Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Spread 'Em: NFL Division Playoff Picks

Good And Tasty
After a wildcard weekend where the road teams went unde- feated, there will be all kinds of What It All Means punditry from the usual suspects. I'm even prone to it, because I believe that true home field advantages have mostly disappeared in the use of so many new parks like Lincoln Financial in Philadelphia, the Jerry Jones Mausoleum in Dallas, and San Francisco's new palace in exile in Santa Clara. But the real story of the weekend was that two division winners from terrible divisions -- the AFC South and the NFC East -- got deservedly trucked, and two other home teams lost coin flip moments of extreme weirdness, between Jeremy Hill and Vontaze Burfict's act in Cincy, and Blair Walsh missing a chip shot in Minnesota.
Something more telling happened; for the most part, the offenses went AWOL. Take a look at the post-season leaders over at NFL.com and you'll see one out of eight QBs over 300 yards, no RB over 100, and only three guys over 100 yards receiving. If you play playoff fantasy, you won or lost with a points total that was damn near trivial, honestly.
This week, the home teams, for the most part, are going to reassert themselves, because it's just too hard to overcome the rest and the travel. And with only seven games left in the entire NFL season, it's a great time to get a little excitement on the side, assuming you haven't been using this column to do that all along. My Top Sportsbooks has New England vs. Arizona as the current favorites to meet up at Superbowl 50. Do I agree? You'll need to read on to find out.
And with that... on to the picks!
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Kansas City at NEW ENGLAND (-5)
The case for KC: Balanced team, with what might be the best defense in the conference right now. TE Travis Kelce is the best in the game that's not named Gronkowski. QB Alex Smith presents real problems with his mobility, and RB Spencer Ware was beastly in last week's wipeout of Houston. They played early and trucked their opponent, so the usual bye week advantage might not be as large for the home team. HC Andy Reid is experienced, and put together a great scheme to neutralize DL JJ Watt last week. Have won since October, and still have No One Believes In Us momentum. This team doesn't usually beat themselves with turnovers, and that's a huge part of the equation in traveling to Foxboro. Special teams, as shown by the first play of last week's game, can be a big plus.
The case against: Reid's record in big playoff games is atrocious, and he's generally gotten schooled by Pats HC Bill Belichick. Their schedule to get here has been cotton-soft, including the last game against a Texans team that got one of the worst QB performances in playoff history. I'm just not sure they've got a high enough ceiling. WR Jeremy Maclin is unlikely after a scary injury last week, and without him, the entire field shrinks hard.
The case for New England: At home, rested, with a likelihood of their main offensive weapons getting back online after injury. Defense is better than most recent teams. QB Tom Brady is still a tactical monster, and able to use tempo and smarts to get extra plays and margins for error. They run the best pick plays in the business, and routinely get the better of the refs. Home crowd is loud as long as they are winning, and special teams usually don't make big mistakes.
The case against: Just might be running on empty, in that they spent the second half of the year losing to teams like Philadelphia, the Jets and Miami. Serious protection issues for Brady have made him look very ordinary for the past few weeks. RB Stephen Jackson is the latest retread, and just isn't as good as the earlier options. When this team has lost in past years, it's been to physical defenses with running games, and that describes this Chiefs team.
The pick: Had Maclin gotten through the game healthy, and if Reid didn't spend the first half keeping the Texans in it through oddly conservative play calling, I just might be calling for the upset here. But, well, both of those things happened, and I just get the sense that this Patriots team has a couple more wins in them, especially if Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman are 100%.
Patriots 26, Chiefs 20

Green Bay at ARIZONA (-7.5)

The case for Green Bay: Got on track on offense in a big way against DC. Have the best QB in the tournament in Aaron Rodgers. RB Eddie Lacy got through the game unscathed and looked strong. Defense can bring pressure and make plays, and when they do, it tends to snowball. WR Randall Cobb has come alive a bit in the past few weeks, and WR Devonte Allen made a big catch that might show he's rebounding from a down year. HC Mike McCarthy doesn't get rattled. Team is playing with house money at this point, having bounced back from a poor end to the regular season to get to the final 8. Fan base travels.
The case against: Got absolutely hammered in this same match-up just three weeks ago, with the offensive line getting depantsed on a routine basis. WRs just aren't getting open unless the play is extended. RBs have been fumble-prone, and Rodgers will make mistakes by trying to carry the entire team on his back. Defense can't get off the field against good teams, especially if the passing attack isn't super-short. Fan base won't travel as well for this one, since front-running Cardinal Fan isn't going to sell this ticket as easily as they did in Week 16.
The case for Arizona: Just the most complete team in the tournament. QB Carson Palmer has had his best year, and RB David Johnson might be the best RB left in the playoffs. WR corps is the NFC's best, with speed and possession in equal elements. WR Larry Fitzgerald has morphed into Late Era Hines Ward, with the nastiness and blocking ability to match, while still making back-breaking plays in the midfield. Defense can rev it up nicely, especially when they are rested. Defensive backfield was the best in the league before the injury to FS Tyronn Mathieu, and is still pretty damned good. Special teams make plays. Coaching staff is experienced and ruthless.
The case against: Had their worst loss of the year in Week 17 when they still had something to play for, as Seattle trucked them at home. Palmer is turnover prone historically. Defense isn't the same after losing the Honey Badger, and there's always the sense with this Cardinal team that they are regular season beasts and playoff babies, without the true ceiling required to win it all.
The pick: It won't be as easy as Week 16, but it won't have to be to cover this number. The Pack just doesn't have the linemen necessary to hang with the big boys right now.
Cardinals 34, Packers 24

SEATTLE (+2.5) at Carolina

The case for Seattle: Best defense in the conference. Most and best playoff experience. QB Russell Wilson just wins games, regardless of other aspects of what's going on around him. Running game may get a spark if RB Marshawn Lynch is back and healthy this week. Can just turn an opponent into an incredibly limited outfit, because the secondary is just lockdown to everything but tight ends, and they are well coached enough that you'd have to think the TE problem isn't going to bite them again. For a physical team, they also tend to get deference from the refs.
The case against: While they were the better team in their win against Minnesota, they weren't by very much, and referee malfeasance notwithstanding, they are incredibly lucky to be here. Defense keeps fading in the fourth quarter. If WR Doug Baldwin is erased by CB Josh Norman, entire passing tree could be challenged. Lost to this team not every long ago, at home, with a damaging fourth quarter collapse.
The case for Carolina: QB Cam Newton has been the best in the league for most of the year. TE Gregg Olsen destroyed Seattle last time, so if Seattle does focus on him, it might make it easier for the WRs to get loose. RB Jonathan Stewart has been a horse. Defensive front seven was great for most of the year, and the coaching staff uses Newton's unique gifts without fear or reservation. At home, off a bye, against a team that froze their ass off in a Sunday game, which is probably worth more than a few points on its own.
The case against: Didn't play their best football late. Limited at WR with young and erratic players, and prone to drops against pressure. Newton can get rattled into bad decisions. Defensive secondary, and this includes Norman, isn't up to the standard of the front seven, and the front seven showed signs of wear over the course of the year.
The pick: It's a feel thing, but I think Seattle has already played its bad playoff game, and is still standing. I think they come into this one with all kinds of bad tape to look at during the week, not to mention the earlier loss, and play their best game of the year. As for the Panthers, I just don't think they've got the ceiling to match, and while home and rest is a potent advantage at this time of the year, it rarely goes four for four.
Seahawks 27, Panthers 24

Pittsburgh at DENVER (-7)

The case for Pittsburgh: Playing with house money. Have gotten production out of the RBs no matter who has taken the rock. Best set of WRs in the NFL, and it's not even close. Defense is physical and can get after the QB. Better on special teams than usual. Have won on the road, and have playoff experience all over the roster, without being particularly old. May be the AFC team that no one wants to play, especially if QB Ben Roethlisberger gets hot. Might be a team of destiny, in that they needed monster help to even get into the playoffs in the first place.
The case against: Defense is prone to stunning lapses. Are extremely lucky to be here, with serious protection issues on offense, and a raft of injuries at the running back position. Play calling can get head-scratchingly odd, and they've just been through a 60-minute fistfight, while their opponent was resting.
The case for Denver: At home, off a bye, with the best defense in the conference should be enough. QB Peyton Manning is as healthy as he's going to be in this stage of his career. Running game has shown signs of life, especially recently. WRs have pedigree, if not a ton of recent production. Solid coaching staff and good special teams. True home-field advantage, especially with altitude issues.
The case against: Manning is clearly playing the last games of his career, and just doesn't have the arm strength or adjustments to avoid turnovers. Defense might be a little overrated, in that they didn't seem to be as good at the end of the year. The defense gave up a big lead against this team in Week 15.
The pick: The record says shootout, but I'm not so sure. This line could change substantially based on the health of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger; here's a link that's going to be filled with updates on that. But even if the QB is able to make the start, there's just too much that makes me worry that he won't be able to play to his full potential. Rest is just too important at this time of the year.
Broncos 31, Steelers 20

Last week: 3-1

Season: 138-115-3

Career: 756-747-48

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