Archive for January, 2014

Super Bowl XLVIII Pick

January 31st, 2014 Comments off

Seattle (+2.5) vs. Denver
I knew well before the conference title games were played two weeks ago that the AFC champion was going to have to hope to get San Francisco in the Super Bowl. That’s not because I thought the 49ers would have been an easy opponent. Far from it. I simply looked at the Niners as the NFC squad most likely to make the kinds of mistakes that would allow the AFC champ to take home the Lombardi Trophy. But then, as I watched the actual game between Seattle and San Fran, it became clear to me that I’d been entirely wrong and, moreover, that my thinking had probably been more about maintaining the slim hope of a New England championship than anything else. Because the fact that was readily apparent by the end of conference championship Sunday was that neither AFC team ever had any hope of beating either NFC team.

Nothing that’s happened in the ensuing two weeks has changed my mind.

It’s worth observing that Denver has been a different squad in the postseason than it was in the regular season. This is a team that led the league in scoring by no small margin — 38 points per game (at home, it was 39.5), which is 10 more than the teams that tied for second, New England and Chicago — in the regular season. In Denver’s two playoff games, by contrast, the Broncos scored 24 against the Chargers, who didn’t even belong in the tournament, and and 26 at against the Patriots, who saw their best remaining defensive starter taken out early and who played terribly thereafter.  It’s really hard for me to imagine that those postseason Broncos are going to go into East Rutherford and put up a bunch of points on the Seahawks, who allowed 14.4 points per game all season and who have been consistently dominating on D in the playoffs. (The Seahawks gave up 15 to the Saints and 17 to the Niners, teams that scored 25 and change per game each during the regular season.)

On top of that, I think the Broncos defense is really ill-suited for stopping the Seahawks offense. The Broncos secondary is terrible. And I don’t believe the Denver pass rush can contain Russell Wilson in the pocket. That means I expect to see Wilson running all over the backfield buying time for his receivers to get open. Denver’s interior run D, of course, is very solid, so I don’t expect Marshawn Lynch to be a factor carrying the ball. But I don’t think he needs to be. What I think the Seahawks need form Lynch is to be there to prevent the Broncos from dropping extra bodies into pass coverage, and to pick up blitzes. I suspect he’s up to the task.

So here’s what I envision: At the two-minute warning, it’s Seattle 24, Denver 20 and the Broncos have the ball for one last drive. The Denver offense moves the ball out close to midfield, and then, Peyton Manning drops back and throws his second pick of the game to Richard Sherman, who takes it for six the other way, sealing the Seattle victory, and becomes the first defensive player named Super Bowl MVP since Dexter Jackson in Super Bowl XXXVII.

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Conference Championship Picks

January 16th, 2014 Comments off

Got a lot to say about one of this weekend’s games, not much about the other. Guess which one got all of my attention. Here’s what not to expect.

New England (+5.5)  at Denver
I’ll say it right up front: I’m taking New England straight up here. I’m making that pick in part because the Patriots are the local team. I’m making it in part because I’ve been repeatedly surprised through the season by the Patriots ability to keep winning in spite of what I’ve seen as long odds. I’m making it in part because I picked the Patriots to beat the Broncos in the AFC Championship before the season started and sometimes when you get this close to something, it just doesn’t make sense to change course (especially when there’s no real cost to you if it turns out  you were wrong.) But I’m also making it because, while absolutely no outcome in this game will surprise me in any way — seriously, I can see anything from a blowout by either team to a comeback win with the go-ahead score on the last play of the game by either team — the Patriots look to me like that team you see maybe every other season or so that goes into the postseason more ready and more determined, if not more able, than the others to win it all. And I’m making it because I keep watching the last game these two teams played, week 12 in Foxborough, and thinking about how the Broncos built the 24-point halftime lead that the Patriots eventually overcame to win.

Everyone remembers the comeback, of course. Because it was spectacular and unlikely. But we tend to forget what necessitated the comeback. Substantially, it was that the Patriots fumbled the ball away on their first three possessions of the game. First there was Stevan Ridley‘s crazy, unforced popup fumble at the Denver 41 that Von Miller scooped up and ran all the way in for a touchdown. Then, 37 seconds of playing time later, there was Miller’s strip sack of Tom Brady at the New England 21 that was picked up by Terrance Knighton and returned to the 10. That set up a two-play touchdown drive to put Denver ahead 14-0. Then, a minute and a half of playing time after that, LeGarrette Blount dropped the ball after taking a nasty helmet-to-helmet hit from Duke Ihenacho at the New England 44. Denver took advantage of that turnover to go ahead 17-0 with three minutes remaining in the first quarter. The Broncos scored seven more points before halftime, going 70 yards on 11 plays after the Patriots turned the ball over on downs at the Denver 30. And they added another seven with their single scoring drive of the second half.

I’m not suggesting the Broncos should apologize for taking the 17 points the Patriots handed to them. Taking advantage of turnovers is one of the ways you win football games. But I will point out that the opportunity isn’t likely to come along again this weekend. Those three first quarter fumbles constituted a third of the Patriots total lost fumbles for the season (nine). They also constituted a third of the Broncos total takeaways by fumble for the season (again, nine). So that first quarter is not something you can expect to happen twice. (And if it is, the Broncos are going to have to find someone else to make some of the plays, because Miller’s on IR.) What’s notable to me is that although the Patriots had to go away from the run in that game — partially because their running backs couldn’t hang onto the ball and partially because they needed to climb out of a four-score hole — they still managed to rush for 116 yards. That’s not great, but it’s not bad. And when you look at what happened in the only previous meeting between the Patriots and the Peyton Manning/John Fox era Broncos, in week five of the 2012 season, things get a bit more interesting. In that 31-21 New England win, the Patriots — who were statistically about the same, but practically speaking not as strong at running the ball — rushed for 251 yards and three touchdowns, and they did it against a Denver defense that was considerably better at stopping the run than this year’s Denver D. (The Broncos defense in 2012 allowed 3.6 yards per carry and only five rushing touchdowns, while the 2013 version has given up 3.9 yards per carry and 15 TDs.) I like the chances of a New England team that has turned to the power run over the last part of the season and the playoffs against a defense that has had a lot of trouble stopping the run. And, sure, Denver could stack the box and force the Patriots to turn to the pass, assuming that Brady simply doesn’t have the targets to make it work, but challenging Brady to beat a fairly soft secondary isn’t necessarily great strategy.

Does all of that mean that the Patriots are going to win? Certainly not. Because, you know, as it turns out, the Broncos offense is, um, pretty good (I mean, if you think of historically productive as a positive thing), and the New England defense, while marginally better than the Denver D, has its fair share of challenges. So there remains the distinct possibility that this one comes out along the lines of a 42-17 Denver victory. Nonetheless, there’s reason to suspect that when team x is able to spot team y 17 points and still find a way to win, team x has a decent shot of winning the rematch eight weeks later, assuming team x can avoid spotting team y those same 17 once again.

So, yeah, I’m going to take the Patriots in the upset here. I’ll say New England wins 31-27.

San Francisco (+3.5) at Seattle
I’ve spent all my time this week thinking about the AFC Championship (maybe you could have guessed as much), so the truth of the matter is, I don’t know what’s going on here. But this is what I think: Yes, the Seahawks offense appears to have lost a step in recent weeks. And, yes, Colin Kaepernick is almost certainly a better quarterback than Russell Wilson (though both are clearly smart, talented players who can find a lot of different ways to gain yards and score points). And surely one of these teams is eventually going to figure out a way to win in the others stadium. But not this week. Not a team that’s playing its fourth straight road game traveling to face a divisional rival that’s every bit its equal. I have to believe the home team has the advantage here. Seattle by a field goal.

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Divisional Round Picks

January 9th, 2014 Comments off

Here’s how I know I’m going to be wrong at least once, maybe twice this weekend: I’m picking all of the home teams. And they’re not all winning. The last time all four home teams (also known as the top seeds in both conferences) won in the divisional round was 2004. Since then, the one seeds are 7-9 (.438) in this round, while the two seeds are 11-5 (.688). That’s a combined 18-14  for a winning percentage of .563, which will barely get you into the NBA playoffs most seasons. So, yeah, maybe it’s time for the home teams to have a big year. But probably at least one, maybe two, will get to stay home after this weekend — and not in a good way. You’d have to say, based on circumstances and matchups, that the Patriots and Pass Interferences are the home teams most likely to take a bow, so I probably should have picked against at least one of them. But I didn’t. So there you have it.

Here’s what not to expect.

New Orleans (+8) at Seattle
Remember the bloodbath last time the Saints visited the Seahawks back in week 13? Yeah, so do I. You can talk, I suppose, about the Seahawks having come back down to earth a bit, and having lost a pair, including a home game, in the six weeks since then. But it’s not as if the Saints stormed through their final four games. And, honestly, do you have a real reason to believe that the Saint’s are that much better, or that the Seahawks that much worse, than they were in early December? I didn’t think so. Neither do I. So let’s figure it’s a little closer this time around, but just a little: Seattle by 17.

Indianapolis (+7.5) at New England
Seven and a half is nuts. Nuts. As in crazy. Yeah, OK, the Patriots had a bye. And they’re at home. And they’ve got Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. And they’re gritty as hell. All of that stuff, which has been enough to get them over an obscene number of obstacles on both sides of the ball all season long. It’s been a hell of a ride. Best yet for the Patriots is that while it’s all well and good for fans to be happy about the mere fact that the team has made it this far under the circumstances (fans should be happy about that; hell, if you’re a Patriots fan, you should get up right now and dance a little jig) the coach, quarterback and team clearly are far from satisfied. That’s meaningful when you’re a team that wins more by smarts and determination than by raw talent. But seven and a half? Against a team that, on paper, is all but a mirror image of New England?  It’s simply insane. I think the Pats come out on top here. And I think they do it largely because they have a better chance of taking advantage of the Colts’ weak run defense than the Colts have of taking advantage of the Patriots’ weak run defense. If New England can control the ball on offense, and either win or at least come up even in the the turnover battle (I’m talking to you here, Stevan Ridley), the Patriots should be able to move on to the conference championship. But a win isn’t guaranteed. The game is going to come down to the final possession. And it’s not going to be decided by more than a touchdown. I’ll take New England by a field goal.

San Francisco (pick ’em) at Carolina
I’ve come to the conclusion that the Pass Interferences are only going to fail if I start believing in them. So let’s see what happens next week. Because I still don’t believe in Carolina. Not big picture, anyhow. That said, I do believe that Carolina should be able to hold off a San Francisco team that’s traveling for the second straight week, barely got by a defense-impaired Green Bay squad in the wild card round, and lost to the Pass Interferences in San Fran in week 10. I expect to see a few more points scored by both teams this time around, but I think Carolina comes out ahead — if only by one — yet again.

San Diego (+9.5) at Denver
Let’s get this straight right up front: The Broncos aren’t winning this game because of its supposed import to Peyton Manning‘s legacy. A win in a divisional round playoff game isn’t going to strengthen the case for Manning as one of the all-time greats. Neither is a loss truly going to diminish it. (Much as Manning detractors may relish the idea of another one-and-done postseason performance, the difference between eight of those and nine is a trifle.) At this point in his career, we know who Manning is. Those believe he’s one of the greatest (or perhaps, the greatest) ever are going to keep on believing that no matter what happens in this postseason. Those who think otherwise are unlikely to be swayed by a Super Bowl victory let alone a home win, in the week after a first-round bye, over a team that backed into the AFC six seed. And one suspects, talk about light at the end of the tunnel notwithstanding, Manning isn’t nearly so concerned about what this game means for his legacy as he is about the indisputable fact that he only gets to keep moving forward in the playoffs if his team wins. Plus, there are 52 other guys who play for the Broncos. And while I’m sure all of them like or at least respect their quarterback, I’m pretty certain that they’re all a lot more concerned with earning a ring than with propping up the case for Manning as GOAT. The reason the Broncos are winning this game is that they are simply the better team. Denver’s maybe a step behind San Diego on defense (where neither team is exactly Seattle), but they’re a dozen steps ahead on offense. And that’s what matters. Because, let’s be realistic here, it’s one thing to overcome the Bengals in a game in which an unending stream of turnovers allows you to score 27 points by way of just 318 yards of total offense, quite another to try to outpace an team that scores 38 points a game with a high-powered offense captained by a guy who may not be Tom Brady, but who certainly isn’t Andy Dalton. And, yes, I do know that the Chargers beat the Broncos in Denver a month ago. That’s nice, but it’s not happening twice in a season. It just isn’t. So go and talk about Manning’s legacy. Or talk about one seeds falling in the divisional round (it happens quite a bit, so it’s a fair topic of conversation). Or whatever it is you’re interested in. But don’t get too caught up in the idea of a Chargers upset, because you’ll only be disappointed in the end. Broncos by 14.

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Wild Card Picks

January 3rd, 2014 Comments off

Let’s dispense with the introductory nonsense and get straight to what not to expect, shall we?

Kansas City (+1) at Indianapolis
If you want to hang your assessment of this game on the results of these teams’ week 16 meeting in Kansas City, that’s fine. There’s certainly plenty of that going around. But here’s something you should know: That was a strange game. The Chiefs turned the ball over four times in that game. A pick and three lost fumbles. The Chiefs, who finished the regular season with the league’s second best takeaway-giveaway differential, +18. The Chiefs, who lost 10 fumbles all season. Alex Smith, who threw a grand total of seven interceptions over 15 starts for the league’s third best interception percentage, 1.4. You simply can’t look at an anomalous result like that and conclude it’s likely to recur. Then there’s the fact that the Colts got unusually strong results from the running game with Donald Brown racking up 79 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. That’s great, except that most of that production, 51 yards and the TD, came on a single blown play. Still counts, of course, just like the turnovers. But you can’t expect a team to be able to replicate that kind of result. In a rematch of a game in which one team’s performance was out of character, I look for both teams to revert to form. And if I’m to expect that here, it means expecting the Chiefs to run the ball down the Colts’ throats. It also means expecting the Kansas City defense to make the Indy offense one dimensional by hemming in the run and forcing Andrew Luck to try to win it through the air. Given that the Chiefs’ DBs know how to get after the ball, I think that produces a turnover differential that runs toward the opposite of what we saw in week 16. And a result that runs in the other direction as well, though not by so wide a margin. Kansas City by six.

New Orleans (+2.5) at Philadelphia
If the Saints are going to win this game, Drew Brees is going to have to play virtually flawless football. The Eagles D is susceptible to the pass, but it’s not as if Chip Kelly doesn’t know that. It’s also not like Kelly doesn’t know that you can run the ball against New Orleans all night. So one expects that the Eagles will look to control the ball and the clock. The Eagles also will do everything they can to take Jimmy Graham out of the game and force Brees to work to other targets. Brees is more than capable of doing that, the question is, can he do it and still manage to work efficiently enough to outpace Philly’s offensive output while working with limited time of possession? If he can, the Saints have a chance. If he stumbles, they don’t. I’m not sure Brees can get it done on the road and in the elements. I expect New Orleans to put up a fight, but I also expect the Saints to come up short. Philadelphia by four.

San Diego (+7) at Cincinnati
I can come up with only one reason to believe that the Chargers might win this game: The fact that there’s virtually no reason to believe the Chargers can win this game. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that the gimme game of wild card weekend often ends up being anything but a gimme. But you can’t pick based on that kind of thinking. You pick based on what the teams bring to the field. And what I see here is a team that went into week 17 with a legit shot to snag the conference two seed and a first round bye hosting a team that barely qualified for the tournament in week 17 with an absurdly hard-fought win over Kansas City’s backups and a good bit of help from the directionless Dolphins. The Chargers really don’t belong in the playoffs. And they won’t last. Cincinnati by 10.

San Francisco (-2.5) at Green Bay
It’s all well and good to talk about harsh Green Bay weather (a predicted game time temperature of -5 with a wind chill factor of -51) favoring the Green Bay squad, but I’m not so sure it doesn’t work the other way around. The forecast conditions are going to make it very difficult to throw the ball, and there’s simply no way the Packers can succeed if Aaron Rodgers can’t sling it around effectively. Of course, I’m not sure the Packers could win anyhow, what with their almost total lack of anything remotely resembling a defense. I think the Niners cut the freezing fans a break and give them an excuse to head for warmer places (like, say, their beds) at halftime. San Francisco by 20.

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