Thursday, January 16, 2014

NFC and AFC Conference Championship Picks

Here's what no one cares that they are playing for!

New England at DENVER (-6)

The case for New England: Beat this team earlier this year in what might be their signature win. History of success against Peyton Manning in big games. Power running game that is hitting on all cylinders. A better defense than usual. Special teams that don't get them beat; coaching that is the best in their generation. Extraordinary experience in big games, much of it positive. Tend to get at least a handful of back-breaking calls from the refs every game, especially when the games really matter. They don't beat themselves, and they don't give up.

The case against New England: As weak a receiving corps as during the entire history of the Brady / Belichick era, with very little in the way of downfield explosiveness. More trouble than usual in pass protection, which is not a selling point on the road against a Denver team that got after Philip Rivers very well for three quarters last week. Could be secretly medicore, given that the AFC was weak this year, the East was weaker still, and the Colts team they beat last week was starting a load of defensive inadequacy. Defensive secondary is very prone to giving up the deep ball, and they don't get the interior push they need. QB Tom Brady is having his worst year since the start of his career, mostly because of the issues with the WR corps. There's only so much you can get out of a passing game where Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman are your top targets.

The case for Denver: Most explosive WR corps in the league, and they are healthy. TE and RBs are also highly capable of making plays, and the offensive line usually doesn't struggle, especially at home. QB Peyton Manning just had one of the best years ever, and they are capable of just running out and hiding on teams. Weather is supposed to be in the mid 50s with light winds, which is a definite aid to the passing game. Effective 2-back runing game, with starter Knowshon moreno able to do a lot of things in the passing game as well. Home field advantage is strong here, with very loud fans and a definite altitude factor. Defense has played better as of late, and seem to have gotten a bit of a boost from the return of CB Champ Bailey. STs are usually good, with K Matt Prater and KR Trindon Holliday in particular capable of big plays.

The case against Denver: Manning's won-loss record in the playoffs is always a source of hope to opponents. Offense can be turnover prone, especially if they become one-dimensional. Manning tends to take every second of pre-snap time, which can really help a defense, especially when they aren't sharp. Defense can be downright hapless at times, kind of like the last time they faced the Patriots, where a 24-point lead on the road evaporated in a quarter. Head coach Jon Fox has a terrible record in the biggest games, which isn't exactly encouraging.

The pick: Everyone is expecting this to be a battle for the ages, the latest and greatest chapter in the Brady v. Manning war that has defined, for good or ill, the AFC in this century. (Seriously, the first time they met? September, 2001.) And the Denver defense does not exactly inspire confidence. Finally, I rank these teams as no better than third and fourth among the remaining temas in the tournament.

But having said all of that... modern NFL football is won and lost by passing, and the Broncos have, well, the first four guys that you'd take off the board in a sandlot pick'em game. The Patriots do not have a fearsome pass rush, and any drive they get off the field without giving points has to be considered something of an upset. Oh, and they aren't exactly airtight against the run, either.

So I'm going to take the dreaded Not Very Good Game option, which happens in these games more often than you think, and remember that this Patriots team is, well, capable of stinking up the joint. Especially on defense. And when run-heavy teams -- and that's what the Patriots are now, especially in the red zone and on the road -- fall behind, it's usually not pretty.

Prediction: Broncos 45, Patriots 24

SAN FRANCISCO (+3.5) at Seattle

The case for San Francisco: Hottest team in the NFL, playing their best ball of the year. Physically dominated the Panthers last week, who had a bye and home field. Extremely good at winning 1-on-1 physical battles at all of the skill positions. QB Colin Kaepernick breaks the opposition's will with his legs, and throws a good deep ball to get big plays in another way. RB Frank Gore is one of the better coup de grace backs in the league, great at blitz pick up and the screen game, and a spiritual leader. The WR tandem of Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree are a good match for Seattle's physical coverage teams, and good at getting calls -- a huge plus in a game that will start at chippy and could easily go to legally actionable. Coach Jim Harbaugh usually wins his matchups, and his referee freakouts seem to be working. The defense might be the best in football right now, in that they don't wear down or beat themselves, and have a number of ways that they can beat you. Have the last win in this Championship Of Us series. Strong special teams, especially in the kicking game. Good play calling details, such as running motion in QB sneak situations, or disguising defensive coverages to better their chance of INTs. Generally get the better of the officating despite the offense's puling and Harbaugh's meltdowns.

The case against San Francisco: Have really struggled in this venue, with some of their worst games in the Harbaugh era happening in front of the Seattle faithful. Kaepernick is disturbingly inaccurate for long stretches every game, and seems to trust his legs more than his arm. Perhaps the mouthiest offense in the league, which you have to think is going to get them into trouble one of these days, especially after all of the shenanigans last week in Carolina. Rely on Ted Ginn Jr. (whoops, make that, um, rookie Quinton Patton?) Vernon Davis for deep balls, which is to say, they are criminally underusing one of Kaepernick's bigger strengths. Offensive line is generally solid, but can take quarters off. Offense has not been a particularly fast starter, and has also failed to take advantage of red zone chances at the rate you'd like to see for a road team. Teams that lose the Super Bowl rarely, if ever, go back the next year.

The case for Seattle: The best team at home in the NFL in the past two years. The best secondary in the NFL, coming off a great performance against a better passing attack than the Niners bring to the table. Varied and constant speed rushers combine to form the NFL's best turnover generators, which is like nitrous to this fan base, in this setting. Weather is supposed to be cloudy and in the 50s, which doesn't seem like an edge, but is, because this passing game has really struggled in rain and wet for a while now. The best back left in the playoffs in RB Marshawn Lynch, and a cast of WRs that are usually depenable. QB Russell Wilson generally takes care of the ball, and can beat you in a number of ways. Special teams are solid due to the athleticism all over the roster, and the coaching usually has them up for games. Very good at playing with a lead, and with this defense, that happens a lot. Wilson is due for a good game, and just wins at home.

The case against Seattle: Wilson has gone from emerging star to reason they could blow it in the past six weeks, with middling efforts that haven't spoken to a solid professional progression. WR Percy Harvin is the only real threat here, and he can't stay on the field. Offensive line hasn't been healthy and/or solid all year, and this is so not the matchup for that to be the case. HC Pete Carroll can get outfoxed in game management, and the defense does not finish games the way they start, and hasn't for years. Just haven't looked as impressive in the second half of the year as they did in the first, and in general, that does not describe teams that go to the Super Bowl. If they are going to win this game, they are going to have to do it with Wilson throwing it, and that hasn't been working for a while now. Whether that's the QB or the WRs doesn't really matter.

The pick: I've been very tempted to take the Niners ever since last week's games, and the 3.5 spread seals it for me, in that I could easily see them losing by 3 or less as well. Home fields are important, but in a game where you could easily see the teams not combining for more than 600 yards of offense, a handful of game-breaking plays could swing things. That favors the Niners, who have the three best downfield targets in this game, and better special teams. (Oh, and in a better world, these teams would be playing for the Super Bowl, because they are both at least 10 points better than either AFC team, and seeing division rivals playing for absolutely everything would redefine rivalry in our time.)

Prediction: Niners 24, Seahawks 23

Last week: 3-1

Playoffs: 4-3-1

Year to date: 118-128-10

Career: 486-500-39


snd_dsgnr said...

"Rely on Ted Ginn Jr. and Vernon Davis for deep threats"

Ginn plays for Carolina, just FYI.

DMtShooter said...

Fixed and thanks. That's just sad on all levels...

snd_dsgnr said...

Yeah, I think the idea was for Mario Manningham to be the downfield threat but he's been hurt pretty much all year and was never really a consistent performer anyway.

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