Archive for January, 2012

Conference Championship Picks

January 21st, 2012 Comments off

I can’t wait for these two games. I think both are going to be compelling, close and hard-fought. And that, of course, means we’re in for a pair of blowouts. Here’s what not to expect.

Baltimore (+7.5) at New England
I’ve had my doubts for a very long time about the notion that defense wins championships (or defense wins in the post-season, or defense wins football games — however you want to put it). Sometimes it does. And sometimes it doesn’t. On the other hand, I believe firmly that football games are won and lost in the trenches. It’s true more often than not in the regular season and it’s true more and more often the deeper you get in the post-season. Because you reach a point when every team that’s still playing brings a lot of talent to the field. You can spend your life trying to figure out which receivers are going to beat which DBs more of the time. You can measure quarterback against quarterback. You can talk about what happens when running backs break into the open field. And there’s some value in all of it. But if you just want to get down to the difference between likely winners and likely losers, the place you want to look is line play.  And line play is what’s going to make the difference in this game. If the Baltimore defensive front can break through the New England offensive line and harass Tom Brady, it’ll go a long way to evening out the gap between the most and least productive offenses left in the post-season. If it can’t, which is to say if New England’s excellent O line performs to its usual high level, there’s not a lot the Ravens will be able to do to keep Brady and his receivers from picking up yards and putting up points. Baltimore can’t survive a shootout. Likewise, the New England defensive front is going to have to find a way to stuff the run and prevent the Ravens from putting the game on Ray Rice’s shoulders. Because if the Ravens can use Rice to chew up yards and clock, their defense won’t need to work nearly as hard to contain Brady. So with that, it should be easy to figure out where this game is going, right? Yeah, not so much. It’s strength against strength. The Pats do a great job of protecting their QB; the Ravens to a great job of getting to opposing quarterbacks. The Patriots defense, which has come on since late in the season, tends to give up yards in the passing game, but has been effective against the run; the Ravens’ ground game is the strength of their offense. Something’s gotta give. And I can’t for the life of me figure out what that’s gonna be. So I’ll fall back on this: If every player on all four lines plays to the  best of his abilities — which is what you have to assume given the stakes and the fact that both teams have made it this far — the Patriots have a slight advantage. Because New England’s offense moves the ball with precision and scores fast, and because the Patriots have displayed more versatility, both of which position them better to capitalize on the plays that go according to plan, and compensate for those that don’t. The Patriots also are at home, which isn’t that much of an advantage given the level of the competition, but it’s something. So I’ll take New England straight up, but I’m not giving seven and a half. I’ll call it Patriots by a field goal.

NY Giants (+2) at San Francisco
I rarely guarantee anything, but I can guarantee you the 49ers are winning this game. How can I be so sure? Easy: Because I’m picking the Giants. And the Giants always do exactly the opposite of what I predict. So there you go. Thing is, I could easily have picked it the other way. I mean, hey, the the Niners are a formidable team. The 14.3 points per game San Francisco’s defense allowed during the regular season was the second best average in the league (trailing only Pittsburgh’s 14.2). And, sure, they gave up 32 last weekend, but that was to the most productive offense in the NFL, a unit that put up 34.2 a game in the regular season. Plus, the Giants are playing their second straight long-distance road game, and winning on the road against good teams two weeks in a row has never been an easy thing to manage. But the Giants have something that the Niners lack, and that the New Orleans Saints lacked: balance. New Jersey doesn’t give you the level of offensive production New Orleans does, but they’ve managed 30.5 points a game thus far in the post-season. And they posted 37 last weekend in Green Bay. They have three talented wide receivers and a quarterback who’s smart enough not to throw the ball away and patient enough to hang on and find the open man. And while the Giants D was average at best through most of the regular season, it came on as it got healthy late in the campaign. The New Jersey defense has allowed just 20 points in the playoffs, all of them to a Green Bay offense that put up 35 a game in the regular season (the only two points given up to Atlanta in its wild card round trouncing in East Rutherford came on a safety, and there’s no holding a defense accountable for that). I can’t see the Giants scoring 32 against the Niners, but neither can I see them giving up 36. More like 20 and 13, I think. So I’ll take New Jersey and give the two. And that means San Francisco’s winning it for sure.

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Divisional Round Picks

January 14th, 2012 Comments off

Before I started looking at this weekend’s matchups, I had this notion that the 2012 divisional round would put to the test the notion that defense wins in the post-season. You know, because three of the four games feature defensively oriented teams squaring off against offensively oriented teams (with the Houston-Baltimore shaping up to be a struggle between two great defensive squads). I’ve rethought that. Sure, we’ll get a look at the D vs. O thing in San Francisco. But I’m not sure that’s what’s on tap in Green Bay or New England. I think one of those games is a good bit more interesting, and the other a good bit less, than simple D vs. O.

Let’s just get to what not to expect.

New Orleans (-3.5) at San Francisco
Here’s your battle of the unbalanced. The Niners are one of the best defensive squads in the league. The 14.3 points per game they allowed over the regular season were second only to the Steelers’ 14.2. And, not surprisingly, they were even stronger at home, allowing just 9.7 points per game (though it bears noting that three of their home games were against weak NFC West opponents; and that the Cowboys and Giants managed to hang 27 and 20 respectively in their visits to San Francisco). And while the 49ers offense is at least a little better than many believe, it’s clearly not operating on the same level as the Saints O, which has been one of the best in the league all season and that has come blazing out of the regular season and into the playoffs. The New Orleans defense is like the New England and Green Bay Ds: Not as bad as they’re made out to be (in reality solidly middle of the pack) but by no means the strength of the squad. So what happens when the all-O Saints and the all-D Niners clash? The consensus is that if there’s something that gives the Niners a chance to pull off the upset here it’s home field. San Fran, as noted has been crazy tough at home. And the Saints have been inconsistent on the road. The Saints also are a team that relies on speed, and playing on grass in San Francisco isn’t going to allow them to operate at their highest levels. I’m not prepared to discount either of those factors. But I think if I were looking for a reason to think the Niners will win this game, I’d look, as I often do, at takeaway-giveaway differential. And there San Francisco’s advantage is significant. The 49ers are a league-best +28 on the strength of 38 takeaways (23 picks, 15 fumble recoveries) and, perhaps more important, just 10 giveaways (five of each). The Saints are a -3. They’re not the worst -3 in football — they’re not giving the ball away all over the place, but they almost never take it away (a stark contrast to the Saints team that won Super Bowl XLIV) — but it’s notable that Drew Brees threw three picks in the last two games of the regular season (though he had none in the wild card round win over Detroit). If turnovers prove to be the difference in this game, you can count on San Francisco being the team that comes out ahead. All that said, I just can’t pick the 49ers. The Saints are too hot and too experienced to lose this game to a young Niners team that arguably overachieved to secure the two seed. I think this one goes down to the wire, but I think it’s New Orleans that comes up with the big play that makes the difference. Trailing by three late, they score with seconds remaining to come out ahead 27-23.

Denver (+13.5) at New England
So here’s one of those games that supposed to be about offense vs. defense but isn’t. How’s that? Well, it’s not because the Patriots are a balanced squad. As noted above, the New England defense, like the Green Bay and New Orleans Ds, is better than fans have been led to believe. But it’s better only in the sense that it’s not awful. The Pats D is OK, middle of the road, just good enough to contribute to wins. A few times over the course of the season, in fact, the Patriots D actually sparked victories. Mostly what the New England defense does, though, is give up fewer points than the high-powered offense puts up. That’s not heavy lifting. The reason this game isn’t about defense vs. offense is that the Broncos D isn’t ultimately that much of a factor. Yes, D is the better part of Denver’s game. Defining beliefs of the cult of Tim Tebow notwithstanding, when the Broncos won this season, it was usually because their D carried them. Tebow’s vaunted fourth quarter comebacks were made possible by the Denver D clamping down on opponents and keeping the team in games. And even then, the Broncos were an 8-8 team. They were a team that finished the season with a three-game losing streak, which started with a 41-23 home loss to the Patriots in week 15. They backed into the playoffs. And through their 8-8 season, the Broncos gave up an average of 24.4 points per game. That is, the “good” defense in this game allowed three more points per game this season than the “bad” defense. That would at least seem to call into question the way defenses are evaluated. Of course, if you’ve watched their games, you know the Broncos do have a good defense. It’s just that it’s a defense that’s typically left on the field for most of the first three quarters of games by an awful offense. And I don’t think the offense playing here is different from the offense we saw all season, no matter what they were able to accomplish last week against a Steelers squad that went into Denver banged up, got more banged up as the game went on, appeared shocked that the Broncos had actually come to play and failed to make adjustments based on what was happening on the field. The shortcomings of Denver’s offense will be the difference here. If you’re going to beat New England in Foxborough, you’re going to have to be able to put up a lot of points. You’re going to have to start scoring early and keep scoring until the fourth quarter. And I simply don’t believe Denver’s offense is up to the task. I’ve seen the Patriots start slow often enough this season that I expect this game to be close through the first half. Denver may even have a lead early on. But in the end, I think the Pats put up 35 or more points. And I don’t think the Broncos can manage 36. In fact, I’m not sure they can get to much more than 20, maybe 23. So I’ll take New England and, nervous as it makes me to surrender two touchdowns in a playoff game, I’m going to give the points. Patriots win 38-21.

Houston (+7.5) at Baltimore
This one’s about defense vs. defense, but what’s odd is that I expect it to be decided by offense. Or, rather, lack of offense. That is to say, one of the Os in this game is going to find a way to overcome the opposing D at least enough to put 13-17 points on the board. That’s not much, but it’s about what you can expect these almost identical defenses to allow. The other offense is going to sputter — or, rather, it’s going to be suffocated. And I think you have to believe the offense that fails to get off the ground is going to be one that’s on the road and that hinges on the play of an undrafted free agent rookie quarterback. I think T.J. Yates has played incredibly well since taking over as starter in week 13. He should be proud of himself. And the Texans should be psyched going forward to know that they’ve got a backup quarterback who’s more than capable of winning games. But there are reasons Yates was a third stringer well into this season, and one of them is that he’s not ready to perform in games that really count, games like this, against the kind of defense the Ravens bring to the field. I think this is where the injuries Houston has had to deal with this season finally do the Texans in. I expect Houston to play well (and I expect them to be a serious contender in 2012), but in the end I think they come up short. Baltimore wins 17-9.

NY Giants (+7.5) at Green Bay
Here’s the other game that isn’t really about offense vs. defense. It’s also the game this weekend that I think is most likely to produce an upset. The reason for both is the same: The Giants aren’t an unbalanced team. Yes, the Giants D, now that it’s healthy, is the better of the team’s units. The Giants bring a formidable pass rush that has the potential to disrupt the Packers’ passing game just as it did with the high-octane Patriots in Super Bowl XLII (a game it reached by beating the Packers in Green Bay in the NFC Championship, though that was a different Packers team). But the New Jersey offense has hardly been along for the ride the way that the San Francisco offense has been. Eli Manning has been having his best season as a pro. He has great receivers to throw to. In the regular season, he threw for 308 yards a game, two fewer than Aaron Rodgers. And, so OK, the Manning threw for 16 fewer touchdowns than Rodgers. The Giants scored roughly 14 fewer points per game than the Packers. And New Jersey has trouble running the ball. That’s all true. But my point isn’t that the Giants offense is as good as the Packers O; it’s that the Giants are a balanced team. So, no, this is not about the Giants defense vs. the Packers offense. It’s about whether that New Jersey D can shave enough off the top of the Green Bay offense to allow Manning and his squad to keep pace. I think it can, but not for 60 minutes. I think the Giants will give the Packers a hell of a game, but I think in the end, homefield and and the incredible potency of the Green Bay offense will prove just too much. The Packers win 31-28.

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Wild Card Picks

January 7th, 2012 Comments off

Upsets happen in the wild card round. But I’ll be damned if I can figure out where they’re going to take place this weekend. I’m picking one, mostly because I feel like I ought to pick at least one. But that probably just means that the other three games will result in upsets while that one goes to the favorite. Which is really just another way of saying here’s what not to expect.

Cincinnati (+4) at Houston
Maybe if the Bengals weren’t dealing with the flu. Or maybe if the Texans relied more on T.J. Yatesthan they did on the running game. Or maybe if Cincinnati had it in them to stop the Houston run. Maybe, maybe, maybe. The Texans are simply the more balanced team here. Add in healthy (by which I mean not sick, not uninjured) and at home and you get just enough of a difference for Houston to earn a trip to Baltimore (where they will suffer ignominious defeat) next weekend. Texans by a field goal.

Detroit (+10.5) at New Orleans
It’s all very nice to root for the Lions, who haven’t won a post-season game since 1991, but let’s be honest here: The Lions don’t have what it takes to beat the Saints in New Orleans. OK, you know what? Maybe, maybe, if the Lions defense can pick off Drew Brees a couple of times, the Lions will be able to pull off an upset. Come out a +3 in takeaway-giveaway differential and Detroit will totally have this one. But I don’t see that happening. And barring that, I don’t see any way the Lions can get to the next round. Saints by a touchdown.

Atlanta (+3) at NY Giants
As with virtually every game the Giants have played this season, this one all comes down to which New Jersey squad shows up. (No, I don’t mean to suggest that the Jets may step in here.) The good Giants can beat any team in the league. The bad ones can’t even hold off Washington in their own building. If I had faith in the Giants to show up, I’d pick them. They’re a better team than they’re given credit for being and their at home and that’s usually enough. But I just don’t have faith. And I do feel confident that the Falcons will come in ready to play. Do that (and focus on running the ball) and the Falcons will be the team that gets to lose next weekend in Green Bay. Atlanta by a point.

Pittsburgh (-8.5) at Denver
You know what? I don’t care if Rashard Mendenhall is out and Ben Douchelisbagger is all kinds of gimpy. The Broncos don’t belong in the playoffs. And they’re not beating the Steelers. Not on any field. Not that I expect a blowout, mind you. I think the Broncos defense will hold the injury-riddled Steelers O to very few points. It’s just that whatever Pittsburgh scores will be enough, because Denver will be lucky to put up three points. Let’s go with the Steelers winning 7-3.

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Week Seventeen Picks

January 1st, 2012 Comments off

Give the NFL credit. A couple years back, the league tweaked its scheduling system so that all week 17 games would be played between division rivals. The thinking was that the move provided the best chance for limiting the number of meaningless games in the final week of the season. It seems to have worked. Of the 16 games on the schedule this weekend, only three have no post-season implications. So that worked. Doesn’t mean we’ll have 13 killer games (there’s more than one matchup here in which only one team has something to play for), but it should mean we won’t have two good games and 14 duds, the way we did with some weeks 17 of years gone by. I’ll take it. Here’s what not to expect.

Washington (+8.5) at Philadelphia
The poor, pathetic, disappointing 7-8 Eagles. Right? I mean, they should be playing for something this weekend, the way the Cowboys and Giants are. But, you know, too little too late. And now the best they can do is finish the season 8-8, which will be the exact same record as the loser of the NFC East title game, and one game behind the division champ. The NFC East is a joke. Eagles by two touchdowns.

Detroit (-3) at Green Bay
With the dream of 19-0 two weeks gone, the NFC one seed locked up, and ongoing injury concerns along the offensive line, the Packers are expected to rest some starters. The Lions are in the playoffs, but a win would mean the difference between being seeded fifth or sixth. And that’s the difference between a wild card round trip to the fairly week Giants or Cowboys or the dangerous Saints. That’s something to play for. And it’s why I expect the Lions to come out ahead, though I think it’s a push with the points.

NY Jets (+3) at Miami
The Dolphins should win this game. You know, what with being the better team on both sides of the ball and playing at home and all that. But the thing about the Frat Boys is that they’re hard to kill. Just when you think you’re rid of them, they show up again to plague you. Like vermin. In the end, I suspect New Jersey needs too much help to actually qualify for the playoffs. But I think the Frat Boys at least will do their own part, edging the Dolphins by a point.

Carolina (+7.5) at New Orleans
Sean Payton says his team is playing to win regardless of what the scoreboard tells him about San Francisco-St. Louis. I have a hard time believing that. If the 49ers win, the Saints are the three seed regardless of how this game turns out. And I can’t imagine Payton risking injuries to key starters if the Niners are ahead by 20 heading into the fourth quarter. That said, I do think the Saints will play hard up to the point at which there’s no chance of a Rams win. And that alone should be enough to ensure a win. I’m not giving seven and a half, though. I’ll go with Saints by four.

San Francisco (-10.5) at St. Louis
The Niners earn a week off with a win. The Rams are gonna have the next several months off no matter what happens. St. Louis also has an outside chance of wresting the first pick in the 2012 draft from the Colts with a loss here. And even if none of that were true, this game would still pit the stingiest defense in football against the least productive offense in the league. It all points in one direction: 49ers by 13.

Chicago (+1.5) at Minnesota
Ugh. Vikings by a field goal.

Tennessee (-2.5) at Houston
The Titans need a win to stay in the mix for the final AFC playoff spot. The Texans have nothing to win or lose here with regard to the playoffs; they’re the three seed no matter what. And while there’s an idea out there that the Texans don’t want to go into the post-season on a three-game losing streak, I’m not sure that’s their biggest concern. If the Titans do win and do capture the six seed, these two teams will be back in this spot a week from now with something real on the line. I don’t think you want to show your opponent more than you have to in that situation. I think the Texans will play, but I think they’ll play conservatively. And with the Titans playing all-out, I suspect Tennessee with earn a chance to come back to Houston and get beat. Titans by a point.

Indianapolis (+3.5) at Jacksonville
Let’s just say that a loss here would be a Luck-y break for the Colts. Jacksonville by a touchdown.

Buffalo (+10) at New England
The Patriots are a win away from securing the top seed in the AFC. Also, according to Vince Wilfork, the Pats are eager to make up for their loss in Buffalo back in week three. Oh, and, in the time between then and now, the Bills have gone from promising upstarts to one of the worst squads in football. That should be enough. New England by 17.

Pittsburgh (-7) at Cleveland
Forget about the outside chance that the AFC North champion could also be the conference one seed. It doesn’t matter. Even if the one seed were off the table, the Steelers and Ravens both would have plenty to play for this week. Because the team that takes the division title is getting a week off and at least one home game in the playoffs. And the team that has to settle for a wild card slot and the five seed is getting a trip to first round Oakland or Denver and a near guarantee of having to play all of its post-season games on the road. That’s more than enough incentive to play hard. And with the Browns on the other side of the line of scrimmage, playing hard should be more than enough to guarantee a win for the Steelers. Pittsburgh by 10.

Kansas City (+3) at Denver
Romeo Crennel is right: This game isn’t about Kyle Orton vs. Tim Tebow. It’s not gonna be that easy for the Chiefs. That said, the game will, in many ways, come down to Tim Tebow vs. the Kansas City defense. And that’s good news indeed for Crennel’s squad. Kansas City’s DBs do an outstanding job of picking off opposing quarterbacks. And Tim Tebow is becoming quite adept at throwing interceptions. I expect to see both trends continue. And I expect to see the Chiefs pull off another big upset as a result. Kansas City by a point.

Baltimore (-2) at Cincinnati
The Bengals are the only team in the mix for the final AFC wild card slot who can win their way into the playoffs. That is, if the Bengals can find a way to hold off the Ravens at home, they’re in the playoffs. That would put them in an enviable position if only it weren’t for the needing to hold off the Ravens bit. Because the Ravens are a win away from sewing up the AFC North title and the conference two seed. And that probably makes them a bit more than the Bengals can handle. Baltimore by a field goal.

Seattle (+3) at Arizona
These teams are as evenly matched as their identical 7-8 records imply. Neither of them does anything particularly well and neither of them is going anywhere as a result. So, evenly matched division game, you take the home team, right? Right. Except I can’t stop looking at the one area where these teams aren’t even: giveaway-takeaway. The Cardinals are a horrendous -12. The Seahawks, on the strength of 21 picks, are a respectable +7. That, I think tips the scales. Seattle by a field goal.

Tampa Bay (+11) at Atlanta
I’m assuming that by the time this game starts (or at least very early on) the Falcons will have nothing to play for. Detroit will have sewn up the five seed and Atlanta will be looking at a wild card round trip to New Orleans or San Francisco (which is to say an early exit from the playoffs). I still think the Falcons beat the Buccaneers, but only by six.

San Diego (+3) at Oakland
The Chargers are done. The Raiders are trying to play their way into the post-season for the first time since 2002. The math is simple. Oakland by 10.

Dallas (+3) at NY Giants
Can we assume that with the NFC East title on the line, the good Giants will show up and play their way into the post-season? No. But we can assume that the one and only Tony Romo will show up and find a way to hurt his team at the biggest moment. I expect him to do it the old fashioned way: by throwing a stupid pick. New Jersey by four.

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