2012 NFL Playoff Predictions and Analysis

by JG

ESPN has a nifty little tool called the Playoff Machine, and it’s exactly what you think it is. Simply click on the team you project to win for any of the remaining games, and the playoff scenarios are automatically updated. You could do it week-by-week to see how the situation changes, or you could just forecast all the remaining games to see a hypothetical ending scenario. If you’re too lazy to do that, you could use a number of qualifying factors to do it automatically (Win %, Home/Away Team, Power Ranking, Offensive/Defensive Rank).

As of this exact moment, when only one Week 13 game has been played, this is how the playoff picture looks right now (click to enlarge):

Obviously, this is going to change. Even though I’m a huge Houston Texans fan, with a rookie QB at the helm, they would likely have to run the table to grab the 1-seed. I personally like New England and Baltimore’s end of season schedules better, though I do still think Houston will win the AFC South, clinching their first ever playoff berth in their 10th season. Before we delve too much into my current predictions, let’s look at how I saw the season unfolding way back in February. In retrospect, some of my picks do look pretty embarrassing, but it is important to note that not only where these MADE IN FEBRUARY, I was kind of just guessing. The Super Bowl had just ended and I had nothing else to write about.

To see my early predictions, my updated ones, and plenty of analysis, hit the jump.

2012 Playoff Predictions – February 2011

1. San Diego (13-3)
2. Baltimore (12-4)
3. Houston (11-5)
4. New England (11-5)
5. Indianapolis (11-5)
6. Pittsburgh (10-6)

1. Philadelphia (14-2)
2. Green Bay (13-3)
3. Tampa Bay (11-5)
4. St. Louis (9-7)
5. Atlanta (10-6)
6. Detroit (9-7)

I never did get around to making predictions in early September, right before the season was about to start. Had I had the chance, I would have changed some things around. It’s easy to say in retrospect but I probably would’ve knocked Philly a bit, and obviously I would have found a team to replace Indy. Since there’s no way of me saying honestly what my predictions were in September, I’ll ignore that and just talk about what I thought in February.

Like many people, I was on the Eagles bandwagon early. After a few months of thinking though, and the lockout, I realized that while I still believed they would contend for the league’s best record, it wouldn’t be as easy as I originally thought. I thought Vick would have a bit of a down year, but I also thought the talent around him would make up for it. Turns out I extremely over-estimated them, but that stuff happens. My pick of Tampa to win the division was largely the effect of me going for a bold pick and picking the Saints to miss the playoffs. I figured they would have a down year, and as result, Tampa would pick up the slack. I also thought that this was Sam Bradford’s year to mature, and it’s not like winning the NFC West is something that’s so hard to do. Of course, this was before Jim Harbaugh was hired. One pick I am proud of though is the Lions to make the playoffs. People were laughing but I expected a healthy year from Stafford, a breakout for Calvin and Best, and another big year from Suh. So I was about 2-4 there. Still, I had a feeling they’d step it up, and it looks like they are.

After a disappointing rookie year, I thought Ryan Matthews would rebound and maybe even break out. I also thought Phillip Rivers would be one of the league’s top passers again, and that the defense would step up yet again. How very wrong I was. Even with a healthy Peyton Manning, I thought that this was finally Houston’s year to win the division. It’s impossible to know now, but I strongly believe that if Manning did play the whole season, and Schaub did as well, that Houston still would’ve won, but, as you can see, I thought it would be close. Impossible to know what might’ve been, as both teams have been decimated by injuries this year. Is it possible the Colts were never that good, just that Peyton Manning is the greatest QB/Coordinator combo to ever play? Maybe. I also expected good years from Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and New England, though that was not so hard to do. I did feel a big year for the Ravens was coming, and that looks like another prediction that may come true.

Onto the playoffs. I had Baltimore beating San Diego and Philadelphia beating Tampa Bay in the conference championships, and Baltimore beating Philadelphia in the Super Bowl, with Ray Lewis as MVP. I felt that the momentum of a division win would propel Tampa, but obviously, I was wrong. I always did have faith in Baltimore though, and I think a 2-sack, 1 INT, 1 TD performance would be something that could award Lewis the MVP trophy, especially against (what I thought would be) an explosive team like Philly.

Enough of that though, let’s get back to what’s actually happening now. I really wish I had made a pre-season prediction in writing. I think I might’ve made some on Facebook, so if I find them, I’ll post them in the comments section below. Here’s how I think both the playoff picture and the end of season standings will look after the next four weeks of games are played. To see my game-by-game predictions, click here. If the pictures are difficult to read, click them for a better look.

2012 Updated Playoff Predictions 

Picking individual games weeks in advance can be a bit of a crapshoot. You don’t know if players will be injured, on cold or hot streaks, or the situation of the game. Example: right now I’ve picked my least favourite team in the NFL, the Tennessee Titans, to beat my Texans in week 17. Why? Because I think the Texans will be sitting at 11-4, the Titans will be at 8-7, and Houston will have nothing to play for. If of course, the Texans don’t perform as well as I expect them to in their four pre-Titans games, and the Titans play better than I expect, Houston might very well need an end of season victory. In a game that Houston believes they absolutely need to win, I like them to beat Tennessee, regardless of who’s playing quarterback.

I decided to be a bit adventurous with some of my picks, and forecasted a number of upsets, including the Chargers over the Ravens in Week 15, the Lions ending the Packers 16-0 bid in Lambeau on the final day of the regular season, with the Colts also winning in the final week to avoid the shame of 0-16. I also have the Giants beating the Cowboys in Week 17, which should hand them division on tiebreaker rules. If San Diego beats Detroit in Week 16 (though at the moment, I don’t see that happening), they could find themselves sneaking in for the final AFC playoff seed, while the Bears could grab the 5th seed and the Falcons get bumped down to 6th. I don’t know if everything else will happen to make that a possible scenario, but the Chargers-Lions game could have huge playoff implications for five teams.

If my predictions prove to be true, at least in terms of the final playoff seed, here’s one way I see the playoffs turning out.

Wildcard Round

3rd-Seeded Houston vs 6th-Seeded Cincinnati: If Houston could beat them in Week 14, they could do the same a month later. The crowd will be buzzing in Reliant as the Texans will not only be playing in, but hosting their first ever playoff appearance. TJ Yates may not be as good as Andy Dalton, but that’s the only area where I’d give Cinci the edge. Houston wins it.

4th-Seeded Oakland vs 5th-Seeded Pittsburgh: It’s easy to take Pittsburgh here. They have the playoff experience, a QB that’s been there, and the defense you need to go deep into the playoffs. Oakland’s got Carson Palmer at quarterback. All signs point to the Steelers taking this matchup, which of course, is why I’m picking the Raiders.

3rd-Seeded New Orleans vs 6th-Seeded Detroit: Their matchup this weekend will show if Detroit is really ready to compete with the NFC elite. If this game were at Ford Field, I might be taking the Lions. It’s not though, and for the Lions to head to the Superdome get their first playoff victory since Jahvid Best was in diapers, a lot of things would have to fall Detroit’s way. The Saints win big.

4th-Seeded New York vs 5th-Seeded Atlanta: Is Atlanta finally ready to take the leap? It looked like they were last year, when they finished with the best record in the NFC. Matt Ryan is not playing nearly as well as he was last year, though if Julio Jones finally get healthy, that could change. The tough Falcons run defense should be able to stop Bradshaw/Jacobs, but I’m not sure if there pass defense could handle New York’s trio of receivers. Eli should be able to play well, but I have Matt Ryan finally stepping and the Falcons moving on.

Divisional Round

1st-Seeded New England vs 4th-Seeded Oakland: If the Raiders actually do beat the Steelers (in a game they’d probably be underdogs), they could have enough momentum for another upset. The Patriots’ pass defense is horrendous, so Carson Palmer could even have a good day. With the loss of Nhamdi Asomugha, however, the Raiders just don’t have anyone that could stop Wes Welker. The two-headed tight end monster of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez should prove to much for the Raiders D, and the Patriots should take care of this one easily.

2nd-Seeded Baltimore vs 3rd-Season Houston: When these teams met over a month ago in Baltimore, the Texans were in crisis mode. They had lost their most talented player on both sides of the ball: Andre Johnson and Mario Williams. The Texans defense was still searching for an identity, and could not contain Ray Rice. The offense looked like they didn’t know what to do without Andre Johnson, and the Ravens were able to contain their running game. Since then, much has changed. The Texans have the top-ranked defense in the league and look  like they’re for real on that side of the ball. With a healty proven QB like Matt Schaub, I think I would easily take Houston in this game, even ignoring my biases. But Matt Schaub is no longer taking snaps for Houston, and they are going to be led by either 5th-round rookie TJ Yates or backup Jake Delhomme. Yates played admirably when thrust into his first game action with little preparation last week, and how he plays down the stretch will determine how far Houston can go. I love the Texans, and I actually love Yates, but until he shows that he can perform, I’m forced to take Baltimore.

1st-Seeded Green Bay vs 5th-Seeded Atlanta: Can anyone stop Aaron Rodgers? Certainly not the Falcons pass D. They’re actually playing relatively well against opposing receivers, but horrendously against the opponents’ number one. Rodgers and Greg Jennings should be able to exploit this, and the Packers defense should be able to step up. Key word is should, but I’m still picking the Packers.

2nd-Seeded San Francisco vs 3rd-Seeded New Orleans: Jim Harbaugh has done more for this team than anyone could have expected. The likely front-runner for Coach of the Year, he’s turned the 49ers from cellar-dwellers to Super Bowl contenders. It’s impossible to run against the stout 49ers defense, possibly the best against the run since the Super Bowl winning Ravens of ten years ago. Luckily for the Saints, they don’t need to run to win games. Drew Brees will be Drew Brees, and we will be treated to one of the best NFC championships in years. The Saints advance.

Conference Championships

Baltimore @ New England: I’ve removed the seeds, because at this point, they are irrelevant. Tom Brady might have better weapons this year than his record-shattering 2007 season, and that scares me. Wes Welker and both tight ends are playing phenomenally. On Baltimore’s side, Joe Flacco has yet to prove he’s anything but a game manager. Sooner or later he’ll have to do so, and it might be in this game, because New England’s pass defense is atrocious (I sound like a broken record). Baltimore’s got a championship caliber defense. I may change my pick in January, but as of now, I have Baltimore reaching the Super Bowl.

Saints @ Packers:  This game could be an aerial delight, and maybe the most watched game of the season (outside of the Super Bowl). Both teams have fantastic quarterbacks, who will likely be enshrined in Canton when all is said and done. Darren Sproles is looking like the best offensive free agent acquisition of the season, and rookie Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas are even running well recently. The defense isn’t as good as they were when they won the Super Bowl a few years back, but they’re still pretty decent. Green Bay’s defense, on the other hand, is finally showing signs of life after a slow start. Jordy Nelson is also playing fantastically, making up for a relatively so-so year by Greg Jennings. Aaron Rodgers is looking unstoppable, and the Packers have a shot to finish both the regular season and playoffs undefeated, becoming the first team to do so since 1972. If they haven’t lost by this point, the pressure could be too much, like it was for the Patriots in the Super Bowl a few years back. Fortunately for Green Bay though, I’m not picking them to go 16-0, but I’m picking them to win this game. The Packers are back in the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl XLVI: Baltimore vs Green Bay

If Joe Flacco can lead his team this far, he’ll show he’s finally matured. He’s no Aaron Rodgers, but the Baltimore Ravens are built in a way that he doesn’t need to be. They may not have the weapons the Packers do, but they do have the electric Ray Rice. If the Packers can’t contain Rice, they’re going to have a lot of trouble winning this game. Like I said in the last paragraph, the pressure of an undefeated season may be too much for the Packers. Since I don’t have them going 16-0 though, that gets thrown out the window. This game comes down to offense versus defense, except the Ravens actually have a bit of an offense, and the Packers do have a bit of a defense. If the cards fall the way I expect to, this could be an exhilarating Super Bowl. Only time will tell if this game happens, but if it does, I think the Ravens win the Super Bowl, behind a big game from Super Bowl MVP Ray Rice.

So that’s it. Hope you enjoyed it all, now head over to the ESPN NFL Playoff Machine, and make your own predictions. Use the “copy URL” feature to post your picks in the comments section, and let the debate begin.