Well now what the hell are we supposed to expect?
Can Round Two possibly top Round One? Would we need a triple overtime in one game and a team rallying from 75 points down in another game to restore proper order to the football world?
Typically the Divisional Round is the best weekend of football out of the entire season.
For whatever reason, this round always produces high-scoring games, unlikely overtimes and Mark Sanchez defying the odds (luckily we don’t have a quarterback left who would fit that mold of “player who has no business leading his team to a conference championship game” since the Chargers knocked Jason Garrett’s illegitimate son out of the playoffs last week).
In six of the past eight years, the eventual Super Bowl Champion went on the road and shocked a heavy favorite in this round (so, yeah, you might want to bet accordingly if San Diego, Indianapolis or New Orleans somehow live to see the next round).
What we get in this second round is the top four teams in the NFL, coming off a well-earned bye week, hosting teams that truly believe they can replicate all those past Champions who had to win four games to take home the Lombardi Trophy. And in many cases we get heavy favorites in this round because those top teams usually dominate at home (not to mention teams like this year’s Chargers always sneak by the first round and the experts think they’re due to get killed by the better seed).
But almost never do things work out for all the favorites. In fact, the last time all four home teams advanced from this round was 2004. No matter what your research and analysis tells you, I’d shy away from backing all four favorites this weekend.
Here’s a random fact for you: There are four teams remaining who also appeared in last year’s final eight, and each of them is the favorite in their respective game this weekend (Denver, New England, Seattle, San Francisco).
There are three other teams who at least have playoff experience. The Saints won a Super Bowl and have been a perennial playoff team under Sean Payton. While it’s been a couple years since the Chargers made the playoffs, Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and others have plenty of experience in the postseason. And second year quarterback-coach combo Andrew Luck and Chuck Pagano popped their playoff cherries last year.
That means the only true virgin remaining is Carolina (somewhere a vampire licks his lips and sets his GPS for Charlotte, North Carolina).
In the “cream of the crop” department, keep in mind that the top six teams in Football Outsider’s DVOA rankings are still in the playoffs. Two of this weekend’s matchups feature head-to-head battles between that cream: New Orleans @ Seattle and San Francisco @ Carolina. The only two teams that didn’t rank in the top six are San Diego 12th) and Indianapolis (13th).
So before Saturday arrives and the bitching & moaning about your picks, your bets or your team begins, take a moment to appreciate what we have here: Eight incredibly sexy football teams. If you wanted to argue that we have six sexy teams and then San Diego and Carolina, I wouldn’t fault you for it.
Let’s take a quick look at the story lines and what’s at stake for these remaining teams as they aim for a Championship:
Denver: Peyton Manning’s quest for a second Super Bowl. Another record-setting offense looking to go all the way. Putting to rest any debate around who’s season was better, 2013 Manning or 2007 Brady, by actually finishing the job. The Broncos overcoming a midseason temporary coaching change because of John Fox’s emergency heart surgery. John Elway becoming even more of a legend after his handpicked coach and quarterback validate his choices with a Super Bowl win. Manning and the offense winning it all with that defense. The Broncos definitively being able to say they got the better end of the Champ Bailey for Clinton Portis deal (just joking, that was never in question). Wes Welker getting his hands on the Lombardi Trophy that twice eluded him in New England. The entire fan base forgetting to show up to the victory parade because pot is legal in Colorado and the amount of gravity bong rips they’d probably all be taking over the 36 hours immediately following Super Bowl Sunday would reach dangerous levels.
New England: The legacy-cementing 4th Super Bowl win for Brady and Belichick. Patriots fans finally having that 4th one to end the debate around who’s the best QB and best coach of all time. Belichick’s finest work as a coach paying off in the biggest way. Another argument forever ending if this particular team wins: How much does a coach really matter in the grand scheme of things? The “next man up” philosophy is more than just a company line, but the media would beat us over the head with it throughout the month of February. The look Belichick would give an over aggressive reporter who brings up Aaron Hernandez in the post-Super Bowl press conference. Gronk somehow parties even harder after they win the title. Stevan Ridley’s vindication. Danny Amendola doing what Wes Welker couldn’t do….Julian Edelman doing what Welker couldn’t do. The awkward moment on the Championship DVD where the narrator talks about the Patriots’ preseason “challenges” while they show a shot of the Bristol County Jail.
Indianapolis: Andrew Luck winning it all in year two. Luck equalling Manning in Lombardi Trophies. Luck solidifying his status as the person you would pick to build your team around over any other player. Trent Richardson getting his much-deserved Super Bowl win (another bad joke). Reggie Wayne missing out on the magical ride. T.Y. Hilton becoming a household name and being over-drafted in every 2014 fantasy league. Some of Manning’s old teammates, like Robert Mathis, getting their second Super Bowl with the new Manning. Chuck Pagano’s made-in-Hollywood ride from leaving the team to receive cancer treatment to hoisting the trophy just 17 months later. Jim Irsay taking too much credit for the successful season (though I still argue his “tribute to Manning” in the Colts’ win over Denver was all part of his master plan to get Manning off his game).
San Diego: The 9-7 team that nobody wanted in the playoffs wins it all. Philip freaking Rivers finally goes all the way in the first year where no one gave him a chance. Mike McCoy easily escaping the shadow of Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner. Grizzled veteran Antonio Gates getting his moment of glory. LaDanian Tomlinson sheds a tear of self-pity somewhere in California. Seeing Rivers have no one to hate on for a brief moment, and yet, I bet his facial expression would still look like that of an infant throwing a tantrum.
Seattle: Bringing a championship to a long-suffering city that loves its sports. Proving that with a little bit of adderall, you can achieve anything. Russell Wilson solidifying his spot as “best young quarterback.” Defense can win championships. Home field advantage is still something that matters. The first team to really be the “best regular season team” and finish it off with a Super Bowl win in many years. Pete Carroll wins the big one, but three years later is forced by the NFL to vacate all the playoff wins. Humblest guy on the planet Richard Sherman gets to the top of the mountain (and of course stays humble in victory). Beast Mode proves that running backs can matter. Carroll immediately retires to chase his true dream, acting in a movie called “Cheerleaders In Khakis.”
Carolina: Cam Newton gets some real credibility among all the other sexy young quarterbacking names. He gets his name alongside Doug Williams as the only black starting QBs to win a Super Bowl. Ron Rivera, who came into the 2013 season presumably on the hot seat, gets Carolina its first Championship in franchise history. Steve Smith punches a reporter instead of saying “I’m going to Disney World.” The general public finally figures out which Carolina the Panthers play in (it’s the north one). Defense can win championships.
San Francisco: The 49ers’ first Championship since Steve Young. Colin Kaepernick becoming that best young quarterback (seems like that title is really up for grabs in these playoffs). Frank Gore, maybe the player most deserving of a Super Bowl in these playoffs. San Francisco tying Pittsburgh for the most Super Bowl wins (6) in NFL history. A final tribute to Candlestick Park. Jim Harbaugh gets the thing his brother took out from under him last year. Anquan Boldin wins two consecutive Super Bowls on different teams (has that ever happened?).
New Orleans: Drew Brees gets #2, this time without the luxury of playing in the Superdome at any point in the playoffs. Sean Payton proves his ridiculous value. Vindication for the Saints from the Bountygate debacle. The team that couldn’t win on the road wins four outdoor road games. Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, et al become the envy of offensive coordinators everywhere. Rob Ryan twirls his hair around his finger in the post game press conference. Rob Ryan parlays the Super Bowl win into a failed head coaching job. Rex Ryan calls a press conference to congratulate his brother, but also to say he’s looking forward to beating the Patriots next year.
Oh, you wanted some picks…
Here you go. Round Two picks:
New Orleans @ Seattle (-8) – Saturday, 1:35pm PST
What happened in their regular season matchup: Whether it was due to traveling to the Pacific Northwest and playing a road game in the toughest environment, or because it was Thanksgiving weekend and the Saints accidentally poisoned themselves with tryptophan right before kickoff, or because Seattle’s just really that good…the Saints got crushed in week 13 against the Seahawks, 34-7. Offensively the Saints had their worst performance in the eight-years that Sean Payton’s been head coach (188 total yards, 7 points). And New Orleans did nothing on defense to slow down the Seattle offense. The Seahawks gained 429 total yards while Russell Wilson walked away with 310 passing yards, three touchdowns and a 139.6 passer rating. You can absolutely point to one or two fluky things that went Seattle’s way on that Monday night: On the Saints’ second drive of the night, Brees was stripsacked and Seattle took it back for a defensive touchdown. Then in the 3rd quarter with the game already getting out of reach, Russell Wilson had one of the luckiest touchdown passes I’ve seen. It was this eight-yarder to Derrick Coleman. Unfortunately for the Saints, even if those two plays go their way, it’s only a 10-15 point swing in the best case scenario, meaning they still would have lost by a couple touchdowns.
What I think will happen in this game: In my week 13 preview I was astounded that the Seahawks were giving six points against an “evenly matched Saints team.” I thought it should have been a three-point line. Obviously I went big on New Orleans and got burned. This time the line seems more appropriate. I’m not buying into the Saints in this game just because they won a road game in Philly last week. In fact, getting that road monkey off their back or not has no bearing on how I pick this game because the Eagles and Seahawks are so far apart in talent and execution. The Saints are going up against the very best in the toughest stadium to visit in the NFL. By the time week 13 had rolled around, Seattle had already lost Brandon Browner for the season. So they’ve already shut down this Saints offense without a full arsenal. Oh, and there’s another potential wrinkle in Seattle’s favor this time…Percy Harvin is apparently practicing at full speed this week. Scary for the whole league.
While I expect New Orleans to play better overall and make it a closer game, it’s not going to be nearly close enough. I’ve got Seattle covering with a 42-27 win. The more you hear people talking themselves into the Saints possibly winning four outdoor games to capture their second Super Bowl, the more confident you should feel that they’re not going to advance past this round.
Indianapolis @ New England (-7.5) – Saturday, 5:15pm PST
What happened in their regular season matchup: There was no regular season game between these two teams. This is the only second round game not featuring a rematch of a regular season game. But the Patriots stomped the Colts 59-24 during the 2012 regular season if that means anything to anyone.
What I think will happen in this game: First, I’d like to pause and say WHAT THE FUCK DID THE PATRIOTS DO TO DESERVE THIS??? After all the in-season injuries, sure, why not add Brandon Spikes to the injured reserve during the bye week! At this point, might as well put the top 53 players on the IR and see what the second string, practice squad and street free agents can do against Indy. In case you’re wondering why us Patriots fans would care about Spikes, you should know that ProFootballFocus.com graded Spikes out as the sixth-best inside linebacker in the NFL this year and the best against the run. The best linebacker in the NFL against the run. Boom. Done for the season.
In less important news for regular Patriots fans but something that provides an interesting dilemma for me…Deion Branch is now a member of the Colts. Why a dilemma for me? My one authentic Patriots jersey is a #83 Deion Branch jersey. His original number when the Patriots picked him in the 2nd round of the 2002 draft. I bought his jersey after the third game of the ’02 season. So do I wear my 11-year-old jersey on Saturday because in my opinion it’s been a good luck charm over the years? Or do I keep it in the drawer for the first time in my decade plus of owning it because Branch is now on the opposing team? What in god’s name do I do? Someone help!
The analysis on this one is pretty easy. This current installment of the Patriots doesn’t blow out good teams. They also struggle defensively because of the 25,000 injuries they’ve sustained on that unit this year. All they seem to do is pull close wins out of their collective ass. They went 8-0 at home this year. Andrew Luck and the Colts in a rainy, windy, outdoor January game is very different than Luck and the Colts in the comforts of the Oil Rig. I love that this is 7.5 points and not something tempting like 4 points. I’m taking the Patriots to win but not cover, 27-23.
San Francisco (-3) @ Carolina
What happened in their regular season matchup: One can only hope we see a repeat of the barnburner these teams put together in week 10. Cam Newton threw for 169 yards. Colin Kaepernick threw for 91 yards. Yep, didn’t crack triple digits. They were a combined 27-of-54 passing. Newton ended up with a 52.7 passer rating; Kaepernick’s was 42.0. The two teams combined for 401 yards. Good lord. Maybe I go for a hike on Sunday morning instead? Oh, the Panthers won at San Francisco, 10-9. I guess that detail’s important.
What I think will happen in this game: No idea, really. If there’s a stay away game in round two, this is it. Has any wildcard team ever been a back-to-back road favorite in the playoffs? Doubtful. Are the 49ers this year’s “wildcard team that seems underwhelming during the regular season but makes a deep playoff run?” Possibly. Could they host one final surprise NFC Championship game at Candlestick Park? Doubtful, considering it would require the Saints to win in Seattle. And how about the Panthers? Are they our best guess for the team that gets a bye but totally lays an egg in their first playoff game? Maybe. As an inexperienced team that can’t throw the ball, they’re certainly a good candidate.
Early in the week I was leaning towards San Francisco. Middle of the week I was leaning towards Carolina. I flipped and flopped over and over. And then I remembered my 40/1 odds preseason bet on Carolina to win the Super Bowl. And I swung back to Carolina hard. But finally I thought…If the 9ers don’t win this game, which road team is winning this weekend? Because mark my words, one of them always does…except, almost never is there a home underdog in this round of the playoffs. So we could have all four home teams win but still have an underdog win outright. And by the way, the 49ers beat a Green Bay team by three points last week that was without Clay Matthews for the entire game and Sam Shields (one of their best defensive backs) for most of the game. That Packers team was not playing at nearly full strength. People are riding high on San Francisco, but the Panthers will be a completely different experience. Give me my long shot Super Bowl ticket to keep moving on. Carolina wins 26-21.
San Diego @ Denver (-9)
What happened in their regular season matchups: In game one, the Broncos won 28-20 in San Diego. Manning put up 330 yards and four touchdowns; Rivers was a pedestrian 19-of-29 for 218 yards. Somehow the Chargers had the ball for 16 more minutes than Denver and still lost by eight. In the rematch, the score was similar (27-20), and the visiting team won again…this time it was the Chargers. Once again San Diego dominated time of possession (had the ball for nearly 18 minutes longer than Denver), and once again Rivers was pedestrian. But it was the Charger running game (177 yards on 44 carries) that won it for them.
What I think will happen in this game: C’mon, at this point would you dare bet against San Diego? They were left for dead after barely sneaking into the playoffs. Cincinnati was supposed to crush them. But they didn’t. Now the Broncos are supposed to grab an even more-lopsided victory. But it’s not just Manning vs Rivers in this game. It’s an improved defense (San Diego) vs a declining defense (Denver). It’s a divisional rivalry that often sparks close games. Just like the Patriots, I think Denver pulls out a win, but doesn’t cover. The Broncos take it 41-34. And finally, we’re set for a turn-back-the-clock Brady vs Manning showdown for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. It makes perfect sense.
If things play out exactly how I expect, we’re going to see two great Championship Gaames: Carolina vs Seattle, New England vs Denver. Why am I picking chalk with the #1 & #2 seeds of each conference advancing? Because this has been an abnormally strange year in the NFL, and the strangest thing that could happen this weekend is all four top seeds winning.
My Girlfriend’s Quick Picks for the week:
New Orleans over Seattle (-8): “Because Pete Carroll is the Drew Bledsoe of coaches.”
Indianapolis over New England (-7.5): “Because I hate Indy but they love me.”
Carolina over San Francisco (-3): “Because San Francisco is flying a little too close to the sun after last week, and no way they eke out back-to-back games. They’ve reached their eke limit.”
San Diego over Denver (-9): “Because when’s the last time Denver wasn’t a double-digit favorite? They’ve gotta have a bad game at some point.”
It’s not lost on me that my girlfriend just picked all four underdogs to cover. Perhaps this is the week I’ve been waiting for to do a four-team underdog parlay?
By the way, I’m kind of a prop bet master at this point. If you want to know what I’m thinking with prop bets, you should follow me on Twitter because I’ll let everyone know on Saturday morning which long shot props are definitely going to pay off.
Enjoy Round Two!