By Wilson C. ’20
The 2018 NFL season has been thrilling, full of unexpected successes like the rise of the Chicago Bears and disappointing outcomes like the demise of Mike McCarthy and the Green Bay Packers. The AFC is seeing a potential changing of the guard, with the absolute show put on by Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense, and rocky seasons from both the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the two historically dominant forces in the conference. Philip Rivers and the upstart Chargers, who had an impressive season complete with road wins in Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Kansas City, will feel as if they have something to prove, as the Chargers are a team known for their inability to perform in the playoffs. The Texans had a stellar run mid-season and will look to make noise in the playoffs with superstars like J.J. Watt and Deandre Hopkins, as well as an upstart quarterback in Deshaun Watson who knows what it takes to win in big games, having won a national championship with the Clemson Tigers. The Ravens, Steelers, Colts, and Titans fought down to the wire for the final two playoff spots, and the Ravens and Colts went through with the 4 and 6 seeds, respectively. The Ravens experienced a midseason revival with the debut of rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, and a scary combination of a running game which can control the ball and a defense which is first in the NFL in yards allowed. The Colts, led by quarterback Andrew Luck, started off 1-5 but won 9 of 10 to close out the season and secure the final wild card. Luck has been dealing, throwing 39 touchdown passes which is good for second-best in the NFL, and the NFL’s 6th-best offense will be a force to be reckoned with.
In the NFC, the Bears and Seahawks both shocked the conference with unexpected runs into the playoffs in seasons in which they were predicted to wallow at the bottom of their respective divisions. The Bears used a formula of stout, opportunistic defense as well as a solid run game and an improved Mitch Trubisky at QB to win the NFC North. The Seahawks, after starting 0-2, went back to the run game and became the NFL’s #1 rushing offense with backs like Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny while a new-look defense provided critical stops to keep them in games. The Los Angeles Rams continued their offensive dominance and produced one of the most exciting games in recent memory with a 54-51 win over Kansas City in November. The New Orleans Saints and MVP candidate Drew Brees tore apart the conference and will have home field advantage in the playoffs; superstars like Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara complemented by a much-improved defense provided a lethal combination, and the Saints will be a force to be reckoned with in the NFC playoffs. The defending champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, had bleak hopes entering Week 15 with a 6-7 record. Starting QB Carson Wentz went down with a back injury but Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles led the Eagles to three straight wins, and thanks to some losses by the Vikings, secured the 6th and final spot.
Wild Card Round:
- #6 Indianapolis Colts @ #3 Houston Texans (-2)
- Saturday, January 5, 2019
- 4:35 PM EST, ESPN
Two divisional foes will meet in the first game of the 2019 NFL Playoffs in Houston. The teams, being in the same division, met twice this season. The away team won each time, with the Texans winning 37-34 in OT in Week 4 and Indianapolis winning 24-21 in Week 14. The Colts defense is questionable at best and this should be something Deandre Hopkins and the Texans offense can exploit. Hopkins finished second in the NFL in receiving yards, and has owned the Colts this year with 205 yards and 2 TDs over the course of the two matchups. Luck and the Colts offense should be able to keep pace for a while with an improved running game, but lacking a solid second receiver, the Colts might see issues as the Texans defense begins to lock down star receiver T.Y. Hilton. Ultimately, it’s been a nice run for the Colts, but I doubt that they will win this game. There just isn’t one thing that really shows as something that the Colts can do really well. The Colts were helped by their easy schedule and I’m still concerned about their showing in the 6-0 loss at Jacksonville. It won’t be a blowout, but this should be a comfortable victory for Houston. I’m not convinced that the Colts are for real.
Prediction: Texans defeat Colts 31-21
#5 Seattle Seahawks @ #4 Dallas Cowboys (-1)
- Saturday, January 5, 2019
- 8:15 PM EST, FOX
Perhaps the two weakest teams in the NFC playoffs will meet in Dallas to being the NFC playoffs. The Seahawks won the previous meeting at home 24-13 in Week 3. Both teams have been all over the place this season: Seattle has defeated Kansas City but lost to San Francisco and Denver, and Dallas has defeated New Orleans but lost to Carolina and Tennessee. Both teams closed of the season hot, with the Seahawks winning 6 of 7 and Dallas winning 7 of 8. Both teams have potent running games, with Seattle ranking first in the NFL in rushing yards per game. The Seahawks defense has been suspect at times, but overall both defenses have been solid throughout. With the acquisition of Amari Cooper, the Cowboys have added a big-play threat to their passing offense, which is something the Seahawks defense has been prone to this season. Seattle will look to control the pace with the run game and play opportunistic defense. This matchup may very well come down to quarterback play. If you’ve watched the NFL at all this year, you know that edge goes to the Seahawks. This game could go either way, but the Seahawks will edge it out at the end thanks to a Janikowski field goal.
Prediction: Seahawks upset Cowboys 23-20
#5 Los Angeles Chargers @ #4 Baltimore Ravens (-2.5)
- Sunday, January 6, 2019
- 1:05 PM EST, CBS
Thank god we (probably) don’t have to see a playoff game at Dignity Health Sports Park. The Ravens and Chargers met at that venue in Week 16, when it was still called StubHub Center, and the Ravens won in an impressive performance, 22-10. This game, however, will take place in Baltimore at M&T Bank Stadium. Both teams have stellar running games. Baltimore has the #1 overall defense in the NFL, but LA is not far behind at #9. When the teams previously met, star running back Melvin Gordon was injured, and the Ravens were able to limit the Chargers’ impressive passing attack. The Ravens defense will certainly be presented with a stronger challenge in this game as Gordon is now healthy and will make the Chargers’ offense more multi-dimensional. Perhaps the greatest question for the Chargers, who have wins at Seattle and at Kansas City, is their ability to perform in the playoffs. Philip Rivers is a notorious choker in the postseason and the team has never reached a Super Bowl under his leadership. Although the Ravens are playing with a rookie quarterback, I am confident in the Ravens’ ability to control the pace of the game and possession. No matter how good the Chargers seem, I find it hard to believe in Philip Rivers.
Prediction: Ravens defeat Chargers 23-19
#6 Philadelphia Eagles @ #3 Chicago Bears (-6)
- Sunday, January 6, 2019
- 4:40 PM EST, NBC
The Bears are by far the heaviest favorite of any team on Wild Card weekend, and for good reason. The defense was stifling and gave up the third-fewest yards of any defense in the NFL. Mitch Trubisky, initially thought to be a bust, has been greatly improved, and Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen make up a dangerous attack in the backfield. The defense, lead by early-season acquisition Khalil Mack and defensive back Eddie Jackson Jr., have been able to pick up the scoring when the offense has struggled. The Eagles, led by backup Nick Foles, have been hot as of late and recently defeated the Rams in Los Angeles. These performances certainly inspire confidence in the Eagles side. Foles has the playoff experience and the talent to lead the Eagles to a road win, and a talented receiving core and dynamic backfield should assist the veteran quarterback. The Bears have not won a playoff game since 2010 and most of the players on the team have never appeared in the playoffs. This matchup is very reminiscent of the #6 vs #3 matchup in the NFC last year, when the Falcons went into LA and defeated the Rams. Both the Eagles and Falcons were Wild Card teams that had gotten hot late in the season and had made long playoff runs the previous season, and both the Rams and Bears were upstart teams with young quarterbacks and strong defenses, yet lacked experience. Ultimately, I believe that the Eagles are very dangerous and Chicago are inexperienced. The Eagles will win in a close, defensive battle in Chicago.
Prediction: Eagles Upset Bears 16-14
Note: as this article is being written before the Wild Card round, there are no odds for any of the following games. All of the following matchups are speculative based on predictions made in the Wild Card round.
#4 Baltimore Ravens @ #1 Kansas City Chiefs
- Saturday, January 12, 2019
- 4:35 PM EST, NBC
These teams met once earlier in the season, and it was a thriller; Patrick Mahomes lead a Chiefs comeback and gave them the 27-24 victory in overtime. This matchup promises a similar result. The Ravens’ defense travels well as does their run game. The Chiefs defense is porus at best and the Ravens should have no trouble gashing the defense for big gains on the ground behind their solid offensive line. The Ravens defense will have a hard time stifling the firepower of the Chiefs offense, and Andy Reid will likely make some adjustments to better attack the Ravens defense. Reid’s teams have not been successful in the playoffs, but Patrick Mahomes brings a whole new level of talent and potency to this offense which Alex Smith was never able to provide. I believe that this is the year the Chiefs finally break through and make a deep playoff run. The Ravens will certainly keep the game close, and the Chiefs will struggle to build a large lead due to the way in which Baltimore is able to control the ball as well as the clock, but I believe Kansas City will eventually prevail. At some point, on the road, Lamar Jackson will be forced to make plays in the passing game and I’m not sure that he’s really prepared to go win in Arrowhead against the Chiefs.
Prediction: Chiefs defeat Ravens 28-24
#5 Seattle Seahawks @ #2 Los Angeles Rams
- Saturday, January 12, 2019
- 8:15 PM EST, FOX
These divisional rivals will meet for the third time this season in this game. The Rams won both matchups by a score of 33-31 and 36-31, respectively. In both games, the Seahawks had chances to win late but made crucial errors in each of their potential game winning drives; penalties in the first matchup in Seattle and a rare Russell Wilson interception in the matchup in Los Angeles. In both games, the Seahawks offense was able to keep pace with the torrid pace of that of the Rams. That’s not going to be an easy feat for the Seahawks to accomplish in this game, but it’s not impossible either. The Rams, as mentioned previously, were shocked at home last year by the Falcons, and I think they’ll have made the necessary improvements. The quarterback play will be excellent, especially against defenses that have been suspect at times this season. These teams know each other very well, but Seattle has only been able to win once in four matchups against the Rams in the Sean McVay era. The game will be high-scoring and close, but the Rams should be able to pull out the victory in the end.
Prediction: Rams defeat Seahawks 34-31
#3 Houston Texans @ #2 New England Patriots
- Sunday, January 13, 2019
- 1:05 PM EST, CBS
If this matchup was to take place, it would be the second time in the past three seasons that these two teams have met in the Divisional Round. These two met in Week 1 and the Patriots won somewhat comfortably at home, 27-20. The Patriots have had a lackluster season by their unbelievably high standards, and many see them as vulnerable in this year’s playoffs. I do not. Tom Brady has not been great this year but the Patriots are still good enough to beat most of the AFC with ease. It’s becoming clear that the Patriots are headed on a downward trajectory, but this is not the year that they collapse. The Texans just aren’t good enough to beat the Patriots yet. Unless Deandre Hopkins pulls off an otherworldly performance, the Texans have little to no chance of winning. Tom Brady has been here before countless times. This will be Deshaun Watson’s first game on a big stage in the playoffs, and I have no doubt that he is up to it; he has shined in big moments before. That being said, no quarterback debuting in the Divisional Round is going to outduel Brady at this stage in his career. The difference between the Patriots and Texans is that the Patriots are a team with playoff history; no matter who is on the team, it’s certain that they will be ready to perform in a playoff atmosphere: the Texans just don’t have that experience as a franchise. I do believe that this game will be closer than previous matchups that the Patriots have had in the Divisional Round; the dynasty is certainly in jeopardy but it’s not quite done yet.
Prediction: Patriots defeat Texans 31-23
#6 Philadelphia Eagles @ #1 New Orleans Saints
- Sunday, January 13, 2019
- 4:40 PM EST, FOX
The Saints and Eagles met once this season in the Superdome, and the Saints obliterated the Eagles 48-7. This matchup would have a similar result in the postseason. Although not likely a blowout to this extent, this matchup shouldn’t be too close. The Eagles are simply a mismatch with the Saints; they do not have enough enough firepower offensively or defensively to keep pace with the Saints. Although the Eagles have improved since their 48-7 bludgeoning, there hasn’t been a massive change in either side which makes me think that there could be a 41-point turnaround which would give the Eagles a chance at victory. Drew Brees is on a mission in what may be his final season, and I don’t see him making major mistakes against this Eagles team. In what many will consider as a game which should have been the matchup in the NFC Championship last year, if it wasn’t for the mistakes of the Saints secondary, Foles should be able to exploit a vulnerable Saints defense for a solid game passing the ball. However, the Saints defense, with the home crowd behind them, should be able to come up with stops when necessary against the Eagles. The Eagles are certainly a strong team, but they have too much working against them in this matchup with the Saints.
Prediction: Saints defeat Eagles 38-24
Conference Championship Round: #2 Los Angeles Rams @ #1 New Orleans Saints
- Sunday, January 20, 2019
- 3:05 PM EST, FOX
The two clear front runners in the NFC are highly likely to meet in the NFC Championship game. They met once earlier in the season; a shootout resulted in a 45-35 Saints win. The Rams offense had a hard time keeping pace with the Saints offense, and they’ve had some struggles as of late without Cooper Kupp and a less-than-healthy Todd Gurley. Star offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth has also been dealing with nagging injuries, and the Rams offense overall has been weakened by these injuries. The defense has been extremely vulnerable this season, giving up more points and yards per game than the NFL average. This is certainly not a recipe for success against the Saints, who have torn apart almost every defense they have faced this season. I expect a strong performance by the Saints defense, fueled by the home crowd. The Rams have not yet proven that they have what it takes to win in big playoff games, and this is not their year. They’ll keep it close, but the Saints victory should never be in jeopardy.
Prediction: Saints defeat Rams 42-34
#2 New England Patriots @ #1 Kansas City Chiefs
- Sunday, January 20, 2019
- 6:40 PM EST, CBS
The Chiefs and Patriots played an absolute classic in October which lead to a 43-40 Patriots victory. I expect a similar result in this game; it should go down to the wire. Neither team has a good defense and each will likely be exposed over and over again for big plays. The loss of Kareem Hunt is the only real difference in the teams since this matchup, and that could play a big part in the Patriots’ defensive gameplan. They will be able to focus more on defending Mahomes, Kelce, Hill, and the passing game rather than worrying about Damien Williams in the backfield. Unlike past seasons for the Chiefs, however, they will get to play all of their conference playoff games at home, giving them a huge advantage. The crowd will be able to get behind the defense. Although I doubt this will affect the play of the veterans on the Patriots offense, it should boost the Chiefs defense. I believe that this game represents a changing of the guard in the AFC. Patrick Mahomes is a clutch performer and will not be plagued by the same issues which caused Alex Smith and his past Chiefs teams to choke in the postseason. Brady is aging, whether he admits it or not, and is not the same player he used to be. This is the year where, finally, someone other than the Broncos or Patriots makes the Super Bowl from the AFC.
Prediction: Chiefs defeat Patriots 35-31
Super Bowl LIII: #1 New Orleans Saints vs #1 Kansas City Chiefs
- Super Bowl 53, Atlanta, Georgia
- Sunday, February 3, 2019
- 6:30 PM EST, CBS
This Super Bowl matchup would represent the truly wide-open NFL playoffs that are likely in the years to come. Although both #1 seeds would have made the Super Bowl, their progression signifies more the trials and tribulations of the true “dynasties” of the era; the Patriots, Packers, and Steelers to name a few. The teams only have 3 Super Bowl appearances and two wins between them, making this a matchup void of the usual suspects, and that is because these usual suspects are weakened. The hierarchy of NFL franchises is beginning to decay as a new generation of younger quarterbacks has begun to take over. Perhaps Brees represents one of the final vestiges of an era dominated by Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger, and the like. A victory from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs would truly set this change into motion. However, this era is not quite over yet. In what may very well be his very final game, Drew Brees will give absolutely everything to win this game. Mahomes, although a good clutch performer and an excellent player, will certainly be blinded by the bright lights. I expect the Chiefs to get off to a slow start offensively as they have in many primetime games this year like their games at New England and at Seattle, and fall behind early. Although most of the Saints team is very young, Brees is an amazing leader and will set an example for the younger players to follow. I expect a big Saints at halftime.
Halftime prediction: Saints lead Chiefs 17-6
The Chiefs will need a big play to kickstart the offense in the second half, and they may even give the Saints a taste of their own medicine with a surprise onside kick to start the second half. I expect them to make headway and score on each of their first two possessions, but I expect the Saints to respond. Ultimately, the Chiefs may try and made it a game, but the Saints should feel in control without. The Chiefs defense simply does not have enough talent to stop the Saints. It should be relatively close throughout the third quarter, but I expect the Saints to pull away late. Both offenses are equally potent, but as the old adage dictates, defense wins championships. In this case, the Saints defense is good enough to win them Super Bowl LIII.
Prediction: Saints defeat Chiefs 44-28
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