At Manopause.com we’re all about guys who persevere and keep giving it everything they’ve got. Plenty of competitors in this year’s NFL Playoffs know that narrative, but none more so than Alex Smith, Ron Rivera and Philip Rivers.
So yeah, we’ll get to predicting the Super Bowl at some point, and you can surmise my thinking from the final Manopause.com NFL Power Rankings, but first we want to celebrate those who got there when many thought they couldn’t.
How can you not pull for Alex Smith? He overcame a compound fracture to his right leg, overcame sepsis, 17 surgeries to avoid amputation and nearly two years of physical therapy to simply take another snap as an NFL quarterback. The Washington Football Team at 7-9 is no doubt the most lightly regarded playoff team, but when Smith is on the field, they’re a solid team. The 36-year-old is a lock for Comeback Player of the Year.
And then there is Smith’s coach Ron Rivera, 59, a two-time NFL Coach of the Year who was fired by the Carolina Panthers in the middle of the 2019 season, hired as Washington’s coach in the offseason and then diagnosed with a curable form of skin cancer right as he takes over a team during a pandemic. Rivera’s prognosis is excellent and Washington, after years of searching, has itself a football coach.
If you follow statistics, Rivers, 39, is one of the best on-the-field stories. He’s had an outstanding career, but he’s never been to a Super Bowl. The one time he made it to the AFC Championship Game with the San Diego Chargers, he played with a knee injury that would later require surgery.
When Rivers threw 20 interceptions last year in his final season for the Chargers, many thought he was finished. But the Colts gave him a look and signed him to a one-year deal, and the 17-year veteran responded with one of his best seasons as a passer, 11 wins and a playoff berth.
Rivers also is the Cal Ripken of NFL quarterbacks. His streak of 242 regular-season starts is an NFL record for a quarterback – he has started every game since 2006. Rivers is in the top five all-time on the NFL lists for passing yards and touchdowns. He has brought a little swagger to Indy and presents one of the more intriguing matchups as the Colts visit Buffalo.
On to this week’s playoff picks. Remember, defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City (AFC) and Green Bay (NFC) are the respective top seeds and have first-round byes. They each will host the lowest-seeded team to advance out of wildcard weekend.
No. 7 Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at No. 2 Buffalo Bills (13-3), (CBS), Saturday, Jan. 9, 1:05 pm EST
Line: BILLS by 6.5
A much more evenly matched game than you may think. Only 3 of Buffalo’s 13 wins came against teams that ultimately made the playoffs and the Bills lost decisively to two of the best teams they played – the Chiefs and Titans. But they’ve also improved as the season went along and are now on a roll behind star quarterback Josh Allen, who rides a breakout season into the playoffs.
The Colts have the strength on both lines to hang in there, while Rivers brings the kind of experience that can only help. Add in Indy’s ability to run and this starts to look like a possible upset.
But the Bills have too much. They’ve won nine of their last 10, scored a team-record 501 points this season – helped tremendously by the arrival of a true No. 1 receiver in Stefon Diggs. This will be a tense battle, with the Bills offense proving to be the difference.
Pick: Bills 35, Colts 31
No. 5 Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at No. 4 Tennessee Titans (11-5), ABC/ESPN, Sunday, Jan. 10, 1:05 pm EST
Line: Titans by 2.
The Ravens are the most dangerous wildcard team in the playoffs, having endured a COVID-riddled season and finally getting their best team on the field. That team is pretty good, led by a motivated Lamar Jackson and the usual stout Ravens defense.
I’ve got the Titans as the favorite most likely to lose this weekend, with the one qualifier being running back Derrick Henry – the league’s best running back – who has the ability to pound them to victory. I think he’ll get his share of big plays, but the Ravens will control him when it counts.
Meanwhile, I bet Jackson is about tired of hearing about his playoff failures. Tennessee has a slight edge on its home field, but Baltimore is one of three AFC teams capable of making it to the Super Bowl. They’ll be a tough out.
Pick: Ravens 31, Titans 28
No. 6 Cleveland Browns (11-5) at No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4), NBC, Sunday, 8:15 pm EST
Line: Steelers by 3.5
We’ve seen the Steelers limp into the playoffs before, only to crank it up and make a run. It feels a little different this year, more like the Steelers started to run out of gas in dropping four of five after an 11-0 start.
A big part of that is Ben Roethlisberger and his achy knees. For Pittsburgh to have a chance, Big Ben will have to carry them. That said, it’s worth noting that against a collection of Steelers backups last week, Cleveland could only muster a 24-22 win to get into the postseason. If anything, that game gives the Steelers confidence in the playoff rematch.
The Steelers defense can shut down opponents at times, but Baker Mayfield has seen them many times by now and the Browns have the far better running game. Changing of the guard in the AFC North? No, the division is too tough. But Cleveland is a player.
Pick: Brown 28, Steelers 17
No. 6 Los Angeles Rams (10-6) at No. 3 Seattle Seahawks (12-4), FOX, Saturday, 4:40 pm EST.
Line: Seahawks by 4.5
Were it not for Jared Goff’s thumb injury this has the makings of a classic matchup. Will the Rams put Goff under center, two weeks after surgery to put a pin in his relocated thumb? Or is it sparkplug John Wolford, who in his first start last week helped the Rams clinch a playoff berth? Wolford is fun to watch, has good speed and an NFL arm, but if he has to make his first playoff start against Russell Wilson, this could be a learning experience.
Seattle is getting healthy at the right time and expects to have its entire starting offensive line ready to go for only the fifth time this season. The Seahawks defense is not the caliber of the Rams unit led by Aaron Donald, but it won’t have to be if the Rams offense sputters like it did in getting past Arizona win Week 17.
LA has the NFC’s best defense, good enough to win this game. It’s just hard to count out Wilson behind a healthy o-line.
Pick: Seahawks 24, Rams 21
No. 5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) at No. 4 Washington Football Team (7-9), NBC, Saturday, 8:15 pm EST.
Line: Bucs by 7.5
There’s no joy in having to go on the road to play a team that’s only in the playoffs because its entire division stinks. Poor Tampa Bay. They’ll be expected to blow out NFC East champion Washington, which you just know will play like this is their Super Bowl. A chance to get after Tom Brady, the GOAT QB and owner of six rings? Rookie phenom Chase Young can hardly wait.
Brady has the weapons in Mike Evans and Antonio Brown, while Alex Smith is still not 100 percent and even when he is, Washington’s offensive firepower is second tier. They’ll stall enough to give Brady enough opportunities to win the game, mainly by wearing down the Washington defense. If this game gets out of hand it will be because Brady goes off – Washington needs a low-scoring affair to have a chance. Say this for the WFT: They play hard.
Bruce Arians will have some new wrinkles to unveil. I expect Brown to have a monster game.
Pick: Bucs 24, WFT 14
No. 7 Chicago Bears (8-8) at No. 2 New Orleans Saints (12-4), CBS, 4:40 pm EST
Line: Saints by 9.5
The Bears are a popular choice among bettors this week given this point spread and how hot their offense has been headed into the playoffs. And remember, these two teams met in Chicago in the regular season, with the Saints winning by a field goal in overtime. What does it all mean? Not much.
New Orleans has managed its injuries about as well as any team, aimed at getting its best defenders back for the playoffs this week. If they also get receiver Michael Thomas back, that’s a big boost to a receiving corps that needs a star.
The Saints pass rush will be going hard after Mitchell Trubisky, who has looked good since getting his starting job back, albeit against some pretty weak opponents.
Brees, meanwhile, has been back for three games since recovering from broken ribs and a pierced lung. He looked rusty against the Chiefs, but he looked like Brees usually looks against the Vikings and Panthers. If Brees truly is going to retire after the season, I don’t think this is going to be his last game. He’ll put points on the board, but the Saints defense will gain notice.
Pick: Saints 35, Bears 17