Anyway, there’s nowhere to go but UP, so let’s do this:
Wild Card Round: NEW ORLEANS beats CAROLINA. A rejuvenated Drew Brees, a determined Sean Payton, a two-headed monster at RB – and a much improved defense help dispose of the Panthers, who rely (understandably, but) way too much on the arm and feet of one Cameron Newton. Fun fact: The last 20 teams to sweep a season series vs. a divisional opponent have gone 13-7 in the third game. Look for the Saints to make it 14. ATLANTA beats LOS ANGELES. Yeah, yeah, we know – the Rams have an incredible defense vs. the run and the pass. Sean McVay has been the QB whisperer to the previously moribund Jared Goff. BUT – this is not the regular season. Experience counts in the playoffs. And so does the desire for redemption – no one has that more than the Falcons (see: Super Bowl 51, second half/OT). Look for Matty Ice and his banged up squad to show some heart in this one.
Divisional Round: MINNESOTA beats NEW ORLEANS. Speaking of motivation, the Vikings know all they have to do is win two home games – and they get another one in the Super Bowl, which has never happened before (unless you are nerdily counting the 49ers victory at Stanford in Super Bowl XIX). Unless Mike Zimmer does something insane, like – oh – start Sam Bradford instead of Comeback Player/Most Improved/Possibly even MVP candidate Case Keenum at QB, the Vikings superior D and quietly efficient O should win a close one vs. the Saints. ATLANTA beats PHILADELPHIA. Matt Ryan vs. Nick Foles. This isn’t 2013, when Foles was the second coming of Rich Gannon (efficiency-wise), and Atlanta’s momentum from the weekend before will overcome the Eagles’ rust from having a week off. Obviously if Carson Wentz hadn’t gotten hurt, this paragraph would read differently.
Conference Championship: MINNESOTA beats ATLANTA. Again, these are two teams with huge incentive to win, not just to get to the Super Bowl – but to either host one or redeem a loss in one. But at the end of the day, the well-oiled machine that has become the Vikings outlast a Falcons bunch, weary and walloped from two emotionally and physically tough games.
Wild Card Round: JACKSONVILLE beats BUFFALO. Because of the Jags’ smothering D, everyone’s favorite punching bag, Blake Bortles, has the luxury of only having to play a half-way decent game to beat everyone’s favorite underdog, the Bills. The spirit of Irv Weinstein – the beloved, longtime Buffalo newscaster who passed away last week – may have been enough to carry the Bills if LeSean McCoy was healthy, but without their all-purpose back, it will sadly be one and done for Buffalo. KANSAS CITY beats TENNESSEE. Probably the closest thing to a “lock” this Wild Card weekend. After the Chiefs’ midseason hibernation, they got hot again at the right time, winning their last four. The Titans, on the other hand, lost three of their last four, and the lone victory was a Week 17 squeaker at home vs. a Jags team with nothing to play for. Not the kind of momentum you want heading into the harsh confines of Arrowhead, and Marcus Mariota has been playing barely above DeShone Kizer level lately. And no DeMarco Murray. This could be ugly.
Divisional Round: PITTSBURGH beats JACKSONVILLE. Not today, Zurg! Both divisional playoff games are rematches from this season – and it is highly unlikely that this game will play out the way the last one did, with Big Ben tossing 5 picks at home en route to a Jags’ rout. There are several factors that favor the Steelers, and here are just a handful: Bortles’ notorious inconsistency, Ben’s desire for revenge, the return of Antonio Brown, the specter of Ryan Shazier… and oh, did we mention that it’s Ben Roethlisberger vs. Blake Bortles? NEW ENGLAND beats KANSAS CITY. The Chiefs dominated the Patriots in Week 1 – the first time that the defending Super Bowl champ lost at home* since the season opening/Thursday night/Super Bowl champ-hosting series began a decade or so ago. (*The Ravens lost their game, but it wasn’t in Baltimore, due to an Orioles game.) Again, we will not have the same outcome. The Chiefs have righted the ship to be sure, but the Patriots – even without a DeflateGate size chip on their shoulder – will avenge their Week 1 loss, and begin their merciless march to Minneapolis.
Conference Championship: NEW ENGLAND beats PITTSBURGH. Death, taxes … and the Steelers losing to the Patriots. Like they used to say in those old hair loss ads on TV: it’s as inevitable as the tide. We could trot out a bunch of other tired clichés, but we won’t. The Steelers will still have #50 on their shirts and patches, but unfortunately Shazier won’t be on the field. Hoodie, Brady, Gronk and the rest of the crew set a record last season with their ninth Super Bowl. This year they will set a new record by going to their tenth.
SUPER BOWL: NEW ENGLAND beats MINNESOTA. As much as it would be wonderful to see the Vikings win the big one in their own backyard against the Monsanto of the NFL, it is simply hard to imagine picking Case Keenum over Tom Brady. That being said, considering the formidable talent on both sides of the ball, this game – dare we say it – could be even better than last year’s.