Archive for January, 2013

Conference Championship Picks

January 17th, 2013 Comments off

Here we go. Second to last time until next September (that, I can assure you, is an accurate prediction). What not to expect.

San Francisco (-4) at Atlanta
Here’s how I started out thinking about this game: I keep not believing in Atlanta and they keep proving me wrong. So I should pick the Falcons. Only, I also keep not believing in Colin Kaepernick and he keeps proving me wrong. So I should pick the Niners. You see where that got me? Nowhere. So you know what? I’ve decided I believe in both the Falcons and the kid. And that also gets me nowhere. I also believe in takeaway/giveaway differential. That get’s me most of nowhere (Falcons, +13; 49ers, +10). I believe the Falcons have a slightly more productive offense and the 49ers have a slightly stingier defense. Nowhere. I believe in home field advantage. That’s something, I suppose. But I also believe that the Falcons came within inches of choking away a 20-point fourth quarter lead at home last week against a team that was playing its second straight cross-continental road game and that isn’t nearly as good or as well coached as San Francisco. So there goes that. And now I’m back to nowhere (and starting to feel entirely too damned comfortable here). Seems to me that I’m destined to be wrong no matter how I pick this thing. So, to hell with it; I’ll go with the favorite. That way, at least I won’t feel like I’m all alone when it goes the other way. San Francisco by six.

Baltimore (+9) at New England
Let’s start with two completely meaningless statistics (because I did the research so I’m damned well gonna do something with it). First one: Teams playing in a conference championship (I’m lumping pre-merger league championships into this group) the year after losing the Super Bowl are 7-2 (.778) all time. So there’s that. Next: Super Bowl era teams returning to the semifinals a year after losing a conference championship (league championship, pre-merger) are 12-19 (.387). None of that applies to this game in any real way, but you can maybe throw those numbers out at a bar or something and make people think you’re as crazy as I am. How about one that maybe does matter a little: Joe Flacco has never, in his entire career, played outstanding football for three consecutive weeks. Flacco once, in 2010, had three straight standout games, but there was a bye in between the second and third. More to the point, Flacco’s only two consecutive great games in the current season came in the wild card round and the divisional round of the playoffs. That is, prior to the last two weeks, the consistently inconsistent Flacco had been, consistently, up and down all season. Given that, do you think Flacco’s got a third straight great game in him? It could happen, I suppose, but I don’t see any reason you’d want to put money on it. Certainly, you won’t find that reason in the Patriots defense. Because the defense Flacco will face on Sunday isn’t even remotely like the D he faced back in week three when he rallied his team from a nine-point fourth quarter deficit to a one-point victory on the strength of deep passes and an absurd string of defensive penalties (which isn’t to say that the replacement officials made bad calls — some would argue they did; I don’t care — but that the New England D couldn’t get out of its own damned way in the final period). It’s also a defense that’s considerably tougher than the one the Patriots offense will face. The Ravens this season have been OK against the pass, but considerably less than OK against the run. And one can talk about how Baltimore’s D has been getting healthier, and how they finished the regular season with a couple of strong performances on the ground. But in the postseason Baltimore has given up 152 rushing yards to Indianapolis and 125 to Denver (precisely 25 of which came in overtime — so call it 100 if you want). And neither the Colts nor the Broncos achieved run production in the regular season that was even close to the seventh-ranked Patriots run offense. That appears to present a challenge for Baltimore. And what do you do if you’re the Ravens? Do you bring extra bodies to the line to try to slow down the run? Because if you do that, Tom Brady is going to eat you alive in the secondary. I’m also not convinced that the Ravens can get to the quarterback consistently enough to take the Brady out of his game. And if you can’t stop the run and you can’t stop the pass — and your defense, which isn’t young and which has played an awful lot of football over the last two weeks, has to face the fastest-moving, highest-scoring offense in the league — you end up in a situation in which you have to match the Patriots point for point. Ray Rice can’t do that on his own. Can Flacco do enough to make up the difference? On his best day, sure. But Flacco’s already had his best day. Twice. In a row. I think he needs to have as good a day here as he did back in week three, and I just don’t see that happening against the Patriots defense as currently configured. The Ravens and the Patriots virtually always play each other tough. And initially, I thought this game would turn on three points, max. But the more I look at it, the more I wonder if it isn’t time for one of those anomalous games in which one of these teams blows the other out. Last time around (back in 2009) that honor went to the Ravens. This time, it goes to the Patriots. New England, 33-14.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Divisional Round Picks

January 10th, 2013 Comments off

Here’s how it breaks down: I’m taking the road teams in the NFC and the home teams in the AFC. There’s no formula at work there. It’s just how it worked out. So what that means, on the whole, is that the road teams will prevail in the AFC and the home teams will advance in the NFC. Which is really just another way of saying here’s what not to expect.

Baltimore (+9.5) at Denver
This is why I don’t actually put any money on football games. The big spreads in both of the AFC matchups this weekend make me nervous. Sure, the Broncos and Patriots are the conference one and two seeds for a reason. And both the Ravens and the Texans appeared to be fading pretty steadily down the stretch (the Ravens lost four of their final five regular season games — making them 2-4 in their last six games when you add in their wild card round victory over the phony baloney Indianapolis Colts — while the Texans dropped their of their last four, which makes them 2-3 over their last five games when you factor in their wild card round victory over the inept Cincinnati Bengals). There aren’t a lot of reasons to anticipate straight-up upsets in either of the AFC games. But straight up is a different matter than against the spread. And two scores is just a lot to give in the divisional round. Then again, go ahead and tell me how the Ravens are going to compete with the Broncos in Denver. The Ravens that the Broncos hammered the Ravens in Baltimore a mere four weeks ago. The Ravens that are counting on an injured, 37-year-old linebacker to lead the way as they try to slow down the high-scoring, fast-moving Denver offense (because Lewis is a “great leader,” which is nice, I suppose, but hardly the same as being a great player, something he wasn’t this season even before he tore his triceps). The Ravens that simply don’t have a balanced enough offense to keep up with the Broncos. I see one chance for the Ravens to keep this game close: takeaways. If Baltimore can come out on top in the takeaway battle (something they definitely have the ability to do), they can keep the difference to a touchdown or so. If they can come out with a takeaway/giveaway differential of +2, they might be able to win it outright. But I don’t see that happening. And while I think they might stay with the Broncos until late in the second half, I think they ultimately fall by just a hair more than the spread. Denver by 10.

Green Bay (+3) at San Francisco
This one’s being pegged as a tough game to pick, but I’m not sure I buy it. Like the two AFC games, I think this features a team that improved over the course of the season playing a team that started hot, then appeared to stumble some down the stretch (though not nearly so pronouncedly as with the AFC squads). The only real difference is that in this one the hot team is on the road. I just don’t think the San Francisco defense is healthy enough to slow down Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense — you have to sack Rodgers at least five times get him off his game, something I’m not sure the Niners could do even if they were at full strength — whereas I’m fairly confident that the underrated Green Bay D has it in them to take at least something off of young Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers O. I’m looking for something close to a reversal of the result from these teams’ week one meeting, with the Packers coming out on top this time. But let’s say the difference will be seven rather than eight.

Seattle (+2.5) at Atlanta
Just like everybody else, I’m fairly certain that losing Chris Clemons is going to present a serious problem for the Seahawks defense. And I’m pretty sure you’ll see it play out in this game. Less pressure on Matt Ryan means more time for Julio Jones and Roddy White to get open. That’s going to put pressure on a Seattle D that was already going to have it’s hands full trying to slow down Jones, White and Tony Gonzalez. But it’s not like Seattle’s defense has been built on getting to the quarterback. It’s built to make the pass less and less effective over the course of a game by beating the tar out of the guys who catch the ball. Seattle still has the guys to do that. And as long as the Seahawks offense can keep them in the game long enough for toughness to become the deciding factor — which they should be able to do, as long as Marshawn Lynch is at least mostly healthy — I think they’ll manage to come out on top (only to lose next weekend in Green Bay). Seattle by a field goal.

Houston (+9.5) at New England
Here again, nine and a half seems like an awful lot to give in a divisional playoff game. It’s considerably less, of course, than the Patriots’ 28-point margin of victory in their week fourteen blowout of the Texans. But keep in mind that the ball bounced New England’s way all night long in that game. Luck may be, in Branch Rickey’s words, “the residue of design” (which is what Patriots situation football is all about), but no amount of design and no amount of preparation is going to guarantee that a goal line fumble by your running back is going to bounce into the hands of one of your receivers in the end zone. That kind of luck goes as easily as it comes. Still it’s not like everything went New England’s way and the Pats came out ahead by a field goal. The luck part of that game might have been the difference between a convincing 14-point game and a four-touchdown walloping, but that’s hardly the same as luck proving the factor that decides a win. The Patriots were the better team then, and they’re even more clearly the better team now. The New England offense is the highest scoring, fastest moving unit in football. The New England defense is much better than fans (and experts) realize (take a look at this graphic, which illustrates just how much better the Patriots pass D is now than it was 10 weeks ago — it’s not by just a little bit). And while I’m still not sure the Patriots league-best takeaway/giveaway differential (+25) means all that much against a team that takes as good care of the ball as Houston does, I simply find it hard to believe that the Texans secondary can prevail against the Patriots hurry-up passing attack, or that Houston’s vanilla offense can succeed against New England’s complex defense. So, yeah, I’m going to give the nine and a half here, too. In fact, I’d go as high as 14.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Wild Card Round Picks

January 4th, 2013 Comments off

Cincinnati (+4.5) at Houston
I keep hearing/reading about how well the Bengals defense has been playing (and it has) and about how lost the Texans have looked over the final weeks of the season (and they have), and it kind of makes me want to join the crowd picking Cincinnati to pull off an  upset here. But I can’t. That’s not because I believe in the Texans (since I don’t) or because I don’t believe in the Bengals (though I don’t). Neither is it because I believe in Matt Schaub (I assure you that I don’t). It’s that I believe Andy Dalton and the Bengals offensive line are a difficult combination when you’re trying to win a playoff game on the road. Dalton has thrown too many picks, taken too many sacks and lost too many fumbles this season not to be a danger to his own team in a big game like this. The Texans defense does a pretty good job of getting to the quarterback, even in games when the opposing O line isn’t shaky (with one notable recent exception, of course). And the Texans offense does a good job of holding on to the ball, which means that a turnover or two by the Bengals — and those giveaways strike me as virtually inevitable — almost ensures that Cincinnati loses the turnover battle. And when you lose the turnover battle, you usually lose the game. I still don’t believe in the Texans, however, so I’m not giving any four and a half points. But I do like Houston to come out on top by a field goal.

Minnesota (+7.5) at Green Bay
I’ll start out by noting that I didn’t think the Vikings had it in them to win one game in a row over the Packers, so I sure as hell don’t think two straight is even a remote possibility. I’m thinking that at this point the Packers are pretty well aware that they’re not going to neutralize Adrian Peterson and force Christian Ponder to beat them with a defensive effort. The Packers weren’t able to slow Peterson down in either regular season meeting with the Vikings and they’re not likely to do it here. Neither can they count on Ponder to offer up a pair of costly turnovers as he did back in week thirteen. The best way to make Peterson a non-factor (and to put Ponder in a position to make crucial mistakes) is for the Green Bay offense to pour it on. And that’s what I expect to see them do. Minnesota’s defense is purely average. And it was pretty clear in the second half last weekend that the Packers had figured out how to score on the Vikings. I expect to see Green Bay pick up where they left off and put Minnesota in a deep enough hole that they can overcome Peterson’s production. Seven and a half is steep in a playoff game, particularly among division rivals, but I think Green Bay is up to the task. Packers by 10.

Indianapolis (+7) at Baltimore
Every season, there’s a team that makes the playoffs despite that it clearly has no business there. This season, that team is the Colts. Indianapolis comes into this game with a one-dimensional offense led by a rookie quarterback who very well might turn out to be great someday, but who is no better than average right now (no matter what you might have heard); a defense capable of stopping nothing; and a giveaway-takeaway differential of -12. The Ravens may be fading (they’re probably fading), but they’re not fading that fast. The Ravens take good care of the ball, they do a good job of taking advantage of the opportunities opponents present, and they have an offense that’s plenty good enough to put up 28 or better on the Colts. That will get the job done. Straight up, anyhow. It’s a push with the points.

Seattle (-3) at Washington
The only thing I know about this game is that it ought to be exciting to watch. I’m not sure I’d feel that way if Robert Griffin III were healthy. I think Griffin’s good enough to give even Seattle’s outstanding defense a tough time. Neither am I sure I’d feel that way if the Native Americans’ defense were healthy. I’ve been impressed with Russell Wilson, no question about that. He’s a kid with a great football head on his shoulders. But I continue to wonder if that head (and those shoulders) aren’t ultimately just a few inches too close to the ground for Wilson to succeed over the long term or in the big spot. But Griffin isn’t 100 percent. And the Washington defense hasn’t been 100 percent all season. And because of that, I have to believe Seattle has a shot. In fact, if the game were in Seattle, I’m pretty sure I’d take the Seahawks. Of course, one of the reasons the game is in Maryland is that the Seahawks don’t travel well. Seattle is a 3-5 road team, and only one of their three road wins came over a team that finished the season with a winning record (the Bears, who, you know, aren’t in the playoffs). That gets us right back to where we started: good game featuring a home team that should be the better squad and a road team that probably actually is the better squad, but that hasn’t shown any real ability to play up to its potential away from its own building. I think RG3 does just enough to eke out a win. Barely. Maybe right at the end of regulation. Native Americans, 23-21.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: