Saturday, January 21, 2012

Conference Championships

The beginning of the end of the football season has two fairly intriguing matchups, fortunately only accompanied by one week of speculation and hype. Savor it everyone, because after this weekend the football season is essentially over, since the Super Bowl and all it entails often leaves the game lost in the mix. On another note, after last week's 0-fer, I really suck. Home teams in CAPS.

NEW ENGLAND (-7) over Baltimore
I violated one of my biggest rules on Divisional weekend, and that is I bet with my heart and not with my head. While I really want the Ravens to pull this sucker out and leave all the Chowderheads out there counting down until April. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that the AFC Championship will play out this way. Had the Ravens not been facing TJ Yates last week, they could have easily lost their game to the Texans. While the New England defense won't present the challenge that Houston's did, I don't know that Joe Flacco and the Baltimore offense has enough (outside of Ray Rice) to expose the Pats' D to the extent that it is going to need to. On the other side of the ball, what more really needs to be said about Tom Brady and his treasure chest of targets? While the Ravens' aging defense still has plenty of punch to it, and I'd be shocked if New England throws up another 40-spot, I just think Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch, etc. are too good. Patriots (with a grimace), 27-17.

NY Giants (+2.5) over SAN FRANCISCO
Another instance of having to overcome my biases and rooting interests. Last week I couldn't see past the fact that the Giants eliminated my own team, and picked against them even though my writeup on the game ended up outlining just how good a chance they had against Green Bay. The most interesting part of this game is that neither the Giants nor the 49ers will make the mistakes that played a large part in allowing both of them to advance last week. San Francisco tackles extremely well and plays a much more disciplined brand of defense than the Packers did. Can you imagine the 49ers having the type of breakdowns that led to both of the touchdowns scored by Hakeem Nicks at Lambeau? Neither can I. On the other end, Alex Smith brought the 49ers down the field twice in the last four minutes to overcome the Saints, thanks largely to New Orleans selling out on blitzes when it really wasn't necessary. The Giants have proved that they can get to your QB with their front four and don't need to get blitz-happy. So something has to give. And what will that be? Well, long story short, Eli Manning is too tough to bet against right now, especially if you figure the game to be close late. Top to bottom, the Giants are probably a little bit better of a team, so I'll take the better team and a few points any day. Giants, 24-20.

Last Week (avert your eyes): 0-4-0
Postseason: 2-6-0

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Divisional Weekend

The last great football weekend of the season brings a sad reality that the Winter Doldrums are lurking just a few weeks away. Until then, home teams in CAPS.

New Orleans (-3.5) over SAN FRANCISCO
I don't care that this game is outdoors. I don't care that this game is on grass. I don't care that the playing surface at Candlestick Park is often less than optimal. I don't care that the 49ers had a bye week. I don't care how good San Fran's defense is. I don't care how susceptible to the run the Saints' defense can be. The Saints are the better team in this game. If they were the typical dome team who can't run the ball or play in elements (although, for the record, 62 degrees and sunny in the Bay Area for game time), that would be one thing. But New Orleans can run the ball almost as well as they throw it, and you can't tell me the Saints are being held under 24 points in this game. You could line the '76 Steelers up against this Saints offense and they'd still manage to get into the mid-twenties. They'd probably even get 21 off of the '85 Bears. The 49ers have had a great year, but if they ask Alex Smith to match touchdowns with Drew Brees, that's just asking too much. Saints, 24-16.

Denver (+13.5) over NEW ENGLAND
It's Christ against the anti-Christ in Tim Tebow vs. Bill Belichick and the evil-machine Patriots. These teams met in Week 15 in Denver, a game that the Broncos controlled before turning the ball over to the Patriots and their automatic-30-point offense like it was a bodily function. The weather will be cold but clear in Foxborough, which should allow the Pats' passing game to operate cleanly, albeit against a sturdy Broncos defense that may keep New England from reaching their usual totals of points and yardage. No one in the world will expect the Denver offense to watch wits with that of New England, but the Patriots defense is beyond soft and will allow Tebow to do enough of the Lord's Work up and down the field the keep this game competitive. Patriots, 28-17.

BALTIMORE (-7.5) over Houston
The Texans have made their mark and won their opening playoff game, which is all anyone could have asked of them. Meanwhile, the Ravens, who are 8-0 at home this year, have been sitting back and licking their chops in preparation for this game. More than a touchdown is a lot of points to give up with a Baltimore team that doesn't score like the Saints, Patriots, or Packers do. However, Ray Rice should be able to find enough holes in the Houston defense, and as long as the Ravens merely play their game they should minimize any threat presented by the Texans. If the Ravens are meant to go anywhere at all this year, they win this game handily. Ravens, 20-10.

GREEN BAY (-7.5) over NY Giants
This was the toughest game of the week to make a selection on. The Giants have all the momentum you could possibly want, while the Packers have been the league's world-beaters all season. Much has been made of the Green Bay defense and its susceptibility to a pounding running game and big plays over the top. However, that only occurs when the Packers have a big lead or if the opponent has a lead that they are trying to grind out. I don't put too much stock into the layoff that Aaron Rodgers and his offense have had since clinching the NFC's top seed. What I do put stock into is the return of Greg Jennings to the Pack's already-lethal passing game. Eli Manning will get the ball down the field plenty to his deep WR corps, leaving it up to the Green Bay defense to force a mistake or two (paging Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson) in order to make the difference. Can the Giants come up with enough big plays on defense to keep themselves in the game? If their front four can get to Rodgers enough, then they certainly can. However, I think that the Packers will be ready for the challenge presented by the Giants' pass rush and will adjust their attack accordingly. Packers, 38-28.

Last Week: 2-2-0

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Wild Card Weekend

Arguably the year's best weekend of football, Wild Card Weekend never seems to fail. This year it gives us two very intriguing games and two other games that would be complete shockers if the underdog were to win outright. After 17 Weeks of regular season football that saw passing yards pile up more quickly than Greece's budget deficit, get used to see more of the same in the playoffs. Home teams in CAPS.

HOUSTON (-3.5) over Cincinnati
I can't believe I'm saying this, but the return of Wade Phillips to the Texans' sideline this week should be the difference maker. Ol' Wade takes back the reigns of the formidable Houston defense that he transformed this year, which should only make matters more difficult for Cincy rookie QB Andy Dalton facing a fired-up Reliant Stadium crowd in the franchise's first ever postseason game. Does that mean I'm picking T.J. Yates to win a playoff game? Well, all I'm doing is picking him to not lose it. Arian Foster and Andre Johnson should provide enough offense to keep this one out of the reach of the Bengals, who did not beat a winning team all season.

Detroit (+10.5) over NEW ORLEANS
The more I think about this pick, the less I like it. But I'm going with my gut here because the points, especially with the hook, are too many to pass up. Detroit's defense is something out of the original Tecmo Bowl video game - if you don't sack the quarterback, you're giving up a big play. Despite an embarrassing barrage of dirty plays and personal fouls, the Lions hung around with the Saints in the teams' Week 12 meeting, a game for which Ndamukong Suh had been suspended. It's no question whether or not the Saints will put up a ton of points, it's just a matter of how long the Lions will be able to get the ball downfield and keep up. My prediction is that the Saints settle for a few more field goals than normal, they score "only" 38 points, and the Lions add a late TD to make the final score 38-30.

Atlanta (+3) over NY GIANTS
Neither of these teams are great, but the Falcons are more consistent overall. Giants backers and media members keep conjuring up thoughts of 2007 - but what does that team have to do with this one? Well, the Giants do have a lethal pass rush, but their secondary is still very vulnerable down the field, which is where Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones, and Roddy White will have to play key roles for Atlanta. The Falcons need to find a way to contain Victor Cruz in the open field and keep Hakeem Nicks from getting deep. It would go a long way for Atlanta if they can do so, because otherwise the Giants have, statistically, the worst rushing offense in the league. And before anyone gets all crazy about a dome team playing in winter weather, the forecast for this game is sunny and a relatively mild 45 degrees. Another note? Yes, day games, and especially daytime playoff games, are typically when the older, calmer set of Giants fans use their tickets, so don't be shocked if the Metlife Stadium crowd is less raucous then expected.

DENVER (+9) over Pittsburgh
Thanks to the overall ineptitude of the AFC West, CBS gets to broadcast another Tim Tebow game to all of America, and we get to wonder "is anyone going to score in this game?" The Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger banged up and now have Rashard Mendenhall on IR, plus they lose safety Ryan Clark for this game due to his sickle cell condition preventing him from playing at Denver's altitude. When Denver has the ball....well, we all know plenty about the trials and tribulations of that offense in the past two months. I highly doubt that the Broncos will pull this game out, but think their crowd can help keep them in it for a good while. 17 points will be plenty to win this one, but I just can't see the Steelers' defense allowing more than one touchdown drive to Tebow. Let's say a final of 17-10, with Pittsburgh winning a real black-and-blue matchup.

Last Week: 2-2-1
Regular Season: 36-42-7

Monday, January 2, 2012

Cinq Pour Samedi (Bowl Game Edition)

In what brings a merciful end to my 2011 NCAA season, the BCS Bowls and National Championship Game provide five intriguing matchups spread out over a week's time. As always, the games are played at neutral sites so there are no official "home" teams.

Wisconsin (+4.5) over Oregon (Rose Bowl)
In a classic Big Ten-Pac 10 (oh wait, it's now "B1G-Pac 12") matchup, it's all about the ground game. Also as you'd expect, it's Wisconsin who wants to run through you and Oregon who wants to run around you. Despite the big-play ability of Oregon, I think the Badgers can control the game with the fresh legs of their massive offensive linemen. On the other side of the ball, Oregon's defense is not the better of the two and they tend to have trouble stopping opponents when the game stays close late.

Oklahoma State (-4) over Stanford (Fiesta Bowl)
In what may be the most entertaining, if not the best, of all the big bowl games this season, the Cowboys look to make 2011 the year of "what might have been." while Andrew Luck makes his final dress rehearsal before he becomes the most mentioned name in all of sports this April. Picking a side in this game was simple - Oklahoma State just never stops scoring (in games played outside of Iowa, that is) and taking anything less than a full touchdown against them is not a bet I'd like to be a part of.

Michigan (-3) over Virginia Tech (Sugar Bowl)
In the game of borderline at-large BCS bids, the Wolverines present an interesting threat to the Hokies. Virginia Tech's only two losses this year have come to Clemson and dual-threat QB Tajh Boyd. Now let's ask ourselves, who is Michigan's top offensive player, what does he bring to the table, and isn't he even better overall than Boyd? That's right, Denard Robinson figures to give Frank Beamer's defense fits. There is a lot to like about Michigan's new-look defense and in an odd twist, Virginia Tech is now down to a third kicker for this game.

West Virginia (+3) over Clemson (Orange Bowl)
The Mountaineers, who bear the honor of "Tallest Midget" coming out of the Big East, meet a Clemson team that is as Jekyll-and-Hyde as they are. The Tigers backed into the ACC title by virtue of having Virginia Tech's number. Truth be told, this game is going to be very ugly and will most likely be the least watchable of the bunch. In that case, give me the points because I still think Clemson peaked about 8 weeks ago.

LSU (+1) over Alabama (BCS National Championship Game)
In the rematch that no one wanted but everyone is secretly looking forward to, SEC haters cringe as a sixth straight national champion will emerge from the conference. To be objective, this truly is a matchup of the two best teams, although the argument can be made that since LSU already beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa this year, why should they have to beat them again for the championship? Whether this game plays out like the 9-6 field goal fest from November or a more conventional, higher-scoring game, I think LSU is better equipped to handle either situation. Their defense is too strong and their offense just a bit more multi-faceted than that of Alabama. Let's hope for a dandy in the Superdome to close out the season.

Last Week: 3-2-0
Season: 31-37-2

Sunday, January 1, 2012

5 for Sunday

Week 17 has arrived, and with it my last half-ass column of the regular season. Due to no one wanting to stare at a computer screen and worsen their New Year's hangover (or a smart phone screen for that matter, but if you're reading this blog on your phone then may God seriously bless you), this week's picks will be explained in one sentence each. I promise that actual game handicaps will return for the playoffs starting next week. Home teams in CAPS.

Tennessee (-1) over HOUSTON
Because the Titans have something to play for and the Texans are merely trying not to further injure themselves.

San Francisco (-12.5) over ST. LOUIS
Because the Rams have tee times on their mind and the 49ers need to win to secure the #2 seed and a bye.

Detroit (+6.5) over GREEN BAY
Because Matt Flynn will start in place of Aaron Rodgers, and the Lions need to win to avoid a trip to New Orleans for Wild Card Weekend.

Kansas City (+2) over DENVER
Because if 2011 may have been the Year of Tebow, according to the Chinese, 2012 is the Year of the Neckbeard.

Dallas (+3) over NY GIANTS
Because despite the extreme lack of confidence that I have in the Cowboys, Felix Jones will benefit from what was essentially a week off in Week 16 and after watching the Giants bumble around with the Jets last week for 3 and a half quarters, I just cannot imagine Dallas losing to those two teams a combined three times in one season.

Last Week: 1-4-0
Season: 34-40-6