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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My work here is done. Enjoy Championship Weekend!

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NFL Round 2 Recap: Saying Goodbye to 4 More Unworthy Teams, Kicking Myself Out of the Bar and Much More

Good lord. Am I tired. The football players have it easy. They only had to live through one game this week. We had to deal with the emotional swings and constant anxiety of four games in two days. It really does feel like I just played in four football games. After the Wildcard Round’s “as much fun as a funeral” theme, the NFL sorta owed us this kind of weekend.

And after the football gods continued to punish me for some unknown reason with week-after-week of sub-.500 picks against the spread records, I finally bounced back in a big way. Let’s review my personal glory first:

  • 4-0 against the spread in my picks.
  • Made my biggest bet of the season on the Patriots to cover. I always stay away from betting the Pats, but this weekend felt like a can’t miss opportunity (the bet was basically six times my normal-sized bet, that’s all I’m willing to say).
  • 2-2 in the four prop bets I listed in Friday’s blog (not counting the bets that don’t pay off until next season). The nice thing about 2-2 is that the biggest long shot was on the winning side for me. Russell Wilson to have the most passing yards this weekend (15/1 odds). I really hope at least a couple people took that bet on my advice because the Atlanta-Seattle game went exactly as I expected and Wilson’s 385 passing yards easily beat the competition.

But the silly part about life as a football prognosticator is that you can put up a great record with picks in a given weekend but still be wrong with all the reasons you decided on those picks. Here are four things I got wrong in a big way this weekend:

  1. “Knowshon Moreno will have the most rushing yards of any running back” – It’s hard to lead all players in rushing yards when you don’t even lead your own team in that category. Moreno had 32 yards on the ground Saturday, which was only 51 yards less than his teammate Ronnie Hillman. Upon further review, it looks like Moreno had the 13th-most rushing yards of all players this weekend. Just barely missed that prediction.
  2. On my reasoning for taking the Ravens to cover against Denver: “And what if the Ravens’ far superior special teams puts up a touchdown? That’ll be a huge swing.” There were some special teams touchdowns that were big swings in this game, but both times it was Denver scoring on returns. I also still picked Denver to win by seven and “perhaps take their foot off the gas and allow for the Baltimore backdoor cover.” Wrong and wrong.
  3. On why the 49ers would handle Green Bay: “Mike McCarthy really is a bad coach and that’ll rear its ugly head sometime soon…Mason Crosby has been an unmitigated disaster and that’ll rear its ugly head sometime soon…As good as Rodgers is, his offensive line has been Pittsburgh Steeler-esque all year, and a team like San Francisco might really make them pay.” Of course McCarthy didn’t make any major blunders, Crosby made his one field goal attempt and nailed all four of his extra points, and the Packer O-line only gave up one sack. This game was entirely on the Green Bay defense.
  4. “You cannot overlook the fact that the Pats dropped 42 on the Texans without the services of Gronk. That’s the biggest X factor of this game in my opinion: New England is probably the healthiest team out of the eight remaining playoff contenders.” An X factor is defined as “A variable in a situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome.” Not only did my “Patriots are the healthiest team” mantra become immediately wrong when Gronk, Danny Woodhead and Chandler Jones all went down in the first half, but the health of New England wasn’t anything close to an X factor (and of course I’m very happy to be wrong about this one).

Just like I did during the Wildcard round, I spent most of Saturday at Rocco’s Tavern in Culver City watching the games, and then planted myself on my couch for the Sunday schedule (but rather than let Julie talk me into a healthy meal for Sunday, we decided to do a practice run of our chili before next Sunday’s chili cook-off that we’re winning attending). If you thought last week’s recap was disjointed and random, you’re really going to hate this week’s. Saturday was spent trying and failing to pace myself at the bar (evidenced by the fact that I had to kick myself out of the bar with seven minutes left in the 2nd quarter of the San Francisco-Green Bay game), and Sunday was spent breathing heavily into a brown paper bag because of the anxiety that comes from having to wait until the last game of the weekend to see your team play. The rest of this blog isn’t so much a recap of the games as it is a smattering of random thoughts from the weekend:

-I was so worried that everyone was as amped up about football this weekend as I was that I showed up to the bar Saturday afternoon 40 minutes before kickoff. I told Julie that’s the only way we’d get a seat at the bar. Luckily we were able to choose among the 24 empty barstools when we got there. But more importantly, one of the only people who beat us to the bar was this older gentleman wearing a Peyton Manning Colts jersey. As the game got underway, he cheered his poor lonely heart out for the Broncos. It got me thinking about the proper protocol and etiquette when an iconic player on your favorite team goes to play for a different team. I couldn’t really draw from any personal experience because in my lifetime a player as adored as Manning was in Indy hasn’t left a Boston team and gone on to have success with another team. I decided to email the one Indianapolis fan that I know and ask his opinion. Here’s his response:

  • I have hated the Broncos and Elway since he (the overrated horse-toothed piece of garbage…) dissed the Colts when he came into the draft.  Unfortunately, this year I was cheering for them. The Bronco loss bothered me more than the Colts loss. I’m still a Colts fan, but I’m still a Manning fan. I’ve discussed this with hardcore Packer fans who went through a similar experience with Favre.  There is no good solution. It’s not as bad as the Sandusky situation at Penn State, so there are worse things in sports, but it really sucks.”

-Even though he was a little vague with his answer, I loved the unprovoked shot he took at Elway and the probably-unnecessary comparison to the Sandusky-Penn State thing. I’m stunned that he says the Denver loss bothered him more than the Colts’ loss. That seems backwards to me. If Tom Brady is playing for the Los Angeles Superficials four years from now, I highly doubt I’ll care even one-tenth as much about that team’s playoff run as I will about that year’s Patriots.

-Final thought on this: If Brady was in the exact same situation as Manning is currently in, I think I’d still root for him to do well, and watch his games with more than a casual fan’s interest. But his jersey would be hanging somewhere on my wall. I wouldn’t be wearing it out in public, and I certainly wouldn’t be cheering on his team with the same intensity as I cheer for the Patriots. I pray that I never have to deal with this stuff when it comes to Brady.

-Before kickoff of Denver-Baltimore I was actually torn on who I wanted the Patriots facing in the AFC Championship (I was that confident in a Pats win on Sunday). On the one hand, a Ravens win meant home field advantage for New England and in my opinion the lesser of the two possible opponents (I’m on record as tweeting 10 days ago “Baltimore has no shot against Denver”). On the other hand, wouldn’t an epic, turn-back-the-clock Brady vs Manning showdown for a spot in the Super Bowl be an amazing game? There aren’t too many more chances left of seeing something like that.  I know this is a lame way to think about things, but I also considered the fact that losing to Manning and the Broncos would be an easier pill to swallow because unlike the shit-talking, never-won-anything-important Ravens, the Broncos probably wouldn’t rub it in our face as much. Say what you want about Peyton Manning, but his teams have traditionally been humble in victory.

-All those thoughts rattled around in my head until the moment Manning ran out of the tunnel in Denver and the bar I was at erupted with cheers. Then I remembered how fun it’s been to root against Manning in the playoffs, and how every Manning playoff loss only widens the gap between him and Brady in terms of the best QB of this generation (and possibly of all time). So it was decided, go Baltimore.

-If you remember last week’s recap blog post, when I was drunk during the Wildcard round at this same bar, I spent about 15 minutes writing this blog’s URL on every coaster I could get my hands on. I checked all of them at the bar on Saturday and didn’t find any of my customized coasters. Either the bartenders threw them out immediately, or the bar’s customers saw the website and wanted to be sure to remember it and took the coasters home with them.

-I was so certain that the cold weather and the two-week layoff for Denver would make this a slow-starting game that I bet the under of 44. With four minutes left in the 1st quarter, there were already 28 total points.

-Obviously I don’t need to recap all the big plays that happened in this game…there were many and you’ve all seen them by now. But how about Champ Bailey getting repeatedly torched? The consensus I heard from talking to other fans and scanning twitter is that people have been giving respect to Champ for years by not throwing in his direction, so no one could have guessed that he was old and slow because he’s never tested. Is he really that bad all of the sudden, or is Torrey Smith just that fast? And how delusional am I for convincing myself that Aqib Talib and the Patriots defensive scheme are better equipped to defend the Flacco-Smith combo than Denver was?

-I found out what makes Julie nearly crap herself from laughter…when two players from the same team collide with each other and one of them falls to the ground with a thud. This happened in the 2nd quarter when Tandon Doss of Baltimore was returning a punt and got crushed by a teammate. Julie almost fell off her barstool, and she was only two drinks deep.

-Speaking of Julie, I finally found the perfect combination to get her to pay attention to an entire game:

  1. Let her make a bet on the game (I always let her make an 8-team parlay where a $1 bet wins like $250). This way she’ll have a specific team to root for.
  2. Take her to a bar. Not being at our apartment means she can’t spend the game cleaning, cooking, napping in the other room or playing with the dog.
  3. Get her to the bar 40 minutes before kickoff so she can consume all the latest info on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest before the game. Then and only then will she put her phone away and stare at the TV with me.

-As a time-waster during commercials on Saturday, I sent texts to all my friends whose teams were in the playoffs wishing them luck and what not (except you, Brad. You root for Seattle so I refuse to wish you good luck). My college friend who’s a big 49ers fan texted me back and said him and his fiancee had tickets to Book of Mormon on Saturday night so he was DVRing the game and hoping to watch it in its entirety when he got home. This brought up my third internal struggle of the day (the others being the “iconic player who leaves your team” conundrum, and the “should I root for Denver or Baltimore” dilemma)…when is it appropriate to DVR a game? Turns out, I’ve already hashed out this conflict in a past blog post, so really there’s no struggle. In my Pulitzer Prize-nominated blog post titled “Watching Sports on Tape Delay: A Stressful and Chaotic Practice,” after much debating and analysis, I ultimately said, “…the only appropriate time to watch games on tape delay is for early-round playoff games in all of the major sports.”

-This means my friend was not in the wrong for trying to make the DVR thing happen on Saturday night. Maybe the more important issue is why his soon-to-be father-in-law didn’t know to look ahead to all possible dates for 49er playoff games before selfishly buying him tickets to Book of Mormon for Christmas. The nerve of some people.

-Over the six hours at the bar on Saturday, I probably went to the bathroom 13 times (my bladder turns into an 86-year-old man when I drink). Most of those visits to the potty were uneventful. Here was the most eventful one: I walk into the two-urinal, one-sitdown toilet bathroom and grab the one open urinal. I hear a guy coughing a totally normal cough in the stall. The man standing next to me at the other urinal says, “Sounds like a crying dog in the desert…I hate that sound.” For those of you who know me and my non-confrontational approach to life, you know I just gave an awkward laugh and continued with my business. But then the awkward silence really got to me so I said, “Oh, have you heard a lof of dogs in the desert crying?” He responded, “Three tours in Afghanistan…you tend to hear lots of dogs in the desert crying out there. And then they shoot them and eat them.” Another awkward laugh/acknowledgment from me. And then he walked out of the bathroom. And, guys, get this…he didn’t wash his hands.

-Out of the 100+ texts I exchanged with people during the Saturday games (almost all of them football-related), my favorite one was from my brother who simply wrote, “BTW…mini eggs now in stores.” We weren’t in the middle of a text conversation about anything related to that. He just knows me and knows how to make my day. Cadbury mini-eggs are simply the greatest candy ever invented. That’s not up for debate.

-So the Ravens kicked that field goal in the 2nd OT around 5:35pm PT, and the NFC game was already under way. I can tell you that I threw myself out of the bar around 6:15pm. I think I can best convey to you why I took no notes on the Packers-49ers game and why I had to go home to finish watching through the following pictures:

I tried to tell myself I’d only drink beer so that I could make it through two games at the bar, but then as soon as I show up at 12:50pm, this is staring me down:

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No, not the Red Stag. The Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey (aka my kryptonite). And then 3pm rolls around and it’s two-for-one happy hour on all drinks, so this happens:

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And then when I try to be a good sports writer and continue to take notes, this happens:

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That is literally the only “note” I took on the second game. If you’re having trouble navigating my writing, the top says “sober” and the bottom says “drunk.” I hate when I make graphs that have unclear values for the X and Y axes.

Let’s move on to Sunday’s games. Sober and at home means a lot more football notes and a lot less random stories:

-God damn Seattle. I started writing their eulogy about six different times during their game on Sunday morning. And since they were looking like a no-show for the first three quarters, my eulogy focused on how their 10-6 record (if you don’t count their fake week 3 win) was tied for the 8th best record in the league, and how the only playoff game they won was against a team literally playing offense without a quarterback. It was some of the happiest writing I’ve ever done. And then of course Seattle stormed back in the 4th quarter, even got what looked to be a game-winning touchdown with 31 seconds left, before Pete Carroll iced himself with a last-second timeout.

-So instead of that scathing burial for the Seahawks, I gotta give them credit. Two road playoff games in a row where they looked done after one quarter, and instead they fight until the very end. They were probably a little bit overrated by the time the playoffs started, but they’re going to be a playoff-caliber team for the next few years at least.

-Fine, a little bit of schadenfreude. It was awesome to see Richard Sherman get beat badly on one of the Atlanta long touchdowns, and then to see him continually go offsides on the extra point attempt until he got his team a penalty for doing it. That’s the kind of selfish asshole I knew he was all along.

-What a crazy final minute in this game. The craziest part, for me, was when color commentator Brian Billick suggested that the Seahawks kick a field goal and then try to get an onsides kick. They were down 27-21 with 44 seconds left when he said that.

-Glad to see Atlanta finally win one, but based on their near-meltdown in the 4th quarter, I think it’s perfectly appropriate that the 49ers are favored on the road.

-I’ll keep my thoughts on the Patriots-Texans game short because I was more than a little vocal during the game on Twitter. But the referees…I mean, c’mon. If that game is called down the middle, the Patriots win by at least 24. Every time the refs made an incorrect call against New England, I wrote “DICKING US OVER” in big letters in my diary. I’m counting four of those right now.

-It was a game where every big call went against the Patriots, and I’m not even saying that all those calls were wrong. Even the calls that could best be described as a coin flip went against them. Don’t think I won’t factor all of this in when I pick Patriots or Ravens later in the week.

-I would say there were two really outrageous calls from the officials. First was the unsportsmanlike penalty on Brandon Lloyd in the 2nd quarter when he threw the ball directly to the referee at the end of a play…you know, like the players are supposed to do. The ref wasn’t looking, it hit him in the arms and bounced away, and he was clearly embarrassed. That directly took four points off the board for the Patriots as they were forced to kick a field goal because of the 15-yard backup. The second, possibly more outrageous call, was with 10:20 to go in the 3rd quarter when Owen Daniels fumbled the ball after a -1 yard pass. The Patriots recovered on Houston’s 25 yard line. Game over. But then the refs decided Daniels’ forward progress had been stopped. Not even the biggest Texan defenders or Patriot haters can agree with that call. The refs cost New England either three or seven points with that call.

-The CBS broadcast pointed out how Belichick didn’t even react to Shane Vereen’s 33-yard touchdown catch in the 4th quarter that put the Patriots up 38-13. He looked over to see that it was a touchdown, and then turned back to his defense to continue strategizing. A lot of jokes were made about his lack of reaction, but my favorite was a tweet from David Portnoy, the guy who runs barstoolsports.com: “Pete Carroll would have been doing the lambada…Belichick is coaching.” It’s just a great joke that reminds us of the difference between a perceived “great coach” and a real great coach. And you can totally picture Carroll with an over-the-top celebration after that play like the cheerleader he is.

-So with 30 seconds left in the game and Houston down by 13, Phil Simms says the Texans should go for a long field goal and then recover and onsides kick to get a shot at the end zone. That makes two color commentators on Sunday who didn’t have a clue as to what the score was in the final minute of the game. Way to bring your C+ game to the greatest sports weekend of the year, boys.

I leave you with two more pictures that I enjoyed from the weekend…

What the hell is wrong with Sterling Sharpe?

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I’m talking mostly about the eyebrow…Did he get it shaved in the shape of the Minnesota Vikings’ helmet symbol on purpose?

And what species is this, exactly?

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