NFL Week 17 Recap: For All Whose Families Ruined the Final Week

black monday

Tough week, right?

I’m not necessarily talking about San Diego & Kansas City’s playoff hopes, Ndamukong Suh’s chances of playing in the postseason, or the Mike Smith era in Atlanta—though all those things certainly suffered a knockout blow in week 17.

I’m talking about a tough week for so many football fans who had to change up their Sunday routines (or worse, had to abandon football altogether) because of the ongoing holiday weekend celebrations and family get-togethers. It’s the final week of a great regular season, and there was plenty on the line. Why can’t our families just leave us alone for these final 11 hours?

I was luckier than most. Even though my Mom was visiting LA and doesn’t have much interest in football, she and my fiancee spent most of the day planning our wedding (and quite possibly five others based on the amount of discussion & online purchases that took place).

It was pretty great until the end of the morning games when they suddenly forgot the lengthy warning I gave them months ago that I would not be adjusting my usual football over-saturation on this particular Sunday. The next few hours were full of complaining and guilt trips. But I persevered.

For those of you who weren’t so lucky, please take this stroll through the week 17 fallout with me via a series of random thoughts.

Any playoff talk that I gloss over here will be covered ad nauseum later this week. Don’t you worry about that.

  • The Sunday morning reports that were essentially confirmed by Cleveland’s owner stating Johnny Manziel threw a party on Friday night that several players attended is a level above mind-boggling. If these guys waited just 48 more hours, they could have gone on a six-week bender without anyone noticing. Saying “that’s just common sense” would be understating it.
  • And the poor Browns could be in as desperate of a situation at quarterback going into the offseason as about 14 other teams are. It’s too small of a sample to rule Manziel a bust for his on-field talent, but the off-field bullshit is already too much.Their other rookie QB Connor Shaw showed nothing yesterday, and a Brian Hoyer resigning wouldn’t inspire any confidence at this point anyway. What a change from late September when people were concerned with how Cleveland would ever get Manziel in the lineup with Hoyer playing so well and possibly getting a contract extension.
  • I couldn’t help myself and I took a flier on the prop bet of a Kansas City wide receiver catching a touchdown pass on Sunday (+160 odds). They were on the verge of joining an exclusive club of teams that went an entire season without having such a touchdown catch. With Chase Daniel replacing regular starter Alex Smith, it seemed like the perfect time for something cute and unlikely to happen.
  • But the joke was on me because when Dwayne Bowe stretched across the goal line after an 11 yard catch, the referee ruled it a fumble that Travis Kelce recovered for the touchdown…by a tight end instead of a receiver.
  • I almost had the Tampa Bay / New Orleans game nailed. I said last week that it would be just like the Bucs to blow the 1st overall pick. Remember that even in a year where there seems to be two can’t-miss quarterback prospects, having the 1st pick instead of the 2nd is huge. Just ask Indianapolis and Washington.
  • More interesting in that otherwise meaningless game was Drew Brees throwing three more interceptions and ending the season with 17 of them. Brees now has six seasons with at least 16 interceptions. By comparison, neither Tom Brady nor Aaron Rodgers have ever had even one season with that many picks. I worry that Brees at this point is turning into a less-criticized Brett Favre. It’s worth keeping an eye on.
  • I’ll just say that if certain coaches (*cough* Bill Belichick *cough cough*) called games the way Jason Garrett has the last two weeks, there’d be an emergency Senate Hearing on the unfairness and lack of sportsmanship. Two weeks ago Garrett kept starters in the game—INJURED STARTERS—during a 42-7 blowout win over the Colts (not to mention when he finally inserted the backups, he had Brandon Weeden throwing 40-yard bombs to the receivers). This week Garrett attempted trick plays, including a surprise onside kick, while leading Washington by two touchdowns.
  • I never root for injuries, but when I noticed Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray still in the game late in the 4th quarter, I decided it wouldn’t be the worst if one of those guys hurt himself and had to miss a few games.
  • Just an absolute no-show by what was the 10th best passing defense as the Dolphins gave up 358 yards through the air to Geno Smith. That should make it fair game for Stephen Ross to take back his statement last week that Joe Philbin was definitely returning in 2015.
  • As I was watching all of the afternoon games yesterday, I thought about this constant week 17 issue of resting players, playing starters just a little bit, etc. I felt like most years there’s at least one significant injury in the final week of the season, and then I thought about how it was looking like we might avoid that this year. One hour later Aaron Rodgers had a big scare with his aggravated calf injury. A few hours after that, Le’Veon Bell left the Steelers / Bengals game with a knee injury that looked pretty bad. Please do not let me convince myself that Pittsburgh will be OK if Bell is out for any playoff games. Too often I try to ignore a monstrous injury when making picks because I fall in love with certain teams regardless of who’s playing.
  • Seeing it in real time I didn’t know if Ndamukong Suh stepping on Rodgers was dirty, but on replay I’m sure. His first foot stepped on Rodgers lightly. At that time Suh obviously knows there’s a body behind him. At that point he takes another step back, plants his foot on Rodgers, and puts all his weight on that foot. C’mon with that “accidental” bullshit.
  • Fun with numbers:
    • The AFC went 33-30-1 vs the NFC this year.
    • Six teams from each conference finished with double digit wins.
    • Like I’ve been saying all year, I think we’ve reached a nice balance between the two conferences after years of the NFC being much better.
    • Favorites and underdogs were dead even over the course of the regular season, with both covering 123 games (10 games that had a PICK for a line or resulted in a push didn’t factor into those numbers).
    • All that means is that this sport is impossible to bet on, and this is why Vegas can afford such nice things.
    • And just like almost every year in recent memory, five teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year qualified for the playoffs this year (Dallas, Arizona, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Baltimore).
  • Speaking of the playoffs, here were my picks from the preseason: NFC 1-New Orleans, 2-Seattle, 3-Philadelphia, 4-Chicago, 5-Green Bay, 6-Tampa Bay. AFC 1-New England, 2-San Diego, 3-Pittsburgh, 4-Indianapolis, 5-Denver, 6-Miami.
  • Only six of 12 correct for me. Not very good at all. At least in the AFC I nailed three of them exactly (the #1, #3 and #4 seeds).
  • As I finish writing this at 7:30am Pacific Time on Monday morning, it appears as though Mike Smith, Rex Ryan and Marc Trestman have all been fired. The GMs of the Jets and Bears have also been let go. Jim Harbaugh, of course, has parted ways with the 49ers and will take over at Michigan.
  • There was a prop bet yesterday where the over/under on the number of coaches fired between last night and the 1st playoff game was six. So far we have three (I don’t think Harbaugh counts towards that number). Will we have at least three more? You can on the Raiders firing interim head coach Tony Sparano, but other than that there are no definites (Jay Gruden and Ken Whisenhunt should probably be worried though). Once again, Vegas seems to know what it’s doing by setting a perfectly intriguing line.

On a personal note, I finished week 17 with a 9-7 against the spread record. It’s been a decent run for me over the past two months, not dipping below .500 more than a couple times. But honestly, it was such a rough season that I stopped keeping track and don’t have the desire to go recount.

A chance at retribution awaits me in the playoffs. My sports bucketlist includes going 11-0 against the spread during one NFL postseason. Will 2015 be the year for me?

Find out later this week when I post my Wildcard Round picks column. Happy New Year to all my readers!

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NFL Week 15 Picks and Figuring Out All the Possible Coaching Changes

nfc south coaches

This week’s schedule can be viewed in one of two ways:

  1. Amazing Week of Football! Out of 16 games, only two of them don’t have any playoff implications whatsoever (Washington/NY Giants and NY Jets/Tennessee).
  2. Terrible Week of Football! Other than Dallas @ Philadelphia on Sunday night, there are absolutely no matchups where both teams are realistically fighting for the same playoff spot.

Last week, the Dolphins, Bills, Browns, Chargers and 49ers all lost. Wins for each of those teams would have made this week WILDLY entertaining.

While I’m more in the camp of wanting to see two playoff teams facing each other to officially make that game exciting, there is some other excitement launching on the perfect week where our attention won’t be tough to grab. IT’S THE START OF THE JOHNNY MANZIEL ERA!

Last week would have been a tough week to debut Jonathan Football because there was just so much intrigue across so many games. This week? Not so much. Count me among the football fans who will be paying extra attention to that Cleveland/Cincinnati game even though the Browns are almost definitely out of the playoff picture.

Here are all the games that can be appreciated for football reasons this week (except I’m having trouble appreciating a lot of them):

  • Miami (7-6) @ New England (10-3) – Sunday 1pm ET
  • Pittsburgh (8-5) @ Atlanta (5-8) – Sunday 1pm ET
  • Houston (7-6) @ Indianapolis (9-4) – Sunday 1pm ET
  • Green Bay (10-3) @ Buffalo (7-6) – Sunday 1pm ET
  • Cincinnati (8-4-1) @ Cleveland (7-6) – Sunday 1pm ET
  • Denver (10-3) @ San Diego (8-5) – Sunday 4pm ET
  • San Francisco (7-6) @ Seattle (9-4) – Sunday 4:25pm ET
  • Dallas (9-4) @ Philadelphia (9-4) – Sunday Night 8:30pm ET

Before we jump into the picks, I want to expand on my quick take from the week 14 recap article where I mentioned how Jay Gruden should not be fired. By my count, there are 13(!) teams that could be looking for a new head coach as soon as December 29th. While many of those teams will ultimately choose not to fire the incumbent, it’s fun to think about which coach is most likely to be seeking other employment.

Could you imagine an offseason with 13 head coaching vacancies? That would call for a special website where someone tracks all the movements, interviews and press conferences of the candidates and the teams. And I can only think that an organized, practical and calm person like Mike Smith would be the best person to run that website and keep up with all the coaching carousel complexities. It’s fun to dream.

Here is my list of 13 coaches that could be fired, starting with the least likely and moving towards the most likely:

13. Joe Philbin – It’s not that the Dolphins shouldn’t make a change from a coach whose tenure will be most remembered for mediocrity and a bullying scandal among his offensive linemen. It’s just that they won’t. With so many years of failure in Miami, Philbin’s current record of 22-23 must feel like the start of a Hall of Fame career. Philbin can also point to his team’s record improving each of the three years he’s been there, so long as they win two more games this season.

12. Sean Payton – Why is he even on here? Well, I just think any coach who leads a team that was supposed to have the talent of a Super Bowl contender to a likely under .500 record deserves to have his bosses reconsider his job. And the once-vaunted home field advantage of the Saints has disappeared as they’ve now lost four straight in New Orleans. As his team’s defense continues to struggle every single year, eventually Payton will run out of defensive coordinators to blame and the axe will fall on him. Not this year, and probably not until after the 2017 season at earliest as he’s making $8 million per year through then. But for the first time, we have our skeptical eye on you, Sean Payton.

11. Lovie Smith – He might be the most deserving of all the head coaches to get fired considering he runs the worst team in the worst division in football. And even without an answer at QB, this team has the talent to win at least six or seven games. But since he has the coaching pedigree and history, and he’s only in year one of a four-year contract, Smith’s probably going to get some chances to make this team competitive.

10. Ron Rivera – Our third consecutive NFC South coach! All is quiet on the Rivera/Panthers coaching front. That’s odd because he’s in the last year of his contract and is marching his team towards its third sub-.500 season in his four years as head coach. Maybe the awful salary cap situation and the lack of receivers is going to bail him out and get him a contract extension. Maybe Cam Newton missing this weekend’s game with a broken back is another lucky break (get it?) for Rivera as he can point to injuries and a depleted roster as reasons for a 10-loss season. If I were a Carolina fan, I would have certainly seen enough in these four years to feel comfortable moving away from Rivera.

9. Ken Whisenhunt – Here’s another guy who won’t get fired because of his name. Sure, Whisenhunt isn’t even through the first year of trying to fix the Titans, but what about the fact that he might have made them worse? In fact, the Titans are almost guaranteed to have their worst season since they moved from Houston to Tennessee in 1997. I know he’s had to deal with a revolving door at quarterback, but that’s partly his doing. The best coaches come into a bad situation and immediately make it better. Whisenhunt took over a team that finished 7-9 in 2013 and promptly turned it into a 2-14 team.

8. Marc Trestman – What happened to the Quarterback Whisperer that Trestman was supposed to be to Jay Cutler? Trestman’s inclusion on this list is pretty obvious. The Bears are about to miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year (though only two of those years will be under Trestman’s leadership), and they appear to have one of the more-talented offenses in all of football. Fans are impatient and so is upper management. Sure, you can blame a rebuilding defense, but that overlooks the fact that the Bears are 25th in offensive DVOA according to FootballOutsiders.com. Teams like the Vikings, Texans and Browns are marching out better offenses than the Bears. That falls directly on Trestman. It sounds like he might be sweating out those first few days after week 17 concludes.

7. Doug Marrone – With a 7-6 record this year, it feels like the Buffalo coach is safe, but the problem for Marrone might come from the change in ownership. This team is under new management, and that new management could want to hire its own guy to kick off 2015 and the New Era Bills. Getting this team to .500 or better with EJ Manuel and Kyle Orton sharing quarterback duties should be looked at as a marvelous feat. Marrone certainly deserves more time, but the situation above him may not allow for it.

6. Jay Gruden – It doesn’t feel right that he’s on this list given how awful this team is across the board. But here’s what I’m not sure of: What if Gruden’s pitch to Dan Snyder that led to him getting the job was that he could “fix” RG3. I’m not saying that happened, but what if it did? Or what if he had all these grand plans for the star-crossed quarterback and none of that is panning out. Then, couldn’t Snyder justify firing Gruden and keeping RG3? My money’s on RG3 getting traded or cut and Gruden sticking around, but with such a batshit crazy owner, you should never feel safe.

5. Gus Bradley – The Jaguars have been saying and doing all the right things in terms of taking the long approach to rebuilding. But billionaires get just as impatient as you and I. Bradley led the Jags to a 4-12 record last year, and it looks like it might take a Herculean effort in their final three games for Jacksonville to match that mark this year. Small chunks of progress are OK, but what happens when a bad team takes a step back? Does the Blake Bortles development project save Bradley for one or two more years? Probably, but I’d never want to be the guy who just led a football team to a 7-25 record over two years.

4. Mike Smith – How this guy’s not at the top of my list is beyond me. He’s easily the worst in-game coach of this entire group. Imagine if an NFL team stuck you at the head coach position randomly with no advanced warning. Sure, you theoretically know what a coach is supposed to do, but you’d have no idea how to work your headset, what any of the play calls mean, which players play on special teams, what the proper way is to call a timeout or challenge a play…you’d be so overwhelmed even the coin flip would confuse you. And that, ladies & gentlemen, is Mike Smith in a nutshell. I don’t need to go on and on about the many reasons this man should be fired. My only concern is that Arthur Blank gets hoodwinked into extending Smith once again if he somehow gets the Falcons into the playoffs. For that reason, and because these next three coaches seem like locks to be leaving their teams, I’ve got the worst coach in football as only the fourth most likely to be fired after the season.

3. Rex Ryan – Let me go on record saying I don’t think the Jets should fire Rex Ryan. Painful as it is to admit, he’s a good coach. Even if he’s only OK from an offensive standpoint and outstanding defensively, that’s still better than a lot of the other head coaches around the league. He’s been saddled with terrible QBs his entire time in New York, and recently the roster has become a dumpster fire. Get rid of the General Manager, resign Rex for three more years, and start over. But it seems like a foregone conclusion that he’ll be out after week 17.

3a. Jim Harbaugh – Confession time. In the original version of this column, I completely forgot about Harbaugh all together. That’s a huge oversight because much like Rex Ryan, it feels like a foregone conclusion that he’ll be leaving. And just like with Ryan in New York, I think it’s a huge mistake for the 49ers to get rid of Harbaugh unless he wants to be let out of his contract really really badly. He’s just too good of a coach to give up on.

2. Tom Coughlin – Times they are a-changin’ in New York. The speculation for New York’s other team is that Coughlin will step down rather than officially be fired. This is one I’m not sure about because you always need to ask, “Oh yeah, who are you gonna replace him with that’ll be any better?” And I’m not sure anyone will be immediately better than Tom Coughlin.

1. Oakland Raiders – Needless to say, they have an interim head coach in Tony Sparano right now and it’s highly unlikely he keeps the job. It sounds like the Raiders are going big after Jim Harbaugh, Jon Gruden and probably a bunch of other high-profile guys who will ultimately say no and then laugh to themselves about how crazy they were to even consider Oakland.

And now for the week 14 picks.

Arizona @ St. Louis (-4.5)

  • The Pick: Arizona
  • The Score: Arizona 26, St. Louis 13

From the most simplistic point of view, we have a 10-3 team getting 4.5 points against a 6-7 team. That doesn’t make sense. But the Cardinals aren’t being treated like a normal 10-win team because of their Drew Stanton situation and a rash of injuries across the roster.

This line is a representation of what we’re going to see with St. Louis next season. They will absolutely be a wildly popular “sleeper playoff” pick. But they’ll be so popular they’ll become overrated, which is what I think is going on with this particular point spread. The Rams bandwagon is about to explode under its own weight. Jump off with me if you’re smart.

Pitttsburgh (-2.5) @ Atlanta

  • The Pick: Atlanta
  • The Score: Atlanta 27, Pittsburgh 24

Hey, if the NFC South is the worst division in NFL history, what does that make the Steelers? A loss to Atlanta on Sunday would give the Steelers a 1-3 record against the league’s worst division this year.

I made a promise to myself after last week to never again bet on games involving an AFC North team, and I plan to stick with that. This is a stayaway game for me. If Julio Jones plays at close to 100%, I like the Falcons outright.

Washington @ NY Giants (-6.5)

  • The Pick: Washington
  • The Score: Washington 20, NY Giants 19

I joked two weeks ago that the Giants might be officially tanking at this point. With a win last week in Tennessee, they disproved that theory. And sure, they don’t have a shot at the #1 overall pick in the 2015 Draft. But with only a one-game lead over Washington, don’t you think the Giants at least want a shot to draft before their division rival. And aren’t the PotatoSkins thinking the same thing? No team wants another team in its division taking a franchise player just one or two spots before they were going to draft that guy.

With both teams tanking, you gotta take the underdog and assume it’s going to be an atrocious, low-scoring debacle.

Miami @ New England (-8)

  • The Pick: New England
  • The Score: New England 37, Miami 17

It’s the Patriots at home in December in a year where their defense has become dominant right before our eyes. That should be enough. But in case you need more, remember that the Dolphins are dead men walking this week. Their bad loss at home to Baltimore in week 14 killed their playoff chances, and now they travel to cold New England with not much to play for.

Oakland @ Kansas City (-10.5)

  • The Pick: Oakland
  • The Score: Kansas City 24, Oakland 18

Other than an incompetent referee ripping a win away from the Chiefs in Arizona last week, the most troubling thing I saw was Alex Smith repeatedly throwing less than 10 yards down the field on the game’s final drive when time was running out. Whether it’s his limitations or the lack of good receivers, this offense doesn’t go unless Jamaal Charles is having a monster day. Either way, this line is higher than I’m willing to go on Kansas City at the moment (and Charles hasn’t practiced this week, in case that helps convince you).

Houston @ Indianapolis (-7)

  • The Pick: Houston
  • The Score: Indianapolis 34, Houston 30

Cleveland’s choke job against Indy last week ended any realistic scenario where Houston steals the AFC South. The Texans have to end the season with one more win than Indy based on tiebreakers. So if the Texans go 3-0 and Indy goes 0-3…not going to happen.

Can the Texans sneak in as a Wildcard? They’re currently “the best” of the five 7-6 AFC teams, but need to catch and pass two of the 8-5 teams (Pittsburgh, San Diego and Baltimore). It sounds like they can’t afford any more losses this season. I don’t see it. But congrats are in order for Houston for having a solid bounceback season after 2013’s disaster. The scheduled helped, but they still had to go out and win the games. Now there’s just that small matter of finding a quarterback.

As for the point spread…I noticed the Colts have demolished every crappy team (Jacksonville, Tennessee, the Giants and Washington), but haven’t really had any blowouts (except for the Cincy game) against mediocre or good teams. The Texans aren’t crappy. I think this will be similar to Indy’s 33-28 win over Houston two months ago.

Cincinnati @ Cleveland (PICK)

  • The Pick: Cleveland
  • The Score: Cleveland 16, Cincinnati 6

 

Remember, games featuring a single AFC North team, let alone two of those teams, are a complete stayaway at this point. Add the Johnny Manziel unknown to the Bengals’ sudden troubles with winning at home and you might as well flip a coin…which is exactly what I did for this pick. My coin said Cleveland.

 

Jacksonville @ Baltimore (-14)

  • The Pick: Baltimore
  • The Score: Baltimore 35, Jacksonville 0

 

The Jaguars are probably rooting for Baltimore as much as any Baltimore player or fan is. They don’t want to fall down the draft board with more wins when the season’s already over. And this year they’ve got some stiff competition at the bottom of the league (the Jets, Oakland, Tennessee, Washington, Tampa Bay).

 

The Ravens own the bad teams this year, especially at home. A shutout seems almost a given.

 

Green Bay (-5.5) @ Buffalo

  • The Pick: Green Bay
  • The Score: Green Bay 31, Buffalo 21

 

The Packers are 3-3 on the road. In two of their three road wins, they won by only a field goal. So yeah, they’re a very different team away from Lambeau Field. With the Bills having the 2nd best defense in the league according to FootballOutsiders.com, the instinct here is to grab the points and think that defense can slow Aaron Rodgers down. But I worry that at the end of this game we’ll all be kicking ourselves for going against Rodgers in December in a season where he’s putting up some of the greatest numbers in the history of the QB position.

 

Tampa Bay @ Carolina (-3)

  • The Pick: Tampa Bay
  • The Score: Tampa Bay 26, Carolina 6

 

First of all, the value of Cam Newton to the Carolina Panthers according to Vegas is three points. That’s how much this line changed when Newton was officially announced as out for this game on Wednesday. Just thought you’d like to know.

 

Second of all, with news coming Wednesday that Newton wasn’t at fault for the accident, why haven’t I heard about Carolina fans hunting down the other driver who was at fault? Shouldn’t this be more of a story? Or at least grant me this: If Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning had been in an accident that caused them to miss at least one game at the end of the year that could have HUGE ramifications on their team’s postseason chances, the person who caused that accident would possibly have to go into hiding for a bit, right?

 

Either way, leave it to the NFC South, am I right? A team that hadn’t won a game in 62 days, the Panthers, gets a key road win that puts them just a half game out of first place with three winnable games remaining on the schedule but now they’ll have to do at least past of it with Derek Anderson. I’m taking Tampa Bay because I apparently suck as much as this division does.

 

NY Jets (-3) @ Tennessee

  • The Pick: Tennessee
  • The Score: Tennessee 6, NY Jets 2

 

I guessed that Tennessee would be a three-point favorite. Well then.

 

What about these two teams makes any line other than Tennessee -3 feasible? They’re the same. They both suck. They both have to start from scratch with the quarterback depth chart. They both rank in the bottom five of almost every important statistical category. I just don’t see how the Jets are so much better that they’d be road favorites. I know we make jokes all the time about how we should be able to keep certain games off the Red Zone Channel entirely, but maybe we can finally do it with this game on Sunday. Who even has fantasy players in their starting lineup from either of those two teams?

 

Denver (-4.5) @ San Diego

  • The Pick: Denver
  • The Score: Denver 33, San Diego 26

 

I know the Chargers won three in a row before Sunday night’s loss to New England, but I still don’t see a fully operational team, especially on offense. The Broncos can play a similar defense to New England and potentially execute offensively better than the Patriots did.

 

Much like the Texans, the Chargers should probably get any idea of winning the West out of their heads right now. Even if they beat Denver on Sunday, they’d almost definitely need the Raiders to beat Denver in week 17. That sounds impossible, and even if that somehow happened, the Chargers would need to win out at San Francisco and at Kansas City.

 

Minnesota @ Detroit (-8)

  • The Pick: Detroit
  • The Score: Detroit 38, Minnesota 15

 

The Vikings are 4-2 in their last six games and they haven’t lost by double digits since week 6 when they faced, who else, Detroit.

 

But I’m going with the Lions because it seems like there’s a very specific blueprint for beating them this year, and Minnesota doesn’t have the means to follow those instructions. The Detroit defense should swallow up any offense the Vikings throw at them. And a lack of great pass rush on Matt Stafford will make things easy on the Lions offense. This might be my favorite pick of the week.

 

San Francisco @ Seattle (-10)

  • The Pick: San Francisco
  • The Score: Seattle 27, San Francisco 23

 

You’re right that I’m crazy to expect much out of the 49ers after Seattle held them to just three points 17 days prior to this game. All San Francisco did after that game is lose badly in Oakland.

 

We always do this thing where we mentally eliminate any team that has to win three in a row to close out the season to qualify for the playoffs. But someone’s going to surprise us and go on a run. It shouldn’t even be a surprise since there are dozens of three-game win streaks across all teams over the course of a year. The 49ers themselves have had two separate three-game win streaks this season.

 

Wouldn’t it be just like the NFL for the team with the hardest remaining schedule to be the one that goes 3-0 to sneak into the playoffs? I’m going with San Francisco to win outright.

 

Dallas @ Philadelphia (-3.5)

  • The pick: Philadelphia
  • The Score: Philadelphia 31, Dallas 14

 

It would be funny to see Dallas win this game but lose in Washington in week 17 to blow their playoff spot to the Eagles. That’s my favorite scenario for this division.

 

But I think the Cowboys’ defense could make Mark Sanchez look like a keeper, and it just feels like Dallas has a bigger hole in their roster (secondary/pass rush) than the Eagles.

 

New Orleans (-3) @ Chicago

  • The Pick: Chicago
  • The Score: Chicago 25, New Orleans 23

 

This is fucking nuts. How can you make the Saints a full field goal favorite on the road?

 

Here are the Bears’ five wins in 2014: @San Francisco, @Jets, @Atlanta, home against Minnesota, home against Tampa Bay.

 

Here are the Saints’ five wins in 2014: home against Minnesota, home against Tampa Bay, home against Green Bay, @Carolina, @Pittsburgh.

 

The Saints’ victories aren’t noticeably better than the Bears’ wins, are they? I just don’t see how the line swung so far in New Orleans’ direction.

 

I’d like to tell you there’s no need to watch two 5-8 teams battle on a meaningless Monday Night Football game, but the Saints could enter this game with a chance to take a one-game lead in the NFC South! Must-see TV!

Enjoy week 15!

NFL Week 13 Recap: Marching Towards an Incredibly Rare Season

Miami Dolphins Press Conference

So I spent my Thanksgiving in Cabo, and even though I didn’t leave for that trip until Thanksgiving morning, my brain was in already-on-vacation mode all of last week. It had to be. How else can I explain writing in my week 13 picks column that “things will return to normal next week with my football coverage” when I knew I’d be in a foreign land, focusing on getting full value out of my all-inclusive package, and at the mercy of the TV setup and channel availability of a resort in Cabo?

I missed about 93% of all the football action in week 13, and the little bit I did see was with Spanish announcers bringing me the action on TV screens that weren’t nearly large enough.

Of course the one week I’m out of commission all hell breaks loose from a football perspective. Consider the following:

  • The Rams put up 52 points in a single game! (Maybe the incredible part is how they did this with only 22 pass attempts, 176 passing yards and 348 total yards)
  • The Saints won a crucial road game at Pittsburgh, but they’re still looking up at the 5-7 Falcons in the NFC South on account of Atlanta beating Arizona, a team that’s rapidly losing its grip on the #1 seed in the NFC, the division lead in the West and possibly a playoff spot in general.
  • After winning much tougher road games at New Orleans and Houston the previous two weeks, Andy Dalton tried to ensure the Bengals would be the first team to lose at Tampa Bay this year. But more incredible than that is how the coaching change in Tampa from last year to this year has done NOTHING to clean up all the little things the Bucs constantly do to lose games (like 12 men on the field during a critical completion on their final drive in this game). Turns out Greg Schiano might not have been the biggest problem with this team, which is saying something.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick threw six touchdown passes in Houston’s win over Tennessee. SIX! In his nine previous starts in 2014, Fitzy has averaged 1.22 touchdowns per game.
  • Going back to 2007, there have been roughly two teams each year that have finished with three or fewer wins. Right now there are six or seven legitimate candidates to finish with that bad of a record. Incredibly, seven of the eight worst teams in the NFL going into week 13 each lost its game, furthering the HUGE gap this year between teams fighting for the playoffs and teams that are waaaaay out of it. I’m not positive, but I think there might be some teams actually tanking for a better pick. Needless to say the tiebreakers for the 2015 draft order might be as riveting as figuring out the playoff teams. Speaking of…
  • Six AFC teams are 7-5! I’m being too simplistic with this approach, but if you assume the five teams that have eight or more wins in that conference all get to the playoffs, you’re talking about one spot leftover for those six teams (and maybe a seventh with Houston at 6-6 and still having two games against Jacksonville).
  • And maybe the most “all hell breaks loose”-ish thing of all, I went 11-5 against the spread in week 13. Of course I’d have my best week in a long time when I can’t be watching live for the immediate basking in glory. Of course.

Wouldn’t it be so like the NFL to produce its most compelling season in history on the field as it simultaneously produces its most embarrassing season from a player behavior and league conduct standpoint? Because that’s exactly what we have going on here. Besides that giant clusterfuck of an AFC Wildcard race, look at each division’s top teams as of today:

NFC

  • East: Philly 9-3, Dallas 8-4
  • North: Green Bay 9-3, Detroit 8-4
  • South: Atlanta 5-7, New Orleans 5-7
  • West: Arizona 9-3, Seattle 8-4
  • The largest lead for any division leader is one game.

AFC

  • East: New England 9-3, Miami 7-5
  • North: Cincy 8-3-1, Baltimore/Pitt/Cleveland 7-5
  • South: Indy 8-4, Houston 6-6
  • West: Denver 9-3, San Diego 8-4
  • The largest lead for any division leader is two games.

I don’t want to jinx it, but there’s a decent chance we will see every playoff contender having to give 100% effort in each of its remaining games through the end of the season. That seems incredibly rare.

For the gamblers and the people who root for disaster out there, here’s what this awesome season might produce:

  • A playoffs that includes Andy Dalton, Mark Sanchez, Drew Stanton and Tony Romo…men all capable of imploding in ways never before seen under the spotlight.
  • A playoffs that includes Mike Smith, Andy Reid and Jim Caldwell (and let’s add Jason Garrett just for fun)…men all capable of ruining his team’s chances by either mismanaging the clock, wasting challenges & timeouts, or staring blankly at the field while piss dribbles down his leg.

Call me captivated.

Let’s finish up this recap with some quick takes from a guy who probably didn’t see much of each team’s week 13 game, or saw some of it but with Spanish announcers, or saw all of it but was severely inebriated:

Detroit 34, Chicago 17

  • Since Jay Cutler is practically untradeable and unreleaseable (not a real word), does Marc Trestman take the fall for this Bears season? Pretty soon I’ll have to go through all the NFL teams to see which coaches are truly in danger of being fired, but my gut feel is that there’s going to be a lot of them this year.
  • All it took was a waving-the-white-flag Bears team on short rest in Detroit to make the Lions’ offense look how it was dreamt up: 390 yards for Stafford, including 146 to Megatron. The Lions are barely holding on for dear life to a wildcard spot, but they should be 11-4 and heading to Green Bay on the final weekend with a chance to win the division.

Philadelphia 33, Dallas 10

  • If the Cowboys somehow manage to avoid my wetdream scenario of finishing 8-8, they still might be screwed because all four of their losses so far came against NFC teams. That might lose them a lot of tiebreakers when sorting out the Wildcard.
  • Mark Sanchez going 20-for-29 with a 102.2 Passer Rating must KILL Jets fans who just saw Geno Smith go 7-for-13 for 65 yards last night.
  • Also, the Eagles waiting until mid-November to unleash the real LeSean McCoy? Very Popovichian move by Philly to do that.

Seattle 19, San Francisco 3

  • Wow to the 164 total yards that San Francisco put up in a must-have-it home game. I say this somewhat seriously…Are the 49ers a sneaky candidate to draft a quarterback in the 1st or 2nd round in 2015? Colin Kaepernick, he who was blessed as possibly the greatest QB ever just 18 months ago, is having a terrible season (15 TDs, 8 INTs, 0 rushing TDs, 20th in the league in passer rating), and Blaine Gabbert is his backup. Maybe the Jim Harbaugh situation isn’t this team’s biggest concern right now?
  • Everyone in the NFC is rightfully scared of Seattle because not only are the Seahawks quickly closing the gap on Arizona in the West, but they could easily still grab the #1 seed in the conference. All of the sudden we have to revisit the idea of another team winning at Seattle in January to keep these guys out of the Super Bowl.

Jacksonville 25, NY Giants 24

  • What percentage of Giants fans want to see their team draft a quarterback with its likely top seven pick in the 1st round in May? 98.7%? 103%?

New Orleans 35, Pittsburgh 32

  • I saw none of this game. The Steelers had 538 total yards of offense, held the ball for eight more minutes than the Saints and ran 28 more plays than the visiting team…was it truly just the two interceptions Ben Roethlisberger threw that made the difference?
  • What a month for the Saints. Since October 30th, they’ve won two road games and lost three straight home games. Once again, we know nothing about the NFL. Obviously the matchup at home vs Atlanta on December 21st looms large for this dumpster fire of a division.

Indianapolis 49, Washington 27

  • With an 8-4 record and three of its final four games on the road, Indianapolis should be feeling extremely fortunate to play in the AFC South. In any other division, they’d likely be fighting for their playoff lives.
  • What could make for some good drama in the NFC East during the offseason is if the PotatoSkins and the Giants both draft quarterbacks with their 1st round pick. We probably shouldn’t rule out Chip Kelly doing the same thing with the Eagles depending on how he truly feels about Nick Foles.

Houston 45, Tennessee 21

  • Good for the Titans’ last place rush defense allowing only 99 yards to Arian Foster and the rest of the Texans’ running backs…Oh, they let up six touchdowns, 358 yards and nearly a perfect passer rating to Ryan Fitzpatrick?? Wow. I think I’d rather have Oakland’s Sunday.
  • Can we please stop trying to enhance J.J. Watt’s candidacy for MVP by pointing out how much he’s contributing to the Houston offense? It’s gimmicky and they could probably insert any average tight end into that spot and he’d also have caught three touchdowns over the course of this year. I witnessed this same thing with Mike Vrabel during the Patriots’ Super Bowl seasons of 10 years ago. Don’t diminish how good Watt is on defense by trying to say his offensive contributions are anything great.

Minnesota 31, Carolina 13

  • Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…an NFC South team hasn’t won a game in two months and they are only 1.5 games out of 1st

San Diego 34, Baltimore 33

  • If the Ravens miss the playoffs just barely, this is the game that will haunt them. They led by 10 points in the 1st quarter, nine points in the 2nd quarter, 10 points again in the 4th quarter, and six points with 2:22 left to play.

Atlanta 29, Arizona 18

  • It always feels good to nail my weekly pick that I base off “the NFL is fucking nuts and crazy shit happens all the time.” The Falcons were my pick in week 13. And let’s face it, we’re all rooting for Atlanta to pull out the NFC South title because we all want to see how Arthur Blank deals with the dilemma of having to fire a coach who just “brought” his team to the playoffs.
  • Let me be the first to inform Arizona that they will get to relive this nightmare game all over again when they’re preparing for their 1st round playoff game in January…which will be a road game at…ATLANTA! (No, that’s not even remotely guaranteed but you just know it’s coming.)

Green Bay 26, New England 21

  • As a Patriots fan, I’m not even remotely concerned about the way this game turned out. It’s nice to know even this fucked up league can’t change the rules last minute to force the Patriots to play the Super Bowl in Green Bay rather than in Arizona.
  • Here’s what I was dealing with in Cabo for this game (I saw the whole thing, by the way): I got stuck sitting next to Jordy Nelson’s Aunt & Uncle who happened to be at the same resort as me, and then I had to deal with a bunch of football fans (there was a St. Louis fan, a Kansas City fan and some San Diego fans) saying things like “Belicheat” and “New England would have won 10 Super Bowls in a row if Peyton was their QB” throughout this torturous game. Let me restate for the 1,000th time that I hate watching football outside the comfort of my own home.
  • By the way, Nelson’s family members were super nice and when I say “I got stuck” sitting next to them, I mean that it got really difficult to trash talk Jordy or the Packers in general with them sitting there and not trash talking the Patriots in return.

Miami 16, NY Jets 13

  • Favorite announcer quote of the week: From Jon Gruden on Monday night: “Tannehill should hit that.” Rumor has it Gruden was looking at a wallet-sized photo of Lauren Tannehill that Mike Tirico had handed him during the broadcast. (Sorry, that’s what happens when you watch minimal football while being in Mexico.)

If I didn’t mention your team during this recap, well, better luck next time.

Week 14 picks coming on Thursday.

NFL Week 8 Recap: Stability in the AFC, Chaos in the NFC

smith

caldwell

Some week soon I’ll be diving deep into all of my preseason predictions and bets to see where I’m looking good and where I’ve gone horribly wrong. It’ll be a midseason progress report of sorts. But today is not that day. Today we’re keeping it short and sweet with a quick look into each conference and some quick thoughts on the state of this season.

AFC

  • The playoff seedings if the season ended today: 1) Denver 2) New England 3) Cincinnati 4) Indianapolis 5) San Diego 6) Buffalo
  • The top four seeds are exactly the same as last year’s playoff bracket. We might not get a ton of drama in the second half of the season when it comes to the AFC’s best. The Patriots and Colts are almost certain to win their divisions. The Broncos probably are too, but we’ll wait to see how things go for them and the Chargers over the next few weeks. The division leader that looks the weakest right now is Cincinnati, but we’ll find out soon if the return of A.J. Green gets them back into a semi-dominating groove.
  • But how about the extraordinarily deep middle class of the AFC. Eight teams appear to be vying for a wildcard berth and all of them sit at .500 or better right now. That’s where things will get interesting in the weeks to come in this conference. You’d think San Diego and Baltimore would have the inside track because it just feels like they’ve been the best teams outside of the top four. But would you really bet against Kansas City, Pittsburgh or Miami to reach the playoffs? And while our eyes tell us Buffalo, Cleveland and Houston will fall out of contention soon enough, crazier things have happened.
  • Out of those eight teams, only the Chargers and Ravens lost in week 8, tightening things up even more. Out of the six winners in that group, be careful with Miami in your picks and bets. They got dominated by the Jaguars in every way on Sunday except turnovers, where Blake Bortles gave them the ball three times. They also play four games in 21 days starting Sunday, three of those games are against San Diego, Detroit and Denver.
  • After Denver’s easy win over San Diego on Thursday, I jotted down a note that said if anyone else is going to beat the Broncos this year, it’s going to take a perfect game by that team. My concern for the Patriots this coming Sunday is that they just played their perfect game against Chicago two days ago. If Denver wins in New England this weekend, you’d have to consider them a lock for the #1 seed, especially since they’d have wins over the Patriots, Colts and Chargers already.
  • No matter what happens from now until the end of the season, we will be able to say definitively that both Colt McCoy and Brandon Weeden were better quarterbacks in 2014 than any QB who played for the Jets.

NFC

  • The playoff seedings if the season ended today: 1) Arizona 2) Detroit 3) Dallas 4) Carolina 5) Philadelphia 6) Green Bay
  • ANARCHY! The top three seeds as of this moment didn’t even make the playoffs last year.
  • We already know that the NFC South winner probably isn’t getting to 10 wins, but after losses by Dallas and Philadelphia in week 8, would it really shock you to see the NFC East settle back into their expected state of mediocrity? Wouldn’t it be just like the Cowboys to go 3-5 the rest of the way? Won’t we be kicking ourselves for not seeing it coming when Washington runs the table in the final three weeks against its division and sneaks into the playoffs? (@Giants in week 15, vs Eagles in week 16, vs Cowboys in week 17)
  • Did you know the NFC South has exactly one win across its four teams since October 5th? As of this coming Sunday, it will be one win for that division in the past 27 days. Phenomenal.
  • At 9:25 a.m. Pacific Time on Sunday morning, my fiancee was about to call for an ambulance. She saw me convulsing on the living room floor in our apartment and was convinced I was having a seizure (or that demons had taken over my body). Nope. I was legitimately rolling around on the floor in hysterics from the final two minutes of that Detroit/Atlanta game in London. The two pictures at the top of this column give you a pretty good idea of what went down, but it was such an epic ending to a game that I highly suggest you…no…BEG YOU to read the first half of Bill Barnwell’s week 8 recap article on Grantland.com. It’s entirely about this final couple minutes in London, and you won’t be disappointed. If you somehow didn’t catch the end of that game live, or you did but you weren’t fully paying attention, I promise that you missed the most confounding, utterly inexplicable, everyone-who-played-or-coached-in-this-game-should-be-fired sporting event that’s ever taken place. Seriously, spend five minutes reading Barnwell’s detailed recap of it.
  • Even though it cost me some money, I was glad to see Tony Romo do some classic Romo’ing on Monday night. A nearly catastrophic injury, almost getting outplayed by Brandon Weeden, a fumble and an intentional grounding on their last drive of regulation to ruin any chance they had to win the game before overtime. It was all there, and it was good to see. We missed that for the past seven weeks. I’m counting six tough games on Dallas’ schedule for the remainder of the year. Guys, we can still witness 8-8!
  • This is the god’s honest truth: In my week 8 picks column, I had originally taken Washington to cover and was going to write that a dramatic loss at home on national TV against the NFC East rival that seems to be the easiest to beat currently is exactly what the Cowboys were born to do. That this would be the turning point that course corrects them and gets them pointed towards .500 once again. But I chickened out and decided week 10 in London against Jacksonville would probably be that turning point instead. I regret chickening out for so many reasons.
  • And last but not least, is this Jeff Fisher going into “Peter from Office Space after he stops caring” mode? Is he daring Rams management to fire him? Did he spill marinara sauce on his polo shirt at halftime and this look was his only option for the 2nd half?

fisher

Week 9 Picks coming on Thursday.

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.