Friday, January 13, 2012

Handicapping the Divisional Round

I started out Wild Card weekend with a bang, going 4-0 ATS and O/U.  Then I came back to Earth, but that was more the fault of those stupid, stupid New York Giants and their stupid, stupid victory than a case of me getting Tebowed.  I finished 5-3, which puts me well on my way towards winning the AFC West securing a home playoff game.

On to the picks.  Home team in CAPS...


I think the 49ers will win this game outright (with a moneyline of +173, no less), but that last half point is really enticing.  If the 49ers lose, I think they only lose by a field goal.  Take the Under, because the O/U for this game is pretty ridiculous at 47.  It's gone down at least a point since it opened, which means that lots of people have been taking the Under, so Vegas is trying to find a number that will convince people to bet the Over.  I remain unconvinced.  The total needs to drop to 43 for me to take the Over.

This goes beyond the fact that I don't trust the Saints offense outdoors.  I also don't trust them on the road, where they went 5-3.  San Francisco went 7-1 at home.  In their three losses, they lost by 3, 2, and 10 points.  They don't get blown out.  They don't give up a lot of points.  They play close, low scoring games.  They played in only three games this season where they would've topped the Over for this game.  One of those games was their 48-3 ba-thwumping of Tampa, one of them was a 33-17 victory over the Seahawks where they scored two touchdowns on special teams, the last was the season finale against the Rams, when they had already clinched a bye and let up on defense after taking a 34-14 lead.

The 49ers have the pass rushing talent up front to pressure Brees with four guys and the talent in the back seven to hang with the Saints receivers.  Their run defense was ranked #1 in the league, allowing an average of only 77.3 yards per game and only two rushing touchdowns all season (both of which came in the meaningless season finale).

They're better than people think, they play well enough on defense to contain the potent New Orleans offense, and the Saints lose just enough off their fastball on the road and outdoors that the 49ers win a tight, low scoring game.

NEW ENGLAND (-13.5) over Denver:

Yes, I know.  I'm totally going to get Tebowed on this one.

These two teams met in Week 15 and the Patriots won 41-23.  That game was in Denver.  Total points in that game (64) were well above the O/U for this game (50).  New England would also have covered this spread.

Denver's a hot team and I'm not trying to undermine what they did to the Steelers (a game which, by the way, would also have covered the Over at 52 points).  They're also a streaky team.  When they're feeling confident, they're pretty much unstoppable.  When they're feeling down, they only manage a field goal at home against the Chiefs.  They have every reason to feel confident right now, but I think they've gone past confident and have crossed over into territory that is much, much more dangerous.

Let me explain.

The week before the Wild Card round, I followed the Broncos on Twitter because I wanted to catch news that I might not get somewhere else.  I forgot to unfollow them after the loss.  On Tuesday, they posted a bunch of quotes from interviews with players.  The quotes were regarding that Week 15 loss to the Patriots.  When I read the quotes, I hadn't looked up the score, I just knew New England won.  From the quotes -- things like, "we just needed to make a couple more plays" and "we missed a couple of opportunities" -- I assumed that they lost by a field goal or a touchdown.  The quotes I read weren't even close to being indicative of an 18 point home loss.  They've gone past confident and they're in a much, much more dangerous place.  They're delusional.  Since they were able to play their game their way against the NFL's best defense at home last week, the assumption is that they'll put everything together again and play their game their way on the road next week.  The Steelers have the #1 defense, the Patriots have the #31 defense.  Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

The problem is that Bill Belichick has made a career out of making sure that teams don't get to play their game their way.  This game is in Foxborough.  The Patriots tend to start games out fast.  If they jump out to a 14-0 lead at home against this Broncos team, it's going to be a shock to the system, like a six year old watching Belichick curb stomp the Easter Bunny.

I think the Patriots jump out to a big early lead, the Broncos re-group at halftime, and they come out fighting in the second half.  I don't think they'll get anywhere close to coming back, but they've got way too much potential on offense to not score a bunch of points against a crappy New England defense.  I think Champ Bailey can handle Wes Welker, but Heath Miller gouged the Broncos pretty bad last week.  Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are way better receivers and are way more involved in the Patriots offense than Miller is for the Steelers.

Denver allowed 23 points to a banged up Steelers offense that had half a quarterback and three backup offensive linemen.  If Isaac Redman can rush for 7.1 yards per carry and 121 total yards behind that offensive line, then some combination of BenJarvis Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, and Stevan Ridley will be able to do just as good behind a very capable, very healthy Patriots offensive line.

Houston (+9) over BALTIMORE:
I think that the hated Ravens will win this game, but I don't think they'll cover.  The Texans showed last week that they're a good team and they deserve to be here.  Most of the guys on that team had never played in a playoff game before.  They all realized how great it was to win in the postseason and they're bound and determined not to found out how bad it sucks to lose.

If Houston can't run the ball, they're dead meat.  Their offensive line knows this.  In order to run the ball successfully, you need to win at the point of attack.  Winning at the point of attack is equal parts talent, scheme, and determination.  The hated Ravens have a stout front seven and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has brought back the swagger and intimidation factor to this unit.  Houston has one of the best lines in the league and their offensive line coach has brought his charges up from the dredges to the elite the last six seasons.  Scheme and talent is a wash.  Determination is the X factor.

Houston's offensive line knows that the season is riding on them.  Baltimore's front seven knows that, if they're able to stop the run, they can tee off on TJ Yates and win this game easily.  I'd say the Texans offensive line has more motivation and they'll be more determined.

If Houston can run the ball, they'll be able to score points.  I think the hated Ravens can score enough to win, even against a tough Texans defense.  When the lines opened, the Over/Under was 38.5.  It has since moved down to 36.  I was willing to take the Over at 38.5, so I'm delighted to take it at 36.  This won't be a shootout, but it doesn't need to be.  Everyone was predicting a low scoring game in Denver (including me) and look how that turned out.

NY Giants (+8) over PACKERS:
Again, I think the Packers win, but I don't think they win by more than a touchdown.  The last time these two teams met, the score was 38-35, which is probably why the Over/Under is 52.5 and hasn't moved since it opened.  These are two proud defenses that don't want to get kicked around like that again.  They're also two great offenses, but I think the defenses will step up to keep the score from getting too crazy.

Kickoff temperatures are going to be in the low teens.  The last time these two teams faced a situation like this -- cold playoff game in Green Bay in 2007 -- the Giants won 20-17 in overtime.  I'm thinking something similar, with the Packers winning by a touchdown.

The X factor here is Aaron Rodgers.  He's well rested and wants to shine in his first home playoff game.  The crowd will be behind him and his teammates will be fired up.  If they get on a roll, it could be Packers and the Over, but I don't think that happens.

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