Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Long And Suite Preview: The Playoffs And Super Bowl

The Seahawks got the better of Denver in last year's Big Game. But who will be there this year?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Let's just pick up where we left off yesterday, with our top-six teams from each conference.

Joe's Picks:


1. Denver (13-3)
2. New England (12-4)
3. Indianapolis (10-6)
4. Pittsburgh (10-6)
5. Kansas City (9-7)
6. Cincinnati (9-7)


1. Green Bay (12-4)
2. Seattle (11-5)
3. New Orleans (11-5)
4. Philadelphia (11-5)
5. San Francisco (10-6)
6. Chicago (9-7)

Jeremy's Picks:


1. New England (12-4)
2. Denver (12-4)
3. Pittsburgh (10-6)
4. Indianapolis (10-6)
5. Cincinnati (10-6)
6. San Diego (10-6)


1. New Orleans (13-3)
2. Green Bay (13-3)
3. Seattle (13-3)
4. Philadelphia (9-7)
5. San Francisco (11-5)
6. Chicago (10-6)

And here's how we get from these twelve teams, down to one Super Bowl Champion.

Joe Explains the AFC

The AFC certainly has the look of an inferior conference, which is why Denver and New England seem like the two teams with the clearest paths to Super Sunday. There is something to that, of course, because the Patriots win 12 games whenever Tom Brady is under center, and your intramural flag football team would probably win 10 NFL games with Peyton Manning calling signals.

These are the two clear cut favorites, especially considering both upgraded their secondaries, and Denver added future Hall of Fame pass rusher DeMarcus Ware.

Can anyone knock them off? Well, there's a whole lot of mediocrity going on in the AFC North. Whoever emerges from the Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh cluster likely won't have enough firepower, or coverage ability, to keep up with Brady or Manning.

The South just isn't all that good, but I expect Andrew Luck to take another step this season, though it may not show on the Colts' win total. Nobody looks to be able to challenge the two favorites in their respective divisions, especially the East, where the Dolphins and Jets look to be stuck in neutral, and the Bills are stuck in, well, Buffalo. (Not for much longer if Bon Jovi gets his way! Wait, he was dropped by the Toronto bidding group. Oh well.)

The West is a little better, with solid teams in San Diego and Kansas City, but neither will truly challenge Manning for divisional supremacy. So, what will happen in the playoffs? Well, I'm glad you asked…

Wildcard Weekend

3. Indianapolis over 6. Cincinnati
4. Pittsburgh over 5. Kansas City

None of these teams are gonna be great, so I'm just picking the better quarterback and home field advantage in each game.

Divisional Weekend

1. Denver over 4. Pittsburgh
2. New England over 3. Indianapolis

Like I said, Denver and New England are the prohibitive favorites, and I see no reason why the Steelers or Colts should beat them on the road.

AFC Championship Game

1. Denver over 2. New England

The Patriots have probably improved a bit more than Denver (return of Gronk, Vereen, Mayo and Wilfork, plus the additions of Revis and Browner), but I still just don't think they're going to get over this hump.

At this point, the Broncos should be past the embarrassing suspension of Wes Welker, and Emmanuel Sanders should be fully acclimated to playing with Manning in this high-powered attack. I think this turns into a shootout again and, right now, Manning is just better than Brady.

Jeremy Explains the NFC

Yes. I have three different teams going 13-3. I will be wrong. Mostly considering (a) the Packers have to play both the Saints and Seahawks on the road, plus the Patriots at home, (b) the Seahawks play in the NFC West but also have to play the Broncos, Chargers, and at the Eagles, and (c) the Saints... well, actually, the Saints could definitely go 13-3. The three toughest games on their schedule (Green Bay, San Francisco, and Cincinnati) are all at home, and the rest of their schedule has a strong whiff of cream-puff-y-ness (especially if Carolina regresses as much as people expect them to).

If I'm being honest, instead of making a bold pick on the one percent chance it pans out, it's probably more likely that Philadelphia, Green Bay, and Seattle all meet in the middle at 11 or 12 wins apiece.

I picked the Eagles to win the NFC East at only 9-7, because it seemed like there just weren't enough wins to go around (the Eagles have to play the NFC West, and the have to play the Packers, Texans and Colts on the road). Plus, I do genuinely believe they'll struggle at times ("struggle" being a relative term - they'll struggle compared to the Saints and Packers and Broncos, not compared to the league as a whole). The defense still has holes all over the place, and the loss of DeSean Jackson has come full circle - people (rightfully) were knocking them down a few pegs when it happened, but then people (including me, for a while) talked themselves into a bounce-back year from Jeremy Maclin and/or strong contributions from rookie receivers Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff and/or the greatness of the Chip Kelly system to overcome all ills. But even when he was healthy, Maclin never as productive as Jackson's last year - Jackson had a line of 82/1332/9; Maclin's career highs are 70/964/10, and those numbers came in 2010. And he's never been the premier downfield threat that Jackson is. And he's coming off a torn ACL. The Eagles need something or someone on the outside the spread the defense horizontally *and* vertically. I'm not sure they have it. They'll be good enough to win their division, possibly even convincingly. But even if they match the win totals of Green Bay, Seattle, or even New Orleans, I still think they're a peg below in terms of actual quality.

I was tempted to pick against San Francisco, because their defense will be in shambles for the first half of the season or so, and they have Chicago, Philadelphia, at Denver, and at New Orleans, all in the first nine weeks. Then they have to play Seattle twice in the pack end of their schedule. But I figured even if they go 5-4 (at worst) over those first nine, they'll right the ship well enough in the second half of the season that a split with Seattle will get them into the playoffs. Chicago seems to be the trendy pick to grab that sixth seed. I can't see the NFC East getting a second team in, and I can't see the NFC West getting a third team in, so it comes down to Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Carolina (if they can figure out their offense), and Tampa Bay if Josh McCown turns out not to be a fluke (sorry, Minnesota, I just don't see it). Detroit and Atlanta are the two biggest challengers, probably, but I see two many question marks - especially on defense - and Chicago has a better offense than both of them.

The NFC Playoffs are going to be a [expletive deleted]ing free-for-all. San Francisco got a bit of an easy draw last year, all things considered - they got a Green Bay team that was still working Aaron Rodgers back into the fold, and then a Carolina team that was fairly easy to turn one-dimensional. I don't see either of the Wild Card teams being able to (for the most part) coast through two division winners, even if one of them is Philadelphia. If New Orleans gets home-field advantage in the playoffs, I think they're a lock for at least the NFC Championship Game - they've never lost a home playoff game under Sean Payton (4-0), and they're 33-5 since 2008 in Payton-coached seasons (i.e. excluding 2012), including 16-0 in 2011 and 2013 combined. They'll end up playing either Green Bay or Seattle, whichever team has home-field advantage in Round 2 (I just don't see Philadelphia or Chicago having defenses good enough to make it that far, and come on, San Francisco can't make four straight conference title games, can they?). Above, I picked Green Bay, so I might as well stick with that.

If it comes down to Green Bay and New Orleans (which it almost certainly won't - I'm almost always wrong), I think Green Bay will have the better offense - slightly (I say that because New Orleans will have to replace Darren Sproles, the most underrated piece of their offense, with rookie Brandin Cooks) - but I think New Orleans will have the better defense, the better coach, and the home field advantage. I'm taking the Saints to come out of the NFC.

Joe Explains the NFC

The Seahawks appear to have everything you need to repeat as Super Bowl champions (punishing defense and ground game, plus a play making quarterback that doesn't turn the ball over), but the NFC will be even tougher than last year's brutal gauntlet.

So, what can get in Seattle's way? Let's start in their own division where the 49ers are one Richard Sherman "are you kidding me?" play away from making Super Sunday themselves. The defense will suffer from the nine-game suspension of Aldon Smith, but San Francisco's offense should be improved as Colin Kaepernick gains experience and grows more comfortable throwing the ball down the field.

In the NFC North the Packers are once again Super Bowl contenders, assuming Aaron Rodgers can stay healthy. The loss of nose tackle B.J. Raji for the season appears to hurt on the surface, but Raji hasn't really been a force since the Packers' Super Bowl season of 2010. The Pack will score enough to play with anybody, and I have a hunch that the defense will improve as well, regardless of Raji's health.

I also expect the Bears to be greatly improved in coach Marc Trestman's second season. The receiver duo of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, plus all-purpose back Matt Forte give Chicago arguably the best collection of skill position talent in the league. The defense can't get much worse, and a few free agent/draft additions should make it better. Basically, you have to believe the Bears are a Super Bowl caliber team… As long as you believe in Jay Cutler.

In the South the Saints have the feel of a juggernaut with an improving young defense led by second-year coordinator Rob Ryan, plus that guy named Brees under center. Expect another year of video game numbers from the Saints passing game, and a suddenly potent stable of backs, led by the left-for-dead Mark Ingram, should provide some great balance.

Many are claiming sure regression for Carolina- even Jeremy and myself- which means you shouldn't buy into it! Come on, why can't Carolina's defense, led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly, again be one of the league's best, while Cam Newton takes the next step and puts the offense on his back?

I mean, I'm not picking that to happen, but I've heard so much about how the Panthers can't possibly be that good again, that I'm starting to think the Panthers are gonna be pretty good. Next to Carolina, there are a pair of teams that should make big jumps in Atlanta in Tampa Bay. The Falcons are a trendy playoff pick, but I'd keep my eye on the Bucs, particularly if Josh McCown can be remotely as efficient as he was last year in Chicago.

The Bucs have a potentially dominant defense, and with Doug Martin returning from IR and Vincent Jackson getting first round pick Mike Evans to line up across from him, McCown will have some weapons to play with.

The East doesn't have a truly elite team, but I'm putting my faith in Chip Kelly to again produce one of the league's best offenses. A year of film on his scheme and Nick Foles, plus the loss of DeSean Jackson should slow the Eagles, but it won't totally stop them, and the Redskins, Giants and Cowboys all have too many flaws for me to pick one of them.

Wildcard Weekend

3. New Orleans over 6. Chicago
5. San Francisco over 4. Philadelphia

I really like the Bears this year, and if this game were played in Chicago, I'd call it a definite toss up. But, given the fact that I have the Saints hosting this thing in the SuperDome, it looks like their offense, indoors, will be too much for an improved, but still far from dominant Bears defense.

Philadelphia will be able to score on almost anybody, but the Niners will (at this point, after the return of Smith) have the personnel to both set the edge in the run game, and get after Foles without blitzing. Add in Kaepernick's effectiveness on the ground, and I'll take San Francisco to pick up the road win.

Divisional Weekend

1. Green Bay over 5. San Francisco
2. Seattle over New Orleans

The Packers get a measure of revenge this year, knocking off the Niners after they came oh-so-close to beating them in last year's Wildcard Round. Green Bay was slowed by subzero temperatures (not to mention Aaron Rodgers' rust) in their home stadium last season, but that game was essentially a play here or play there away from going either way.

Call it the coin coming up tails this time instead of heads, I just feel like the Pack will pull it out the second time around.

Much like I gave New Orleans the benefit of the doubt at home against Chicago, I've got to give Seattle the edge here against the Saints. The Seahawks just don't lose at home, and the Legion of Boom secondary has the right combination of savvy, speed and physicality to throw New Orleans' receivers off their routes and confuse Brees.

NFC Championship Game

2. Seattle over Green Bay

I know repeating, even as conference champs, is incredibly difficult in the modern NFL, but this is a special bunch. Expect a cold one in Wisconsin, and expect the Seahawks to out-muscle Green Bay on both sides of the ball, culminating in a game-winning field goal set up by something spectacular that Russell Wilson did.

Jeremy Explains the AFC

I picked New England to grab the No. 1 seed before Wes Welker was suspended for the first four games, so I feel even better about it now. The Broncos first four games are Indianapolis, Kansas City, at Seattle, and Arizona. Those four teams combined to be 45-19 last year. Kansas City and Arizona will likely regress substantially, but Indianapolis and Seattle are both good-to-great teams. If Andrew Luck goes nuts Week 1 and Seattle remains a juggernaut at home, the Broncos could struggle to a 2-2 start without their full compliment of receivers while they continue to work in a re-vamped backfield and defense. Then they don't get much of a rest, as Weeks 7, 8, and 9 see them play San Francisco, San Diego, and at New England all in a row. It's vaguely plausible that Denver could be 4-4 or even (gulp) 3-5 through the first half of their schedule. Is it likely? No. It's rather absurd, to be completely honest. But it's enough for me to tilt towards New England as the No. 1 seed in the conference, especially with the Patriots cakewalk through the AFC East.

The Patriots are going to win the AFC East and get a first-round bye in the postseason. The Broncos are going to win the AFC West and get a first-round bye in the postseason. I don't have much of value, but whatever an independent third party would arbitrate as the most valuable thing in my life, I would bet that on New England and Denver being the top two seeds in the AFC, barring catastrophic injuries to Brady or Manning. The rest of the conference is basically ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The AFC South is moderately easy to predict - it will probably be Indianapolis, unless the entire team save for Andrew Luck suddenly forgets how to football (which isn't as unlikely as you might think). Houston will probably throw a token hat into the ring, but unless the defense turns into a top-3 unit and Arian Foster stays healthy for 16 games (and don't totally rule those out), they probably can't ride [insert journeyman quarterback here] to the playoffs. The North is the murkiest division in the conference, possibly the murkiest in all of football. There are three teams with relatively even chances to win the division - the Ravens probably have the worst probability, mostly because their cap is occupied by paying Joe Flacco roughly $Texas over the next handful years. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are the best bets, and I put both of them in the playoffs. I honestly have no idea which one will win the division, I went with Pittsburgh based solely on two factors. First is the simple fact that Cincinnati has Denver and New England on their schedule (as last season's division winner, they play the other division winners) while Pittsburgh gets the Jets and Chiefs, and the Week 17 matchup between the two teams that very well could decide the division will be played in Pittsburgh.

San Diego is the last team to get into the AFC picture - I seriously considered Houston, but I eventually took Cincinnati over them because they're just a more complete team, and I took San Diego over them because if I'm going to war, I'd rather be standing behind Phil Rivers than [insert journeyman quarterback here]. If you're only looking at 2012 and 2013, 2013 looks a bit like a fluke. But if you continue to extend the sample backwards, to 2011 and beyond, 2012 becomes the fluke. (An aside that isn't actually relevant but worth mentioning - you can make a *very* convincing argument that Rivers should have been the MVP in 2010. He racked up 4710 yards, tops in the league, with a passer rating of 101.8, and he did it with no receiver on the team accumulating more than 782 yards. *Thirteen* different receivers were over 145 yards, they started eight different wide receivers, four different tight ends, and four different running backs throughout the season. The football-reference page for the Chargers that season is incredible. Tom Brady ended up winning the MVP is his most underrated season ever - just 3900 yards but a 36-4 TD-Int ratio.) The Chargers bring back everyone relevant from last year's team, and if Kansas City takes a step back, they're the logical successor.

As mentioned above, the Broncos and Patriots are the clear-cut favorites in the AFC, so it wouldn't make much sense to pick anyone else to storm the castle into the AFC Title game. I'm going to give the edge to the Patriots, because I think they'll have home-field advantage, and I think their defense is better equipped to stop Denver's offense than vice-versa. The "blueprint" (if you can call it that) to slow down Denver was set forth by Seattle in the Super Bowl. You need premier corners (Sherman and Thurmond), a great pass rush, one good cover linebacker to handle Julius Thomas (Bobby Wagner), and a pair of safeties - one to crash down on the crossing routes (Kam Chancellor), one to play center field (Earl Thomas). The Patriots can assemble a half-decent facsimile with Revis and Browner, Jamie Collins or Jerod Mayo, and Devin McCourty to play center field (they don't have the strong safety to match Chancellor, which is admittedly a huge hole - Chancellor was the best player on the field and should have won Super Bowl MVP). On the other hand, the Patriots offense is geared around crossing routes from the wide receivers, and routes down the seam from tight ends and running backs. That requires great cover linebackers, which the Broncos just don't have. Also, I'm a huge homer. The Patriots are winning the AFC.

Joe Picks The Super Bowl

Seattle over Denver

I feel like we've seen this one before… Kidding aside, Seattle has everything you need to repeat and, while I wouldn't expect another historic butt-whooping, I would look for Seattle to again defeat the Broncos for a championship.

The Seahawks go back-to-back, and that defense takes its place among the game's all-time greats, in an era of offense, no less.

Jeremy Picks The Super Bowl

New England over New Orleans

I am a Patriots fan. I also pride myself on being as objective as humanly possible about my predictions. This usually leads me to be an unnecessarily pessimistic Patriots fan - I think, the more pessimistic I am about the team, the more objective I'm being. But sometimes I fail. The more I try, I just can't be pessimistic about this Patriots team. I think they're going to be really, really good. But in the back of my head, I can't help but think that I'm only thinking it because I'm a fan of the team. It's a vicious circle that won't stop.

Here's my thinking - the defense is going to be hilariously better. With Wilfork and Mayo returning, plus the addition of Revis, they're pretty much adding three top-five players at their respective positions at three of the most crucial spots on a defense (if they had added a top pass rusher I would have passed out). Throw in Devin McCourty and Chandler Jones and they have very good players at every important spot on a defense. And if Logan Ryan, Jamie Collins, and Donta Hightower continue to improve, they're a potential top-5 outfit. The offense will also be better. Shane Vereen will be healthy. Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski will be healthier (I will never suggest either of them will be healthy for a full season). Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have another year under their belt. And for all the "problems" that the Patriots had on offense last season - they were confined to the first half of the year. For their first eight games, they averaged 22.4 points and 330 yards of total offense per game. For their last eight games, those numbers spiked to 33.1 points and 439 yards of total offense. For the second half of the season, Football Outsiders ranked them as the third-most efficient offense, behind only Denver and Philadelphia.

So many Super Bowl picks come down to "here's my pick from the AFC, here's my pick from the NFC - now here's why that NFC team will beat that AFC team" (or vice-versa). But it shouldn't work like that. It's all about probability. The reason I'm picking New England to win the Super Bowl isn't because I think they'll beat New Orleans. It's because they come from the weaker AFC, so they have a higher likelihood of reaching the Super Bowl in the first place than New Orleans does. Picking an AFC team is just a safer bet, because they have a better chance of being there. In a weird way, it makes more sense to pick an AFC team *because* the NFC is the better conference - the odds for NFC teams are just spread too thin. I'm not picking New England to beat New Orleans (necessarily). But I'm picking the Patriots - my Patriots - to win the Super Bowl.

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