Here’s the most important thing I’m going to tell you: Don’t listen to anything I have to say.
Or at the very least, don’t risk actual money based on my predictions. Because if there’s one thing I’ve been good at all season long, and now through the playoffs, it’s making terrible picks against the spread.
I went 0-2 against the spread in the Conference Championship round, which makes me 2-7-1 picking against the spread this postseason. That’s pretty damned awful.
Straight up? Better. I went 1-1 in the last round, which puts me at 8-2 overall in the playoffs.
So, you know, maybe that means I’ve got an 80 percent chance of getting this last pick right. Or maybe it means I’ve got a 100 percent chance of experiencing the last bit of a stats correction that’s still possible at this point.
That’s picking straight up, of course. Against the spread it’s a guaranteed disaster. So if you’re going to bet (you shouldn’t bet; it’s a stupid way to throw your money away), bet the other way. Seriously.
Here, for the last time until September, is what not to expect.
Carolina (-5.5) vs. Denver
I’ll start out by stating again something I’ve expressed here and elsewhere a trillion times before: The bit of conventional wisdom about defense winning championships is wrong. Defense doesn’t win championships. Balance wins championships. We think defense wins championships mainly because throughout the regular season the focus of both fans and the media tends to be on the teams with flashy offenses. Those teams are fun. And they win a lot in regular season play, because they mostly come up against teams with bad, middling or pretty good Ds. The teams with the big, bruising Ds meanwhile, win consistently but unspectacularly. Or they do as long as they also have offenses that are at least pretty good. Because a strong D asked to carry a bad O eventually wears down. Then you get into the postseason, and the teams with great Ds and pretty good offenses start eliminating the teams with great offenses and OK-ish Ds and it looks for all the world like defense is carrying the day. Until you get to the end. Usually. And then what happens is that the team best suited to play well on both sides of the ball comes out on top. And when you have a team that extends offensive/defensive balance to run/pass balance on both sides of the ball, that squad is even better positioned to win, often to win decisively. (But there again, because that team plays well on D, which we’re not used to talking about, we end up hearing about how defense wins championships. It’s an inescapable cycle.)
The Carolina Panthers are an incredibly well balanced football team. It’s why they come into this game 17-1. The Panthers had the NFL’s most productive offense during the regular season, scoring 31.3 points per game. In the postseason, although Carolina squared off against the league’s stingiest defense (Seattle, 17.3 points per game) and seventh stingiest defense (Arizona, 19.6 points per game), the Panthers were able to put up 31 and 49 points, stretching their overall scoring average to 32.2 points per game. And, yeah, they did that playing at home, but the Panthers put up big points in road games all season long. There’s nothing on their schedule that suggests they may struggle to score simply because they’re playing on a neutral field. The Panthers move the ball well through the air and better on the ground. They come into this game with an overall offensive passer rating of 100.4. And their run game produced 142.6 yards per game (4.3 yards per carry) and 19 touchdowns during the regular season, which they stretched to 143.2 (still 4.3) and 24 in the playoffs. The Panthers also protect the ball incredibly well. Meanwhile on D, although the Broncos have got most of the attention these past two weeks, the Panthers may actually be the better unit. Carolina gave up just 19.3 points per game during the season, sixth fewest in the NFL. They’ve maintained that average through the postseason. Across all 18 games, they’ve compiled a defensive passer rating of just 72.8, and have allowed just 86.2 yards per game (4.0 yards per carry) on the ground. The Panthers led the league in takeaways during the season with 39, which also gave them a league best takeaway-giveaway differential of +20, which they have extended to +28 in the playoffs.
The Denver Broncos, on the other hand, are not a well balanced team. Denver unquestionably has a powerhouse D, and it’s that unit that carried the Broncos through the regular season and the playoffs alike. The Broncos allowed just 18.5 points per game during the regular season, an average they were able to reduce slightly, to 18.3, in the postseason despite facing two of the NFL’s most productive regular season offenses in Pittsburgh (26.4) and New England (29.1). And, yes, we all know that the Steelers were up against some pretty serious injury issues by the time they got to Denver, but that doesn’t change the fact that the impressive Broncos D has not let up in the postseason. And the Broncos have been better than the Panthers against the run. They allowed just 83.6 yards per game (3.3 yards per carry) during the regular season, and reduced their overall average during the playoffs to 81.4 yards per game (still 3.3 per carry). The Broncos are slightly weaker than the Panthers against the pass, however, with a defensive passer rating of 77.7 through 18 games. The difference comes largely from the fact that the Broncos pick off the ball with much less frequency than the Panthers. But on offense, the emotional perspective of fans and professional observers who want to believe that Peyton Manning has one last big game in him notwithstanding, the Broncos are completely outclassed in this game. They’ve put up just 22.1 points per game through all 18. They bring in a passer rating of 76.9, a number that makes it astonishing to think that they’ve come this far. And while they run the ball better than they throw it, at 107.0 yards per game and 4.1 per carry, no one’s accusing the Broncos of tearing up the turf. Most problematic for the Broncos is their tendency to give the ball away. Denver finished the regular season with the third most giveaways in the league, 31. The Broncos were the only team to qualify for postseason play with a negative giveaway-takeaway differential, -4. They’ve improved to -2 overall during the playoffs, but two decent games doesn’t constitute a turnaround.
Before we get to a pick, let’s take a moment to look at the holy trinity of predictive stats, shall we? Scoring differential, Panthers +4.6 (not huge). Passer rating differential, Panthers +14.2 (pretty huge). Turnover differential, Panthers +30 (ginormous).
So here’s the deal. Denver’s defense is probably good enough to make a few things happen, maybe even good enough to win the game if the offense doesn’t completely fall apart. But to get to a Denver win, everything needs to go the Broncos’ way. Everything. You can’t count on that. Ever. You certainly can’t count on it when you’re lined up against a team that was probably the best in football from September through January. I just can’t envision the Denver D being able to clamp down on Cam Newton and the Panthers offense for an entire game. Can’t. But I can see the Carolina D positioning itself to victimize the one-dimensional Denver offense. So I’m going with Carolina. And while I won’t be surprised if it’s still a game at halftime, and maybe even at the end of the third quarter, I will be surprised if the Panthers don’t come out ahead by at least a touchdown, and possibly a good bit more.