Wednesday, January 4, 2017

NFL 2016-17 Playoff Predictions

There came a point late this past season when I realized that I never had done my traditional blog entry predicting what would happen in the season, and who would emerge as playoff teams, and then who would survive the playoffs in both conferences to meet in the Super Bowl. 

Well, even though this was not done, I hope to remedy that a little bit today. The playoff seeds and Wildcard match-ups are set, although they have not actually begun just yet. Before they begin, it is time to make some predictions.

Now, I already made my Wildcard predictions, although I will put them down again more briefly this time around, and then go on through the divisional playoff round.

So, the way that I see it, there is one team that stands out above all others in the playoffs, and should be deemed the clear favorites: the New England Patriots. Seriously, did you actually think that I was going to suggest another team?

The Patriots have one of the most explosive offenses in the league, as well as one of the toughest defenses. They are hot, having won their last seven games in a row, and compiled the overall best record in the league at 14-2. They have home field advantage, and Foxboro is obviously a very tough place to play. They have a legendary quarterback with perhaps more playoff experience than any other quarterback in league history. For that matter, they have a coach who is a genius, and also has more playoff experience than perhaps any other head coach in history. Plus, they have a history of success dating back to 2001, the franchise's first title season, which both Belichick and Brady were both big parts of. Since then, New England has enjoyed a run of success and consistency that very, very few franchises have ever achieved. They have had winning seasons every year beginning in 2001, and  during that span, they have won four Super Bowl titles overall, qualified for two other Super Bowl appearances, won 14 division titles, qualified for the AFC title game ten times, and made the playoffs each season except in 2002, when they finished with a 9-7 record, and in 2008, when Brady was hurt and lost for the season in the very first game, and wound up finishing 11-5, but becoming only the second team in league history to miss the playoffs with such a strong regular season record. In the last seven years going back to the 2010 season, they have earned a mark of 12-4 or better for every single season, becoming only the second team in history to have earned that distinction (the Indianapolis Colts did the same from 2003-2009). 

Sure, there have been controversies along the way, and this has caused many people to hate them. But that hatred seems to me more one of jealousy than of real anger towards them. Some have suggested that Belichick is an evil genius, but the fact of the matter is that, as far as NFL football is concerned, that genius part of it has been the most important aspect, and will define his legacy. There was Spygate and Deflategate, and a scattering of lesser controversies. But I would suggest that the reason that these controversies have stuck is because so many people want to diminish what this team has accomplished. After all, deflategate was the most recent controversy dating back to the AFC title game following the 2014-15 season, but the Patriots did not allow themselves to get distracted, earning a very tough, gritty Super Bowl win against Seattle, with a little help from the Seahawks themselves, of course, on that infamous 2nd and one play. The fact of the matter is that when other franchises have faced that kind of pressure, it often can tear them up, at least for one season. That simply has not happened with the Patriots as, again, they have been a model of consistency during this era of parody in the NFL. So, that is saying something about their tremendous success.

Now, here is something funny about all of this hatred towards the Patriots - I just do not feel the same way. When I was growing up, the San Francisco 49ers were the team with that kind of standout success and consistency, and let me be honest: I could not stand them. If I am being honest, I still cannot stand them, and pretty much route for them to lose every weekend. Yet, with the Patriots, I do not feel so strongly. Why? Perhaps a part of it is that, as a Giants fan, I have seen my team beat them in two of the most important and defining games in the history of both franchises - those two classic Super Bowls that the two teams met in. Indeed, as a fan of the G-Men, I take some pride that out of the five teams that have met the Pats in the Super Bowl during the Brady and Belichick era, the Giants are the only team to have beaten New England in the big game - twice! But also, because I remember during that same period when I first got into football (the 1980's and into the 1990's), the Patriots were often a joke. Yes, they enjoyed a surprising run to the Super Bow following the 1985 season, but there they met the legendary Chicago Bears, and were crushed in historic fashion, getting dominated almost from the very beginning, and ultimately losing 46-10, which still stands as the second most lopsided loss in Super Bowl history. That had been the first standout season for New England that I had seen, and they quickly went back to mediocrity. They hit the cellar in 1990, finishing 1-15 on the season, and losing their last 14 straight games. Two years later, they finished 2-14, and were truly looking pathetic. So, I remember them going through some very hard years, and being the butt of jokes around the league. They looked more inept - far more inept - then even teams that have since kind of lowered the bar still further (I am thinking particularly of the Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions, who have also endured truly miserable seasons and have never even qualified for the Super Bowl even once). 

All of that began to change for New England in 1993, when they got Bill Parcells to become their head coach. He did not wave a magic wand and mold an instant contender, but they 1993 Pats finished 5-11, wining their last four games of the season to end on an up note. In 1994, they overcame a 3-6 start to finish 10-6 and qualified for the postseason for the first time since the 1986 season. Two years later, they made it all the way to the Super Bowl, before losing to the Packers. Then, there were a few years that were largely forgettable, before that historic and amazing 2001 season, when they once again surprised everyone with a playoff run which culminated in their Super Bowl win over the dominant and heavily favored St. Louis Rams. 

Since then, they have been that model franchise, although clearly, some people are understandably sick and tired of them. They sure seem to force a strong reaction, one way or the other, and have joined the Dallas Cowboys as one of the few teams in sports that people feel strongly about, for better or for worse.

And speaking of the Cowboys, that is another team that many people hate. Now, I have to admit that Cowboys fans often tend to be among the most obnoxious fans. I know one fan in particular who makes a tradition of predicting every summer that his Cowboys will win it all in the Super Bowl. So far since I have known him, he has been wrong literally every year. Yet, when his team wins, he is the height of arrogance personified, and has a distinctly obnoxious manner about him. Frankly, the Cowboys seem to disproportionately have those kinds of fans. 

Yet, despite being a fan of a rival team in the same division, I never really hated the Cowboys - although I have come close in recent years, due largely to those obnoxious fans that I already mentioned. But the fact of the matter is that, like the Patriots, I can remember some pretty dark days for the franchise. They were kind of a model of success early in the eighties, when I first became a fan. But they failed to qualify for the Super Bowl even once during that era, and started seriously losing and struggling by the late 1980's, going 3-13 in 1988, and then bottoming out at 1-15 in 1989. Then came Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, and that trade with the Minnesota Vikings for Herschel Walker that gave Dallas about 1,000 draft picks, plus all of those early draft picks from those two truly horrible seasons, and the Cowboys built up a talent base that would come to dominate the 1990's, as they won three Super Bowls in a four year span. But since then, this team has been decidedly limited. They have had a ton of subpar and losing seasons, sprinkled here and there with some seemingly successful and promising seasons. They had failed to win a playoff game until 2014, when they finished 12-4, and beat Detroit in the Wildcard game, but lost at Lambeau Field the next weekend. They had finished the 2007 season at 13-3, and like this season, they earned the top seed for the NFC playoffs, but lost immediately to the Giants - my Giants. Now, they are 13-3 and the number one seed once again. 

Here's the thing, though, with this year's Cowboys: I suspect that they are vulnerable. Yes, they are the top seed, and were incredible for most of this season. But they did lose those two games to the Giants, and the New York defense really got to Big D's offense in those two meetings. They have a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back, and their defense seems a little suspect. So, I do not think that they are a lock to win the home playoff games as the top seed. New England I can see winning out and reaching the Super Bowl, and perhaps Dallas can do the same. But they are vulnerable, and will face some serious challenges.

The other two franchises that earned byes are the Kansas City Chiefs (12-4) and the Atlanta Falcons (11-5). The Chiefs are a dangerous team, although they have to hope that someone knocks out the Patriots before the AFC Championship Game, because I just do not see them being able to win up at Foxboro. But the Falcons, on the other hand, are red hot, and have probably the most explosive offense in the league. That will be indeed a very tough challenge for anybody, and I can see them winning any given game this year, which is not something I can usually say about this franchise. They look really, really good.

So, let us get on with it. Let me finally take a chance and make predictions, even risking being wrong and looking like a bit of a fool for it. Here are my predictions for this year's playoffs:

AFC Wildcard Games - Steelers over Dolphins, Raiders over Texans
NFC Wildcard Games - Giants over Packers, Seattle over Detroit

AFC Divisional Round - Chiefs over Steelers, Patriots over Raiders
NFC Divisional Round - Falcons over Seahawks, Giants over Cowboys

AFC Championship Game - New England Patriots over Kansas City Chiefs
NFC Championship Game - Atlanta Falcons over New York Giants

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots defeat Atlanta Falcons

Okay, so there you go. Those are the outcomes that, barring injuries, I believe will take place this postseason. I see the Giants and Falcons getting hot in the NFC, but with Atlanta ultimately winning out and representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. Once there, however, I suspect that the New England Patriots will rely on their superior experience and momentum to outlast the Falcons and win a fifth Super Bowl during the Brady/Belichick era. 

Let's see how the games play out, and see whether my predictions come true, or if they fail to pan out!

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