weekend, the Eagles have been a colossal disappointment – just like everyone else in the NFC East. The Cowboys are the best of a bad bunch, but it remains hard to take them too seriously for as long as they keep a Smith & Wesson pointed at their own foot.
The strength of this conference lies elsewhere, with a surprisingly well-rounded New Orleans Saints team – capable of making a stop on defense, these days, as well as putting up points in bunches – or perhaps the two front-runners in the NFC West. Seattle crushed San Francisco 29-3 at CenturyLink Field in week two, and have lost just once all season, but have nevertheless struggled at times on the road. The 49ers, by contrast, are on a five-game tear and have improved significantly since switching their offensive focus back to a power running game led by Frank Gore.
Worryingly for the rest of the field, both of those teams have scope to grow even stronger. Seattle’s most high-profile offseason acquisition, Percy Harvin, is finally approaching full fitness after his offseason hip surgery, while San Francisco’s own top receiver, Michael Crabtree, is also expected back this month after tearing his Achilles in May. The two teams meet at Candlestick Park on 8 December, but even with a defeat there, I still think Seattle should hold on to take the division title.
Another battle is brewing atop the NFC North, where both Green Bay and Detroit have favourable second-half schedules to look forward to. They each face their division rivals Chicago in the next two weeks, when the Bears’ starting quarterback Jay Cutler is likely to be absent due to injury.
But Green Bay must also travel to Chicago again on the final weekend of the season, by which point Cutler should be back in the line-up, as well as going to Detroit for a Thanksgiving head-to-head. With Reggie Bush finally taking some of the playmaking burden off Calvin Johnson, the Lions might just be ready to snatch their first division title in 20 years.
Projected NFC playoff bracket:
Wilcard round: 49ers over Cowboys, Lions over Packers
Divisional round: Seahawks over 49ers, Saints over Lions
NFC Championship game: Seahawks over Saints
Homefield advantage would be a considerable asset to Seattle through the playoffs, with CenturyLink Field having been declared as the loudest sports stadium on the planet by the Guinness Book of Records this September, before that title was snatched away by the Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium a few weeks later.
Playing on their own turf, I would favour the Seahawks over any team in the league. That is not to say that they will have it easy, though, and it would be interesting to see how both the crowd and Russell Wilson responded if Drew Brees were somehow able to manoeuvre the Saints into an early advantage.
NFC Championship Odds - Odds as at 2nd November 2013.
Super Bowl XLVIII
Seattle Seahawks over Denver Broncos
The decisive factor in this match-up might also be the location. New Jersey in the month of February is prone to sub-zero temperatures and snow. Such conditions favour teams that rely less heavily on the passing game.
Denver can certainly run the ball, with Knowshon Moreno averaging a solid 4.2 yards per carry this year, but they stand to lose a lot more if Manning cannot make plays downfield than Seattle would if Russell Wilson was restricted to hand-offs and option runs. And Marshawn Lynch would no doubt relish the opportunity to engage ‘Beast Mode’ on America’s biggest stage.
Super Bowl XLVIII Odds - Odds as at 2nd November 2013.
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Follow Paolo on Twitter: @Paolo_Bandini
And read more of his work at The Guardian