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Friday, 2 January 2015

2015 NFL Playoff Predictions: Seattle Seahawks Will Repeat

It's hard to top last season's predictions. If readers follow any of my work, I picked Seattle and Denver to meet in the 2013 season, and as I projected, the Seahawks won in dominating fashion. As any NFL fan does when he gets something right, he brags about it to anyone who will listen, which I have properly done for a year.

This season, however, expectations are higher for my predictions. It's now time to repeat; just like the Seattle Seahawks.

Seattle was my pick in the preseason to win it all, and I'm sticking to it, but did I stay loyal to the Denver Broncos as my AFC representative? Will we see Tom Brady and Peyton Manning duke it out one more time in the AFC Championship Game? Or can the AFC North spoil the party? Can Detroit finally win a playoff game? And will Carolina be this season's dark horse?

Here are my answers to all those questions and more:

AFC Wild Card

Baltimore at Pittsburgh

These two AFC squads may struggle on defense nowadays, but when they get together, it is still the most punishing game on the NFL schedule. The Ravens and Steelers held serve at home in their two matchups this season. Baltimore won, 26-6, at M&T Bank Stadium, and Pittsburgh won, 43-23, at Heinz Field.

The focus on this third meeting has been on the status of Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, who suffered a hyperextended knee last Sunday. As mentioned in Monday Morning Huddle, Bell is key to deep Steelers playoff run, yet his absence might not be as significant as everyone anticipates.

In the two regular season meetings between these AFC North foes, Bell rushed for just 82 yards with an average below 4.0 yards per carry. The key for a Pittsburgh victory this Saturday is Ben Roethlisberger and his protection. "Big Ben" threw for six touchdown passes in the victory at Heinz Field.

Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is back from suspension for Baltimore, and it is paramount that Ngata, linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs pressure Roethlisberger and make him uncomfortable all night. Therefore, Bell will actually be missed more for his pass blocking than for his running.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has won at least one playoff game in every one of his playoff appearances, but he is 0-2 versus the Steelers in January. Running back Justin Forsett has been the best offensive player for Baltimore this season, but that plays into the strength of the Steelers defense. Flacco will have to outplay Roethlisberger and that is hard to see happening at Heinz Field.

Pittsburgh 30-27

Cincinnati at Indianapolis

This one is very hard to call. These two teams have met twice in the last two seasons with each earning a blowout victory on their own field. This season, Indianapolis destroyed Cincinnati, 27-0, back in Week 7. Amazingly, the Bengals went three-and-out on their first eight possessions of that game.

With this one in Indianapolis, the Colts are the safe pick here, but the Bengals have shown enough for me to go out on a bit of a limb with this one. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill had not yet taken over as the lead back for Cincinnati in the first matchup versus Indianapolis. Hill rushed for 1,124 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry this season.

Quarterback Andrew Luck hasn't had much support lately with his team averaging 67 rushing yards over the last four weeks, which means Luck carry the team again. He is fully capable, but actually, the Bengals are built to stop the pass.

As long as Andy Dalton limits his mistakes, Hill and the Bengals pass defense can squeak by and win Cincinnati's first playoff game in over two decades.

Cincinnati 27-24


NFC Wild Card

Arizona at Carolina

Everyone all over the Panthers bandwagon needs to calm down a little bit. Since when were the Saints, Buccaneers, Browns and Falcons good teams? Sure, Carolina is riding a four-game winning streak, but those are the teams they beat in the final four weeks.

In those games, the Panthers got it done on the ground. Running back Jonathan Stewart rushed for 401 yards and Cam Newton had 197 rushing yards, despite missing a week, but again, all the teams they played had bad run defenses. Arizona rankes 13th against the run in the NFL.

Ryan Lindley will be under center for the Cardinals, and although he threw three interceptions last week, he did complete close to 59 percent of his passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns. Kerwynn Williams has filled the hole at running back since Andre Ellington suffered his season-ending injury, and Williams rushed for 67 yards last week versus the 49ers.

As seen this season, mostly during a stretch of eight weeks were the Panthers went winless, when Carolina becomes one-dimensional on offense, they have a very hard time moving the ball. Arizona can force the Panthers offense to pass, and may just have enough with Lindley, Williams and a little help from receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, to win this one.

Arizona 14-13

Detroit at Dallas

The NFL prevented this game from being a blowout by repealing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's one-game suspension, but the Cowboys should still have little problem with the Lions. Detroit has the No. 1 rush defense in the league, but Green Bay gained 152 yards on the ground last week, so why can't the best offensive line and the league's leading rusher do the same?

Once the running game gets going, the Cowboys can also turn to their Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo, who was lights out in what is supposed to be his month of nightmares: December. In the final four weeks, Romo threw for 987 yards, 11 touchdowns and one interception. It helps when your top target, Dez Bryant, has 16 receiving touchdowns on the season.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford seems to have regressed down the stretch again like he did last year. Stafford threw two red zone interceptions two weeks ago against the Bears and as a team, Detroit continues to make costly mistakes and that leads to an early playoff exit.

Suh isn't enough to keep this one close.

Dallas 35-21

AFC Division Round

Cincinnati at New England

If Pittsburgh wins in Wild Card Weekend, fans automatically get a rematch from the regular season in either the Bengals or the Colts versus the Patriots. New England crushed both those squads, scoring over 40 points in each game.

New England rarely gets mentioned as one of the toughest places to play, but the Patriots are 16-1 in the last two seasons at Foxboro with the only loss to the Bills in Week 17. Some starters did not play in that game, and Brady sat the second half.

The Patriots are ranked ninth in rushing yards allowed, so look for them to keep Hill at bay, and Dalton will not have nearly enough to win in New England.

New England 34-21

Pittsburgh at Denver

A classic matchup between two forgotten rivals, this one is hard to call with Bell's status up in the air. If Bell is a true game-time decision like experts are calling him this week, one would think there is at least a 50/50 chance he suits up in Denver for the division round.

The Steelers defense has really struggled against the top passers in the league this season, but Peyton Manning has not been impressive lately. He had three touchdowns versus six interceptions in December, including two interceptions and no touchdowns in his last two home games. The key for Pittsburgh will be stopping C.J. Anderson, who has seven rushing touchdowns in the last month.

Baltimore shocked the world with a double-overtime victory in Denver two seasons ago, so why can't Pittsburgh do it? With a healthy Bell, is is quite possible.

Pittsburgh 31-27


NFC Division Round

Arizona at Seattle

The Cardinals were no match for the Seahawks in their two regular season meetings as Seattle outscored Arizona, 54-9, in those two games, and Drew Stanton played in the first game.

Seattle has been on quite a run defensively, giving up just 39 points in their last six games. At home this season, the Seahawks gave up more than 20 points just twice. Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson have also been rolling lately. Lynch has four touchdowns over the last three weeks, and Wilson has 11 total touchdowns versus two interceptions the last seven weeks.

Seattle 20-6

Dallas at Green Bay

This is set up to be one of the best matchups of the playoffs as these two old time rivals meet for the first time in January since the 1995 NFC Championship Game. Green Bay has a perfect home record going into the playoffs while Dallas dawns an 8-0 road record this season. Something's got to give.

The Cowboys offensive line could certainly give the Packers some problems, but the likely league MVP Aaron Rodgers is just phenomenal at home. He hasn't thrown an interception at Lambeau Field since December of 2012. The guy doesn't make any costly mistakes, which is what makes the Packers so hard to beat.

Dallas will put up a valiant effort, but it will fall short.

Green Bay 31-27

Championship Games

Green Bay at Seattle

Unlike a potential matchup with the Steelers and Patriots, the Packers and Seahawks played each other this season all the way back in Week 1 with Seattle winning, 36-16.

Green Bay did not challenge Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman once, and that should change in this one. Even though Rodgers will probably try to get Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb more involved in this rematch than they were in Week 1, Davante Adams proved in the game versus the Patriots that he can step up against teams that have success slowing down Nelson and Cobb. Eddie Lacy has also come on strong with at least 95 yards in the last three weeks and three touchdowns over the last four games.

That being said, the Seahawks support the top pass defense and the best running game. They can pound the rock versus the below average Packers run defense and ride their own defense to a second straight Super Bowl.

Seattle 23-16

Pittsburgh at New England

Brady and the Patriots ripped apart the Steelers secondary in last season's meeting as Pittsburgh allowed a franchise record 55 points. Brady has always had Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's number. The Patriots quarterback is 7-2 against the Steelers in his career, including 2-0 in the playoffs.

And Brady was able to win those games despite the great Steelers pass rush LeBeau used to have with James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Joey Porter. This season, Pittsburgh is ranked just 26th with 33 sacks. The Steelers have also been unsuccessful at stopping tight ends, and Rob Gronkowski is the best in the business.

Brady will win his record sixth conference championship, and LeGarrette Blount will get his revenge.

New England 42-33


Super Bowl XLIX

Seattle vs. New England

The top two seeds will face each other in a second straight Super Bowl. It is hard seeing any other teams going to Arizona for the big dance since both these teams are playing their best football right now and as a whole, had the most impressive seasons overall in their respective conferences.

Bill Belichick is the mastermind at taking away the opponent's best asset while the Seahawks are the masters of swagger. On the big stage, the unbashful Seahawks will again thrive as Brady will feel the same wrath his friend Peyton Manning did a season ago.

Gronkowski will have to play exceptionally well for New England to win, but expect the Seahawks to overwhelm New England like they did to Denver last Super Bowl.

The Seahawks will become the first team since, ironically, the 2003-2004 Patriots to repeat as Super Bowl Champions.

Seattle 28-17



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