The NFL playoffs are set, and while there are plenty of expected teams playing for a spot in Super Bowl LIII (Saints, Rams, Chiefs and Patriots to name a few) a few teams missed out (Vikings, Steelers), letting some teams sneak unexpectedly (Colts!) into January. But will any of these dark horses take down the teams that dominated 2018? And who will hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Atlanta on Feb. 3?
The NFL wild-card games kick off on Saturday, with the Colts heading to Houston to take on the AFC South champion Texans on Saturday afternoon. The MMQB writers and editors make complete playoff predictions, and pick their Super Bowl LIII champions.
This is as wide-open a field as I can remember—I believe the four teams who are playing on Sunday (Chargers at Ravens, Eagles at Bears) all have a shot to make it to Atlanta. So, of course, I’m going with two No. 1 seeds in the Super Bowl, My logic? The Saints are the most well-rounded team, and the AFC is inherently flawed—no one is going to beat the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the divisional round, and the Chiefs will have just enough to knock off the proud but outmanned old champion to make it through that side of the bracket.
This year’s field feels more wide-open than in recent years, at least in part because the Patriots haven’t looked quite as dominant in the past. The last month of the season was a roller coaster ride, with each week a different team looking like the best team in the NFL. This is all great news, because it should all make for plenty of postseason intrigue. It also means I’m less sure about this pick, but I’ll go with the Saints, who have a strong home-field advantage at the Superdome and have been probably the most consistent and most well-rounded team this season.
I picked the Chiefs to win the Super Bowl at the beginning of the season and I’m sticking with them, though the loss of Kareem Hunt will hurt this team down the stretch, especially in an AFC championship game against a team like the Texans. I can see the Rams riding Todd Gurley a long way, and I like their chances after a confidence-building trouncing of the 49ers to close the season. The one team I could see making a surprise run is the Texans, who have the kind of tremendous veteran leadership you need to win on the road in the playoffs.
It’s all chalk in the AFC for me. The Chiefs and Patriots are at the top of the class, and I just don’t think the Ravens have enough offense to truly compete. In the rematch at Arrowhead, I’m taking the veteran quarterback over the soon-to-be NFL MVP. The Cowboys have lost their last three against the Seahawks, and I rarely bet against Russell Wilson once the weather gets cold. I think Nick Foles has enough magic to get the Eagles back to the divisional round. But no one is touching the Saints—there’s too much offense and the defense is good enough to get the job done. And soon enough we’re going to be talking about Tom Brady, winner of five Super Bowls and loser of four.
While it’s wholly unoriginal to pick the Saints to win it all this year, there isn’t a more complete team in the NFL. They are the Patriots of this season, in that there are an array of fascinating picks to make, but only one possesses the ability to win a game three or four different ways. The Saints have hit their stride with a sea of young talent all on the affordable part of their contracts. This is what happens when you draft well.
The Saints still have as much offensive firepower as any team and are more dangerous now that they have someone to threaten defenses deep (a healthy-again Ted Ginn). But in December, when the offense stumbled for a few weeks, New Orleans’s defense showed it can carry the heavier load. The Saints can get the one or two stops against the Rams and the one or two stops against the Chiefs to be on the right side of a 38–35-type shootout.
The Bears are the only team in the NFL whose defense ranks in the top 10 in every major statistical category—total yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, passing yards allowed, sacks and interceptions. The last team to do that for an season was the 2013 Seahawks, who... won the Super Bowl.
Chicago has the best defense of any team it will face in the postseason, and second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky has rebounded from his worst game of the season in Week 14, and hasn't thrown an interception since throwing three that game. He's been making timely throws on third down and stringing together long drives. As long as Trubisky maintains this level of play and continues to protect the football, this young Bears defense will carry the team to it's first Super Bowl title since those untouchable '85 Bears won it all. Head coach Matt Nagy has created an infectiously fun culture, and players completely have bought into his message. This team is peaking at just the right time.
Drew Brees will likely come up just short of earning the first regular season MVP award of his career, but I believe the season will end with him earning his second Super Bowl MVP award. Of the three teams with explosive offenses this season—Saints, Chiefs, Rams—New Orleans has had the most consistent effort on the defensive side of the ball all year and that is what separates them. Also, unlike Kansas City with Patrick Mahomes and Los Angeles with Jared Goff, the Saints have a quarterback in Brees who knows what it takes to make a long run in the playoffs, and postseason experience is often crucial. As for the AFC, despite the Patriots being a clearly inferior team than the Chiefs and Mahomes playing otherworldly this season, I will believe a quarterback making his first career playoff start can beat a Bill Belichick-defense when I see it. As the two legendary QBs wind down their Hall of Fame careers, we will finally be gifted with a Brees-Brady showdown on the grandest of stages.
While I do think the teams no one wants to face in the playoffs are the Eagles and the Ravens, and I do see them upsetting at least one opponent in the playoffs, I believe the Super Bowl will come down to the chalk picks. The Chiefs and Saints have to win two home games, in buildings where they have historically decided home-field advantage, to advance to the Super Bowl. And while I do worry about the Kansas City defense, I think they are less likely to ever be stopped offensively than New Orleans, who have had some subpar offensive performances over the last month or so. The Chiefs may be one of those teams that is truly never out of a game, and while defense will always be discussed by football purists, offense will rule the day in this postseason.
I had the Chargers and Rams at the outset of the season, and I’m sticking with it. While the Saints and Chiefs have been impressive, both have looked a little vulnerable over the last month of the season (not to say that the L.A. teams haven’t had their weaknesses). In the AFC, the Colts are on a roll at the right time and I see them pulling off a couple upsets on their way to the conference title game—in the Chargers’ soccer-stadium bandbox. In the NFC, I like the Rams to have learned from their experience last year and winning the rematch of their Week 9 shootout with the Saints in the Superdome. But in the end, the Chargers will show that they’re the most well-rounded team in this year’s playoffs.
I went creative preseason and midseason, but January football is meant to be taken seriously, so I'll just tell you that the Patriots will beat the Saints in Atlanta. As for the wild-card round, both AFC games are pick-ems while the Seahawks don't beat anyone good on the road and the Bears don't lose to anyone at home. After that, the Saints make it eight in a row (in meaningful games) at the Superdome—where only Ryan Fitzpatrick can come in and win—and the Chiefs end up allowing 180 rushing yards to Sony Michel in the AFC title game and losing 31-30. In Super Bowl LIII, Stephon Gilmore gets the better of Michael Thomas and the Patriots send a parade of defenders to smother Alvin Kamara, winning a surprisingly low-scoring game 20-17.
Back in the preseason, Ben Baskin wrote that as long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are with the Patriots, then New England will be playing in the Super Bowl—and that’s stuck with me all season. As much as I want to see Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs play in Atlanta, after the year they have had, I think the Patriots’ mix of experience and personnel will get them to the final game, but they’ll hit a roadblock against perfectly oiled machines that is the New Orleans Saints this season. Also, I picked New Orleans to beat New England in Super Bowl LIII back in the preseason, so here’s to sticking with my original prediction.
Sometimes playoff predictions set up a sort of ethical quandary. Are you supposed to pick what you think is most likely to happen (this is the social contract we have with our readers, right?) or are we supposed to pick what will make us look smartest if it comes true so we can brag on Twitter (this is how I enjoy spending my time). I love predictions, but sometimes I hate being put in the position to make new predictions when I already have old ones on record. Are you required to double-down? Are you a coward if you flip-flop? Can you take credit for your preseason predictions if you abandoned them somewhere along the way?
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