Friday, January 13, 2017

NFL Final 8 Picks: The Last Good Weekend

And Show Me Football
One of the things that makes the end of the NFL season such a stone drag is that it comes with such an poor withdrawal schedule. Week 17 of the regular is usually meaningless. Wild Card Weekend rarely feels all that meaningful, and most of the time features more than a few blowouts. This weekend has four games that all matter, and three that have actual intrigue, but since half of the teams are coming off byes, you will be lucky to have two of the four contests with actual drama. Next week is just two games, then a bye, then one and boom -- you are done for eight months. I'm not saying this is wrong, given how terrible the game is for the bodies of the people who play it, but after 3+ months of nearly more game than you might want, it all seems sudden and cruel.

Last week, I went 3-1 against the spread, but it hardly seemed like an accomplishment, given how little drama was involved in the games. When the "best" game winds up being a 25-point beatdown, because the road club more or less stops trying halfway through the third quarter... well, that's a bunch of games with fleas.

But that was then, and this is now. The last great weekend of NFL games is upon us, and we all know where we're going to be -- taking a big miss on winter weather by settling into the couch for hours of sweet, sweet caring about things that don't really matter. Plus, we all get to dream of any Super Bowl that isn't Dallas-New England. What's not to love?

And with that... on to the picks!

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Seattle at ATLANTA (-4.5)

The slate starts with a game that could really be exceptional. Seattle has been the NFL's best franchise for years now (sorry, New England, but playing in a clown division gets you docked points), but there's a sense that the window is closing, what with the defense starting to lose pieces due to injury, age and free agency, and the offensive line moving to a feast or famine bargain bin situation. While the WRs and TEs have been better than at any point in the Russell Wilson Era, and the QB himself is as effective as ever, they just can't sustain drives with a power and finesse running game any more, and they routinely just fail to get first downs for a quarter or more. When they are at their best, they win, but they just aren't at that level often enough.

Atlanta, if they didn't have a track record of coming up small in big spots like this, would feel like a much more solid favorite. QB Matt Ryan is an MVP candidate, and WR Julio Jones is the conference's best by a pretty wide margin. They can run the ball with multiple backs, they benefit from a solid home dome field advantage, and for the first time in decades, they have a pass rush. They nearly beat Seattle in Seattle, in a game where Wilson and the refs allowed the home team to escape, and the Seahawks haven't been the same club on the road for years now.

So if you are taking the underdog, you are doing so because you think Wilson will be magical, that Ryan will come up small, that the Seattle defense will force turnovers, and that CB Richard Sherman can shut down Jones all over the field, without the other Falcon wideouts picking up the slack. That's all plausible, but you have to ignore the extra week of rest, the home field, the earlier game, and the failures that Seattle had to play this game on the road in the first place.

To me, it's all too much. I like the Falcons to come out to a big early lead, Seattle to come back, but the Falcons to win and cover at the close. Excellent game, though, and I wish the spread was tighter.

Falcons 27, Seahawks 20

Houston at NEW ENGLAND (-16)

The single game this weekend that no one really needs to watch is in the evening, where a guy who lost his QB1 job on lack of merit gets to go play the dominant #1 seed, at home, off a bye. I honestly don't know if there is a line that I'd take the Texans to cover, even with a highly ranked and regarded defense... because there just isn't enough here. At all.

Sure, any team can be beat, and if RB Lamar Miller goes for 200+ yards while LB Javedon Clowney has 4+ sacks, and maybe QB Brock Osweiler has the game of his life, Houston can stay in the picture long enough to make a back door cover and flop sweat happen for the home team. It's not as if New England hasn't ever crapped the bed at home against a physical team in the playoffs before. Part of the fun of being the only franchise in your division that hasn't perfected the art of setting your dumpster on fire is that you only have to win a handful of actually difficult games to get to the Super Bowl, but the downside of that is that you can be exposed as a fraud at any time.

The biggest problem with Houston shocking the world? Osweiler. He's terrible, and so bad that he actually drags the rest of what might be a competent offense down with him. WR DeAndre Hopkins is a true stud, but Oswiler negates him. Miller got 31 carries against a middling Raider defense that was playing from a deep hole all night long, but the defense had so little to worry about from the QB, he only got 73 yards from it... and if you take away the long of 19, it's 30 for 54. Gahhh.

Anyway, expect Osweiler to turn it over and/or not sustain drives, and the Patriots to wear the Texans out with short ball control passing, their usual litany of uncalled OPI, and more effective than expected running from LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. Oh, and they have that Tom Brady guy too, at home. Unless there's some kind of weather disaster or act of God (are you there, God? Feel free to remind us all of your presence by making the Massholes weep), I'm looking for a cover by the end of the first half, the starters off the field in the fourth quarter, and very few people watching the whole game, especially when it means that you are spending your Saturday night with Phil Simms and Jeeeeeeeeemmmmm Nantz. Honestly, just take a miss on it. It must be nice to only have to win two tough games a year to win a Super Bowl.

Patriots 38, Texans 17

Pittsburgh at KANSAS CITY (-1)

An outstanding matchup between two teams that really could prevent the Patriot Horror, but if they were to combine squads, this would be the best outfit in football. Pittsburgh's offense has the best WR and RB in the business in Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell, and QB Ben Roethlisberger has been to the mountaintop before. The KC defense has been the best in the conference for the second half of the season, and the home field is among the best in sports. Should be a hell of a game, honestly.

So why am I going for the home team? I just don't think the Pittsburgh defense is up to the task, and when you give KC HC Andy Reid a bye week, he's pretty airtight. The Chiefs will move the ball often enough to wear the road team down, and if the game is close enough to be swayed by special teams, pure burner Tyreek Hill is the best in the business right now. It also doesn't help the road team that Roethlisberger hasn't been good away from Heinz Field for years now. But if any RB and WR can overcome all of that, it's Brown and Bell. Hell of a game.

Chiefs 27, Steelers 24

Green Bay at DALLAS (-5)

I really, honestly, wanted to take Green Bay here... but then WR Jordy Nelson got hurt in the game last week, and the Packer offense without their only actually plus WR is just a little too hairy for me to go with them. (The latest is that Nelson might try to play, despite rib injuries, by donning a Kevlar vest. Which is to say, even if he does take the field, he's going to be incredibly compromised.)

It's still a very near thing, because WR Randall Cobb might be 100% for the first time in forever and QB Aaron Rodgers against a mediocre defense is tasty as hell. I also think Dallas can be had, because QB Dak Prescott has never been in a playoff before and strikes me as, at heart, a game manager type that isn't going to play his best when all of the money is on the table...

And yet, there's just the rest of it. Packer HC Mike McCarthy eats paste pretty often. The Packer ground game is lacking. Their secondary is being held together with wire and gristle. Dallas has the best offensive line in football and the best RB, so they might not need Prescott to do much at all, honestly. They've never had much of a home field advantage, but they've also spent years in the wilderness before having so much line up their way, and home fields can happen with a quickness.

I don't like their defense, especially with talented dirtbag DE Randy Gregory picking up another suspension and hurting a nascent pass rush, but as good as Rodgers is, the Packer offense can take quarters off. If Dallas gets out to a big lead and just feeds the rested and ready RB Zeke Elliott, well, Rodgers' career has a lot of beatdown losses where it looks like he cuts his chute halfway through.

As a fan, I want the Pack to win, and Rodgers can win anywhere, at any time. But if you were to rank all 22 starters on both sides, it's probably something like 16-6 to Dallas on talent. On the road, off a bye, bad coach, WR1 compromised? Dallas might just blow them out, and even if they don't, piling up enough early points to prevent the comeback is also on the table.

It's all just too much to bet the Pack. Maybe not too much to hope for, but too much to bet.

Cowboys 27, Packers 20

Last week: 3-1

Season: 118-141-5

Career: 877-886-54

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