NFL 2021 Playoff team prediction

Injuries (and schedule adjustments due to the pandemic) were important in determining which teams qualified for the playoffs and had success in January last time out and while it would be churlish to expect them not to have an impact this season too there are reasons to expect they won’t be as decisive this year.  With the experience of last season’s truncated preseason to provide every coaching staff with data from which to adapt training schedules, a new adapted Injured List protocol plus a new, longer regular season teams should be able to reduce the intensity of the training and increase the duration instead to lessen the stress on player’s bodies.  This is the NFL though so there will be impact injuries and freak accidents on the training field as well as the pitch.

When it comes to trying to make sense of who will be contending at the end of a new, extended regular season two things stand out for me; experience of competing at the latter stages of recent seasons and strength in depth of team rosters.  Experience in the Postseason is very much a double-edged sword, obviously having players and coaches who have proven they are good enough to compete at the highest level is vital but recent extended playoff runs are not always helpful. 

Seven of the 2020 playoff teams made the playoffs in 2019 and it’s difficult to see how the current Super Bowl Champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t make the playoffs again this year but in order to successfully defend their title they will have to play 40 or 41 games in something like 74 weeks, which may seem a relatively simple task but given the impact of fatigue in increasing the likelihood of players getting injured it’s a tough ask and no team has defended the Lombardi trophy since the Patriots managed it in 2005!

Schedule alterations effected the AFC playoffs more than the NFC last season as the Ravens and Titans caused a fair amount of chaos within the Conference and the Steelers seemed to be the unfortunate ones who paid the price as they ended up playing 5 games in 25 days in December!  They still qualified for the Playoffs but unsurprisingly the fatigue caught up with them as they succumbed at home in the Wildcard game 37-48 to the Browns who they beat 38-7 at Heinz Field during the regular season.  I’m not sure the Steelers will have the chance for redemption this season as the Bengals, who were hampered by a season ending injury to rookie Quarterback Joe Burrow last season and they should take their Divisional rivals place in the postseason this time out.  I think the AFC North should be the strongest division in the Conference again this year with 3 playoff teams in the Browns, Ravens and Bengals, the AFC South may well provide two playoff teams in the form of the Titans and the Colts who appear to have two of the stronger Defence’s in the Conference (although the Colts deal for Carson Wentz seems to be a big gamble).  The other two divisions in the AFC look like the most unpredictable divisions in the league, the Chiefs will need to be befallen by some pretty catastrophic circumstances to not win the AFC West but how the other 3 teams in West perform is tricky to calculate, the Raiders are prime example, last season they won 6 of their first 9 games but then crumbled to a final record of 8-8, similarly the Chargers lost 4  of their first 5 game in 2020 and then won their last 4 so I find it very difficult to predict anyone else making the postseason form the western conference.  Josh Allen has looked remarkably calm in preseason for the Bills and while it’s only practice the Bills have played the Packers and the Bears who have strong rosters even without all of their starters in their lineups.  The Bills should win their division comfortably and while all the other teams have made changes that should improve their fortunes from last season, I think the settled nature of the Bills will provide them with enough dominance to dampen their rival’s playoff chances.

In the NFC two teams seemed to really suffer the injury curse the 49ers ended the season with 18 players on Injured Reserve and another 9 on their Injury Report and the Giants lost the mainstay of their Offence Saquon Barkley in after 19 carries in 2020 so it’s hard not to believe they will both be determined to make up for lost time this season and I can see both of them making the postseason.  I expect the Packers and Saints to be the two best teams in the Conference again and the Buccaneers have managed to retain most of their Super Bowl winning roster so it’s difficult to imagine they won’t still be in the mix by January too.  The NFC East is an interesting Division in as much as the Washington Football team have the only dominant Defence so they should be favourites to finish at the head of the pack but with the other 3 teams all having the potential to score points in bunches there may well be a Wildcard team in the East and if Saquon can stay healthy the Giants Offence should be the most consistent in that Division.  I think the final Wildcard team will be from the North and as they made the playoffs last season and as they appear to have two viable Quarterbacks, I think the Bears should still be playing come January.

 

Wildcard Weekend (the NFC bit part 2)

Back in 1996 the Propellerheads collaborated with Shirley Bassey and released “History Repeating” and that should be this game’s theme tune, the Seahawks travelled to Philadelphia just 6 weeks ago and despite a few alleged experts claiming they would struggle with the travel and the time difference they won 17-9. There a few differences in personnel from that game and the Seahawks demonstrated last week that they can quite average and incredibly exciting to watch in 2 halves of the same game so there is a chance that this is the wild Wildcard game.

In week 12 had Rashaad Penny and Chris Carson to combine for 155 rushing yards and a touchdown and this week it looks likely that they’ll be relying on Travis Homer to carry most of the load in the run game with occasional bursts of veteran Marshawn Lynch and another veteran Robert Turbin on third downs. That may sound like a pretty serious problem, but back in week 12 the Seahawks had 14 players either “limited” or completely missing from practice this week that number is just 8 although 3 of them are Offensive lineman and that could have a bigger effect on the run game than the combination of running backs they’re using. The Eagles themselves have missed running back Miles Sanders and left tackle Lane Johnson during practice this week although Sanders says he fully expects to play on Sunday.

It’s been a messy season for the Eagles especially in terms of injuries and they’ve only won 5 games at home this season compared to the Seahawks 7 road games, the Eagles are ranked 12th in the league for passing touchdowns (averaging 1.7 per game) and 8th for interceptions (23rd in overall turnover percentage) and 13th for rushing touchdowns (averaging 1 per game) so they’re going to need their Defence to hold the Seahawks to less than 14 points if they’re going to win this game. The Seahawks have averaged a nice, round 25 points per game on the road this season although the 17 they scored in Philly last time out was the fewest points they’ve scored outside Seattle this season. If Eagles fans are searching for hope they can look to the fact that the Seahawks lost their last 2 games of the season against divisional opponents, so teams who have already played them this season can be problematic although both those teams were considerably healthier than the Eagles figure to be this week.

It’s difficult to see how injuries don’t decide this game, even if both teams start the game with the majority of players who have missed practice there’s a very real possibility the injuries will rear their ugly heads again during the game. Unless something drastic happens the Seahawks should be buoyed by the ending of last week’s battle with the 49ers and should progress serenely into the next round with a 10 point buffer.

Wildcard Weekend (the NFC bit)

It seems amazing that any team from the NFC North made the playoffs so the fact that two teams are still playing in January is absolutely inconceivable. Conversely the only thing surprising about the Saints appearance in the playoffs is that it’s happening so early with many expecting them to be one of the first two seeds and on a bye week.

Frankly its hard to envision a scenario whereby the 10-6 Vikings even get remotely close to the 13-3 Saints, even if both teams finished with similar final records there’s no getting away from the fact that Kirk Cousins is an absolute basket case in big games, he’s 7-15 over his entire career in prime time matchups and 6-29 against teams with a winning record! Obviously this isn’t all on Cousins, it’s a team game so obviously the rest of the team need to contribute to decide the outcome of games and the Vikings do have a playoff victory over the Saints in recent years back in 2018 in what became known as the “Minneapolis Miracle” when Saints Safety Marcus Williams completely whiffed on his attempt to tackle Stefon Diggs and actually ducked straight underneath him allowing Diggs to complete a game winning 61 yard touchdown. Unfortunately for the Vikings the cliché “once bitten, twice shy” spring readily to mind, Williams certainly won’t be beaten as easily this time round and as Hollywood often seems to write the script for these NFL redemption stories it wouldn’t be a surprise if he starts the game with a pick 6. As if history and a shonky QB weren’t enough reason to doubt the Vikings they currently have 11 players on the Injury Report and although 6 of them practiced in full today it still concerning.

Statistically this should be the most entertaining of the 4 games this weekend with the Saints being second in the league in terms of passing touchdowns scored and 21st when it comes to the number they’ve allowed. Alternatively the Vikings prefer to run the ball and being 6th in the league for rushing touchdowns. The one thing in the Vikings favour is that they may well be able to keep the ball away from the Saints pass first Offence by running the ball against the Saints leaky run Defence but if Dennis Allen decides to load the box then at some stage Kirk Cousins will have to take the team on his shoulders and we all know that rarely ends well.

There’s a real chance this becomes a huge blowout win for the Saints as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill seem to be finding some very impressive form of late and the Saints haven’t lost a game on the road since week 2 but the Vikings have been averaging 24 points per game at home this season and the Saints have been nearer 29 points per game away so the Total Points set at 49.5 seems far too low. Saints by more 12 points seems like a realistic outcome.

Wildcard weekend, the AFC bit at least

Buffalo at Houston is essentially the NFL equivalent of the North London derby, both teams are capable of producing exciting football but neither have been able to put together enough excitement to challenge for the big prize. The Bills longest winning streak this season has been 3 games and the Texans haven’t won more than 2 consecutive games all season, luckily for them they lost last week! If either coaching team could figure out how to win consistently then both of these teams could be on a bye week this weekend instead of playing after a short week which in theory should favour the home team however the weather in Buffalo is forecast to be 7 degrees and wet on Saturday so travelling somewhere where it’ll be 17 and sunny has to be a bonus.

It’s really difficult to draw any conclusions from either team’s regular season results (beyond the axiom that their inconsistency could indicate possible weaknesses within the coaching teams) since both seem to have beaten teams with poor defensive records, the only real obvious difference is that the Texans beat the Patriots while the Bills conspired to lose to them twice in some rather grim weather conditions. The Texans have won 5 games in Houston this season and as if to highlight their inconsistency the games they lost were to the Panthers and Broncos who both ended the season with losing records. The Bills on the other hand won 6 games on the road so they won’t mind having to travel 1,500 odd miles.

The Bills Defence should make them favourites too as they’re ranked second in terms of passing touchdowns allowed, ninth in rushing touchdowns and 10th in turnovers made. The Texans are 27th in passing touchdowns (a whopping 33 allowed), ninth in rushing touchdowns and 15th in turnovers. This is another reason that this game is awkward to pick, the Bills are a stronger team than passing with Quarterback Josh Allen rushing for 9 touchdowns the most in the league by a QB while their 21 touchdown passes rank them 24th in the league.

Bill O’Brien’s postseason record looks to be deciding factor in this game to me, as a head coach he’s only won 1 playoff game while he’s lost 3 and for all the Bills coaching team possible faults (Sean McDermott himself is 0-1 in the playoffs) they’ve put together a team who should be able to win a scrappy, nerve-jangler in somebody else’s back garden.

NFL Playoffs – Wildcard Weekend game 4 – Eagles @ Bears

The Eagles have been playing knockout football since week 12 when they’re record was 4-6, since then they have only lost once in overtime at AT & T Stadium. So playing under pressure is not new to them, but only since Nick Foles returned as starting Quarterback have they looked anywhere close to the team who made last year’s Super Bowl. Foles has thrown 6 TD’s, completed 77% of his passes and has an average QB rating of 104 in those 3 games. However ball security has been an issue for the Eagles, largely due to the poor protection the O-line has provided and in those 3 games Foles has fumbled twice and thrown 3 interceptions!

The Bears Defence has been their glittering jewel this season as Khalil Mack has absolutely dominated opposing O-lines on his way to 12.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and an interception that he returned for a TD. Mack is not the only outstanding player on the Bears Defence though, 10 other players have made Interceptions, Kyle Fuller has 7 and Eddie Jackson has 6, 2 of which he’s returned for TD’s.

Really the only thing that can prevent the Bears from progressing to a meeting with the Saints next week is their own health problems. Mack has struggled through an ankle injury this season and Eddie Jackson has also missed time. Unless a mini injury crisis rears it’s ugly head at Soldier Field the Bears Defence should be good enough to win with this game while both Offences could find themselves scratching around to establish a run game.

NFL Playoffs – Wildcard Weekend, game 2 – Seahawks @ Cowboys

Form is usually the key to predicting which teams will advance in the playoffs, especially in the Wildcard round where teams with inferior records can look to recent results to provide them with confidence in the postseason. However both of these teams have suffered a slight wobble as the playoffs approached, both have won 2 but lost 1 in the last 3 weeks and the games they have won have only been decided by 1 score.

When these teams met in the regular season the Seahawks won but the game was played in Seattle and way back in September, since when the Cowboys have traded for Amari Cooper who has had a dramatic effect on their Offence and the Seahawks have lost Defensive stalwart Earl Thomas to a broken leg. In that game Dallas out gained the Seahawks 303 yards to 295 yards but the Cowboys really struggled to keep the scoreboard ticking over and Dak Prescott threw 2 interceptions and just the 1 touchdown. The Cowboys rushed for 116 yards at an average of 8.7 yards per attempt so Zeke Elliott will be looking forward to meeting the Seahawks again. In their last 3 games Seattle have allowed 333 rushing yards and in his last 3 games Elliott has run for 285 yards and he was rested in week 17 so he should be chomping at the bit this week.

Since week 15 the Seahawks have scored on average almost 30 points a game whilst conceding an average of 27 points per game. For their part the Cowboys are averaging 21 but defensively they have conceded an average of 26 points per game so there’s a very good chance this will be the highest scoring game of the weekend.

This game could be decided early on if the Seahawks can establish a lead because the Cowboys are not as comfortable playing from behind as they are when they can utilise Elliott as their main attacking weapon even if Seattle struggle to contain explosive running backs. Even if the Seahawks go 2 scores up early in proceedings it should still be a high scoring game because neither Defence have managed to dominate their opposition in recent weeks. How healthy Seahawks kicker Sebastian Janikowski is could be an important factor because a healthy Sea Bass is a threat from long range but in his last 2 games he hasn’t looked like a man trying to protect himself from further injury, could there be a chance for Australian punter Michael Dickson get the chance to drop kick some points in the postseason?

Like Bill O’Brien’ the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett has had his share of playoff woes and at home he has the rather inauspicious record of 1 win and 1 loss, the last loss coming in 2016 when some rather questionable officiating saw the Packers leave AT & T Stadium with a very controversial 31-34 win (and a few conspiracy theories were born).

Baring any unfortunate officiating decisions the Cowboys should double Jason Garrett’s number of playoff wins this weekend in a points-fest but of all the Quarterbacks on show in this round of the playoffs Russell Wilson is the one who could single handedly change the path of a postseason game.

NFL Playoffs – Wildcard Weekend. Game 1 – Colts @ Texans

Playoff games between divisional rivals are usually slightly disappointing because both teams are so familiar with each other. However this meeting promises to be a very even matchup as the aggregate score in their divisional meetings this season is 58-58 and in an interesting twist both teams won in their opponents’ stadium! The Texans kick-started their season with a week 4 win in Indianapolis, an overtime victory that began their 9 game winning streak. They didn’t lose again until the Colts visited NRG Stadium in week 14 a game which would launch the Colts current 4 game winning streak.

Since their last meeting the Colts have scored 84 points (an average of 28 a game) and conceded just 44 (about 15 a game). The Texans on the other hand have scored 79 (almost 27 per game) and they’ve only conceded 57 (19 per game) so all indicators point to another close game.

Turnovers have been a problem for the Colts in the last 3 games, they’ve given the ball away 4 times, twice as many times as the Texans in the same period of time. In their 2 games this season the Texans just edged the battle of the turnovers with 3 takeaways compared to the 1 the Colts managed in both games. The Colts displayed a clear advantage in terms of pass rush though as they sacked Deshaun Watson 12 times, 5 times in the last meeting at NRG.

The porosity of the Texans Offensive line could be the deciding factor in this game and while a heavy dose of Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue out of the backfield would take the steam out of the Colts pass rush I’m not sure Bill O’Brien, who made rose to prominence as a Wide Recievers and Quarterback coach in New England can talk himself into playing smash-mouth football against a divisional rival. The Colts seem to have a new found resilience and they’ve cultivated the useful habit of winning games that they look set to lose whilst never really playing very well. O’Brien’s playoff history is a source of concern too, he has only beaten the Raiders in the postseason and that was a Raiders team shorn of a starting Quarterback and it’s best Offensive lineman, when O’Brien’s Texans have faced team’s close to full strength they’ve lost (34-16 to the Patriots in 2016 and 30-0 to the Chiefs the previous year). It’s not beyond the realms of possibility this one is decided by a field goal, or a missed field goal similar to the one that handed the Colts victory on their last visit to NRG, sometimes history does repeat itself.

Panthers @ Saints 

Alvin Kamara is the multiple threat running back that many commentators expected Christian McCaffrey to be. Kamara has scored 13 total touchdowns, 6 of which have come on the ground. McCaffrey has scored 7 touchdowns, just 2 of which have been rushing TD’s. McCaffrey has shared the carrying with Jonathan Stewart who has 6 rushing touchdowns of his own and the running threat that is Cam Newton who has scored 6 times himself and averaged 5.4 yards per carry.  Kamara has been part of the Saints own 2 headed monster with Mark Ingram who has notched 12 TD’s on the ground and even Drew Brees has squeezed into the end zone twice!

The difference between the two rushing attacks is symbolic of how I expect the game to go, the Saints have beaten the Panthers twice already this season with an aggregate score of 65-34 with Kamara scoring 3 touchdowns across the 2 games and while McCaffrey managed just the 1 scoring reception, as a team the Panthers managed just 2 rushing scores in the 2 games and allowed Cam Newton to be sacked 6 times.

It’s always tricky to disregard a team with a Quarterback as influential and explosive as Cam Newton can be but in Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore Newton has 2 very big obstacles (well technically Lattimore is only 6 foot, but his influence is huge) between him and the Divisional round. Newton may well take this game by the scruff of the neck but I don’t think the Panthers will be able to tame the monster that is Kamara and Ingram.

You can get the Saints to win 13 points at 2/5 with some bookmakers and while the winning margin may well not be that substantial I’m still expecting a Saints win but don’t be surprised if they leave it late. 

Bills @ Jaguars 

If the Ravens had managed to record a home win over the 6-9 Bengals then the Bills wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. The “Bills mafia” have been thanking Bengals Quarterback Andy Dalton by donating $17 (1 dollar for every year of their playoff drought) or $49 (because the winning touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd was a 49 yard completion) the Dalton Foundation has raised around $250,000. Others donated to Tyler Boyd’s fund-raising campaign and so far Boyd has received over $20,000 for a youth athletic foundation in Western Pennsylvania! So arguably the Buffalo fans have made a more valuable contribution to this NFL season than their team. On the road the Bills have won just 3 games all season but if the Buffalo faithful are looking for a glimmer of hope they have won 2 of their last 3. Their last road game was in Miami and the Dolphins gave away 5 first downs with penalties, the Bills Offence actually only managed to gain 18 first downs of their own volition. They’ve really struggled to run the ball on the road and all season they’ve looked like a team who get by on character and stubbornness over any kind of talent or flair. The one player who can provide plenty of skill and flair is running back LeSean McCoy (he’s scored 6 of their 28 Offensive touchdowns) but he will be carrying an injury and even though he’s expected to play he has struggled away from home this season even when he’s been fully fit. 

The Jaguars defence on the other hand has bags of talent, arguably enough talent to get them all the way to a Super Bowl. On average they have allowed opposing teams just 17 points per game at EverBank (and Wembley Stadium), in all of their last 3 road games the Bills have scored 16 points. The Jaguars have scored 105 in their last 3 games at EverBank Field. Injuries have played a part recently for the Jaguars too with star running back Leonard Fournette and several Offensive linemen missing game time, this week they have Tackle Cam Robinson and Centre Brandon Linden along with Tight-End Marcedes Lewis on the Injury Report but they all played at least some part in practice. 

I can’t see the Bills winning this game but there is a very real chance that the Jaguars could lose it. The play calling this season hasn’t always been sympathetic to Blake Bortles talents, they haven’t let him run too often and he always seems more composed and confident after he’s made a few positive plays of his own. If the Bills are to stand any chance at all they will need to run well and tire out the Jaguars pass rush, if they continue with their road struggles and have to resort to a pass heavy attack then Tyrod Taylor will be forced to choose between throwing rushed passes or being sacked by the electrifying Defensive front the Jags have amassed recently.

Bookmakers favour the Jaguars to win a close one (8 points or less) but if the Bills can’t stop Fournette and you’d imagine Chris Ivory on occasion running the ball then the Jaguars Offence could end up racking up the points like they did against the Ravens in London  and the Texans last time out in EverBank. 

Oakland Raiders @ Houston Texans

Spinal injuries and broken fibula’s are never good but JJ Watt’s herniated disk and Derek Carr’s broken leg will surely be the hot topics surrounding this game.  Watt injured his back (which he had surgery on in the offseason) way back in September whereas Carr’s injury was a crushing blow in the build up to the playoffs when it happened in week 16, to compound Raiders fans anguish they lost their second string Quarterback Matt McGloin before half time in week 17.  The Raiders reliance on a third string Quarterback will almost certainly the deciding factor in the game and while the Raiders Offensive line could allow them to adopt a run heavy Offence and with 3 productive Running Backs (provided Jalen Richard is healthy) and a Fullback who is more than capable of carrying effectively it wouldn’t be a problem for them.  Pragmatism isn’t really their style though and Head Coach Jack Del Rio would probably prefer to chance his (and Connor Cook’s) arm to provide a repeat of the Raiders 27-20 victory of the Texans in Mexico City back in November.  Derek Carr was responsible for 3 of their Touchdowns in that game though as he launched a comeback and the Raiders outscored their opponents 17 -10 in the second half.  They had real trouble running against the Texans Defence too and as a team only recorded 30 rushing yards on 20 carries, the longest being a 6 yard Latavius Murray in the last minute of the game.

The Texans Offence hasn’t been particularly outstanding this year either and has had its own Quarterback issues, although not as a result of injuries.  Their issues have been a result of their personnel decision to offer Brock Osweiler a $72 million contract in free agency and the expectancy that a contract of the magnitude brings with it.  Osweiler has struggled and has thrown 16 interceptions in 15 starts alongside 15 touchdowns with a completion rate of 59%, only Ryan Fitzpatrick has a worse passer rating in the NFL this season.  Osweiler was replaced by Tom Savage in week 15 and he started in week 16 but left the game with a concussion and his participation in the post season is far from certain (he also didn’t look to be much of an improvement from Osweiler, none of his73 attempts have resulted in Touchdowns).  Osweiler has been the focal point of Texans fans ire but a more generous view would be that the Texans have built an Offensive line that’s more adept at run blocking and their 1,850 yards on the ground (the 8th most in the NFL) and the 32 sacks they’ve allowed (5 on Savage in 73 drop back’s <hence the concussion>) would attest to that.  Despite their success at running the ball (they’ve averaged 4.1 yards per carry and 116.2 yards per game) 56% of the Texans Offensive snaps have been pass attempts this season and 16 players have caught passes for the Texans this season, so there could be some questions about the Offensive play calling (even if Osweiler is getting the big bucks they’re clearly more comfortable running).  10 different players have rushed for the Texans and while Osweiler might not feel comfortable as a runner (and he’s certainly not quick enough to be considered a running Quarterback) he has rushed for 2 Touchdowns and averages 4.37 yards per carry so he does provide a threat when he pulls the ball down.

While the Texans will be missing their Defensive superstar the Raiders will have Khalil Mack and he will terrorise the Texans Offensive line.  Mack has 73 total tackles, 11 sacks and forced 5 fumbles this season to add to one of the most outrageous interceptions anyone had ever seen against Cam Newton.  It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the Raiders could win this game with their Defence alone.  Khalil Mack is not the only playmaker in their ranks, Bruce Irvin has won the Super Bowl with the Seahawks and this season he has notched up 7 sacks and 6 forced fumbles of his own, as a team the Raiders have made 25 sacks so they could tee off on the Texans Quarterback (whoever it is) unless the Texans trust their Running Backs a bit more.  The Raiders have also made 16, the second highest number in the NFL during the regular season with 9 year veteran Reggie Nelson grabbing 5 of them, with Brock’s propensity for throwing one a game he’ll certainly be spying the Quarterback.  The Texans have managed just 17 defensive turnovers all season which ranks them 26th in the league so they’ll be more reliant on their inconsistent Offence to decide this game for them.

It would be a huge upset of the Raiders were to win this game on the road and while it’s not completely impossible the way they played in week 17 the loss of Derek Carr has not only effected how they play but also how confident they are on the field, he’s a vital cog in their machine and the absence of his leadership and personality have left them flat.  The loss of their 2nd string Quarterback at the weekend left them looking shell shocked and almost dejected, if Jack Del Rio can rejuvenate them in the coming days then they should have enough firepower to beat an unconvincing Texans who have their own problems but you’d have to agree with the bookmakers who are currently favouring the Texans to win a close game.