Friday, January 10, 2014

NFL Divisional Playoff Picks

Let's just get this over with
There are seven NFL games left in the year, and as my team lost one of the last 11... well, I probably am not ready to just appreciate them, the way I should. Hell, I spent hours this week prepping MLB rosters for the next fantasy league I won't win. So, um... on to the picks! Or something.

New Orleans at SEATTLE (-7.5)

The case for New Orleans: Playing with house money at this point, the same way every sixth seed is that survives. As they showed last week, can run the ball with a deep and talented running back corps. Talented and deep wideouts give them a puncher's chance against a secondary that usually just eats people, including the league's best TE in Jimmy Graham. Better special teams than in past years. Defense is better than usual as well, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can come up with innovative approaches. QB Drew Brees almost has to play better than the last time he was here, and the last week against the Eagles. Experienced playoff team that should be able to withstand the initial rush that every home team coming off a bye has at this stage. Weather looks like it will be brutal -- rain and 25+ mph wind -- which tends to make the game pretty random. That helps the underdog. Head coach Sean Payton has a clear edge in coaching, and has won a Super Bowl.

The case against New Orleans: Just because they've finally won a road game does not mean that should be considered road warriors. Getting rolled in this spot a month ago does not mean they won't get rolled again. Brees has been average on the road, and will need to be exceptional here to keep drives sustained. Defense has also not been as good on the road, and Ryan has a history of outsmarting himself in these spots. CB Keenan Lewis, their best, missed the end of last week's game with concussion symptoms, and while he's expected to play, any number of guys have not been able to answer the bell for the full 60 so soon after a scare. When Lewis went down last week, bad things happened with a quickness to the Saints.

The case for Seattle: By most metrics, the league's best team with the league's best home-field advantage, and that might be all that you need to know. Defense is downright fierce, and have clear ballhawking ability that tends to turn playoff games into blowouts. Best pass rush and secondary combo in football means explosive plays can happen against your offense. Perhaps the best running back left in the playoffs in RB Marshawn Lynch, and his back ups aren't bad, either. QB Russell Wilson keeps drives alive with his legs and accuracy, and mobile QBs have hurt the Saints a lot. Wilson throws one of the best deep ball in the game, and keeps his focus; he doesn't need to be good for four quarters to beat you. WR Percy Harvin appears to be healthy, and if he's actually good and fresh, they finally have the game-breaker they need to be a fully functioning offense. Other pass catchers lack dynamic ability, but generally catch what's thrown to them and block well. Special teams are a plus. The home field and bye at this part of the year is frequently a lock. Have to be enjoying this matchup, which clearly favors them the most, over the Niners, which was more likely.

The case against Seattle: Offensive line performance has been erratic due to injury. Team is prone to bad penalties, especially on defense, speaking to a culture of poor judgment and lax discipline. Play-calling tends toward predictability, with too many run-run-pass moments that put Wilson into a game manager mode, despite his abilities to be more than that. S Kam Chancellor, one of their best, is banged up. Young team with immense promise is the clear favorite to go to the Super Bowl; if they are in a tight game late, could react badly. Offense has a disturbing tendency to start slow and take too long to get going.

The pick: At the core of this, I just like Wilson more than Brees, especially in the elements, and when you add the relative quality of the defenses to that mix, the spread becomes clear. I think Seattle will grind out to a lead, then add to it on defense later.

Prediction: Seahawks 22, Saints 13

INDIANAPOLIS (+7) at New England

The case for Indianapolis: Coming off one of the biggest comebacks in NFL history last week in their home escape against Kansas City, they are the living definition of House Money. QB Andrew Luck was unstoppable when not making mistakes, and WR T.Y. Hilton is in the short list for game's best young WR. RB Donald Brown has the clear hold on the #1 slot, and after last week's killer fumble, maybe they'll just deactivate RB Trent Richardson, rather than make that mistake again. K Adam Vinateri and WR Deion Branch are on hand to freak out Pats Fan, and it's not like the AFC East was an amazing gauntlet that the Pats just ran. Spread just seems awfully high against a team with clear Team Of Destiny aspects. Weather will be warm (for New England in January), which is a good omen for a dome team.

The case against Indianapolis: Downright weak defense that doesn't do much of anything well, and could just get and stay down against the Pats' solid power running and possession passing game. As we saw last week in getting down big against the Chiefs, can turn it over with the best of them, and have not historically done well outdoors in the playoffs. While it will be warm, it's also going to be wet and rainy, which is still an edge for the power team. There's a lot of who the hell knows about this team, in that they have quality wins against good teams, blowouts against bad ones, and their closing burst was against terrible teams. Pretty much as true of a wild card as you get in this stage of the season. No final score with the Colts would surprise anyone.

The case for New England: The best coach in the game, at home, with a bye, might be all that anyone needs to know. Incredible edge in playoff experience. Built to win games like this, with a power running game and a precision passing game that sustains drives and chokes the clock with any kind of lead. Reasonably healthy on defense, and have won five of their last six to get the bye in the first place. This sounds hacky, but they also *constantly* get the better of it from the officiating, and with their age and injury issues, the bye week matters a ton.

The case against New England: Have been shockingly easy to stop in the passing game at times, especially now that TE Rob Gronkowski is on the shelf for the year. Have to be very exact, with no penalties or drops, because they just don't break big gains. Strong issues stopping the running game on defense ever since DT Vince Wilfork went down, and could get grounded down, the same way they are hoping to go on the other side. The recent history of this franchise is to run roughshod over a weak division, then get exposed in the playoffs. This year, they struggle a little more than usual in the division, so it all feels similar. This is what happens to Late Era Empire.

The pick: New England will lose in these playoffs, but this Colts team isn't the matchup that will take them out. Indy will scare the hell out of them and cover, but they won't win.

Prediction: Patriots 31, Colts 28

SAN FRANCISCO (-1) at Carolina

The case for Carolina: At home, off a bye, and beat this team recently on the road. QB Cam Newton is all kinds of nightmare when he's going good, especially in short yardage situations. Running game is varied with quality, and they don't generally turn it over. Have been good in close games all year, especially in the fourth quarter, mostly because they've punched the other team in the mouth often enough to just win on physicality. Coach Ron Rivera has gotten over last year's shockingly bad performance to be more effective and aggressive. Defensive front seven is the best in football, and has the kind of physical presence that makes for all day misery, especially with their usual time of possession advantage. Held the Niners to 151 total yards (!) and nine points in a road win, which is just nuts in this era of NFL football.

The case against Carolina: Almost no playoff experience. WR Steve Smith, who while on the downside of his career is still the closest thing this team has to a quality downfield threat, could miss the game due to injury. Rivera could revert to past bad form. Ground attack requires persistence, which can go out the window if you don't have a lead. Newton can struggle against quality opposition, especially if they have a disciplined pass rushing attack. Can have problems sustaining drives, especially if the opposing defense is good at covering security blanket TE Greg Olsen. In that Niner game where the defense stood on its head, they only gained 250 yards themselves. Special teams are ordinary. The Niner offense was at a season worst last time in health and performance. They aren't that way now.

The case for San Francisco: Overcame harsh conditions and a truly inspired effort from Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to get here. Played against better opposition all year, and had the same won-loss record and a slightly better points differential, so they are clearly not your usual #5 seed. Perhaps the hottest team in the league with seven straight wins, with the offense looking much better now that WR Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis are back and working together with WR Anquan Boldin and RB Frank Gore. Playoff experience with the Super Bowl run last year, and know how to win on the road. Have already won in a harsh environment, and this week's sunny in the '50s atmosphere against first generation fans that tend to sell seats to out of towners should seem a lot easier by comparison. Special teams are solid, and the defense is the best part of this team.

The case against San Francisco: QB Colin Kaepernick won last week's game with his legs, due to the average at best Packer defense. He won't be able to do that, at all, against the monsters that Carolina employs. No bye week with a 60-minute war on their legs is a major factor. Defense clearly wore down against the Pack; they dominated for 17 minutes, then gave up the lead and seemed ordinary, especially against the pass. Could actually be looking past this game a little bit, since Seattle is their everything.

The pick: One of these QBs is going to crap the bed. My money's on Newton, simply because he doesn't have a WR who can get open in this game, and will try to do too much. But the way both of these teams can play defense, the first team with anything beyond a field goal lead might take it. (That and turnovers and red zone performance, which is every game in the NFL now. Sigh.) Oh, and I also don't trust teams that win a lot of close games, because that's basically luck, and luck runs out.

Prediction: Niners 24, Panthers 20

SAN DIEGO (+9.5) at Denver

The case for Denver: Home favorites with a bye. Best QB in the game this year, having the best statistical season of his life. Borderline unstoppable WR corps with three guys that could be WR1 on other teams still in the playoffs. Strong running game complements the pinball offense. Peyton Manning can make your pass rush meaningless with quick release and play calling at the line of scrimmage, and he'll be operating at home. Can put 50 points on the board easier than any team on the planet, and if you turn it over on them, it becomes a wilding with speed. Sense that this is Manning's last best chance, because it seems impossible that he could be this good and healthy again. As if they needed it, special teams can be explosive. K Matt Prater can hit from deep, and has a good history in clutch situations.

The case against Denver: 23 mph winds matter a lot more than the high of 39 on Sunday, and could be a big issue, particularly if it's inconsistent. Manning has been turnover-prone in the second half of the year, and Denver has had trouble with San Diego this year, going 1-1 with a ten point win on the road where the Chargers wasted a lead and time of possession, and a 7-point loss at home just three weeks ago. Defense, as you might guess from those two earlier games against the Chargers, really has problems getting off the field. May be haunted by last year's loss against Baltimore in this exact spot, and head coach Jon Fox can go crazy conservative and lose. Manning's arm strength is suspect at times, which makes the home field less of a slam dunk edge.

The case for San Diego: Shockingly good on the road this year, so last week's convincing win in Cincy is not so far out of character as you might guess. Varied passing and rushing attack that keeps the ball and sustains drives (best in the league in time of possession and third down conversion). RB Ryan Mathews owned the Broncos in both games. P Mike Scifres is the best in the game and effective at altitude. Spread the ball around well on offense, and can do solid work especially in the run game. House money / team of destiny feel, and since they are division rivals with a history of back and forth / close games, don't seem like they deserve to be very big underdogs.

The case against San Diego: There's a reason why QB Philip Rivers hasn't won really big games, and it's because he craps the bed in late and tight pressure situations. OL has protection issues, which might be the only thing that Denver's defense can do well. Way too prone to using secondary personnel in have to have situations, which is to say, they can outsmart themselves a lot. Spent last week calling so vanilla of an offense in the first half, they kept the Bengals in the game for no reason at all, then got lucky when Andy Dalton turned into a short bus QB. Defense is nothing special, and could easily get to a point where Denver's punter becomes theoretical. Won't get the usual #1 seed first quarter sleepwalk against a #6, since they are a division rival.

The pick: The number seems too high for teams that usually play it close, which isn't to say that I really think the Chargers are going to win this game. Altitude matters, and the Broncos home record under Manning is pretty airtight. But the Chargers will keep the ball for long drives, which just means they need to convert in the red zone and avoid turnovers to keep the spread manageable. That seems likely to me, and a close game with Fox at the helm also seems inevitable. Oh, and also something of a pinball game.

Prediction: Broncos 38, Chargers 31

Last week: 1-2-1

Season to date: 115-127-10

Career: 483-499-39

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