NFL Playoff & Super Bowl Predictions

nfl conf champ

Because I know you just couldn’t live without seeing our NFL Playoff and Super Bowl predictions before the season gets started on Thursday, guest blogger Neil & I bring you our postseason picks, comment free:

Neil’s Picks

NFC Playoffs

  1. Seattle
  2. Green Bay
  3. Carolina
  4. NY Giants
  5. Arizona
  6. Dallas

AFC Playoffs

  1. New England
  2. Pittsburgh
  3. Kansas City
  4. Indianapolis
  5. Cincinnati
  6. San Diego

Conference Championship Picks

  • NFC = Seattle over Carolina
  • AFC = New England over Kansas City

Super Bowl Pick

  • New England 31, Seattle 17

 

Ross’ Picks

NFC Playoffs

  1. Seattle
  2. Carolina
  3. Washington
  4. Green Bay
  5. Arizona
  6. Detroit

AFC Playoffs

  1. New England
  2. Kansas City
  3. Cincinnati
  4. Tennessee
  5. Oakland
  6. Baltimore

Conference Championship Picks

  • NFC = Arizona over Washington
  • AFC = New England over Kansas City

Super Bowl Pick

  • New England 24, Arizona 20
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NFL Conference Championship Picks

manning duck

Last year I put this little man in my Conference Championship column to represent my sadness over the fact that we only had three football games left on the schedule. After that, it’s seven months of pretending to like college & professional basketball, baseball and the Olympics. Yuck.

hanging-head

But this year the sad man represents a couple more things I’m feeling. One is the helplessness I feel as I realize we’re only two weeks away from Deflategate and the NFL’s ongoing appeal to force its way back into our lives. I hate to say it, but either the NFL will come out with some new headlines around Deflategate, or they’ll invent an entirely new off-the-field scandal to make sure they’re staying at the top of the sports headlines.

And finally, the hanging-his-head man is appropriate because that’s how I feel at the end of this week after refreshing the Bovada football page 20 times a day and never once seeing either of the lines for these upcoming games move off of a 3.5-point spread. I told myself early in the week that if either New England or Carolina goes down to a 3-point favorite, I’m betting the farm on them. But the lines stand firm.

And while you might be expecting one blowout and one close game this weekend because that’s what happened last year, it turns out the Conference Championship games are usually pretty tight. In the past 20 Conference Championship games, the margin of victory has been 10 points or less 16 times. There have only been two true blowouts since 2005: last year’s Patriots 45-7 win over the Colts and the Bears over the Saints 39-14 in the 2006 playoffs.

Even though it might be difficult to imagine a team led by a certain big-foreheaded quarterback to keep it close against the defending Champs this weekend, you can probably count on it. Let’s dive into the picks.

New England (-3.5) at Denver

The Pick: New England

The Score: New England 27, Denver 22

  • First of all, I hope CBS budgeted for industrial strength cleaning supplies and an army of cleaning people to slop up the record-breaking amount of semen that Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are going to spray all over the broadcast booth in Denver. Screw getting the Guinness World Record people to a stadium to measure noise, we need them at Mile High on Sunday to measure semen output. How many orgasms can two men have in three hours just from watching another man do his job? Tune into CBS on Sunday at 3 Eastern to find out!
  • In the eight games that Peyton Manning started and completed this year, the Denver offense averaged 19.4 points per game and less than two touchdowns in each contest.
  • Brandon McManus kicked a shitload of field goals for this team, it turns out.
  • The New England defense has given up an average of 18 points per game this season.
  • I’ve felt strongly all along that the Patriots are scoring 27 or 28 points, and I can’t ignore the fact that Manning’s offense only reached that total once this year.
  • The Patriots finally looked healthy last week and put up 27 points against a good defense while having to knock some of the rust off (Brady and Edelman took some time to get on the same page).
  • The New England offense is now healthy and has a game under its belt.
  • The Broncos may be able to run a little bit on the Patriots, but I can’t imagine Bill Belichick lets them run wild. Everyone knows if you stop their running backs, Denver isn’t cracking 20 points.
  • Basically, if you’re picking Denver, you’re saying, “I think the Broncos are going to play their absolute best game of the year.” It’s not impossible for that to happen, but it’s a much safer play to take the Patriots and know exactly the type of performance you’re getting.
  • I will say, however, that the Denver defense is legit. This team went 12-4 and earned the #1 seed with an offense that ranked in the bottom third of the league. Something dragged them to that top spot, and it wasn’t Gary Kubiak’s coaching or Brock Osweiler’s half-season cameo.
  • The reason I can’t pick the Patriots to win by more than a handful of points is because of the Broncos’ awesome defense and the fact that this is a road game. If this game was in New England, we would have to plan for a blowout.

Arizona at Carolina (-3.5)

The Pick: Carolina

The Score: Carolina 31, Arizona 24

  • Each team playing this weekend has won a single playoff game so far, but Carolina has to get the nod as the most impressive. They’re the only one who soundly dismantled a powerhouse team to get to this point. We weren’t wrong to think Seattle was one of the best teams in the league. I’d still put them right up at the top even after last week. And the Panthers went out and crushed them (until they took a nap in the 2nd half).
  • As I was typing this section, I had to take a break to check on a thought I had. I was pretty sure no underdog has won their game outright during the playoffs so far, and it turns out I was right. I suppose if you got Green Bay over Washington when the Packers were +1 that counts, but in my picks I had the Packers as a 1-point favorite. So yeah, the underdogs are 0-8 straight up in this postseason. WHICH SCARES THE SHIT OUT OF ME SINCE I’M TAKING BOTH FAVORITES THIS WEEKEND!
  • This is going to sound similar to my Patriots/Broncos logic, but I can’t take Arizona because I feel like they’d have to play their best game of the year while the Panthers simply have to play their typical, solid game. It’s less likely that the Cardinals have the game they need in order to win than the Panthers playing the game they need to play.
  • The Honey Badger being out scares me (huge in run-stopping support and possibly would have been able to slow down Greg Olsen). The Cardinals’ atrocious special teams scares me. Arizona’s struggles on offense against a mediocre Packers defense last week scares me. And Carson Palmer having no track record of performing well in huge games scares me.
  • If all of Bruce Arians’ super aggressive playcalling pays off + the Cardinals don’t royally screw up anything special teams related + Cam Newton plays his worst game of the year, then I think Arizona has a chance. But I can’t bet on all of that happening.

And if you just can’t pull the trigger on betting these games because the line on each is so perfectly set, here are some props for you to consider.

Patriots vs Broncos – Longest Made Field Goal of the Game

The Pick: over 46.5 yards (-115)

  • Because it’s in Denver in a game featuring two of the best kickers in football where the two offenses are going up against good defenses. This seems really easy.

Patriots vs Broncos – Will both teams make a 33-yard or longer field goal

The Pick: Yes (+120)

  • And they’re paying me an extra 20 cents on the dollar for this steal? Sign me up.

Tom Brady’s Longest Completion

The Pick: Under 41.5 yards (-115)

  • You don’t beat this Denver defense by throwing it long, and the Patriots don’t do that anyway.

Julian Edelman Total Receptions

The Pick: over 7 (-110)

  • I didn’t initially like this because they increased his total by one from last week’s game. But here are my Edelman stats: He has had seven or more receptions in 25 of his last 44 games dating back to the 2013 season. He has had more than seven receptions in five straight playoff games now. And he has exceeded that mark the last three times he’s faced Denver.

Will Peyton Manning throw an interception

The Pick: Yes (-250)

  • I don’t mind paying the juice on this certainty.

Will Peyton Manning throw more than 1.5 interceptions

The Pick: Yes (+225)

Ooh, I like this one so much better. Let’s go with this instead.

Carson Palmer’s Total Pass Attempts

The Pick: over 37.5 (-115)

How many times did the opposing quarterback attempt at least 38 passes against the Carolina defense this year? In 13 out of 17 games, that’s how many.

Enjoy the Conference Championship games!

Divisional Round Picks: Will Injuries Derail the NFL’s Best Weekend?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Denver Broncos

The first weekend of playoff football absolutely lived up to its Wildcard namesake. The results, the styles & quality of play, the postgame buzz…all over the board from game to game and all of it WILD.

Here’s the rapidfire recap of each one:

  • Kansas City 30, Houston 0 – This was your run-of-the-mill blowout. The only reason I hesitate to write “absolute domination” is because the Chiefs only put up a measly six offensive points in the first half while being gifted four Brian Hoyer turnovers. And that was really the story. Hoyer had five turnovers so it never really mattered how the rest of the Texans performed. We laughed at Bill O’Brien for flip-flopping on his starting QB so often during the season, but he knew. He knew how truly bad Hoyer could be in any given game.
  • Pittsburgh 18, Cincinnati 16 – We had a pretty boring game through 40 minutes, but insanity began when Martavis Bryant completed his somersault touchdown catch with five minutes left in the 3rd quarter. You know what happened next: Gio Bernard fumbled, Ben Roethlisberger left the game with a shoulder injury, the Bengals scored 16 unanswered points to take the lead, Landry Jones threw what looked like a game-ending interception with 1:45 left in the 4th quarter, Jeremy Hill immediately gave the ball back to Pittsburgh with an unforgivable fumble, Roethlisberger returned and the only people on earth who didn’t realize he couldn’t throw the ball were the 11 guys playing defense for Cincy, Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones did “Bengals” things, and the Steelers kicked an easy game-winning field goal. I’m tired just from writing all that.
  • Seattle 10, Minnesota 9 – This must have been one of the least fun games to play in, ever. And as much as Vikings fans who were in attendance would have said they loved the whole thing if they had won, I don’t believe it. I was at the coldest game in Gillette Stadium history and it was a boring 17-14 win over the Titans (in January 2004). Freezing & boring is a horrible combo. Anyway, everything that went down in this game propelled a few active narratives forward: Seattle, and specifically Russell Wilson, pulled some lucky shit out of their asses (no wonder why Wilson is such a hardcore god believer), Adrian Peterson fumbled at the most obvious possible time, and Viking Nation got another impossible-to-believe punch to the gut.
  • Green Bay 35, Washington 18 – It’s always weird when a game that ended with such a blowout-looking score was as close as this one was in the 3rd quarter. Washington actually led 18-17 with 4:20 left in the 3rd. The Packers scored 18 unanswered points and got a huge performance from its collection of running backs, but the Skins will always wonder how this game would have played out if they didn’t leave five haunting points on the board in the 1st half. The missed extra point on their first touchdown was a minor culprit. The DeSean Jackson no-effort play on his reception at the goal line was the MAJOR game-changer. The way DeSean plays football makes you wonder how he’s not a member of the Cincinnati Bengals.

OK, a few more notes on Wildcard Weekend:

  • It was a historic weekend because all four wildcard/road teams won. That’s never happened. Considering who the home teams were, it’s not the world’s biggest shocker
  • OK fine. Marvin Lewis doesn’t need to be fired just because he has an 0-7 playoff record or because his players are constantly out of control and do all the little things that lose games in January. But he does need to be fired because of the way his offense has performed in every one of their playoff appearances. Or I should say, the way they haven’t performed:
    • 2005: 26.3 points per game in regular season / 17 points in playoff game
    • 2009: 19.1 points per game in regular season / 14 points in playoff game
    • 2011: 21.5 points per game in regular season / 10 points in playoff game
    • 2012: 24.4 points per game in regular season / 9 points in playoff game
    • 2013: 26.9 points per game in regular season / 10 points in playoff game
    • 2014: 22.8 points per game in regular season / 10 points in playoff game
    • 2015: 26.2 points per game in regular season / 16 points in playoff game
  • Speaking of offense, Wildcard Weekend was pretty tough for all of them:
    • Three of four games easily hit the under point total that Vegas established.
    • Seven of eight quarterbacks were held under 230 yards passing. Kirk Cousins was the lone holdout. He ended up with 329 yards (and gave me my easiest prop bet win ever).
    • There were only three 100+ yard receivers across the entire weekend. Two of them were tight ends (Travis Kelce and Jordan Reed) and the other was the guy who always gets his yards, Antonio Brown.
    • No running back cracked 100 yards. Alfred Blue came damn close with 99. The next highest totals were Christine Michael (70 yards) and Spencer Ware (67 yards).
  • This is less of an observation and more of a question with no answer: Which timeslot during the Wildcard and Divisional Rounds would a fan prefer its team play in? The advantages to the first game of the weekend would be that you get it over with right away. You’re not stressing into Sunday like the fans of four other teams are. Your team also gets the most possible rest if they advance. The disadvantage with the Saturday afternoon slot is that when your team loses, the entire weekend is ruined. You aren’t enjoying any of those next three games because you’re sitting there stewing. And that’s the advantage of the Sunday late game. You get to enjoy all the other games and hold onto that excited/anticipation feeling for as long as possible. The darkhorse candidate would be the Saturday night timeslot. That way you get to enjoy one other game first while pacing around in anticipation during the day. And it’s the best time to justify getting absolutely plastered while your team plays. I think I’d choose Saturday night every time. What do you think?

Moving on to the Divisional Round, it would seem the NFL has some great football in store for us. Seven of the eight best teams in the league, according to FootballOutsiders.com, are still playing. Green Bay is the only team left that doesn’t fit into that discussion. You can find them occupying the 10th spot on that list. And there’s hope for actual points to be scored this weekend. The combination of no arctic temperatures at any of the hosting cities plus most of the remaining teams being in the top 10 in offensive efficiency should give us compelling games. Let’s keep our fingers crossed as we dive into the picks for the Divisional Round. For what it’s worth, I went 2-2 against the spread last week, which is an improvement from my Wildcard Round picks the past two years (0-4 against the spread last year and 1-3 the year before that). My best postseason ever against the spread was an 8-3 record three years ago. So I’ve gotta run the table on these final seven games to beat that. Easy enough.

One final note: Some back-of-the-napkin math tells me that in the past 8 years, only twice has the average margin of victory across the four Divisional Round games been LESS THAN 10 POINTS. But almost like clockwork, there appears to be one major blowout every year, two close games, and one game that finishes in that 7-14 point differential range. There have been many times where a single Divisional Round game has ended with the winning team outscoring the losing team by 21+ points. That seems to skew the numbers significantly. I know this isn’t really going out on a limb or anything, but you can probably bank on two extremely close games, one ridiculous blowout, and one middle-of-the-road game. Let’s see if it works out that way in my picks.

Kansas City at New England (-5)

The Pick: Kansas City

The Score: New England 23, Kansas City 20

Quarterback Offense Defense Special Teams Overall
Kansas City 16th 6th 6th 7th 5th
New England 2nd 5th 12th 5th 6th

*All numbers in these tables are the league rankings according to FootballOutsiders.com’s DVOA and DYAR metrics.

  • Easily the biggest enigma remaining in the playoffs is the New England Patriots. The injuries, the way they closed out the season after that 10-0 start, the fact that every now & then a certain kind of team comes along that they continually struggle against and the Chiefs could easily fit that mold…all of it makes backing the Patriots a risky endeavor.
  • But it’s kind of impossible not to go with the 4-time Super Bowl Champs who are hosting this game after two weeks of rest and with the benefit of getting a handful of key players back from injury.
  • Even though Dion Lewis and Nate Solder are big losses for the Patriots who aren’t coming back this year, there’s reason to think a healthy Sebastian Vollmer and Julian Edelman will do the trick for this offense. After Solder went on IR, the Patriots’ offense put up 34 points on Indy, 30 on the Jets and 36 on Miami before Edelman went down halfway through the Giants game. Even without Edelman, they put up some decent games until Vollmer went down in week 16. That’s when we saw the awful performances against the Jets and Dolphins.
  • Sure, the Chiefs are the #6 defense and have some studs going up against Brady, but the Patriots won games this year against the #5, #8 and #11 defenses, and they were handling the #1 Broncos pretty easily before a special teams disaster and a Gronk injury.
  • The fact that Vegas posted this game as a five-point spread tells you they don’t have a clue what to expect either. It’s hard to imagine the Patriots knocking the rust off so quickly that they go out and dominate from the opening kickoff.
  • And yet, the reason I’m so confident that New England pulls out the win is because they’re no longer the more injured team. Anyone who thinks Jeremy Maclin doesn’t have a significant knee injury is crazy. He’s not playing on Saturday. Spencer Ware, who had taken over as Kansas City’s lead rusher, didn’t practice Wednesday and is dealing with an ankle injury. Maybe key pass rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali will be 100% for this game, but they sure didn’t look it against the Texans last week.
  • It’s difficult enough to beat the Patriots in Foxboro with a fully operational team. It doesn’t feel like the Chiefs are getting it done this weekend.
  • In terms of style and pace of the game, the more I looked into this matchup, the more it reminded me of last year’s Patriots-Ravens divisional game. The Chiefs are a lot like Baltimore, especially on defense. That makes me think New England’s run game will be non-existent and Brady will be throwing 45 passes. If Brady plays a good game and the receivers are as healthy as we think they are, New England’s advancing to its 5th consecutive AFC Championship Game (and 10th in 15 years).
  • Oh crap. As I’m writing this section on Thursday morning, I’m seeing that Gronk missed practice today and it’s his 2nd missed practice in the past three days. Crap crap crap.

Green Bay at Arizona (-7)

The Pick: Green Bay

The Score: Arizona 26, Green Bay 21

Quarterback Offense Defense Special Teams Overall
Green Bay 17th 11th 9th 17th 10th
Arizona 1st 4th 3rd 29th 3rd
  • The people who didn’t learn their lesson after taking Seattle -6 in last week’s game against Minnesota are the same people who are lining up to back Arizona -7 this week.
  • Just like Seattle dominated Minnesota in a regular season game, the Cardinals absolutely pummeled the Packers 38-8 in week 16. So I can understand the urge to quickly pick Arizona and move on.
  • But health was a big reason the Seattle-Minnesota game last week was so much closer, and health could come into play for Green Bay-Arizona. In that blowout loss just three weeks ago, the Packers were playing with several backup offensive linemen. That won’t be the case this time. And even though Tyrann Mathieu was out for the Cardinals during these teams’ regular season game, that doesn’t mean he’s not a huge loss. Many people had him ranked high on their Defensive Player of the Year list. You probably feel a lot more comfortable against Aaron Rodgers if you had the Honey Badger roaming the defensive side of the field this coming Saturday night.
  • If playoff experience counts for anything, the Packers get a big thumbs up over Arizona.
  • Did you know that between last year’s playoffs and last weekend there have been nine games where a team is favored by six or more points and the favorite has covered the spread only three times in that scenario? It’s important to note that the favorite has won the game outright in eight of those cases, but they’re typically not covering. My pick reflects this.
  • I know we need to peg one game as a blowout, but don’t worry, we’ll get to that later on.
  • I’m torn on this game because even though I know there are plenty of factors telling me it won’t be a blowout, I also compared the Packers to the Atlanta Falcons just a week ago. It really could be as simple as the subpar Redskins’ defense made the Packers look a lot better than they are. And we should probably look at Green Bay’s body of work over the course of the entire season rather than one playoff game.
  • But while Arizona outranks Green Bay in every meaningful category besides special teams, and certainly Bruce Arians could coach circles around Mike McCarthy even if Arians took whatever crazy shit that Chandler Jones was on the other night, I expect the mysterious power of Aaron Rodgers to at least get me the backdoor cover.
  • Arizona leads by 10-13 points for most of the second half, but Rodgers gets a late score to ruin the Cardinals’ cover.

Seattle at Carolina (-3)

The Pick: Carolina

The Score: Carolina 24, Seattle 17

Quarterback Offense Defense Special Teams Overall
Seattle 3rd 2nd 4th 3rd 1st
Carolina 11th 8th 2nd 23rd 4th
  • Listen, I don’t really have any in-depth analysis for this game. It’s difficult to pick apart the Panthers since they went 15-1. You can’t do the whole “this is what happened in games they lost versus games they won” thing. And the Seahawks are the advanced stat champions of the regular season and obviously came on strong later in the year.
  • Both teams have awesome defenses, MVP-caliber quarterbacks, great running games and no-name wide receivers who get the job done. I don’t see where analysis is going to give you an edge.
  • But here’s what I do know: If you pick against a 15-1 team who’s playing at home after having two weeks of rest while their opponent was playing a bruising, freezing game a week ago, and that 15-1 team is only laying a field goal, you are certifiably insane.
  • Read my words carefully. I didn’t write “you’re going to be wrong if you bet on Seattle.” I simply said you’re a crazy person if you do. Even crazy people are right every once in a while.

Pittsburgh at Denver (-7)

The Pick: Denver

The Score: Denver 30, Pittsburgh 9

Quarterback Offense Defense Special Teams Overall
Pittsburgh 5th 3rd 11th 18th 7th
Denver 36th 25th 1st 14th 8th
  • One of my favorite things from last Sunday was people on twitter handing this Divisional Round win to both teams because of their quarterback situations. Half of twitter was saying, “Congrats on getting to the AFC Championship game, Denver. You get to play a Steelers team that might be without Roethlisberger and/or Brown.” And the other half was saying, “Congrats on getting to the AFC Championship game, Pittsburgh. You get ‘Playoff Manning’ in the Divisional Round.”
  • The craziest subplot of this game is how Peyton Manning will probably be the best quarterback on the field by a wide margin. Pittsburgh is either rolling out a significantly injured Ben Roethlisberger or a fully healthy Landry Jones.
  • If I could put a bet on Roethlisberger not playing in this game right now, I absolutely would. I think the Steelers are doing everything in their power to make Denver prepare for Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, but neither of them are going to play.
  • If that’s the case, you’d have a Steelers team without its star QB, star receiver and best option at running back in Deangelo Williams.
  • You can think what you want about “Playoff Manning” & “2015 Manning” and the ineptitude of the Denver offense all season, but if those three guys are out for Pittsburgh, the Broncos are going to demolish them.
  • The deck would have been somewhat stacked against a fully healthy Pittsburgh team because they’re going into hostile territory where the home team is 28-4 during the last four regular seasons. And they are going up against the #1 defense in the league.
  • Yes, the Steelers beat Denver in week 15, but that game was in Pittsburgh and don’t forget the Broncos led by as much as 17 points at one point.
  • As compelling as the Steelers can be when they’re full strength, the two best AFC Championship matchups are Broncos-Patriots and Broncos-Chiefs.
  • If Roethlisberger makes a miraculous recovery, I see Denver winning by 3-7 points. If he doesn’t, Pittsburgh won’t crack double digits.

It’s a shame that a lot of my bullet points across three of the four games had to do with players being healthy or unhealthy, but that’s the reality of football in January. It would have been great to see most of these teams operating at 100%, but we play the hand we’re dealt.

And now we turn to my favorite prop bets of the week.

Who will record the most Receiving Yards this weekend?

The Pick: Demaryius Thomas (4/1), Emmanuel Sanders (5/1), Michael Floyd (12/1)

Yes, if you bet the same amount on each guy, you will make a profit as long as one of them has the most yards this weekend. Floyd is a great longshot because he has surpassed 100 receiving yards in five of his last seven full games. That’s some legitimate big game consistency right there. And yes, I know Peyton Manning’s noodle arm will be the appendage responsible for getting the ball to Thomas and Sanders. But they each had a handful of 100+ yard games during the season with Manning as their QB. And they happen to be facing the worst pass defense left in the playoffs. And if this game goes the way I think it’ll go, the Broncos are going to get a lot of offensive possessions. Even if they’re playing conservatively, I like one of these guys to win this title.

Who will record the most Rushing Yards this weekend?

The Pick: David Johnson (+250)

Two reasons for this bet: 1) Johnson is facing a below average Packers run defense while the rest of the running backs will at least be facing above average defenses against the run. 2) The other options aren’t very appealing. There’s Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, but they split carries for the same team. Similarly, you could choose Ronnie Hillman or C.J. Anderson, but they share the backfield in Denver. Jonathan Stewart probably isn’t putting up a huge day on the Seattle run defense. And Eddie Lacy might not get a ton of opportunities if Arizona forces the Packers to play from behind and try to match their quick-striking offense all day. There are no other options on the board. Go with Johnson.

Tom Brady total pass attempts

The Pick: Over 41.5 (-115)

Tom Brady total completions

The Pick: Over 25 (-115)

Tom Brady total passing yards

The Pick: Over 290.5 (-115)

Get it all out there, folks. If you think the Patriots are going to win or even play a halfway decent offensive game, every one of these Brady props should hit. If you’d rather not spread your money out on all three but instead bet bigger on just one of them, I’d go with over 25 completions.

Will Tom Brady throw an interception?

The Pick: Yes (-145)

It makes sense that a guy who’s asked to throw the ball as much as he does every postseason would end up with a lot of interceptions. Brady has thrown at least one interception in four straight playoff games and eight of his last 10 postseason games going back to the 2011-12 season.

After the Divisional Round, we only have three football games remaining. If you’re trying to make money, the time is now.

Enjoy the Divisional Round.

NFL Week 15 Recap: All the Playoff Scenarios My Brain Can Handle

bengals

In a week where nine of the 15 NFL matchups ended as one-score games, it didn’t really feel like we had an exciting Sunday with lots of close calls. Maybe it’s because for the most part, the team that was winning each game down the stretch ultimately held on and secured the victory. Maybe it’s because the four teams that clinched playoff spots yesterday—New England, Denver, Indianapolis, Arizona—did it without any drama or build-up. If they hadn’t clinched in week 15, they would have in week 16 anyway. And really, the only division-defining game yesterday was Dallas beating Philadelphia (and as you’ll see below, it wasn’t even that backbreaking for Philly).

Kind of a ho-hum weekend for being so late in the regular season.

Lucky for us we don’t have to focus too much on the specifics of week 15. Instead we can look at the broader landscape of the NFL as we quickly approach January football.

The NFC is Tidy, Organized Chaos…

I love how the NFC is shaking out because it’s easy to express what’s going on in that conference without a super long explanation.

There are two-team races in three divisions: the West (Arizona is 11-3, Seattle is 10-4), the North (Detroit is 10-4, Green Bay is 10-4) and the East (Dallas is 10-4, Philadelphia s 9-5).

The losers of those three divisions are competing for the two available NFC Wildcard spots. So for the moment, you have Seattle, Green Bay and Philly technically fighting it out to play on Wildcard Weekend, but there will likely be lots of shuffling to come.

And then of course there are the three NFC South teams “battling” for that division’s automatic playoff berth (Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta).

Every other NFC team beyond those nine is eliminated.

…And the AFC is like a Los Angeles Freeway on the Day Before Thanksgiving

A never-ending clusterfuck.

The clean part is the three division winners that I already mentioned. The dirty part is everything else.

The AFC North is impossible to figure out because three teams have nine wins and one of those teams has a tie on its record. Nightmare scenario for a blogger without the knowledge or time to get into Advanced Playoff Theory.

While those three AFC North teams currently occupy three playoff spots (the division plus both Wildcards), three more teams are right on their heels with 8-6 records: Buffalo, Kansas City and San Diego.

And for the time being, the three 7-7 teams in the AFC are still technically in the hunt: Miami, Cleveland and Houston. I only know this because Bovada still has odds for those teams to win the Super Bowl (albeit not great odds at 500/1).

Compared to the nine teams in the NFC fighting for playoff spots, the AFC has 12 postseason hopefuls.

Rather than try to go through every AFC scenario, I’ll give you just two tidbits:

  1. The Bills are probably eliminated because they currently lose a tiebreaker to Kansas City and San Diego while still having to face the Patriots in New England. It’s highly unlikely they will clear both those AFC West teams by a full game while still facing the league’s #1 team on the road.
  2. Out of five extremely important games on the schedule for week 16, there might be none more important than Kansas City at Pittsburgh. The Steelers are the #5 seed in the AFC and the Chiefs are #7. A win by the Chiefs would even up the two teams’ records and give KC the tiebreaker. A Steelers win would just about guarantee them a playoff spot and possibly hand them temporary rights to being the top team in the North (because Cincy may lose to Denver on Monday night next week).

A Few More Playoff Scenarios

Using only my brain and ESPN.com’s Tiebreaking Procedures information, I think I figured out all the scenarios in the NFC. Let’s walk through this together.

The West

  • Seattle (10-4) at Arizona (11-3) in week 16.
  • If Arizona wins that game, they win the West because they’ll have a two-game lead over Seattle with only one week remaining.
  • If Seattle wins, both teams would be 11-4 and Seattle would hold the tiebreaker with two head-to-head wins against Arizona. In this scenario, if both teams win or both teams lose in week 17, Seattle gets the division. If Seattle wins and Arizona loses in week 17, obviously Seattle wins the division. But if Seattle loses and Arizona wins, then of course Arizona captures the division title. In those week 17 games, Arizona travels to San Francisco and Seattle hosts St Louis.
  • Even though the Rams beat Seattle earlier this year, you have to give the edge to Seattle over Arizona right now. With the way the ‘Hawks are playing and the fact that Arizona has to start Poor Ryan Lindley at QB in week 16, you’d expect Seattle to win that game. Then they just have to handle the Rams at home.
  • Arizona gets the consolation prize of heading to an NFC South destination over Wildcard Weekend.

The North

  • Detroit (10-4) at Green Bay (10-4) but not until week 17.
  • Let’s talk about each team’s next game first. In week 16 the Lions travel to Chicago while the Packers face the Bucs in Tampa Bay. I probably don’t need to point out that if both NFC North teams win their week 16 game (highly likely) or both lose those games, the winner of their week 17 matchup will take the division.
  • But let’s say Green Bay loses to Tampa while Detroit beats Chicago. Then the Lions would be one game up on the Packers.
  • If Green Bay then beats Detroit in week 17, they’d have the same record, a split of their two head-to-head matchups, the same division record (5-1) AND THEY’D EVEN HAVE THE SAME RECORD IN COMMON GAMES!
  • They would move onto the fourth tiebreaker, which is their win-loss percentage in conference games. Detroit would win the North because they’d have a 9-3 conference record while the Packers would finish at 8-4.
  • The one other scenario is Detroit losing its week 16 game while Green Bay wins. In this scenario, the winner of their week 17 matchup is once again the division winner.
  • If all that is correct, it means that if Green Bay loses at Tampa Bay in week 16, the Packers will not be able to win the division as long as the Lions handle the Bears.
  • We all know this is coming down to week 17.

The East

  • Philadelphia (9-5) and Dallas (10-4) do not face each other again.
  • First, the easy scenarios: If Dallas wins its final two games, it wins the East. If Philadelphia loses its final two games, Dallas wins the East.
  • If both teams go 1-1 to finish the season, Dallas wins the East.
  • If the Eagles win out and the Cowboys lose even one more game, the Eagles win the East (on account of the division record tiebreaker).
  • If the Eagles go 1-1, they win the division if the Cowboys lose its final two (on account of the division tiebreaker again).
  • The Cowboys finish the season hosting Indianapolis and then traveling to Washington. The Eagles have two road games: at Washington and at the Giants.
  • The nice thing is this should still be up for grabs heading into week 17. If Dallas loses to the Colts and the Eagles beat Washington in week 16, Dallas no longer controls its fate.
  • Somehow, someway, this atrocity of a Washington season is going to play a HUGE role in who wins the NFC East.

Speaking of Washington

The PotatoSkins finally did something right by losing to the Giants yesterday. They improved their draft positioning and made sure that no other team in the NFC East will pick before they do. And of course they couldn’t play a meaningless game without some level of drama being involved. Colt McCoy got immediately hurt, RG3 came on in relief duty, scored a huge touchdown at the end of the first half using his legs and scrambling abilities (a throwback to those long ago days of 2012), and then people started getting ejected when the refs overturned RG3’s touchdown. Just a classic Washington performance.

Anyway, here’s one Washington fan’s depressed response to my comments last week about Jay Gruden being on the hot seat:

I don’t think there’s any way they fire Gruden after one year. I think everyone, especially the fans, recognizes that this mess is not on him. Certainly wouldn’t put it past Snyder to do something batshit crazy like fire him, but I think it’s unlikely. What they will do is a mystery though. People are pretty fed up at this point. Normally that would mean big org changes, but we’ve tried that over & over and it hasn’t worked. We could hire a new GM, I suppose, but Snyder loves George Allen. My guess is they try and sell that we have been rebuilding, blame the shit out of RG3 even though it’s as much the org’s fault as his, trade him for pennies on the dollar and draft a new guy for the fan base to try and get excited about.  Anyways, who cares? They are going to suck for a while.”

Washington has officially sunk lower than Jacksonville, Oakland, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Minnesota and Buffalo. Good job, Dan Snyder.

Questioning Two of the NFL’s Bad Teams

I don’t necessarily believing in tanking or even think it’s possible in the NFL. After all, these players and coaches are being paid millions to show up and play hard.

But when it’s this late in the season and you’re the head coach of a two-win team, you’re doing your organization a disservice if you don’t at least give tanking the old college try.

The most bizarre thing I saw on Sunday was the Jacksonville Jaguars pulling out every trick play in the book to try to beat the Ravens in Baltimore. First there was the surprise onsides kick in the first half that the Jaguars recovered to steal an extra offensive possession. Then there was a fake punt shovel pass for a long completion in the second half. The Jaguars ultimately lost, but what were they doing pulling out all the stops to secure that third win?

The Jaguars didn’t have to do anything special or sketchy to lose this game. They could have simply gone with standard, conservative play. Even if they won’t be using their first round pick on a QB, getting that top pick would produce a HAUL in a trade with a QB-needy team (there are about 37 teams looking for that franchise quarterback).

Jacksonville’s loss meant it got to stay in that exclusive club of two-win teams, but there was another two-win team that may have just screwed itself out of drafting a franchise quarterback in 2015. You didn’t even have to watch yesterday’s games or look at the results to have a solid guess on which team I’m talking about.

The New York Jets, of course.

Since they were facing fellow two-win compadre Tennessee, someone had to exit the two-win club unless they played to a tie. The Jets were on the road and trailing most of the game, but two different times in the second half they rallied and took the lead. Why bother? No team has gotten less out of the starting quarterback position in the past three years, and newly minted Heisman Winner Marcus Mariota is waiting in the wings. The Jets even had a chance to make the Titans proud owners of “The Music City Miracle, Part Two” when Tennessee started lateraling the ball all over the field on the game’s final play. Delanie Walker was making a break for the end zone to give the Titans a shocker of a win, but Dawn Landry of the Jets made the game-saving (season-ruining?) tackle to seal the victory for New York.

I hate what the 76ers are doing in the NBA right now because they are tanking an entire season and slapping their season ticket holders in the face, but to tank a game or two at the end of your season when you’re already eliminated from contention? Every team should do that. Or at least save the trick plays for a game that your owner and general manager also want you to win.

What’s interesting about the Jets’ win is that it could be a construed as an Eff You from Rex Ryan to the front office. “You’re gonna fire me because I haven’t been able to crack eight wins while being saddled with Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith and Michael Vick??? Fine, fuck you. Here’s that third win that ensures you don’t get Mariota or Jameis Winston. Enjoy Brian Hoyer or whatever other trashy free agent QB you sign, Fuckers!”

Emptying Out the Notebook

  • I only use the phrase “unmitigated disaster” two times each season because it’s such a fantastic phrase. I used it in week 9 to describe my record picking against the spread last year. And for my second and final usage of that phrase in 2014, I’m going with: “Johnny Manziel was an unmitigated disaster in his debut as a starter.”
  • Remember that Manziel took over a 7-6 team, a team that has Cleveland fans clamoring for the playoffs. It’s not like he was handed the keys to the Jaguars where he could toil away for a 3-13 team. People needed him to perform as good or better than Brian Hoyer’s baseline performance (not that hard to do, right?).
  • He finished the day 10-for-18 for 80 yards passing, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, a 27.3 passer rating, and about 46 Cincy players standing over him doing the “money sign.”
  • After I proclaimed that the MVP race was finished a week ago, did J.J. Watt just pop his head back in the room and say, “Are you guys sure you wanna go with an offensive player still?”
  • Aaron Rodgers completed only 40% of his passes for 185 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 34.3 passer rating.
  • DeMarco Murray was held to 81 rushing yards on 31 carries (averaging 2.6 yards per carry)…although he did have two touchdowns.
  • Peyton Manning and Tom Brady haven’t been putting up otherworldly numbers recently as their teams’ running games and defenses have taken over.
  • J.J. Watt finished his day with 6 tackles, 2 sacks, several QB hits and a pass defensed.
  • I don’t think Rodgers deserves to lose his spot atop the MVP balloting for one bad game, but voters seem to love guys who play their best in December. Luckily Rodgers gets a matchup with Tampa Bay next week to make or break his MVP campaign.
  • For once, a positive word on the Lions…Does Teryl Austin deserve some sort of special recognition for the work he’s done this year? You’re probably asking who the hell that is, right? Apparently he’s the Lions’ defensive coordinator. Their defense was horrible in 2012, middle of the pack in 2013, and now in 2014 it’s the best D in football. This is a 10-win team that has a below average offense, a meh quarterback in Matthew Stafford, a special teams unit that ranks 30th in the league in efficiency and a coach who’s best trait is “I’m not Mike Smith.” Someone deserves a ton of credit for the Lions being on the brink of a playoff berth and division title, so I’m giving it to Teryl Austin, 2014’s Unsung Hero in the NFL.
  • And last but not least, this week’s best announcer quote. I didn’t even have to wait for the weekend for this one. In the first half of Thursday’s game between Arizona and St. Louis, Jim Nantz promoted the upcoming Thursday game of Tennessee at Jacksonville. Without hesitation or any hint of sarcasm, Phil Simms stated, “I’m looking forward to it.”
  • I’m going the other way on this game…it might be the first game in five years that I voluntarily don’t bother watching.

Week 16 picks coming on Thursday.

NFL Week 14 Recap: AFCmageddon Fallout, NFC Seedings and Both Grudens

patriots defense

It takes a mammoth story to knock the NFL out of the lead spot on Monday morning news cycles, but that’s exactly what the college football playoff standings did yesterday. So I guess in a sense the new playoff format has already paid off because of the headlines and attention it’s grabbing. But I feel like any debate over which is the better brand of football, college or the pros, is over. Say what you want about this year’s NFC South tragedy or any other year when a 7-9 or 8-8 team makes the playoffs, but at least we all know the rules and parameters for getting into the postseason ahead of time (and we know it’s 100% based on the actual game results). You just can’t have a legitimate sports league and champion when you make rules up as you go along (and possibly reward schools with playoff berths because of things other than their on-field performance).

The college football selection show was one of only two things that took my attention ever-so-slightly off of football on Sunday. The other was “Eaten Alive.”

A TV show that promised a live human would be consumed by an anaconda, “Eaten Alive” probably should have been called “If, after days of wandering through the Amazon to find the perfect snake to eat me alive, I do in fact find that perfect snake (that might not even exist in the first place), then I will indeed be Eaten Alive…but only if the snake follows my arbitrary rules of not breaking my arms & legs, which could have been better protected if I didn’t refuse the armor that my team wanted to put on me…THEN I WILL BE EATEN ALIVE…for all of six minutes out of a 2-hour TV show.”

Needless to say, I’ll probably pass on the next show that promises a man will be eaten by a dangerous predator.

On the AFC

While AFCmageddon didn’t totally disappoint this past weekend, the results for many of the AFC teams precluded next week from having very many exciting matchups. For example:

  • The Dolphins at Patriots is no longer interesting because Miami lost to Baltimore, dropping them three games behind New England.
  • The Texans at Colts is no longer interesting because Indy pulled out a ridiculous comeback in Cleveland that kept them two games ahead of Houston.
  • And with Cleveland blowing that home game, it makes their game against Cincy in week 15 much less interesting, as the Browns would need some miracles over the final three weeks to win the North.
  • In the West, the Broncos’ win combined with San Diego’s loss allows Denver to lose their upcoming matchup without any repercussion in the division standings.

In all my gambling losses over these first 14 weeks of the season, I’ve learned only one thing: Stay the F away from the AFC North. It’s probably been a detriment to gamblers that this division got to face the entire NFC South this year because those games have artificially inflated how decent the North looks.

The AFC North has a .821 win percentage against the NFC South (everyone’s favorite sacrificial lamb). Against everyone else? It drops to a .526 win percentage. Not great unless you can play the trash of the NFC every game.

Also consider: Cincy had won five of its last six games, including three on the road. They had gotten some key guys healthy in the last few weeks. On Sunday they couldn’t stay within 20 points of Pittsburgh, a team that really hasn’t played well on the road this year and lost to New Orleans AT HOME just a week earlier. Baltimore lost at home to San Diego in week 13 and lost more defensive starters before their road game in Miami on Sunday. Of course they held Miami to 13 points. What I’m saying is…the AFC North is the definition of stayaway. It’s the least predictable division in the NFL.

On the NFC

What people are most excited about after week 13 is the race for the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs, specifically who will have home field if the dream matchup of Seattle vs Green Bay happens. If Arizona fades like many are expecting, we’d basically have three teams vying for the top spot: Green Bay (10-3), Seattle (9-4), and the winner of the NFC East. Philadelphia (9-4) or Dallas (9-4).

For argument’s sake, let’s say the Eagles win the East (since they’re hosting the game against Dallas this coming weekend). If the season were to end with a three-way tie, the Seahawks would win the tiebreaker because they beat both Green Bay and Philadelphia. And even if it’s a two-way tie between Seattle and the Packers, the ‘Hawks would still take the #1 seed. But here’s why you can R-E-L-A-X again, Packer fans: Your team already has a one-game lead over Seattle and their final three games are at Buffalo, at Tampa Bay and home against Detroit. They should win all three of those games.

And if these two teams do matchup in a key January game, regardless of where it’s played, I think Seattle wins because Green Bay has never shown any sign of beating this Seattle team when its defense is at full strength.

And Back to the AFC

I know I’m jumping around a lot here, but one more note on this past week’s Indianapolis over Cleveland game. Has any game this season been more responsible for some very important implications? With that loss by Cleveland, the Johnny Manziel Era starts, Brian Hoyer will be on a different team in 2015, the Browns are effectively out of the playoffs and the Texans are more or less in that same boat (due to Indy winning and remaining two games up on them with three to play). A lot was decided when Cleveland blew that game.

The Grudens

I’m reading more and more that Jay Gruden could be one-and-done in Washington as the head coach. Let me go on record as saying that should absolutely NOT happen. I loved the way he called out RG3 to the media a couple weeks ago because it needed to happen. It seemed to me like a last-ditch effort to get through to a player who doesn’t want to listen. I gained a lot of respect for Gruden after that press conference. RG3 should be the one leaving the team after the season. But I do wonder if the amount of dysfunction across the board on this team will lead to a deep cleaning of the roster and the coaching staff. They might decide to remove anyone associated with the stink of 2014…coach, quarterbacks (all of them), coordinators…it’s almost like they should do a full reset, you know? Maybe change their branding even?

As for my favorite announcer quote of the week, it was all the glowing things that Jon Gruden said about Steven Jackson on Monday night. I can’t pick just one. It wasn’t like he said semi-logical things like, “Jackson’s been struggling for a little while now, but he’s had some nice games lately.” Instead he said outlandish things like, “In this Atlanta offense, if you can get good blocking from your offensive line, Steven Jackson will take care of the rest.” If you only listened to Gruden’s comments about Jackson and didn’t pay attention to football otherwise, you’d assume Jackson’s leading the league in rushing and might be the greatest runner in football history.

Why the Patriots are Finally Different

As a big time New England homer, I typically predict the Patriots to win the Super Bowl every year based on the logic of Tom Brady & Bill Belichick, and not much more. This year’s different. In their past five games, they’ve limited offenses led by Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers to 16.6 points per game. For the season, those teams are averaging 27.3 points per game. And this run for the Pats’ defense coincided with two significant personnel losses, Jerod Mayo and Chandler Jones. Mayo’s out for the year, but Jones may be back as soon as this week. For the first time in many years, this New England defense might just carry the team to the promised land (assuming the referees allow Brandon Browner to make clean hits without throwing a flag, which is still to be determined).

Week 15 picks coming on Thursday.

Touring the NFL: Finishing up with the NFC South & West

If you missed part one of the NFC tour, where we previewed a possible juggernaut of a division (the North) and the likely punching bag of the conference (the East), check it out HERE.

Today, we finish this stream of consciousness tour with two very exciting divisions. Enjoy.

NFC South

nfc south

Best known for…

  • The only division to never have any team win back-to-back regular season titles.
  • Side Note #1: That’s probably not a “best known” fact, but shouldn’t it be?
  • Side Note #2: I didn’t bother actually researching that fact, but I can’t imagine another division hasn’t had repeat winners.

Most likely to…

  • Continue that streak for at least one more year. Sorry, Carolina.

Quick Hits

  •  This might be the division with the highest variance between possible outcomes. I could see any of the following happening:
    • Saints cruise to the title while the other three teams stumble
    • Everyone except for Tampa slugs it out, whoever reaches 10 wins gets the division
    • Carolina’s defense gives them the glory of being the first two-time NFC South champions
    • The Saints still can’t figure out how to win on the road and their defense doesn’t improve, opening the door for everyone else
    • The Bucs ride a coaching and quarterback upgrade to the division championship in an underachieving division (contingent upon season-ending injuries to Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, of course)
  • At one point I had Atlanta sneaking back into the playoffs, but I’m tempering expectations. They should certainly bounce back better than Houston (if for no other reason than the quarterback disparity between the two teams), but some injuries, suspect talent outside of the offensive skill positions, and a natural distrust for Mike Smith’s coaching abilities have me thinking more like eight wins instead of 10.
  • Bummer about what happened to New Orleans this offseason huh? They became “the sleeper Super Bowl contender who turned out not to be a sleeper because everyone started talking about how they’re a sleeper and now they’re doomed.” Just like everyone else, I too was searching for an outcome in the NFC that was anything but “Seattle goes 14-2 and steamrolls everyone.” I had the Saints as a sneaky pick, but now it’s time to shy away. Way too popular.
  • Carolina’s reward for their first playoff appearance in five years? An October/November run of these opponents: Chicago, @Cincinnati, @Green Bay, Seattle, New Orleans, @Philadelphia
  • They can thank Clete Blakeman’s marvelous officiating for that first-place schedule.
  • By the way, Carolina facing five consecutive playoff teams is only the second most brutal stretch for any NFL team. We’ll get to the most brutal in a minute.

Fun with gambling

  • As expected, New Orleans is the prohibitive favorite to win the division at -150. Atlanta and Carolina are both +450 while Tampa Bay is +550. I don’t really see any good bets there unless you’re planning to put a hit out on Brees.
  • My least favorite regular season MVP bet from this division is Jimmy Graham, not because his 66/1 odds aren’t large enough, but because Brees has never won an MVP. In what scenario would Graham win it over Brees no matter what his stats look like? Wouldn’t bet on this if it was 250/1.
  • Again, not loving any bets in this division, probably because of all the ways this could play out. I guess I’d put a little money on both Atlanta (+120) and Carolina (+145) over 8.5 wins. Feels like one of them’s going to do it.

NFC West

nfc south

Best known for…

  • Being the division where college coaches go to fail
  • (Joking)
  • Being the best division in football, by a significant margin

Most likely to…

  • Fall short of that hype

Quick Hits

  • In no way am I saying this division will be bad, but it kind of only has one place to go from last year. San Francisco could take a step back with the question marks, injuries and suspension(s) on defense. Arizona’s unlikely to get another healthy season from Carson Palmer, and even if they do, they’re right up there with the 49ers when it comes to brutal suspensions and injuries. St. Louis isn’t projected to improve on their 7-9 2013 record.
  • Speaking of Palmer, I was trying to think of a good candidate to be the next older, former Pro Bowl quarterback who seems-to-be-washed-up-but-actually-isn’t for Arizona. First Kurt Warner, now Palmer. My top four would be: Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Andy Dalton, Matt Hasselbeck.
  • This division finished 42-22 last season.
  • Pretty easy to see why it won’t repeat that insane performance: They face the two toughest divisions in football, their own and the AFC West. No team plays less than seven games versus 2013 playoff teams.
  • Out of all the unfair parts of these teams’ schedules, and there are many, this one takes the cake: Over an eight week period, the Rams’ schedule goes a little something like this: @Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, @Kansas City, @San Francisco, @Arizona, Denver, @San Diego.
  • That’s seven games against last year’s playoff teams in just eight weeks!
  • I guess the NFL’s showing us how they’ll punish any team that drafts “a Michael Sam type” in the future, right?

Fun with gambling

  • Yet another obvious set of odds for the division title, Seattle (+110) and San Francisco (+150) are both contenders while Arizona and St. Louis are both extreme long shots (+750 for each).
  • Just like each of their team’s odds, Colin Kaepernick (18/1) and Russell Wilson (20/1) are lumped right next to one another in the MVP odds.
  • My two favorite bets in this division: Seattle to win the division at +110…because Vegas is paying you extra to bet on a team that may win its division by by four or five games. And St. Louis under 7.5 wins (+120) feels like a lock due to the previously mentioned screwjob from the schedule makers.

Sure, I’ve disliked Seattle since before disliking Seattle was cool, but I’ll admit their presence makes everything more interesting. We haven’t had many Super Bowl winners lately who were a legitimate threat to repeat or kick off a dynasty. It makes every game they play that much bigger. It gives us a little bit of a villain to root against. I hate ’em but I’m glad they’re in my life.

Next week we’ll get into win/loss records for each team, and until then, I’ll be trying desperately to convince myself that we’re NOT heading for a Seattle/Denver repeat in Super Bowl XLIX.

Enjoy week three of the preseason. The over/under on the number of times a media person calls this weekend a “dress rehearsal” is set at 725.5.

Week 5 NFL Picks: The Most Outrageous Spread Ever, Wishing the Worst on the Jets and Molly Eats a Poisonous Bone

Here’s my fancy introduction for the week 5 picks:

In 2011, you could pretty much guess which teams made the playoffs by looking at who had the highest-scoring offenses. In the year of the 5,000-yard QBs, offense ruled as evidenced by nine of the 12 playoff teams ranking in the top 12 in points per game. In that same year, only five of those 12 teams ranked in the top 12 in points allowed per game.

Through four weeks of 2012, we’re seeing the exact opposite be true…here are the top 12 ranked defenses based on points allowed: Houston, Seattle, Arizona, San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego, Minnesota, Atlanta, Green Bay, Denver, Philadelphia and Baltimore. In that group, there are seven of the eight division leaders plus San Francisco (3-1), Green Bay (should be 3-1), Chicago (3-1), Denver (2-2) and Seattle (2-2 but should be 1-3).

Is this a four-game anomaly or a trend that’s gonna last all year? Is defense important once again? While you consider that mind-blowing reversal, chew on these picks for week 5 (home team underlined):

St. Louis(+2) over Arizona: Considering I predicted the Cardinals to win exactly two games this year, I certainly never expected them to be favored on the road against anyone. Obviously my prediction is going to look horrible by the end of the season, but I’m sticking to my guns that Arizona is NOT A GOOD FOOTBALL TEAM. In three of the Cardinals’ four wins, their opponent had the ball at the end of the game with a chance to win. They’re the luckiest team I’ve seen since the Rex Grossman-led 2006 Chicago Bears…who went all the way to the Super Bowl. Crap. Still, St. Louis at home is the superior team. Bet accordingly.

Philadelphia (+3.5) over Pittsburgh: Wait, isn’t Philadelphia the luckiest team we’ve seen in years? Am I starting to confuse luck with talent? Are my preseason projections for Arizona to be horrible and Philly to be only decent blinding me to what’s really going on? Well, I certainly think the Eagles are the more legit of the “lucky” teams. When it comes to Pittsburgh, I worry that they’re just starting their regular season now while everyone else has gotten four games under their belts and are rounding into midseason form. The Steelers had to play their first three games without several key contributors—Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Rashard Mendenhall—and then they had a bye last week. While those three guys are now healthy and ready to go, I’m concerned that it’s going to take some time before this team resembles the Steelers of the past 10 years. If Pitt wins, it’ll be by three or less. I’m taking the Philly with the points.

Green Bay (-7) over Indianapolis: Can you imagine if these two teams had played each other last year? Green Bay was on its way to a 15-1 record while putting up 35 points per game. Indy was on its way to a 2-14 season, the number one pick in the draft, and averaged just over 15 points per game. What would the spread have been on the 2011 version of this game? 17? 21? The Colts aren’t that bad this year, and the Packers aren’t that good. But this is still a mismatch that’ll create an easy win for Green Bay. I’ll repeat what I said last week about the Packers: if they can’t win this game by double digits, it’s time to lower your expectations for the 2012 Green Bay Packers.

NY Giants (-9) over Cleveland: As far as suicide pools go, it’s certainly tempting to pick the 2-2 Giants at home against the 0-4 Browns. But I was able to scare myself out of doing that by simply remembering recent history. In week 5 last year, a bad Seattle team was on the road against the Giants. Out of 19 people in the suicide pool, 12 of us pick New York, and of course Seattle pulls out a 36-25 win. It was the same week of the season and a similar “easy home game” for the Giants. And add to that how schizophrenic the Giants are and you can see how easy it was for me not to pick them in suicide. However, I’m picking the Giants to cover nine points…the public thinks the Giants look sketchy and the Browns look competitive. Too many people are gonna go against New York here. Not me. When you inevitably take the Browns with the points, shoot me an email to let me know during which quarter of the game you remembered the QB matchup was Eli Manning vs Brandon Weeden.

Atlanta (-3) over Washington: Last week I gave a pep talk to 49ers fans who were down on their team after an unexpected loss in week 3 to Minnesota. Atlanta should have had an unexpected loss at home in week 4 to Carolina (saved by the unclutchness/questionable decision-making of Cam Newton and Ron Rivera). So as long as the Falcons treat that game as if it was an unforgivable loss, they should be super-motivated for their matchup with RGIII. And when I asked one of my two friends who loves the Redskins about his confidence level this week, he basically said, “I expect the Falcons to pass all over us all day long. Roddy White and Julio Jones will probably have career days.” Fair enough…three points seems too low for an elite team against such a bad defense, even on the road.

Cincinnati(-4) over Miami: Doesn’t it seem like the Dolphins’ M.O. this year is exactly what the New York Jets have been claiming to be for the past four years? Rely on the running game to carry the offense and keep the ball away from the other team, and have an impossible-to-run-against defense. They even have a QB who’s as effective as (or more than) the Jets’ franchise QB. Can the Dolphins ride this formula to back-to-back AFC Championship games like the Jets did? Sadly, they cannot. Mostly because they’re downright terrible against the pass. I’m tempted to say that the Dolphins will keep it close and probably lose by just a field goal, but I think Cincy at home will pass all over Miami and can hopefully win by a touchdown. (Warning: This game has Ryan Tannehill garbage time TD pass for the backdoor Dolphins cover written all over it.)

Baltimore (-6) over Kansas City: This game was my weekly big miss when I guessed all the lines on Tuesday. I had Baltimore -12.5. Honestly this line couldn’t be high enough to get me to bet on the Chiefs. The only argument someone could make against picking the Ravens is that they seem to have one legitimate dud every year against a shitty team. Last year they lost 12-7 at Jacksonville in week 7. Could the dud come against a 1-3 team like KC this year? Of course it could, but it would be unwise to bet on it. I think Baltimore covers so easily that I also picked them in my suicide pool this week.

Carolina(-3) over Seattle: If you take away the Seahawks’ 27-7 win over Dallas in week 2, which seems to be the outlier, their other offensive outputs for the season are 16 points, 7 points and 13 points (I took the liberty of not including the fake TD they got in the Packers’ debacle). They’ve got three offensive touchdowns in those three games. Even if you include the Dallas game, they have five total offensive touchdowns on the season. In a road game this week, their defense won’t have the luxury of their 12th man/home crowd. As long as Carolina can put up 21 points, they’ll cover the spread. This is an easy pick against Seattle. And who knows? Maybe after they lose at Carolina people will stop considering them to be one of the decent NFC teams.

For Molly’s week 5 pick, I gave her the Chicago at Jacksonville game. Should I be worried about having predicted the Bears as a Super Bowl team if I’m repeatedly letting my dog pick whichever game involves them each week? Yes, I probably should. I just don’t know what to make of a Bears team favored by nearly a touchdown on the road when we have the distinct possibility of seeing Jay Cutler get sacked 14 times. Let’s check in with Molly for the pick:

You heard the dog: Jacksonville +6 is the pick.

New England(-7) over Denver: If you’re a Patriots fan, you just knew Aaron Hernandez was returning to the field much sooner than the original estimates suggested after he hurt his ankle in week 2. He just seems like a tough dude, and he’s definitely the type of guy who can’t handle sitting on the sidelines. This is great news for a Patriots’ offense that just dropped 52 on Buffalo. Whether Hernandez plays this week or not, it’s starting to feel like New England is ready to go on one of their patented eight-game winning streaks. If you agree with me, then you have to think the Patriots can cover seven points at home against a mediocre Broncos team. It might be high scoring like most of the media are predicting, but it feels like 41-27 is about right.

San Francisco(-10) over Buffalo: The 49ers beat the Jets 34-0 last week. And the Jets beat the Bills 48-28 in week 1. So a 50-point win by the 9ers against Buffalo seems about right. Right? No, but I do think San Francisco is looking forward to playing in front of their home crowd for the first time in three weeks. They’ll make life a living hell for Ryan “4 touchdowns but also 4 interceptions” Fitzpatrick. And it’s not like Alex Smith should have trouble moving the ball against the Bills’ defense. What am I missing here? I’m not scared of the 10 points because this seems like a big time mismatch.

Minnesota(-6) over Tennessee: Does the “Ross was absolutely right about Christian Ponder” train keep on chugging down the tracks this week? Or does a Tennessee team that seems to be in shambles surprise everyone and make this a close game? Well the Titans aren’t gonna be able to run on Minnesota so let’s put it this way: the only chance Tennessee has to pull off the upset is if Matt Hasselbeck pulls some crazy sorcery out of his ass. I’m talking multiple 65-yard touchdown passes to Jared Cook, or a ridiculous flee-flicker that actually fools the Vikings’ defense. If I’m Mike Munchak, I’m trying fake punts, fake field goals and surprise onsides kicks all day long because my team is just bad enough to play the “we have nothing to lose” card. But since none of that is likely to work, I’ll take the Vikings.

San Diego (+4) over New Orleans: Has anyone ever wasted a gift-wrapped career opportunity quite like Saints interim interim head coach Aaron Kromer? This guy is supposed to be the offensive line coach, and he literally has no other relevant credentials in professional football. So if he had been able to squeeze even two wins out of this miserable team over his six weeks of fake head coaching, he’d have a great case to make for becoming an offensive coordinator and eventually a head coach in the near future. But instead his team has gone 0-4 against opponents who are a combined 2-10 outside of their wins vs New Orleans. Unfortunately for Mr. Kromer the beat goes on this week as San Diego drops 35 on them. At least the Saints have that Drew Brees record-breaking TD ceremony to fall back on.

Wait one other thing: HOW THE FUCK IS THIS 0-4 SAINTS TEAM FAVORED AGAINST A 3-1 TEAM? AND HOW ARE THEY FAVORED BY 4 POINTS??? Hopefully the caps expressed my disgust with this line properly.

Houston (-9) over NY Jets: For my analysis on this game, I really just wanted to tape myself laughing the evilest of laughs. A Mr. Burns sadistic type laugh if you will. Because no one gets quite the hard-on that I get from watching the Jets be the laughing stock of the NFL. But what I actually want to do is revisit that play from last week where Santonio Holmes got hurt…because seriously, how are more people not talking about what a selfish play that was? If that same situation happened to a player on most of the other 31 teams, that guy would be cut immediately…because there’s no way he didn’t flip the ball to the defender on purpose. Like I said last week, it’s just a nice representation of what the New York Jets now stand for—selfish, incompetent and downright awful football. The Texans better not go easy on the Jets…I wanna see 80-yard bombs to Andre Johnson even after the Texans go up 31-3. I wanna see Mark Sanchez booed off the field. Then I wanna see Tim Tebow booed off the field (and would love it more than anything if he flipped off the crowd). I want Rex Ryan fired by week 8. I want it all for this Jets team…everything they deserve and more.