GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 4, 2013

NFL Playoffs ripe with excitement, unpredictability

On Pro Football
Nick Curcuru

---- — The most exciting time of the sports year is finally upon us.

The NFL playoffs have more to offer than any other postseason in sports and that’s why football is the most popular sport in the country by a long shot. There’s so much to win and so much to lose with each game. And with the way things have been going recently, literally every one of the 12 teams still alive have a legitimate shot of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on the first weekend of February.

This year’s playoffs once again bring a high level of intrigue as every team in the field has flaws, and every team in the field has won its share of big games already this season to get to this point. Here’s a look at some of the best story lines, games and potential matchups this years playoffs have in store.

The Contenders: It’s hard to narrow down just the top contenders as the last half decade plus have showed us that any team can go all the way with five of the last six Super Bowl winners playing on Wild Card weekend. But two teams in each league stand out above the rest as the favorites to head to New Orleans.

In the AFC it’s obviously the Broncos and Patriots, the top two seeds that have been playing their best football late in the season. Both teams sport high powered offenses with future Hall of Fame quarterbacks at the helm that are former Super Bowl MVPs.

In the NFC the cream of the crop looks like the 49ers and Packers. San Francisco has the most feared defense of any playoff team with the pass rushers to go along with the run stopping linebackers. Green Bay has the best quarterback in the NFC playoffs in Aaron Rodgers, a veteran with a Super Bowl ring on his resume. Green Bay and San Francisco are on a crash course to meet in the NFC Divisional Round, and the winner is the odds on favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Pretenders: Despite being tied with Denver for the best record in the NFL at 13-3, nobody is taking the Falcons seriously as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The Falcons are great at home and have home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, but quarterback Matt Ryan has never won a playoff game in his career and nobody trusts him to buck that trend.

Ryan lost big games in college at Boston College, and he’s lost big games in the NFL. Once again Atlanta will be not quite good enough.

In the AFC the biggest pretender is the Houston Texans. Two weeks ago Houston controlled its own destiny for home field advantage in the NFC playoffs, but three losses over its last five games has Houston playing Cincinnati in the Wild Card round. Houston’s defense, most notably its secondary, has been exposed as frauds over the stretch run of the regular season. If Andy Dalton and the Bengals can’t expose that secondary in the Wild Card round, Tom Brady and the Patriots will in the Divisional Round.

Sleepers: Don’t sleep on the Ravens in the AFC. With emotional leader Ray Lewis announcing this week that he will be retiring following the playoffs, Baltimore will be playing extra hard to make sure the best linebacker of his generation and one of the three best linebackers off all time (Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus the other two) goes out a winner.

Plus Baltimore has already hit rock bottom, and has no place to go but up. The Ravens could be the Giants of this years playoffs, a once written off but ptheir best at the right time.

In the NFC Seattle seems to be the trendy pick to pull off an upset or two, but I just can’t trust a 3-5 road team to win multiple road games in the playoffs with a rookie quarterback, no matter who impressive they’ve looked over the last three weeks.

The team to look out for in the NFC is the Washington Redskins. If Robert Griffin III gets healthy the Redskins have the best rushing attack in all off football, combine that with a physical defense and this team is not one to be taken lightly.

Best First Round Matchup: All four Wild Card matchups are interesting and could go either way, but the best matchup will be played Saturday at 8:00 p.m. at Lambeau Field.

Packers vs. Vikings has everything a football fan could want. Two divisional rivals battling in a winner take all. Contrasting styles, as the Packers love to pass and the Vikings love to control the clock with the run game. Star power in Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

You can throw records and home field advantage out the window in a divisional matchup and these two teams are going to put on another tightly contested game this week. The Packers and Vikings split two regular season meetings.

Dream Matchup: What football fan doesn’t want to see Tom Brady and the Patriots battle Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the AFC Championship game. The sports two marquee names playing on the big stage once again. If this matchup were to take place it would be the fourth playoff meeting and third AFC Championship game meeting between the two future Hall of Fame signal callers.

Before the two all time greats, the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson of football, call it quits they have to meet one more time on the big stage.

To take it one step further, seeing Brady or Manning in the Super Bowl against Rodgers and the Packers would also be a dream matchup and a ratings machine.

Prediction: Once the pretenders are knocked off and the contenders battle it out in the last two weeks of the season it will be the Patriots that stand tall. That’s right, Tom Brady will get ring No. 4.

Sure New England is flawed this year and it is by no means a sure bet, along with the other 11 teams in the field, but the Pats are the most complete team in the league with the best coach and best quarterback to go along with it.

New England slips past Rodgers and the Packers in New Orleans to take home the crown.

Staff NFL Playoff Predictions Nick Curcuru Wild Card Bengals over Texans Ravens over Colts Packers over Vikings Redskins over Seahawks NFC Championship Packers over Falcons AFC Championship Patriots over Broncos Super Bowl Patriots over Packers 35-31 The Packers are good, but the Patriots have less holes. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick finally get that elusive fourth ring and the Patriots finally avenge their loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XXXI in another classic Super Bowl that comes down to the final minute. Conor Walsh Wild Card Texans over Bengals Colts over Ravens Packers over Vikings Seahawks over Redskins NFC Championship 49ers over Seahawks AFC Championship Patriots over Broncos Super Bowl Patriots over 49ers 24-20 Before the season, I had the Niners beating the Pats in New Orleans. Have to switch that up now. The Niners are tough, but not tough enough to repeat what we saw in Foxborough a few weeks ago. Brady and Belichick get their fourth rings.