Week Four Picks

October 1st, 2015 No comments

Well, week three was decidedly less awful for me than weeks one and two. I actually managed to finish a semi-respectable 11-5 straight up and a very respectable 10-6 against the spread. That success boosted my season results to 28-20 (.583) straight up, 21-26-1 (.448) ATS. Maybe that means I’m finally starting to get a feel for what teams are really about. Stats and trends never start to make sense until after week four, but matchup issues become a bit easier to ID once teams have played a couple of games. Or maybe I just got lucky for a week and the only thing that’s gonna stop me from finishing week four 0-16 is the fact that, with byes beginning, there are only 15 games (OK, well, that and the abject awfulness of the Lions).

Here’s what not to expect.

Baltimore (-2.5) at Pittsburgh
The Ravens’ season ended just before the two-minute warning in week three. But they don’t know it yet. Pair that blissful ignorance with a visit to a quarterbackless opponent, and I think you get a narrow win. No way I’m giving two and a half, though. Baltimore by a point.

NY Jets (-1.5) vs Miami (Wembley Stadium, London)
The only arena on the planet in which the Dolphins could hope to compete with the Jets is the one they agreed to move this game away from. New Jersey by at least four.

Jacksonville (+9.5) at Indianapolis
The good news for the Jaguars, I suppose, is that the Colts aren’t in a position to hang 51 points on anyone. So it will at least look like Jacksonville has taken a step in the right direction. Maybe. At the very least, we’ll get to hear all next week about how the Colts have righted the ship. They won’t have. But it might be week six before that fact is made manifest on the field (and your television). Indy by 17.

Houston (+6.5) at Atlanta
Heading into the season, I thought Houston was ready to make the leap to competitiveness in the AFC South. I was wrong. I mean, the Texans may actually still win the division. But if they do, it won’t be because they got markedly better, but because the Colts got markedly worse. Turns out Houston doesn’t have a quarterback. That’s a problem. The Falcons, meanwhile, may be better than I expected. I thought they could compete in the NFC South, but probably nowhere else. That may yet prove true. But my guess at the moment is that the Falcons, at the very least, could easily win the AFC South. As it is, they appear to stand a solid chance of sweeping that division. Still, I suspect the Texans will make this game appear competitive even if it really isn’t. Atlanta by a field goal.

Carolina (-3) at Tampa Bay
Maybe playing at home keeps the Bucs in this one. Maybe. But I don’t think so. I think we’re looking at a very long afternoon for Tampa Bay. Carolina by 11.

NY Giants (+5.5) at Buffalo
In which Eli Manning throws his first interception of the 2015 season. And his second. Bills by a touchdown.

Oakland (-3) at Chicago
Before last Sunday, the Raiders hadn’t won a road game since November of 2013. That adds up to 11 straight road losses. In that light, it’s hard to imagine picking them to win a second straight away from home. Except that the Raiders are much better than anyone expected. And, you know, the Bears are a disaster. Oakland by six.

Philadelphia (-3) at Washington
Quick: Which is the worst team in the NFC East? Yeah, I don’t know either. But until I do, I’m not picking any of them to win back-to-back road games. Washington by a field goal.

Kansas City (+4) at Cincinnati
The beatdown the Chiefs experienced in Green Bay on Monday night was largely attributable to the fact that the Packers are a great football team. But one shouldn’t allow that to mask the fact that the Chiefs we’ve seen on the field this season may be capable of competing in most of their games, but ultimately don’t have what it takes to overcome tough opposition. The trend continues here. Bengals by six.

Cleveland (+7.5) at San Diego
Quarterback play may not mean very much in this game, since there’s likely to be little need for either offense to go to the air. But I’m still taking the team with the quarterback. Chargers by four.

Green Bay (-8.5) at San Francisco
The Niners aren’t going to beat many teams this season. They’re certainly not going to beat the good ones. And the Packers are one of the best. Green Bay by 14.

Minnesota (+6.5) at Denver
I keep reading and hearing about how the Minnesota defense is going to give Peyton Manning the the Broncos O all they can handle. That may be true. The Denver offense hasn’t been particularly impressive so far this season. But I’m not sold on Minnesota’s unbalanced offense, either, particularly not when it has to go up against a D like Denver’s, which isn’t terribly susceptible to the run. I see the Vikings D spending an awful lot of time on the field, and wearing down. Maybe it’s a game into the fourth quarter, but I still see Denver coming out ahead by at least a touchdown.

St. Louis (+7) at Arizona
If the Cardinals offensive line can continue to protect Carson Palmer as well as it has over the team’s first three games, we’ll have to look at Arizona as the most dangerous team in the NFC. This game should present a good test. The Rams aren’t a great team by any stretch, but they know how to get to the passer. St. Louis is tied with New England for the league lead in sacks at 13. I expect the Rams to make things difficult on Palmer, and to make this Arizona’s most competitive game of the season in the process. I’m still expecting a Cards win, and I think they cover. But I’ll be surprised if the difference is greater than high single digits. Let’s just say nine.

Dallas (+4) at New Orleans
Kinda weird to think about what a dog this matchup is, right? And yet … . The Ain’ts finally get a win. The difference is a field goal.

Detroit (+9.5) at Seattle
The Lions are just completely terrible. Seahawks by 17.

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Week Three Picks

September 24th, 2015 Comments off

Well, I managed to fare even worse in week two than I did in week one. So this year’s off to a great start. I went 8-8 straight up, a deplorable 5-11 against the spread in my picks of 2015’s second set of games. That gets me to 17-15 straight up and 11-20-1 against the spread on the season. You’d think things could only get better. But you’d be wrong. They can absolutely get worse. Let’s explore how, shall we?

Here’s what not to expect.

Washington (+4) at NY Giants
The Giants can’t possibly find a creative way to lose yet another game, can they? Seriously. Can they? I’m not sure anything would surprise me at this point. But I’m not counting on it. That said, it appears the Racists may actually have a defense, so I’m certainly not giving four. Let’s say New Jersey by a field goal.

Pittsburgh (-1) at St. Louis
Going into the season, I had the Rams figured for about a .500 team. And when I see a team that way, I tend to assume that they’ll beat the teams they should beat and lose to the teams they should lose to. So far, it’s been just the opposite. And that might spell trouble for the Steelers. But I doubt it. I expect Pittsburgh to bring just enough on both sides of the ball to come away with a victory, though not by a margin one would call decisive. Steelers miss one of their now standard two-point tries and end up winning by six instead of seven (or eight).

San Diego (+2.5) at Minnesota
A second straight road game is never an easy thing, and the Chargers in recent years rarely have been a team that traveled well. But I still think San Diego ultimately has more upside than Minnesota. And I feel better about the Chargers offense than I do about the Vikings’ D. So I’m looking for a San Diego win here, if maybe just by a point or two.

Tampa Bay (+6.5) at Houston
The good news for the Texans, I suppose, is that the Colts have also have lost their first two games — and looked considerably worse than Houston in doing so. And it’s hard to see the 1-1 Titans or Jaguars emerging as the new dominant team in the AFC South. So there’s still time to make a push for the division title. That won’t mean much, of course, if the Texans can’t handle the Bucs at home. But I think they’ll manage this task OK. Texans by four.

Philadelphia (+2.5) at NY Jets
It’s starting to seem like maybe, just maybe, there’s a slight possibility that Chip Kelly, in fact, is not a genius. Maybe. New Jersey by a touchdown.

New Orleans (+7.5) at Carolina
I don’t know if it’s all over for Drew Brees. But it’s pretty clearly all over for the 2015 Saints. Panthers by 10.

Jacksonville (+13.5) at New England
If the 2015 Patriots weren’t clearly out to embarrass as many opponents as possible, a date with the Jaguars, who have surged all the way to so-so, a week before an early bye might have been cause for concern. What we have instead is an opportunity for New England to hang seven touchdowns on an opponent — and perhaps all of them through the air (which would give Tom Brady a piece of yet another NFL record). Patriots by no less than double the spread.

Oh, by the way, in case you were wondering



Cincinnati (+2.5) at Baltimore
Andy Dalton sure is having a great season, isn’t he? That’s the conventional wisdom, anyhow. Through the Bengals’ first two games — a decisive 33-13 road win over the Raiders in week one followed be a somewhat sloppy (though not on Dalton’s part) 24-19 home victory over the Chargers — Dalton has completed 41 of 60 passes for five touchdowns while neither throwing an interception nor taking a sack. Dalton’s per game averages of 30 attempts and 20.5 completions are consistent with his career numbers, as are his 241.5 passing yards per game. But his TD percentage, 8.3, interception percentage, 0, and consequently his passer rating, 120.3, all are considerably better than what we’re used to seeing (in order, 4.8, 3.0, 86.1). It all points to a couple of possibilities. The one you’re hoping for if you’re a Bengals fan is that Dalton, in his fifth NFL season, has come into his own. If that’s true, he’d hardly be the first pretty good quarterback to ascend to another level at this point in his career. The other possibility, though, is that there’s a correction coming. Much as it did last season, when Dalton went the first two games of the season without throwing a pick or taking a sack — though while his 40 of 61 for 553 yards (226.5/game) from those games looks familiar, he threw just two TDs in that span, which kept his passer rating down to 105.4. I can’t see into Dalton’s head. But in watching his play I haven’t spotted anything that strikes me as convincing evidence that something has clicked. So for the moment at hand, I feel like the smart position is to anticipate a correction. Right now, Dalton’s in debt to his career interception and sack averages to the tune of two each. I don’t expect him to complete a regression toward the mean in a single game. But I do think that a visit to Baltimore — particularly with the Ravens going into their home opener desperate for a win, having dug an 0-2 hole with late-game collapses in Denver and Oakland — presents a nice opportunity for a bit of leveling for the Cincy QB. So I’m looking for the Bengals to have a rough afternoon and for the Ravens, whose troubles thus far have had more to do with Joe Flacco than with the defense, to assert their determination to remain a factor in the AFC North. Baltimore by four.

Oakland (+3.5) at Cleveland
The Raiders appear to have an offense. If they could grow a defense, they’d be dangerous. But I don’t see that happening in week three. Cleveland edges out a one-point victory.

Indianapolis (-3.5) at Tennessee
Yeah, I know the Titans have yet to beat a good team. But the Colts have yet to beat any team. And, you know, obscured by the excitement about Tennessee’s shiny new quarterback has been the fact that Bishop Sankey and Dexter McCluster both have been playing pretty good football. And guess what team still can’t stop the run? So, right. I’m taking the Titans. By three.

Atlanta (-2) at Dallas
Like everyone else, I’m totally confident that the Cowboys will be able to overcome the loss of their biggest offensive weapons and find ways to win. Totally, totally confident. Falcons by seven.

San Francisco (+6.5) at Arizona
The Cardinals are better than I thought they were going to be. I only had them pegged for 12 wins this season. More fool me. Arizona by 14.

Chicago (+14.5) at Seattle
I don’t know where the Seahawks are headed this season. But I know that this week they’re finally headed home after opening with a pair of tough road losses. And I feel pretty confident that they’re headed for a win. Especially since I’m pretty sure the Bears are headed nowhere. Seattle by 20.

Buffalo (+3) at Miami
It’s always great when you can see a pair of recent champions square off in the regular season, isn’t it? The Bills and Dolphins both won the Super Bowl in week one. And commenced their hangovers in week two. I suspect the Bills are slightly better positioned to bounce back, having suffered their loss at the hands of an actual good team. Buffalo by four.

Denver (-3) at Detroit
Toward the end of the Broncos’ last game, I wondered aloud whether any of their 2015 opponents wouldn’t self destruct. The answer, as it turns out, is yes. The Lions won’t get the opportunity to self destruct; the Broncos will take care of it for them. Denver by 10.

Kansas City (+6.5) at Green Bay
Where’s this game being played? Pretty much my only question. Packers by a dozen.

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Week Two Picks

September 17th, 2015 Comments off

Not a great start with the picks for me. I went 9-7 straight up, 6-9-1 against the spread. But, you know, here’s where I start digging myself out of the hole. Or maybe just digging a deeper hole. Probably that last thing.

Here’s what not to expect.

Denver (+3) at Kansas City
The Chiefs got their season off to a promising start Sunday in Houston. It’s nice. But it will be meaningless if they don’t make it 2-0. If they want to win the AFC West — hell, if they want so much as slide into January as a potentially dangerous wild card team — the Chiefs have to be able to defend their home turf against a Broncos squad traveling on a short week after a hard-fought home opener. If Kansas City can do that, they’re in the mix. If they can’t, they’re probably headed for another 9-7 finish and seats on the couch for the postseason. It’s really that simple. Simpler still, the way to beat the Broncos continues to be stop the run and force Wobbles McGee to beat you with his noodle arm. Can the Chiefs pull that off? I suspect they can. Kansas City by four.

Houston (+3) at Carolina
I don’t know what to make of this match. That’s got something (a lot, actually) to do with the fact that I don’t know if last week’s flat open had more to do with the Texans or the Chiefs. And if it was the Texans, is a change at quarterback going to fix it? What I do know is that I wasn’t in any way impressed by the Panthers’ win at Jacksonville. If this game were in Houston, I’d probably pick the Texans. It isn’t, and I’m still tempted to pick the Texans. But I’m not going to. Ugh. Panthers by a point.

Tampa Bay (+9.5) at New Orleans
I know the Saints didn’t fare well at Arizona last weekend, but … um … Bucs. If the Tennessee can win by four touchdowns in Tampa Bay, I’ve gotta figure the Saints can beat the Buccaneers by at least two TDs in New Orleans. So let’s say Saints by 14.

San Francisco (+5.5) at Pittsburgh
The Steelers defense is suspect, but I don’t see them giving up 230 yards on the ground. Pittsburgh by a touchdown.

Detroit (+3) at Minnesota
I can’t imagine the Lions blowing a big lead yet again this week. Trouble is, I can’t decide whether that’s because I don’t think the Vikings can overcome one, or because I don’t think the Lions can build one. Coin comes down home team. Vikings by a field goal.

New England (-1) at Buffalo
For the Bills, the key to this game isn’t stopping Rob Gronkowski. It’s stopping Tom Brady before he can get the ball to Gronk (and others). For the Patriots, it’s not about stopping Tyrod Taylor. It’s about stopping Karlos Williams. I’m not sure I think either team can be entirely successful. I think both can do enough to keep this game very tight for at least the first half. But I think the Patriots are more likely to make successful adjustments as the game wears on. So I’ll take New England. Let’s say by six.

Arizona (-1.5) at Chicago
The Bears may be the second best team in the NFC North. By default. I don’t think you get anything for that. Cardinals by eight.

Tennessee (-1) at Cleveland
Works out the Browns are still the Browns. Who ever would have guessed.  Titans by a touchdown.

San Diego (+3) at Cincinnati
I think the Chargers should be able to beat the Bengals. I just haven’t seen anything that leads me to believe the Chargers will be able to beat the Bengals. So … whatever. Cincinnati. By a point. I guess.

St. Louis (-3.5) at Washington
Pretty sure I’ll be picking against the Racists every week this year. Also pretty sure I’d be picking against them this week even if that weren’t the case. Rams by a touchdown.

Atlanta (+2) at NY Giants
It took all of a week — really, just one game (really, just the last couple of minutes of one game) — for me to lose all faith in the Giants this year.  Which means they’re about to go on a 18-0 run through the Super Bowl. Or not. Falcons by four.

Baltimore (-6) at Oakland
Second straight road game for the Ravens. That’s never easy. Except when it is. Second straight home loss for the Raiders. Baltimore by 10.

Miami (-6) at Jacksonville
And speaking of second straight home losses. Dolphins by 14.

Dallas (+5) at Philadelphia
With a win, the Cowboys would take a commanding lead in the NFC East just two weeks into the season. I’m sure they’d love that. But it’s not going to happen. Philly rights the ship with a win by seven.

Seattle (+3.5) at Green Bay
The last time the Packers beat the Seahawks was the last time the two teams met in Green Bay. That has nothing to do with this game. Just something to say other than “the Packers have to beat the Seahawks sometime.” And, you know, Seattle is playing on the road for a second straight week. Packers by six.

NY Jets (+7) at Indianapolis
I think it’s pretty much a given that the Colts defense is going to have trouble stopping Chris Ivory. The good news for Indy, and bad for New Jersey, is that the Colts can still neutralize the Jets running game — by piling up enough points to force New Jersey to the air. Indianapolis by 10.

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Week One Picks

September 10th, 2015 Comments off

Here we go again. A whole new season of pro football out ahead of us. A golden 256 opportunities for me to make an ass of myself with utterly ignorant picks. Or 267 if you count the playoffs. (Of course, I might point out that the last time I made a pick on a game that counted, I had New England beating Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX by a score of 27-23. So that’t not so bad.)

Anyhow, onward. Not much to say about this week’s games, because I can’t even pretend to know anything at this point in the season. Here’s what not to expect.

Pittsburgh (+7) at New England
The Patriots are ready to begin their revenge campaign. The Steelers are going to round into form (offensively speaking, anyhow) soon enough, but not in time for this game. New England by 20.

Green Bay (-7) at Chicago
One team’s quarterback probably will rank among the greatest of all time. The other team’s quarterback may rank among the most overrated of all time. And here we are reminded of the difference. Packers by 10.

Kansas City (+1) at Houston
This is the kind of game the Texans need to win if they’re going to have a shot at the division title. And they’re going to have a shot at the division title. Houston by a field goal.

Cleveland (+3) at NY Jets
Jets win the Super Bowl! Jets win the Super Bowl! Wait. You’re saying it’s just a week one home game against the lowly Browns? Oh. Jets are gonna win the Super Bowl! New Jersey by six.

Indianapolis (-2.5) at Buffalo
The Colts may come out of this looking like a better team than they are. Buffalo doesn’t have the offensive weapons to take advantage of Indy’s defensive shortcomings. The Bills may slow the Colts down for a quarter or a half, but in the end, it’s Indy by a pair of touchdowns.

Miami (-3.5) at Washington
Iffy road team giving three and a half? That doesn’t feel very good. But the Racists actually may be that bad. Dolphins by four.

Carolina (-3) at Jacksonville
I don’t know what to make of either of these teams, but I like the matchup of Carolina’s defense against Jacksonville’s offense better than anything else in this game. So I’ll take the Panthers straight up. It’s a push with the points.

Seattle (-4) at St. Louis
I won’t be shocked if the home dog manages an upset in this game. But I’m not quite ready to pick it that way. Seahawks by a field goal.

New Orleans (-2.5) at Arizona
The Saints offense isn’t ready to overcome the Cardinals’ defense. And won’t be until maybe next season. Arizona by a touchdown.

Detroit (+3) at San Diego
The Lions’ once formidable D isn’t in any kind of shape to slow down the Chargers’ O. Not in San Diego, anyhow. Chargers by eight.

Tennessee (+3) at Tampa Bay
It would be easy to list everything that’s impressive about these two teams, but why bother. What’s important is that there’s slightly less that’s unimpressive about the home squad. What more do you need to know. Bucs by four.

Cincinnati (-3.5) at Oakland
The Raiders are gonna surprise a few opponents this season. Starting this weekend. Oakland by a point.

Baltimore (+4.5) at Denver
Picking this matchup is every bit as simple as it isn’t. You can try to break it down, knowing next to nothing about how either team will fare this season. Or you can just go ahead and take the home team. That’s what I’m doing, though I’m going to hedge just a bit (easy when there’s no actual money on the line): Denver by a field goal.

NY Giants (+6) at Dallas
The Giants may overcome the Cowboys this season. But not in Dallas on the year’s first Sunday night. Cowboys by a touchdown.

Philadelphia (-3) at Atlanta
I don’t care where the game’s being played, the Falcons aren’t ready yet to keep up with the Eagles. Philly by six.

Minnesota (-2.5) at San Francisco
And, once again this week, I’m picking a road favorite. In this case, it’s mostly because I can’t come up with a single reason to believe the home team can manage a win. Vikings by 10.

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2015 NFL Season Predictions

September 9th, 2015 Comments off

This was going to be the year I finally overcame my ridiculous habit of making predictions about professional football games that won’t be played for months to come. Because, a) it’s a damned stupid thing to do; and b) the NFL spent the entire off-season pissing me off and distracting me with its absurd vendetta against Tom Brady, which, among other things, has prevented me from keeping as close an eye as usual on developments around the league. It adds up to me being somehow even less qualified than usual to reach any kind of  judgment about how any team is likely to fare in games played in September, let alone December.

But here we are. Maybe because I can’t help myself. Maybe because I’m itching to think about football again and this is as simple, and low risk, a way to accomplish that as I’m likely to come up with.

As always, even I’m not ridiculous enough to waste my time trying to guess at actual final win-loss records. To my mind, doing that moves you entirely to far away from the honest admission that this is an exercise in semi-educated guesswork. I mean, my balls are as fully inflated as the next guy’s, but neither of them is crystal. So once again, I’ll offer range of how many games I think each team is likely to win. (Or maybe I should say it’s how many games I believe each team is capable of winning. It’s something like that, anyhow.) I’ve got this weird idea that doing it this way gives me a better chance of getting it right even though it totally doesn’t. Last year 15 teams ended up with win totals inside my projected ranges. But, hey, I got the AFC Championship game matchup and outcome right. And I picked the Super Bowl XLIX winner (quite a stretch, I know) though I had the NFC champ wrong. So I’ve got that going for me.

Anyway, I’ve got to start getting football stuff wrong sooner or later. So here goes.

AFC East

New England Patriots, 13-15
I can’t get into health here. Is there reason to be concerned about the number of Patriots players who have been sidelined during the preseason? Sure. Just like there’s reason to be concerned about every team’s ability to get through any season without being undermined by injuries to key players. But that’s about as far as you can take that kind of talk. A football team either is going to stay healthy enough to function through the season or it isn’t.  Of greater concern, at least looking at New England from the outside, is the defensive secondary. Malcolm Butler may well be more than a one-hit wonder (or one pick wonder, I suppose), but he almost certainly isn’t Darrelle Revis. Butler’s not going to take an opponent’s best receiver out of a game by himself. Maybe there’s more to the Patriots secondary than anyone who isn’t part of the team realizes. Or maybe the Patriots feel like their pass rush is going to be powerful and aggressive enough (it sure as hell looks good) that they don’t need a secondary as formidable as the one that helped land them in the position of defending champs. I’m going to have to see it play out for a few weeks before I have any hope of understanding. The good news for New England, of course is that Brady is clearly going into this season loaded for bear. So unless this is the year when the O line disintegrates (which is possible, but not probable), the Pats can be expected to put more than their fair share of points on the board. And when you give your pass rushers a lead to protect, and free them to go hard after the opposing QB, you can usually realize pretty good results. The difference between a strong finish and a solid shot at the AFC one seed and blazing hot finish and a clear path another championship, to my mind, is all in how the secondary comes together.

New York Jets, 7-10
The Jets have a defense. The Jets may have backed into having a semi-talented starting quarterback. And there’s every reason to believe the Jets actually have managed to land themselves a talented, sane head coach. How it all falls apart remains to be seen. It’ll happen, but maybe not before New Jersey pulls off a few surprising wins and positions itself for a postseason berth.

Miami Dolphins, 6-9
I’ll say the same thing about the Dolphins heading into this season that I said heading into last. I think Ryan Tannehill has incredible potential. But no quarterback can complete passes from underneath a defensive end. If the Fins can prevent their quarterback from being killed, they could contend for the postseason. If not, they’ll have to hope their D can help them win a few games while they prepare for life under their next head coach.

Buffalo Bills, 3-8
I’ll believe Tyrod Taylor is a capable NFL starting quarterback when I see it. Until then, I figure this team is good for as many wins as its defense can produce. Might not be many. Might be enough to make the Bills a team to worry about heading into 2016.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers, 8-12
It’s all about the defense for the Steelers, but not in the way it used to be. Pittsburgh’s offense looks capable of piling on points. Its defense looks like it may allow almost as many. And with relatively few gimmes on the schedule (really, just the two games against the Browns), it’s all a matter of how often the D bends and how often it breaks. That’s the difference between a division title and a shot at the two seed and a seat on the couch for the postseason.

Baltimore Ravens, 7-10
Sooner or later, the old chunking the ball up the field and hoping one of your guys comes down with it thing is bound to catch up with Joe Flacco. I suspect it may be now. And how the Ravens fare will depend on how they, and their quarterback, adjust. Baltimore is a well coached team with a formidable D. That may carry them to a division title despite any struggles Flacco and the O experience. Or it may not.

Cincinnati Bengals, 6-10
Sooner or later, it’s all going to fall apart for Andy Dalton. With the Bengals schedule, it could happen this season. But I don’t think it will. I see the Bengals taking a step back, maybe two, and probably missing the postseason. But a couple of good bounces of the ball, and they could be playing (and losing) on wild card weekend once again.

Cleveland Browns, 2-6
It’s not always easy to predict exactly where it will all fall apart for the Browns. All you can ever say with confidence is that it will all fall apart for the Browns. Then again, maybe this season it’s easier than usual to ID a likely weak spot.

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts, 9-12
The Colts spent the offseason adding offensive weapons with an eye toward helping get Andrew Luck to his first Super Bowl. That would be a reasonable plan if scoring had been a problem for Indy. But the reality is that the Colts offense ranked sixth in scoring last year with 28.6 points per game, just 1.8 behind the league-leading Packers, and 0.7 behind the eventual champion Patriots, who routed the Colts in the AFC Championship. You’d almost think someone would have suggested improving a defense that allowed 23.1 points per game, 14th most in the league, and second most among playoff teams after the Panthers (who backed into the playoffs with a losing record). But apparently not. So, yeah, assuming their O line holds (not a given), the Colts should be able to increase their scoring. Add 5 points a game and they’ll likely lead the league. Add 9.4 and they’ll set a new single-season record. In either case, they’d land among the top 9 scoring offenses of all time. Nice, except only two of the other eight made it to the Super Bowl, and none of them won. So that should work out great. Only, I don’t even expect the Colts to do that well. I think they take a step back this season, possibly even losing the division to the Texans.

Houston Texans, 9-12
Bill O’Brien is on track to become the first former Bill Belichick assistant to succeed as an NFL head coach. And it looks to me like O’Brien’s Texans are headed for a big step — a postseason berth — this season. The Texans fought their way to 9-7 last year. And they appear to be a stronger team heading into the 2015 campaign. I certainly don’t see them taking a step back, and I think with the way their defense is constructed, they’re going to be in a position to earn a split with the Colts, and perhaps to reverse last year’s result by sweeping their rivals. In the former case, the Texans should at least grab a wild card spot. In the latter, they take the South and contend for the two seed.

Tennessee Titans, 3-7
It’s entirely possible that the Titans have solved the quarterback position. Which will be nice as soon as they solve some of the others.

Jacksonville Jaguars, 3-7
The Jaguars may actually make it through the 2015 season without getting Blake Bortles killed. That’s something, right?

AFC West

Denver Broncos, 8-13
The defense is going to keep this team in games no matter what. It’s hard to imagine them missing the playoffs. It’s impossible to imagine them finishing with less than a .500 record. Everything else is about the new offense and how Peyton Manning fares within it. You’d be a fool to write off the Broncos. But I think the folks in Denver may want to hold off on parade planning, at least until week 12-ish.

San Diego Chargers, 9-11
One hates to make the same prediction about a team two years running, but I can’t help it in this case. The Chargers once again have a chance to frustrate Peyton Manning’s attempt to fight his way to one last Super Bowl. The Chargers look formidable on both sides of the ball. If they can avoid the health issues that plagued them last season, they should be able to take advantage of a schedule that puts both of their games against Denver solidly in Manning’s now traditional duck season. Take away the run and force Peyton to try to win with his arm and the Chargers should finish with a division title. If not, they’ll still finish in strong contention for a wild card spot.

Kansas City Chiefs, 8-10
I keep hearing that this is the year the Chiefs overtake the Broncos. And maybe it is. We’ll have a better sense of whether that’s possible when Denver travels to Kansas City for the week two Thursday night game. If you’re going to take the division title away from your biggest rival, you have to be able to beat them when they travel to face you on a short week, right? Me, I think even if KC can get the best of Denver, they’re still destined to finish behind San Diego.

Oakland Raiders, 5-8
The Raiders almost certainly are the most improved team in the AFC West. Of course, that’s due in large part to the fact that they had the most room for improvement. Things are looking up for Oakland, but this team is still a year removed from making a serious push for the playoffs.

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles, 9-12
The Eagles managed 10 wins last season, and they appear to be a marginally better team this year. And they’ve got a few soft spots in their schedule. So, um, let’s pencil them in for 11 wins, which could be enough to earn them a division title, followed by the usual early bow from the tournament.

Dallas Cowboys, 9-11
I seriously underrated the Cowboys last season. Didn’t realize they had discovered that a running game is still part of playing offense in the NFL. This year, I fully realize that Dallas appears to have forgotten that lesson. So I like them to finish a game or two worse than the 12 wins they managed in 2014. Maybe that gives them another division title, but it won’t do much more.

New York Giants, 8-11
Given how many experts are counting them out, you have to like the Giants chances at winning not only the NFC East but the Super Bowl. Because that’s who they are. The Giants are probably a slightly stronger team than the squad that finished 6-10 last season. If they can pair stronger with healthier, they can make a run at the division championship. Don’t be shocked if they find a way to put it together.

Washington Racists, 2-5
What are the two most important elements in building a successful team in the NFL? Good coaching and good quarterback play. So, um, yeah.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers, 12-15
As good as they are, the Packers have no chance of advancing to the Super Bowl this season. How do I know? Because the Packers clearly aren’t going to make it back to the Super Bowl until I (and a bunch of others) stop picking them to get to the Super Bowl. And I just can’t back off. So, sorry, Aaron, I’ll try my best to pick against you next year.

Detroit Lions, 8-10
The Lions were an 11-5 wild card team in 2014 with a stronger defense than the one they bring into the 2015 campaign.

Minnesota Vikings, 8-10
I’m not as confident as some that the return of Adrian Peterson to the lineup means the Vikings are headed to the playoffs. But neither am I inclined to write Minnesota off. If the Vikes can manage six wins over their first eight games, I’ll start to believe. Otherwise, it’s a fantasy.

Chicago Bears, 3-6
It is simply never going to happen for, or with, Jay Cutler.

NFC South

Carolina Panthers, 8-10
A team is going to win the NFC South title. Might as well be the one with the defense. And, you know, Cam Newton.

New Orleans Saints, 8-10
Or maybe it will be the Saints. They’ve got a pretty good quarterback, too. But not much else. I suspect that’s the difference. Again.

Atlanta Falcons, 8-10
Or the Falcons. They couldn’t compete in most divisions in football, but they have a chance to win this one.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 4-8
But not the Buccaneers. Not yet.

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks, 11-14
I hate it when other people say stuff like this, but … you know, the Seahawks came within a single play (more than that, the single greatest play in Super Bowl history) of winning back-to-back championships. And they improved on offense. I don’t know how you pick against a team like that. I sure can’t.

Arizona Cardinals, 10-12
The Cardinals are going to win games the old fashioned way: With a crushing defense and a hard-pounding run-centered offense. That may not get them past the Seahawks, but I think it will get them into the playoffs again. And I suspect they’ll win a game, maybe two, once they get there.

St. Louis Rams, 7-9
The Rams also will win games the old fashioned way. Just not quite so many as the Cardinals. And not enough for it to really matter.

San Francisco 49ers, 3-6
The Niners are just plain headed in the wrong direction.


Let’s just get on with this annual exercise in stupidity, shall we?

1. New England
2. Houston
3. Pittsburgh
4. San Diego
5. Indianapolis
6. Denver

1. Green Bay
2. Seattle
3. Philadelphia
4. Carolina
5. Arizona
6. NY Giants

Wild Card Playoffs

Pittsburgh defeats Denver
San Diego defeats Indianapolis

Arizona defeats Carolina
NY Giants defeat Philadelphia

Divisional Playoffs

Pittsburgh defeats Houston
New England defeats San Diego

Seattle defeats Arizona
Green Bay defeats NY Giants

Conference Championships

New England defeats Pittsburgh

Green Bay defeats Seattle

Super Bowl L (Sorry, I’m just not ready to concede the Arabic numeration yet)
New England defeats Green Bay

So there’s your 2015 NFL season at a glance (or two). Except for all wrong.

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Super Bowl XLIX Pick

January 29th, 2015 Comments off

Let me just get this out of the way quickly before I get to the big game. I was better against the spread than I was picking straight up once again on conference championship Sunday. That makes twice. In a season. And in a row. But, you know, small sample size and all that. I went 1-1 straight up (thanks to the Packers’ collapse), bringing me to 173-89 on the year. And I was 2-0 against the spread, which got me to (ugh) 123-135-4. Just one more chance to get everything wrong. So here we go. What not to expect in Super Bowl XLIX.

New England (-1) vs Seattle
The Patriots aren’t winning this game because they’re angry about Deflategate. They’re not winning this thing because they’re due. Or because Tom Brady and Bill Belichick need it to cement their legacies. (If you think for a second the opportunity to cement a legacy has any bearing on the outcome of a game like this, I advise you to revisit Super Bowl XLVIII.) Similarly, the Seahawks aren’t winning because they’re a “team of destiny,” the NFL‘s next great dynasty rising. Neither is Seattle winning because karma’s on the Seahawks’ side, or because the football gods are out to smite New England. That’s Super Bowl party conversation stuff. It has nothing to do with how a game is decided.

These teams have made it to this point because they are the best in their conferences. And they at least appear to be very evenly matched.


So, as usual, the team that wins (this may come as a shock for the more media-saturated among you) will be the one that brings in the better game plan and executes better on the field. I know, right?

As I see it, there’s next to no margin for error in this game. Seriously, this looks to me like the kind of game that can turn on a single takeaway. That’s one bad decision. One nervous mistake. One unlucky bounce of the ball. Which way does that go? I don’t know. I don’t remember the last time I had so little ability even to guess. Because both of these teams excel at creating turnovers. And, for the most part, both excel at holding onto the ball. (Hope for what you will, Patriots fans, but I don’t envision the Seahawks committing multiple turnovers in a second straight game.) Let’s look at what the stats and trends say.


That at least would appear to favor New England. But only slightly.

Same goes for the other typical predictive stats. I’m not going to do charts for those, simply because the calculations are a bit more complicated. You can take my word for this or not. (Or go ahead and do the math yourself. It’s fun if you’re sort of a little bit crazy.)

Scoring Differential
Regular season: Patriots +0.5
Postseason: Patriots +6.0
All 18: Patriots +1.0

Passer Rating Differential
Regular season: Seahawks +0.6
Postseason: Patriots +10.5
All 18: Patriots +0.8

I normally feel pretty good about a team that comes out on top in two out of three of those categories. And what we see (for the most part, and certainly in the postseason and all 18 numbers, which are what matter most) are the Patriots coming out at least slightly ahead.

But, you know, this stuff only ever gets you so far in reality football. And it all still leaves one to try to reach some tough conclusions about what’s likely to happen on the field of play.

And that remains difficult, in no small part because both of these teams have stepped up when they’ve faced their toughest opposition.



But I’ve got to come up with something, because, well, I brought you hear on a promise. So here’s what I’m thinking.

Although what you’ve heard about, and what you’ll continue to hear about, is that this game is about the powerhouse New England offense vs. the stifling Seattle defense, I’m not sure that’s what it comes down to.

The Seahawks are going to find ways to make some big stops. And the Patriots are still going to find ways to put points on the board. I don’t think you’ll see the Patriots accomplish that with the types of offensive twists we’ve seen them pull out this season. The Seattle D is smart and unwavering. Those players aren’t likely to be thrown off by odd formations. And they’re not going to fall for trick plays. I think the Patriots succeed against Seattle’s conservative, physical style of defense with a conservative, physical style of offense. That is, they move the ball by throwing LeGarrette Blount at the Seahawks defensive front repeatedly, forcing Seattle to commit to stopping the run. And they use short, crossing routes to keep the ball moving through the air. (This, of course, unless it turns out Richard Sherman‘s injured wing is worse than expected, in which case I can’t see how Tom Brady doesn’t try to make something happen downfield.) Not exactly rocket science, I know. But I don’t think this is a rocket science kind of game. It’s about fundamentals. And while the Patriots aren’t going to employ fundamentals to put up the 45 they scored against the Colts in the AFC Championship, or even the 35 they dropped on the Ravens in the divisional round, I think that if they execute well, they can get into the high 20s.

And that’s where I think we get to the difference in this game, which is the Patriots defense against the Seahawks offense.



I’ve never bought into the idea that defense wins championships. I mean, it does. But not in the way people think. It looks like defense wins championships, because we spend the whole regular season marveling at offensive fireworks only to have defense become a factor in the postseason when the level of competition evens out and the teams that are all about O (like, say, the Colts) run into teams that can get it done on both sides of the ball. So we conclude that defense is the key. But what really wins championships is balance. The truly great teams don’t win through just one aspect of the game. They win through two (sometimes three, but let’s not complicate this discussion with talk about special teams). They may not have the league’s top-ranked offense or top-ranked defense, but they’re usually in the top five in one area and top ten in both. They’re also balanced on both sides of the ball, running and passing, stopping the run and stopping the pass.

The Patriots are a balanced team. The Seahawks … I’m not so sure. And I think the Patriots have an opportunity to exploit Seattle’s lack of offensive balance.

It’s no secret that Seattle’s offense turns on Marshawn Lynch‘s running. In the passing game, the Seahawks lack big receiving weapons. They rely on Russell Wilson‘s elusiveness. Wilson can put up run yardage. But more important, he manages to scramble long enough for someone to get open downfield, then let’s fly with a rainbow. It’s been effective, but it’s not necessarily great strategy.

Still, the Patriots need to limit both Lynch and Wilson to keep the Seahawks offense in check. I believe they can do it. And I think this is where your twist comes in. I expect to see the Patriots roll out some elements of the 46 defense (the one employed by the Chicago Bears who stomped New England in Super Bowl XX). The Patriots have the personnel to employ 46 principles. In particular, I think they have the ability to shift their defensive line to the weak side and leave the strong side to their outside linebackers. And because they have cornerbacks who can play man coverage, New England can commit a putting a safety in the box to help limit the run and to free up a linebacker to spy Wilson. The 46 isn’t a great scheme against a team that can spread its receivers, but it is exactly the right defense when your goal is to take away the run and force a quarterback who likes long developing plays to make fast decisions.

That line shift creates blocking issues for even the best O linemen. Add the Patriots tendency to move switch around which defensive end lines up left and right, and I think we’re going to see Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones take turns abusing Seahawks right guard J.R. Sweezy. As a result, I think we’re going to see the sack issue that has plagued Wilson and the Seahawks this season take a toll. And maybe if Wilson gets chased around enough, he makes that bad decision I talked about earlier.


The Seahawks haven’t faced a balanced team in the postseason. And still, they needed all four quarters to beat (ahem) the Panthers, and a series of good bounces and an overtime to come back and beat the Packers. In reality, I don’t think the Seahawks have faced a balanced team since mid-October. And they haven’t beaten a balanced team since September. I think that catches up with them in this game. Seattle is good. Seattle can win this game. But I’m not sure Seattle is ready to win this game, which is to say I’m not sure they’re ready to take on a team that plays well on both offense and defense.

In the end, I like the Patriots to put up 27 points. And I think the most the Seahawks manage is 23. If the Patriots come out ahead in the turnover battle, maybe it’s more like 17. But you can’t plan for turnovers. So I’ll say Patriots, 27-23.

(Now go check out this segment from 93.9 The River in which I talk Patriots, Tom Brady and Super Bowl XLIX with Monte Belmonte.)






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Conference Championship Picks

January 16th, 2015 Comments off

I backed the wrong  road dog in the divisional round. That’s my excuse. It’s also true. Thought Dallas would find a way to get it done in Green Bay. And, you know, they almost did (some would argue it was more than almost, though I’m not one of them). And I never for a second contemplated the remote possibility that Peyton Manning had diminished to the extent that he wouldn’t be able to overcome the Colts defense in Denver. But he had. So it goes. I came in at 2-2 straight up, 3-1 against the spread, which gets me to 3-5 and 4-4 respectively in the postseason, 172-88 and 121-135-4 overall. I need to pull even this weekend, so you’d think I’d pick conservatively. But what fun would that be? Here’s what not to expect.


Green Bay (+7.5) at Seattle
I’m still not sold on the Seahawks. I know simply saying that makes me look like an idiot to easily 50 percent of the football-watching world. And I know I’ll look like even more of an idiot if the Seahawks win this thing 43-8 and embark for Glendale as 10-point favorites to repeat as Super Bowl champions. (Yes, I know the prospective lines are -3 over the Patriots and -7 over the Colts. I’m just making a point, here, OK?) But that’s where my head’s at. And the truth is I probably am an idiot. I can live with that. The thing about the Seahawks is that they still, to my mind, haven’t beaten a complete opponent since week three. In the meantime, they dropped a home game to the Cowboys and found ways to lose on the road to the Rams (division rivals are always tough outs) and the Chiefs, who were still a contender at the time, but wouldn’t be for long. Then, starting in week 12, Seattle went on a tear, beating up on the injury-depleted Cardinals and dysfunctional 49ers a couple times each, scoring a nice road win against the faltering Eagles, and closing with a home win over the Rams. All of that made the Seattle stat line looked good, but I’m not sure it should have inspired the level of awe currently being accorded to the defending champs.


And if I’m not impressed with the fact that the Seahawks beat a weak Carolina team in the divisional round last weekend, I’m even less impressed by the way they beat the Panthers. The Seahawks D struggled to stop the run and allowed Carolina, a team that had no business even being in the playoffs, to hang around into the fourth quarter. Seattle’s offensive numbers in that game look impressive, but they lose some luster if you know how atrociously the Panthers D had performed in games against top competition during the regular season. I’m not asking Seattle to apologize for a win any more than I’d ask that of any team. But I’m still going to view the Seahawks as vulnerable to strong competition until I see evidence to the contrary. That may come this week. If Aaron Rodgers‘ mobility is limited by his ongoing calf issues, and he becomes an easy target for the Seattle pass rush, it’s going to be a long afternoon for the Packers. But if Rodgers can move around OK, enough that the Seahawks can’t tee off, I think the Green Bay offense has the weapons, between the QB and his receivers and Eddie Lacy, to put up some points in spite of the Seattle D and force the Seahawks offense to try to match them. And I’m not convinced Seattle has the offensive firepower to get that done. I’ll also say this: The Seahawks live by the turnover. They lean on turnovers for defensive stops. And, as we saw last week, they use turnovers to produce and set up points. And the Packers, by and large, don’t give the ball away. Green Bay committed a league-low 13 giveaways during the season. I think Seattle is going to have to figure out a way to produce at least one, possibly two, takeaways. If they can do that, the Seahawks probably win easily. If they can’t, this game belongs to the last team to hold the ball. My gut says that’s Green Bay. Let’s say 24-20.


Indianapolis (+6.5) at New England
I’m going to start by saying this: If you think the Colts can’t beat the Patriots in this game because they haven’t beaten the Patriots in any of their last three meetings, you’re thinking about it the wrong way. Indianapolis got to this game. Indianapolis can win this game. Thinking the Colts can’t win is like thinking the Patriots couldn’t beat the Ravens last week because they’d struggled against Baltimore in recent postseason matches. It made sense (more sense than I realized) to think Baltimore would be a tough matchup for New England, but as it turns out, every meeting between two teams is its own thing. The teams that survive to this round of the playoffs are in it for a reason. They find ways to win, sometimes when they’re not expected to. Wanted to put that out there before I said this, which also looks backward, but in a different way: In each of the past two years, I spent the week before the Conference Championship game looking for reasons to believe the Patriots could/would win. Both times, I had to stretch a bit. There were reasons to like the Pats’ chances, but they weren’t particularly strong. This year, I’ve spent the same week looking for reasons to think the Colts can or will win. I haven’t come up with much. Other than Andrew Luck, I mean. If Luck has a career day, the Colts have a solid chance. If he doesn’t … well, more on that in a bit.


This is all a way of noting that New England is in a much different position heading into this weekend this year than they have been in the recent past, possibly their best position entering the AFC Championship since 2007. So how does that play out on the field? Well, by way of another glance at the recent past, I’ll tell you that I don’t think anyone’s rushing for four TDs this time around. I mean, I know LeGarrette Blount had his turn when the Patriots hosted the Colts in the divisional round last year. And then this year, Jonas Gray got to do it when the Patriots traveled to Indianapolis back in week 11. So it’s only fair that Shane Vereen should get to be the guy this time around, right? And hell, it’s not like the Colts have figured out how to defend the run. Not in any real way, anyhow. Not unless they don’t have to worry about their opponents’ passing game. But it can’t happen. It just can’t. Because Chuck Pagano can’t let it. Really. It’s that simple. Pagano may find a way to win this game. Or Pagano may not find a way to win this game. Maybe he doesn’t even figure out a way to keep it close. But the one thing he absolutely can’t do is suffer yet another blowout loss in which the Patriots run the ball down the Colts’ throats. Because if that happens, Colts fans and the media are going to start asking questions like, “How did you not see this coming?” and “How could you not game plan for this?” So he has to game plan for it. He has to pull out all the stops to make sure the Patriots end up with far fewer than 200 yards and a handful of scores on the ground. And that, I think, is going to contribute to the Colts’ undoing. What I think happens is that Pagano commits resources to stopping the run, knowing that creates vulnerabilities against Tom Brady and the Patriots passing game, and tries to coach his DBs and edge rushers into playing the game of their lives to keep from getting burned. I also think he favors LaRon Landry over Sergio Brown at free safety (which has been his practice for a while now, anyhow) because Landry is better suited to helping with run defense. And that should present Rob Gronkowski with some very favorable matchups. I think that when Gronk releases rather than run blocks, the Colts are going to have a problem on their hands. As they will with the matchups between the Patriots’ receivers and the Colts’ questionable DBs. And the matchup between Brady and a Colts defensive front that likes to bring pressure from the outside rather than up the middle.


So how, then, does Pagano’s team get to that win that I’m not willing to rule out? Well, they need to do it on offense. As noted, they need their quarterback have the kind of exceptional game he’s capable of. They also need to use the run to control the ball and keep the New England offense off the field. And they need to avoid the turnovers that have been a problem for them all season — and that might have proved their undoing last week had the Broncos not been imploding. If the Colts can manage all of those things, they have a good chance. Two out of three, they don’t lose too bad. If they only get one out of three, it’s probably a bloodbath. Me, I suspect that on a cold, rainy, windy night in Foxborough — in a season in which the Patriots feature their best defense in a decade — you can probably count on the Colts to pull of one out of three. So I’m expecting a bloodbath. Not in the first half, because the Patriots don’t take control of games in the first half, but by the time all is said and done. Patriots, 45-20.


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Divisional Round Picks

January 9th, 2015 Comments off

Ugh. That’s about all I can say about my performance picking the wildcard games. After finishing the regular season on a high note, and coming in at a respectable 170-86 (.664) straight up, and a not-so-respectable but entirely predictable 118-134-4 (.469) against the spread, I took a beating in the first week of the playoffs: 1-3 (.250) straight up and ATS. Ugh. So what happened? I thought too little of Carolina. I thought too much of Pittsburgh. And the coin landed wrong side up on Cincinnati-Indianapolis. So why bother picking this week’s games. I don’t know, really. Because I’m in this deep. That’s part of it. And, you know, given that I rode effectively the same winning percentages through the regular season, you’ve gotta figure I’m in for a correction. That would mean a perfect week straight up, and at least a 2-2, maybe 3-1 finish against the spread. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice. Or, you know, I guess I could conceivably go 0-4, 0-4 this week. We’ll see. Here’s what not to expect.

Baltimore (+7) at New England
I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but apparently Joe Flacco is a different quarterback in the postseason. He goes from being mostly solid and respectable to completely unbeatable. It’s true. I mean, that’s what I’ve read anyhow. And it’s certainly true that Flacco’s Ravens have won five straight playoff games, including a Super Bowl, and that Flacco looked really good against the Steelers last week. You can’t take any of that away from them. Neither, however, should you leave out that the latest game of the Ravens’ postseason win streak is separated from the other four by a 2013 season in which Baltimore finished 8-8 and missed the tournament. Or that the current iteration of the Ravens doesn’t bear much resemblance to the one that snagged the Lombardi Trophy two years ago. But maybe that doesn’t matter, because the other thing I keep hearing about with this game is that the Ravens have the Patriots number in the playoffs. They’ve won two out of three games against New England in Foxborough during the tenures of Flacco and head coach John Harbaugh. The numbers there are not in dispute. One of those wins was the 2012 AFC Championship, the game that sent Baltimore to Super Bowl XLVII. Flacco had a good day in that game, too. For the other Ravens playoffs win in New England, you have to go back to the Wild Card round of 2009. Flacco wasn’t a Factor that day (he went 4 of 10 for 34 yards — and, yes, he played the whole game). The Ravens were carried by a crushing defense and a running back whose name isn’t suitable for print (not because he beat the Patriots in 2009; because he beat his fiancée in 2014). They don’t have either of those things to lean on in this game. The loss came in the AFC Championship of 2011. Flacco was pretty good in that game, too. In fact, what I keep hearing is that the Ravens should have won that game. Lost it because of a well defended pass in the end zone (it wasn’t a drop; not by any definition; watch the tape) and a missed attempt to tie the score with a field goal in the closing seconds. Neither of those things was Flacco’s fault, of course. But, you know, I’m not big on talk about how a team “could have” or “should have” won a game. They didn’t. That was the Ravens last loss in the playoffs, by the way. But it wasn’t their last loss to the Patriots. That came in December 2013, when the Patriots went into Baltimore and beat the living bejesus out of the Ravens. No one’s been talking about that this week. And fair enough; it has little to no bearing on this meeting between these two teams. Just like the 2009 Wild Card game, the 2011 AFC Championship and the 2012 AFC Championship. But shhhhhhhhhhhh. Here’s what does have some bearing on this game. The 2014 Patriots are a balanced team. The 2014 Ravens are not. The Patriots are better overall on both sides of the ball and they’ve achieved more this season against tougher opposition.


The Ravens run the ball a bit better than the Patriots. And Baltimore has a great defensive front. And while I think the idea that Flacco becomes a great quarterback for five weeks as soon as the ball drops on New Years Eve, it’s also true that he’s not exactly a mouse footman. He’s solid in the regular season, sometimes great, sometimes not so great, rarely awful. And taken as a whole, his postseason career also has been solid. What the Ravens don’t have is much of a defensive secondary. That will prove to be a problem as long as the Patriots offensive line can protect Tom Brady (or, you know, assuming Brady still has a quicker release than Ben Roethlisberger and won’t be standing there expecting he can get the ball to his receivers while pass rushers bounce off of him). Neither have they shown much ability this season to deal with tight ends, something that, um, may present a bit of a problem for them on Saturday. It will also be interesting to see how the Ravens running game fares given that Darrelle Revis‘s ability to take away Baltimore’s first receiving option by himself provides the Patriots with the option of moving a safety up into the box on first down. So here’s what it comes down to. Sure, the Ravens might pull into Foxborough and beat the Patriots again. The Ravens are a damned good team; they can beat any of the eight teams still alive in the playoffs if things go the right way. But it’s not going to be easy, no matter what you might have heard about Flacco’s postseason mojo or the Ravens’ New England magic. And I don’t think it’s likely. I think it’s close through halftime (I won’t be at all surprised if the Ravens have a slight lead a the half), but New England takes control in the third quarter. It should, and probably will, be a better game than this implies, but I’m looking for the Patriots to put the other bookend on the Ravens’ postseason win streak, coming out on top by 10.

Carolina (+11) at Seattle
I’m not sold on the idea that the Seattle Seahawks have become some kind of unstoppable force just in time for the playoffs. The defending champions look like a great team. They may actually be a great team. But I’d like to see them beat a respectable opponent — something they haven’t accomplished since week three (nobody believes me when I say this, but it’s true; see for yourself) — before I buy into the idea that they’re destined to repeat as champs. That said, it remains the case that the Carolina Panthers don’t really belong in the playoffs. Look at this.


And don’t know what you focus on, but here’s what grabs me: Five yards per carry. Five. That tells me Beast Mode is gonna be in feast mode. And that’s about all I need to know. Seahawks by 20.

Dallas (+5.5) at Green Bay
I don’t want to pick this game. Really, I don’t. Not without knowing whether Aaron Rodgers is going to be playing on two legs or one, anyhow. Because here’s the deal: Yeah, the Packers don’t lose at home (except that sometimes in the playoffs they do), but the Cowboys have been great on the road this season. And, yeah, the Green Bay defense has been better against the run down the stretch than they were early in the season, but they’ve struggled throughout against good teams with strong ground games. But I think ultimately the way you keep DeMarco Murray from eating you alive is not with your defense (at least not if you’re the Packers) but with your offense. You pile up the points and force the Cowboys to go away from the run in order to keep up. Doing that also put you in a position to take advantage of the critical mistake Tony Romo is destined to make at some point in this postseason. And that strategy should be one Green Bay can execute, even in the face of a very good Dallas D, as long as Rodgers is up to the task. But that’s the question. It’s hard to move on a bad calf. And the more you do it, the harder it gets. So my guess is, the Cowboys, though pass rush is not the strength of their D, are going to look for ways to force Rodgers out of the pocket and see what happens as the game wears on. If Rodgers holds up, the Packers come out ahead by at least a field goal. If he doesn’t, it could be a tough day for the fans at Lambeau. I’m not at all confident in this, but given that the injury has been reported as a tear as well as a strain, I’m going to assume his mobility is going to be a problem. I’m holding my breath and taking Dallas to win it by something like four.

Indianapolis (+7) at Denver
This is a weird thing to say, but the way you beat the Denver Broncos in 2014 is that you take away the run and force Peyton Manning to throw the ball. The Colts simply don’t have the ability to do that. And even if they find a way, it will leave them vulnerable enough that Manning, even in the thick of duck season, will be able to pick their secondary apart. I see exactly one way the Colts can win this game and it’s that Andrew Luck has a near-perfect day. That, plus a few good bounces, could do the job. But you can’t count on either of those things happening. Not with Luck’s iffy track record against top competition. And not when the ball is bouncing on someone else’s field. Which is to say, not in this game. Denver by six.


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Wild Card Picks

January 3rd, 2015 Comments off

Here’s where things get messed up. Or, you know, more messed up. Picking straight up worked out OK for me in the regular season. With an 11-5 finish in week 17, I came in at 170-86 (.664) for the year. That ain’t so bad. Against the spread, on the other hand … . I went 9-7 in the final weekend of the season, which is about as good as I’ve even done. That lifted my season record to a truly laughable 118-134-4 (.469). So I should expect to go maybe 3-1 straight up, 1-3 or 2-2 against the spread in the wild card games, right? Except I won’t. Wild card weekend is always brutal for me. Because there are always upsets. Sometimes three of them. But I can never tell where they’re coming from. So here we go. Here’s what really, really not to expect this weekend.

Arizona (+6.5) at Carolina
This game shouldn’t be as tough to pick as it is. Carolina has no business in the postseason. Not only did the Panthers “win” the awful NFC South with a losing record (7-8-1), but they haven’t logged a victory over a respectable opponent since they topped the Lions back in week two. Carolina’s four-game win streak to end the season came via a game each against the rest of their deplorable division plus a game against a Cleveland Browns squad that had packed it in for the year. Prior to that “strong finish” the Panthers were 3-8-1 and had been winless since week five. So there are your NFC South champs. If the visiting Cardinals weren’t one injury away from having to line up Curly Joe Derita behind center, it would make picking this game incredibly easy. But the fact is, Arizona’s third-sting quarterback Ryan Lindley hasn’t exactly been lighting it up. And one has to wonder how far a defense, however good, and a running back who was on the practice squad a month ago can possibly carry a team. It’s fun to think the Cardinals can keep finding ways to make it work, but the reality is the kind of injury-plagued season Arizona has experienced inevitably and invariably catches up with a team. The question isn’t whether the Cardinals will bow out of the tournament, but when. I suppose when it comes down to it, I have to give the Cardinals another week. I need to pick a winner in this match, and my gut says you take the team that’s got it done with tough play and great coaching over the team that’s fallen ass backward into the least impressive slot in the playoffs. Makes sense, right? Arizona by a field goal.

Baltimore (+3) at Pittsburgh
The Steelers are going to need to get Le’Veon Bell back on the field at some point if they’re going to have any chance of advancing deep into the playoffs, but I think they’ll be OK without him this week. Not sure why, but I’ve got this weird hunch Pittsburgh can beat Baltimore through the air. I expect to see a high-scoring affair with a number of lead changes, but I also expect to see the Steelers come out on top. By at least four.



Cincinnati (+3.5) at Indianapolis
I’ve been trying all week, without much success, to figure out which of these two teams I think less of. Both teams are paper tigers that have spent their seasons feasting on week opponents while stumbling when faced with stout opposition. The Colts went 2-3 in regular season games against playoff opponents, surrendering 27.6 points a game with a defensive passer rating of 98.3. The Bengals went 3-4-1 against playoff teams in the regular season, giving up 30.5 points a game. They were better than Indy against the pass, but horrifically bad against the run, allowing 130.8 yards per game and 10 rushing TDs in their eight games against contenders. And neither Andrew Luck nor Andy Dalton performed well enough consistently enough in the tough games to make me believe either can carry a team to a conference championship, let alone a Super Bowl. Honestly, I’m not sure either of them would have beat Baltimore or Pittsburgh this week. But they didn’t get the Ravens or Steelers; they got each other. And since it’s the playoffs, one of these teams literally has to win. I think that team is Cincinnati. I think the Bengals have enough of a pass D to slow down the Colts’ air attack and an offense that’s balanced enough to keep the Indianapolis defense on its heels. Unlike these teams’ regular season meeting, back in week seven, I think this one will be close throughout. And unlike that earlier match, I think this one goes to the visitor. Bengals by a point.

Detroit (+6.5) at Dallas
You can spend a lot of time, and many people have, talking about what this game — this postseason, really — means for Tony Romo. And fair enough, I suppose. If Romo is ever going to be anything more than a regular season stats machine who chokes in the playoffs, he’s, you know, going to need to have some success in the playoffs. But I don’t think this game is about Tony Romo any more than I think this Cowboys season has been about Tony Romo. This game, for Dallas, is about DeMarco Murray. For Detroit, it’s about whether the league’s best run D can hold strong against Murray. If the Lions can do that, if they can make the Cowboys offense one dimensional, they’ll give themselves a shot at an upset. But not enough of a shot, I think. I suspect Detroit will make this one tough on Dallas, but will come up just short. Cowboys by three.



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Week Seventeen Picks

December 27th, 2014 Comments off

Wow. What happened to the 2014 season? Seems like I just finished counting down to the opener. And now I’m down to my last chance to embarrass myself before the playoffs. Here’s the deal so far: After my hopelessly uneven finish in week sixteen — 9-7 straight up, 6-9-1 against the spread — my season records stand at at 159-81 (.663) straight up and 109-127-4 (.462) against the spread. Let’s see how badly I can mess things up in just a single week, shall we? Here’s what not to expect.

Jacksonville (+9.5) at Houston
The Texans are never going to get all the help they need to land the final spot in the AFC playoffs. But they’ll certainly do their part. And Houston is simply a far better team than Jacksonville. Texans by ten.

Indianapolis (-7) at Tennessee
The Colts aren’t going much of anywhere in the postseason. They might yet win their wild card round game, particularly if they get the Bengals, but that should just about do it. But the Titans aren’t the Bengals. Indy by nine.

Cleveland (+13.5) at Baltimore
The Ravens are shooting for the AFC six seed. The Browns are preparing for 2015 (not well, mind you; they’re still the Browns). Baltimore by 17.

Buffalo (+5) at New England
I don’t know. The Patriots have nothing to play for, and every reason to focus mainly on not getting anyone hurt. That should translate to a loss. But the Bills are in enough of a state of disarray that maybe the Patriots backups will be able to beat them. I just really have no idea what to expect. I’ll go with New England, but only by a field goal (followed by two weeks of Boston sports radio talk about how the inability of the second string to put this game away spells trouble for the Patriots in the postseason).

NY Jets (+6) at Miami
Something tells me the Jets spent everything they had left last week. Dolphins by a touchdown.

Chicago (+6) at Minnesota
Neither of these teams is going anywhere in 2014. But the Vikings at least are pointed in the right direction for 2015. That’s gotta be good for something, right? Minnesota by a field goal.

San Diego (pick ’em) at Kansas City
I’m not sure Alex Smith’s absence from this game punches the Chargers’ ticket to the postseason. The Chiefs losing Smith simply doesn’t change the fundamental dynamic of the matchup, which is this: San Diego’s offense isn’t equipped to overcome the Kansas City defense; and San Diego’s defense isn’t structured to limit Kansas City’s run-focused ball control offense. If the Chargers are going to win, they’re going to need to come out ahead in the turnover battle by +2, and I simply don’t see that happening. Chiefs by a field goal.

Philadelphia (+2.5) at NY Giants
Yeah, um, Giants, I guess. Because why not? One of these teams has to win. Or not lose. Whatever. Let’s say by four.

Dallas (-4.5) at Washington
The Cowboys are the NFC three seed no matter how this game turns out (because they’re just not getting the silly help they would need to move up). But they should still beat the living bejesus out of the Racists, even if it’s just to flex their muscles some as they head into the postseason. Dallas by 14.

New Orleans (-4) at Tampa Bay
The Bucs secure the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. It will be interesting to see how they squander it. Saints by six.

St. Louis (+12.5) at Seattle
Well, sure, I think we’d all love to see the Cardinals get another chance by way of a Seahawks loss to the visiting Rams. That’s pretty enough to think about, I suppose. But it’s not exactly in tune with reality. Seattle by 17.

Arizona (+6.5) at San Francisco
I don’t care who Arizona’s starting quarterback is or where this game is being played, the Cardinals are just a better team than the 49ers. Arizona by a point.

Oakland (+14) at Denver
Watch the media fall in love with Peyton Manning all over again. For two weeks. Denver by 10.

Carolina (+3.5) at Atlanta
What a rare treat it will be next week to watch a seven-win team hosting a postseason game. The Falcons are at home, so let’s figure they carry the day. Atlanta by three.

Detroit (+7.5) at Green Bay
Things have changed considerably for the Packers since their week three loss in Detroit. Considerably. Green Bay sews up the division and the conference two seed with a six-point victory.

Cincinnati (+3.5) at Pittsburgh
The Bengals inability to stop the run translates to an inability to hold onto the NFC North title. Steelers by seven.

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