Happy new year! After a week of my life doing all it can to get in the way of progress (New Year’s Eve festivities, my car apparently having been stolen, yadda yadda yadda), it occurred to me that the first round of the NFL playoffs gets started in less than an hour…so without further delay, I’ll finish my playoff predictions by finally looking at the situation in the league’s older conference…
NFL WILD CARD ROUND
Atlanta Falcons at Arizona Cardinals: As I’ve harped about previously (see my comments about the Indianapolis Colts in my AFC playoff predictions), momentum is probably the most powerful advantage you can have in the playoffs, and the Falcons have that on their side, having won three straight, five of their last six, seven of their last nine, nine of their last 12. In fact, they haven’t lost two straight games all season long. As the season progressed, Atlanta got better and better at beating the good teams as well as the weak ones, and that has prepared them well for the tast ahead. Arizona, meanwhile, has lost most of the fire that propelled them to a 7-3 start, and they’ve had trouble getting past most of their strongest opponents. I see no change in either team’s fortunes as they meet in this round of the playoffs. Falcons 28, Cardinals 13.
Philadelphia Eagles at Minnesota Vikings: When the Eagles are hot, they’re unstoppable. When they’re cold, I could beat them singlehandedly. Either version of that team could show up on any given Sunday, so this game could be the hardest one to predict. The Eagles have a definite edge at quarterback and Brian Westbrook is one of the league’s most dangerous multipurpose weapons, but the Vikings are more consistent, and their losses have been against quality opponents. I could easily be wrong about this outcome. Vikings 27, Eagles 26.
NFC DIVISIONAL ROUND
Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants: When you looked at the state of things in the preseason, the Falcons were never supposed to get this far, but the Giants were. The Giants became a different team when they nearly ruined the Patriots’ perfect season in Week 17 last year, and they haven’t let up since. The loss of Plaxico Burress hasn’t mattered much (he hasn’t led a game in receiving yards since Week 9 anyway), the three-headed rushing attack of Jacobs-Ward-Bradshaw can’t be worn down, and Eli Manning has a firm grip on the steering wheel. And oh yeah, the Giants have a very decent defense as well. Atlanta got this far as a surprise this year; next year, they’ll be more than surprising. Giants 34, Falcons 24.
Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers: Remember what I said about the Vikings having only lost against quality opponents? Well, the Panthers can say that, too. They can also boast one of the best wide receivers in the game in Steve Smith. They can also boast about a seasoned, experienced quarterback who can do more than just manage a game. And they may not have Adrian Peterson, but they have a tandem of backs that can bury their opponent’s run defense. Panthers 31, Minnesota 14.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Carolina Panthers at New York Giants: I think we’ve gotten a little too used to seeing at least one surprise team in every conference championship game. Once in a while, things do work out the way you logically think they will….and in this case, I’m not just talking about who’s playing this game, but also who’s winning it. This game will be as hard-fought as the last time we saw these two teams in Giants Stadium (Week 16), and I think we’ll see the same sort of result. Giants 27, Carolina 24.
If my playoff predictions for both conferences pan out correctly, we’ll be hearing the media gush about a Manning Bowl for two straight weeks as the Colts face the defending Super Bowl champions. As much as I fear that volcano of hype, it’d certainly be a great matchup…but I won’t go as far as to predict what would happen. I’m going to sit back and enjoy three weekends of playoffs, then offer my last forecast when we know the participants of the final game.