Friday, January 16, 2015

NFL Championship Game Picks: Philosophy Be Damned

Smarter Money
You are supposed to, at this point in the NFL playoffs, pick against the public. The public! Hah! Those idiots! Why, Vegas is made on the money of just people who don't think and think and over-think things, and casinos and sportsbooks only really make bank on dumb people.

Um, right. Sure.

The smart money, you see, runs away from big spreads of home favorites. That's chalk, dammit, and you get no sexiness on saying that the #1 seeds who are at home might be that way for reasons. If nothing else, some road dog is going to cover the number, if not win outright, and I'm going to be so sorry that I wasn't a smartie smart smart who went against The Public.

Um, OK.

But all of this is, of course, shorthand for actually thinking about and watching The Damned Games, which is Hard and Time-Consuming and clearly for chumps. (Well, they might have a point on that last point. After all, the NFL secretly replaced the refs with WWE guys this year.)

But I'm an all-day chump, folks. I just watch the games, every snap. Then I look at the numbers, and I think hard about it, and I think some more. And if the pick is chalk, I don't much care, because I'm not going after it for any overarching philosophy.

I'm just trying to get the damned picks right.

And with that... on to the picks!

* * * * *

Green Bay at SEATTLE (-7)

The case for Green Bay
: They have the best QB in the league in Aaron Rodgers, who got better the longer he played last week, which speaks to a guy on the mend from injury, rather than just managing around it. 3-man WR corps of Jordy Nelson, Reggie Cobb and Davonte Allen actually might give the Legion of Boom a run for their money. Defense doesn't scare much, but they can rush the passer reasonably well, and the secondary tends to come up with the picks that present themselves. RB Eddie Lacy gives them a fighting chance at maintaining balance and not putting everything on Rodgers, especially in the red zone.

The case against Green Bay: For all of the good that Rodgers has done in the league, he's not at his best when fighting from underneath, and playing against this defense in this setting is the very definition of fighting from underneath. Could have easily lost last week, at home, to a Dallas team that just plain lost their minds on multiple third and short situations; Seattle will not do them such favors in play calling. Defense is the softest left in the playoffs. Rodgers clearly isn't right, and when he can't run, he can't extend plays, which is where the big breaks happen for the Pack. Pretty weak record when it comes to fighting the big boys, especially under HC Mike McCarthy.

The case for Seattle: Defending champions at home. Defense transcends the current pinball era, especially when it comes to tackling to limit yards after catch. They get the benefit of calls at home, even after the NFL rewrote the book and ruined the game in the off-season to stop them. Patient with a power running attack that keeps them out of wearout quick possessions. Very good special teams, who might come through with a breakthrough play in this one. QB Russell Wilson breaks teams with his legs and gives them a margin for error; he's also deadly on play action. The WR corps gets a lot of grief, but they might be the best unit in the NFL on downfield blocking, which is why those power runs go deep late in the game. HC Pete Carroll doesn't get a lot of cred as a super genius, but he's rarely outcoached.

The case against Seattle: Last week's game against Carolina was closer than the final score, with the Panthers doing much more than expected in the air; there is a possibility that one of these weeks, the Legion of Boom will get exposed. They are penalty-prone, and have problems sustaining drives when negative plays happen. Offensive line is fairly ordinary, with Wilson and RB Marshawn Lynch making them look a lot better than they actually are. Rookie speed WR Paul Richardson, who was emerging a bit with Percy Harvin Jettisoned, is done for the year with an injury, eliminating the only real deep threat. Green Bay covers the TE reasonably well, which has been a major part of Seattle's attack in their wins.

The prediction: When it goes badly for the Pack, it goes very badly, especially if Lacy isn't effective. Seattle may be playing as well as last year, and Rodgers being hobbled also gives me no confidence. Look for Seattle to take an early lead on crowd passion, stick with the body shot ground game, and get comfortable late. Boys against men.

Seahawks 34, Packers 20

Indianapolis at NEW ENGLAND (-6.5)

The case for Indianapolis:
Dynamic passing attack with a young but mature, and mobile, QB in Andrew Luck. WR TY Hilton seems to have shaken off the drops issues, and hasn't been defendable for much of 2014. TEs have been productive, which will keep the Pats' best defenders occupied, rather than involved in rushing the QB. Have been good at keeping Luck clean most of the year, and in the playoffs. Running game has been better than advertised; so has the defense, especially the secondary and pass rush. Very good STs, and playing with house money against the Dreaded Overlords.

The case against Indianapolis:
Luck is prone to arm punt turnovers, and until that stops, the Colts just have the feel of a paper tiger. Running game looks like it might unravel against a quality opponent, and turnovers are also a hallmark of this unit. Last team in the playoffs with an extra game on their legs, which never helps. On the road in a venue where the fans may be the most spoiled in sports, but are also reasonably loud. Have been utterly dominated by power running games in the past by this team, and the Pats are well-coached and patient. Won a cake division, then beat a team that hasn't won in the playoffs in decades, before going on the road to beat the perpetually one-and-done Peytons. In short, reasonable chance that they are not very good, and could get exposed.

The case for New England: Survived against their Kryptonite team last week, and that club might be better than this one. Defense got spanked a bit last week, and might bounce back with a better effort against a team that can easily become one-dimensional. Best coach in the game, with offensive innovations that camouflage fungible RBs and a relative lack of effective deep passing. Notorious for getting calls, especially at home.

The case against New England: For a team that's always starting the playoffs with a bye week because they play in the most consistent cakewalk division in sports, they really don't win as much as you might expect, especially in the past decade. CB Darelle Revis picked a bad time to look vulnerable, and if he's just ordinary now for whatever reason, this entire defense could unravel. Were exposed last week by the Ravens, and while the Colts don't have the Ravens' personnel, it's not a good thing to put film like that up for the league to see at this stage in the season. Could be overconfident after last week's escape, and the complete lack of a running game last week is also worrisome.

The prediction: New England has already played their bad game and survived, and the Colts just aren't a tough matchup for them. One of these years, Luck is going to break through and vanquish the Belichicks... but not with these RBs, and this defense, in this setting and in this season.

The pick: Patriots 31, Colts 23

Last week: 3-1

Season to date: 129-130-4

Career: 617-629-43

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