Wednesday, January 12, 2011

NFL Picks: The Final Eight, And Only One Matters

After a 1-3 wildcard weekend, I'm back under .500 for the career and five games under for the year, which is to say, Not In A Happy Place. But the cards don't care what happened on the last hand, and the picks don't care what happened last week. So we will move forward, once more into the breach for the four games that, in normal years, usually lock back into form for the home team. And with the AFC games bitter divisional rivals, and the NFC games involving nearly unprecedented storylines of an at-risk #1 seed and a jubilant #2...

Well, no one is beating the Patriots, of course. This whole thing is just lining even better for the team that no one even dares to take the field against. But seeing how we only have seven games left in the year, let's pick them anyway, OK?

And with that... on to the picks!

* * * * *

BALTIMORE at Pittsburgh (-3.5)

Would anything in this game surprise you, really? Baltimore and Pittsburgh, for what appears to be Game 3,000 in the past five years, many of which have involved back-up QBs for the Steelers, last-minute flameouts for the Ravens, officiating calls that decide everything and both teams looking like they lost afterwards, with the survivor ready to be mopped up by whoever comes next. The games always come down to a late figgie, they frequently involve a safety being the hero much more than, say, the running back, and unless you a fan of either laundry, they all blur together in the mind. Steelers-Ravens? Wow, remember that game when it was bitterly cold, and Ray Lewis jumped around like a crazy person, and Hines Ward started a fight, and their fans got into each other and the game sounded like it was being played on a sound stage from all of the crowd noise? Oh, right. That's all of them.

Pittsburgh has the bye, and the home field, and their starting QB for once. They also have a rested Troy Polamalu, a WR deep threat in Mike Wallace that can exploit the Ravens secondary, better special teams than usual and a coach that's been to the big dance before. Baltimore has the snarl, the deeper running game, the big WRs that can move the chains, a shockingly healthy Todd Heap and enough talent on both sides of the ball to have been the preseason pick to go to the SB. (This writer included. Oh, please forgive me, O Merciful Lord Belichick, I knew not what I did.) Most signs point to Pittsburgh, and assuming you don't go for past precedent, it might even go as high as, well, ten points. An ocean in this matchup. And when worse comes to worse, Ravens QB Joe Flacco has some unfortunate Romo-esque playoff qualities about him when he goes about this laundry.

So why pick the Ravens to cover? Because 3.5 is exactly a half point more than how these games always end. Because Pittsburgh always gives up a special teams touchdown in games like this one. Besides, if I pick the Steelers, their nervous fans will come down on me as a jinx, despite the Super Bowl win that I picked, and the fact that with so many damned rings in their lifetime, they should really fear no jinxes. So. There's that.

Steelers 24, Ravens 21

Green Bay at ATLANTA (-1)

Atlanta Fan, assuming they exist, has so got a right to be bitter. Here they have the best regular season in their history. They get home field through the playoffs. They see their hated rival and defending Super Bowl champions go down in a colossal upset for the ages... and it, well, I'm not going to say the word because I've got advertisers and minors, but you know the adverb, and you know the location. With a vengeance.

Green Bay, of course, comes in as the second straight week of Road Dog Playing With House Money. They've won a month's worth of playoff games at this point. They unleashed RB James Starks last week in Philadelphia, and he stomped the earth and balanced the offense and helped them get a win in a game where they had a minus turnover ratio. They rush the passer, have good special teams, have a dynamite #1 WR in Greg Jennings and the conference's best QB, and that last part isn't even close.

So why take the weakest #1 seed in the history of the NFL, a bare favorite despite the home field, the bye, a sparkling won-loss record, and a great track record from their QB? Because, well, those things matter. So does WR Roddy White, the best in the NFL at his position, and a man who got rest just when he needed it most. Because they have RB Michael Turner, who can keep the Packer pass rush honest, and a short passing game and a pass catching TE that can make the short and safe game work. And because as good as Aaron Rodgers is, he's still someone who hasn't quite brought his "A" game in a while, and will throw the big mistake. Against an Atlanta secondary that's better than advertised, especially at the corners, that's going to matter.

Atlanta 24, Packers 23

Seattle at CHICAGO (-9.5)

I know that all of the smarts are taking the Seahawks to cover the points, because No One Believes In Them, and heck, they out and out beat these Bears on this field not so very long ago. And it's the playoffs, and anything can happen, and Seattle has to be the loosest team in the history of the tournement, seeing how they are 8-9 and in the Final Eight. This is also a Bears team that is going to have QB Jay Cutler making his first playoff start ever, with an intermittent offense, in a setting where, well, you'd have to think that the Seahawks are going to have the memo of Don't Kick It To Devin Hester.

But, um, really? I have to take ancient QB Matt Hasselbeck, with a terrible line, a Keystone Kops secondary, a coach that had to take until Week 17 to get it done in the worst division ever, on the road when they have rarely, if ever, shown up?

The Seahawks had one of the worst offenses in the NFL in the regular season. And one of the worst defenses. When they lost, it was by a lot. When they won, it was by very little, with much in the way of special teams flukery. They also will not have more than 20 people in the building that aren't chanting obscenities at them, in wind and cold and misery that can't be duplicated in the rain forest they usually play in. Oh, and on a field that's among the worst in the NFL. Good luck with all of that.

Chicago will get a lead, and then the defense will get to work. RB Marshawn Lynch will remind everyone why he's no longer in Buffalo, of all places. And Bear Fan will sing that song of theirs. A lot.

Bears 31, Seahawks 10

NY JETS at New England (-9.5)

Everyone, of course, remembers last time. The Jets had a chance to seize the division by the throat. With their power running game, against an opponent that had been beaten by them earlier in the season, who had just spit the bit in a thorough beatdown at the hands of the Cleveland Browns. It was a pick'em game, with much of the heat on the Patriots coming as a matter of QB Tom Brady never losing at home, or the young defnese having to look better just out of a process or elimination, or maybe some small momentum for the running game. Certainly no one thought that the Patriots passing offense was going to be better for losing Randy Moss, or bringing in the way-past-tread Deion Branch.

And the game was a total runaway, with the Patriots winning by a mere six touchdowns. It led everyone to wonder if the Jets were a paper tiger (of course, many of their wins were last-minute affairs against weak clubs, or if the Patriots were really that unstoppable (they are).

So why take the Jets to cover (because, of course, they can not win)?

Well, regression to the mean, of course. A sense that the officiating in the late Sunday game is going to be predisposed to keep things close. CB Darelle Revis finally playing up to last year's form; witness the utter and complete removal of Reggie Wayne from the Colts' offense last week. The Jets' big WRs causing some matchup issues, and TE Dustin Keller making some positive plays. The number just being too high; if it were 6.5, there's no way I'd pass on the Pats. But at 9.5, in a playoff setting where some of the younger Pats might freeze up a bit, against a Jets team that no one outside of their immediate locker room really believes in?

That all just smells back door cover to me. Along with coach Bill Belichick wanting to keep the hammer light, just so his charges don't get overconfident for the championship game next week. Because, of course, there is no possible way that the Patriots will not be Super Bowl champions in another three weeks.

Patriots 27, Jets 20

Last week: 1-3

Year to date: 121-126-15

Career: 402-403-15


snd_dsgnr said...

You really think the Falcons are the weakest #1 ever? I know they essentially had 6 gimmies on the schedule and all, but that still seems extreme to me.

DMtShooter said...

Well, name a weaker one. Usually the #1 seed is at least a touchdown favorite in this round.

snd_dsgnr said...

I don't know if I'd necessarily call them "weak", but off the top of my head I believed in the '08 Titans quite a bit less than I believe in this Falcons team.

DMtShooter said...

That Titans team was undefeated for a real long time, stomped the Steelers a month before they met in the playoffs, had a top 5 defense with a contract year Albert Haynesworth, and a really good two-headed RB tandem with Chris Johnson and LemDale White. Had Johnson not gotten hurt in their game, there is a very real chance they beat Pitt at home.

I like this Atlanta team more than that Titans team as well, but it just seems like I'm more on a ledge with the pick. Probably just the fact that the Packers are the real America's Team...

snd_dsgnr said...

I consider it something of a tossup as well, but to me that speaks more to the Packers being a strong #6 than the Falcons being a weak #1. If that makes any sense.

I certainly think that the Falcons are better than the Bears, for instance. It's just that the Bears' matchup this week looks so much easier.

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