In an NFL season full of surprise teams, we now enter the postseason and my prediction is to expect the expected. Which means the New England Patriots will emerge as repeat Super Bowl champs come February 4 in Minneapolis.
There are so many terrific stories among the eight new playoff teams. Buffalo gets in courtesy of a last-minute, 49-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-12 by the Bengals which knocked out the Ravens, qualifiying the Bills for their first playoff appearance since the Music City Miracle game in Nashville in 1999 (that I so fondly remember as it launched the Titans I was part of on a Super Bowl run).
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Speaking of the Titans, their eight-year playoff drought ended even as they limped to the finish line, losing three of their last four. We have the rags to riches division champions—the Rams (4-12 to 11-5) and the Jaguars (3-13 to 10-6), who also ended long playoff absences. Los Angeles hadn’t been since 2004. It’d been a decade since Jacksonville reached the postseason.
The Saints, Panthers, Eagles and Vikings round out the list of playoff newbies. I like Minnesota’s chances to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. Too many flaws or too much playoff inexperience will doom the others outside of the Vikings and Patriots. The Steelers’ playoff history in Foxboro will be their downfall.
This is a great time of year to work for an NFL team that has fought through the peaks and a few valleys to reach the postseason. First, there is a feeling of job security although we have seen owners occasionally fire coaches and GMs even after a playoff season. It happened to me in a power struggle with the head coach when I left the Vikings after our 15-1 season in 1998, but I fortunately wound up as president of the Titans’ Super Bowl team. Generally, it’s nice not to have to worry about Black Monday and firings in the NFL when playoffs are on tap.
There is a buzz and a feeling of great anticipation within the team, the entire organization and the fan base for the playoffs to begin.
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It’s certainly true that the excitement level and the intensity of the games take a big step up when the schedule moves from preseason to regular season. Well, there’s another quantum leap come playoff time, even for teams such as New England which are used to postseason pressure. But the Patriots are a team that never gets caught up in the happy-to-be-there mentality that can creep in for others.
Handling playoff pressure and expectations is why we often see the top veteran quarterbacks having success in the postseason. Based on that, I give a big edge to Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees as past Super Bowl winners in this year’s field.
Matt Ryan was a Super Bowl quarterback last year although it didn’t end well for him with the Patriots’ big comeback victory. But I like Ryan and a surging Falcons team (6-2 over the second half of the season) to win in L.A. on wild card Saturday night in the best matchup of the opening weekend. The Rams are probably still a year away from being a playoff force even though they’re dangerous with Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald along with their Coach of the Year candidate Sean McVay. I think the Falcons will follow it up with a win over the vulnerable and less confident Eagles with their now shaky offense with Nick Foles at quarterback.
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In this scenario, a Minnesota-New Orleans divisional round game would be a terrific matchup. The Vikings knocked off the Saints 29-19 in the season opener but that was before the Saints were fully utilizing rookie sensation Alvin Kamara.
The Vikings’ dome will be very tough on the road team and Minnesota’s defense is on a roll, having given up only one garbage-time touchdown in their last three games. I also like the poise that Vikings quarterback Case Keenum is playing. Minnesota’s skill players on offense, led by Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen are underrated, but the health of its offensive line is a continuing concern.
With all factors considered, especially their top-ranked defense and dome field advantage, the Vikings are my pick to avenge two painful overtime playoff losses by beating the Saints in the divisional round (Remember that costly Brett Favre interception in the 2009 NFC championship game?) and then defeat the Falcons to reach Super Bowl LII. It’ll be sweet revenge for the 1998 league title game upset that was my final game as Vikings GM.
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On the AFC side, I can’t see the inconsistent Chiefs as a final four team although they should beat the offensively-challenged Titans this week (Tennessee would need an outstanding performance throwing and running from quarterback Marcus Mariota to win and that’s rarely been the case for him in a less productive third season). I’ll take the Bills over the Jaguars because I don’t trust Blake Bortles to win a big game and his play has gone downhill over the past few weeks.
Kansas City and Buffalo, or whoever emerges from these lackluster AFC wild card games, don’t have much of a chance of winning in Foxboro or Pittsburgh even though the Patriots did lose to the Chiefs at home in the season opener. Brady and coach New England coach Bill Belichick will make sure that doesn’t recur if the Chiefs are their divisional round opponent. But in my scenario, the Bills will face the Pats and the Chiefs will head to Steeltown. In any event, it’s should be just a warm up for the main event–the AFC title game rematch of Pittsburgh at New England.
Brady and Belichick have never lost to the Steelers at Gillette Stadium. In fact, Brady has never thrown an interception against them at home. The defending champs hold home-field advantage thanks to their late-game heroics in a 27-24 victory three weeks ago when Roethlisberger’s ill-advised fake spike turned into an interception while in field goal range to force overtime. Star receiver Antonio Brown’s hurt his calf in that game. He’ll need to be at full strength for the Steelers to have a chance to pull the upset. But I’ll still pick New England’s duo B’s of Brady and Belichick over Pittsburgh’s Killer B’s of Brown, Big Ben and Le’Veon Bell.
When Super Sunday arrives, and if my New England-Minnesota pick survives, the U.S. Bank Stadium crowd will be pro-Vikings but less so than usual due to Super Bowl ticket distribution policies under NFL rules watering down the number of Viking fans in-house.
My heart would be with my hometown Vikings to get off the Super Bowl schneid (0-4 including their last Super Bowl loss to the Raiders in my rookie season of 1976). But my head must give the nod to the Patriots and their big game mojo behind the super clutch Brady.