The NFC is more wide-open than you think. Seattle’s got a great team and home field advantage, but their aura of invincibility is over after Arizona won in Seattle two weeks ago. San Francisco has gotten blown out in their last two games in Seattle, so doubt might creep in if they make the trip. Their defense also isn’t nearly as good as it was last year. No other NFC team should be scared, however, with Carolina probably having the best chance for success given their run defense and pass rush. Carolina has to survive a somewhat average offense and could face a challenge with Philadelphia coming to town should they overcome New Orleans. The Eagles have won seven of eight games, so they’re certainly playing well at the right time.
Then there are the two teams I’m ready to send home already. New Orleans probably can’t win three road games in order to reach the Super Bowl, so I’m crossing them off the list. Green Bay has one of the worst defenses in the league and Clay Matthews’ injury only makes it worse. It’s great that Aaron Rodgers is back, but Green Bay won’t be able to stop an opponent when it counts.
In the AFC, Denver’s got the homefield advantage and the best offense in the league, but they’ll need more from an average defense to make the Super Bowl. It was the same defense that let them down last year with one of the worst plays by a safety in NFL history. I still don’t understand how Rahim Moore kept his job. New England is Denver’s biggest test, but the Patriots made that epic comeback against Denver with Rob Gronkowski, who is obviously missed. Still the Patriots seem to trek along and do the best with what they have better than most teams in the NFL.
The rest of the AFC doesn’t have a chance. Cincinnati is 8-0 at home, but they’ll have to go on the road, where they’re 3-5, if they’re going to win the AFC. Andy Dalton has plenty of Eli Manning and Joe Flacco in him by looking absurdly terrible at times, but maybe has can show the other side of the coin like the previous two did in reaching the Super Bowl? I wouldn’t bet on it. Indianapolis has only looked good in recent weeks because they’ve played two of the worst teams in the league. They’ve got great wins on their resume, but those all came with Reggie Wayne. Kansas City’s defense hasn’t looked nearly as good in recent weeks and we haven’t seen enough from their offense to be confident in a late game drive. Finally San Diego has done some nice things this year, but their defense is the worst in the league according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA Rankings. That’s a recipe I’ll pass on.
So where does that leave us? Denver and New England are the AFC contenders. The NFC is a little more wide open with Seattle, Carolina, Philadelphia, and San Francisco all having a shot. I’m still banking on the top seeds to make it through because I think Carolina is the only team capable of winning in Seattle (they have to get there first) and I don’t think New England has what it takes without Gronk. But that’s why they play the games…
Kansas City +2 over INDIANAPOLIS
I started the week thinking the Colts would win the game. They’d played well in the last three games, including one against Kansas City. They’d solved life without Reggie Wayne by putting their faith in three young receivers, one of which played with Andrew Luck at Stanford. But then I read up on things through the week and a few things stood out. The reason the Chiefs were good this season was their defense, a defense which was missing Justin Houston for the last six weeks. Houston returns this week and should make a major impact on the same defense that Luck played against two weeks ago. Secondly, Andy Reid has a great history off a bye week. Last week’s game against San Diego was basically a bye week for Kansas City as their starters didn’t play. Finally, Andy Reid has been around long enough to know what’s up. He could see the writing on the wall that he might face Indianapolis in the playoffs when he faced him in Week 16. It’s very possible he left all his bullets in the gun in Week 16. As well as the Colts played in some games this year, all of their best wins were with Reggie Wayne. The Chiefs move on in this one.
PHILADELPHIA -2.5 over New Orleans
This game features two of the game’s best offenses, so hopefully the cold weather in the Northeast won’t prevent a great show. The preconceived notion with New Orleans is they have a problem winning on the road, but they lost two of those road games in the final minutes. We might not be having this conversation had they beaten Carolina and New England and sat here with a 5-3 home record. Then again, I might’ve been able to date Kate Upton if I looked like Ryan Gosling. Metrics show that the Saints’ offense goes down a notch when they’re on the road and part of their defense’s best work is done because of the raucous home crowd affecting the opposition’s offense. Other than a natural blip for Philadelphia in Minnesota because it was an emotion-free trap game, they’ve won their other games in the second half of the season. Fortune generally favors the hot team in the playoffs.The excitement will continue in Philadelphia.
San Diego +7 over CINCINNATI
As with New Orleans, you’ll want to say that a warm weather or dome team doesn’t do well on the road and therefore San Diego won’t have a chance in Cincinnati. Think again when you realize the Chargers won in that cold Thursday night game in Denver as well as a few weeks before in Kansas City. On the flip side, Cincinnati is 8-0 at home both in win-loss record in real life and against the spread even though Andy Dalton hates the cheerleaders. That’s a serious hill for San Diego to climb, but they show up on the big stages. They hold wins this year against Denver, Philadelphia, Dallas, Indianapolis, and Kansas City twice. That’s not a bad resume. The best game their much-maligned defense played all year was against Denver. All they’ve heard all week is how great Cincinnati is at home and how San Diego’s defense isn’t good enough to advance. They’re going to be up for the challenge, so I’ll take the points.
Reggie: San Diego
San Francisco -3 over GREEN BAY
How are they having problems selling tickets to his game? Oh wait, it’s supposed to be below freezing in Green Bay on Sunday. That’s nothing new, but maybe zero degrees Fahrenheit scares away the most rabid fans in the age where flat screen TVs reign. As mentioned above, Aaron Rodgers' return doesn’t make Green Bay’s defense any better. San Francisco’s offense has been much improved in recent weeks with the return of Michael Crabtree. Even if he’s not at 100%, he’s capable of keeping defenses honest and allowing more freedom for Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin. San Francisco’s defense isn’t as good as in years past, but they’re definitely more capable of a stop than Green Bay’s.
Reggie: Green Bay