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Sunday, June 24 2018

NFL Predictions 2012: Divisional Round

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I never expected to repeat last season’s success (19-3 against Vegas) so I’ll have to settle for being half-perfect. I nailed the NFC and fell apart in the AFC where “betting” is concerned. I went 4-0 straight up, 2-2 against the spread and 2-2 for the over/under. Let’s see if I can rebound this week.

 

Baltimore (11-6) @ Denver (13-3): This is a tougher game to pick than it seems on the surface. Yes, the Broncos handled the Ravens 34-17 in their stadium not even a month ago. No, I don’t think that game was the rout it was made out to be. The game turned on one throw. Baltimore was driving for a score down 10-0 in the final minute of the half when Chris Harris picked Joe Flacco, taking it 98 yards to the house. If that throw somehow finds the right team it’s a 10-7 game instead of 17-0, and if they muster a field goal it’s 10-3. Instead of chasing for the second half and having Flacco throw 40 passes the outcome might have been different. Instead the Broncos built their lead to 31-3 and coasted.

 

The Ravens had the only 2 turnovers in the game and mustered only 12 first downs and 278 total yards that day, which was their first offensive outing under new coordinator Jim Caldwell. Did anyone expect the offense to flourish immediately when faced with one of the best defenses the NFL has to offer? The following week they churned out 533 yards and 25 first downs while creaming the Giants 33-14. Flacco threw 36 passes, but he completed 25 of them for 309 yards and 2 scores while the team did not turn it over. Their performance in last week’s 24-9 playoff win over Indianapolis, after taking a week to rest the starters, was not quite as dominating but still good. They had 441 total yards, but just 18 first downs. Still, they did what needed to be done and were in control.

 

Obviously the Broncos come in rolling with 11 straight wins. They turned their season around before the bye week when they erased a 24-0 deficit at San Diego, avoiding a 2-4 start in the process, and winning 35-24. The offense has consistently put up points with 10 outputs of at least 30. The only time a team held them under 21 points was a 17-9 win over Kansas City. The defense has been sharp as well, particularly down the stretch. Nine teams failed to score 20 points on them and in today’s high-scoring league that’s pretty impressive. When teams did touch them up for 27, 31, 31 and 24 points it was early (first six weeks) before they really hit their stride. Three teams scored precisely 23 points on them after that, but obviously those were all wins.

 

Level of competition has been a question mark during their streak. They beat just two playoff teams and the rest of their opponents had losing records. Overall the Broncos are 2-3 against playoff competition. Baltimore is now 3-4 although that includes the final week when their backups played Cincinnati.

 

Peyton Manning’s great comeback season has Denver’s passing game (291.9, 37 TD) clicking. Flacco has a ton of playoff experience to lean on and Baltimore (249.8, 22 TD) has some weapons. The key is protecting the quarterback. Denver has allowed 21 sacks, while Baltimore has allowed 38. That’s important because the Broncos (199.6, 25 TD) have a whopping 52 sacks. The Ravens (228.1, 15 TD) have 37. For the visitors, Flacco has to cash in red zone opportunities instead of throwing it to the guys in the colored jerseys because obviously they do allow some scoring. Conversely, Manning has to keep his focus razor sharp against a defense that has not given up aerial scores very often.

 

Running the ball has been successful for Baltimore (4.3, 118.8, 17 TD) with Ray Rice in their stable. Denver (3.8, 114.5, 12 TD) is relying on Knowshon Moreno and his performance is another key factor. I favor Rice big time, but the edge is offset by the respective defenses. The Ravens (4.0, 122.8, 15 TD) can be run on a bit, especially with Ray Lewis on his (literally) last legs. The Broncos (3.6, 91.1, 5 TD) are stingy. If Denver builds a lead again it could be over should Baltimore be forced into a one-dimensional offense. In that scenario Flacco will get sacked and turn it over, making it a true rout.

 

I look for an experienced Ravens team to come in this stadium on a mission for Ray Lewis. This is his last stand. Their defense will rush Manning and get after him with every bit of energy they can muster. In the altitude it probably will wear off by the second half. The Broncos desperately needed the bye week to rest after playing games in 10 straight weeks, and I don’t expect them to have any rust. They are very healthy with the notable exception of Willis McGahee who would have helped them here. I see a comfortable win, but not a rout that most anticipate. The Ravens are too good to get wiped out by a team they come in very motivated to beat: Denver 27, Baltimore 20 (BAL +9/over 43.5)

 

Green Bay (12-5) @ San Francisco (11-4-1): Let’s get it on! This is the game that started the season at Lambeau Field and when the 49ers won 30-22 they served notice the 2011 season was no fluke. In that game the visitors really took it to the team that was coming off a 15-1 regular season campaign. If not for a controversial punt return score by Randall Cobb it was kind of a rout on the scoreboard. However, Alex Smith’s efficiency was key to that win. He’ll be holding a clipboard in the rematch. On the plus side, Smith was sacked 4 times and young Colin Kaepernick is a bigger threat scrambling. He even came in for a 17-yard rumble in that win. Overall I think the Packers were not ready to compete in the opener and came out flat. Their desire to run the ball, then with Cedric Benson, was a bust. He rushed 9 times for 18 yards. This is a passing team. Running is an afterthought.

 

San Francisco has relied on their stout defense this season, but late in the year on the road against playoff competition the unit fell down in allowing 76 points combined to New England and Seattle. They split those games, and overall finished 3-2 against playoff competition. Only one of those games, a 13-6 win over the Seahawks, came at home where obviously they are now. Green Bay is 3-3 including last week against playoff teams, but would be 4-2 without the “Fail Mary” result in Seattle. They won in Houston and lost the finale in Minnesota while battling for home field advantage. The loss is why they are on the road here.

 

Passing offense is a huge edge to Rodgers and the Packers (271.4, 40 TD). The MVP and Super Bowl champ has thrown just 8 interceptions, but sacks (51) have been a huge problem. Kaepernick and the 49ers (221.9, 23 TD) have only 8 interceptions all season, but also a high sack total allowed (41). The pass rush that gets home is going to make a huge impact here. San Francisco (200.2, 19 TD) has 38 sacks and gets Justin Smith back in the lineup. We saw how they performed without him and it was not pretty. Is he healthy enough to make an impact and help Aldon Smith get back to his dominant self? Green Bay (218.3, 24 TD) is healthier on defense and has 47 sacks on their ledger plus 18 interceptions, not to mention successful playoff experience.

 

If this game features’ a half-dozen sacks as it very well could, the team with the edge making those count (turnovers, punts) has a leg up in what should be a close game. The running game for San Francisco (5.1, 155.7, 17 TD) has been what keeps their passing game efficient. They have multiple running backs led by Frank Gore. Green Bay (3.9, 106.4, 9 TD) has a veteran Ryan Grant and relative unknown DuJuan Harris trying to do just a little to balance their offense. It’s kind of amazing that an offense so prolific did not have a player rush for 500 yards or gain 1,000 yards receiving this year. Rodgers spread the ball around and had to deal with injuries to Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings. Obviously the backfield was a work in progress all year.

 

Defensively, the 49ers can stop the run (3.7, 94.2, 7 TD) cold. The Packers (4.5, 118.5, 12 TD) are vulnerable, but figure to provide support because they should be able to limit what playoff rookie Kaepernick does in the passing game. Remember last year’s NFC title game when Alex Smith completed one pass to a wide receiver? San Francisco might have learned from that outcome, but if the Packers start rushing Kaepernick and forcing mistakes it could be a similar result.

 

I look for a close game, and in that scenario I worry about a team with a shaky kicker, untested quarterback, and key defensive player injured going up against a proven quarterback and roster littered with experience in these situations. I don’t think playing on the road will bother the Packers. They are going to be extremely focused after last year’s opening knockout to continue their run. Last week’s win was almost like a bye week. Once Christian Ponder was sidelined the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Yes, they could have won by a wider margin. However, for all the talk of San Francisco’s dominant defense, Green Bay has allowed only 4 more points per game over the course of the season.

 

The 49ers win by an average of 25-14 at home, but this isn’t a regular season matchup. I don’t know if they can hold up here against Rodgers playing with his typical “chip on my shoulder” attitude making his first start at Candlestick against the team that passed him up on draft day, leaving him stewing in the green room. He remembers, and he wants revenge. He is less likely to make the critical error that turns the game. I know Kaepernick is exciting, but this is the playoffs. It might go to overtime and I think the Packers answer a field goal with a touchdown in that scenario: Green Bay 23, San Francisco 20 (GB +3/under 45)

Seattle (12-5) @ Atlanta (13-3): The Seahawks are everyone’s darlings, the “trendy” pick so to speak. It’s easy to see why with a defense that has held six straight opponents to no more than 17 points. During that stretch they faced Chicago, who finished 10-6, and two playoff teams (San Francisco, Washington) so it’s not like they beat up a bunch of soup can foes. It’s flat out tough to score on them. If there is a chink in their armor, it happened at Miami. The Dolphins ran on them to the tune of 147 yards on 23 carries split between Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas who were both over 6 yards per carry and scored 24 points while piling up 435 yards.

 

They also haven’t fared well in true road games indoors, losing the opener in Arizona and midseason in Detroit. So while it’s fair to say this team has improved when facing long road trips it is not fair to say they are now a great road team. Last week they caught the Redskins with a hobbled, ineffective rookie quarterback and still got behind 14-0. Their offense bailed them out, as did a stubborn opposing head coach who probably should have pulled Robert Griffin III and started trying to pound the rock to protect that early lead.

 

Now, thinking about all the praise everyone rightfully puts on the Seattle defense, does anyone notice that Atlanta’s defense is fifth in scoring (18.7) this year? Yardage is overrated until it starts to count on the scoreboard. It’s true the Seahawks (306.2) are fourth in total defense while the Falcons (365.6) are twenty-fourth, but they tighten up when it matters.

 

Atlanta is also disrespected as a top seed, and mad about it. I can see why people are uncertain about them though. They are just 2-0 against playoff teams, with both of those results coming in the first five weeks. However, they swept the rugged NFC East. Seattle is now 5-1 against playoff opponents plus the aforementioned win over the Bears although let’s not forget the “Fail Mary” win they stole. Any way you cut it, they are more tested and ready for this showdown. They are also tired having just gone across the country once. Mixing in a late season push I think they are a bit worn out.

 

The dome field advantage is going to play a huge factor in this result. Rookie Russell Wilson has been terrific this year, losing consecutive games just once and never losing by more than one score. However, he has nothing to prepare himself for this environment. The Falcons are chomping at the bit to make a run and finally win a playoff game. When they lost in this spot to the Packers two years ago it stung them hard. Their response was jumping up in the draft to get Julio Jones. It didn’t pay immediate dividends as evidenced by last year’s offensive shutout in the playoffs at the Giants. Now is when it pays off.

 

Atlanta’s passing offense (294.9, 32 TD) is potent and this is probably tight end Tony Gonzalez’s last shot at playoff success. They have thrown just 14 interceptions and taken 28 sacks. Of the picks Matt Ryan threw, 8 of them came in two home games, but they won both of them anyway. He was also sacked 7 times in one game against Carolina, and they won that game at home as well. In other words, throwing those games out he had only 6 interceptions and 21 sacks over 13 outings. Just once in the baker’s dozen of games did he take more than 2 sacks (3) and never had more than 1 interception.

 

Seattle’s passing offense (202.1, 27 TD) drives off their running game. Even led by a rookie quarterback they have just 10 interceptions and 33 sacks in the regular season. Last week Wilson was pretty average completing 58% of his throws for 187 yards and a touchdown, but didn’t turn it over and ran for 67 yards. He was going up against the third-worst pass defense in the regular season though. The Falcons (242.4, 14 TD) have allowed fewer than half the touchdowns the Redskins (31) did. They also have 20 interceptions although their pass rush (29 sacks) is weak. Their hope is dome crowd noise bolstering their rush. The Seahawks (203.1, 15 TD) are downright nasty defending the past. They can match up with Jones, Roddy White and Gonzalez while still rushing (36 sacks). Their issue is Chris Clemons being hurt and of course no home field boost.

 

I always worry about an elite defense on the road in a dome. I just don’t think they are as effective. Seattle wants to punch their opponent in the mouth running the ball (4.8, 161.2, 16 TD) though. Atlanta (3.7, 87.3, 12 TD) doesn’t really have that option. Defensively the Seahawks (4.5, 103.1, 8 TD) are good against the run while the Falcons (4.8, 123.2, 16 TD) have shown plenty of vulnerability. I think this is a tight game, and low scoring. The punters are both pretty good and should be able to keep the opposing offense in poor field position often. Matt Bryant has had a lot more luck kicking long field goals this year compared to Steven Hauschka (1 of 4 beyond 50 yards) so if it comes down to a kick I’ll take the home team.

 

It might boil down to the final possession. In that spot I love Matt Ryan. He is 33-6 here as a starter even with that weird week 17 debacle when they decided to play their starters and still lost to Tampa Bay. Presumably they wanted to stay in playing shape while not getting worn out. I love Marshawn Lynch pounding the ball against this defense and he is on a roll with 100-plus yards in five straight games. His efforts keep it close, but Matty Ice is not going down without a fight. He has the help on offense to squeeze out some field goal drives and steal this win: Atlanta 19, Seattle 16 (ATL -2.5/under 46.5)

 

Houston (13-4) @ New England (12-4): The Texans don’t even have to show up right? I mean the Patriots just beat them 42-14 here last month in a game so lopsided both backup quarterbacks saw the field at the end. Well, I think Bill Belichick might be reminding his team that in the 2010 season they beat the Jets at home 45-3 in week 13 only to lose 28-21 when they hosted them in the divisional round. For the record, their rout of the Texans was in week 14 but the similarity is pretty striking.

 

I think that actually helps the Pats avoid overconfidence. Still, the Texans are feeling very disrespected. They were simply overwhelmed in the first meeting. Tom Brady started throwing on them and cashing in touchdowns while the offense never established the run, and couldn’t because they were down 21-0 early in the second quarter. On the year New England is 3-3 against playoff competition including 3-0 at home. Houston is now 4-3 against playoff teams, 1-2 on the road, plus a road win over 10-6 Chicago.

 

It looks like tight end Rob Gronkowski will be back and that’s good news for the already awesome New England passing offense (302.8, 34 TD). Brady has only 9 interceptions and has taken just 27 sacks. Avoiding mistakes is always key. Houston’s passing offense (252.9, 22 TD) is definitely a step down, but Matt Schaub has only 13 interceptions and 28 sacks taken so he is keeping away from those negative plays as well. He just needs to make more positive plays down the field. He’ll have that shot in the rematch. The Patriots (271.4, 27 TD) give up a lot of those, but have 20 interceptions and 37 sacks. The Texans (225.8, 29 TD) have allowed a lot of scores and injuries definitely hurt them. They do have 44 sacks and that J.J. Watt fellow at their disposal.

 

This time I know Houston will try harder to run the ball (4.2, 132.7, 19 TD). New England (4.2, 136.5, 25 TD) is equally dangerous on the ground and actually has more first downs rushing (151 to 114). Defensively the Texans (4.0, 97.5, 5 TD) are slightly better against the run than the Patriots (3.9, 101.9, 10 TD) . This should be a closer game the second time around, but under no circumstances do I expect an upset. Houston is a good team that isn’t ready for elite status. If they can stay healthy next year, get more production out of complementary wide receivers and somehow get a perfect effort from Schaub they might have a chance. For now, this is Brady’s world. He is heading for a trip to the Mile High City next week where an old friend is waiting: New England 30, Houston 24 (HOU +9.5/over 48.5)

 

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