A look ahead to the NFL playoffs
All throughout the NFL season, we’ve heard how ratings are down even though the most watched television broadcasts are dominated by NFL games. It’s hard to deny there can be a bit of NFL fatigue during the course of the regular season. That shouldn’t be the case during the playoffs when the best teams are playing and there’s at most four games in a given weekend.
On the way to the Super Bowl, we want the best games. The 2007 run to the Super Bowl for the Giants wasn’t just special because of the upset of the undefeated Patriots. That playoff stretch had fun and watchable games in each round with a classic NFC Championship Game -- the 23-20 overtime win over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
Still, even with the best teams we don’t always get those high quality games as a viewer -- think both blowouts in last year’s conference championship games. But for this set of playoff predictions, we’re going to make sure the scheduled slate features the most fun and most watchable games all the way through the Super Bowl. That’s the one qualification: what would make the next game the most fun to watch?
We can’t do much about the Wild Card Round, which is already set, so we’ll dive into the Divisional Round to start, which in turn will give us winners for the opening round of the playoffs.
Saturday, January 13, 4:35 p.m. EST
New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles
New Orleans quietly finished the year first in DVOA. The Saints had an incredible improvement on Defense -- eighth in DVOA, after finishing 31st last year -- but the offense was still the most prolific unit on the team. This matchup would pit the second-best offense by DVOA against the fifth-best defense in Philadelphia. Matchup up a fun offense against the Eagles defense is as good at it’s going to get with Nick Foles leading the offense under center. There might not be a less watchable aspect for a playoff team this season than what the Eagles offense has been for the past three games under Foles.
Saturday, January 13, 8:35 p.m. EST
Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots
This gives us a rematch of the opening game of the season. We’ll remember this for the unexpected Kansas City comeback, but New England was an overruled Rob Gronkowski touchdown away from a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and a possible blowout. The Chiefs might be the team that matches up against New England the best. While the Patriots spent the offseason trying to fortify the outside of the defense, the Chiefs don’t really attack that way. Kansas City can target the middle of the field with Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt, and Tyreek Hill.
Another chess match between Andy Reid and Bill Belichick could again give us a closely contested game.
Sunday, January 14, 1:05 p.m. EST
Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers
Jacksonville at Pittsburgh gives us a rematch of one of the most surprising results of the season -- a 30-9 Jaguars blowout in Week 5. It was the moment when some figured this Jaguars defense might be for real after they picked off Ben Roethlisberger five times in the game. The Jaguars finished the season with 3.7 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt against, a metric that weighs yards per attempt with touchdowns, sacks, and interceptions. They were the first defense to be under 4.0 ANY/A since the 2013 Seattle Seahawks.
Pittsburgh was forced to the air, but also surprisingly went away from Le’Veon Bell on the ground early. The Steelers could focus more on the ground game, but the Jaguars have also improved in run defense from early in the season.
Sunday, January 14, 4:40 p.m. EST
Los Angeles Rams at Minnesota Vikings
It’s a shame this can’t be the NFC Championship Game, though it might be a de facto one. Per Football Outsiders’ playoff odds, the Rams (15.2 percent) and Vikings (14.8 percent) are the favorites from the NFC to win the Super Bowl. Getting past the other in the Divisional Round would be a huge boost for one of those teams.
This is another rematch from the regular season, a 24-7 Vikings win in Minnesota. The Minnesota defense -- No. 2 by DVOA -- held the Rams to just 254 yards of offense, one of their lowest outputs of the year. How Sean McVay and the Rams adjust would be a fascinating story heading into the game. The Vikings offense was able to hang with a Rams defense that was sixth in DVOA during the regular season.
Both teams finished the year in the top-6 of both offense and defense by DVOA, which could make them the two most balanced teams in the playoffs.
AFC Championship Game
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
I mean, come on, who isn’t signing up for Part 2 of the Week 15 classic? Pittsburgh went from a win on a Jesse James touchdown to a loss on a Ben Roethlisberger interception within a span of minutes. The result of that game is why this one would be held in New England instead of Pittsburgh.
This gives us a matchup between the second- and third-best offenses by DVOA and there’s no way the Steelers don’t try to outgun the Patriots to make up for the last second loss during the regular season. There’s also no way Bill Belichick stands by and lets them do it.
NFC Championship Game
New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings
These teams met in Week 1 of the regular season, but that might as well be a different decade. We didn’t know what either of these teams would turn out to be, and neither did the teams themselves. Minnesota came out with a 29-19 win, but that was on the back of an incredible game from Sam Bradford at quarterback -- remember him?
Both of these teams turned into well-rounded units that can hang with the best on each side of the ball. Minnesota’s defense could be able to take away what the New Orleans offense does best -- the big play. No offense had more gains of 20-plus yards than the Saints (89) but only one defense was better than preventing 20-plus yard plays than the Vikings (41).
Drew Brees against the Minnesota defense. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen against Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley. Michael Thomas against Xavier Rhodes. Case Keenum playing for a chance to start in the Super Bowl. Sign me up.
New England Patriots vs. Minnesota Vikings
Football Outsiders has this as the most likely Super Bowl matchup at 16.4 percent.
We’ve never had a team play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. We’ve never even come close, but the Vikings have a legitimate chance. That aspect alone should be enough to want them in the big game, but they’re also a great team on top of that. How much home field advantage would the Vikings really have at U.S. Bank Stadium in front of a Super Bowl crowd that’s typically neutral? The city outside would be crazy the entire week even if the atmosphere in the stadium isn’t as crazy. Maybe that could be enough to give them the typical advantage a home team gets. All the possibilities are incredible to think about.
For the game, Mike Zimmer vs. Bill Belichick would be a fantastic head coach matchup. We again have a strength (New England’s offense) against a strength (Minnesota’s defense). Even New England’s strength on defense -- those outside corners -- would be a good matchup against Minnesota’s top two receivers. How often would Minnesota move those guys inside to counteract those matchups? Do the Vikings have enough in the run game to take advantage of a bad Patriots run defense? There’s so many individual aspects that could make this game special.
The only thing that could make this game even better would be somehow Teddy Bridgewater is forced to come off the bench and lead the Vikings to a fourth quarter comeback and a Super Bowl win.