Published on: 2024-01-11
I am attempting a prediction that is typically unreliable: forecasting the outcomes of the entire NFL playoff bracket. This entails selecting winners for the six wild-card games, the four divisional-round matchups, the two conference championships, and ultimately Super Bowl LVIII. In total, this involves providing previews for 13 games, with seven of them potentially not even taking place.
Is this the official bracket that will be followed? No, it is not. It would be unwise to invest your time and energy in getting upset about it. If we assume that my chances of correctly predicting each game are as good as flipping a coin, the odds of me making all 13 correct picks are 8,192-to-1. Additionally, if I make even a single incorrect prediction in the early rounds, it would disrupt the seedings and render my entire bracket prediction invalid.
Rather than viewing this as an authoritative bracket, I encourage you to see it as a contemplative analysis of potential outcomes when these teams meet in the playoffs. I have made an effort to assess each team's strengths, weaknesses, and historical performances against one another. This includes considering matchups that appear to be heavily one-sided and likely to result in a lopsided victory. It is intended to provide insight into the potential scenarios that could unfold in the playoffs.
To be transparent, I previously made a prediction before the season started about which teams would make it to the Super Bowl. As luck would have it, both of those teams have performed well and find themselves in favorable positions as we enter the postseason. Therefore, I will maintain my prediction and continue to support that matchup. However, before delving further into the postseason, let's first focus on the upcoming wild-card round.
ESPN's Ramona Shelbourne raised the question of whether the Eagles secretly found humor in losing the division title to the Cowboys. While the 2-seed offers advantages like a home game and avoiding the 49ers until the conference finals, facing the Packers appears more dangerous than playing the Buccaneers due to Green Bay's recent winning streak. Despite missing key players for extended periods, the Packers have advanced in the playoffs.
However, their defense is a concern, ranking lower in expected points added and points allowed per drive. The Cowboys' offense, particularly Dak Prescott's throws over the middle, could exploit the Packers' weaknesses. The Cowboys are likely to pressure Jordan Love, who has struggled against such situations. The game is expected to have limited possessions, and the Cowboys are predicted to wear down the Packers, with concerns over defensive coordinator Joe Barry's ability to counter CeeDee Lamb and Jake Ferguson.
Teams: Los Angeles Rams & Detroit Lions
When: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET on NBC
Spread: DET -3 (51.5)
Prediction: Lions 30, Rams 26
The Matthew Stafford-Jared Goff matchup is filled with interesting storylines. In terms of regular-season performance, the Rams and Lions were closely ranked in ESPN's Football Power Index, with the Rams in seventh and the Lions in eighth. Although the Lions won two more games, their point differential suggests they outperformed expectations. However, the young Rams team has shown significant improvement throughout the season, narrowing the gap between the two teams.
The Lions' struggles have often been attributed to turnovers, with Goff and the offense having multiple games with three or more giveaways. The Rams, on the other hand, do not force many turnovers and ranked low in total takeaways. The Rams' success relies on putting pressure on Goff, and their improved pressure rate in the second half of the season could pose a challenge for the Lions' strong interior offensive line.
Conversely, the key to slowing down the Rams is to apply pressure on Stafford, as the Rams' performance drops significantly when facing a pass rush. The Lions have shown a willingness to blitz and have one impactful pass-rusher in Aidan Hutchinson. However, Stafford has struggled against the blitz this season, ranking low in QBR. The Lions' defensive coordinator, Aaron Glenn, may need to take risks and send extra rushers to disrupt Stafford.
The Rams could benefit from utilizing play-action and quick passing plays, as the Lions have shown vulnerabilities in defending those situations. Special teams could also be a deciding factor, with the Rams ranking last in DVOA and experiencing inconsistency with their kickers.
In a closely matched game, one mistake or special teams blunder could be the deciding factor that tilts the game in favor of either team.
Teams: Philadelphia Eagles & Tampa Bay Buccaneers
When: Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN/ABC/ESPN+
Spread: PHI -3 (43.5)
Prediction: Eagles 20, Buccaneers 16
The NFL rules dictate that one team must emerge as the winner of this game, but neither side enters the matchup in great form. The Eagles have struggled, losing five of their last six games, despite a fortunate start to the season. Their key players, including quarterback Jalen Hurts and wide receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, are dealing with injuries. Additionally, the Eagles' defense, under defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, has been problematic, with a lack of sacks and poor pressure rate.
The Eagles' offense also faces challenges against the Buccaneers' defense, which excels at blitzing. The Eagles lack effective solutions to counter opposing pressures, and Hurts' performance against extra rushers has been subpar this season. Moreover, Hurts is battling knee and finger injuries, and the availability of his top two wide receivers is uncertain.
In their previous victory over the Buccaneers, the Eagles relied on strong performances from Brown and D'Andre Swift. If the Buccaneers aim to neutralize Hurts' impact in the running game, they will need to find a solution. While the Buccaneers have been average in success rate against the run, they have been strong in EPA per carry allowed. The Eagles should look to Swift and their strong offensive line to gain consistent yardage, control the clock, and keep their defense off the field.
On the other side, the Buccaneers are coming off an unimpressive win against the Panthers, and quarterback Baker Mayfield has been dealing with injuries and struggling in recent weeks. The Eagles were able to contain Buccaneers' receiver Mike Evans in their previous matchup, and the expected return of cornerback Darius Slay could further impact Evans' performance. This could potentially swing the game in favor of the Eagles, even if it turns out to be an unattractive contest.