If you’re applying for the job of NFL writer these days, there seems to be an obvious prerequisite for the job. That is, that at some point each fall, you must publish a story referring to the current campaign as the “strangest/weirdest/[insert synonym]est NFL season in recent memory.” Seriously, they all do it, and I’m here to tell you it is a played out, lazy, and downright false tactic. Any season with 256 regular season games will have an element of surprise; if it didn’t, it would be the most boring product of all time (like the NBA). I know I have stated this before, on these very pages, but it bears repeating: the trademark parity of the NFL is not what it once was, and while Any Given Sunday largely remains true, Any Given Sunday In January does not.
Last year, the day after the opening night game, I wrote the following:
“[T]he NFC has a few teams (San Francisco, New Orleans, Green Bay) who could knock the champs from their roost. But if last night was any indication, Seattle, what with their total invincibility at home, will be tough to knock off. Meanwhile, the AFC has zero doubt who will be standing come championship weekend. Unless a shocking injury takes place, the 2014 season will amount to a rerun of last year, with the Broncos and Patriots meeting up in the title game.”
Bringing this up isn’t me touting my prediction. If I did that, I would have to be fair and refer you to my oh-for-four blog post predicting the College Football Playoff, or my sterling 2-8 ATS record in bowl picks. Did I give myself a few outs in the NFC, sure. Did the Broncos and Pats actually meet up? Nope. And because they didn’t, the AFC title game was a rout. But the point remained. It wasn’t an impressive prediction because it was obvious; Hawks-Pats was one of only a few real possibilities for a Super Bowl matchup, and it was evident five months before the game.
Yet here we are again. There simply aren’t many good teams in the NFL, and the Super Bowl matchup is pretty clear (and its pretty awesome). Now I don’t recommend you missing that game, but to help you all clear some space on your January weekends, I’ll give you a rundown of what will lead up to Patriots-Packers. Just kidding, don’t clear the space. Huddle around a table playing guts or high-low, with the games on the background, and a side table full of Boston Market products. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The Packers will sew up the #1 seed, meaning the road goes through Lambeau.
Carolina will continue to prove doubters wrong and snag a bye, on the strength of the best linebacker duo in the NFL and a smart, composed Cam Newton. Most evident thing from last week’s game versus Philadelphia – holy cow do they hit hard!
On Saturday night of Wild Card weekend, the NFC West champ Arizona Cardinals will host the #6 seeded…St. Louis Rams, who reached 10 wins to beat out the Seahawks and Vikings. As the old adage goes, its tough to beat a team three times in a season, and this will stay true. The Cardinals move on after a late, soul-crushing turnover by Nick Foles.
On Sunday, the division champion Eagles will host the Falcons in the 4/5 matchup, or as its being referred to in Wisconsin, The Dream Bowl. The Falcons take the high scoring affair, just as they did in Week 1. Matt Ryan makes the plays in the final quarter that Sam Bradford can’t, and new coach Dan Quinn wins his first playoff game.
The Dream Bowl got its name once all Packers fans realized that the NFC had a handful of smashmouth defenses that could potentially come to Lambeau and give their offense some trouble, in the other three NFC teams and the just-missed Seahawks. By the Cardinals winning, it guarantees Green Bay a Divisional Round matchup with one of these soft defenses and weak-minded quarterbacks, which stand no chance on the frozen tundra. This reality plays out, with the Packers blowing the doors off the Falcons en route to the final four.
In the other NFC semifinal, the Panthers and Cardinals meet in a rematch of the 2009 playoff game that catapulted Kurt Warner into his final Super Bowl run. The quarterbacks are different, but the result remains the same, as the Cardinals go into Carolina and steal the win.
After two straight grinders, the Cardinals fall just short of the Pack in an epic NFC championship game, as Aaron Rodgers goes back to his first Super Bowl since 2010.
Unlike the NFC, the AFC is notably devoid of challengers for the crown.
As is tradition, the Patriots take home field with a 14-2 record and sit back and wait.
The Bengals hold on to their division lead for the second seed and the bye into the Divisional Round.
On Saturday afternoon of Wildcard Weekend, the road favored, #5 seeded Steelers make a visit to the 8-8 Colts (I so badly wanted to take the Jaguars here, but couldn’t do it). The Team With Heart slaps around The Team Without, and the Steelers move on to await their next opponent.
On Sunday afternoon, with the sun going down behind the Rockies, the division champ Broncos host their longtime rival the [NFL Films music], Oakland Rrrrrrrraiders, who grab the final wildcard spot at 8-8. Lot of bad teams out there you guys. Continuing the early season trend of winning in spite of their geriatric quarterback, the Broncos defense holds Oakland to 13 points as Denver advances.
In the divisional, Denver travels to Cincinnati for an epic matchup of Young QB Who Chokes in the Playoffs versus Old QB Who Chokes in the Playoffs. Someone has to win! And again, it is the team with the best defense in the league. Manning throws for 157 yards on 45 attempts and the Broncos move on, 17-16.
The Patriots host the Steelers in Gillette. While they say all the right things publicly, they are much happier to see the Black and Gold come to town than the Elite Purple of previous postseasons, Baltimore finishes the season 6-10 with 10 one score losses. Just like opening night, the Steelers hang with the Pats for the first two thirds of the game, before New England pulls away and wins by two scores.
The following weekend, in the final chapter of the Manning-Brady story, the Patriots are simply too well-rounded for the one-dimensional Broncos, and the Denver defense cannot bail the team out for four quarters. Pats 30-16.
All of this brings us to February 7th in San Francisco, with two Californians at quarterback. As for the winner? Don’t be silly, that’s way too far away for me to reasonably predict!