NFL Divisional Round Picks

patriots-texans

It was an ugly 1-3 start for me in the playoffs. That happens to me almost every year for Wildcard Weekend. I always come back with a vengeance. Jump on these Divisional Round picks.

Seattle at Atlanta (-5) | over/under 51.5

The Pick: Seattle

The Score: Atlanta 29, Seattle 26

The Bets: Atlanta (+5) in a 3-way tease / Over (51.5) / Over (41.5) in a 3-way tease

This Atlanta offense put up 48 & 33 points on the 10th best defense in the league (Carolina), 30 points on the 8th best defense (San Diego) and 38 points on the 3rd best defense (Arizona).

They also put up 23 & 24 points on the road against Denver (#1 defense) and Seattle (#5), respectively. And one could argue they would have ended up with at least 27 in Seattle had it not been for a horrible non-call on an obvious pass interference.

They’ve faced plenty of tough defenses all year and almost always put up 30 or more points.

Even though I expect Seattle to be a particularly tough out, I don’t think their offense can hang with Atlanta for 60 minutes. Seattle would need to force some turnovers, but the Falcons tied the Patriots for fewest turnovers in the league this year. And the Seahawks ranked a meh 22nd in takeaways in 2016.

Seattle’s putrid run game (23rd in the league) won’t be able to fully exploit Atlanta’s horrible run defense (29th). And on the flip side the Seahawks’ pass defense slipped to 13th in the league, which is bad news going against the #1 passing offense in football.

The recipe just isn’t there for a Seattle upset. But a decent team with deep playoff experience should keep it pretty close.

Houston at New England (-16) | over/under 44.5

The Pick: New England

The Score: New England 31, Houston 13

The Bets: New England (-6) in a 3-way tease

How did the Patriots defense hold up against the very worst offenses in football this year?

  • Cleveland (29th in offense) – 13 points allowed
  • Jets (31st) – 17 points allowed on the road / 3 points allowed at home
  • Los Angeles (32nd) – 10 points allowed
  • Denver (28th) – 3 points allowed
  • Houston (30th) – 0 points allowed

Let’s just table the argument on if the Patriots defense is legitimately good and would hold up against even a decent offense. We can save that for next week. We know they can 100% shut down awful offenses, especially at home.

Similar to last week when I guessed the Lions would put up 14 in Seattle, I think I’m being generous projecting the Texans for 13.

And since the Patriots always score 30+ against teams like this, I have to reluctantly lay the points and grab New England.

If you’re not into 3-way teasers where you can adjust each line by 10 points, then this isn’t that great of a game from a betting standpoint. The Patriots are too big of a favorite for a regular tease or to bet straight up. And you can’t really have confidence in the game total (Do the Patriots win 40-10 or 30-0? Huge difference for the over/under.)

If you’re trying to make the case for a Houston upset, or even just for them to keep it close, you can’t use this argument: “The 2009 Ravens and the 2010 Jets stunned the Patriots in Foxboro so anything could happen.”

The ‘09 Ravens were actually the best team in the NFL despite their 9-7 record, according to FootballOutsiders.com. And the 2010 Jets, not too shabby themselves. They were 6th in overall DVOA (team efficiency).

Your 2016 Houston Texans….29th in DVOA! In other words, they were the 4th worst team in football. The gap between this year’s Patriots and Wilfork’s Texans is possibly the biggest in playoff history.

Pittsburgh at Kansas City (-1) | over/under 44

The Pick: Pittsburgh

The Score: Pittsburgh 23, Kansas City 20 (in Overtime)

The Bets: Pittsburgh (+11) in a 3-way tease / Over (34) in a 3-way tease

During Kansas City’s 10-2 finish to the season, they only put up 21 or more points in two of six home games.

The Steelers’ last three road opponents of the season happen to be the three teams right above the Chiefs in offensive DVOA rankings (KC ranks 13th). And here’s how those teams performed against Pittsburgh’s D:

  • Colts (12th) – Steelers gave up 7 points
  • Bengals (11th) – Steelers gave up 20 points
  • Bills (10th) – Steelers gave up 20 points

Let’s say things stay consistent in terms of the Chiefs’ offensive production. What you gotta figure out is whether or not the Steelers can put up 24 or so points. That’s the only way they win this.

I think we’re looking at an overtime game, or at least a last-second win for one of these teams. I liked the Chiefs immediately after seeing last week’s games play out, but the numbers don’t lie. The combination of the way Pittsburgh’s been able to play defense lately and the incredible potency of a healthy Steelers offense makes it impossible for me to go with the Chiefs.

Green Bay at Dallas (-4) | over/under 52

The Pick: Dallas

The Score: Dallas 28, Green Bay 23

The Bets: Dallas (-4) / Dallas (+6) in a 3-way tease / Over (42) in a 3-way tease

Starting in 2011, which is when Jordy Nelson started putting up 1,000-yard receiving seasons, the Packers have been a top four offense each of the four seasons that Nelson and Aaron Rodgers have been healthy together. In the two seasons where they weren’t, the Packers fell to 9th (2013) and 11th (2015) in offensive DVOA.

Not a catastrophic drop-off, but a noticeable one that will be in effect for this divisional round game.

After all my cutting edge research, I had the Packers coming up just short, maybe losing by 2 points. But I’m deducting an additional 3 points from their total due to the Jordy loss.

Remember that the Giants offense is most similar in production to the offenses of the Ravens, 49ers, Cardinals and Eagles. It makes perfect sense that Green Bay would demolish the Giants if Aaron Rodgers had a big game. But now the Packers face one of the best offenses in the league. Even if Rodgers steals the show again, they should have an answer.

My read on the spread and game total is that Vegas never adjusted either one when it became apparent that Nelson might not play. I think the game would be impossible to predict if he was healthy, but since he’s not, I’ll be betting as if they forgot to ding the Packers even slightly.

Prop Bets

Who will record the most Passing Yards?

  • Matt Ryan (+350) – Because he had 335 passing yards in Seattle while facing a healthy Early Thomas earlier this season. Because at home in 2016, his lowest yardage output was 269. His worst case is even better than that because of the injured Seahawks defense.
  • Tom Brady (+350) – In the past 5 years, Brady has played in 12 playoff games. He’s cracked 300 yards passing 7 times, 4 of which came in this divisional round. I think he’s good for 290+, which could win the week.
  • Dak Prescott (+1000) – You’re giving me 10/1 odds on a Pro Bowl QB who’s rested, at home and facing a pretty bad pass defense? Sign me up.

Who will record the most Receiving Yards?

  • Dez Bryant (+850) – Call it a hunch. The Packers have a crappy pass defense as it is, and they’ll put extra focus on stopping Dallas’ 2nd ranked run game. I think Dak will find Dez early and often.

Enjoy the Divisional Round!

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

Pittsburgh Steelers v Denver Broncos

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

Here’s the rapidfire recap of each one:

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

OK, a few more notes on Wildcard Weekend:

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

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

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

Kansas City at New England (-5)

The Pick: Kansas City

The Score: New England 23, Kansas City 20

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

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

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

Green Bay at Arizona (-7)

The Pick: Green Bay

The Score: Arizona 26, Green Bay 21

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

Seattle at Carolina (-3)

The Pick: Carolina

The Score: Carolina 24, Seattle 17

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

Pittsburgh at Denver (-7)

The Pick: Denver

The Score: Denver 30, Pittsburgh 9

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

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

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

Who will record the most Receiving Yards this weekend?

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

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

Who will record the most Rushing Yards this weekend?

The Pick: David Johnson (+250)

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

Tom Brady total pass attempts

The Pick: Over 41.5 (-115)

Tom Brady total completions

The Pick: Over 25 (-115)

Tom Brady total passing yards

The Pick: Over 290.5 (-115)

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

Will Tom Brady throw an interception?

The Pick: Yes (-145)

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

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

Enjoy the Divisional Round.

NFL Divisional Round Recap: The Best Weekend of Football

harbaugh

WOW.

So that’s why we always point to the Divisional Round as the best weekend of the NFL season.

Four games. Two nail-biters. Two underdog covers. One major upset.

And three polarizing, buzzworthy storylines that emerged from this incredible weekend. (Sorry, Carolina and Seattle, but you were a little boring, and played out mostly how we expected. Carolina, you didn’t deserve to be there and it never felt like you were really close to making it a game. Seattle, we get it. You’re good.)

First we had the Patriots beating the Ravens on Saturday in an epic game that leaves you feeling like neither team really deserved to lose. The major headline that emerged was either Bill Belichick outsmarting the Ravens by knowing the rulebook better, or Belichick abusing the rules and using “deception” to get an edge on a team he can’t beat straight-up, depending on what side you’re taking.

Next we were treated to another tight battle on Sunday afternoon when the NFC’s two most popular franchises traded blows for 60 minutes. Controversy struck in a major way when Dez Bryant caught, but didn’t catch, a 31-yard pass at the 1-yard line from Tony Romo with 4:42 left and the Cowboys trailing by five points. Just like in the Cowboys’ previous game, this one will be remembered mostly for the referee’s game-changing decision and the confusing, can’t-be-interpreted-by-even-the-most-intelligent-humans NFL rulebook.

And finally, the Colts supplanted the Broncos in their rightful spot in the AFC Championship game by making Peyton Manning look like he should be backing up Ryan Lindley. The most incredible part of this game was watching Twitter explode over the final five minutes with all corners of the earth sending Manning off to retirement even though he hadn’t yet (and still hasn’t) said he was done.

The Manning story takes the cake of these three headlines. Normally the Dallas/Green Bay ending would be the talk of Monday, but one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history looking that bad and seeming that unsure about his future wins the Watercooler Award.

And on that note, let’s plow through each game, starting with the upset in Denver and working our way backwards through the weekend.

Luck Grabs the Torch

 Indianapolis 24, Denver 13

(Manning most definitely did not passing the torch voluntarily.)

“I guess I just can’t give that simple answer. I’m processing it. I can’t say that. I could not say that.”

-Peyton Manning on if he’ll definitely return for the 2015 season

But if Manning is significantly hurt, or if he has some sort of arm fatigue that will stop him from getting back to something resembling full health, then he might be letting go of that torch involuntarily.

I’m still preaching patience to all the people who went crazy with comments about Manning’s career being over, but to hear him in the postgame press conference sounding so unsure of his future was strange.

It’s like people already forgot we were accusing Tom Brady of being done just 15 weeks ago. Let’s pump the brakes for just a minute on the Peyton eulogies, OK?

Here’s what else I noticed in this matchup:

  • The game wasn’t even close, and neither was the play of the two quarterbacks. Andrew Luck was 20 times better than Manning.
  • Mr. “Pitch Anything & Everything” finished 26-of-46 for 211 passing yards and a 27.9 QBR. But even those numbers were propped up with nearly 100 yards of garbage time from the Broncos. With four minutes left, the competitive portion of the game was over, and Manning was 17-of-34 with 119 yards.
  • Tweet of the weekend (Michael David Smith, managing editor of Pro Football Talk): “Next year CBS will replace Mike Carey with a guy flipping a coin. Accuracy rate will increase significantly.”
  • It’s uncanny how often Carey, a former official, is wrong when they ask him for his take on a call that’s being reviewed. I hope someone out there is keeping track. My guess would be that he’s gotten ~17% of them right this season, and even that might be generous.
  • In six of their road games this year, Indianapolis gave up point totals of 42, 24, 24, 51, 28 and 31 points. And some of their opponents in those games include teams like Cleveland, the Giants, and Houston.
  • The Broncos scored exactly 10 on that same team before garbage time.
  • I apologize to Andrew Luck for writing that his time isn’t yet here to be a mainstay in the AFC Championship Game. This could be the start of quite the run for him and his team.

“New York Bozos”

Green Bay 26, Dallas 21

Everyone heard Aaron Rodgers use that phrase at the line of scrimmage yesterday, either to make an adjustment or to confuse the Cowboys. But he might as well have yelled “Dallas Bozos” because that’s what the Cowboys looked like at the end of the first half. That’s when this game was truly decided.

The Cowboys were up 14-7 and driving at the end of the half. They had a chance to really make Green Bay and its fans panic throughout the 15-minute intermission. But then on 3rd & 1 with 40 seconds left (after the refs reversed a 1st down call for them), the Cowboys attempted a long pass instead of getting the 1st down with their reliable running game. It didn’t work, so they lined up for a 45-yard field goal. Then they got flagged for a false start. Then Dan Bailey missed the ensuing 50-yard kick. And suddenly Green Bay was at midfield with 30 seconds left and quickly turned the opportunity into three points.

A six-point swing that determined the game. Dallas lost by five.

Here’s what else I noticed:

  • I don’t mind Aaron Rodgers at all, but I am worried about the hyperbole of his heroics that will dominate the media for the next six days. Some will talk about him as if he singlehandedly found all the airplanes at the bottom of the ocean.
  • My friends and I made jokes about Matt Flynn seeing meaningful action in this game because of how hobbled Rodgers looked at times, but what wasn’t funny was when it seemed probable for a few minutes that Brandon Weeden would be prominently involved in a playoff game. That’s how bad Romo was limping around in the 3rd quarter. Flynn vs. Weeden in a deciding fourth quarter would have been the highest of high comedy.
  • Of course the end of this game was the best/worst/most riveting part (depends on who you ask). Dez Bryant caught a 31-yard pass down to the 1-yard line with less than five minutes to play. Any logical human saw that it was a catch. But the NFL rulebook doesn’t operate on logic, common sense, or simplicity. The popular line right now is that the referees got it right when they reversed the call and ruled the play an incomplete pass, but the NFL rules are the problem and it needs to change.
  • Mike Pereira, FOX’s resident official-turned-analyst, said Bryant needed to “perform an act common to the game on his way to the ground.” It’s probably not good when you need a definition to explain part of the definition of a catch.
  • This is probably why the officiating seems bad across the board. At least three games this weekend had frustratingly inconsistent calls. And that’s because of the impossible-to-figure-out rules.
  • Maybe I’m oversimplifying here, but shouldn’t the rule be: If you catch the ball, have control, and take multiple steps, it’s a completion regardless of what the ball does when you hit the ground. But if you’re making the catch while diving/falling/being taken to the ground without first taking steps, then the receiver has to keep control through the entire process.
  • That seems too simple for the NFL, doesn’t it?
  • Most disappointingly is that we were cheated out of an incredible ending. How epic would this game have been if the catch stands, the Cowboys score on their next play, and the Packers try to respond with a game-winning drive while down by either one or three points? (Dallas would have gone for the two-point conversion.)
  • At least Aaron Rodgers had a good sense of humor about the refereeing that totally went in his team’s favor on Sunday:

Did the game really happen if nobody saw it?

Seattle 31, Carolina 17 

In reality I’m sure plenty of people watched Seattle handle the Panthers on Saturday night, but millions of fans in Maryland and New England were probably in various stages of blackout, for different reasons, while that comparatively boring game was underway.

I won’t say that Seattle’s playoff schedule is on par with the Ravens’ end-of-season schedule when they got to face Case Keenum and Connor Shaw in the final two weeks, but the Seahawks just beat probably the worst team in playoff history and now host a one-legged Aaron Rodgers to advance to the Super Bowl. Seems fair.

The NFC has won four of the last five Super Bowls, and a fair argument during those years has been that the AFC was watered down so that conference’s Super Bowl representative never had to play the type of competition that the NFC representative was dealing with. Is that reversed this year? After all, FootballOutsiders.com has 10 of the league’s top 16 teams coming from the AFC.

I’m sure even Seattle fans will agree that if Rodgers looks bad next Sunday, their team really didn’t have any tests along the way to the big game in Arizona.

I have no other “what I noticed” notes from this game because after the Patriots’ win, I was emotionally spent, extremely inebriated, and in a state of slight comatose.

The Art of…Deception?

 New England 35, Baltimore 31

“It’s not something that anybody has ever done before. The league will look at that type of thing, and I’m sure they’ll make some adjustments and things like that.”

-John “sour grapes” Harbaugh

Why, John? Why would you assume the league is going to change their rules? Because you lost and got owned by a better coach who happened to know the rulebook just a little more thoroughly than you did? Why would you assume that the league has to change that rule?

What’s great is if they do ultimately change the rule about lining up only four offensive linemen, Harbaugh, his players and Ravens fans will talk about it as if that strategy was outlawed BEFORE their team choked away this playoff game. (Another instance of cheating by New England!)

And here’s the thing, I’m an equal opportunity criticizer. I’m a Patriots fan, but you know what Harbaugh’s immature whining sounded like? Belichick’s claim that Wes Welker’s hit on Aqib Talib in last year’s conference title game was one of the dirtiest he’s ever seen. No merit to the comments. Just emotional, angry coaches trying to put the blame elsewhere.

Here’s what else I noticed in this game (though the 11 Lagunitas I consumed might have made me see things that didn’t exist):

  • The best way I can describe the respect I have for the Ravens in the playoffs and the closeness of this matchup is to tell you how I was hyperventilating for 18 hours starting Friday night and not ending until the final whistle Saturday evening.
  • Very early on Saturday morning, like 1 a.m., I couldn’t fall back asleep so I went to the couch and plowed through five episodes of The Wire. I don’t get this way for postseason games against Indy, Pittsburgh, Houston and so on.
  • But despite my respect for the team, I still think Ravens fans are some of the worst. I kept my mouth shut for the most part leading up to this game, but they didn’t. And it was especially hilarious to see a lot of them tweeting things like “Game over, suck it, New England” before the 1st quarter had come to an end. Loved every second of it.
  • I won’t spend much time complaining about the officiating, but it was pretty horrific. The scary thing is that one of this past weekend’s crews has to be assigned the Super Bowl. Can’t wait to see which brilliant team of referees the NFL chooses for the biggest game of the year.
  • So the Patriots rushed for only 14 yards and also fell behind by multiple touchdowns on two occasions. Maybe don’t try that strategy again. Or do try it again, but let us know in advance so we can have all the proper medical equipment available to us ahead of time.
  • If you’re still curious about the Patriots rolling out only four offensive linemen for a few plays in the 4th quarter and the ensuing confusion, I found this espn.com article to be particularly helpful. It explains every detail of the situation and all the things Harbaugh could have been upset about.
  • Finally, here’s how I imagine the game story looked in the Baltimore newspapers and blogs on Sunday morning: “The New England Cheatriots were at their cheating best again on Saturday night as they escaped with a 35-31 win* over the heroic Baltimore Ravens. Tom Brady, in typical me-first fashion, threw the ball 50 times while only allowing his running backs seven combined carries. But that wasn’t the worst part. New England knew they couldn’t beat the Ravens straight-up with a boring, unimaginative gameplan, so they had to bend the rules a bit, which we know is their favorite thing to do. (Side note: Remember 18-1???? HAAAA) Sources say a group of Baltimore senators are trying to put together a special Congressional Hearing at this moment to make sure Bill Belicheat can never confuse another coach again by having only four offensive linemen on the field. We’re also not ruling out the possibility that the Cheatriots taped the Ravens’ practices this week and that’s the only reason they knew the play where Brady lateraled to Julian Edelman, who then threw a 51-yard touchdown to Danny Amendola, would work. How else could they confidently run such a play at that critical point in the game? Mr. Cool, Joe Flacco, once again outplayed the whining, crying, uncool Brady, and that’s why they had to bring in a receiver to do Brady’s job. HA!”

Since I’ve already rambled on long enough, I’ll spare you the details of my very profitable gambling weekend until the Championship Weekend picks come out in a few days. But it was indeed a VERY profitable weekend and I hope you followed my advice for once.

NFL Divisional Playoffs Preview: Part Two (The Picks)

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In case you missed it, I posted Part One of my Divisional Round Preview earlier Friday. It featured some general NFL news and my favorite prop bets of the weekend. Check it out HERE.

Before I dive into my picks for each game, please allow me this moment to vent.

Apparently January 8th, 2015, was when I finally reached a breaking point with people bitching & moaning about another region’s sports fan base being “the most classless fans I’ve ever met.”

The Patriots happen to be playing the Ravens this week, and I happen to be a Patriots fan who writes for a Baltimore-based blog. Because of that, I’ve seen plenty of Baltimore people crying on Twitter about those “classless” Boston fans.

How do I know I reached a breaking point? Because I got in a Twitter fight for the first time in my life when I responded to a Raven’s fan who was bellyaching about Boston fans calling her a slut, among other names.

I told her it’s pretty ridiculous for her to instigate and provoke people by saying nasty things about the Patriots, their players and their fans, and then not expect people to respond negatively to her. (And on & on it went from there. You can check it out on my twitter timeline @rossgariepy.)

Baltimore fans have been saying the same tired things all week long: “Spy Gate! Patriots fans are scared of the Ravens! We’ve won a Super Bowl more recently and our QB has beaten your QB twice in the playoffs! You employed a murderer! Boston fans told me to die or called me a slut on Twitter, Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! They’re all classless, ALL OF THEM!!!”

If you’re complaining about the New England fans on Twitter, well then I kinda hope they keep making it worse for you…because every city, state, region and country in the world has people who say insulting things on the internet. They’re called scumbags, and I think anyone with half a brain realizes they’re dispersed pretty evenly throughout the world. Let this be the last time I get so fired up to mention this.

(Also, Baltimore fans, if you think we’re intolerable right now, wait until you see us if the Patriots win this weekend. Just remember that you invited any treatment you get by leading the trash talk all week long.)

And now for the picks…

Baltimore @ New England (-7)

  • The Pick: Baltimore
  • The Score: New England 30, Baltimore 25

The key to this game seems pretty simple to me. If New England’s offensive line holds up, the passing game should be able to pick apart Baltimore’s makeshift secondary. I don’t think I’m breaking new ground with that expectation. And I’m fully expecting that key matchup to settle somewhere in the middle. New England’s O-line won’t be perfect, but Baltimore’s pass rushers won’t be living in the backfield all afternoon either. What’s nice for New England this time around is that even if things go badly on offense, they finally have a defense that could keep them in the game. I’d be shocked if Joe Flacco gains big chunks of yards through the air, unless it’s in the way of 15 Brandon Browner pass interference penalties. Maybe the Patriots will be smart enough to keep the guy who led the league in committing penalties (Browner) away from the guy who led the league in drawing pass interference penalties (Torrey Smith).

Or maybe these two teams shouldn’t even bother showing up and instead we can have Aaron Hernandez fight Ray Lewis to the death. Apparently many fans on both sides are focusing on those two guys more than the current players.

I’m not arrogant enough to pick the Patriots to cover seven points against a team that almost always plays them tight. But I do expect New England to advance to their fourth consecutive AFC Championship game, and ninth in the Brady/Belichick era.

Carolina @ Seattle (-11)

  • The Pick: Seattle
  • The Score: Seattle 41, Carolina 17

I mentioned in part one of my column that I just can’t see any way the Panthers keep it close, and I’m sticking to that.

If you are looking for something to grab onto in support of a Carolina pick, here are the scores of the last three games these teams have played against each other: Seattle 13, Carolina 9 (week 8 this season), Seattle 12, Carolina 7 (Week 1 of the 2013 season), Seattle 16, Carolina 12 (Week 5 of the 2012 season).

The Seahawks are 3-0 against the Panthers in the Russell Wilson era, but at least Carolina’s keeping it close. Of course, all three of those contests were played in Carolina.

In this current matchup, it’s really difficult to find any advantages for the Panthers. And they even lost a key player to injury this week when defensive tackle Star Lotulelei suffered a broken foot in practice.

You know who would be a great person to coach Carolina in this game? Jeff Fisher. You know he’d pull out every trick in the book because he’d realize his team has no chance otherwise. It’ll be interesting to see if Ron Rivera works up the courage to try a surprise onside kick, a fake punt or something like that.

Here’s the one thing I keep turning over in my head: You know how in November & December we were gearing up for the NFC South winner to be a huge underdog in the first round against a wildcard team? And we were already talking about how that South team would end up winning outright? (Similar to Seattle beating New Orleans a few years ago.) What if that was simply delayed by one week? We got robbed of seeing that in the Wildcard Round because Ryan Lindley was leading the Cardinals so Vegas couldn’t make them the favorite. Are we about to see a crazy Carolina road win that completely sends this year’s playoffs into chaos?

I think the answer is no, but I’m at least 2.5% nervous about this possibility.

Dallas @ Green Bay (-6)

  • The Pick: Dallas
  • The Score: Dallas 27, Green Bay 26

Here’s the game where I’m feeling that last-second field goal to win my prop bet. For whatever reason, Dallas was consistently great on the road this year, and I’m very interested to see how they play now that the can’t-win-a-playoff-game monkey is off their backs.

There was an analyst on the NFL Network this week who said he was worried about DeMarco Murray’s health because he didn’t have a great game against Detroit last week. Did this guy not realize Detroit’s run defense was historically good? I think Murray is fine, and I think he’s going to be important against Green Bay’s crappy run defense.

Without looking at the names, tell me if you think these two teams are really far enough apart to warrant a six-point spread (all rankings from FootballOutsiders.com):

  • Overall team efficiency: Team A 3rd, Team B 6th
  • Overall defense: Team A 16th, Team B 22nd
  • Pass defense: Team A 11th, Team B 22nd
  • Rush defense: Team A 24th, Team B 23rd
  • Overall offense: Team A 1st, Team B 4th
  • Pass offense: Team A 2nd, Team B 4th
  • Rush offense: Team A 6th, Team B 3rd

Team A was Green Bay and Team B was Dallas. The only place where there’s a discernible advantage is pass defense, where the Packers are a whole lot better in 2014.

This is a case where it seems the teams are just too evenly matched to give one a full touchdown edge over the other. Both teams have great quarterbacks and receivers, solid running games and offensive lines, and mediocre but opportunistic defenses. I think football fans deserve a great game from these two teams.

It’s the least the NFL can do for all the bullshit they put us through in 2014.

My prediction of Dallas winning outright might be a little far-fetched, but they seem much more likely to go into Seattle and win a game than the Packers, as evidenced by each team’s result in Seattle earlier this year. And isn’t that what we all want? Someone to beat Seattle?

Indianapolis @ Denver (-7)

  • The Pick: Denver
  • The Score: Denver 31, Indianapolis 21

The Andrew Luck Effect is pretty amazing, isn’t it? Over the past three seasons, no team has had less business repeatedly making the playoffs than the Colts. And yet every season since Luck’s been in the league, the Colts have won 11 games and played meaningful January football.

Focusing on these current playoffs, Indy once again has no real business being competitive with one of the top teams in the league.

And yet because of Luck, a lot of people are hesitant to expect a Denver blowout. He’s that VALUABLE (My unofficial MVP ballot had him 3rd behind J.J. Watt and Aaron Rodgers).

The problem with this Colts team is that besides Luck and T.Y. Hilton, they don’t really have much talent.

Luck + home field is good enough to handle a toothless Bengals team (remember they were missing their top two tight ends and top receiver for that game), but Luck + being on the road against a really good Broncos team just won’t work out the same for the Colts.

Peyton Manning could be a little bit banged up, as he appeared to be in December, but I don’t think it matters. Their running attack got really good towards the end of the year. Their receivers can do lots of things to make up for any temporary decline in Manning’s skills. And of course their defense is spectacular, finishing 4th in the league in defensive efficiency.

It’s not yet Luck’s time to be playing in Conference Title Games, but he’s close. A couple more years, Andrew, and the AFC is yours for the taking. Sit tight. Stay healthy. And pray that the people running the Colts’ organization figure out how to surround you with talent.

I’m thinking we’re about to see our fourth AFC Championship battle between Brady and Manning.

And if the final four is Denver, New England, Seattle and whichever team wins between Dallas/Green Bay, well that’s a pretty incredible final four. (It will almost certainly be accompanied by Terrell Suggs sound bytes claiming the fix is in to make sure those four teams advanced. Can’t wait.)

Enjoy the Divisional Round!

NFL Playoffs: Round Two Picks & What Each Team Is Playing For

old-man-crystal-ball

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!

This Weekend’s Can’t-Miss NFL Prop Bets (A Short Friday Read)

Yesterday I posted my Divisional Round picks, which you can review HERE. That blog post was just a tad longer than I expected so I needed to give you my favorite prop bets of the weekend in a separate post.

Just as a general warning, I should tell you it’s always best to bet small amounts on these prop bets because they’re mostly a crapshoot. The best thing to do is find some unlikely prop bet outcomes that have a lot of value based on the odds. An example of a prop bet that doesn’t offer value on either side is this:

How many total passing yards will Peyton Manning have this week?

  • Over 290.5 (-115)
  • Under 290.5 (-115)

Sure, with enough research and a little bit of luck, you can probably land on the right side of Manning’s passing yards against Baltimore. But there’s no value on either side. Vegas isn’t giving you good odds for all that hard work you have to do. And as you probably realize, it’s basically a coin flip. A coin flip that you have to pay an extra 15% for. Not good.

The type of prop bet you’re looking for is one with multiple answers where you can get big odds on an outcome that Vegas doesn’t think is very likely (but an outcome you’re smart enough to realize actually has a good shot). I’m not saying all of the following bets I’m making this weekend are like that, but the first couple are.

Here’s what I’m looking at for Round 2 of the playoffs:

Who will record the most Passing Yards this weekend?

  • Russell Wilson (15/1): Obviously I’m not making this bet thinking that Wilson’s typically more likely to have more passing yards than a Manning, Rodgers or Brady, but he’s got much more enticing odds than the usual suspects. My thinking is that Atlanta’s got the 23rd ranked pass defense, the game’s in a dome, and I could definitely see a high-scoring game on both sides (By the way, Andrew Luck had the most pass yards in the wildcard round with 288. In the playoffs when the weather’s colder and the defenses are better, it’s not like you have to find a 350-yard passer to win this prop).

Who will record the most Rushing Yards this weekend?

  • Knowshon Moreno (6/1): The rushing category doesn’t have nearly as much to offer in the way of longshots. The reason I like Moreno is because Baltimore’s run defense is pretty bad—they gave up 152 rushing yards at a 5.1 yards per attempt clip to Indy last week, even with the Ravens leading the entire game. It’s worth noting that Moreno ran for 115 yards (5.5 yards per attempt) against the Ravens in the week 15 matchup in Baltimore. I also think Denver might be nursing a 10-to-14-point lead late in the game, and you know the plan will be to feed Moreno the ball as much as possible at that point.

Will there be a missed Field Goal in the San Francisco-Green Bay game?

  • No (+110): Those cheeky bastards that run my gambling website…No other game this weekend has a missed FG prop bet. But no other game features the two worst field goal-kicking teams in the NFL either. That’s the draw of “yes” on this bet (at -150). Mason Crosby missed 12 of 33 field goal attempts for Green Bay this year (63.6% success rate), and David Akers missed 13 of 42 attempts for the 49ers (69%). San Francisco went so far as to sign Billy Cundiff on January 1st—although Jim Harbaugh just announced on Thursday that they’re sticking with Akers for this game. Anyway, I’m going with “no” on this bet because I’m hoping both coaches are smart enough not to give their kickers a chance to miss mid-to-long range field goals. Hopefully they’re only trotting these scrubs out for extra-point-lengthed field goal attempts. It also looks like the weather in San Francisco is going to be fine on Saturday. Call me an optimist, but I think the kickers actually do their jobs competently in this game!

Total TD Passes – Matt Ryan

  • Under 1.5 (+120): Two statistical reasons to make this bet: 1). Matt Ryan threw for either 0 or 1 touchdown passes in five of his eight home games this year. Astonishing, I agree. 2). Seattle has only allowed 15 total passing touchdowns this season, one of the best marks in football. If Seattle’s as good as advertised and beats the Falcons on Sunday, couldn’t you see Ryan being held to some pretty awful stats?

And finally, here are two prop bets that have nothing to do with the playoffs, but seemed interesting enough to bet:

Will RGIII start Week 1 of the 2013 Regular Season?

  • Yes (+150): Seems like a 50/50 proposition right now so if Vegas wants to pay me an extra 50% to be an optimist, I’ll take it. Everything coming out of the Redskins organization says that Griffin will be ready by September. Again, this isn’t the type of bet you put your life savings on, but it’s worth a little wager.

Will Bruce Arians be a Head Coach of the NFL for the 2013 Season?

  • Yes (+110): No, jackass, you don’t make this bet thinking that Chuck Pagano’s gonna have a relapse that forces Arians to take over the Colts again. You bet this because there’s a minimum of four teams interested in Arians right now. His stock will never be higher after stepping in and leading the Colts to one of the most improbable regular seasons in NFL history. He’s gotta strike while the iron’s hot, right? And the Colts VP of Player Personnel just took the job as GM in San Diego, and rumor has it Arians would love to work under him. You should bet this before they pull it off the board. Hurry. Free money.

That’s it. Enjoy this weekend’s games. And look for me involved in a one-man riot on the LA local news if the Patriots somehow lose on Sunday night.

NFL Round 2 Preview: Highlighting My Most Asinine Comments Over the Past 4 Months

No matter how much I beg and plead, my readers tend to stay away from commenting on my spectacular blog posts. But I throw in a quick mention of watching last Sunday’s football games at home with no pants on, and suddenly everyone comes out of the woodwork to make a comment. The common theme in those reader comments was “Can you combine watching the games at a bar with watching at home and just go to a bar with no pants on?”

I actually considered buying a kilt and posting a picture of me wearing it at the bar this weekend, but that would have necessitated me buying a kilt, and all my money is currently tied up in dog food futures (you only get that joke if you read my incredible dog update post from earlier this week).

It does seem like it’ll be more of the same for me this weekend: Watching Saturday’s games at a bar, fattening up on Rocco’s Tavern’s white pizza and buffalo wings (and 2-for-1 drinks from 3pm-7pm). And then watching Sunday’s games at home, with my girlfriend convincing me to eat kale as a main course to balance out the previous day’s binging. Also, Sunday is a better day to watch at home this weekend in particular because if the Patriots somehow lose, I can only do so much damage at my apartment compared to being at a bar.

After a 1-3 showing in my picks for the Wildcard Round, you’re probably expecting me to be confident in a 4-0 week in the Divisional Round. But I’m not. You see, even though my regular season record was a money-making boon for anyone who followed my lead, I still only hit on 57% of my picks. I’m not expecting to magically start hitting at a 75% clip. If anything, the playoffs are harder because there’s not nearly as many mismatches in talent. With only seven games left in the playoffs, I essentially need to go 5-2 or better against the spread to get to my expected winning percentage. So I guess what I’m really trying to say is I’m guaranteeing a 2-2 record or better this week.

Rather than simply list each game and give you my prediction, I spent all of Thursday morning re-reading every word of every football post I’ve written this year so I could provide you with some of the most accurate and inaccurate things I said about the remaining eight teams over the course of the season. I’m not one of those writers who’s going to try to hide from his ridiculously off-base comments from earlier in the year.

Baltimore @ Denver (-10) – Saturday, 1:30pm PT

Comments I made about Denver throughout the season:

  • Prior to week 2’s game against Atlanta, I said the Falcons were “considerably more talented on all sides of the ball.”
  • After week 3, I said that Peyton Manning might be a candidate for the first quarterback benched due to ineffectiveness this season…Sadly, I was only half joking at the time.
  • Right before a week 6 matchup between Denver and San Diego, I was still calling the AFC West a crapshoot and that the division winner was a coin flip between the Broncos and Chargers.
  • In my week 9 picks, I took Cincinnati over Denver because I wasn’t convinced the Broncos could win on the road. Including that game, they won their final six road games of the year, and more importantly, they don’t have to worry about being on the road in the playoffs anyway.

Comments I made about Baltimore throughout the season:

  • Before their week 3 matchup, I said that the Ravens and Patriots were the two most evenly-matched teams in the NFL. Are we heading for a rematch of those two teams in Foxboro next week?
  • I called Baltimore a sinking ship before their week 9 game against Cleveland. Including that game, they finished the year 5-4, and now they’re back in the second round of the playoffs. I guess technically the ship didn’t fully sink, but it’s been taking on water for nearly two months.
  • In week 11, I picked the underdog Steelers with Byron Leftwich as their starting QB to cover the 3.5-point spread at home to Baltimore because, “The Ravens aren’t good enough on the road even if they’re going up against Leftwich,” I wrote at the time. Sure enough, Baltimore eeked out a three-point win. If they were that sketchy on the road against a backup QB, how the hell are they going to beat Manning in Denver this weekend?
  • In my week 13 review post, I wrote, “If Atlanta is the NFC’s least-scary playoff team, then Baltimore is the AFC’s version of that…and if they fall to the 3rd or 4th seed and have to play on the road after the wildcard round, their season is over.” (Finally a prediction I might have gotten right.)

It seems like I was all over Baltimore as a somewhat fraudulent team the entire season, but it took me a long time to come around on Denver as a serious contender. So where do I land on this weekend’s game?

Ten points is a lot. And there’s absolutely no way I’m backing both 10-point favorites this weekend. The Ravens aren’t great on the road, they’re still a lot less healthy than Denver is. They have a distinct disadvantage at quarterback. And it would be tough to find a person who enjoys playing on the road in Denver. Despite all that, I’m picking Baltimore to cover the 10 points.

Sure Denver routed the Ravens just four weeks ago in Baltimore. But that Ravens team had a couple fixable things go against them that day (like the Joe Flacco red zone pick-six right before halftime), and they had a bunch of injuries specifically on defense and their offensive line. And what if the Ravens’ far superior special teams puts up a touchdown? That’ll be a huge swing. I’m not calling for the upset. I just think 10 points is a lot, and even if it’s not a close game, I can see the Broncos taking their foot off the gas in the 4th quarter and letting up the backdoor cover to the Ravens.

The Pick: Denver 27, Baltimore 20

Green Bay @ San Francisco (-3) – Saturday, 5:00pm PT

Comments I made about San Francisco throughout the season:

  • In a preseason post (and then reiterated just before week 1), I mentioned that they’d probably struggle against the elite offenses of the NFL. The two problems with that statement were: 1). I said Green Bay, Detroit, the Giants, Chicago and New England were all elite offenses, and 2). The 49ers went 4-1 against those teams anyway.
  • After that horrible loss to the Giants in week 6, I told 49er fans that their only shot of getting to the Super Bowl was if some other NFC East team stepped up and kept the Giants out of the playoffs (score one for the “expert”!).
  • After week 7, I wrote that “Jim Harbaugh is turning into my least-favorite coach outside the greater New York/New Jersey area because he hasn’t accomplished a thing in the NFL, and yet he reacts to every official’s call as if he’s getting completely screwed.” I actually called him the Philip Rivers of head coaches, and I stand by those comments. He’s such a pompous asshole.

Comments I made about Green Bay throughout the season:

  • I worried after week 1 that Green Bay was this year’s team that looked at the NFL landscape in the offseason, remembered that they won 15 games in 2011, realized everyone was picking them to go to the Super Bowl, and decided they didn’t need to get ready for the regular season.
  • In my week 3 predictions, I said Green Bay would win by a touchdown in Seattle but it would be a close game the whole way. Of course, I was right, but the real reason I bring this up is because that replacement referee debacle isn’t getting any airtime this week. You do realize if the refs hadn’t screwed the Packers on that Monday night in September, they’d be hosting the 49ers and not the other way around, right? That’s a HUGE difference in the playoff fortunes for these two teams.
  • After their close win at home against New Orleans in week 4, I wrote: “It’s been a very uninspiring first quarter of the season from Green Bay. I’m officially lowering my expectations for the 2012 Packers to ‘playoff team that’s unlikely to make a deep run.'” (could still be true!)
  • Following their week 8 win over Jacksonville, I worried that Mike McCarthy was outcoaching himself because he kept calling for these weird fake punts and surprise onside kicks in recent weeks. The fake punt in that Jacksonville game was the strangest of them all because it was on a 4th-and-4 play near midfield, so why would you try to pick up that 1st down via a pass play from your punter when you have the reigning MVP  as your quarterback? I continue to think McCarthy is a bad coach who’s deficiencies are still being hidden by his great QB.

So on one side we have the Packers, who everyone wants to anoint as this year’s version of the 2010 Packers, and on the other side we have a well-rested 49ers team, who was easily the biggest beneficiary of that Green Bay screw job in Seattle. I get all the reasons people are picking Green Bay. They’re finally healthy, they have the best quarterback in football at the helm, they’ve won tough road playoff games before, they’re a more fun team to choose than San Francisco.

But here’s my counter to all that: Mike McCarthy really is a bad coach and that’ll rear its ugly head sometime soon (don’t forget he tried to throw a challenge flag on an automatically-reviewed play only a few weeks after Jim Schwartz made that boneheaded move famous). Mason Crosby has been an unmitigated disaster as a field goal kicker all year, and that’ll rear its ugly head sometime soon (Part of me hopes Green Bay’s stubbornness in holding on to an obviously unreliable kicker becomes their ultimate undoing). Jim Harbaugh, as much as I hate the guy, is a great coach, and he’s been breaking down Green Bay film for the past two weeks (don’t kid yourself, he didn’t spend an ounce of energy last week looking at any other possible NFC opponent). As good as Rodgers is, his offensive line has been Pittsburgh Steeler-esque all year, and a team like San Francisco might really make them pay.

I’m taking the 49ers and feeling bad that the Packers didn’t get a chance to play this game on their home turf.

The Pick: San Francisco 26, Green Bay 21

P.S. I realize I didn’t mention Justin Smith’s injury, which could be a huge disadvantage for San Francisco if he’s not on the field and at least at 75-80% of his normal self. But no one seems to know his status for Saturday so I don’t feel like hemming and hawing and saying “if he’s healthy, I like the 49ers. If he’s not, I like the Packers.” I’m just gonna man up and take the 9ers regardless.

Seattle @ Atlanta (-3) – Sunday, 10:00am PT

Comments I made about Atlanta throughout the season:

  • Before week 3 I was calling Atlanta the “class of the NFC” and saying that they were “better than the best of the AFC.”
  • Fast forward 10 weeks, and in my week 13 review post I said the Falcons were a lock for 13-3, but look exactly like the ’03 Kansas City Chiefs, who went 13-3 and got a first round bye, but did so in such unconvincing fashion that nobody gave them a chance in their first playoff game (which they lost to Indianapolis).

Those were my only standout notes about the Falcons all year. I was overly impressed with them early on, and then I opened my eyes and saw how mediocre they really are beyond their win-loss record.

Comments I made about Seattle throughout the season:

  • After the Seahawks lost to Arizona in week 1 (and the combination of John Skelton and Kevin Kolb), I was extremely confident in picking Dallas to win at Seattle in week 2 (Seattle won by 20).
  • In my week 5 predictions, I said, “Maybe when Seattle loses to Carolina this week people will stop considering them as one of the decent NFC teams.”
  • After the Patriots’ week 6 loss in Seattle, I was very pissed off about Richard Sherman’s unnecessary trash-talking and I wrote: “…do I root for the Seahawks to make an improbable Super Bowl run just so Brady can throw five touchdowns to the guy Sherman’s covering in that game? Or do I root for Seattle to revert back to the 6-10 team I know they are so that Sherman’s trash-talking fades into obscurity? Tough call, but I do love the idea of New England putting up 63 on Seattle in the Super Bowl. Go Seahawks!”
  • In my week 8 picks, I referred to Russell Wilson as “an awful rookie quarterback.”
  • And in my week 12 prediction of Seattle at Miami, I said, “This is the game where after it ends, people go ‘oh yeah, how did I not remember Russell Wilson is garbage on the road?’” (OK, so perhaps I was a little harsh on Mr. Wilson and the Seahawks most of the year.)

All signs point to Seattle in this game, right? Has a #1 seed ever gotten as little respect as the Falcons are getting? (in my Kansas City comparison above, the Chiefs were actually the #2 seed that year, so it doesn’t count.) I’m actually a little surprised that the line hasn’t moved down to -2.5 or -2. Part of me wants to take the Falcons purely based on the fact that almost nobody seems to be giving them a chance.

But it’s hard to ignore how impressive the Seahawks have been, particularly in the second half of the season. They have the superior defense, superior running game, superior special teams and possibly superior coaching. Based on recent weeks, they may even have the better passing game at this point. I always thought whoever came out of the Seattle-Washington wildcard matchup would beat Atlanta and move on to the NFC Championship game. And even though Atlanta went 7-1 at home, five of those wins came by 6, 2, 3, 6 and 4-point margins (you probably remember their struggles against Carolina, Oakland and Arizona at home in particular). Not exactly an intimidating presence in the Georgia Dome. Gotta go with Seattle, keeping my dream alive of the Patriots putting up 63 on them in the Super Bowl.

The Pick: Seattle 24, Atlanta 20

Houston @ New England (-10) – Sunday, 1:30pm PT

Comments I made about New England throughout the season:

  • After what I saw out of them in week 1, I predicted the Patriots would have a top-five run defense…granted it’s never a good idea to base a season-long prediction on one game against the Titans, but the Pats did finish 9th in rushing yards allowed/game, 6th in rushing yards allowed/attempt and 1st in forced fumbles…close enough, right?
  • Before their week 6 game against Seattle, I said, “The Patriots aren’t winning a close game in Seattle…they aren’t good at winning those close games anymore. If they don’t have a nine-point lead in the final five minutes, they lose…Seattle either wins a close one or they get smoked.” So what happened? The Pats were up 13 with 7:30 to go, and of course they lost by one. For the record, I still hate the Patriots in any close game the rest of the way
  • After week 10’s close call against the Bills, I said that’s it’s going to be tough for me to have faith in New England as a Super Bowl frontrunner the rest of the year, and if I was re-doing my power rankings at that time, I’d probably drop them below Baltimore and Pittsburgh (talk about a pessimistic sports fan).

Comments I made about Houston throughout the season:

  • At the end of September I said a Matt Schaub injury might be the only thing that could derail Houston’s bid to get a top-two seed in the AFC (Actually, it took some significant injuries on the defensive side and some ineptitude in the final month to derail that).
  • Before their week 9 game, I mentioned that Houston was flying under the radar and “people forget how complete of a team they are.”
  • Just five weeks ago, when the Texans were about to play at New England, I was adamant that the Patriots should only be a two-point favorite, instead of the posted four-point spread. I said I’d be stunned if that game wasn’t decided by a field goal…and now we’re looking at a 10-point spread for this weekend?

If the line on this game was New England -6.5, I wouldn’t even feel the need to explain why I was picking the Patriots. That’s how sure I am that the Patriots win this game. But just like the Denver-Baltimore game, 10 points is a lot to bank on in the playoffs.

If you’re looking back to the Patriots’ week 13 win against Houston (which I’m currently watching on NFL Network’s “NFL Replay”), you’ll probably say to yourself, “The Patriots had some extremely lucky bounces and generous calls from the referees in that game.” And it’s true. Patriot running backs fumbled twice on their way to the end zone, and both times one of their teammates bailed them out with the fumble recovery. But you cannot overlook the fact that the Pats dropped 42 on the Texans without the services of Gronk. That’s the biggest X factor of this game in my opinion: New England is probably the healthiest team out of the eight remaining playoff contenders.

Let’s pretend for a minute that neither the Texans nor the Patriots running games have much of an effect on Sunday (a definite possibility). Which passing offense do you like more? The one where a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback runs the best hurry-up attack in the NFL, working with as many as five wide receivers, or whatever the hell kind of passing game the Texans run?

I’m taking the Patriots, but definitely expecting to come away with a push.

The Pick: New England 34, Houston 23

 

Don’t freak out just because you don’t see any Prop Bet advice from me in this column. We’re already at 3,000 words today. Figured I’d give you a break. Check back on Friday for my favorite Prop Bets for this weekend’s games (and you should follow my advice on these…the Prop Bet wins last weekend are the only reason I walked away down a mere $0.70 on all my betting combined).