The NFL Playoff Preview

Fine, we’ll say it...ARE YOU READY FOR SOME (PLAYOFF) FOOTBALL? After 17 weeks the last dozen teams are still standing and prepared to embark on the road to Levi’s Stadium for Super Bowl 50. It’s been a wild year with key injuries, breakout stars, too much parity and lots of dabbin’. Here's a rundown on who are the contenders and pretenders heading into this week’s wild-card round.

THE AFC

DENVER BRONCOS
Contender:
Denver’s top-ranked defense defines the AFC’s no. 1 seed. They put the pressure on the QB with a mean pass rush and an elite secondary, keeping the games close enough for coach Gary Kubiak’s ball-control offense to do just enough to win. Back-up QB Brock Osweiler rode that blueprint to some nice wins, but future Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning has re-assumed the reins for the playoff run.

Pretender:
The Broncos have to be one of the most unstable top seeds in recent memory. Their two-pronged rushing attack has had a power outage lately and the QB situation is a powder keg after the world’s greatest cable pitchman led them to a comeback victory last week and is set to start the Division Round despite leading the NFL in interceptions and missing six games with injury.

Swami Says:
The Broncos were winning in spite of Manning's brutal play with a dominant defense and a ground and pound offense, but our hearts long for Mrs. Papa John’s to put together one more run for the storybooks. Playing well (like last week) gives them a chance of going all the way but we don’t think they’ve got the gas to take it all the way to the Big One.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Contender:
After being humiliated and somewhat vindicated after Deflategate, the NFL’s evil empire struck back winning their first 10 games. Thirty-eight year old Tom Brady added time traveller to his ridiculous resume (three-time Super Bowl MVP, Gisele, can pull off wearing Uggs) playing like he was ten years younger. TE Rob Gronkowski was spiking touchdown’s again and a young, aggressive, no-name defense was making a name for itself.

Pretender:
The defending Super Bowl champs are literally limping into the playoffs behind the hurting Brady (high-ankle sprain). Call it cosmic karma or plain bad luck, but they have lost four out of their last six games and just had to break out retired RB Steven Jackson out of mothballs.

Swami Says:
Every time you try to write off the Belichick-Brady era to the history books they return like Friday the 13th’s Jason to slay the naysayers. The bye week is a godsend that allows for the return of WR’s Julian Edelman and safety Devin McCourty, but there is no relief for their inept offensive line. If Brady has time and the weapons at his disposable, they can easily return to the Super Bowl.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Contender:
After a 1-5 start highlighted by the loss of star running back, Jamaal Charles, coach Andy Reid’s team marches into the playoffs with a 10-game win streak. The NFL’s hottest team is built on a ball-hawking defense led by Defensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner Marcus Peters (led NFL with 8 INT) and now get elite pass rusher Justin Houston back. QB Alex Smith is about exciting as his name, but he’s smart, rarely makes mistakes and can freelance with his feet.

Pretender:
The Chiefs are more conservative than Ted Cruz. That can work with a powerful run attack, but there’s is now led by a dude named Charcandrick (West), who is capable, but is no Charles (the team’s all-time leading rusher). KC has survived and thrived by making big plays on D, forcing teams to make mistakes and then taking advantage of a short field with their offensive efficiency. It’s a good recipe during the regular season, but not so easy to execute in the playoffs against elite teams.

Swami Says:
The Chiefs should do just enough on offense to keep their win streak intact, but to make it past the Divisional Round, Smith will eventually need to get the ball downfield to WR Jeremy Maclin (8 TDs).

CINCINNATI BENGALS
Contender:
Coach Marvin Lewis has turned this franchise from laughingstock to perennial playoff team, but can’t seem to get over the hump with their last postseason win coming in 1999 when a Kardashian was just OJ’s lawyer. Maybe it has something to do with those gawd awful uniforms that make them look like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh because it’s certainly not their high-powered offense that includes Pro Bowlers WR A.J. Green and TE Tyler Eifert, plus QB Andy Dalton, who was in the MVP conversation before going down with an injury.

Pretender:
The Bengals have a stacked, yet combustible roster (five Pro Bowlers) that never seem to make the big play in the big moment. The poster boy has been the Red Rifle himself, Dalton, who has been scattershot in the playoffs with 1 TD and 6 INT, but he’s not going to start in the playoff opener so all the talk (and pressure) will focus on coach Lewis who goes into the postseason with an 0-6 record.

Swami Says:
The Bengals go into Wild Card weekend against the Steelers having split the season series with their AFC North rivals. Coach Lewis should shed the monkey off his back against the one-trick Steelers, but the target will still be on him and Dalton too, if the QB can’t come back and lead them to at least the AFC Championship game.

PITTSBURG STEELERS
Contender:
The AFC’s top-ranked offense can score on anyone at anytime and I’m not referring to Big Ben in a bar bathroom. QB Ben Roethlisberger has had and up-and-down year, but he’s still armed with the best receiving posse in the NFL with Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Heath Miller. Coach Mike Tomlin has a ring and knows how to get the most out of a one-dimensional, pass heavy team by spreading things out and taking chances on both sides of the ball.

Pretender:
The franchise’s trademark Steel Curtain defense holds up against the run (5th), but is a sieve against the pass (30th), which means they will have to outscore you. That puts even more pressure on the shoulders of Big Ben as RB D’Angelo Williams, who has been rolling since replacing the injured Le’Von Bell, has been nursing a bad wheel and is questionable.

Swami Says:
This is a Bizarro-like Steelers team that relies on big plays rather than black and blue defensive battles that the franchise is known for. No one has stopped WR Brown, but their Troy Polamalu-less secondary can’t stop anyone either so expect a high-scoring affair against Cincinnati, which will probably result in an early vacation unless they make some Sportscenter Top Plays.

HOUSTON TEXANS
Contender:
Bill O’Brien’s team looked like the latest victim of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” curse after a 2-5 start. Things went from bad to worse as former rushing leader Arian Foster went down, but the defensive-minded team has managed to win the anemic AFC South title despite starting four different quarterbacks. The vaunted defense is led by NFL poster boy (and legit beast), JJ Watt (17.5 sacks), but it’s their secondary that is the heart and soul keeping them away from big plays. Recently returned QB Brian Hoyer is more blue-collar than blue-chip, but he’s capable of getting the ball to star wideout (and also legit beast) DeAndre Hopkins (1521 receiving yards).

Pretender:
Watt and Hopkins are dangerous on both sides of the ball and their roster is stacked on defense with eight first-round picks, but Hoyer is brittle and not battle tested; who knows if the running back-by-committee unit can be relied upon to open up the field for Hopkins.

Swami Says:
The Texans are like a sleek, finely-tuned, high-performance race car capable of taking it to the finish line, but have a bus driver (Hoyer) behind the wheel. Coach of the Year candidate O’Brien has been doing it with smoke and mirrors, but will be found out sooner than later.

AFC PREDICTIONS
Chiefs over Texans
Bengals over Steelers
Bengals over Broncos
Patriots over Chiefs
Patriots over Bengals
AFC Champs: New England Patriots

THE NFC

CAROLINA PANTHERS
Contenter:
Leading MVP candidate Cam Newton has finally lived up to his ego, making the Panthers Super Bowl favorites. What Newton lacks in humility, he makes up for in big play capability, able to change a game with one flick of da wrist or mad dash. On defense, the NFC South champs are awesome against the run (2nd) with the game’s best linebacking duo in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.

Pretender:
The loss of starting CB Charles Tillman is a big blow, further complicating their recent inability to get to the opposing team’s QB, which has caused them to give up big plays. TE Greg Olson and RB Jonathan Stewart are steady Pro Bowlers, but their wideouts are second-rate.

Swami Says:
Coach Ron Rivera’s team has grown up, riding the wave of a magical 15-1 season, but sometimes relying so heavily on one player can be a fatal flaw, even if he’s the Dabbin’ Supaman. But, Cam's in the zone and that's going to be enough to take 'em far, very far.

ARIZONA CARDINALS
Contender:
The trendy Super Bowl pick are our co-favorites with a versatile and balanced offensive attack helmed by QB Carson Palmer. Larry Fitzgerald is a living legend, and WRs John Brown and Michael Floyd can score every time they touch the ball. The defense is good, but not great, except for shutdown corner Patrick Peterson and the revitalized sack master Dwight Freeney.

Pretender:
The season-ending injury to Tyrann Mathieu was a big blow, but the defense hasn’t missed a beat yet. Palmer is an elite QB whom has never gone far in the playoffs.

Swami Says:
The Cardinals match up with anyone on both sides of the ball, especially with the emergence of rookie RB David Johnson, but their path to the Super Bowl is a lot clearer if their longtime nemesis, the Seattle Seahawks, aren’t standing in their way.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Contender:
The Seahawks had a terrible 2-4 start, but dominated down the stretch as QB Russell Wilson entered the MVP conversation with an electric second-half of the season with 24 scoring passes in the last seven weeks. The Legion of Boom can still lay it on you and coach Pete Carroll is still the best in the business when he’s not outsmarting himself.

Pretender:
The offensive line is broke and often injured Marshawn Lynch has been in more Making Commercials Mode than Beast Mode all season. The loss of TE Jimmy Graham hurts as does rookie RB Thomas Rawls who is still probably their team MVP.

Swami Says:
The Seahawks aren’t the heavy favorites of the past couple seasons, but they’re the dreaded “team no one wants to play” after an impressive late season run, which clearly established Wilson as the leader of the team. If Lynch can turn into Beast Mode, then they could be a dark horse.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Contender:
The NFC East champs are on a war path, riding into a postseason home game on the back of a four-game winning streak. Cocky QB Kirk Cousins has lived up to coach Jay Gruden’s controversial decision to bench RG3, by breaking a bunch of team passing records and his go-to TE, Jordan Reed, is an emerging star.

Pretender:
The Redskins were projected to finish last in a division that turned out to be the NFL’s worst. They’re probably a year ahead of their own rebuilding schedule, so anything after the playoffs is gravy, especially with a defense that gave up 380 yards a game (28th in NFL). Plus, you know, they're the Redskins.

Swami Says:
Cousins will be yelling “You like that” for at least another week as FedEx Field will be rocking as they look for their first playoff win since 1999 against the reeling Packers, who can still light it up. Expect a shootout with the fully-loaded Redskins coming out victorious in the upset of the playoffs.

GREEN BAY PACKERS
Contender:
The Packers looked liked the perennial Super Bowl contenders we’re accustomed to seeing until hitting a wall, and we’re not talking about a bad Lambeau Leap, by finishing 4-6 after opening the season with six straight wins. The good news is they still have LB Clay Mathews and QB Aaron Rodgers, two of the game’s most feared and respected players.

Pretender:
Rodgers has been playing more like the Cheesehead from the State Farm commercial than the All-Pro who is taking snaps from Olivia Munn. Part of the problem is his wide receivers (or lack thereof) since Jordy Nelson was lost early in the season, while RB “Fat” Eddie Lacy has failed to live up to his potential.

Swami Says:
Much of the blame has been put on coach Mike McCarthy who has reclaimed his play-calling responsibilities in what seemed like a panic move that only delays the inevitable first round loss, unless Rodgers can reclaim his magic, which still might not be enough.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Contender:
The newly crowned NFC North champs are one of the season’s more surprising teams with a bend, but don’t break defense and the return of Adrian Peterson, the best RB in the game, who is back to Tecmo Bowl-ing defenses.

Pretender:
Second-year QB Teddy Bridgewater plays within himself, but can’t be counted upon to light up the scoreboard, especially with an underachieving receiving core, who should just be blocking for Peterson anyway. The defense didn’t give up many points, but that’s more indicative of their ball-control offense.

Swami Says: The Vikings script all year has been feeding opponents a healthy dose of Peterson, but opponents will be keying on the Comeback Player (not Parent) of the Year candidate, forcing Bridgewater out of his comfort zone, unless they can get ahead early and keep the score low.

NFC PREDICTIONS
Seahawks over Vikings
Redskins over Packers
Cardinals over Seahawks
Panthers over Redskins
Panthers over Cardinals
NFC Champs: Carolina Panthers