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Conference Championship Picks

January 16th, 2015

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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