NFL Divisional Playoffs Preview: Part One

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

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

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

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

But these other three matchups? Wooooeeeee!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prop Bets

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

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

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

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

Total Passing Yards – Andrew Luck – Over/Under 310.5

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

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

Total Rushing Yards – Justin Forsett – Over/Under 65.5

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

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

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

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

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Super Bowl Preview: The Game, The Party, The Prop Bets

Depending on your appetite for 5,000-word blog posts, you’re either ecstatic that the Patriots lost in the AFC Championship game or you’re completely bummed. If the Pats had bothered to show up two Sundays ago, you’d be embarking right now on an extra long blog post oozing with Patriot ballwashing. If you’re already jaded from the past 10 days of unnecessary Super Bowl coverage, then you’ve come to the right place. The actual game analysis in this blog post is minimal. Instead I’ve maximized my never-ending thoughts on the perfect Super Bowl Party and the best prop bets to make before kickoff on Sunday afternoon.

The Game

The reason I’m keeping the Baltimore vs San Francisco analysis short isn’t only because I’m still bitter over the Patriots’ season being over (though that’s definitely a big part of it). It’s also because diving deep into the matchups between these two teams is pointless. If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that the NFL makes no sense. Over a sample size of 256 regular season games, things never make sense or workout how they should. So why would one Super Bowl game follow the blueprint of “most talented team wins.”

Just think of some of the things that happened this year that ran the gamut of unlikely to impossible:

  • Replacement referees took over for three weeks and were even worse than the biggest pessimists predicted.
  • Better yet, replacement refs actually subjectively decided a week 3 game between Green Bay and Seattle, and no one thought to mention during the playoffs that the Packers would have hosted the 49ers in Round 2 had it not been for that debacle in Seattle.
  • Adrian Peterson came back from knee reconstruction surgery only nine months after his injury and put up one of the greatest running back seasons in NFL history on his way to leading a below-average Minnesota team to the playoffs and winning the MVP Award (he’ll win it).
  • The fucking Colts won 11 games and made the playoffs with a rookie QB and a rookie head coach who spent most of the season in the hospital.
  • Just after the halfway point of the season, these three teams were absolute locks for the playoffs: the Giants (6-3), Pittsburgh (6-3), and Chicago (7-1). Not one of them ended up making the postseason.
  • Around that same time, these three teams were far enough out of the playoff race that one of their head coaches even conceded that he was evaluating talent for next season: Washington (3-6), Dallas (3-5), and Cincinnati (3-5). As you probably know, Washington and Cincy made the playoffs, and Dallas just barely missed out.
  • The 5-11 Arizona Cardinals beat the Patriots in New England.
  • Not a single head coach was fired during the regular season.
  • The Ravens lost four of their final five regular season games, limped into the playoffs as the #4 seed and then proceeded to handle Indy, Denver and New England somewhat easily (yes, they went to OT against Denver, but if not for the two special teams touchdowns by the Broncos, the Ravens would have won easily).
  • In the Conference Championship games, both home teams were winning at halftime, and then in a crazy reversal, neither of those teams scored in the 2nd half on their way to crushing losses.
  • Rookie QBs (and a few second-year guys) took the league by storm. Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and RGIII each led their teams to the playoffs as rookies, and so did second-year QBs Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick and Christian Ponder (though in Ponder’s case “led” is too strong of a word…more like “rode” for him).

Logic would say that the 49ers have been one of the best teams in football for the last two years. Logic would tell you that San Francisco ranks extremely high in both the traditional and the advanced football stats. Logic would tell you that the 9ers handled a feisty NFC West and a very difficult NFC much better than the Ravens handled a weak AFC North and an even weaker AFC.

The 49ers winning the Super Bowl makes sense.

The Ravens have had major injuries all year that they’re still dealing with. Their defense has been below average. All of the advanced stats marked them as a playoff team that should not have gotten past the second round. They limped into the playoffs. They’re old. If you’re like me, you’ve been predicting their demise since week 9 of the regular season.

The Ravens winning the Super Bowl makes absolutely no sense.

The Ravens will win the Super Bowl 26-24.

In this particular game, there’s a huge difference between what I think’s going to happen and what I’m rooting for to happen. My hope is that the 49ers win by 3. That way the team I’d rather see win still wins, but the team I’m betting on covers the spread. By the way, on my betting website, San Francisco is favored by 4.

Even if you’re sure that the 49ers are winning this game, I’m warning you that it’s extremely irresponsible to bet on them to cover. How could you possibly think the final game of this season isn’t coming down to a field goal? How can you bet against the Ravens, a team that clearly borrowed the Manning Family’s ongoing deal with the devil for just this season? Every year a bullshit team emerges from the wildcard weekend rubble to go on and win the Super Bowl. Why would it be different this time?

If the Ravens do end up winning, I guess I’ll be happy for one guy: Ed Reed. You can kinda sorta root for him, can’t you? For the past 10 years, that Baltimore team has been filled with unlikeable shit talkers (Terrell Suggs, Bart Scott, that random linebacker who talked shit to the Patriots three weeks ago) and insufferable preachers (Ray Lewis, Ray Lewis’s ego, Ray Lewis’s mic’d up ego). But I can’t remember Ed Reed ever saying or doing something stupid. He always flies under the radar even though he’s a Hall-of-Famer. And how can you not like a guy who’s name was so synonymous with shutdown defense during the mid-2000’s that I nicknamed one of my roommates “the Ed Reed of beer pong” because of that roommate’s uncanny ability to play defense against bounced pong balls even when he wasn’t looking at the table? (I guess some would say Anquan Boldin is pretty deserving of a Championship too. And I’m fine with that. He’s been a warrior for so many years now.)

So I’m putting my 7-3 playoff record against the spread on the line with Baltimore. Who cares, right? Let’s move on to the fun stuff.

The Super Bowl Party Requirements

I’m actually a pretty simple man when it comes to my Super Bowl party needs. Actually that sentence should read “I’m actually a pretty simple man when it comes to my Super Bowl party needs when the Patriots are not involved.” If the Pats are involved, I need to be holed up in a dark apartment in complete control of all the variables during the game. But in a non-Patriots year, here’s what I need:

  • A TV larger than 42 inches 
  • TV speakers that are turned up loud enough to drown out the conversation the six girls are having. You know, the girls who haven’t looked at the TV yet even though it’s the 2nd quarter, but they’re perfectly happy taking up all the good couch space? Those girls.
  • Snacking food available before, during and after the game. Personally I hate the Super Bowl commercials. So much build up for what boils down to the typical uninspiring ads. I use the commercial time for food and drink refills (bonus points if some of the snacking food was cooked using a smoker, a rotisserie or a deep fryer)
  • Speaking of drinks, you gotta have drink options. If my bets are going well, I’ll probably stick to beer and enjoy the memories of a successful Super Sunday. If my bets are tanking, I’ll need that Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey on the rocks to forget this shitty day (But in all honesty if I’m winning my bets I’ll probably switch over to hard liquor eventually too).
  • Super Bowl Squares! You’re not a real Super Bowl party if you don’t do the squares. If you don’t have enough people to fill 100 squares before the game, you should have thought twice before hosting the party.
  • Someone to make ridiculous “in-game bets” against. The Super Bowl is so long, and sometimes boring. I always try to stand next to someone who will get on board with making $1 and $2 bets against me on random things like “Will Phil Simms use the phrase ‘penetrate the middle’ within the next five minutes?”

That’s it. Six things.

Prop Bets Galore

First for some props that I’m feeling good about that are focused on the actual game:

Alternative Point Spread: Baltimore -7.5 (4/1 odds)

If you’re like me and you assume random, unexpected and unnecessary results are going to continue into the Super Bowl, doesn’t it make perfect sense that the Ravens would win in a bit of a blowout?

Will the game go to overtime: Yes (6/1)

It’s gotta happen eventually in the Super Bowl. And it feels perfectly setup this year to hear Jim Nantz gush “And wouldn’t you know it, Phil. It’s gonna take an extra quarter to decide which Harbaugh is best. Boy, I wish we could watch these two teams battle forever.” Gross. Kill me now.

Will the Ravens successfully convert a 4th down: Yes (+135)

Will the 49ers successfully convert a 4th down: Yes (+110)

Free Money.

Unfortunately I can’t write those two words and just leave it at that. I was stunned when I saw the odds for each team converting a 4th down in this game. I mean, it’s the Super Bowl, both coaches have shown to be aggressive in the past, and how often these days does a team not attempt one or two 4th down conversions in a game? Right? Well it turns out the Ravens are 0-for-1 on 4th down attempts in their three playoff games this year, and the 49ers are 0-for-0 in their two games. I still feel like this is free money.

What will be the first enforced penalty in the game: Pass Interference (7/1)

Why not? Sure the odds favor a false start or holding penalty in this bet, but that’s no fun. Can’t you picture Flacco or Kaepernick going deep early and the refs calling a ticky-tack PI on the defender?

Who will win MVP: Anquan Boldin (16/1), Randy Moss (50/1)

You know the drill with me by now. I’m not making prop bets to go with the smart, sensible picks. Yes, the MVP will likely go to the winning team’s quarterback, but I’d rather go with a couple longshots. And don’t talk yourself into betting on a running back here. The last time a runner won this award was 15 years ago. Three wide receivers have won it since then.

P.S. If you make a bet on Ray Lewis to win the MVP at 7/1 odds, don’t ever talk to me again. For one thing, how can anyone root for that poser to win anything, let alone an ego-exploding Super Bowl MVP Award? And another thing, only 7/1 odds for an over-the-hill, had-to-use-fucking-deer-antler-steroids middle linebacker who’s had the quietest 44-tackle playoffs in NFL history? Those are terrible, terrible odds, dummy.

Player to score the first touchdown in the game: Bernard Pierce (22/1), Vonta Leach (28/1)

The fullback handoff at the 1-yard line is the oldest trick in the book. And ol’ Johnny Harbaugh can show his baby bro that this game’s gonna be a bruiser if he runs it win with Leach to open the game. And as for Pierce, he’s looked much more explosive than Ray Rice lately. If someone’s gonna break a long run, the odds are on Pierce (though if you wanna make a Pierce bet and trade in some profit for better odds, you can take him to score a TD at any point in the game at 4/1 odds or be the first RAVEN to score at 15/1).

And here are some props that have nothing to do with actual football:

If Ray Lewis is interviewed on TV after the game (on the field or in the locker room), how many times will he mention “God/Lord”: Over 3 (-120)

This isn’t even a question. As long as when he refers to the big man as “Lord God” that counts as two.

Who will the Super Bowl MVP thank first: Teammates (8/5)

A bet on teammates is basically a bet against Ray Lewis winning the MVP. The other 105 guys on these rosters would thank their teammates first, guaranteed. Ray Ray would thank god first, second and third.

What color will the Gatorade (or liquid) be that is dumped on the Head Coach of the Winning Team: Blue (7/1)

Call me crazy, but I think it’s blue’s year.

Who will be shown first during the game (from kickoff until final whistle)

Jim (+110)

John (+110)

Split screen of both (+300)

C’mon. How would CBS miss an opportunity right after the opening kickoff to put a split screen of the two coaches up to make it seem like the Super Bowl is a one-on-one battle this year?

How long will the postgame handshake/hug last between Jim and John Harbaugh: Over 6 seconds (-105)

Just as long as it takes more than six seconds for one of them to say, “Congrats, brother. Great game, great game. By the way did you notice Mom’s wearing beads around her neck? Scary, right?” I timed those words…about 6.5 seconds.

[Editor’s Note: Just like all you readers need a break from hearing about football for a little while after the Super Bowl, so too do I need a break from writing about football. For those of you who read my tens of thousands of words on football this year, thank you. It was definitely an experiment to see if people would bother reading the opinions of a nobody, especially when you can find the opinions of so many somebodys on the web. Just think, in five short months it’ll be perfectly acceptable for all of us to be thinking about our fantasy teams, our favorite real teams and our suicide pools once again. And there’s not a damn thing our girlfriends can do about it. I’m already looking forward to the 2013 regular season!]

NFL Championship Weekend Preview: Prepping for Patriots vs 49ers, Free Money Prop Bets and Much More

[Editor’s Note: You may find seemingly random phrases such as “Te’O” “Catfish” “Doprah” and “Liestrong” peppered throughout this blog post. Just ignore them. It’s simply part of our new page views grab/search engine optimization initiative. Thanks for your understanding.]

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to write a minimum of 20 hours per week. That doesn’t include time spent thinking about writing or staring at a blank computer screen considering all the different things I could be writing about. I’m talking 20 hours of actual pen-to-paper or finger-to-keyboard production.

Your initial reaction might be something like, “Well, Ross, that shouldn’t be too hard considering you’re unemployed and trying to make a career out of being a writer. Shouldn’t you be aiming for closer to 40 hours a week?”

Point made, reader. Point made. But you’d be surprised at how often in 2012 I told myself I was going to put in a six or seven-hour day of writing only to be foiled by uncontrollable distractions. Here’s an example: A couple weeks ago I was sitting at the desk in my bedroom getting some good writing done when I noticed my dog, who was laying on my bed at the time, staring at a beam of light on the wall that was being reflected from my computer screen. For the next 90 minutes, I screwed around with my computer screen—slowly opening and closing it—to make the beam of light move all over the walls and ceiling of the bedroom. The dog stared that thing down for the full 90 minutes, and she even lunged at the wall a few times. How am I supposed to be productive when such an unavoidable distraction pops up??

Anyway, my point is that for these first three weeks of January, I’ve been very disciplined…on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But it never fails that when Thursday rolls around, all my attention turns to the NFL. In one sense it’s just a product of being a huge football fan and the anticipation & build-up of each coming weekend. In another sense, it has a lot to do with my favorite team still being involved in these playoffs. I can spend the first part of the week giving minimal attention to ESPN.com, Boston.com, the NFL Network and all the other media outlets that are providing non-stop football—and specifically Patriots—coverage. But come Thursday, you can find me reading Bill Barnwell’s Grantland.com football articles while having the NFL Network up on my TV while listening to a football-focused podcast on my iPhone.

And that’s just for the Wildcard and Divisional Rounds. When we get to the Championship and Super Bowl weeks, I’ll do all those things plus re-watch any Patriots games that the NFL Network’s showing on their NFL Replay, I’ll tape ESPN shows like “Pardon the Interruption” and “Around the Horn” just so I can get mad at whichever talking heads pick against New England, and if I’m really trying to waste some time, I’ll pop in one of the Patriots Super Bowl Highlights DVDs and watch it from start to finish.

So to hit my 20 hours of writing per week goal in January, it seems like I either have to devote seven hours a day to it during the early part of the week (unlikely) or put in some writing time on the weekends to make up for the Thursday and Friday laziness (unheard of). I think the best way to handle this is to start my New Year’s resolutions on the Monday after the Super Bowl from now on…at least until Tom Brady retires.

At this point in the season, with only two games happening this weekend, it’s sorta pointless to give you a generic overview and pick for each game. You’ve no doubt read plenty about how Atlanta’s struggles against Cam Newton this year mean they’re screwed against Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. Or how Baltimore and New England tend to play close games against each other. What I’m gonna do  is still make a pick against the spread for each game, but before that I’ll give my unofficial list of all the reasons each team should be concerned heading into their conference championship game. And after the picks, we’ll talk about the best prop bets for the weekend (FYI, on top of killing it in my prop bets for the divisional round, I’m also about to get paid for my “Will Bruce Arians be a head coach” bet. Once again, hope you listened to me real good on those).

By the way, how absurd do the lines on this weekend’s games seem? The Ravens are 10-point underdogs after putting up 38 in Denver a week ago, and they’re facing a team they ALWAYS play close. Ludicrous. And the Falcons somehow might be getting less respect than before they got the playoff-win monkey off their back last week. Five-point underdogs at home? Against an inexperienced quarterback? Insanity. Just because these lines seem crazy doesn’t necessarily mean my picks were easy for once.

San Francisco @ Atlanta (+4.5)

Reasons San Francisco should be worried:

  • Atlanta is now 8-1 at home this year. It’s not fair that we give Seattle so much props for their incredible home field advantage, and we discount how awesome the Falcons have been at home, both this year and in Matt Ryan’s career.
  • Ryan and this Falcons team no longer have the weight of “can’t win a playoff game” on their shoulders.
  • Sure, the Falcons almost blew last week’s game, but the final score says that they beat Seattle, a team many were comparing to the 49ers all year in terms of playing style, strengths, etc (also a team that demolished the 49ers in week 16).
  • San Francisco opened as a three-and-a-half point favorite, and it’s grown to as much as five points. Atlanta, a home underdog, is the only team left in the playoffs that can play the “nobody believes in us” card.
  • The 49ers were “only” 5-3 on the road this year, losing two road games by more than 10 points. They’re not invincible away from Candlestick Park.
  • It’s crazy to think a guy as young and inexperienced as Kaepernick will get through the playoffs without one bad game. If it doesn’t come this weekend, is he due for a stinker in the Super Bowl?
  • The favorites are 7-1 against the spread in the playoffs. The underdogs have to step up at some point, right?
  • If the 49ers advance to the Super Bowl, they’ll be one win away from giving the city of San Francisco simultaneous reigning champs in baseball and football. That’s only allowed to happen in New England.

Reasons Atlanta should be worried:

  • If Kaepernick’s first playoff game wasn’t an aberration or lack of facing a decent defense, then we should all be terrified.
  • Jim Harbaugh vs Mike Smith might be the biggest coaching mismatch of the entire playoffs. Harbaugh might be the second-best in all of football at this point, and Smith is extremely outcoachable.
  • I mentioned their home record, but you can’t ignore “Carolina at home by two,” “Oakland at home by three,” and “Arizona (with Ryan Lindley as its QB) at home by four.” As long ago as those games were, this Falcons team still has the ability to play that bad. The 49ers will win by 30 if that happens.
  • When every intelligent football analyst has been dismissing you as a contender for the last 10 weeks, there’s probably a legitimate reason for it.

The pick against the spread: I know I’m going to regret this when San Francisco’s up by 17 in the 2nd quarter, but I’m taking Atlanta. I just think it’s too ridiculous for a team to be favored by this much on the road. The 9ers are definitely worse on the road, and the Falcons almost never get beat badly. I just keep thinking about how similar San Francisco is to Seattle. No team in the NFC this year really stood out and dominated the competition. I think that means we’re due for a close game.

The prediction: San Francisco 27, Atlanta 23

Baltimore @ New England (-10)

Reasons Baltimore should be worried:

  • Do we even need to go over these?
  • Tom Brady, two wins from his 4th Super Bowl
  • Bill Belichick, two wins from his 4th Super Bowl as a head coach (6th overall)
  • New England’s a team that still feels the sting of coming so close and failing in 2011 and 2007.
  • The Patriots relishing the chance to end the career of Ray Lewis, the face of the biggest trash-talking team that hasn’t won a damn thing in the past decade.
  • New England’s seemingly unstoppable offense (or “gimmick offense” if you prefer to call it that), complete with interchangeable parts.

Reasons New England should be worried:

  • No one plays the Patriots as close as Baltimore. Since the start of 2007, five of the six games between these teams have been decided by six or fewer points.
  • The Ravens are the one team that New England can’t seem to top 30 points against. 
  • Baltimore’s not playing the “nobody believes in us” card…they’re playing the “house money” card, or the “nothing to lose” card. Ray Lewis is retiring so he’s got nothing to lose. John Harbaugh wasn’t expecting to get this far with his injury-riddled team so he’s playing with house money. And Joe Flacco already guaranteed himself a gigantic new contract from the Ravens after beating Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning. Yeah, if he knocks off Tom Brady, he’ll probably earn a little more on that contract, but at this point, he’s got nothing to lose. His future is secure…They’re probably gonna play pretty loose because of that mentality.
  • Obviously the Ravens are still feeling the sting of last year’s AFC Title Game. They’ve never beat New England in a meaningful game.
  • The favorites are 7-1 against the spread in the playoffs. Aren’t we due for an underdog run?
  • Gronk. It’s crazy how little people are talking about his loss (I realize it’s because the Pats played most of the second half of this season without him). In a game like this, you really want your full arsenal of weapons.

The pick against the spread: How can a logical person expect the Patriots to win by more than 10? All signs point to another close game between these teams. Even if the Patriots win comfortably, “comfortably” in this situation probably means “by four or seven points.” I’m taking Baltimore to cover. Is this Patriots team really good enough to dispatch two teams in back-to-back games by more double digits? I hope so, but it’s tough to make the case for that happening.

The prediction: New England 31, Baltimore 23

Before we dive into prop bets that’ll get paid off by Sunday night, I wanted to put one out there that won’t get paid off for two weeks. Try to stay with me on this one. Right now you can bet on either the AFC or NFC to win the Super Bowl with the spread. The line is AFC -2.5. I can certainly understand you thinking I’m crazy to suggest betting on a game with a point spread before we know the teams involved. But let’s say the Patriots face the Falcons in the Super Bowl. What will the line be? Patriots by six? seven? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was as high as seven-and-a-half. If that happens, you’re sitting pretty with Patriots by less than a field goal. OK, but it’s much more likely that the 49ers beat Atlanta and we see a Patriots-9ers title game, right? My guess is the Patriots would be favored anywhere from two to three points in that scenario. In the majority of situations, the winning team is gonna win by a field goal or more. So you either have the Patriots giving two-and-a-half to the 9ers, which will be close to the actual line, or you have them giving those points to the Falcons, which would be at least a four-point advantage for you compared to the real line. Why not make that bet? Oh, and what happens if Baltimore upsets the Patriots this weekend? Well then you’d have a bet down on Baltimore, a team that just knocked off Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back weeks. Wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have some money on them.

Here’s the rest of the prop bets I’m thinking about:

Who will record the most Passing Yards this weekend?

Joe Flacco (3/1) – Colin Kaepernick’s a little intriguing at 7/1 odds considering Russell Wilson had almost 400 yards in Atlanta last week. But then I realized Kaepernick hasn’t cracked 280 yards passing in any game this season. There’s no evidence he can even put up 300 yards if needed. Flacco makes sense because he’s throwing the deep ball well right now, they aren’t likely to have much running room against the Patriots defense, and the New England secondary is still the most suspicious secondary left in the playoffs.

Who will record the most Rushing Yards this weekend?

Save Your Money – I can’t even make an educated guess on this one. The running games in New England and Atlanta are essentially platoon situations. Good luck picking the right guy on either of those teams. With San Francisco, you can bet on Frank Gore or Kaepernick. Gore had 119 yards last week, but he’s only had two other 100+ yard games this year. Is Kaepernick really going to replicate his incredible ground game from the previous round? And finally there’s Ray Rice, clearly the most-talented of the options. But New England’s run D has been solid all year, and what happens if the Ravens are down by two touchdowns in the second half? Rice might get some passes his way, but the carries would be limited. No good options here.

Who will record the most Receiving Yards this weekend?

Aaron Hernandez (6/1) and Anquan Boldin (7/1) – Throw a small bet on each of these guys. I’m expecting so much attention to be paid to Wes Welker that Hernandez is the better bet to have a big day. And he’s got so much yards-after-catch potential that he doesn’t even need to be a deep threat to rack up the yardage. Kinda the same thing with Boldin in that the Patriots’ best cornerback, Aqib Talib, will be covering Torrey Smith all day, so the lesser defensive backs of New England will be responsible for Boldin. Could mean big things for him.

Will Michael Turner score a TD in the game?

Yes (+135) – Call it a hunch. Turner had a touchdown in six of Atlanta’s final seven regular season games. Atlanta’s game plan probably calls for being conservative near the end zone to make sure they don’t give the 49ers any game-changing turnovers. Inside the 10 yard line, I see Mike Smith calling for a lot of runs this weekend.

Player to score the first TD in the Atlanta-San Francisco game?

Harry Douglas (20/1) – Major hunch. I may have heard one of the more knowledgeable football analysts say that whichever 49er player is likely to cover Douglas isn’t very good. Simple as that.

Player to score the first TD in the New England-Baltimore game?

Michael Hoomanawanui (20/1) – Hooman will be in the game for obvious running situations as he’s much better as a blocker than he is as an actual receiving threat. So what do the Patriots do on their first red zone possession? Get Hooman on the field as if he’s going to block, and then let him sneak out into the end zone for a wide open touchdown catch. Free money.

Grantland’s Search for The Next Great Fantasy Football Writer: So You’re Saying There’s a Chance

[Editor’s Note: I decided to enter a sports writing contest for the first time in my life this week. Grantland.com is running a contest to find their next fantasy football writer. Here are the details: Fantasy Island. The contest called for an original article, no more than 750 words, giving your top 5 overall fantasy football picks for 2012, and also one sleeper pick. The toughest part of this was limiting things to 750 words. You’d never know it from my WBFF blog posts, but I tend to be a bit long-winded. Anyway, here is my submission to the contest. Feedback is welcome, but it won’t change anything since I already submitted my entry. Enjoy.]

So the top five fantasy scorers in 2011 were all quarterbacks, and you want me to go QB-heavy with my top five overall picks this year? I’ve heard a crazy rumor: the NFL is now a passing league! But I’m not taking the bait, at least not entirely.

Since you’re twisting my arm on QBs, I’ll take two at the very top of my rankings, Tom Brady (#1) and Aaron Rodgers (#2).

Why Brady over Rodgers? Well if these guys are both such safe picks, which they are, why not go for the guy with more upside? Rodgers’ offense averaged 35 points per game last year, the first time in his career that his team exceeded the 30 points per game mark. In three of Brady’s last four healthy seasons, his offense has averaged over 30 points. And while the Packers’ 2012 offense is basically unchanged from 2011, the Patriots added Brandon Lloyd, who many are predicting could do what Randy Moss did for the Pats’ offense in 2007. You can’t go wrong with either QB, but I’m taking the one who has a better chance of throwing to a record-setting offense in 2012.

You wanted me to consider Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford for the top five in 2012? Here’s what I’m considering: We’ve always heard the Saints’ offense works so well because Brees and Sean Payton basically share a brain when it comes to running it. So what should we expect when half of that brain is banned from the team this year? Not worth the risk…Pass. As for Stafford, come talk to me when he has consecutive seasons of good health and elite numbers. Pass again.

Though it’s tempting to put Calvin Johnson in my picks, I’m going with three running backs to round out my top five. Welcome to the party, LeSean McCoy (#3), Ray Rice (#4) and Jamaal Charles (#5).

McCoy barely beats out Rice, my tiebreaker being “overall team offensive competence.” Since 2009, McCoy’s first season in the NFL, the Philadelphia offense has been significantly better than the Baltimore offense. I will always trust an offense that runs through Michael Vick to generate more scoring opportunities and longer drives than an offense that runs through Joe Flacco. I’d actually trust an offense that runs through me over a Flacco-led unit. And if you think McCoy can’t sustain his 20 touchdown total from 2011, think again and realize how badly the Eagles DON’T want Vick trying to run for TDs on the goal line.

And why Charles, coming off a lost season from an ACL tear in 2011, as my fifth-ranked fantasy player? Because most importantly, he looks like the Charles of old. Watching his preseason work so far, there’s no hint of any lingering issues from the knee injury. He’s had almost a full year to recover, and remember that before the injury Charles was the next big thing, the guy most likely to have a “Chris Johnson in 2009”-like season. True, it seems like he’ll never get more than 250-275 touches in Kansas City, but he didn’t need any more than that to produce over 1,900 total yards in 2010. The bonus is that the Chiefs play 10 games this year against teams that ranked in the bottom 12 in run defense in 2011. I like Charles’ odds to have some monster games against such soft defenses. You go ahead and enjoy a safer pick like Arian Foster. I’ll go for the home run. Oh, and Matt Cassel is the Chiefs’ quarterback. Romeo Crennel knows that. I think they’ll run the ball plenty.

Give us a sleeper, too, you say? A genius pick that no one else would have the balls to put out there? Look no further than Minnesota Vikings savior Christian Ponder. I’ll wait for the laughing to stop.

As a rookie in 2011, he played in nine full games, putting up double-digit fantasy points in six of those. In 2012 he has a (hopefully) healthy Percy Harvin and a shiny new toy in Jerome Simpson. Tell me you’d rather have a Sanchez, Cassel, Palmer or Locker, but then go look at Ponder’s preseason stats as well as the defenses he faces in weeks 7-14 this year (four consecutive game against teams ranked 22nd or worse in pass defense last year). Now tell me again with a straight face that you’d rather have those guys over Ponder. Can’t do it, can you?