The Divisional Round provides the last true football weekend of the season. From next week until at least September, we will no longer be able to watch football over the course of both a Saturday and a Sunday. And if the NFL labor situation doesn't get ironed out, it could be much, much longer. Now that I've managed to brighten everyone's mood....home teams in CAPS.
Baltimore (+3) over PITTSBURGH
If you like physical football and happen to appreciate enough of the finer points of the game to not be turned off by low scoring, then Saturday's early game should have you on the edge of your seat. The Ravens pounded the Chiefs into submission on both sides of the ball during the second half of their 30-7 Wild Card win and looked every bit the complete team that the Anquan Boldin acquisition was supposed to make them. The Steelers are coming off a much-needed first round bye during which Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu supposedly regained full health. I'm taking the points in what must have been the easiest point spread to set in the history of playoff football - all four Ravens/Steelers meetings between 2009 and 2010 were decided by exactly 3 points. The deciding factor for me is the fact that Pittsburgh will always be a sack here or an awkward cut there from Big Ben or Polamalu getting hurt again. The Steelers remind me of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out! when you'd get a star punch in on Tyson right before the 2nd round bell and he comes out for the 3rd round really low on his life bar. Even better, these two teams are much more evenly matched than Little Mac and Mike Tyson. Ravens, 20-17.
Green Bay (+2.5) over ATLANTA
There seem to be a ton of people riding the Packers' bandwagon this week but a little research has shown that it is merely a product of the excessive hype that surrounds Aaron Rodgers and the Cheeseheads (by the way, not a bad name for a band). This line opened with Atlanta a 1-point favorite but it has since been bet up to 2.5. The Falcons took the Week 12 meeting of these teams, a 20-17 heart-thumper in Atlanta which featured a crucial fumble by Rodgers right near the goal line. Despite the money they cost me in Week 16 when they lost to New Orleans, I still don't like the idea of going against Atlanta at home. All things considered, though, the Packers are playing crisply in all phases in this most recent stretch, which has seen them go 3-1 against teams with a combined 45-19 record, the only loss being the memorable 4-point decision in Foxboro where Matt Flynn was forced to play in place of Rodgers. Expect a good deal of offense in the Georgia Dome, especially if Green Bay runs it remotely as well as they did against the Eagles. Packers, 28-24.
CHICAGO (-10) over Seattle
At first glance, this line looks 2.5-3 points too high. However, I'm going to stick with my anti-Seattle stance and go with Chicago for a few reasons. One- this is one of those two-week stretches that built Vegas. The betting consensus as of Thursday is showing 63% of ATS money coming in on the Seahawks. All the people who lost money on the Saints last week have been eagerly running back to the counter to take Seattle and the 10 points, and all the people who cashed in on the Seahawks last week have been....you guessed it, running back to the counter to take Seattle and the 10 points. You have to believe that the Bears' defense will give just a slightly more inspired effort than what the Saints showed in letting the Seahawks literally roll over them for 41 points. This is a make-or-break game for Jay Cutler as well; the Bears' temperamental quarterback can put a lot of his critics at bay if he gets them to the NFC Championship Game. If Mike Martz is smart (big if), he eases Cutler into the game with early screens to Matt Forte and short outs and drags to Greg Olsen. I have a feeling that a defensive or special teams play (Devin Hester, anyone?) will be the late dagger that puts Seattle away. Bears, 27-10.
NEW ENGLAND (-8.5) over NY Jets
I'd really like to see the Jets pull this one out, but I can't think of any logical way for them to do it besides a ton of ill-timed Patriots mistakes. How do you beat New England? Well, you can pass on them, we know that. However, Mark Sanchez is clearly having arm trouble and won't have the climate-controlled benefits that he had in Indianapolis. How do the Jets win a lot of their tough games? Well, usually it's thanks to the jack-of-all-trades Brad Smith, but even he is a likely gametime decision with a groin injury. The Jets' other meal ticket involves Darrelle Revis locking on the other team's #1 receiver and reducing the rest of the field to a 10-on-9 or even a 10-on-8. The Patriots and their interchangeable receiving corps can make the efforts of Revis a bit of waste, because you can't say they have a true #1 receiver. You want to blanket Deion Branch? Fine, they'll throw hitches to Wes Welker and Julian Edelman until all of a sudden it's 2nd-and-4 on the opponent's 30. You want to blitz? Tom Brady will find one of the twin tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski over the middle. Oh yeah, and they can run the ball now too. It's no fluke that the Pats have averaged over 37 points per game during their current 8-game winning streak. How can you bet against something like that? Patriots, 31-17.
Last Week: 2-2-0