Friday, January 20, 2017

NFL Conference Game Picks: End Of Bandwagon

NE Bandwagon, Soon
Last week in the NFL playoffs, we had a Saturday of chalk, then a Sunday where the league finally gave us games that were worth watching. The expectation is that now that we're to the Final Four, both games will be fascinating and exceptional, but the history tells us that what usually happens is one classic, and one blowout.

Which isn't quite how I want to see this weekend, but ignoring history is usually a bad way to spend your money. Especially in football prognostication. Feel free, however, to ignore my less than stellar history at picking games. I mean, if we're going to start paying attention to track records, we might not have a guy occupying the most powerful job in the history of the world who was such a stone chump that he couldn't make money running casinos. And where's the fun in that?

And with that... on to the picks!

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Green Bay at ATLANTA (-5)

How to lose a playoff game despite having talent advantages at something like 18 out of 22 starting positions...

a) Put the early play calling on pinpoint execution from your game manager rookie QB who is making his first playoff start, rather than your best-in-class offensive line and rested RB

b) Fail to come up with innovative or unpredictable blitz packages to supplement your lacking pass rush against a QB that's literally carving you to bits, and only has real trouble when faced with immediate pressure

c) Throw away the game with last minute clock management that makes Andy Reid look like a Super Genius (why call time out when you can clock it? you're going to need that timeout to ice the kicker before you lose!), and

d) Fail to cover a crossing route with literally seconds left in regulation, giving said QB all of the chance he needed to make a miracle save against an overtime where you would have had all of the momentum.

Mind you, I'm not bitter that Dallas blew the home game that they worked all year to achieve; it was, actually, a laff riot of the highest possible order, and will be on the short roll of reasons why Cowboys HC Jason Garrett will be unemployed in 12 months, and not successful at the What Were They Thinking final HC job he gets from some desperate AFC outfit later. (After Dallas fails to make the playoffs next year, because free agency is coming for that O-line, and QB Dak Prescott and RB Zeke Elliott aren't getting through their sophomore years unscathed.) But I digress.

The point is that as good as Rodgers is playing right now, the Pack are damned lucky to be here, and the reasons why they are lucky are obvious. The secondary is battered, the defensive line only gets push for so long before they get worn out, and the offense can't take pressure off Rodgers to be perfect, because the running game is supplemental at best. Without a full-speed Jordy Nelson at WR1, the secondary guys have to catch pretty much everything, and while they did that last week in Dallas, counting on it again is unwise.

There's also this: Atlanta has a real live sack monster in Vic Beasley Jr, with 15.5 on the year, and Dallas didn't, once DE Randy Gregory went ham on the drugs again. Those dozen-odd plays where Rodgers dances around like he's three seconds into the future, and breaks the back of the defense? Well, he's still going to have some of those, but not so many as to author 30+ points. And 30+ points is going to be absolutely necessary in a dome setting, against an Atlanta offense that is hitting on all cylinders, and has the patience and intelligence to call actual running plays in the red zone.

I'd like this to be a 34-31 classic, back and forth, amazing game, and that's really the only kind of game that Green Bay can win. But the more likely event is that Rodgers finally doesn't play at an A++ level, the Packer WRs don't make enough plays, and the Falcons get a turnover or two and get more than one score ahead in a game where they rarely even face a difficult third down. It's been a hell of a ride for Green Bay, but there's only so far you can go when you are this dependent on one guy, and don't even have a great coach to help him. (Oh, and thank heavens that Rodgers already has a ring, otherwise he'd be getting nothing but Dan Marino comps by now.)

Falcons 38, Packers 27

PITTSBURGH (+6) at New England


I get why the public is all over the Pats; they've been a blue-chip betting prospect all year at home, and normally when they stumble around a bit in one game, they bring it hard for the next. They also have that famous 1.5 day edge in prep time, motivation from Antonio Brown's desire to corner the market in social media slut shaming, and Brady / Belichick, the Palpatine and Vader of the NFL. Pittsburgh also has had severe issues on scoring well in road games, and the defense has had any number of That Doesn't Look Good moments.

But when you watched the actual games last week, rather than just the final scores, you saw a Patriot team that, had they been facing an actual QB instead of a tall carny and object lesson of why you shouldn't pay too much for a guy that his old team wouldn't extend for, they really could have been in trouble. The offense just isn't as terrifying without TE Rob Gronkowski, especially since the WRs just don't get the same kind of separation down field. The RBs are functional, but Dion Lewis will put it on the carpet, LeGarrette Blount can't do much in the passing game, and James White only works in a handful of sets. The OL is better than the unit that nearly got Brady killed last year in their end in Denver, but not so much. The STs aren't getting scores in back to back weeks. And while the defense has kept teams from scoring all year, they've also done it with suspect secondary numbers and the usual AFC LEast cupcake schedule. I think this is a good Patriots team, not a great one.

As for Pittsburgh... well, the number of games where they've had Brown, LeVeon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger all pulling on the oars at the same time is a fairly small subset, and all of those guys are making this game. The defense is playing its best ball of the year now, which is to say, at the only time of the year that matters. K Chris Boswell was aces to get them here, and I don't think they've played their best game yet. Put them in a neutral setting, and this line is a lot closer. And here's the very dirty secret of Foxborough's fans: they are the most spoiled SOBs on the planet, and when things turn on them, they go away. Fast. Steeler Fan travels, too.

So I like Pittsburgh to not just cover this spread, but to shock the world and just plain win the game. Look for Brown to win his matchup against CB Malcolm Butler with penalties early and separation late, Roethlisberger to move the sticks with all manner of Other Guys, and Bell to close the deal with some of his own magic, which is the football equivalent of when the Harlem Globetrotters just spin the ball in front of their opponents, then blow by them. I have no idea why that works for him and only him, but man alive, does it work. And it's going to be beautiful.

Steelers 31, Patriots 27

Last week: 2-2

Playoffs: 5-3

Season: 120-143-5

Career: 879-888-54

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