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Monday, February 27 2017

NFL Predictions 2014: Championship Games

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The picks went well for me last week. Really well in fact, until the final game of the weekend. I had the Patriots by 4 and while the score was higher (35-31 compared to 24-20) that margin was on the mark. I had Seattle 30-13, and they won 31-17. I had Green Bay 27-23 and they won 26-21. It does not get much better than that. I suppose I was half right in the last game because Indianapolis did in fact score 24, but Denver was not up to the task offensively as they scored just 13 compared to my pick of 28. Either way, I swept Las Vegas in that game.

In all I was 3-1 straight up (6-2 for the playoffs, 172-91-1 overall). I reeled off a 4-0 mark against the spread (5-3 for the playoffs, 136-128 overall) and went 3-1 on the over under (6-2 for the playoffs, 150-111-3 overall). For the year I am now +47 against the desert. Now if I can just figure out how a couple of three-touchdown blowouts from earlier in the season will play out in the rematches.

Green Bay (13-4) @ Seattle (13-4): First off, let me get this out of the way. Dez Bryant caught the football, and it had nothing to do with the "Calvin Johnson" rule forcing a player to keep the ball throughout the process of going to the ground. He was not going to the ground. He was going for the white stripe, making a football move after his third step and in the process of doing that temporarily lost the ball without the aide of the ground before recovering it past the line. I would have ruled it a touchdown, forcing these Packers to come from behind. They might have, but we will never know. It is over, and the winning side is not apologizing. In fact, they are returning to the site of the famous "Fail Mary" call that wound up costing them valuable playoff seeding. Those who say the call was a moot point because both teams made the playoffs are crazy. Green Bay would have been home on their turf and Colin Kaepernick might have found it a little harder to go wild in frigid conditions. Either way, that is history and calls are blown every year.

Speaking of history, so is the season kickoff game Seattle won 36-16. I can take away almost nothing from that one four months ago. So many parts are different and so many players are performing at a different level that it is virtually irrelevant. The teams themselves learned plenty and have to adjust accordingly of course. When I say things have changed, it starts with Eddie Lacy being knocked out with a concussion last time around. He has to be a big factor here, along with James Starks if the visitors want to score an upset. Everyone knows Aaron Rodgers has a balky calf. They hope he can do just enough to earn a two week break before trying for another Super Bowl ring. On the other side, many people have forgotten Percy Harvin had 100 yards of total offense 11 touches and caught all the passes thrown his way. He was traded to the Jets during the season. Right tackle Justin Britt is questionable and that could create pass rushing opportunities for Clay Matthews. 

By the numbers, my concern for the Packers is scoring points on the road. They got on Chicago early in the season winning 38-17, but overall averaged just 21.0 points per game while allowing 23.1 during a 4-4 road slate. Seattle is 8-1 at home now and has scored 30-plus four times. All told they average a 26.7 to 15.6 margin of victory. Their defense has tightened considerably as the season has worn on. Last week against Carolina they allowed 17, but were in control of the game throughout. If these numbers mash up, the Seahawks win roughly 25-18 and I would not be surprised much by an outcome like that. My primary concern with Seattle on defense is facing an elite quarterback for the first time in a long time. No, Cam Newton is not close to elite. They feasted on a lot of bad signal-callers this season, home and away, after the first five games of the season. Early on they played Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tony Romo. Yes, their defense was weaker then, but they went 2-2 in those games including a home loss to Dallas. This gives me pause.

The key for the home team is controlling the trenches and running the ball. I like their chances. Last week they went up against a pretty good run defense and needed the big plays in the passing game. Russell Wilson played flawlessly as a passer, but was sacked twice and did very little damage scrambling (7 rushes for 22 yards). Green Bay has been torched by mobile quarterbacks in the past and has plenty of tape to figure out what went wrong. Executing is another matter. The lack of mobility for Rodgers is really the huge factor here. The Seahawks are not going to allow a bunch of rushing yards, and unlike the commercial there is no "Wroggers" to fill in for him. His limited ability to get out of the pocket will help the pass rush considerably, especially with the ridiculous crowd noise in this stadium. I could see a shocker here if everything went in favor of the visitors, and I mean a serious "Fail Mary" makeup call, special teams touchdown or significant turnover edge. Beyond that, I see a boring outcome here. Running the ball is just easier. Fewer things can go wrong. Playing defense is the easier path to victory because it allows you to let the other team make the mistakes by pressing: Seattle 23, Green Bay 19 (GB +7.5/under 47)

Indianapolis (13-5) @ New England (13-4: The only quarterback on Championship Sunday without a Super Bowl ring on his finger is Andrew Luck. It stands to reason this will change eventually, but if he wants to change in next month he has to beat a team that has thrashed him all three times he has faced them. The most recent blowout was in his home stadium two months ago. The Patriots won that game 42-20. In that one, Jonas Gray carried the ball 37 times for 201 yards and 4 touchdowns. He has hardly been used this season other than that game, so speculation is rampant he might be defrosted for the rematch. The bigger point is that their ability to simply run over them makes picking the rematch much more difficult. The Colts are playing a lot better on defense now and are highly unlikely to let this team roll them on the ground for a third straight time. The previous game I mention of course is the 43-22 loss in last year's playoffs when LeGarrette Blount scored four of the team's five rushing touchdowns. Mix in a 59-24 victory the first time Tom Brady ran into Luck and their average margin of victory is a ridiculous 48-22. 

On the season, New England is 8-1 here with their only loss being a 17-9 finale against Buffalo when their playoff seeding was locked. I am going to throw out that result, and call their average margin of victory here 36.3 to 18.5. Indianapolis is 6-3 on the road, outscoring foes 26.0 to 23.2. Mashing up those numbers it would be the Pats winning about 30-22. As we have seen in the series history, typically their offense explodes. The Colts need to figure out a way to stop it happening again if they are going to have a chance. A lot of it boils down to banged up corner Vontae Davis. If he is healthy, Julian Edelman can be erased and impossible to cover tight end Rob Gronkowski can have additional resources assigned to him. If not, all bets are off. New England is without starting center Bryan Stork, forcing two changes on the offensive line and possibly making it more difficult for them to dominate on the ground. This game is at night and that means colder temperatures where their running game can take over again. 

I could really see this game going either way. It feels to me like Brady is due for another trip to the Super Bowl. They pulled some rabbits out of the hat last week against Baltimore and saved their season. Maybe it puts them in the team of destiny category. On the other hand, for all the talk of Indianapolis having no running game, they left Trent Richardson at home and have Dan "Boom" Herron playing with house money. They can run the ball a little bit, and the defense they beat last week in Denver was pretty good. Everyone was focused on Peyton Manning blowing the game. In reality, Indy won it. This time the conditions are more hostile, and the quarterback is healthy. I see a lower scoring game. I know I was just burned on that last week so it makes me nervous. However, I think the Colts play this smart and come in prepared. Luck is on the fringe of taking over the AFC. I might have been a year too early picking them to win the conference as I did before the season, but they are likely my choice next year. In this one the back door cover is in play: New England 27, Indianapolis 22 (IND +7/under 54) 


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