By Wilson C. ’20
The 2019 NFL season has been one for the books, with surprise successes like the Kyle Shanahan-led 49ers, and disappointing seasons from the Rams, Falcons, and Cowboys, all recent NFC contenders. The changing of the guard in the AFC continues to take shape, as division champion QBs Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, and MVP frontrunner Lamar Jackson will look to take the throne from Tom Brady and the Patriots in the NFC. The Titans got hot after a mid-season quarterback switch but face a tough matchup in Foxborough. The Bills, meanwhile, are on the rise: the 10-6 squad shocked the conference by making their second playoff appearance this century, and their defense and running game should travel well in the AFC playoffs. For now, though, it seems that nobody can stop the Ravens. The team burst onto the scene, scoring 59 points in Week 1 against Miami, and hasn’t slowed down since. They have won 12 games in a row, and are 5-1 against playoff teams, their lone loss being to the Chiefs at Arrowhead. Although it’s a near certainty that the Patriots will somehow win the Super Bowl, as they do every year, every NFL fan outside of Boston wouldn’t mind seeing a Mahomes-Jackson rematch in the AFC Championship.
In the NFC, the meteoric rise of the San Francisco 49ers was met with similarly impressive seasons from the Packers and the Saints. Kirk Cousins, who to many is an under-the-radar elite-level quarterback, led the Vikings to a playoff spot, and the Seahawks and Pete Carroll continued to defy the odds and make the playoffs once more despite modest preseason projections. While the AFC has a clear favorite in the Ravens, the NFC is much more wide-open. The 49ers and the Saints are the clear frontrunners, but it would be foolish to count out Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers. Although the Niners are the #1 seed, questions remain over their collective experience, as well as the consistency of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Drew Brees, in what could be his final season, has an excellent supporting cast, including record-setting wide receiver Michael Thomas. The NFC playoffs are looking like one of the most exciting tournaments in recent memory.
Last year, I wrote a 2019 NFL Playoff predictions article, which saw minimal success. This year, I’ve done my research, and I hope to do better with these predictions. That being said, there is a reason the games are played, and not decided on statistics alone: anyone can win on any given Sunday (or Saturday, when half of the Wild Card and Divisional Round games are played).
Wild Card Round:
#5 Buffalo Bills @ #4 Houston Texans (-2.5)
Saturday, January 4, 2020
4:35 PM EST, ESPN
Ah yes, the Houston Texans open up the playoffs on a Saturday afternoon on ESPN. Wouldn’t be the NFL Playoffs without it. Despite a talented roster, the Texans have had a confusingly mediocre season, winning against New England and Kansas City but also losing to Denver and Carolina. In their marquee matchup with the conference-leading Ravens, they were pummeled 41-7 and laughed off of the field. NRG Stadium does not provide a strong home-field advantage for the Texans, either; they have split their ten wins between home and road games, going 5-3 in each environment. The Bills, meanwhile, had their nationwide introduction in a dominant victory against another Texas NFL franchise, the Cowboys, on Thanksgiving Day earlier this year. Their commitment to the running game and a stout defense allows the Bills to stay in any game, whether on the home or road. While they certainly have impressed the league with their 11-5 record, it’s important to remember that their strength of schedule is incredibly low, and they are 1-4 against playoff teams. More than anything, it seems the Bills meteoric rise has been due to their weak schedule. This team is also lacking playoff experience, especially at quarterback, where Josh Allen will be making his first playoff start. The Texans, meanwhile, have plenty of playoff experience, and will be looking to make up for the drubbing they took at the hand of the Colts in last year’s Wild Card game. The most important matchup in this game will be between Tre’davious White, the Bills’ star corner, and Deandre Hopkins, the superstar receiver for the Texans. Ultimately, while the Bills defense will be stout, I believe Hopkins and the Texans will do enough at home to move on.
Prediction: Texans defeat Bills 21-13
#6 Tennessee Titans @ #3 New England Patriots (-5)
Saturday, January 4, 2020
8:15 PM EST, CBS
It’s been a while since the Patriots played on Wild Card Weekend, but don’t count out this year’s Pats squad. Despite an embarrassing loss to the Dolphins in Week 17, the roster is still loaded with the talent necessary to make a deep postseason run. While there may be questions about the abilities of Tom Brady and the offense, the defense has been dominant at times this season and has won numerous games for the team. The Titans, meanwhile, have been on a playoff-like run since face-of-the-franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota was benched in the first half of the season in favor of former Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has had quite the resurgence. The Titans are 7-3 with Tannehill, and have been red hot heading into the playoffs behind the legs of Derrick Henry and breakout rookie wideout A.J. Brown. The Titans sure are exciting, but let’s be realistic: I don’t think anyone really expects them to win this game. Their running attack might keep it interesting, but I find it hard to believe that Brady and Bellichick could lose this game. While I’m certain Brady is beginning to regress, I’m not sure he’s regressed out of the divisional round yet.
Prediction: Patriots defeat Titans 27-20
#6 Minnesota Vikings @ #3 New Orleans Saints (-7.5)
Sunday, January 5, 2020
1:05 PM EST, FOX
Oh, poor Saints fans. Brutalized in back-to-back postseasons with the Minneapolis Miracle and the New Orleans No-Call. To continue the pain, the Saints were relegated to the #3 seed on tie-breaker and will therefore be forced to play on Wild Card weekend. These two teams do have some history besides the Minneapolis Miracle: they met in the 2009 NFC Championship, which eventually led to Brees’ only Super Bowl win. While it’s hard to know what will happen for the Saints down the road, we do know this: they have the best receiver in the NFL, Michael Thomas (and it isn’t that close, by the way), an all-time great under center, a potent backfield, and an opportunistic and greatly-improved defense. Looking over at the Vikings, there are question marks everywhere. The team has been inconsistent on offense and quarterback Kirk Cousins has continued to shy away from big moments in primetime. Dalvin Cook could provide a spark for Minnesota on the road, but the Superdome will be rocking. For the Vikings to have any chance to win, they will have to slow down Michael Thomas, and I don’t see that happening. Drew Brees’ Hall of Fame career will continue for another week.
Prediction: Saints defeat Vikings 35-21
#5 Seattle Seahawks (-1.5) @ #4 Philadelphia Eagles
Sunday, January 5, 2020
4:40 PM EST, NBC
This is perhaps the most intriguing matchup of Wild Card Weekend. It is the only matchup on Wild Card weekend which has taken place earlier in the season: the Seahawks defeated an injury-ridden Eagles team 17-9. It is also the only matchup where the road team is favored, and it is the only matchup where both teams have won a Super Bowl (although Wentz was injured when the Eagles won). As was the case in the first matchup, injuries will be the story in this game. The Seahawks limped down the stretch, losing 3 of their last 4, as well as key players like Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, Duane Brown, Al Woods, and former Eagle Mychal Kendricks. The Eagles won the NFC East with a late win over the Cowboys, and key players like Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz, and Lane Johnson are all looking unlikely to be participants in Sunday’s game. The question will be who can step effectively into these empty spaces. Marshawn Lynch was decent in his return, and the running game will be key to this game. Rookies Travis Homer and Miles Sanders will be handling most of the load for their respective teams, and this matchup could come down to whether or not the Eagles are able to exploit the Seahawks’ porous defense with Sanders and others. Russell Wilson looked like an MVP Candidate earlier in the season, but has been uncharacteristically decent in recent weeks. Despite this, the Eagles have lost to the Dolphins, Falcons, and Lions, and it’s hard to trust that sort of team in the first round against Russell Wilson, who has led the Seahawks to 10 clutch victories in one-score games, as well as a 7-1 road record.
Prediction: Seahawks defeat Eagles 16-10
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 Houston Texans @ #1 Baltimore Ravens
The first time these two teams met, the Ravens won 41-7. There’s simply no way the Texans can slow down the Ravens right now, and while I expect them to make some effective adjustments, it’s hard to see two games with a 34+ point difference in result. The Ravens are simply too much for Houston.
Prediction: Ravens defeat Texans 38-21
#3 New England Patriots @ #2 Kansas City Chiefs
The Patriots gifted the Chiefs the #2 seed by losing against Miami in Week 17, but the real questions is if the Chiefs will be able to take advantage of their home field. The Chiefs avenged their AFC Championship loss with a win in Foxborough this year that expose the offensive ineptitude of the Patriots. Mahomes has not had an MVP-like season, but he is still liable to have an offensive explosion at any time, whereas Brady’s offensive upside is fairly low. Ultimately, this game will come down to the type of offense the Patriots are able to produce, and I’m beginning to believe that the Patriots don’t have enough gas in the tank to take down Mahomes and the Chiefs in Arrowhead. The Chiefs defense has also improved greatly from its shoddy numbers a season ago and should feed off of the crowd noise at home. Perhaps this game will be the changing of the guard in the AFC we’ve all been waiting for.
Prediction: Chiefs defeat Patriots 23-17
#3 New Orleans Saints @ #2 Green Bay Packers
Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks with one Super Bowl apiece will both look to improve their chances of securing a second Lombardi trophy late in their careers in this promising Divisional Round duel. The Packers have looked confused at times offensively, especially in their embarrassing 37-8 loss in Santa Clara, but have impressive wins, including two wins over the Vikings and a win at Arrowhead against the Chiefs. Aaron Jones has come on strong at running back and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns. The Packers also have another Aaron who is pretty good at playing quarterback. That being said, there is a consensus among NFL fans that the Saints are the deserving owners of a first-round bye, and were robbed by the tie-breaker. The Packers have stayed under-the-radar this season, and for good reason: they just aren’t a great team, and their 26-11 loss in San Diego definitely concerns me. I think the Saints will be able to take care of business in Lambeau, but this game could be one for the books.
Prediction: Saints defeat Packers 35-30
#5 Seattle Seahawks @ #1 San Francisco 49ers
When these two teams met this season, both games produced instant classics. No fan could forget the overtime drama in Week 10 in Santa Clara, when the Seahawks won 27-24 on a Jason Myers field goal as time expired, nor the goal-line stop by Dre Greenlaw which gave the 49ers the division crown and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in Week 17. The 49ers are objectively the better team, and although it pains me to say this as a Seahawks fan, they would certainly be strong favorites in this game. Despite that, Jimmy Garoppolo is untested in the playoffs, and he had rather pedestrian performances in both matchups with the Seahawks this year. This game will come down to the performance of the Seattle secondary. With safety Quandre Diggs back in the lineup, they should be able to stop Deebo Samuel and George Kittle more effectively than they did in Week 17, but it’s unclear if this defense is up to the challenge. The Seahawks’ running game, which was crucial to their road success early in the season, is depleted, and I think this will cause problems for the offense. While the road team won the first two matchups in this series, I think the 49ers will break the trend and go back to the Conference Championship for the first time since they lost in Seattle in 2013.
Prediction: 49ers defeat Seahawks 31-26
Conference Championship Round:
#2 Kansas City Chiefs @ #1 Baltimore Ravens
This Conference Championship duel might just feature the two dominant forces for years to come in the AFC. Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes are two electrifying quarterbacks who could single-handedly take over the game at any time. When these two teams met in Week 3, the Chiefs won at home 33-28. I Expect a similar shootout in this matchup, but there are two key changes from that matchup to this one. For one, the Chiefs will not be playing at home. Arrowhead is a key advantage for the Chiefs and their subpar defense might have a hard time travelling. Also, perhaps the X-factor in this game, and the most important personnel change for either team since Week 3, Marcus Peters has been an absolute force for the Ravens this season since coming over from the Rams. The former Chief has come away with numerous clutch interceptions and will be in charge of shutting down Tyreek Hill. While this may be a difficult task, I have more faith in the Ravens defense than the Chiefs defense down the stretch. This game may very well come down to who can get a key stop late in the shootout, and I believe the Ravens’ stellar secondary will be crucial to that, sending the team to its first Super Bowl in 7 seasons.
Prediction: Ravens defeat Chiefs 41-37
#3 New Orleans Saints @ #1 San Francisco 49ers
When these two teams met earlier in the season, it was an instant classic, and Robbie Gould’s field goal as time expired gave the Niners the victory and the crucial head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints. Playoff football is different than the regular season, though, and experience counts. On one end, the Saints have a Super Bowl-winning, record-holding legend at quarterback. The Niners will have an inconsistent, mid-tier quarterback playing in his second playoff game. Unfortunately for the 49ers, I don’t see any clear-cut advantages for them in this game. While the first game may have been a shootout, I believe the Saints will tighten up on the defensive end, especially in the secondary. The 49ers will have to figure out how to contain Michael Thomas, who torched them and just about every other opponent he faced this season. The home-field is also meaningless for San Francisco, as Levi’s is just about as cold and corporate as you can get when it comes to NFL crowds. Ultimately this game comes down to quarterback play, and I don’t think Garoppolo is on a Super Bowl level yet. Drew Brees’ experience will guide his team to a massive win in what may be his last NFC game ever.
Prediction: Saints defeat 49ers 34-31
Super Bowl LIV:
#1 Baltimore Ravens vs #3 New Orleans Saints
When Lamar Jackson and Drew Brees meet in Miami on February 2nd, it will be a clash of opposite quarterbacking styles: Jackson, the runner and gunslinger, and Brees, the pocket-passing master. While these teams have been highly successful on the offensive end this season, the old adage rings true: defense wins championships. The Saints have looked lackadaisical at times on defense this year, while Greg Roman’s unit in Baltimore has been aggressive and at times dominant. Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether anyone can stop Lamar Jackson, and I don’t think the Saints have enough talent on the defensive end to figure it out. While there certainly are questions about his level of playoff experience, Jackson seems like the type of player who is unfazed under the bright lights and doesn’t back down from a challenge, and I don’t expect him to make many mistakes. I believe the Ravens secondary will be crucial once again, and that they will be up to the challenge posed by league-leading receiver Michael Thomas. The Ravens’ running game will be too much for the Saints to handle, and Mark Ingram II will get his revenge on his former team. It will pain NFL fans everywhere to see Brees lose his final game and walk away with just one career Super Bowl, but Lamar Jackson is simply too good to ignore. The Jackson era in the AFC has begun.
Prediction: Ravens defeat Saints 24-20