A look ahead

2017-2018 NFL playoff preview and predictions

Who will win the Lombardi Trophy? New England Patriots website

If you follow the NFL’s playoff preview commercials, they’re capitalizing on the Super Bowl being in Minnesota by featuring the frigid winters the state is known for. In my best Game of Thrones northerner accent: “Winter has come!”

The season has extracted the weak and left us with only those fit to lead us north of The Wall. While the AFC looks more like the Cersei, Jaime and a southerner army who aren’t used to the brutal winter, the NFC has a Daenerys, Jon Snow, a couple dragons, and a Hound. Let’s meet the contenders first, then I’ll break down what I think will happen.

AFC

The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are the No. 1 and 2 seeds respectively. They are clearly above the fray of the rest and widely regarded as leading favorites to come out of the AFC. The Patriots feature arguably the best coach and quarterback in league history, and a flawed defense that has begun to round into shape as of late. The Steelers have a powerful offense, and an OK defense. With Antonio Brown injured, they may be vulnerable, but still dangerous. No. 3 seed Jacksonville and No. 4 seed Kansas City both won weak divisions. The Jags have a nearly impenetrable defense, solid run game, but dreadful quarterback play may derail them. The Chiefs have sort of returned to early season form when they looked like world-beaters at 4-0, but they still exhibit tendencies of wanting to relapse into the team that lost six of its lseast ven after that hot start. No. 5 seed Tennessee and No. 6 seed Buffalo both barely crossed the threshold into the dance on the final Sunday of the regular season. Both have mobile quarterbacks capable of breaking a game wide open, but both quarterbacks can also throw the game away as well. Both also have key injuries at the running back position which could cause for a one and done for each of them. Don’t be surprised if the Chiefs make a run. They have playmakers in all three phases of the game.  

NFC

The NFC is as open as a Walmart on Black Friday. The Philadelphia Eagles are the most impotent No. 1 seed in playoff history. The starting quarterback went down with a torn ACL, so backup Nick Foles will be manning the ship. Sure, he’s had success under head coach Doug Pederson previously when Pederson was his QB coach in 2013, but the playoffs are a different kind of party. The No. 2 seed Minnesota Vikings have one of the best shots at playing a home Super Bowl in recent memory. Their defense is tough against the run, stingy against the pass, and has playmakers at all three levels. Case Keenum came in as a backup quarterback to go 11-3 as a starter this year and has answered the call admirably. They finished seventh in the league in rushing yards and eleventh yards in passing to go with that stellar defense, hence the reason why they’re 1a favorite for me in the NFC. The No. 3 seed Los Angeles Rams are my 1b favorite. First year head coach Sean McVay has the Rams totally turned around, especially on offense where he’s made Jared Goff look like a No. 1 overall pick and Todd Gurley a legit MVP candidate. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has aided in the improvement with his typical first year turnaround. No. 4 seed New Orleans Saints actually have a run game and a defense to back Drew Brees this year. They’re dangerous because they haven’t put that formula together since 2009, when they won it all. The No. 5 seed Carolina Panthers feature their signature tough defense and dynamic quarterback Cam Newton, as well as perhaps the best linebacker corps in the league. The No. 6 seed Atlanta Falcons are the defending NFC champs and return nearly every key piece to last year’s run, minus offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Both the Panthers and Falcons have the makeup of teams that can go on a 2007 New York Giants type of road run to the Super Bowl.

PREDICTIONS

AFC: The Chiefs will beat the Titans handily, and the Jags will sack their way to victory over the Bills in Wild-card Round. In the Divisional Round, The Steelers will have a tough time beating the Jags, but will get it done when Jags quarterback Blake Bortles throws a late-game interception to seal their fate. In a rematch of opening night, the Patriots will get their revenge on the Chiefs courtesy of an uncharacteristic incompletion by Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith on a potential game-winning drive. The Evil Empire (Patriots) will be toppled in the AFC title game by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers get their revenge when Antonio Brown shows his ballerina-esque footwork on the sideline to set up a game-winning field goal. The replay will show he was actually out, but the Steelers got to the line and spiked the ball before a replay could be called for and karma comes around to slap the Patriots costing them a big game this time around.

NFC: The Rams/Falcons game in the Wildc ard will be a shootout. Gurley will have almost 300 yards from scrimmage, but the Falcons will win on a late game touchdown by Julio Jones over a Rams double team in the endzone. The Rams will fail to convert a fourth down, Falcons run out the clock in a shocker. The Saints will escape with their third win over the Panthers this year when star rookie Alvin Kamara takes an option route out the backfield on a key third down conversion as they run out the clock. In the Divisional Round, the Falcons will go to Philadelphia and run out of steam as the Eagles, behind solid play by Foles, will win a somewhat close game dominated by the Eagles run game. In the other Divisional Round game, the Saints will lose to the Vikings after coming up short on defense as the Vikings run out the clock with the aid of a Keenum scramble to convert a crucial third down right after the two minute warning because Saints head coach Sean Payton burned all three timeouts on previous drive to pull them within six points and now can’t stop the clock. In the NFC Title game, the Vikings will go on to beat the Eagles in a blowout, so much so that former starter Teddy Bridgewater will get significant playing time (like, the whole fourth quarter).

Super Bowl: Steelers versus Vikings won’t be as exciting a Super Bowl, in my eyes, as some would think. The game will take on a 2010 BCS Title game feel when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger goes down with a game-ending injury to his throwing arm a la Colt McCoy versus Alabama. Backup Joshua Dobbs will play as well as a backup can, but will come up short losing by two scores. However, he will play well enough to garner the respect and admiration of everyone watching. Case Keenum will tie for MVP honors with cornerback Xavier Rhodes who’ll have two defensive touchdowns.

I’m not chalk guy who only picks favorites. Nor am I underdog guy who makes up out of this world reasons why underdogs will come out on top. Don’t be surprised if The Evil Empire finds themselves back in another Super Bowl, or if the Chiefs make a run and gets there either. The NFC will be the more exciting side to watch because any of the six teams could go on a run and make it to the big game. All that’s left is to sit back and see who makes it back from North of The Wall.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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