Archive for January, 2015

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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