Friday, January 16, 2015

2 comments 2015 NFL Playoffs Conference Championship Picks

The past two weeks of NFL playoff games had officiating controversies that caused the outcome of two games to be called into question or at least had NFL rules questioned. Hopefully that won't happen this week. I'm not good enough at gambling to know if this is normal or not, but I think every home team has been favored in these playoffs. Steve managed to actually miss a pick last week, which puts him at 7-1 for the playoffs. Bill Simmons and Peter King are still holding down the last two spots with professional .500 gambler Simmons being 4-4 so far. I expect at least one game to be exciting this week, though I am nervous about Luck and Rodgers going on the road to play in two tough environments. At the bottom of this post is a review of my predictions for the 2014 NFL season. I figure I may as well show how stupid and misguided I can be when mocking others (at times) for their preseason picks. Leave your picks in the comments if you take part in the pick 'em challenge against Peter King and Bill Simmons.

These are the lines I will be using for these divisional round games:

Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks (-7.5)

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (-6.5)

Here are Peter's picks. (If you don't want to click on the link, he chooses Seattle by 7 and New England by 3)

Here are Bill's picks. (If you don't want to click on it, he chooses both the Packers and Colts to cover)

Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks 

If I were Gregg Easterbrook, then would start off by picking the Seahawks to win, followed by saying "don't be surprised if the Packers end up winning this game." My preseason pick of Denver and New Orleans isn't happening, so my wrongness has allowed me to be free to pick whoever I want. Before I get to my super-technical analysis of this game, let me say why I'm torn. I think the Seahawks are the better team and I really thought they could repeat this season. No, I did not predict they would repeat, but I had them in the NFC Championship Game. I thought the Seahawks wouldn't be one of those Super Bowl teams who couldn't repeat. On the other hand, I love Aaron Rodgers. He's a troll, he's good at his job, he finally put an end to Brett Favre in Green Bay (though this did result in three summers of "Will he or won't Favre retire?" questions), and I just like him. The Seahawks handily beat the Packers once this year in Seattle, so that could entirely happen again. The Seahawks defense made Rodgers look pretty bad, as they are want to do to many a quarterback in Seattle.

Defensively, Dom Capers is going to have to come up with a game plan to stop Russell Wilson. It's not just the threat of the Seahawks running game that makes them tough, but how they play off the running game in the passing game. The Packers are 23rd in the NFL in rush defense, which is a little odd coming from a team that has such a high-scoring offense. I would expect teams to have to throw the ball more on the Packers, but they are 10th in passing yard defense. I would expect these numbers to be flipped around. The Packers have to mainly stop Russell Wilson. It's what he can do off play action and with the mere threat of the running game that makes him so dangerous. The Seahawks beat Carolina handily last week and they only ran for 100 yards on 28 carries. It was the play of the passing game that was the difference. Wilson made two good touchdown throws into single coverage caused by the threat of the running game. The Seahawks ran for over 200 yards in the first meeting of these two teams, which can not happen again. I have no idea how to stop Wilson, but my best guess is the Packers are going to have to be sure to keep the Seahawks from getting single coverage without safety help while also ensuring the Seahawks' running game is stifled. If Julius Peppers shows up on Sunday then he could be the difference maker for Green Bay.

Offensively, the Packers have got to not allow the Seahawks defense to be opportunistic. The Seahawks have a great defense, which we all know, but mostly their defense is opportunistic. If they see a chance to get a turnover or take advantage of the opposing team's mistake, they do it. They don't seem to miss opportunities to cause turnovers. The Seahawks defense is very good, but they aren't unstoppable and an offense like the Packers have with talent and speed at the wide receiver spot could put some pressure on Seattle in the secondary. Aaron Rodgers may or may not be injured, but the Packers offensive line that gave up only 30 sacks on the season has to give Rodgers time to throw. Rodgers was sacked three times in the first game. When he's given time to sit in the pocket and find a receiver, that's when the defense starts breaking down and a Packers receiver can get open. I do wonder if the Packers will give James Starks some more carries because he did have success against the Seahawks in the first game that Eddie Lacy didn't have. Still, I would expect Lacy to get more carries than Starks overall. The Seahawks secondary is great. There's no getting around that, but Tharold Simon was picked on last week by the Panthers receiving group, so I can only imagine what a good group of receivers could do.

I can't even explain the Seahawks success on offense really. They are very good at running the ball, but the way they design plays it surprises me. It really does. I don't get how they find receivers open down the field with only one guy covering him. There's no logical explanation other than good game planning and good play design. The Seahawks ran all over the Packers in the first game and I envision them trying something similar in this game. I know I keep saying this as the weeks go by, but the Seahawks are not going to be able to score to keep up with teams. They don't have to, which is a good thing, but their offense is built to succeed in close games and it's very good at succeeding in those close games. The Packers gave up 145 yards rushing to the Cowboys last week and I can't imagine the Packers giving up fewer than that to the Seahawks. Seattle has to (and will) continue to pound the ball at Green Bay, control the clock (they had the ball for 33 minutes in the first meeting) and keep Rodgers off the field. The strength of the Seahawks in turning their running game into long gains in the passing game and the Packers weakness in the running game sets it up perfectly for Seattle to get a few big gains in the passing game.

Aaron Rodgers is very hard to stop. That's obvious, but the Seahawks managed to stifle him in the first game of the year with a tough pass rush and the fact he stayed away from Richard Sherman. Staying away from Sherman is a big mistake. Rather than stay away from him, teams should just be careful how they throw the ball in his direction. I don't think the Packers will concede one side of the field to the Seahawks in the passing game, but I do see them continuing to pick on Simon more than Sherman. Rodgers isn't as mobile now that he is hurt (I think he's hurt) and this plays into the Seahawks hands, because they have a pass rush that didn't accumulate a ton of sacks this season (20th in the NFL with 37), but they are able to get constant pressure on the opposing quarterback which helps out their opportunistic secondary. I think Seattle should play the Packers like teams play the Broncos. They have to be physical with the Packers receivers, even Jordy Nelson, and close those windows for Rodgers to throw the ball into. The Packers don't have the same type of rhythmic passing game the Broncos do, but the longer Rodgers holds the ball the better chance the Seahawks have of getting to the less mobile Rodgers. As always, I don't trust the Packers' offensive line against the Seahawks because I don't trust any offensive line against the Seahawks.

The Seahawks are going to try and use their superior safeties to keep the ball in front of the defense. Don't allow any big plays to the Packers, force them to chew up yardage, and on offense they need to give Russell Wilson more freedom to run. The Packers haven't always been good against running quarterbacks, so I can see Seattle turning Russell Wilson loose more than usual. I think the Packers are going to try and throw the ball more on first down than they did in the previous game to set up more second and third downs that can be a pass or a run, as opposed to running early on early downs. Seattle is a great defense, but I think the Packers secondary is going to prevent any big plays from the Seattle wide receivers while also managing to keep the Seattle running game more in check than they did in the first game. The Packers are not good against the run, but I think they will improve in this game from the first game. I see the Packers beating the Seahawks in their second try on the season. It will be a close game, but Rodgers will get good protection and not allow the Seahawks secondary to make any opportunistic interceptions. The Packers consistently putting points on the board (they basically stopped scoring from the middle of the 2nd quarter to the beginning of the 4th in the first meeting) and not allowing the Seahawks' defense chances to put up points is the difference.

Green Bay Packers (+7.5) over the Seattle Seahawks 31-27

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots 

These two teams played each other earlier this year and it also wasn't a very close game. Jonas Gray ran for four touchdowns on the game and then has gotten 20 carries for the rest of the season. I don't know either. The Patriots just dominated the Colts' defense, while accumulating 503 total yards of offense and 33 first downs. On the bright side for the Colts, they did get two interceptions off Tom Brady and it feels like the defense has played much better of late. So perhaps this game can be different, even if it is in New England and not Indianapolis. I'm getting a "destiny sends Andrew Luck to the Super Bowl" feel about this season for some reason. I feel like the Colts are on such a good roll that they can go into New England and knock off the Patriots. Who knows what the Patriots' game plan will be? I doubt they run it 37 times with Jonas Gray or choose not to run the ball in the 2nd half of the game. For the Colts, they didn't even have success running the ball in the first game with Trent Richardson or Ahmad Bradshaw. Now they have Daniel Herron running the ball well for them though. Any sort of running game could be the difference for the Colts.

Like I said last week, I have no idea what the Patriots are going to do on offense. What I do know is Tom Brady wasn't touched in the first game by the Colts' pass rush and the Patriots' offensive line held up well against a pretty good Ravens pass rush last week when throwing the ball all over the field. I can see Rob Gronkowski having 150 yards receiving in this game. One of the few things that worked for the Broncos last week was Julius Thomas had 6 receptions for 53 yards. In the Colts' last six games the opposing team's tight end has been the leading receiver four times and was the 2nd leading receiver once. I wouldn't be surprised if Tim Wright had 150 yards receiving too and the Patriots may come out with constant four tight end sets (I'm kidding, maybe). Can a team have a five tight end set? We may find out. I see the Patriots trying to get it to their tight ends as much as possible since it seems to be an area of weakness for the Colts' defense. The secondary for the Colts hasn't played poorly and I think Vontae Davis will end up on Edelman, though that may be something the Patriots would want the Colts to do so LaFell can have 200 yards receiving or something.

The Patriots know the Colts like to throw the ball and the Colts know the Patriots know the Colts like to throw the ball. I can't blame the Colts for enjoying throwing the football when they have as many quality receivers as they do have. The Colt's offensive line did a pretty good job of protecting Luck in the first matchup of these two teams with Luck only being sacked once and the Patriots didn't sack Flacco once last week. So the Patriots are going to want to get pressure on Luck and turn the Colts into a one-dimensional offense again. It worked well the first time. Luck is a great quarterback, but it's going to be hard for him to come back on the road when down double digits. I see the Patriots matching up Darrelle Revis on T.Y. Hilton, though the Colts are going to move Hilton around to try and give the Patriots defense different looks. It's a tough receiving group because if the Patriots pay too much attention to Hilton or Wayne then Moncrief or Fleener could burn them. If I'm the Patriots then I understand the Colts running backs probably aren't going to bust big gains on them (seven total runs of 20 yards or more all year with two of them by Luck) and I lay back trying to prevent the big play from Hilton or another Colts receiver. Maybe the Patriots will play some Cover-3 with Revis shadowing Hilton. I wish the Patriots were more predictable.

This goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway. The Colts have to cover Gronkowski. I'm not sure they will do that or not. Either the Colts corners have done a good job of shutting down opposing team's wide receivers or other teams have seen how the Colts can't cover the tight end over the last six games. Gronkowski had 71 yards and a touchdown in the first game on only 5 targets. The Colts need to make sure they limit Gronkowski to that many targets again. The best thing the Colts could possibly do is try to hit Brady early and blitz him from all angles. Brady is like most quarterbacks in that he doesn't like pressure up the middle that gets him off the spot he wants to throw from, but of course he is also good at diagnosing a blitz and getting the ball out quickly or checking down to a different play. If I were the Colts I would try to be physical with the Patriots receivers (especially Gronkowski, who I'm not even sure this would work with) and blitz Brady to where they can knock him off his spot and make him uncomfortable. As always, it's easier said than done. It doesn't help the Patriots ran the ball down the Colts' throat in the last game, which could cause them to be more hesitant to blitz since they could be afraid it would open them up to giving up big gains on the ground.

Offensively, the Colts need to understand the Patriots' secondary will be physical with them up front like they tended to be in the first game. The Patriots' secondary is really good and Jamie Collins is also good in coverage from the linebacking spot, but it's not like they are invincible. The Colts need to run the football first off. They can't have less than 20 yards rushing on the day and expect to win the game. Belichick has had a lot of success playing against Andrew Luck in the past and part of that has been because he is able to force Luck into making mistakes. I think the Patriots are going to blitz Luck, so the Colts offensive line that seems to have held up pretty well this year will have to continue to do so. This is another instance where it's important for the Colts to run the ball, as it will slow down the Patriots pass rush and not allow them to simply play coverage or blitz as they see fit without concern for the running game of the Patriots. With the weapons the Colts have at the tight end and receiver position I think they can have an advantage in the passing game, but they have to find a way to give Luck time to make the right read.

It sounds weird to say, but feel like the Colts are destined to make the Super Bowl this year. It feels like they have momentum and are peaking right now. They shut down the Bengals and the Broncos in the postseason already. Of course Peyton Manning wasn't throwing the ball like he usually does and Andy Dalton is Andy Dalton, while also playing without his two best receivers. Then I also think that Belichick seems to have Luck's number for whatever reason. Screw destiny though. I think this will be a closer game than the first game between these two teams, but I still think the outcome is the same. I don't know if the Colts have the pass rush that will be needed to win this game on the road. The Patriots are not going to run the ball 37 times with Jonas Gray again, but I do see them running the football with success against the Colts and trying to get single coverage on Grokowski. I don't have confidence the Colts offense is going to be able to not commit turnovers and think that will be the difference in the game. I think Luck is a year away from beating the Patriots. To beat them this year he would have to play turnover free and the defense would have to find a way to corral the Patriots receiving group. I don't think it will happen this year.

New England Patriots over the Indianapolis Colts (+6.5) 30-24

Now I will look at my 2014 NFL season predictions. I will include my predicted record in parenthesis and that team's actual record along with something dumb/smart I said if I think it is smart/dumb enough.

AFC East

New England Patriots (13-3) Actual 12-4

New York Jets (9-7) Actual 4-12

There still aren't great offensive weapons, but out of Chris Johnson, Chris Ivory, and Bilal Powell they can run the ball enough to win some games. Right?

3rd in the NFL in rushing yards. Maybe next time I will remember there is a thing called a "quarterback" and he has to throw the ball in order for the team to win games.

Miami Dolphins (5-11) Actual 8-8

Buffalo Bills (4-12) Actual 9-7

A lot of how I feel about a team is based on that team's quarterback and Doug Marrone is publicly talking about what E.J. Manuel has to fix and is accusing him of trying to throw the ball to a point. Marrone is also arguing with a defensive player and that defensive player isn't backing down,

See! Nobody liked Doug Marrone even back then.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) Actual 11-5 (fist pump!)

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) Actual 10-6 (another fist pump!)

The Ravens have done a really good job of rebuilding the safety position and I think Ray Rice will have a bounceback season. 


That should be all I have to say about my thinking Ray Rice will have a bounceback season. Or he won't play a game all season, causing the integrity of Roger Goodell to be questioned even after an independent investigator hired by the NFL comes in and says the NFL has never done anything wrong ever.

Cleveland Browns (6-10) Actual 7-9

Call me crazy, but I really like their defense.

23rd in the NFL in yards per game. I was crazy.

Offense is obviously the issue since the Browns have very few quality receivers, but I'm buying a Miles Austin comeback season 

I was drunk obviously. Though Austin did theoretically have a better season, thereby "coming back," he only had 500+ yards receiving. Sadly, as dumb as I sounded with my predictions by the Browns I was only off by one game.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-10) Actual 10-5-1 (hangs self)

I don't believe the pass rush will be as strong this year and if the new defensive coordinator is planning on attacking a little more I think it's going to put more pressure on what I view as just a couple of decent guys at safety.

Last in the NFL in sacks! Man I'm cherry-picking all my good predictions this year.

I think teams are going to find more success this year blanketing A.J. Green and forcing Andy Dalton to find other receivers. It's an improved division and the Bengals are nearly the worst team in it.

Except Dalton did find other receivers like Mohamed Sanu. Big fail on my part. 

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts (10-6) Actual 11-5

Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8) Actual 3-13

I believe for some reason.

Because you are an idiot. That's why you believe.

We'll see, but a lot of what I read prior to writing these sentences marvel at how Bradley is dedicated to turning this team into a winner. 

It seems I was under the impression that "dedication to turning a team into a winner" would turn into "actually winning fucking games."

Houston Texans (6-10) Actual 9-7

The reality of this situation is the Texans don't need a great quarterback. They have Arian Foster, DeAndre Hopkins, and Andre Johnson, as well as a really stout defense.

So naturally I knock them down to 6-10 because they don't have a great quarterback. Sure, makes sense.

Giving this defense Jadeveon Clowney is almost unfair.

Unfair to the Texans, maybe.

Tennessee Titans (6-10) Actual 2-14

AFC West

Denver Broncos (14-2) Actual 12-4

San Diego Chargers (11-5) Actual 9-7

Philip Rivers had a rejuvenating year because he actually had receivers to throw to and I think Ladarius Green starts to become a lesser version of Antonio Gates.

Like the poor man's version poor man's version of Gates.

Kansas City Chiefs (6-10) Actual 9-7

I don't think the combination of Alex Smith with poor receivers is going to lead to success.

It did not. A wide receiver didn't catch a touchdown pass all season and the Chiefs were 29th in the NFL in passing yards.

Oakland Raiders (2-14) Actual 3-13

AFC Playoffs

Bye: Denver, New England (Actual Denver and New England...not hard to pick)

Wild Card: Pittsburgh over Baltimore, San Diego over Indianapolis (Actual Baltimore over Pittsburgh, Indianapolis over Cincinnati)

Divisional: Denver over San Diego, Pittsburgh over New England (Actual Indianapolis over Denver, New England over Baltimore)

Championship: Denver over Pittsburgh (Actually not possible)

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles (12-4) Actual 10-6

New York Giants (9-7) Actual 6-10

I'm not buying the panic in New York about the Giants. I'm concerned, like most people, about Eli Manning's interceptions last year and the lack of protection he received from his offensive line, but he should have healthier receivers this year

Victor Cruz was out for the year but the Giants did draft Beckham. Still, I should have been concerned about the panic about the Giants. Manning only had 14 interceptions on the season.

and I'm not really as concerned about the tight end position.

If you remember, there was a huge concern about the tight end position from some sportswriters. Larry Donnell had 63 catches for 623 yards. Not bad.

Dallas Cowboys (6-10) Actual 12-4

The front seven is pretty uninspiring due to injuries and if the onus is on Tony Romo to outscore other teams than he will be in the situation where he has to score 30 points just to keep the Cowboys in games. I may have said this last year, but this feels like the last year of the Jason Garrett era. The offensive line looks improved, but man, I don't believe this defense can help them get to .500. 

I'll just leave this here, because I'm still not completely sold on Jason Garrett. I missed this one pretty bad though.

Washington Redskins (5-11) Actual 4-12

I think it will be a tough year in Washington and any type of quarterback controversy won't help. 

Predicting a tough year in Washington is low hanging fruit at this point, so I probably get very little credit for this prediction. 

NFC North

Green Bay Packers (10-6) Actual 12-4

Chicago Bears (8-8) Actual 5-11

Minnesota Vikings (6-10) Actual 7-9

I think they should be starting Teddy Bridgewater. I'm still convinced he is going to be the best QB in the 2014 draft.

I mean, he is going to be the best QB in the 2014 draft, right? I don't know what the teams that passed on him and took other quarterbacks were thinking.

Detroit Lions (5-11) Actual 11-5 (If I said I accidentally got the record reversed, would you believe me?)

The Lions are the perfect team for Caldwell, because his teams can always score and the Lions will score. On paper, the Lions should have a great defensive line that takes pressure off their mediocre secondary, but it didn't work quite that way last year. Detroit was sixth in run defense, so they can stop the run, but it's the pass I'm worried about. This will be a Jim Caldwell team and I feel like I know what that means.

It means they will make the playoffs and simply because a team isn't the best against the pass doesn't mean that team is going to go 5-11 when you have already acknowledged the team has a good run defense and can score points. 

NFC South

New Orleans Saints (11-5) Actual 7-9

They definitely have two great safeties, but the corners in Rob Ryan's blitz-heavy defense need to hold up. I question if they can in Year 2 of Ryan's defensive regime.

They did not. The Saints were 25th in pass defense and 29th in rush defense.

Atlanta Falcons (10-6) Actual 6-10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8) Actual 2-14 (They got the first pick in the draft and I predicted they would go 8-8...not good)

Carolina Panthers (5-11) Actual 7-8-1

They are shaping up to be a disaster.

They still were at times, playoffs or no playoffs.

I feel like Riverboat Ron will go back to being conservative once he isn't coaching for his job

He did for a period of time.

and the offensive line is a disaster.

And it really was until the end of the season. 

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks (12-4) Actual 12-4

Arizona Cardinals (10-6) Actual 11-5

I think the Cardinals are going to make the playoffs this season with a very good defense (1st against the rush, 14th against the pass last year) and Carson Palmer having some really good receivers to work with in Arians' offensive system.

As ashamed as I am of most of these predictions, I feel good about my prediction for the NFC West. Blind squirrel and the nut, you know the story. Of course, if I had predicted Carson Palmer's injury then that would have been even better.

San Francisco 49ers (7-9) Actual 8-8

It's a team built around running the football and playing good defense. Neither unit has looked great in the preseason (I know, I know...don't put much stock in the preseason)

Don't put stock in the preseason, except I sort of did.

and at some point Frank Gore is going to run down, right?

He did not run down at all.

I think it results in a step-back season. 

Yeah, but where was the "Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke will start feuding, resulting in there being animosity for most of the season until the Michigan Wolverines fire Brady Hoke, followed by the 49ers firing Jim Harbaugh, followed by Jim Harbaugh taking the Michigan head coaching job and then the 49ers hire a guy who may be qualified but is just very, very happy to do as the 49ers say" prediction?

St. Louis Rams (5-11) Actual 6-10

NFC Playoffs

Bye: Seattle, Philadelphia (Seattle and Green Bay)

Wild Card: New Orleans over Arizona, Atlanta over Green Bay (Actual Carolina over Arizona, Dallas over Detroit)

Divisional: Seattle over Atlanta, New Orleans over Philadelphia (Actual Seattle over Carolina, Green Bay over Dallas)

Championship: New Orleans over Seattle (Actually not happening this way)

So I feel okay about my predictions. I sounded no less stupid than I usually sound, which is always nice.


Steve said...

Seahawks 28 Packers 26
Patriots 41 Colts 24

I hope I'm wrong but I think the Patriots will easily be able to beat the Colts. I think the Pats will be able to force Luck to turn the ball over a couple of times and that will be the difference.

The Pack/Hawks game will be very close. The only reason I am picking the Hawks to win is because they are at home.

Bengoodfella said...

Steve, you were right on both counts. The Patriots had zero trouble with the Colts. I didn't see that coming.

And the Seahawks won because Russell Wilson is very good and they were at home.