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Playoff Predictions

NFL: DEC 18 Falcons at Buccaneers Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Now that all the playoff teams are set, the schedule in place, and Wildcard weekend coming up, I’ll give my best shot at predicting what will happen in this year’s post-season.

REVIEWING VIKINGS REGULAR SEASON PREDICTION

Back at the end of August, I gave my regular-season forecast for the Vikings this year. I had the Vikings finishing the regular season at 12-4, which I thought would likely be good enough to win the NFC North and secure a first-round bye. I had the Vikings going 5-1 in the division (but sweeping the Bears and Lions instead of the Bears and Packers). It was pretty close- but also pretty optimistic compared to just about every other prediction I saw at the time.

So, feeling good about my regular season predictions, I’ll put it on the line again for the playoffs, although I’ll also say I don’t expect these to be as accurate, given I don’t follow all the other playoff teams as much as the Vikings and NFC North teams.

A COUPLE VIKINGS NOTES

Before getting into game predictions, a couple notes about what I expect from the Vikings.

First, as you’ve seen a little in the past few games, I think the Vikings are looking to improve their ground game with especially Latavius Murray, but also Jerick McKinnon. Being able to run the ball effectively is important in the playoffs, will take some pressure off of Case Keenum, make play-action more effective, make the offensive line’s job a little easier, allow the Vikings to possess the ball longer, and close out games effectively with the lead.

Pat Shurmur has used unbalanced lines on occasion throughout the year to take create favorable matchups, and/or force defensive fronts into different alignments or responsibilities they may not prefer. I would also not be surprised if the Vikings look to get their tight-ends more involved, with David Morgan looking improved as both a receiver and run-blocker, and hopefully Kyle Rudolph returning from his ankle injury.

Shurmur has said in the past that spreading the ball around gives his offense an advantage, and that is true as it spreads out a defense and keeps them off-balance- all of which makes it easier for the Vikings offense and offensive line to execute effectively- particularly in the red zone.

Additionally, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings worked on some new plays this week, allowing them to give some new looks to teams they’ve played earlier in the season- both offensively and defensively.

With that, here are my predictions...

WILD CARD GAMES

Carolina at New Orleans

The Saints are a 7 point favorite at home- where they beat the Panthers 31-21 a month ago, week 13. The Saints also beat the Panthers on the road week 3, 34-13.

I’m not sure the Saints will win by as big a margin as the first two games, but it’s hard to see the Panthers matching the Saints offense. My guess is that the Saints will focus on taking away the Panthers ground game- Cam Newton included- and make Newton beat them in the air on the road. Hard to see that happening against Drew Brees and the Saints rushing attack at home.

Saints advance, Carolina goes home.

Atlanta at LA Rams

This is a tough match-up for the Rams. Atlanta went to the Super Bowl last year, the Rams haven’t been in a playoff game in forever.

Atlanta has a center in Alex Mack that can help neutralize Aaron Donald and the Rams interior defense. The Rams will likely shadow Julio Jones with Trumaine Johnson - a match-up that clearly favors Jones. Atlanta has a good front seven to slow-down Todd Gurley.

I don’t see a lot of favorable match-ups for the Rams. I’m also not sure what sort of home-field advantage the Rams will have- probably not the best given Rams attendance figures.

The Rams are 6 point favorites, and both teams can be a little hot or cold at times. But I like Atlanta to upset the Rams at home, and advance to play the Eagles.

Tennessee at Kansas City

The Chiefs are 9 point favorites at home, but at least on paper this looks like a closer game. This one may feature a couple big plays or turnovers that decide an otherwise fairly even game, but I think Kansas City will be the team that makes them.

Kansas City advances, Tennessee goes home.

Buffalo at Jacksonville

Jacksonville is an 8 point favorite at home, but that could be the over/under as well. It’s hard to see either team scoring many points. Both teams have excellent secondaries and mediocre receivers. I give Jacksonville the edge in being able to pound the ball in the running game, get the lead and put Buffalo in a bad situation against the stout Jacksonville defensive front.

Jacksonville advances, Buffalo goes home.

DIVISIONAL ROUND

New Orleans at Vikings

The Vikings draw perhaps their toughest match-up in a re-match of the 2009 NFC Championship game, only this time at US Bank stadium. The Saints scored more points than any team this year at US Bank stadium - 19 -and are a better team than the team the Vikings faced in week one. But the Vikings are a better team now too.

The Vikings defense is well suited to stop the Saints double-headed rushing attack of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, being both stout in the middle, and athletic and sound tacklers on the outside. At the same time, the Vikings also have the secondary to match-up well against the Saints receivers- including Kamara and Ingram- and generate pressure on Drew Brees.

Offensively, the Vikings’ offensive line will have their work cut out for them, but will also benefit from the extra week off. The Vikings have advantages in the slot with Thielen, and at TE. It will be interesting to see how Diggs does against Marshon Lattimore this time around. He did alright the first time. I could see the Vikings RBs having a good game against the Saints as well.

But the Saints will be a tough out. They have a top 10 defense, top rushing attack, and Drew Brees. But they’ve also lost their last three road games, and could be a little beat up after playing a tough Carolina team. The key for the Vikings defense will be to limit yards after contact/catch, which they’ve done well all season. Offensively, good balance and play-calling to keep the Saints off-balance and guessing will help, including some deep shots down the field, screens, misdirection, and hitting Thielen, Diggs and TEs over the middle.

I expect a close game, but in the end I think the Saints will be forced into a mistake or two that will cost them.

Vikings advance, Saints go home.

Atlanta at Philadelphia

Weather could potentially be a factor in this game, and the field conditions, but ultimately this game is about whether Nick Foles can make enough plays to keep up with the Falcons offense. I don’t see it happening.

The Eagles have a stout defense, but the Falcons should be able to manage their defensive front well enough for Matt Ryan to make enough throws that lead to points. On the other side, the Eagles have a weak link at left tackle, which creates a bad match up, while the Falcons have the secondary to make things difficult for Nick Foles.

Unless the weather is a factor, I don’t see the Eagles being able to generate enough offense to keep up with the Falcons, even in a low-scoring game.

Falcons advance, Eagles stay home.

Kansas City at New England

A re-match of the week one fiasco for New England, where Kansas City embarrassed the Patriots at home to start the regular season. This time around, the Patriots won’t be so embarrassed- but bad weather could make it more difficult for them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kareem Hunt had another big day, but Rob Gronkowski could have a big game too.

I’m guessing Tom Brady will avoid throwing into Marcus Peters’ coverage, as there are better match-ups pretty much everywhere else. But I don’t see Alex Smith mustering another 368-yard, 4 TD passing game. I expect the Chiefs to play the Patriots tough, in part because they can possess the ball and extend drives, keeping Brady and Gronk off the field.

But at the end of the day, the Chiefs won’t be able to convert enough in the red zone to keep up with the Patriots offense.

New England advances, Kansas City goes home.

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh

I wouldn’t be surprised if this is another low-scoring game, particularly if the weather is bad in Pittsburgh. Jacksonville is a tough match-up for the Steelers offensively. They have the defense to match-up against the Killer-Bs.

But offensively they don’t have much to worry the Steelers defense either. Playing in a cold weather game against a tough Steelers defensive front hardly seems the ideal situation for Blake Bortles to shine, and I expect he’ll have a tough day. The Jags just don’t have enough talent in their receiver group to challenge a relatively weak Steelers secondary, which could lead to some mistakes - and some drive stopping sacks.

It could be an ugly game for the Steelers offensively, but that hasn’t stopped the Steelers from winning at home this year.

Pittsburgh advances, Jacksonville goes home.

CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES

Atlanta at Vikings

Atlanta had favorable match-ups their first two games that helped them advance, but that ends against the Vikings, in another NFC Championship re-match- this one from 1998. With Xavier Rhodes on Julio Jones, a big element of the Falcons offense is minimized. The Vikings also have a stout run defense to contain Devonta Freeman, and a defensive front to pressure Matt Ryan.

The Vikings did all that earlier in the season at Atlanta, and I expect something of a repeat of that game, which the Vikings won 14-9. I could see a bit more scoring than the first meeting, despite a good Falcons defense. The Vikings offensive line will once again have a full plate, but I expect Pat Shurmur to mix things up, be balanced between run and pass, and make Atlanta defend the whole field.

Vikings stay home, Atlanta goes home.

Pittsburgh at New England

This will be another tough, closely fought game - just like the one week 15. Weather could be a factor, but if so I would expect it to effect both teams equally. This may not be as high scoring a game as the first meeting, which the Patriots won at Pittsburgh 27-24 in the last minute on a couple key plays.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Big Ben is off a little in this game, letting some opportunities get away, while Brady hits enough to get the win. Brady knows the Steelers defense, which is better than the Patriots’, and uses that knowledge to overcome it and get the win. The Steelers typically play zone, as they don’t have the secondary to play man as well, and Brady is able to pick that apart.

New England advances, Pittsburgh goes home.

SUPER BOWL

Minnesota Vikings vs. New England Patriots

While the Patriots have won Super Bowls late the last couple times, the outcome of this game may be determined earlier this time.

Early on, it may be a test of the Vikings composure - most playing in the big game for the first time, or the first time in a long time. Playing at US Bank Stadium, it may be easier for the Vikings to pretend it’s just another playoff game, which would be good for them to keep their emotions in check. Certainly the crowd will be on their side.

But Tom Brady and company will challenge them early, trying to capitalize on any early jitters in the Vikings defense, and take the crowd out of the game.

But the Vikings defense matches up very well against the Patriots offense. They can do man coverage, take away Brady’s pre-snap reads, pressure him, stop the run, minimize Gronk with possibly Barr underneath and Sendejo over the top to lay wood to him every chance he gets, leaving Harrison Smith to move around freely. It is not just the best defense the Patriots will face, it is also the best suited to stop it’s scheme and has the players to match-up well against them.

On the other side, the Patriots’ defense is vulnerable to the run game, Adam Thielen in the slot, and Jerick McKinnon out of the backfield. They have a strong interior, but their outside pass rush is not that great, which should give Keenum the time he needs to make throws.

Still, this game will come down to a few other factors as well:

  • How well do the Vikings hold up initially- can they get an early lead and overcome any early jitters?
  • How well can each team make/respond to adjustments during the game? That chess match will have an impact.
  • Execution. Who can make the plays and limit mistakes? We know Brady can deliver. So can the Vikings defense. Can Keenum?

Both the Vikings and Patriots have been pretty effective in the red zone- on both sides of the ball. Who wins those battles will be key.

But at the end of the day, this game sets up similarly to a Vikings-Packers game, only with Tom Brady instead of Aaron Rodgers.

The Vikings defense will need to stop Brady and the Patriots from getting out to an early lead, and be strong at the end to turn away the final push by Brady and company.

Meanwhile, the Vikings offense will need to be balanced and creative in sustaining drives, making some big plays, executing well in the red zone, and keeping Brady off the field. The Patriots defense should allow them to sustain drives- 3rd down is not their strong suit- but they’ll need to make the plays in the red zone to score enough points to win.

The Vikings have the talent to match the Patriots, and a defensive scheme that is the most difficult for Brady to beat. That should slow the Patriots scoring considerably.

But can the Vikings offense rise to the challenge?

I think it will. I think it will because Case Keenum will make the plays in some key situations- as he has often this season and in bigger games against tougher opponents.

Keenum’s mobility will be difficult for the Patriots to counter, as their edge pressure isn’t that great. That will give Keenum the time to deliver to Thielen, Rudolph and McKinnon to extend drives and get some chunk plays, with the occasional shot to Diggs downfield too. He may even make a play or two with his feet.

But it will be the combination of Keenum making plays and not mistakes, combined with a stifling Vikings defense that will frustrate Brady and Belichick enough to give the Vikings their first Super Bowl championship in the history of the franchise.

My guess is that if the Vikings are able to defeat the Saints in the divisional round, there will be a growing feeling that this is the Vikings year, and they will have an easier time defeating the Falcons, and that momentum will be too much for even the Super Bowl savvy Patriots to overcome one month from today.

Poll

How far will the Vikings get in the post-season?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    One and Done
    (217 votes)
  • 7%
    NFC Championship
    (272 votes)
  • 15%
    Super Bowl
    (538 votes)
  • 70%
    Super Bowl Champions
    (2471 votes)
3498 votes total Vote Now