A look ahead

2017-2018 NFL playoff preview and predictions

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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Astros defeat the White Sox, 5-3. Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images.

Yordan Alvarez homered in the first inning and drove in a run during a four-run seventh as the Houston Astros rallied past the Chicago White Sox 5-3 on Thursday.

Alvarez made it 1-0 with a 439-foot drive to right against Chris Flexen for his 15th homer, and his single in the seventh tied the game at 3-all. The two-time All-Star finished with three hits after missing the previous two games for a family matter.

Alex Bregman added three hits and scored a run for the Astros, who won their second straight after dropping the opener of a three-game series against the team with the worst record in the majors.

Flexen worked six innings, allowing one run and five hits. The White Sox fell to 20-56 with their 26th loss in 32 games.

Chicago chased Astros starter Spencer Arrighetti in a three-run fifth.

Martín Maldonado led off with a single on a pop fly that deflected off second baseman Jose Altuve’s glove and came around on a one-out double by Luis Robert Jr. Andrew Vaughn knocked Arrighetti out of the game with an RBI single, and Andrew Benintendi made it 3-1 with a sacrifice fly against Tayler Scott.

Houston sent 10 batters to the plate in the seventh.

Mauricio Dubón led off with a double against Steven Wilson (1-4) that extended his hitting streak to 13 games and scored on Altuve’s single. Alvarez grounded an RBI single past a diving second baseman Danny Mendick against Tanner Banks. The Astros took a 4-3 lead when third baseman Lenyn Sosa threw low to first after fielding a chopper by pinch-hitter Cooper Hummel with two out, allowing Bregman to score.

Justin Anderson came in for Chicago and walked Jake Meyers and Jeremy Peña to force in another run, making it 5-3.

Arrighetti was charged with three runs and five hits in 4 1/3 innings. Four relievers combined to hold the White Sox to one hit, with Scott (3-2) recording five outs and Josh Hader working the ninth for his 11th save in 12 chances.

TRAINER'S ROOM

White Sox: RHP Mike Clevinger (right elbow inflammation) is expected to throw 70 to 75 pitches in a rehab start on Sunday. He threw 55 for Triple-A Charlotte on Tuesday. ... DH Eloy Jiménez (strained left hamstring) could return next week, though manager Pedro Grifol said he is “not real sure” which day.

UP NEXT

Astros: The Astros plan to call up RHP Jake Bloss from Double-A Corpus Christi to make his major league debut against the Baltimore Orioles on Friday and fill a hole in their injury-depleted rotation. Bloss, a third-round draft pick out of Georgetown in 2023, has a 1.74 ERA over 12 starts in Class A and Double-A. RHP Grayson Rodriguez (8-2, 3.20 ERA) pitches for Baltimore.

White Sox: RHP Erick Fedde (5-1, 3.09) looks to win his second straight start as the White Sox open a three-game series at Detroit. RHP Jack Flaherty (4-4, 3.01) gets the ball for the Tigers.

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