Thursday, January 10, 2013

NFL Divisional Round Picks: My Kingdom For One Good Game

Oh, joy
January is supposed to be slow, right? Lots of hangover time from the holidays, not so much going on, and you savor the few remaining games of football like they were the last bites of aged steak on your plate. (Damn, but aged steak is the best.) Except, well, not *this* year. Now, I've got resolutions to fulfill on literally dozens of small but doable points, many irons in the fire with friends and associates, and a very deep desire to not watch any more NFL football after 16 games of Eagles Eyestab. Even the new coach search has started to fail my hopes, since they aren't going to get Chip Kelly (sniff) after all.

And then the games began, and made everything improbably worse.

I'm not going to get into the fun of a .500 gambling week where both of my whiffed picks went south hours before the start of games. (That would be the Vikings losing their starting QB, leaving them with Joe Chicken Sans Head Webb, and the Colts going without Bruce Arians at OC, aka the only guy who could figure out that perchance the Ravens might get a little blitz-happy in the red zone. So much for manageable covers.) As much as I'd like to make an ATS run in the playoffs, the buzzard luck that I've been running into for the past two months shouldn't just go poof.

But couldn't we have, you know, one actually good game?

Bengals-Texans was close only because the home team is in love with field goals; Texans HC Gary Kubiak nearly kicked away a game where the opponent threw for negative yards in the first half, and Bengals QB Andy Dalton decided the best way to attack the Texans' defense was to avoid WR AJ Green like he had mange. The Bengals still led for a while, thanks to the terrible TAInt of Matt Schaub, and had any number of chances to take it late, despite the game being terrible. It was, in the fine words of fellow Blogfrican Matt Ulford from KSK, the championship of terrible TNF games. And it wasn't even the worst game of the day.

For that, we had to go to Green Bay, where a nationwide prime time audience saw the Vikings redefine how to waste the RB of a generation with the worst QB/WR play you ever did see. If Webb is still in the NFL next year, you will know he has photographs of someone doing something spectacularly unseemly. Only the Vikings DL, and the Pack's obvious interest in trying to salvage some sort of bye from this, kept it from being an utter bet-down.

Sunday had to be better, and I guess it was on some level, in that it made Redskin Fan want to die. But the early game of Ray Lewis Preens was brutal, and the late game was only even mildly interesting was in how long it took the Seahawks to erase the first quarter sleepwalk, and for Redskin Fan to fully lose their minds. Anyway...

This week looks like two squashes and two tolerable games, which would be better, I guess. But still, it's hard to muster too much enthusiasm for the exercise.

And with that... on to the picks!

* * * * *

Baltimore at DENVER (-10)

Let's see. Peyton Manning, with a bye. Denver's got a better defense, great WRs that can take advantage of the suspect Ravens secondary, and enough of a running game (did you notice how much the Colts, of all teams, were getting from Vick Ballard last week?) to stay out of deep distance punishment.

I still hate it. RB Ray Rice isn't going to put the ball on the ground twice again, QB Joe Flacco is good for a couple of deep balls / DPIs a game to get cheap points, and the Ravens are dangerously amped up for Lewis and S Ed Reed's likely end game. But the Bronco home field advantage is serious, Manning routinely destroys the Ravens with pre-snap moves, and the bye week at this point in the season is just a big damned deal. It will be a hairpull and only salted away late, but that's why they call it gambling. That, and surethinging isn't a word.

Broncos 27, Ravens 16

GREEN BAY at San Francisco (-2.5)

There's so much to doubt from both of these teams.

The Niners stumbled down the stretch, and that's never a good sign for modern football. The Packers are similar to when they made their run a few years ago,when they went on their deep run from the WC position... but this defense isn't the same, and I'm still not convinced that guys like TE Jermichael Finley and WR Jordy Nelson are (a) reliable and (b) healthy, in that order. RB DaJuan Harris has shown a spark and RB Ryan Grant can provide small value, but if the Pack runs for more than 80 yards in this game, half of it will come on one break. Even the STs are a wash, with both kickers inexcusably shaky for having this much on the line.

So if you take the Pack, you are basically saying that one guy -- Rodgers -- is so much better than the other guy that he's facing, as to make all of that go away. And, well, he might be. I'm of the belief that, given the weakness of his OL, that there is no better QB in the NFL, and the bloom has come off the rose for Kaepernick a bit, especially since he can't seem to get on the same page with his most talented pass-catcher (TE Vernon Davis). But it's just an awful lot to take on faith, especially with the home field and bye.

Look for RB Frank Gore to put up triple digits. Kaepernick to make a half dozen plays that show the Niners were right to give him the keys. The Niner DL to play tug of war with QB Aaron Rodgers' limbs enough to cause a turnover or two. And the Packers to somehow hang around, and hang around, and hang around.... and throw it enough to exhaust the pass rush, and move it enough to get some defensive penalties, and the game to put the fans of both teams through a meat grinder.

At the end of it all, I can't pick against Rodgers.

Or for either team to look like they have any chance of surviving the next game...

Packers 27, Niners 24

Seattle at ATLANTA (-1)

Picking the Falcons almost seems like an act of defiance, doesn't it?

This team hasn't won a playoff game during its recent era of prominence. They stumbled down the stretch, with a particularly disturbing loss at Carolina that rang all kinds of alarms. Their most dangerous receiver for this matchup, TE Tony Gonzalez, has never won a playoff game. Their lead RB, Michael Turner, really looks spent, and they don't have a secondary guy who seems able to take over the load. And they won any number of games this year in the fourth quarter, rather than through end to end dominance.

The offense is also dependent on the best WR duo in the league in Julio Jones and Roddy White... which is, well, where the Seahawks might have their two best defensive players. The home crowd is a huge help, but the Seahawks are used to loud noises and just won in Washington when they were down two touchdowns in a blink. Neither coach seems like a reason to win, and they look a little vulnerable on special teams. It's as even a match, pre-kick, as you will see in the second round.

As for Seattle, the defense has quarters of dominance, especially if the refs let them play on the corners. QB Russell Wilson moves the sticks with his legs and avoids turnovers with his arm. He also makes the defense defend the whole field with the loft on his deep ball. RB Marshawn Lynch is just one of the best in the business, and the WRs do the little things (i.e. block on downfield runs) that don't show up in the numbers.

So at the end of it all, once more, it's about the QBs. Atlanta's Matt Ryan is another playoff loss away from losing the veneer that his growing regular season and win-loss numbers have bought him. Wilson's having a rookie year for the ages. Ryan's got the bye, the home field, and the better WRs. Wilson has the wheels, the RB, and the defense.

It's basically a coin flip. And at some point, Wilson just seems more likely to me to make the mistake, given the rookie status and being on the road. But this is about as low of a confidence pick as you can get for a #1 seed at home.

Falcons 26, Seahawks 24

Houston at NEW ENGLAND (-9.5)

Oh, Lord. Do I really have to write about this, let alone watch it?

New England is getting a de facto bye here. Houston was exposed in this game a month ago, and nothing has really changed in their favor since, especially since the Patriots have rest and a presumably fully armed TE Rob Gronkowski to throw at them. Their defense has surged all the way to tolerable now that sketchy CB Aquib Talib was airlifted out of Tampa, they've got the home crowd of trust fund managers, spawn and favored house servants to cheer them on while they aren't looking at their PDAs, and the bye is big here. It's also the late game on Sunday, which means that the blowout will be wallowed in by everyone for, well, hours.

Can the Texans make a game of it? Sure, if RB Arian Foster -- you know, the guy they nearly ran into the ground all year and especially last week -- can go for 150+ yards, and if the WR/TE combo of Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels combine for 200 yards on their own. Oh, and they'll also need to convert on all of their red zone opportunities, and not turn the ball over.

By the way, none of that is going to happen, and you will be gagging on Peyton Manning v. Tom Brady hype shots by halftime. If even that long.

You are starting to see why this season really needs to end already, right?

Patriots 37, Texans 20

Last week: 2-2

Season: 122-129-4

Career: 667-658-30

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