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Conference Championship Picks

January 16th, 2014

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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