Breaking Down the Super Bowl & Who Will Decide Football’s Biggest Game

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Six months after posting my first NFL preview column for the 2014 season, I’m still worrying about the same exact thing as I was on that August day: the Seattle Seahawks.

During the preseason, the regular season and even the early part of the playoffs, I was praying someone else would knock the Seahawks off. As a sports fan, you’re always going to appreciate your team beating the toughest possible competition on its way to a Championship, but as a Patriots fan, I’ll take Super Bowl #4 any way I can get it. So if someone wanted to do New England a big favor and knock off the champs before a possible Super Bowl matchup, that was fine by me.

But it didn’t happen. It seems that in 2014, the Manning brothers ended their automatically-renewing deal with the devil and the Seahawks swooped in to take their place.

OK, everyone else in the country, your team couldn’t knock off Seattle so we’ll step up and do your dirty work. After all, I can’t imagine any impartial fans would be rooting for the Seahawks over the Patriots? That would be lunacy…unless the NFL fabricated a cheating scandal to purposely unite the nation in its hatred for a common enemy. But what league that claims any sort of legitimacy would get up to those types of shenanigans?

Oh.

For better or worse, we’re looking at one of the most anticipated Super Bowls in recent memory. We thought we had a similar game on tap last year only for the Broncos to no-show in the most important moment of their collective lives. Let’s hope Seattle doesn’t get scared of the Patriots and go down that same path.

At this point in the week it seems silly to go too deep into the matchups and analytics so let’s just tackle the pick for this game through a smorgasbord of random thoughts & stories.

A stupid cliche that won’t die

First thing’s first. Throughout this past week, I’ve heard a number of analysts and former players making their pick for Seattle based on that old cliche “defense wins championships.” I’ve heard it phrased a million different ways, but the bottom line is that people seem to think the better defense almost always wins out in the Super Bowl. As usual, I decided to do the research on my own. Here is the list of the past 13 Super Bowls with each team’s regular season defensive ranking (according to FootballOutsiders.com) in parentheses:

  • Super Bowl 48: Seattle (1st) over Denver (15th)
  • Super Bowl 47: Baltimore (19th) over San Francisco (3rd)
  • Super Bowl 46: Giants (19th) over New England (30th)
  • Super Bowl 45: Green Bay (2nd) over Pittsburgh (1st)
  • Super Bowl 44: New Orleans (17th) over Indianapolis (16th)
  • Super Bowl 43: Pittsburgh (1st) over Arizona (21st)
  • Super Bowl 42: Giants (13th) over New England (11th)
  • Super Bowl 41: Indianapolis (25th) over Chicago (2nd)
  • Super Bowl 40: Pittsburgh (3rd) over Seattle (16th)
  • Super Bowl 39: New England (7th) over Philadelphia (16th)
  • Super Bowl 38: New England (2nd) over Carolina (10th)
  • Super Bowl 37: Tampa Bay (1st) over Oakland (7th)
  • Super Bowl 36: New England (13th) over St. Louis (5th)

Out of these 13 Super Bowls, the better defense won the game seven times (54% of the time). And in five of those seven games where the better defense actually did win, it was by less than a touchdown. So there’s really no truth to this cliche, and Seattle’s #1 defense shouldn’t automatically intimidate the Patriots or the people who want to bet on the Patriots.

Two small items to consider before you pick

  • From a statistical standpoint, the number-crunchers at FootballOutsiders.com are calling this the closest Super Bowl matchup in history. While it’s fun to consider an alternate point spread prop bet that has one of these teams winning by 10+ and paying you off in a major way, it’s highly unlikely. Over & over this week I’ve wanted to make a case for why the Patriots will win in a blowout. I just don’t see it. Both teams are great at staying in games and making the right decisions and tweaks. Rarely do either of these teams suffer a true meltdown.
  • From an anecdotal standpoint, I’m assuming this is going to essentially be a home game for Seattle, right? It’s not that I don’t have faith in my fellow New Englanders..it’s just, well, no I don’t actually have any faith in them. That Seattle fan base seems much more likely to take a city over. They’re loud, proud & obnoxious in a way most cities could only dream of. They have a shorter & cheaper flight to Arizona. They didn’t suffer a blizzard earlier in the week that could have messed with their travel plans. They haven’t been to as many Super Bowls in the past 15 years and therefore probably have more fans clamoring to spend their kids’ college tuitions on a two-night trip to the Phoenix area. Let’s not fight it. The villain Patriots are playing in hostile territory on Sunday.

The head vs the heart

When thinking about this game on & off for the past 10 days, I kept coming back to one thing: Do I want to make this pick with my head or with my heart?

Picking from my heart obviously means I’m going with the Patriots. The heart says the Patriots are finally getting that jolt of Eff You motivation at the right time. In 2007, the SpyGate Eff You mode wore that team down by December. New England started playing angry in week 2 of that season and couldn’t sustain it for the next 20 weeks. But this year’s Patriots got screwed by the league at just the right time. They’ve had two weeks to get pissed off at all the irresponsible accusations. They’ve been thrown under the bus repeatedly and the drivers of those buses have made sure to back up and run the bodies over a second time. (We can refer to this as “pulling a Suge Knight” now, right?)

The heart also says that Tom Brady & Bill Belichick finally get Super Bowl win #4 and stand alone at the top of their respective quarterbacking and coaching mountains. The heart says they deserve this reward for continually building a championship contender the right way, for being the only team that you can consistently say year in & year out will almost definitely be one of the final four teams standing, and for handling more off-field adversity than any other team over the past two years (beginning with the Aaron Hernandez murder charge right before the start of 2013 training camp and extending through this past week with that goddamn football inflation garbage).

The heart says Brady has a game for the ages…perhaps something similar to his surgical dissection of the Jaguars in a 2008 playoff game where he went 26-of-28 for 262 yards and three touchdown passes.

The head doesn’t necessarily agree with all this. Ten days ago the head was telling me the Seahawks should be the pick. First of all, anyone with even a small amount of football & gambling knowledge should have predicted Seattle would be a two or three-point favorite over New England. But with the way the Patriots demolished Indy last Sunday night, coming on the heels of Russell Wilson’s worst game as a professional QB, the money immediately poured in for New England and we got this still-current line of New England favored by two points. So the head is definitely worried about the amount of money that came in on the Patriots early.

The head also knows that the current “Eff You motivation” could just as easily be a distraction. The entire team—especially the head coach and starting quarterback—have had to spend some time on the deflated footballs accusation since last Monday. Even if it’s not a lot of time, they still had to break from routine for a little bit. My guess is that there’s probably more examples in professional sports of a distracted team underperforming than of them banding together and overcoming the adversity.

But it’s not quite as simple as my head knowing the Seahawks should be the pick. My head also thinks the Patriots can win if they play a nearly perfect game.

It’s been pretty predictable for New England in the playoffs so far: Whatever aspect of their game seems like the obvious one that needs to be successful in order for them to win has indeed been the critical piece in advancing. Against Baltimore we knew they had to keep Brady upright and contain the pass rush. They did that exceptionally well compared to their last few games against the Ravens. And when facing the Colts, of course establishing the run is key to getting a win. They did that and then some.

So what’s the obvious key for the Patriots in the Super Bowl? I think it’s two-fold.

  1. No turnovers. Believe it or not, Brady has thrown at least one interception in eight of his last 11 playoff games. Turnovers are always a recipe for losing, but against this very fast and athletic Seattle defense, it’s even more crucial. You want to make the Seahawks’ offense earn every single yard & point, so a Pick-Six would be devastating (as would any turnover that leads to a short field for Seattle).
  2. Make Russell Wilson’s legs a non-factor. If Marshawn Lynch gains 150 rushing yards on 30 carries, so be it. The Patriots have allowed big days to many running backs over the years and have lived to talk about it because they almost never give up long runs. If a team wants to methodically chip away with four & five-yard runs all game, that’s fine by the Patriots. But if Wilson starts making plays by running, that’s going to open up the whole defense and the odds of Lynch ripping off those huge runs increase exponentially. The Patriots can handle one guy having a good running day, but not two.

Another thing I keep turning over in my head is that if one of these teams gets to 27 points, the game’s over. It sounds like a lot of predictions coming in from the experts have this being a particularly low-scoring game. I don’t see it being super low-scoring and I don’t see it being a battle of both teams reaching the 30’s. But I could see something like 28-24.

And this ties back to where New England has struggled in its past two Super Bowl appearances. This franchise has averaged 31 points per game in the regular season since the start of 2007. But in their two Super Bowls since then, they’ve combined for exactly 31 points. You can’t win many games when being held to 14 or 17 points.

Unfortunately none of this matters one bit

What we need to be doing is looking at this game from the standpoint of what the NFL most wants to see happen. Let’s face it, the NFL—and the NFL alone—is going to determine the outcome of the Super Bowl.

The league has done a fantastic job over the years of building the Patriots up as the ultimate villain, but is it as simple as creating a monster so a record-breaking audience tunes in and then the good guys vanquish the bad guys? If it’s that simple, then the NFL isn’t really milking this for all it’s worth. And we all know the NFL will milk something way past the point of that thing being dried up.

I think the best case for the NFL is for New England to win, but not in a tidy sort of “oh, turns out they can still win when they don’t cheat” way. It’ll be in an overtly controversial way. This allows the rest of the country to still be angry at the Patriots, and it provides a built-in villain for the 2015 season.

And what’s the NFL’s go-to blueprint for controversy? Letting the referees get involved and bungle an important call.

My head and my heart are telling me this game swings on a controversial play that will throw the refs into the spotlight and allow people to question yet another Patriots Super Bowl win. Gun to my head, I’d pick a phantom roughing the passer call against Seattle on a crucial 4th quarter New England drive.

For many different reasons, I’m picking the Patriots to win 27-24.

The Patriots get that elusive 4th ring. We all finally get to pop that bottle of champagne that’s been sitting in our fridge since February 2008. And hopefully the New England fans I’m with will be OK with an emotional embrace like this lasting image of Belichick and his coordinators from the Patriots’ last Super Bowl victory:

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A collective groan from the league’s other 30 fan bases

If we can look ahead to the 2015 season for just a second, I have some bad news for a lot of you football fans out there. The Patriots & Seahawks are going to be the odds-on favorites to be right back in this spot one year from now. And how can anyone try to argue against that? The Patriots are kind of a no-brainer considering their biggest rival, Denver, is on life support. The Colts, Bengals, Steelers and Chargers can’t be taken seriously. That leaves only the Ravens once again standing in New England’s way going into the 2015 season.

Over in the NFC, the Seahawks won’t have to worry about San Francisco for a little while, and Detroit/Dallas/Philly can’t be relied on for continued success. That leaves Green Bay. Having the best QB in football, the Packers are certainly a lot more threatening to Seattle than anyone in the AFC is to New England.

I’m already looking forward to the New England-Seattle rematch next year in San Francisco. And I’m sure there will be a fresh batch of controversies and off-the-field bullshit that the NFL will create just to keep itself in the news. Can’t wait!

Counterpoint from a Seattle fan

I promised to devote equal time in this column to both teams and that was clearly a lie. But here are the opinions of my buddy Brad, a Seattle fan whose sports expertise began and ended with the 1995 Mariners up until the Seahawks won the Super Bowl last year:

I think the Seahawks are going to win the game for the following reasons:

  1. The Seahawks have enough great athletes to pressure Brady with four and double Gronk.  Unless Edelman goes off from the slot, Brady will struggle.
  2. Bobby Wagner is a beast.  So is Kam Chancellor.  They will destroy whoever Belichick runs out there as running back of the week. 
  3. Marshawn Lynch is awesome.  The Seahawks’ line will be healthier than they were against Green Bay and the Pats aren’t very good against good running backs. 
  4. Wilson will come back from his worst game since Pop Warner and keep them in the game while the defense and Lynch wear the Pats down.
  5. Also, there is this: When the public is betting on your team in Vegas, you’d better run for the hills: “Vegas, fans favoring Patriots.” 
My pick: Seahawks 27, Pats 13
Enjoy Super Bowl 49, everyone!
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Prop Party (The Super Bowl Kind, Not the Kinky Kind)

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The best part about there being only three more days until the Super Bowl is that the media only has three more days of overblown and made-up stories to shove down our throats. It feels so good to type those words.

As predicted by anyone with a brain, the deflated footballs non-story finally died down, even with some last ditch efforts to reignite the outrage (he went into a bathroom before going out on the field! the NFL is naming people of interest!…which is almost as cute as when me and my brothers would play “lawyers” growing up. We liked pretending we were adults with important jobs and actual authority too!)

And the media tried so hard on Tuesday and Wednesday to get all the idiots in America to be outraged over Marshawn Lynch’s refusal to speak, but that was to no avail. It turns out if it’s not about Bill Belichick and the Patriots cheating outsmarting everyone else, it’s not juicy enough.

It feels like we’re finally entering the phase where the upcoming game is being talked about. But don’t bet against Roger Goodell saying something at his “State of the NFL” address on Friday that puts controversy right back into the spotlight.

I promise to stay controversy-free for the rest of this Props column, but I can’t promise the same for Friday’s column that’ll be dedicated to picking the winner of the game (with some brand new conspiracy theories as a side dish).

While many of my readers have bit the bullet and signed up for an online gambling account at this point, I realize there are some who would love to play along with prop bets but still don’t want to truly gamble. Well the Super Bowl party I attended last year had a fun way to make this happen for all of the fake bettors. Below is a picture of the prop bets game they had everyone play. Each person at the party would write down an answer for each bet on the list, and then the winner was simply the person who got the most correct. I think the creator of this forgot to include a legit prize last year, but you can make it anything. A $20 gift card to Amazon or something simple. If nothing more, it’s a nice complement to the traditional Super Bowl squares since it causes people to pay attention to other things going on in the game. And you can obviously create whatever questions you want.

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But if you need more than that $20 Amazon card, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve been on fire during the playoffs with my prop bets (where “fire” = “probably hovering just above 50% but I try to make it sound like I haven’t lost a singlet bet”).

So let’s ignore the point spread and the over/under game total for today and focus solely on the props. There are over 500 prop bets available, most of which you can see HERE on Bovada’s website. And let’s get a little wild here. Usually I stick to 5-7 prop bets per weekend, but what’s the point of the Super Bowl if it’s not for me to empty my entire Bovada account on these ludicrous bets? I’m giving you 19 picks for the Super Bowl!

Here they are:

How long will it take Idina Menzel to sing the US National Anthem?

  • This is the first of three bets I’m making that don’t really have anything to do with the actual game. For this prop, I’m going big on Under 2 minutes 1 second (-120 odds) for the National Anthem. I don’t know much about this woman who’s singing, but I know what the numbers say…
  • Menzel has only two prior National Anthem performances that are available on video. This past summer she performed at the MLB All-Star game and clocked in at 1 minute 58 seconds. And in December 2007, she sang in the Giants/Patriots week 17 game and finished in 1 minute 34 seconds. I went back and watched those performances (and clocked them myself), and let me tell ya, that 1:58 rendition felt like the slowest singing of the Anthem possible. I can’t imagine her singing anything more slowly than that.
  • The other piece of data is that apparently in the last nine Super Bowls, the average Anthem length was 1 minute 56 seconds. Put it all on the under!

Will Al Michaels refer to the point spread, total, odds on who wins the game or any prop bet during the game? 

  • I love Yes (+170) as the bet here. In a game this big, where everyone in the world has already heard who’s favored by how many, the announcer is almost always going to casually mention who that favorite is or something to that effect. But for the uninitiated, you should know that Al Michaels almost always finds a way to work in the spread or the point total into his broadcasts. This is like stealing.

What color will Bill Belichick’s hoodie be?

  • I like Blue (even money). The other options are Grey (-120) and Red (+750). If memory serves, Belichick wore red and grey in the Super Bowl losses to the Giants. I think he remembers that and has the same stupid superstitions that I do. Also, he’s been known to wear the track suit/warm-up suit in warm weather and domes. If he doesn’t wear a hoodie at all, the bet is off and you get your money back.

Player to score the first Patriots touchdown in the game

  • Rob Gronkowski (13/4), LeGarrette Blount (9/2), Shane Vereen (8/1)
  • I’m betting all three of those guys knowing my profit will be smaller on the winner because I have to lose the other two. Barring a rare long touchdown, the Patriots score almost exclusively by throwing to Gronk or running the ball (at least that’s the recent trend). Gronk & Blount are the odds-on favorites to win this prop, but I don’t think getting cute is the right move here. Just pick those guys and move on. And because the Pats might choose to go more with a pass-catching running back at times, I’m putting Vereen into the mix just in case.

Player to score the first Seahawks touchdown in the game

  • Jermaine Kearse (7/1), Luke Willson (8/1)
  • Here’s where we want to go down the longshot path. And these two guys aren’t even that big of longshots. While Lynch, Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin are the three favorites for Seattle’s first touchdown, the Patriots simply don’t give up touchdowns to running backs, quarterbacks or #1 wide receivers these days. It seems like the opponent’s second or third receiving options, or its tight end, are the ones putting up points on the Patriots. That’s why I like Kearse and Willson.

Player to score the first touchdown in the game

  • Rob Gronkowski (13/2). If you feel good about the Patriots, then it’s not a terrible thing to double down on Gronk in this case. Now we’re saying he’s scoring the first touchdown among either team, not just New England. You can probably guess that a few bets from now, I’m going to be promoting Gronk as a possible MVP candidate.

Total touchdown passes – Tom Brady

  • I’m taking Over 1.5 (-180) for two reasons. One is because the Seahawks don’t let up many rushing touchdowns (less than half a touchdown on the ground per game allowed). And two because Brady is only two touchdowns shy of tying Joe Montana’s career record of 11 total touchdowns in the Super Bowl. The Patriots aren’t going to game plan for this, but if it’s within reach and it’s a coin flip of a decision on running or throwing, he’s throwing.

Total rushing yards – Tom Brady

  • Let’s go Over 2.5 (even money) with this one. Yes, it does feel a little pathetic to be betting on a person to gain three total yards. But those of us who have been paying attention can take advantage. When I thought about Brady’s recent games, I immediately sensed that he’s been scrambling a bit more. And it turns out I was right. In five of the past six games, Brady has gone over the 2.5 line for rushing yards. In fact, in each of those five games, he finished with seven or more yards. So it’s not like he’s just barely breaking that mark. He’s obliterating it.

Total rushing yards – Russell Wilson

  • It seems counterintuitive to pick Brady for an “over” bet on rushing yards and Wilson for an “under” bet in the same category, but Wilson’s total is 42.5. I’m going Under 42.5 rushing yards for Wilson (-115). The Patriots under Belichick have never been the type of team that gives up a lot of yards on the ground to the quarterback. I also think New England has enough confidence in its secondary that it’ll put extra attention on stopping the run, from Lynch and Wilson.

 Total receptions – Jermaine Kearse

  • It’s probably clear from the bets above that I’m leaning towards New England having a good offensive game, but that doesn’t mean I’m expecting every Seattle player to suck. The yards have to be gained and the passes have to be caught by someone. I like the #2 receiver in a game against the Patriots. I say Kearse will have 5 or more receptions (7/1). It’s a great longshot.

How many successful field goals will be kicked in the game by the Seahawks?

  • The answer is Over 1.5 (-150). Even though Seattle has only made one field goal in its first two playoff games, I’m not worried. This is a pretty conservative offense, especially when it’s going up against a formidable defense. I don’t think Seattle expects to put up four touchdowns in this game, but rather chip away on offense while their defense does the rest. Pete Carroll tends to be a pretty conservative coach on 4th downs, and the Seahawks weren’t a great 3rd down team in 2014 either.

Will both teams have the lead during the 1st half?

  • Yes (+130). Mostly because I’m getting an extra 30% on my bet for a very typical scenario to play out: Team A goes up 3-0 on a field goal, Team B answers with a touchdown. Done and done.

Will there be a punt return for a touchdown in the game?

  • Did you know that there has been a safety in each of the past three Super Bowls and four of the last six. For whatever reason, this keeps happening. I was going to put some money on there being a safety this year too (+550), but that’s such an anomaly. There’s no way we’re going to keep seeing a safety scored in every Super Bowl.
  • So instead I’m taking that money and putting it on Yes (+750) for whether or not there will be a punt return touchdown. Julian Edelman happens to be a fantastic punt returner. Also, this Patriots season has mimicked the 2001-2004 Patriots teams pretty closely, and those teams could always be counted on for an incredible special teams play in the biggest moments.

Will a 2-point conversion be attempted in the game?

  • Yes (+195). You’re giving me nearly 2-to-1 odds on something that happens with regularity in the NFL. It’s also something that has happened in each of the last five Super Bowls.

Will the game go to overtime?

  • Yes (7/1). I get roped into this bet every year under the premise of “hey, it has to happen eventually.” I swore I wouldn’t bite on it this year, but then I noticed the odds are +700. This same bet last year was only +550 for “yes”. If they’re going to keep increasing the odds on this prop, then they have a customer for life.

MVP Bets

  • Rob Gronkowski (9/1): Because if any Patriots player would win it besides Brady, it would be Gronk. A great game by #87 could get voters to choose him with the reasoning of “Hey, Gronk, you had an awesome season. Sorry we couldn’t put you in the regular season MVP discussion, but just know that you’re the greatest.” But I still don’t love this because if the Patriots don’t win the game by running, then they’re probably spreading the ball around and then we’re back at Brady for MVP.
  • Jermaine Kearse (50/1): Something about that #2 wide receiver randomly going off for a huge game or making an iconic catch…Santonio Holmes was #2 behind Hines Wards when he won the MVP in Super Bowl XLIII, and Deion Branch was the #2 guy behind David Givens (in fact, Branch was kind of #3 behind David Patten too) when he won the MVP in Super Bowl XXXIX. Call it a hunch.
  • Marshawn Lynch (5/1): STAY AWAY. I may not know who is winning the MVP, but I know who isn’t. You know who gets to decide the MVP of this game for the most part? The media (they account for 80% of the vote). You know which group has collectively decided over the past few months—and especially the last few days—that they hate Marshawn Lynch? The media. Is there a bet somewhere that just says “Marshawn Lynch will NOT win the MVP?” Even if the odds are -3000, I’d make that bet.

There you have it. You can spread some money across all 19 of those bets, or put all your money on one or two that you love, or bet the opposite of everything I picked because you know my track record. There are limitless possibilities.

Whatever you do, just have fun with it and don’t be afraid to be that guy at the Super Bowl party who screams wildly after a 3-yard QB sneak by Tom Brady from his own 20 yard line in the 1st quarter. Everyone’s going to think you’re crazy, but crazy is OK if you’re also rich.

My pick for the winner of Super Bowl XLIX is coming up on Friday.

Super Bowl Notes, Prop Bets and The MasturDeflator

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A quick note before I dive into my column: If you really want to read my thoughts on the deflated football confusion going on with the Patriots, please scroll all the way to the bottom of this post. I’m not going to dignify the ridiculousness of that story by leading with it. I’ve never had more people reach out to me begging for a blog than over the last few days with this non-story, so that’s the only reason I’m even mentioning it at all. I suspect that when the dust settles around this and the Patriots aren’t punished even one penny, all of you fools will think to yourselves, “Wow, we just wasted a week of our lives FREAKING OUT over whether the Patriots purposely made some footballs just a tiny bit softer.” And you’ll all feel pretty stupid, but none of you will admit it. You’ll just fall back on your irrational hatred for New England’s continued success. The funniest part about all this is that almost the entire football world, past players and present, has voiced its opinions that A) This really isn’t a big deal because in no way does it give a team an unfair advantage, and B) They have all doctored the balls themselves or have been with other players who have done so. Like I said, scroll to the bottom if you want more on this.

 On To Seattle

There’s this game that’s going to be played in just 10 days. It’s called the Super Bowl. The two best teams in the NFL are facing off to decide the league’s champion. Do you guys wanna talk about that at all? Or should we switch gears from deflated footballs to Seattle’s illegal six-man formation on the game-changing onside kick from the NFC Championship?

OK, I’ll decide for you. The Super Bowl it is.

So the Patriots and Seahawks come into this game having split 16 games against one another in their history. Wow. So on top of it being the Super Bowl, we also have the rubber match in this long, storied rivalry? Too much!

While the current coaches and players had nothing to do with most of those games, there is a regular season matchup between these two teams from week six of the 2012 season that can teach us a few things. I went back and watched the highlights and read through the game story so you wouldn’t have to. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Russell Wilson was a rookie quarterback who was already putting together a nice little resume.
  • Seattle’s 24-23 win at home against New England would get them off to a 4-2 start while the Patriots would fall to 3-3.
  • The problem is that one of those wins for Seattle was the Fail Mary game where they “beat” Green Bay on a botched game-ending catch/interception call by the replacement referees in week 3 (the NFL Network person doing the highlights in that link above makes sure to tell us that Golden Tate’s 4th quarter catch against the Patriots was not a controversial catch).
  • Tom Brady threw the ball 58 times, the Patriots racked up 85 total plays and held the ball for 36 minutes. But Brady threw two back-breaking interceptions on Seattle’s side of the field to take sure-thing points off the board.
  • There was also some end-of-1st-half mismanagement by New England that cost them three points. They tried to throw one more time with six seconds left (setting up for a field goal if they didn’t get a touchdown), but Brady was flagged for intentional grounding and the 10-second runoff ended the half. So even 27 months ago, Brady was starting to throw stupid interceptions at the wrong time and the Patriots were becoming sketchy in clock management situations at the end of the 2nd quarter.
  • Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker were Brady’s top receivers in this game.
  • Sidney Rice and Braylon Edwards each caught a touchdown for Seattle.
  • The Patriots held Marshawn Lynch to 41 rushing yards somehow.
  • The legend of Wilson gained momentum when he led Seattle back from a 13-point 4th quarter deficit to knock off a Super Bowl contender.
  • Rice’s game-winning 46-yard touchdown catch came with Patriots defenders Nate Ebner and Tavon Wilson giving chase. This is potentially the biggest change since these two teams last met. While Ebner and Wilson are still on New England’s roster, they play sparingly and will not be responsible for covering Seattle’s top receivers with the game on the line next Sunday.
  • Of all the changes that have happened to both teams since this game, New England’s improved secondary is the X factor.
  • What hasn’t changed much is that New England entered that 2012 game with the league’s top offense and Seattle came into it with the best defense in the NFL. We’re still going to see that exact matchup at the Super Bowl. One of the most efficient offenses versus the best defense.

I’m fully expecting the Super Bowl to be similarly close as that 2012 matchup. And what’s really encouraging is that both teams seem to be healthy. Brian Stork, the Patriots’ rookie center, returned to practice on Thursday, and the banged up guys in Seattle (Sherman, Thomas) are seemingly on track to play. That’s all we can ask for. All hands on deck.

I’m still a long ways off from making my official predictions and handing out prop bet winners, but if I was forced to pick right now, I’d be going with the Patriots. The line is New England -2.

Considering I’m a Patriots fan and will probably find a reason to pick them no matter what, I’ll try to get the one Seattle fan I know to chime in with his justification for picking his team, just so my readers have contrasting takes on this game.

This really is going to be an outstanding football game. It just sucks that we have to wait another 10 days.

For now I’ll leave you with just a few prop bet notes that caught my eye so far:

  1. If you want to see just how crazy betting websites get when it comes to Super Bowl props, check out Bovada’s special props page: HERE. We’re talking bets like “Which coach will be mentioned first by name on TV after kickoff” and “What color will Katy Perry’s hair be when she begins the halftime show”.
  2. Actually, here’s the craziest one I’ve ever seen, and it’s live right now: “What will be higher – Russell Wilson Passing Yards or the US National Average Gas Price (in cents) on Monday, February 2nd?” Seriously. You can bet on that.
  3. One piece of advice that a wise gambling friend of mine always adheres to is this: If a bet on Bovada has the fine print of “Book Manager’s decision is final,” DO NOT WAGER ON THAT PROP. This is because those particular bets are subjective. They aren’t things that the boxscore or play on the field will tell you. Some guy gets to decide. For example, a current prop bet out there on Bovada states, “Will Bill Belichick smile during the game on camera?” Are you really going to make that bet and put your money in the hands of someone whose best interest is having the Bovada site win more money? You’re going to be pissed when you think you’ve seen a smile but they determine it was “only a smirk.”
  4. And finally, here is something I’ve never EVER seen in all my years of online gambling. In every prop that involves either both coaches or just Belichick, there is fine print that says, “Belichick must be coaching in the game.” That means if Belichick isn’t coaching, the bet is off and you get your money back. I have never seen a casino have to hedge by saying “only if the coach is coaching.” I guess they’re waiting to see if he gets suspended?

And that’s a perfect segue for my final thoughts about the accidental under-inflation of the footballs in New England.

So I’ve already established that this air-in-the-football thing is a lot of panicking about nothing. Every quarterback and kicker wants the football to be a certain way. It sounds like the majority of quarterbacks, current and former, do what they need to do to feel comfortable gripping the ball without giving a single thought to the NFL’s exact rules.

I have plenty of friends who aren’t New England fans, and in fact, hate the Patriots. What’s most telling to me over the last few days is that not one of them has come out of the woodwork to throw jabs at me about the Patriots or their cheating ways. Interestingly enough, none of them are Colts fans, Ravens fans or Jets fans. This is very telling. It seems like the people making a huge stink over all this are the fans of teams that the Patriots have consistently beaten each and every year for the past 14 years.

I get it. I’d do the same thing. But unfortunately for a completely innocent man like Bill Belichick, this forces him to be a “defendant” in a case where he hasn’t been charged with anything.

It’s also complete and utter bullshit that 53 players who have worked their asses off all year to get to this point are being dismissed in favor of “the Patriots only won because they cheated.” Picture yourself in that situation. You work harder and compete better than every opponent you face for a full year and then some jealous assholes chalk up your success to a cheating scandal that isn’t even a cheating scandal.

But let’s take a look at this story from a different angle before I retire these thoughts for good:

For the 14th consecutive season, there is a two-week break in the NFL’s schedule between Conference Championship Sunday and Super Bowl Sunday. And for the 14th consecutive season, the lead-up to the big game will be excruciating. It’s especially bad in the Twitter era where all media types, TV personalities and bloggers need something to talk about 24 hours a day.

This also happens to be the time of year where the NBA, NHL, and most importantly, college basketball are all hitting their late-season strides and fans start to really care.

Do you think the NFL wants to be relegated to third or fourth priority in the news cycles for the next five or six days? No way. They are a machine. And they stop at nothing to lead the sporting news daily.

So tell me…knowing the integrity of the NFL’s decision-makers and that money makes every decision for them, would you really put it past them to use a harmless inquiry by a team on ball inflation rules as a lightning rod for a huge controversy?

I’ve heard anecdotally in the past about lots of different requests/petitions/inquiries every team sends to the league office after certain games. (“We don’t think [fill in the blank] should be allowed and would like to see it addressed by the rules committee.”)

This ball deflation issue probably started out the same way. But what does the NFL want? Headlines! Controversy! A better reason to watch the Super Bowl! A villain everyone can root against!

And, boy, was that ever easy. Just leak out enough information that Indy doesn’t think the Patriots’ win was on the up & up, and boom, you have your scandal.

The NFL has literally said nothing about this investigation for close to 100 hours. Don’t you think if they wanted it to go away they would have come out with more information, assigned blame to someone, or handed down their punishment for those responsible? You don’t accidentally let a topic like this sit out there unattended unless you want it to.

Remember the Ray Lewis Deer Antler Spray in the weeks leading up to Baltimore vs San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII? That’s what this is all over again. Some stupid nugget of information that shouldn’t be at all scandalous or newsworthy but suddenly is because the timing of when it first came up (and, let’s face it, because everyone wants to peg the Patriots as true cheaters because their teams almost never win against them).

And I think New England should do the same thing Ray Lewis did leading up to the Super Bowl (twice, actually. He also had the murder allegations swirling around him at the Super Bowl in 2001). Say nothing. Give it no attention. Don’t answer questions about it. You only know about the Seattle Seahawks because that’s all you’re focusing on/thinking about this week.

And when the NFL decides that the Super Bowl is close enough for people to be talking a lot about the actual game, they will quietly rule that no one in the Patriots organization was found of any wrongdoing, but they will be overhauling the procedures around how the footballs are handled in the hours leading up to each game going forward.

If you know the NFL at all, you know this is exactly what they wanted and what I just said is exactly how it’s going to play out.

This Patriots fan will not be dragged into another discussion about something as bogus as air pressure inside a fucking football.

End of story.

NFL Championship Weekend Recap: Props, God and Aaron Rodgers is a Cheater

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Please excuse my tardiness on this recap as Monday was a tough day. I was still feeling the effects of a six-hour drive back to LA from San Francisco on Sunday night after the Patriots game ended. My saint of a fiancee volunteered to drive my drunk ass home so we wouldn’t have to waste our holiday on Monday driving all day.

In 2005, while driving with my brother from Massachusetts to San Francisco to start our post-college lives, I would smoke Phillies Blunt cigars just to stay awake. No one smokes those awful cigars. They buy them to gut them and stuff ’em with weed. But I smoked the cigars just to keep me awake. Fast forward nearly 10 years and my new distraction of choice was to eat an aggressive amount of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets to stay awake so my fiancee would have some company.

I got the sense that she would have rathered me be sleep anyway. A lack of sleep and a clogging up of the plumbing from all those McNuggets led to a very useless Monday after all.

So excuse the lateness of this post. We still have 12 days until the Super Bowl so there will be plenty of time to write thousands upon thousands of words about the Patriots and the Seahawks.

Here is me emptying out my fictitious notebook from the weekend:

  • After the dust settled on that NFC Championship Game—one of the most bizarre, poorly-played games in football history—the group of guys I was with had a long debate about who ultimately deserves responsibility for the Packers blowing that game. Was it solely on Brandon Bostick, the Green Bay tight end who botched the onside kick recovery? Absolutely not. But now I think people are swinging too far the other way and assigning him almost no blame. I think he gets 35% of the blame because that was just such a huge moment, and it was a situation where simply catching a football, which he’s probably done 90,000 times in his life, is all he has to do.
  • I’m putting 15% of the blame on Ha Ha Clinton-Dix because he played the poorest single snap of defense in the history of football on that critical two-point conversion: 
  • Another 10% goes to Morgan Burnett, who has now become famous for his unwillingness to run forward with the football when there were no defenders in sight after his 4th quarter interception.
  • And that leaves 40% of blame to assign to this Packers loss. That 40% is specially reserved for Mike McCarthy. The group I was watching the game with was screaming at him on his first two field goal attempts in the 1st quarter, when he decided 4th & goal from the 1 yard line was the wrong time to get aggressive. We weren’t screaming, but probably should have been, when McCarthy went to a Mike Smith level of conservative in the 3rd & 4th quarters to protect his precious lead. He caused the most damage out of anyone, even if it was more subtle than the failed kick recovery or two-point conversion defense.
  • What’s great is that no one can accuse me of jumping on the “McCarthy sucks” bandwagon. It’s been over-documented on this very website how bad of a coach I think he is. There was my first accusation in October 2012 of McCarthy outcoaching himself and being in over his head. In January 2013, I picked the 49ers to beat the Packers almost purely due to McCarthy being a bad coach who will eventually ruin his team’s chances. And then there were repeated shots taken at McCarthy by me throughout the course of the 2014 season, which you can find here, here, here and here.
  • Aaron Rodgers is 31 and just completed his seventh season as a starter. In that time, here is where he’s finished each season in passer rating rankings among all players: 6th, 4th, 3rd, 1st, 1st, 5th, 2nd. He has a .700 win percentage in the regular season, but played in a conference championship game for just the second time on Sunday. He gets injured much more than the Hall-of-Famers-in-waiting that he’s compared to (Brady, Manning, Brees) so a sense of urgency on his career is probably the right move. It might be time to try out a coach who can give Rodgers and the Packers that final push they need to be taken seriously every January.
  • And if Green Bay won’t move on from McCarthy, they might as well spare everyone involved and just decline any future dates with the Seahawks in Seattle. They just had their best shot and vomited all over it.
  • It’s a much cleaner narrative of who blew the game if Seattle would have lost. It would have been almost entirely on Russell Wilson, with a small assist from Jermaine Kearse. Wilson played so horribly and uncharacteristically that I was positive we were witnessing a game fixing scandal right before our very eyes.
  • And thanks to Wilson’s outright exploitation of god, faith, religion and crying, we now have even more insufferable personalities on the Seahawks to root against on Super Bowl Sunday.
  • Wait, what’s that? America is going to jump on Seattle’s side in this who-do-we-hate-less debate? Oh, that’s right. People don’t like the Seahawks, its fans or seeing a team start a mini-dynasty…but they absolutely despise the Patriots, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. It’s getting so bad that respected journalists and other media types have resorted to 5th grade tattle tale/sore sport tactics to justify their teams’ embarrassing losses to New England.
  • So the Patriots once again are playing the role of the villain in the Super Bowl. And the Seahawks are apparently the blessed team. Russell Wilson is doing everything short of saying that Jesus personally visits him before each game and talks about how god made Wilson to be the greatest QB in NFL history and to carry the teachings of god to all the common folk, and when his work is done, god will allow Wilson to ascend directly to heaven.
  • What should be comforting for Patriots fans, however, is knowing that our team already destroyed god in the postseason once before.tebow
  • To work off some nervous energy before the games began on Sunday, my brother and I went for a long run. And during that run, we tried to think of the last time there were consecutive years of the #1 seeds from each conference facing each other in the Super Bowl (with the Patriots and Seahawks advancing, we finally have that scenario happening). We got as far back as 30 years just off the top of our heads without finding another such instance.
  • More importantly, this trip down Super Bowl memory lane led to a discovery that makes me feel bad for all of us who were watching football in the 80s and 90s. Did you know that starting with the Super Bowl that ended the 1983 season, 13 of the next 16 Super Bowls were decided by 10 or more points? And most of them were true blowouts…games decided by 14 points or more. That sucks.
  • Compare that to recent history, where 10 of the past 15 Super Bowls could be considered close, good games. I don’t really have a point here except to say that we’re currently spoiled and my brain does weird things when it has nervous energy and needs to waste time.
  • Anyone still focusing on the absurd deflated ball accusations against the Patriots is a loser and needs to get a life. The only thing I I want to say is look at this exchange between Jim Nantz and Phil Simms regarding Aaron Rodgers’ comments in November about doctoring the football. If the Patriots are cheaters, then Rodgers is as big of a cheater, and as soon as you’re done putting sanctions on him, you might as well do the same for every other team in the league because I’m sure everyone approaches it the same way: “Let’s try to get the balls exactly how we want them, and if the refs decide the balls aren’t fair to play with, they’ll remove them and swap in new ones.”
  • But, hey, at least we weren’t talking about John Harbaugh and his team choking away a playoff game a week ago, and now we’re not talking about Chuck Pagano’s laughable inability to force the Patriots to at least beat his team in a new way on Sunday night.
  • Speaking of the Colts, maybe they can take solace in the fact that in five years or so, the Brady/Belichick combination will be finished and maybe just maybe Indy will finally be able to beat New England.
  • For the people who followed along on Twitter to see my Draft Kings lineup with a shot at Super Bowl tickets on the line, you already know I didn’t win. But did you know I came in 35th place out of 350 entries? top 10%!! The combination of Brandon LaFell, Donte Montcrief and Coby Fleener was my ultimate downfall. Marshawn Lynch, LeGarrette Blount, Doug Baldwin, Russell Wilson and Gronk all put up fine days. But they couldn’t make up for those three no-shows.
  • A quick note on my prop bets: I still nailed a couple over the weekend, but the net result was a loss of a few bucks this time around. I was correct on Julian Edelman to have more than 6.5 receptions and the first score of the NFC game to be a Green Bay field goal, but I was wrong on everything else. The one that hurt the most was the weekend’s passing yardage leader. I picked Wilson at 7/1 odds, and he ended his day with 209 total passing yards. Amazingly, into the 4th quarter of the AFC game, I still had a chance to win this prop. But Brady’s final two completions, each for eight yards, gave him 16 more passing yards than Wilson. Sigh. I always hated those cheating Patriots and how they run up the score, but this time it cost me money!
  • It’ll be a while before Bovada has the Super Bowl prop bets, but I’ll finish this stream of consciousness column with two fake Super Bowl prop bets I wish I could take right now:
    1. Tom Brady will throw 1 or more interceptions in the 2nd quarter by severely underthrowing a pass up the middle to Rob Gronkowski while the Patriots are driving for an important score. (8/1 odds)
    2. Number of times Richard Sherman taunts a Patriots offensive player and doesn’t get a penalty called – More than 3. (7/2 odds)

Later this week and all of next week we’ll be focusing on the Super Bowl teams, the prop bets, the best way to enjoy the Super Bowl and much more.

And don’t forget, we’re only 12 days away from seeing the very “talented” Katy Perry perform:

perry3 The 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards - Arrivals Purple carpet party in honor of Katy Perry in Mexico City

NFL Conference Championship Weekend Part Two: The Picks

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This is part two of the Conference Championship picks. You can check out part one, where I go through all the best prop bets and some general NFL news, HERE.

Actually, there was an interesting piece of news that came out after yesterday’s column. You might have heard that the NFL has decided to have a Veterans Combine for the first time ever this year. It’ll be held in Arizona in March. It sounds very similar to the Rookie Combine, except it’ll be for any veteran free agents. Obviously a large portion of free agents don’t need to go through this (think Ndamukong Suh, Demaryius Thomas, etc), but the lesser players might find it a valuable forum to show off their skills.

I’m all for it. If this leads to Tim Tebow showing up and somehow impressing a few teams, I’m all for it! If this leads to Mark Sanchez looking so good that several teams get into a bidding war for his services, I’m all for it!

I’ve actually been googling around to see if fans can buy tickets to watch. And if they can, I promise you I will be there and blog the entire thing.

Now onto the final four…

With both lines for this weekend’s games coming in at a touchdown or larger, I determined that eight of the 10 games in the playoffs so far have had a point-spread of six or more. That seems like a lot of games with a heavy favorite for what’s supposed to be a great playoff system.

In the six games that have been completed with the large spread, the favorites are only 2-4. But the underdog has only won a single game outright in those scenarios. Favorites aren’t covering, but they’re advancing.

Actually, that’s the NFL’s favorite formula, right? It’s gotta be because that means the games are close, exciting, fantastic TV, but the best teams are still advancing to make the final games full of potential.

And that’s what we’ve got once again this weekend, a lot of potential. Let’s dive into the picks.

Green Bay @ Seattle (-7.5)

  • The Pick: Seattle
  • The Score: Seattle 30, Green Bay 20

These picks have caused me much anxiety over the past few days. To be completely honest, I’m probably staying far away from betting either of the two games’ point-spreads because these are four good teams who could play amazing on any given day. It’s very dangerous to make assumptions or expect history to repeat itself. My money is going mostly on prop bets this weekend, and once again, you can find my bets HERE.

There was a time earlier in the week where I had talked myself into Green Bay. It went something like this: The more I look into the details of Seattle’s win over Carolina last week, the less impressed I am. They were playing an 8-8-1 team at home, and they were only able to score 24 offensive points, including one touchdown that was essentially handed to them when Cam Newton fumbled and gave Seattle the ball on the Carolina 28 yard line. It wasn’t as dominating of a win as the final score would have you believe. The Panthers hung around even though they had four 3-and-out drives and one more that lasted only five plays. All of those drives lasted two minutes or less, which should have been extremely taxing on their defense. And yet, the Seahawks didn’t really take advantage.

Furthermore, Carolina and Green Bay’s defenses finished the season with almost identical FootballOutsiders.com rankings, and of course the Packers offense is light years ahead of the Panthers.

So that’s the case for a close game.

Oh, and the Packers have the best quarterback in football. That helps too.

But then there’s that little matter of the calf muscle of the best QB in the game. And if I’m going to make the case that Seattle was unimpressive last week, I’ve gotta say the same for Green Bay. They beat Dallas by five at home. Dallas completely bungled the end of the 1st half, and it directly led to a six-point swing. And if the Cowboys’ final offensive play of the game goes for a 31-yard catch down to the goal line instead of an incompletion, we’re talking about a Dallas-Seattle NFC Championship.

The Seahawks have the better defense (by far), the better running game, the better coach (again, by far), and maybe for one week only, the better quarterback.

With Green Bay getting embarrassed by the legs of Colin Kaepernick the past two years in the playoffs, they should probably gear up to stop Russell Wilson from scrambling a ton. If they do, Wilson can make all the throws he needs to make. Pick your poison with this Seattle team.

Green Bay comes up short once again.

(Gambling side note: On many betting websites, you’re allowed to “buy a half point” when the line is 7.5 or 3.5. So you can pay the extra juice to make this Seattle -7 if you’re a little nervous that it’s going to be a one-touchdown win for the ‘Hawks. That’s what I plan to do.)

Indianapolis @ New England (-7)

  • The Pick: New England
  • The Score: New England 37, Indianapolis 24

I’m taking the Patriots knowing a few things to be true:

  • New England is only 3-11 against the spread in their last 14 playoff games.
  • 11 underdogs have won outright in the Conference Championship round in the past 15 seasons and obviously I’m not picking the underdog in the NFC game.
  • Everyone & their mother says the Colts are a much better team—especially at stopping the run—than they were when the Patriots dusted them earlier this season.
  • I’m usually good for putting a major jinx on my Patriots at least once a year.

It’s that second-to-last point that is giving me the final nudge of confidence to roll with New England. I was waiting all week to hear what all the experts and non-experts would be saying about this game. I dreaded the possibility of the entire world predicting the Patriots to win in a blowout. That’s usually the death knell for a team. But people have really talked themselves into the Colts…if not to win outright, at least to make it a close game.

To my fellow Patriots fans, don’t worry about me taking this game lightly. I’m not. That same hyperventilating I was doing for the Ravens game starting last Friday and not ending until the final whistle has started once again today. I’m nervous as hell, but I have to make a pick here. And it feels like the Patriots to me.

I give the Colts all the credit in the world for making it this far. Teams don’t completely luck into the Conference Championship game. But can’t they a little bit luck into it? The Colts hosted the Bengals in the Wildcard Round and then beat a Broncos team in the 2nd Round that was essentially playing the game without a quarterback.

Those of us who bet on Denver last week grabbed onto the narrative that Indianapolis played poorly against good teams this year. (They beat Cincy twice, including that playoff win, and they beat Baltimore back in week 5. And that’s it. They lost to Denver, Philly, Pittsburgh, New England and Dallas.)

Even now I’m not upset about that pick for the Broncos because no one could have known what Peyton Manning was dealing with. Remember all those awful overthrows Manning had to his receivers on downfield passes last week? His receivers were always open! Tim Tebow connects on plenty of those throws I’m betting.

You also have to wonder the mentality of Denver going into that game. Remember, that defense, the receivers, everyone, they all knew how hurt Manning was. They had to since they practice with him. Doesn’t that short-circuit you mentally? Knowing your leader, the guy who has this entire game on his shoulders, can’t possibly play at even an average level? I just think Denver was doomed before the game even began.

Not taking anything away from the Colts because they still had to make the plays, but the playoff schedule up until now has broken perfectly for them.

Just like in the NFC game, the home team in this matchup is better in almost every respect: Coaching, defense, offense, special teams, and yes, quarterback (at least for now).

You can have a close game and still cover a seven-point spread.

Oh, and for you Patriots fans who have been following me for a few years and remember that I usually jinx our team by buying my flight up to San Francisco for Super Bowl weekend for the purpose of “watching the Patriots win it with my friends”, rest assured I haven’t done that this year. And there are two reasons for that:

  1. I refuse to jinx that once again. I will gladly pay hundreds of dollars more if that’s what it means to wait until they are officially in the Super Bowl (as opposed to buying a roundtrip flight weeks ago for $150 or less).
  2. BarstoolSports got together with Draft Kings to run a daily fantasy contest where the winner gets two tickets to the Super Bowl, three nights’ stay in a hotel near the Super Bowl, airfare to Arizona, a party bus situation on the Friday night before the game, and some other stuff. It’s a $100 buy-in and you simply construct the best fantasy team from all the players in this weekend’s games within a certain salary cap. I got another Pats fan to split that entry with me, and I have enough irrational confidence to think I might be going to the Super Bowl. We haven’t finalized our roster yet, but when we do, I’ll put it up on Twitter so you all can root along with us or laugh at us (@rossgariepy for the Twitter follow).

Have I jinxed New England enough yet? OK, then here’s my counter-jinx:

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irsay

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My work here is done. Enjoy Championship Weekend!

NFL Conference Championship Weekend Part One: The Props

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Welcome to Conference Championship weekend. We have a very deserving final four battling for one of those elusive golden tickets to play in the 49th Super Bowl.

I always like to pause right here to have a moment of silence for the 28 teams who could not navigate their way through the grueling NFL season successfully. More importantly, let’s hang our heads in disappointment for just a second as we realize there are only three meaningful games left on the football calendar.

hanging head

OK, blog resumed.

As usual, I’ve got plenty to say about this upcoming weekend so I’m going with two columns. Today’s is the general NFL news & tidbits along with everything I love from a prop bets perspective. Check back Friday for my game picks.

Going into the Divisional Round, most objective football fans would have picked three of these conference finalists as the ideal teams to advance to a final four. Of course we would have swapped Denver in for Indianapolis, but after seeing Peyton Manning’s corpse last Sunday, we now know that Andrew Luck and the Colts are a much better candidate to put up a fight in Foxboro.

And really, you can’t go wrong with the eventual Super Bowl matchup. This weekend we’ll see four very marketable teams led by four of the league’s marquee quarterbacks.

Incredibly, these four teams have only missed the playoffs three combined times in the past six seasons. Green Bay and New England have been in the postseason every year since 2009. The Colts have been in for five of the six years (their only miss was the year Manning was out). And Seattle’s added four years of playoffs in that timeframe. That is a TON of playoff experience and public exposure (which translates to popularity across the country).

The Super Bowl is going to be fun. It’s nice having that guarantee more than two weeks before the actual game.

After all, when’s the last time we had two of the best regular season teams facing each other in the Super Bowl and it didn’t turn out to be a great game?

Oh…just one year ago, huh? OK, nevermind. Let’s just move on.

General NFL News

  • Coaching changes dominated the headlines this week. The most surprising development was the Broncos firing John Fox after he had an extremely successful four-year run that saw his team put up a combined 46-18 record, win the AFC West all four years, make one Super Bowl appearance, but lose in the Divisional Round the other three seasons. Was that what ultimately doomed him? Because if so, the Broncos management must have a very different definition of success than a team like the Bengals. Fox won three playoff games in that time. That would be cause for a parade in Cincy (or Chicago, where Fox is presumably heading).
  • The Denver and San Francisco head coaching situations seemed very similar once Fox was let go. These were two teams that were legitimate Super Bowl contenders every year Jim Harbaugh and Fox were at the helm (not counting the Tebow year in Denver). My thoughts on Tuesday were that these teams better have damn good plans in terms of a replacement.
  • And then the 49ers announced on Wednesday that incumbent defensive line coach Jim Tomsula was being promoted to head coach. San Francisco and its fans can spin it whatever way they want, but my thoughts immediately went to the last time a team hired a head coach who didn’t even have coordinator experience. Washington fans will be happy to tell you how well that went. 
  • I’m also a little dubious at how well a defensive line coach will help Colin Kaepernick develop, and that’s clearly this team’s biggest question mark.
  • Hey, congrats to Jason Garrett on his 5-year, $30 million contract extension. I do speak for all non-Cowboys fans when I say I can’t wait to see this team back at 8-8 next year with Garrett bungling game management decisions like usual (after all, he got started in last week’s loss to Green Bay with his atrocious decisions at the end of the 1st half).
  • So George R.R. Martin, author of the famous Game of Thrones books, hates Bill Belichick and the Patriots. And he totally seems like a true sports fan we should all be listening to considering he likes the Ravens because their mascot reminds him of Edgar Allen Poe. That’s how I choose my teams too, Georgey. Anyway, I fully expect that his next installment of the GoT series will have a character named Bill of House Belaryan who wears his cloak with the sleeves cut off and video tapes all the Small Council meetings in King’s Landing. Sure, it might be really jarring to be reading this story and all of the sudden electronics have been invented, but Martin seems pretty fixated on this hatred.
  • Earlier this week I wondered which incompetent officiating crew would be assigned to the Super Bowl, and yesterday we got our answer. It will be Bill Vinovich and his crew. They were assigned to the Patriots-Ravens game last weekend. We should probably brace ourselves now for zero consistency on pass interference and defensive holding calls. And if the Patriots make it, then at least they know this crew already defers to Belichick’s expertise in terms of the rulebook.

Last Week’s Gambling in Review

I once again did very well with my prop bets during the Divisional Round, but you probably wouldn’t think that just by reading last week’s post with my favorite bets. The problem for my readers was that I changed/added a few things after I submitted that post.

  • I told you to bet on Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers for the most passing yards of the weekend, but neither of them was the winner. But if you read closely, I also said “If you’re feeling lucky, put some money on Tom Brady.” I did put money on Brady and he ultimately won the week with 367 passing yards.
  • I lost outright with my over bet on Andrew Luck’s passing yards total of 310.5. What can I say? I didn’t expect the Colts to dominate so thoroughly that Luck would spend most of the 4th quarter handing off to his running backs.
  • I won on the over of Justin Forsett’s rushing total, which was set at 66.5 yards. I think he locked this one up by midway through the 2nd quarter.
  • Hopefully you skipped out on my longshot bet of “Yes, there will be a game-winning field goal or touchdown as time expires in one of the four games.” But I’m a little pissed off because I said the Dallas-Green Bay game had the best chance for that..and if they had ruled Dez Bryant’s efforts to be a catch, there’s a very decent chance Green Bay would have driven into field goal range and won the game on a last-second kick.
  • And finally, I threw money down on a prop bet just before kickoff of the Denver-Indy game. It was the over on the longest field goal in the game, which was set at 44.5 yards. I figured it was a gimme in the thin Denver air. I won the bet, but not quite the gimme I expected as Denver’s Connor Barth snuck in a 45-yarder, which was the only one of that length.
  • So while I’m not exactly on fire with the prop bets, I am turning a profit and you might say I’m “heating up.”
  • Also, I went 3-1 against the point spreads. It was a huge bounceback after the Wildcard debacle.

This Weekend’s Prop Bets

As we wind down here in the playoffs, I like to ramp up my gambling. After all, in 17 short days, there won’t be any football to bet on for a while. So this week I’m rolling out six prop bets I feel confident about and one that I’m not touching (you’ll see why), but maybe you should. Here we go.

The first score of the Green Bay @ Seattle game – Exact Outcome

I’m rolling with Green Bay field goal (9/2) and Seattle field goal (11/4). This is another situation where I’m perfectly happy betting two scenarios knowing I can only win one because I’ll make a profit as long as one of these hits. And if you’re like me and expect a relatively low-scoring game with both offenses struggling, then this feels like a great bet.

Who will record the most passing yards in the Conference Championships?

While the conservative play would be to grab Luck (5/4) and Brady (2/1) and turn a very small profit if one of them wins, I’m going with a bit of a hail mary here. (get it?) I like Russell Wilson at 7/1 odds. While the Packers’ run defense is much worse than its pass defense and you’d expect the Seahawks to want to run a ton, I think Green Bay might do everything in its power to force Wilson to throw a bunch. Green Bay’s season the last two years ended because Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers were able to run wild on them to the tune of 490 yards in two playoff games. We know this Seattle offense is very similar to those 9ers teams, and the Packers should be prepared to make Wilson beat them with his arm. Call me crazy, but you’ll be kicking yourself at about 10PM eastern time on Sunday if you don’t make this bet.

Total Receiving Yards – Randall Cobb – Over/Under 72.5

I like the over here (-115). Cobb may be second banana to Jordy Nelson on this receiving corps, but with all the attention paid to Nelson and the likelihood that Nelson sees a lot of Richard Sherman in coverage, I think Cobb is freed up for a good day. Also, Cobb has topped this number in nine of 17 games this year, and he ended a 10th game with exactly 72 yards.

 Total Receiving Yards – Luke Willson – Over/Under 29.5

Who? Luke Willson, star tight end for the Seahawks, that’s who. OK, he may not be a star, but the Wilson-to-Willson connection has been happening a lot more in the second half of the season. The lesser-known Willson has cracked this 29.5 total in his last three games and five of the past eight when he’s caught at least one pass. I love the over (-115). After all, how hard is it to get 30 yards in the NFL. I could do that.

Total Receptions – Julian Edelman – Over/Under 6.5

I’m going over and gladly paying the juice (-130) on this bet. Edelman is a targets and receptions machine right now. He’s only come in under that number once in his past seven games. He’s had 10 or more targets in six consecutive games. I’m not confident enough to project his receiving yards or say he’ll definitely have a touchdown, but he’s Brady’s most reliable receiver at the moment.

Player to score the first Colts TD in the game

These bets are always a crapshoot, but I’m taking Dwayne Allen (7/1), who has supplanted Coby Fleener as the Colts’ most reliable tight end. Allen has scored touchdowns in nine of Indy’s games this year. And the Patriots are particularly generous to tight ends. It seems like they’re either giving up a touchdown or huge yardage totals every game to this position. I like Allen a lot, especially in the red zone.

Indianapolis @ New England – Margin of Victory

Here’s the one I wouldn’t touch with a 500-foot pole because I’m a Pats fan and I already hate myself for even suggesting this. But if you’re pretty confident that Patriots are going to do to Indy what they’ve done the past three meetings with them, then you should bet on both of these results: New England to win by 13 to 18 points (5/1) and New England to win by 19 to 24 points (8/1). The Patriots’ margins of victory in the three games they’ve played vs Indy since Luck came into the league are: 35, 21 and 22 points.

Be sure to check back on Friday for my picks against the spread for the two games.

The Blame Game: Who’s Responsible for the NFL’s Convoluted Catch Rules?

USP NFL: DIVISIONAL ROUND-DALLAS COWBOYS AT GREEN S FBN USA WI

Let’s face it: The NFL’s rules on what constitutes a legal catch are ruining football (along with the many different interpretations of those rules by the referees).

There was a time when amazing, acrobatic, physics-defying catches by super-talented wide receivers would be the most exciting part of watching a football game.

When a once-in-a-longtime play is unfolding in football, you don’t want to have to use your brain to be analyzing every little detail of the play and mentally matching those details up with the rulebook. You want it to be an emotional experience that makes you scream, jump out of your seat or throw whatever electronic device is closest to you (depending on which team you’re rooting for).

But now we have no choice but to be skeptical of a completed catch on these brilliant plays because the NFL hates us.

And why would the league bother changing the rule? After all, we’re talking about the NFL even more because of the bad officiating and stupid rulebook. The NFL has turned into a real sport + the allure of drama and soap opera-y plots off the field a la professional wrestling. That’s a recipe for billions of dollars.

So if we can’t get the NFL to simplify its rules, don’t we at least want to know how all this catch/non-catch bullshit came into existence in the first place? Who’s really responsible for these constant headaches we deal with almost weekly at this point?

Many experts will say it all started in 1999 with the “Burt Emanuel Rule”. Emanuel was a receiver for the Tampa Bay Bucs, and his team was facing the St. Louis Rams in that season’s NFC Championship Game. Towards the end of the game, with the Bucs losing 11-6, Emanuel caught a key 2nd down pass to keep Tampa’s hopes alive. But then the refs reviewed the catch, which no one could figure out the reason for doing, and determined it was an incompletion because the tip of the ball touched the ground while Emanuel was securing the ball. Two plays later, the Bucs’ chances were ruined and the Rams were on to the Super Bowl. During the offseason, the league changed the rule so that the ball could now touch the ground during a legal catch as long as the receiver maintained control. But this apparently brought about a lot of gray area, which is the same gray area the refs tend to bungle on a weekly basis now. It’s all here in this fantastic explanation.

But I’d like to throw out a different theory today. If you’ll bare with me for just another five minutes or so, I can prove definitively that this entire situation is the city of Cleveland’s fault.

First of all, the root cause of all these problems doesn’t reside with a single rule change. It goes back much further than that. You know what would immediately wipe away all this controversy about catching a football? If the forward pass never came into the NFL in the first place! Think about it. No forward pass = no players having the burden of catching a pass. It’s so obvious. So let’s go waaaaay back in history on the forward pass.

Please follow along as I use Wikipedia as my source for all quotes you’re about to see:

  • “1905 had been a bloody year on the gridiron; the Chicago Tribune reported 18 players had been killed and 159 seriously injured.”
    • Wait just a second. 18 people DIED while playing football in 1905? What the hell? I’m going to have to dig deeper into that at some point, but not today. But that fact stopped me in my tracks for about 20 minutes while researching this.
  • “There were movements to outlaw the game, but U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt personally intervened and demanded that the rules of the game be reformed.”
    • Thank you, Teddy. I wish there was some way I could personally repay you for saving football.
  • First legal pass: “On September 5, 1906, St. Louis University’s Bradbury Robinson’s first attempt at a forward pass fell incomplete and resulted in a turnover under the 1906 rules.”
    • Hold up. In 1906, any pass that was incomplete was a turnover? And we think the current rules are effed up?
  • “St. Louis coach Eddie Cochems is to forward passing what the Wright brothers are to aviation and Thomas Edison is to the electric light, according to historians.”
    • So all of this controversy over Dez Bryant’s non-catch, Megatron’s non-catch…it’s all this guy’s fault!
  • “This is disputed by historian David Nelson and others, who concluded that the first forward passes were thrown on Christmas Day 1905 in a match between two small colleges in Kansas.”
    • Ohh, so that’s why we actually celebrate Christmas. Because it’s the birthday of modern football. That makes so much more sense than what the Catholics celebrate Christmas for.
  • “According to Nelson, in that Christmas Day game, one team completed three passes and the other team completed two.”
    • Ahh, so your classic Titans-Jaguars game. Got it.
  • “That same St. Louis team led by Cochems was the first team to use the forward pass as a central feature to the offensive scheme as they compiled an undefeated 11-0 season in which they outscored opponents by a combined score of 407 to 11.”
    • Yeah, but did they win the Super Bowl? Because if not, they are HUGE CHOKERS!
  • “In 1913, Notre Dame head coach Jesse Harper showed how the forward pass could be used by a smaller team to beat a bigger one, first utilizing it to defeat rival Army. After it was used on a national stage in this game, the forward pass rapidly gained popularity.”
    • Of course this is Notre Dame’s fault! Everything’s Notre Dame’s fault!
  • “The first forward pass in a professional football game may have been thrown in an Ohio League game played on October 25, 1906. This Ohio League was the predecessor of today’s NFL. The quarterback of the Massillon Tigers, one of pro football’s first franchises, completed a short pass on that day while his team was on its way to winning 61-0 over the hapless West Virginia Mountain Staters.”
    • First of all, how dare they run up the score like that? Where’s the sportsmanship?!?!
    • More importantly, do you know where Massillon, Ohio, is located? Yep, just a little bit south of Cleveland. No wonder that city has endured the shittiest sports luck over the past century. It’s karma! They brought the forward pass into professional football. They’re responsible for all these stupid rules about catching, non-catching, two feet inbounds, toe drags, “acts common to the game”. Fucking Cleveland did this to us!
    • Or, I’m willing to split the responsibility between Cleveland and Notre Dame, if that’s what you’d prefer.

So there you have it. If it wasn’t for these barbarians mutilating such a beautiful sport, we’d probably still be treated to awesome games like this in 2015:

Movie Review: Inherent Vice (or was I just hallucinating?)

inherent vice

Inherent Vice is one of two movies I’ve been chomping at the bit to see ever since the trailer was released months ago (the other being American Sniper). And it most certainly did not disappoint.

First, the boring stuff: Inherent Vice is a crime/whodunit story that mixes equal parts comedy, drama and trippy insanity. It was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and it’s based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon. And it feels like everyone in Hollywood has a starring or supporting role in the film.

The twisting, looney plot unfolds as a 1970s private investigator, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), gets pulled in a thousand different directions while trying to find the whereabouts of his missing ex-girlfriend and her new lover, a real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann. The film begins with the ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay, visiting Doc at his home in a little California beach town and asking for his help in stopping a plot by Wolfmann’s current wife to have Wolfmann committed to an insane asylum so she can take all his money.

Then Shasta goes missing. Then someone murders one of Wolfmann’s bodyguards. Then, in seemingly a completely separate plot, a woman contacts Doc about her missing husband, who’s actually in hiding while working as a police informant.

And then an organization (or maybe it’s just a boat?) called the Golden Fang comes into play because they’re smuggling drugs into the United States.

There is so much more to this movie that I can’t even begin to dive into. There seem to be unlimited plots, side stories, twists & turns, and all of it is supposed to tie into the main story. Once again, that main story is Doc trying to find Wolfmann and Shasta after they disappear (you’ll need to remind yourself of this several times during the movie).

Now for the fun stuff: This movie is The Big Lebowski on a mix of speed and mushrooms. Seriously, if you close your eyes at different times during the film, you’d swear you’re hearing the characters of Lebowski. Doc is a ’70s version of The Dude, if only The Dude had more motivation and a more extensive use of drugs.

I know the unrolling of the different plots I mentioned above is confusing, and it’s just as tough to follow in the movie. But it doesn’t matter. You can keep up with the major twists & turns, get lost in the subplots and side stories, and still laugh your ass off.

I haven’t even talked about the LAPD Lieutenant “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), Deputy DA Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) or a dentist played by Martin Short. But they’re all there. And they all try to push their agendas on Doc, who seems to do a lot more wandering around aimlessly for information than hunting with a purpose like a real detective.

When we first meet Doc, it’s impossible to expect that he’s a competent PI. He’s a hippie dopehead who can’t seem to keep up with anything. He tries to jot down notes in his notebooks as someone’s asking for his help, but usually he just writes something like “not hallucinating.” Is he talking about the person presenting him with a case? Or is he reminding himself that he’s not currently hallucinating?

I can’t stress enough how wacky, scatterbrained and bizarre this movie is…but I mean that in the best way possible. Seeing Inherent Vice was one of the most fun times I’ve had at the movies in years.

You should see this movie if: You like the idea of a crazier Big Lebowski; you like stoner movies; you’re a fan of crime stories and 1970s drug culture; you love Paul Thomas Anderson films; you want to see an epic performance by Joaquin Phoenix that I think should earn him Best Actor consideration at The Oscars; you appreciate films with confusing plots that will force you to watch it at least a second and third time to really nail down what the hell happened; you’re looking for something to watch while really REALLY high.

You should not see this movie if: You’re a narc and despise everything the ’70s culture stood for; you don’t like your comedy to include a side dish of violence; you don’t want to see great acting and silly plots; sex and drugs on the big screen scares or embarrasses you; you hate all those actors I mentioned above; you can’t handle being confused during or after a movie.

Like I said, this was one of the most enjoyable movie experiences I’ve had, so there should be no surprise that I’m ranking this high on the Ross Watchability Scale (RWS). I’m going with a solid 9 out of 10. Not only is it fantastic the first time, but I imagine any time it comes on HBO or the other movie channels later this year, I will stop what I’m doing and at least watch parts of it.

If you missed my movie review from earlier this week and want to read about a film that’s on the opposite end of the RWS spectrum, check out my thoughts on The Gambler here.

Movie Review: The Gambler

the gambler

I saw two movies in the theater last week. The one I had been looking forward to for a while was Inherent Vice (review coming later this week), and the one I kind of just stumbled into and thought, “Eh, why not? This could be fun” was The Gambler.

After all, you know how much of a gambler I am (or maybe you don’t, but just take my word for it).

The Gambler was a lot of things, but unfortunately fun wasn’t one of them.

This film is set in modern day Los Angeles, contains no super natural beings or wizardry, no special effects or sci-fi aspects, and yet I’ve seen movies set in Middle-earth that were more believable than this sucky piece of art.

The plot is straight forward enough. Jim Bennett, played by Mark Wahlberg, is a college professor who has an insane gambling addiction. He falls into trouble early in the movie when a man who operates an underground casino informs him he owes $260,000 in gambling debt. It gets worse when he borrows money from a loan shark named Neville Baraka (played Michael Kenneth Williams…Omar, to you fans of The Wire) and immediately loses it doing what else, gambling of course. And from here it’s just a downward spiral. He has multiple opportunities to pay off his debts or come damn close, but instead he takes any money he has and keeps gambling with it until he loses.

And this is where The Gambler leaves the real world and enters a dark, twisted fantasy (not a nightmare because it never seems like the main character is too upset about his predicament). You can’t convince me there’s a single person on this planet who would gamble as recklessly as Bennett does in this story. It just doesn’t make any sense, unless he wants to die. And if that’s the case, fine, die already. Don’t come to a sudden realization that you do indeed want to live and then start to pick up the broken pieces of your life, all of which come through self-infliction.

It’s amazing that the marketing tag for this movie is “The only way out is all in” because that’s not even remotely true. It should say, “The only way out is all in…or by borrowing the money from your filthy rich mother.”

Bennett has real death threats hanging over his head from all the people he owes money to, but every time he’s given money, he just goes to a casino and blows it. It’s ludicrous.

In case the tone of this review isn’t crystal clear, this movie was infuriating. It was such a waste of time. It was a stupid, pointless, unbelievable story that made me long for a good gambling film like Rounders.

In fact, do yourself a favor and skip The Gambler and instead watch Rounders again (conveniently available on Netflix Instant). It’s a much better use of your time.

You should see this movie if: Ummm…hmm…I guess if you like semi-suspenseful casino scenes enough to overlook the horrible 95 minutes surrounding those scenes; if you are a family member of Mark Wahlberg’s (after all, he’ll probably ask you if you’ve seen it).

You should not see this movie if: You’re a human being with functioning eyeballs and ears.

It’s probably not a shocker that this movie is going to get the worst rating ever on the Ross Watchability Scale (RWS). I’m giving it a 1.5 out of 10.

Here’s a little teaser for the Inherent Vice review coming later this week: I rate it higher than The Gambler.

NFL Divisional Round Recap: The Best Weekend of Football

harbaugh

WOW.

So that’s why we always point to the Divisional Round as the best weekend of the NFL season.

Four games. Two nail-biters. Two underdog covers. One major upset.

And three polarizing, buzzworthy storylines that emerged from this incredible weekend. (Sorry, Carolina and Seattle, but you were a little boring, and played out mostly how we expected. Carolina, you didn’t deserve to be there and it never felt like you were really close to making it a game. Seattle, we get it. You’re good.)

First we had the Patriots beating the Ravens on Saturday in an epic game that leaves you feeling like neither team really deserved to lose. The major headline that emerged was either Bill Belichick outsmarting the Ravens by knowing the rulebook better, or Belichick abusing the rules and using “deception” to get an edge on a team he can’t beat straight-up, depending on what side you’re taking.

Next we were treated to another tight battle on Sunday afternoon when the NFC’s two most popular franchises traded blows for 60 minutes. Controversy struck in a major way when Dez Bryant caught, but didn’t catch, a 31-yard pass at the 1-yard line from Tony Romo with 4:42 left and the Cowboys trailing by five points. Just like in the Cowboys’ previous game, this one will be remembered mostly for the referee’s game-changing decision and the confusing, can’t-be-interpreted-by-even-the-most-intelligent-humans NFL rulebook.

And finally, the Colts supplanted the Broncos in their rightful spot in the AFC Championship game by making Peyton Manning look like he should be backing up Ryan Lindley. The most incredible part of this game was watching Twitter explode over the final five minutes with all corners of the earth sending Manning off to retirement even though he hadn’t yet (and still hasn’t) said he was done.

The Manning story takes the cake of these three headlines. Normally the Dallas/Green Bay ending would be the talk of Monday, but one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history looking that bad and seeming that unsure about his future wins the Watercooler Award.

And on that note, let’s plow through each game, starting with the upset in Denver and working our way backwards through the weekend.

Luck Grabs the Torch

 Indianapolis 24, Denver 13

(Manning most definitely did not passing the torch voluntarily.)

“I guess I just can’t give that simple answer. I’m processing it. I can’t say that. I could not say that.”

-Peyton Manning on if he’ll definitely return for the 2015 season

But if Manning is significantly hurt, or if he has some sort of arm fatigue that will stop him from getting back to something resembling full health, then he might be letting go of that torch involuntarily.

I’m still preaching patience to all the people who went crazy with comments about Manning’s career being over, but to hear him in the postgame press conference sounding so unsure of his future was strange.

It’s like people already forgot we were accusing Tom Brady of being done just 15 weeks ago. Let’s pump the brakes for just a minute on the Peyton eulogies, OK?

Here’s what else I noticed in this matchup:

  • The game wasn’t even close, and neither was the play of the two quarterbacks. Andrew Luck was 20 times better than Manning.
  • Mr. “Pitch Anything & Everything” finished 26-of-46 for 211 passing yards and a 27.9 QBR. But even those numbers were propped up with nearly 100 yards of garbage time from the Broncos. With four minutes left, the competitive portion of the game was over, and Manning was 17-of-34 with 119 yards.
  • Tweet of the weekend (Michael David Smith, managing editor of Pro Football Talk): “Next year CBS will replace Mike Carey with a guy flipping a coin. Accuracy rate will increase significantly.”
  • It’s uncanny how often Carey, a former official, is wrong when they ask him for his take on a call that’s being reviewed. I hope someone out there is keeping track. My guess would be that he’s gotten ~17% of them right this season, and even that might be generous.
  • In six of their road games this year, Indianapolis gave up point totals of 42, 24, 24, 51, 28 and 31 points. And some of their opponents in those games include teams like Cleveland, the Giants, and Houston.
  • The Broncos scored exactly 10 on that same team before garbage time.
  • I apologize to Andrew Luck for writing that his time isn’t yet here to be a mainstay in the AFC Championship Game. This could be the start of quite the run for him and his team.

“New York Bozos”

Green Bay 26, Dallas 21

Everyone heard Aaron Rodgers use that phrase at the line of scrimmage yesterday, either to make an adjustment or to confuse the Cowboys. But he might as well have yelled “Dallas Bozos” because that’s what the Cowboys looked like at the end of the first half. That’s when this game was truly decided.

The Cowboys were up 14-7 and driving at the end of the half. They had a chance to really make Green Bay and its fans panic throughout the 15-minute intermission. But then on 3rd & 1 with 40 seconds left (after the refs reversed a 1st down call for them), the Cowboys attempted a long pass instead of getting the 1st down with their reliable running game. It didn’t work, so they lined up for a 45-yard field goal. Then they got flagged for a false start. Then Dan Bailey missed the ensuing 50-yard kick. And suddenly Green Bay was at midfield with 30 seconds left and quickly turned the opportunity into three points.

A six-point swing that determined the game. Dallas lost by five.

Here’s what else I noticed:

  • I don’t mind Aaron Rodgers at all, but I am worried about the hyperbole of his heroics that will dominate the media for the next six days. Some will talk about him as if he singlehandedly found all the airplanes at the bottom of the ocean.
  • My friends and I made jokes about Matt Flynn seeing meaningful action in this game because of how hobbled Rodgers looked at times, but what wasn’t funny was when it seemed probable for a few minutes that Brandon Weeden would be prominently involved in a playoff game. That’s how bad Romo was limping around in the 3rd quarter. Flynn vs. Weeden in a deciding fourth quarter would have been the highest of high comedy.
  • Of course the end of this game was the best/worst/most riveting part (depends on who you ask). Dez Bryant caught a 31-yard pass down to the 1-yard line with less than five minutes to play. Any logical human saw that it was a catch. But the NFL rulebook doesn’t operate on logic, common sense, or simplicity. The popular line right now is that the referees got it right when they reversed the call and ruled the play an incomplete pass, but the NFL rules are the problem and it needs to change.
  • Mike Pereira, FOX’s resident official-turned-analyst, said Bryant needed to “perform an act common to the game on his way to the ground.” It’s probably not good when you need a definition to explain part of the definition of a catch.
  • This is probably why the officiating seems bad across the board. At least three games this weekend had frustratingly inconsistent calls. And that’s because of the impossible-to-figure-out rules.
  • Maybe I’m oversimplifying here, but shouldn’t the rule be: If you catch the ball, have control, and take multiple steps, it’s a completion regardless of what the ball does when you hit the ground. But if you’re making the catch while diving/falling/being taken to the ground without first taking steps, then the receiver has to keep control through the entire process.
  • That seems too simple for the NFL, doesn’t it?
  • Most disappointingly is that we were cheated out of an incredible ending. How epic would this game have been if the catch stands, the Cowboys score on their next play, and the Packers try to respond with a game-winning drive while down by either one or three points? (Dallas would have gone for the two-point conversion.)
  • At least Aaron Rodgers had a good sense of humor about the refereeing that totally went in his team’s favor on Sunday:

Did the game really happen if nobody saw it?

Seattle 31, Carolina 17 

In reality I’m sure plenty of people watched Seattle handle the Panthers on Saturday night, but millions of fans in Maryland and New England were probably in various stages of blackout, for different reasons, while that comparatively boring game was underway.

I won’t say that Seattle’s playoff schedule is on par with the Ravens’ end-of-season schedule when they got to face Case Keenum and Connor Shaw in the final two weeks, but the Seahawks just beat probably the worst team in playoff history and now host a one-legged Aaron Rodgers to advance to the Super Bowl. Seems fair.

The NFC has won four of the last five Super Bowls, and a fair argument during those years has been that the AFC was watered down so that conference’s Super Bowl representative never had to play the type of competition that the NFC representative was dealing with. Is that reversed this year? After all, FootballOutsiders.com has 10 of the league’s top 16 teams coming from the AFC.

I’m sure even Seattle fans will agree that if Rodgers looks bad next Sunday, their team really didn’t have any tests along the way to the big game in Arizona.

I have no other “what I noticed” notes from this game because after the Patriots’ win, I was emotionally spent, extremely inebriated, and in a state of slight comatose.

The Art of…Deception?

 New England 35, Baltimore 31

“It’s not something that anybody has ever done before. The league will look at that type of thing, and I’m sure they’ll make some adjustments and things like that.”

-John “sour grapes” Harbaugh

Why, John? Why would you assume the league is going to change their rules? Because you lost and got owned by a better coach who happened to know the rulebook just a little more thoroughly than you did? Why would you assume that the league has to change that rule?

What’s great is if they do ultimately change the rule about lining up only four offensive linemen, Harbaugh, his players and Ravens fans will talk about it as if that strategy was outlawed BEFORE their team choked away this playoff game. (Another instance of cheating by New England!)

And here’s the thing, I’m an equal opportunity criticizer. I’m a Patriots fan, but you know what Harbaugh’s immature whining sounded like? Belichick’s claim that Wes Welker’s hit on Aqib Talib in last year’s conference title game was one of the dirtiest he’s ever seen. No merit to the comments. Just emotional, angry coaches trying to put the blame elsewhere.

Here’s what else I noticed in this game (though the 11 Lagunitas I consumed might have made me see things that didn’t exist):

  • The best way I can describe the respect I have for the Ravens in the playoffs and the closeness of this matchup is to tell you how I was hyperventilating for 18 hours starting Friday night and not ending until the final whistle Saturday evening.
  • Very early on Saturday morning, like 1 a.m., I couldn’t fall back asleep so I went to the couch and plowed through five episodes of The Wire. I don’t get this way for postseason games against Indy, Pittsburgh, Houston and so on.
  • But despite my respect for the team, I still think Ravens fans are some of the worst. I kept my mouth shut for the most part leading up to this game, but they didn’t. And it was especially hilarious to see a lot of them tweeting things like “Game over, suck it, New England” before the 1st quarter had come to an end. Loved every second of it.
  • I won’t spend much time complaining about the officiating, but it was pretty horrific. The scary thing is that one of this past weekend’s crews has to be assigned the Super Bowl. Can’t wait to see which brilliant team of referees the NFL chooses for the biggest game of the year.
  • So the Patriots rushed for only 14 yards and also fell behind by multiple touchdowns on two occasions. Maybe don’t try that strategy again. Or do try it again, but let us know in advance so we can have all the proper medical equipment available to us ahead of time.
  • If you’re still curious about the Patriots rolling out only four offensive linemen for a few plays in the 4th quarter and the ensuing confusion, I found this espn.com article to be particularly helpful. It explains every detail of the situation and all the things Harbaugh could have been upset about.
  • Finally, here’s how I imagine the game story looked in the Baltimore newspapers and blogs on Sunday morning: “The New England Cheatriots were at their cheating best again on Saturday night as they escaped with a 35-31 win* over the heroic Baltimore Ravens. Tom Brady, in typical me-first fashion, threw the ball 50 times while only allowing his running backs seven combined carries. But that wasn’t the worst part. New England knew they couldn’t beat the Ravens straight-up with a boring, unimaginative gameplan, so they had to bend the rules a bit, which we know is their favorite thing to do. (Side note: Remember 18-1???? HAAAA) Sources say a group of Baltimore senators are trying to put together a special Congressional Hearing at this moment to make sure Bill Belicheat can never confuse another coach again by having only four offensive linemen on the field. We’re also not ruling out the possibility that the Cheatriots taped the Ravens’ practices this week and that’s the only reason they knew the play where Brady lateraled to Julian Edelman, who then threw a 51-yard touchdown to Danny Amendola, would work. How else could they confidently run such a play at that critical point in the game? Mr. Cool, Joe Flacco, once again outplayed the whining, crying, uncool Brady, and that’s why they had to bring in a receiver to do Brady’s job. HA!”

Since I’ve already rambled on long enough, I’ll spare you the details of my very profitable gambling weekend until the Championship Weekend picks come out in a few days. But it was indeed a VERY profitable weekend and I hope you followed my advice for once.

NFL Divisional Playoffs Preview: Part Two (The Picks)

Brady-Suggs-copy

In case you missed it, I posted Part One of my Divisional Round Preview earlier Friday. It featured some general NFL news and my favorite prop bets of the weekend. Check it out HERE.

Before I dive into my picks for each game, please allow me this moment to vent.

Apparently January 8th, 2015, was when I finally reached a breaking point with people bitching & moaning about another region’s sports fan base being “the most classless fans I’ve ever met.”

The Patriots happen to be playing the Ravens this week, and I happen to be a Patriots fan who writes for a Baltimore-based blog. Because of that, I’ve seen plenty of Baltimore people crying on Twitter about those “classless” Boston fans.

How do I know I reached a breaking point? Because I got in a Twitter fight for the first time in my life when I responded to a Raven’s fan who was bellyaching about Boston fans calling her a slut, among other names.

I told her it’s pretty ridiculous for her to instigate and provoke people by saying nasty things about the Patriots, their players and their fans, and then not expect people to respond negatively to her. (And on & on it went from there. You can check it out on my twitter timeline @rossgariepy.)

Baltimore fans have been saying the same tired things all week long: “Spy Gate! Patriots fans are scared of the Ravens! We’ve won a Super Bowl more recently and our QB has beaten your QB twice in the playoffs! You employed a murderer! Boston fans told me to die or called me a slut on Twitter, Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! They’re all classless, ALL OF THEM!!!”

If you’re complaining about the New England fans on Twitter, well then I kinda hope they keep making it worse for you…because every city, state, region and country in the world has people who say insulting things on the internet. They’re called scumbags, and I think anyone with half a brain realizes they’re dispersed pretty evenly throughout the world. Let this be the last time I get so fired up to mention this.

(Also, Baltimore fans, if you think we’re intolerable right now, wait until you see us if the Patriots win this weekend. Just remember that you invited any treatment you get by leading the trash talk all week long.)

And now for the picks…

Baltimore @ New England (-7)

  • The Pick: Baltimore
  • The Score: New England 30, Baltimore 25

The key to this game seems pretty simple to me. If New England’s offensive line holds up, the passing game should be able to pick apart Baltimore’s makeshift secondary. I don’t think I’m breaking new ground with that expectation. And I’m fully expecting that key matchup to settle somewhere in the middle. New England’s O-line won’t be perfect, but Baltimore’s pass rushers won’t be living in the backfield all afternoon either. What’s nice for New England this time around is that even if things go badly on offense, they finally have a defense that could keep them in the game. I’d be shocked if Joe Flacco gains big chunks of yards through the air, unless it’s in the way of 15 Brandon Browner pass interference penalties. Maybe the Patriots will be smart enough to keep the guy who led the league in committing penalties (Browner) away from the guy who led the league in drawing pass interference penalties (Torrey Smith).

Or maybe these two teams shouldn’t even bother showing up and instead we can have Aaron Hernandez fight Ray Lewis to the death. Apparently many fans on both sides are focusing on those two guys more than the current players.

I’m not arrogant enough to pick the Patriots to cover seven points against a team that almost always plays them tight. But I do expect New England to advance to their fourth consecutive AFC Championship game, and ninth in the Brady/Belichick era.

Carolina @ Seattle (-11)

  • The Pick: Seattle
  • The Score: Seattle 41, Carolina 17

I mentioned in part one of my column that I just can’t see any way the Panthers keep it close, and I’m sticking to that.

If you are looking for something to grab onto in support of a Carolina pick, here are the scores of the last three games these teams have played against each other: Seattle 13, Carolina 9 (week 8 this season), Seattle 12, Carolina 7 (Week 1 of the 2013 season), Seattle 16, Carolina 12 (Week 5 of the 2012 season).

The Seahawks are 3-0 against the Panthers in the Russell Wilson era, but at least Carolina’s keeping it close. Of course, all three of those contests were played in Carolina.

In this current matchup, it’s really difficult to find any advantages for the Panthers. And they even lost a key player to injury this week when defensive tackle Star Lotulelei suffered a broken foot in practice.

You know who would be a great person to coach Carolina in this game? Jeff Fisher. You know he’d pull out every trick in the book because he’d realize his team has no chance otherwise. It’ll be interesting to see if Ron Rivera works up the courage to try a surprise onside kick, a fake punt or something like that.

Here’s the one thing I keep turning over in my head: You know how in November & December we were gearing up for the NFC South winner to be a huge underdog in the first round against a wildcard team? And we were already talking about how that South team would end up winning outright? (Similar to Seattle beating New Orleans a few years ago.) What if that was simply delayed by one week? We got robbed of seeing that in the Wildcard Round because Ryan Lindley was leading the Cardinals so Vegas couldn’t make them the favorite. Are we about to see a crazy Carolina road win that completely sends this year’s playoffs into chaos?

I think the answer is no, but I’m at least 2.5% nervous about this possibility.

Dallas @ Green Bay (-6)

  • The Pick: Dallas
  • The Score: Dallas 27, Green Bay 26

Here’s the game where I’m feeling that last-second field goal to win my prop bet. For whatever reason, Dallas was consistently great on the road this year, and I’m very interested to see how they play now that the can’t-win-a-playoff-game monkey is off their backs.

There was an analyst on the NFL Network this week who said he was worried about DeMarco Murray’s health because he didn’t have a great game against Detroit last week. Did this guy not realize Detroit’s run defense was historically good? I think Murray is fine, and I think he’s going to be important against Green Bay’s crappy run defense.

Without looking at the names, tell me if you think these two teams are really far enough apart to warrant a six-point spread (all rankings from FootballOutsiders.com):

  • Overall team efficiency: Team A 3rd, Team B 6th
  • Overall defense: Team A 16th, Team B 22nd
  • Pass defense: Team A 11th, Team B 22nd
  • Rush defense: Team A 24th, Team B 23rd
  • Overall offense: Team A 1st, Team B 4th
  • Pass offense: Team A 2nd, Team B 4th
  • Rush offense: Team A 6th, Team B 3rd

Team A was Green Bay and Team B was Dallas. The only place where there’s a discernible advantage is pass defense, where the Packers are a whole lot better in 2014.

This is a case where it seems the teams are just too evenly matched to give one a full touchdown edge over the other. Both teams have great quarterbacks and receivers, solid running games and offensive lines, and mediocre but opportunistic defenses. I think football fans deserve a great game from these two teams.

It’s the least the NFL can do for all the bullshit they put us through in 2014.

My prediction of Dallas winning outright might be a little far-fetched, but they seem much more likely to go into Seattle and win a game than the Packers, as evidenced by each team’s result in Seattle earlier this year. And isn’t that what we all want? Someone to beat Seattle?

Indianapolis @ Denver (-7)

  • The Pick: Denver
  • The Score: Denver 31, Indianapolis 21

The Andrew Luck Effect is pretty amazing, isn’t it? Over the past three seasons, no team has had less business repeatedly making the playoffs than the Colts. And yet every season since Luck’s been in the league, the Colts have won 11 games and played meaningful January football.

Focusing on these current playoffs, Indy once again has no real business being competitive with one of the top teams in the league.

And yet because of Luck, a lot of people are hesitant to expect a Denver blowout. He’s that VALUABLE (My unofficial MVP ballot had him 3rd behind J.J. Watt and Aaron Rodgers).

The problem with this Colts team is that besides Luck and T.Y. Hilton, they don’t really have much talent.

Luck + home field is good enough to handle a toothless Bengals team (remember they were missing their top two tight ends and top receiver for that game), but Luck + being on the road against a really good Broncos team just won’t work out the same for the Colts.

Peyton Manning could be a little bit banged up, as he appeared to be in December, but I don’t think it matters. Their running attack got really good towards the end of the year. Their receivers can do lots of things to make up for any temporary decline in Manning’s skills. And of course their defense is spectacular, finishing 4th in the league in defensive efficiency.

It’s not yet Luck’s time to be playing in Conference Title Games, but he’s close. A couple more years, Andrew, and the AFC is yours for the taking. Sit tight. Stay healthy. And pray that the people running the Colts’ organization figure out how to surround you with talent.

I’m thinking we’re about to see our fourth AFC Championship battle between Brady and Manning.

And if the final four is Denver, New England, Seattle and whichever team wins between Dallas/Green Bay, well that’s a pretty incredible final four. (It will almost certainly be accompanied by Terrell Suggs sound bytes claiming the fix is in to make sure those four teams advanced. Can’t wait.)

Enjoy the Divisional Round!

NFL Divisional Playoffs Preview: Part One

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(It turns out I had a lot to say about this weekend’s NFL Playoff games so I’m breaking my column into two parts. This is part one, which includes some general NFL headlines and aggressive breakdowns of my favorite prop bets this weekend. Check back in a couple hours for part two, where I’ll make my picks for each of the four games.)

It’s finally here. Round Two of the playoffs. The final eight teams still playing football, still thinking they’ll be the ones hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on February 1st.

Where do we even begin breaking down a weekend that has so much potential?

Let me just get this out of the way first: When I allude to a possibly great weekend of football and say there are amazing matchups across the board, I’m specifically talking about all the games except for Carolina at Seattle. No matter who tries to hype that game up, I just can’t see it. I think the Seahawks are going to slaughter the Panthers on Saturday night.

But these other three matchups? Wooooeeeee!

These are the NFL’s wet dream matchups. One of the best recent non-divisional rivalries with Baltimore going to New England. Two of the NFC’s marquee franchises with two of the best quarterbacks facing off when Dallas takes on Green Bay. And Peyton Manning hosting his Indianapolis successor, the new Peyton Manning if you will.

It’s so good you’d almost think the NFL had a hand in creating these exact matchups. Hmm…

(One million Detroit Lions fans just spat on their computer screens.)

Unless you’re a brand new reader that’s never seen any of my previous football columns, I’m not going to be able to convince you that my picks against the spread are anything close to a lock. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still monitor all of the gambling action and give you my best effort on the game lines and the prop bets.

Unlike the lead-up to Wildcard Weekend, the lines on this weekend’s games really haven’t moved since being posted on Sunday night. That tells you two things: 1) There haven’t been any major injuries or personnel news to affect the spread, and 2) No team out of the eight is getting a landslide of betting action on its side.

And it’s so interesting because we’re not talking about a small point spread for any of these games. New England and Denver are each favored by seven points over Baltimore and Indianapolis, respectively. The Seahawks are 11-point favorites over Carolina. And the smallest line is Green Bay giving six points to Dallas.

Normally you’d never feel comfortable backing so many favorites that are giving a touchdown or more in the playoffs, but then you realize these favorites are the four best teams in football, all of whom are operating on two weeks rest. And that’s before mentioning that each of those four teams have Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks and other players with a ton of playoff experience.

So yeah, you’re tempted to ride the favorites. But, c’mon, you know there’s gotta be an upset or two.

This is exactly why most of my money this weekend will be going on my favorite prop bets. Before we get into the props and my picks for each game, let’s run through everything that caught my eye this week in the world of football:

  • Nice to hear that Ron Rivera’s neighbors were so good to him and his family as his house was on fire Monday morning. I gotta wonder if those Panthers fans would still have brought them breakfast and coffee if Carolina had lost at home to Ryan Lindley and the Cardinals. In fact, while I’d never wish for anyone’s home to burn down, I am curious to know how Jim Caldwell’s or Marvin Lewis’ neighbors would have reacted if this happened to one of them. Does anyone help in that situation? Or do angry fans find a way to ensure Lewis is trapped in the house while it burns? Like I said, just curious…
  • I’ll be the first to admit the AFC North fooled me this year. With three teams making the playoffs and even the Browns looking good for stretches, I expected a better performance in the playoffs. Cincy never showed up last week and the Steelers made Baltimore’s win way too easy. That division’s schedule this season included the NFC South and the AFC South, which is basically like handing six or seven wins to any halfway decent team. You know what happens next year? They face the NFC West (Arizona, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis) and AFC West (Denver, Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego). I wish I could place a bet right now on only a single AFC North team making the postseason next year.
  • If you didn’t see Matthew Stafford’s reaction to the picked up flag in the Detroit/Dallas game, you can find the short video embedded in this Deadspin Article (for whatever reason, the YouTube clip has been pulled down).
  • This demonstrates the only reason I was never a pro athlete. The composure he has, even while yelling at the referees, is amazing. I would have whipped my Johnson out and started pissing on the refs’ legs and probably the Cowboys’ logo.
  • Speaking of that flag/no-flag debacle in the last round, that’s exactly the type of thing I will be rooting for if my Patriots aren’t the AFC’s representative in the Super Bowl. Bitterness triumphs over enjoying good football every time.
  • Rob Ryan returns to New Orleans as their defensive coordinator. And why not? He has quite the impressive resume. Here is where each of his defensive units have finished among the NFL’s 32 teams starting with the 2004 season:
    • Oakland (2004-08): 26th, 20th, 8th, 22nd, 19th
    • Cleveland (2009-10): 30th, 18th
    • Dallas (2011-12): 16th, 23rd
    • New Orleans (2013-14): 10th, 31st
  • That seems like a resume that’s deserving of more chances, right? Two acceptable years out of 11.
  • The tweet I saw this week that should definitely make you think twice about backing all four favorites was from ESPN’s Adam Schefter: “All 4 favorites haven’t covered in the Divisional Round since 1991.”
  • Twenty-two years since that’s happened, for the record.

The Prop Bets

I feel particularly good about three prop bets this week, but I’m going to make a fourth bet. That fourth one is probably a sucker’s bet, but I just can’t help myself. It’s a fun one. You’ll see:

Who will record the most passing yards in the Divisional Round?

If you’re willing to follow my lengthy logic here, we can use the process of elimination to narrow this one down. Or you can be a jerk and just skip to the bolded item at the bottom of this section for my pick (Bovada’s odds are in parentheses):

  • Cam Newton (25/1) just isn’t an option. He’s not doing it in Seattle. Sorry.
  • While we’re at it, I don’t see Russell Wilson (20/1) winning this bet either. Carolina’s defense ranks 9th against the pass and 22nd against the run. I think Wilson could have a ton of rushing yards in this game, but Seattle isn’t airing it out.
  • I’m eliminating Joe Flacco (9/1) and Tom Brady (5/1) from the discussion because people seem to think the weather (specifically the wind) could be an issue Saturday afternoon in Foxboro. Cold and snow don’t slow down passing offenses, but wind does.
  • I also don’t see Flacco going for 350+ yards against New England’s solid pass defense. Brady might not be a horrible play if the weather ends up cooperating, but as a Patriots fan, I can’t make that bet.
  • Tony Romo (7/1) has a couple things working against him: The Packers’ run defense is a lot worse than its pass defense, and Romo has only cracked 300 passing yards once in the 16 games he’s played this year. The only thing that makes him intriguing is the possibility of them going down by 10-14 points early and having to abandon their bread & butter (DeMarco Murray).
  • Peyton Manning (3/1) doesn’t give me much confidence because we have no idea what the hell is going on with his health and their focus on running lately. But maybe the bigger problem with him is this: Manning topped 300 passing yards seven times this year, and Denver’s record in those games was 3-4. Similarly, when Manning’s pass attempts in 2014 exceeded 40, the team was 2-4. For whatever reason, Manning throwing the ball often this year has not been a recipe for success. So unless you think the Colts are going into Denver and beating the Broncos, Manning’s a bad play.
  • That leaves us with Aaron Rodgers (3/1) and Andrew Luck (5/2).
  • The case for Rodgers: He’s going up against the 22nd ranked pass defense; he’s the quarterback on the league’s 2nd best passing offense; he had eight games in the regular season of 300+ passing yards, and unlike Manning, his team went 7-1 in those games; and I wouldn’t put it past any team this time of year to be exaggerating the extent of someone’s injury. So Thursday’s news on Rodgers’ lingering calf injury does not deter me at all.
  • The case for Luck: He led the league in passing yards this season; he had 11 games with more than 300 passing yards; his offense has no reliable running game; out of any of the contenders for this prop bet, his team is most likely to be losing big throughout the game.
  • I’m betting both Rodgers and Luck in a big way, knowing that as long as one of them wins it, I make a profit. (I’m fixing my mistake from last week when I bet Ben Roethlisberger but didn’t bet on Luck. I should have bet both.)
  • But if you’re feeling really lucky, go ahead and throw a sawbuck on Tom Brady.

Total Passing Yards – Andrew Luck – Over/Under 310.5

It should be obvious that I’m going with the over here (-115 odds). The Colts just can’t seem to be competitive without a lot of passing from Luck. And I feel somewhat protected if it’s a blowout in Denver’s favor because Luck will also be throwing a ton in that scenario.

Sure, we already have our bet on Luck to have the most passing yards this weekend, but I’d hate to miss out on a slice of the action if someone random happens to get hot and throw for 400 yards.

Total Rushing Yards – Justin Forsett – Over/Under 65.5

I’m also taking the over (-115) on this bet. It just seems likely that this will happen. Forsett beat this number nine times this year. The Ravens run for 126 yards per game while the Patriots give up 104 yards on average. I could end up being wrong on this, but I can’t imagine the Ravens’ gameplan is to have Flacco drop back 40 times and throw on this impressive New England secondary. In fact, I think the Patriots wouldn’t mind seeing Forsett go off for 175 yards if it means Flacco’s deep passes are held in check. (I have a weird feeling that this game will resemble that Denver/New England regular season game from 2013 where Knowshon Moreno ran for something like 680 yards but Manning couldn’t move the ball through the air.)

Will there be a game-winning field goal or touchdown as time expires in any game during the Divisional Round?

Here’s the fourth prop bet. The one that I can’t make a quantitative case for and is most likely a sucker’s bet. But I’m betting YES (4/1) on this. Last week was full of awful football so I’m praying we get some exciting games this week. It’s always good when you can make a bet that’s just naturally fun to root for, and who doesn’t want to see some games come down to the final play. (As opposed to whenever you bet the under on a point total in a game. Who wants to root for less scoring in any game?)

As a reminder, please check back on Friday afternoon for my picks against the spread. At this point it feels almost guaranteed that I’m going 0-4 again this weekend.

NFL Wildcard Weekend Recap: Making a Mockery of Guarantees

Wild Card Playoffs - Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys

Welp, I guess we were due for that. After last year’s foursome of entertaining Wildcard games, things reverted to the norm this past wekend: Partial blowouts, bad football and an overall lack of drama.

The referee-aided Dallas comeback on Sunday afternoon gave us just enough to make the weekend not an entire waste.

When Arizona’s 11-point loss in Carolina is the second most entertaining game of the weekend, it’s a particularly rough stretch of football.

This all gives me hope that we’re in for a wild Divisional Round in just five days. In fact, I think only an idiot would expect another handful of blowouts. There’s every reason to believe the Ravens can play the Patriots close, same for the Cowboys in Green Bay. Even if Denver looks like an easy call, the Colts have the quarterback to orchestrate a comeback of any amount if needed. Carolina’s the only underdog I can’t initially find a great case for in terms of covering or pulling off an upset.

From a statistical standpoint (using FootballOutsiders.com’s DVOA rankings), we get the following matchups in the Divisional Round:

  • #1 Seattle vs #25 Carolina
  • #2 Denver vs #12 Indianapolis
  • #3 Green Bay vs #6 Dallas
  • #4 New England vs #5 Baltimore

The Seattle mismatch notwithstanding, those are some dream games on paper.

I think we’re in for a memorable two days.

Speaking of memorable, how about my guarantee in last week’s picks column. Imagine if Joe Namath had made his famous guarantee before Super Bowl III and then went out and lost to the Colts 56-0. That’s the equivalent of what I did, guaranteeing a 4-0 against the spread weekend and walking away 0-4 instead.

I got pummeled. Two of the teams I backed weren’t even within two scores of covering the spread when their games ended (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh).

There is a silver lining though. This 0-4 start gives me a chance to guarantee success in the next three rounds of the playoffs and see if I can go 0-11. If I can, then next football season should be really profitable. Make the weekly picks, guarantee their success, bet the farm against each of those picks. From a reader’s standpoint, you shouldn’t care one way or another, just as long as I can inform you to go against every pick instead of backing them. I’m doing this for you guys.

I plan to spend the rest of this week focusing on how I can successfully put up another winless set of picks, but let’s quickly go through my notes from this past weekend:

  • Information that would have been useful to me before I made my picks/bets: Arizona apparently employs a punter who had never attempted to kick a football prior to Saturday? Or at least it seemed that bad as the poor guy was booting 30-yard after 30-yard punt all game.
  • If you’re going to have a 7-8-1 team facing Ryan Lindley in the playoffs, you might as well get all the awful out onto the field in one game. My hope was that if we were getting a gruesome injury or a game-swinging mistake by a referee, this was the game to do it. Unfortunately we had to deal with referee incompetence in the best game of the weekend instead.
  • When you’re making a case in your head for Carolina’s chances in Seattle on Saturday night, remember that they went into halftime at home losing 14-13 to the Cardinals.
  • The opening game of the weekend didn’t play out any differently than I expected when I consciously backed Arizona. I guess I was just hoping the giant horseshoe jammed up Arizona’s collective ass would stay lodged in there just a little longer. Lindley’s two interceptions deep in Carolina territory trumped any miracles that our Lord & Savior Bruce Arians could perform.
  • Congratulations, Carolina! You’ve finally climbed that mountain all the way back to a .500 record. The last time you touched that mark was 70 days ago. (But please, let’s expand the playoffs.)
  • Here’s a great example of why I likely need a money manager/common sense manager controlling everything I do from a gambling perspective: I had placed a bet on Cincinnati on Friday evening. Fine. But then on Sunday morning, even after hearing that Jermaine Gresham would be joining A.J. Green in street clothes for the game, I laid out more money on the Bengals. Why would I do that? I knew how injured they were, and more than anything I love watching Andy Dalton spectacularly crash & burn. Why would I put even more money on the opposite to happen?
  • The only noteworthy part of Sunday morning’s AFC game was seeing Andrew Luck complete some throws that I honestly believe only he & Aaron Rodgers are capable of making. Luck’s touchdown pass in the 3rd quarter that stretched the lead to 10 was a great example. He was being chased, in the midst of getting hit, and threw a perfect 35-yard pass into the end zone for a Donte Moncrief touchdown.
  • I’ll reiterate what I said earlier this season: In three or four years, Luck might not have any true competition or rival in the AFC. If the Colts ever put together a decent team around their quarterback, they should be bathing in Super Bowl appearances.
  • Of course the first playoff meeting between Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck is going to be over-covered in a big way this week, but don’t sleep on two other storylines getting beaten into your head nonstop:
    1. The Ice Bowl Rematch between Dallas and Green Bay! A game 48 years in the making!
    2. The Patriots would have liked to have seen any other team coming into Foxboro this weekend. The Ravens play them close and have playoff experience winning in New England. The Patriots are scared.
  • I plan to keep the TV off for most of the week.
  • As for Cincinnati and where they go from here, I do think it’s time to part ways with Marvin Lewis. It’s nothing like how Atlanta needed to rid itself of Mike Smith or any other typical firing. I’m not saying Lewis is a bad coach or has messed anything up for the Bengals. But there comes a time when a change is needed. I learned early on in my software sales career that some sales leaders are good for getting the company’s revenue from $1 million a year to $10 million a year, and some leaders are better-suited to lead the company from that $10 million to the $100 million a year success. Lewis apparently is the stepping-stone guy. Before he arrived in 2003, the Bengals had gone 12 straight years without a playoff appearance. Their collective record during that time? 55-137. (.286 winning percentage)
  • In the 12 years that Lewis has been the head coach, Cincinnati is 100-90-2 (.526 win rate) and has made six playoff appearances. Clearly he has had plenty of success and has gotten the Bengals to a level of respectability.
  • But I think it’s time for the next leader to come in and get them beyond the first round of the postseason.
  • If you took a minute on Sunday to stop rolling around on the floor laughing at my “guaranteed picks”, you’d notice that I actually did OK with the three prop bets I recommended. Betting on either one or two Wildcard teams to advance paid off, and the Cowboys’ win kept my exact Super Bowl matchup of New England vs Dallas alive. The only place I failed was betting Ben Roethlisberger to finish the weekend with the most passing yards. Andrew Luck beat him by a small enough amount that I still feel OK with the bet itself.
  • So going forward the best advice I can offer is to bet against my game picks and bet on my prop picks. Simple as that.

Divisional Round picks coming up later this week. It’s time to get excited about our final eight teams!

NFL Wildcard Weekend Picks: Guaranteeing 4-0 Against The Spread

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Blogger, meet clean slate.

Clean slate, meet blogger.

The dream of going 11-0 against the spread in the NFL playoffs is alive and well today because there hasn’t been a single game played yet. That all changes tomorrow afternoon. What a way to kick off the NFL playoffs: The 7-8-1 Panthers host Ryan Lindley and the Cardinals!

Can’t wait.

It’s come to my attention that I ‘ve picked only one game correctly in each of the last two Wildcard Weekends. That’s not good. The undefeated dream is usually dead by Saturday night of this first weekend. Two years ago I was able to grind out an 8-3 against the spread record over the course of the playoffs, but last year I took a major step back with a horrific 2-6-3 record by the time the Super Bowl confetti hit the MetLife Stadium turf.

It’s time to beat that 8-3 record.

Before I move on, I want to reiterate something I wrote after last year’s Wildcard Round:

“In three of four games, the team with the better quarterback won this past weekend (Andrew Luck over Alex Smith, Drew Brees over Nick Foles, Philip Rivers over Andy Dalton)…And three head coaches who have been criticized for years for making shaking decisions at the most important moments lost in the opening round (Andy Reid, Marvin Lewis, Mike McCarthy). File that away…among all the craziness and unpredictability of the season, we might be able to fall back on the trusted QB/Coach competency factor to make our picks going forward.”

Wow, so filing things away for future reference can actually work as long as you go back and review those things, huh?

Before I dive into the picks, let’s get through some general football housekeeping:

  • I don’t necessarily care if Ndamukong Suh is suspended or not, but I totally disagree with the people who are saying if this was a regular season game they’d be OK with a suspension. These are probably the same people who bellyache about penalties and enforcement of rules being different in the playoffs than the regular season. If it was a suspendable act in the regular season, it should be the same for the postseason.
  • Regarding the MVP, I’m fully in the J.J. Watt camp. People are always so quick to point out how the rules have changed to favor offense and scoring when they want to take away from offensive accomplishments. How about a defensive player putting up one of the greatest seasons in league history at a time when every rule works against him? No bonus points for the era Watt is currently thriving in? What if the situation was reversed? What if the NFL had changed the rules constantly over the past 10 years to lower scoring and reduce offense? If a QB put up a record-setting season during that time, he’d get the MVP, a Purple Heart, the WWE Heavyweight Belt and all the other awards in the world, wouldn’t he?
  • The news that broke a few days ago about Tom Brady restructuring his contract, accompanied by this article from Grantland’s Bill Barnwell, was just the third moment in the last seven years that caused Patriots fans to hyperventilate (Brady’s ACL and the loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl three years ago are the other two moments).
  • If you can remember way back to the start of the season, I entered into a bet with frequent guest blogger Neil regarding who could come closest to predicting each team’s win total correct. We picked records for all 32 teams in early September and tracked it throughout the year. I’m happy to report that after two straight years losing this same bet, I finally won. I was closer with 17 teams; he was closer with 14 teams; and we pushed on one.
  • In terms of precision, I nailed eight teams’ records exactly. Maybe I’m not so horrible at this prediction thing after all.
  • Interestingly, and randomly, we guessed all four AFC West teams exactly between us. Congrats, AFC West, for being the most predictable division in 2014!
  • The real reason I’m bringing this up is because Neil has already taken the attitude over the past week of refusing to acknowledge that this bet existed. He has pretended not to know a thing about it, and that worries me because as the winner, I’m entitled to force him to drink any eight alcoholic beverages of my choosing during a 12-hour period when we’re in Vegas two months from now. So for those of you who join us in Vegas, please keep this in mind if he doesn’t cooperate. I may need help enforcing the results of this bet.

Over the course of the season, I’ve made some futures bets that are still in play:

  • Indianapolis to win the Super Bowl (18/1 odds)
  • Baltimore to win the Super Bowl (33/1 odds)
  • Pittsburgh to win the Super Bowl (18/1 odds)
  • Dallas to win the Super Bowl (17/2 odds)

So if you’re counting along at home, I’ve spread my chips all over the proverbial board, backing four of the 12 playoff teams. Unfortunately I would have been better off waiting to bet the Ravens (now 40/1) and Colts (25/1). At least the Steelers are down to 16/1, somewhat validating my November bet on them.

Rather than go crazy with a ton of playoff bets that’ll never pan out, I thought I’d give you just three bets you can make today that will almost definitely work out:

  1. Exact Super Bowl matchup – New England vs Dallas (8/1 odds): Yeah, the Cowboys finished 22nd in overall defense via FootballOutsiders.com (the only playoff team that was worse is Pittsburgh at 30th), but it’s not like we haven’t seen teams with bad defenses make deep playoff runs lately (New England, New Orleans, Green Bay, to name a few). And if we’re looking for one of the Super Bowl representatives to be a mini-surprise, why not Dallas? They have one of the best quarterbacks in football, a near record-setting running back, and arguably the best receiver in the league (In fact, this Dallas trio might be better than Pittsburgh’s oft-discussed big three). They went 8-0 on the road this year. They beat the Seahawks in Seattle. Basically, if they execute no worse than the regular season, they’ve got a great chance. I love Dallas to make it. And I don’t mind spitting in the face of the “Cowboys as chokers” narrative. C’mon, it’s the NFL. Why wouldn’t a team we all ruled out way back in August make it to the final game?
  2. How many Wildcard teams will win this weekend? One (3/2 odds) and Two (5/2 odds): Technically this is two individual bets on the exact number of Wildcard teams to advance. But I love it because as long as one of the bets wins, you’ll make a profit if you laid out the same amount on them. Remember that the best four teams in football aren’t playing this weekend. And remember how clustered together all the other good teams were throughout the year. You don’t think there will be at least one or two upsets this weekend? (And don’t forget that one Wildcard team was an 11-game winner that’s facing a seven-game winner on Saturday.)
  3. Ben Roethlisberger to record the most passing yards this weekend (2/1 odds): This is the only logical bet on the prop of which QB will throw for the most yards. You’re getting better than even odds to back the passer who led the league in passing yards, had nine separate games of 300+ yards and is facing a mediocre pass defense (Baltimore was 15th in the league). Oh, and it’s official: Le’Veon Bell is out for this game….so we might see Roethlisberger throw it 73 tims.

You don’t have to personally thank me for all three of these bets. Just advise 500 of your closest friends to start reading this blog and we’ll call it even.

And now for the picks…

Arizona @ Carolina (-6)

  • The Pick: Arizona
  • The Score: Carolina 20, Arizona 17

This game is a perfect example of “beware of your subjective, rooting interests influencing a pick that’s supposed to be made without emotion” for me. All week long I’ve looked for reasons to pick the Cardinals to win outright. I just like them more and don’t want to see the under-.500 Panthers advance simply because of unfortunate injuries to an 11-win team’s top two quarterbacks. But it’s impossible to look at this game objectively and not walk away convinced the Panthers will win.

Carolina’s defense is playing a lot better than Arizona’s lately. The Panthers also have some semblance of a running game and a steady, veteran quarterback at the helm. The Cardinals have none of those things.

The biggest problem with Arizona is figuring out how the hell they’re going to score any points. We know Lindley is a possible liability throwing the ball, but it’s even worse when the Cardinals try to run. They have the third worst rushing attack in the league.

The NFL rightfully put the least intriguing game in the least attractive TV timeslot, and I don’t imagine we’re getting a surprise “Ohmygod, that was such an incredible game” moment out of this one.

Winning 11 games in the toughest division, having the Coach of the Year, still employing a frisky defense…all of that’s gotta count for something, right? That’s why I like the Cardinals to cover even if I have to stop short of predicting the win.

Baltimore @ Pittsburgh (-3)

  • The Pick: Pittsburgh
  • The Score: Pittsburgh 26, Baltimore 21

There aren’t many running backs in the league whose participation or lack thereof should swing a game. Le’Veon Bell belongs in that miniscule group. On top of being one of the best pure runners in the league, he also had more than 80 receptions this year and never leaves the game, which tells you how good he is in pass protection too.

It’s unfortunate for the Steelers and for those of us who want to see teams at full strength that Bell is out for this game. I even wrote earlier this week that if Bell is out, I need to make sure I don’t just gloss over that because of how badly I want to pick the Steelers.

But on the other side, you have a Ravens team that’s only looked good this year when facing bad football teams. Their biggest weakness is pass defense, and the Steelers happen to have one of the most potent passing attacks in the league.

Baltimore, like most teams, has been far worse on the road. The only decent team they really beat away from Maryland this year was Miami. That no-show at Houston in a week 16 must-win game against Case Keenum is still so fresh in my mind.

These teams split their season series, with the home team winning by exactly 20 points in each game.

The Ravens rate out as a better team according to FootballOutsiders.com, though not by much.

You see why this is the hardest game to pick in Round One (and why I’m all over the map trying to find an edge for one team).

Even with a healthy Bell, you could make a case for Baltimore (battle-tested, great coach, decent quarterback, a great team according to all the advanced metrics).

Eff, this is tough. You know what? This is one game where I really think who’s at home and who’s on the road matters a lot. And what can I say? I’m a sucker for this Pittsburgh passing game. I’m also a sucker for my preseason prediction that Pittsburgh would face New England in the AFC Championship game.

Just know that I changed my mind on this particular game five times before ultimately deciding on the Steelers.

Cincinnati @ Indianapolis (-3.5)

  • The Pick: Cincinnati
  • The Score: Cincinnati 23, Indianapolis 16

Damnit! This was going to be my major upset. The line opened earlier this week at Indianapolis -6 and I instantly loved the Bengals to cover, and possibly win outright. I was hoping this would be a sneaky bet. The public was supposed to focus on Andy Dalton’s most recent game, a clunker at Pittsburgh last Sunday night. They were also supposed to remember Cincy’s 27-0 loss in Indy back in October because the collective media can’t reference that game enough times this week. But is it possible the Colts are so bad that everyone is willing to back one of the shakiest quarterbacks in big games on the road against a team that beat him by four touchdowns earlier this year? The line dropping by 2.5 points certainly makes it seem that way.

It’s incredible how evenly-matched these teams are (again, using FootballOutsiders.com as the guide here). The Colts are one spot ahead of the Bengals in overall team efficiency (12th for Indy, 13th for Cincy), overall offense (17th vs 18th) and overall defense (13th compared to 14th).

One thing I’m ignoring so far is the news from Friday that A.J. Green could be out of this game with lingering concussion symptoms. That would certainly impact things, but it sounds like we won’t know until Saturday what his final status is.

Regardless of that injury (Geez, talk about the three AFC North teams’ fates being determined by some major injuries), I think the Colts are bad enough that I’ll take the extra half point Vegas is giving me here. Even if Indy somehow pulls this game out, and we’ve certainly seen that before, it should be close (unless Andy Dalton wants to reach an all new level on the Cincy fanbase’s ShitList).

Detroit @ Dallas (-7.5)

  • The Pick: Dallas
  • The Score: Dallas 41, Detroit 17

Even in Cowboys fans’ wildest dreams, they never would have imagined their team laying more than a touchdown in a playoff game this year. This is the point-spread they assign to juggernauts.

They have a superior everything on offense, and their mediocre defense is only dealing with the 19th best offense in football. It’s not like the Packers or Broncos are rolling into Texas this weekend.

We have a full season sampling that says the Cowboys’ offensive line is fantastic, Tony Romo (when healthy and getting protection) is fantastic, and they are a truly good team. Do you realize if Romo doesn’t get hurt midway through the Cowboys’ week 8 game against Washington we’re probably talking about a 14-win Dallas team? That is downright scary.

And if we finally reference my own advice from last year about the QB & coach combo, well, the Cowboys demolish the Lions in both spots. I don’t think the person that controls the Jim Caldwell doll with a remote control can hang with Jason Garrett in this game (you’re damn right I just said something nice about Garrett).

Every Wildcard Weekend needs at least one blowout, and this feels like the one. It’s truly stunning how different this season has gone for the Cowboys based on preseason expectations. Fingers crossed that it continues that way for a few more weekends.

And just like that, I’ve given you the four winners plus three prop bets that can’t miss!

Enjoy Wildcard Weekend!