NFL Predictions 2014: Divisional Round

Saturday, January 10 2015

Contributed by: norcalfella

I got off to a rocky start in the playoffs. I was 3-1 straight up (169-90-1 overall) but went just 1-3 against the spread (132-128 overall). I thought Ryan Lindley could do just enough to help Arizona cover and it did not work out that way. They were within range plenty of times, even with a pathetic yardage total but he played as if his family was kidnapped by the mob. Pittsburgh flat out choked against Baltimore and it was more than just being without Le'Veon Bell. I had a pretty good handle on Dallas over Detroit, picking a 24-17 outcome with a 24-20 actual score but lost against the spread because of the first fumble recovery being turned back over. Instead of the Cowboys churning out three clock-killing plays and knocking through a field goal to cover they got the ball back to run the remaining time out. Anyway, I was 3-1 on the over/under (147-110-3 overall) so I can smile about that. Not much though. 

Baltimore (11-6) @ New England (12-4): Here we go again. After the 2009, 2011 and 2012 seasons these teams have gotten together here for a playoff game. The only thing keeping it from being a three-game sweep by the Ravens was an easy touchdown pass dropped by Lee Evans and chip shot field goal missed by Billy Cundiff in the second meeting, eventually lost 23-20. The other two games the visitors pretty much mugged the hosts, 33-14 and 28-13 respectively. Neither game was close. There is something to be said for the Patriots coming back in the 2013 season after losing to these guys in the playoffs and whipping them 41-7, but not much. I look at this as one team having another team's number when it matters most. It can get in your head. When a situation like this exists, it is vital to score early and stay in the game through the first half. If New England falls behind 14-3 it will be "here we go again". If the game is 17-13 they should be fine. 

At home, the Patriots are incredible. Their only loss this season was a give away in the final week against Buffalo, which proved to me they are serious about this playoff run and focused on returning to the Super Bowl. The results down the stretch showed it as well, especially on defense where over their final 7 games the only team to score more than 17 points against them was Green Bay during a 26-21 road loss. In their stadium they have outscored opponents by an average of 33-17 and in a competitive league that is pretty good. They went 6-3 against teams with a winning record, including the loss to the Bills at the end, and split with a Miami team that finished 8-8. For all the talk of them beating so many division winners (three) in the end this mark is not very impressive. As I went over last week, the Ravens were 2-6 in the regular season against winners/playoff teams so I wonder how much it really matters. 

Including last week, Baltimore is 5-4 on the road having outscored opponents by an average of 26-23. By the numbers it feels like a 28-21 loss for them, but I think points could be at a little more of a premium here when these teams get together. New England's running game (3.9, 107.9) will have a tough time against a run defense (3.6, 88.3) looking good with Haloti Ngata back in the mix. The Ravens can run the ball (4.5, 126.2) but the Patriots were quietly ninth against the run (4.0, 104.3) so I do not expect a mugging like we have seen on this field in the playoffs a couple times before. Both the pass defenses are below average on the stat sheet, but rushing the quarterback is always crucial in these situations. Baltimore has 49 sacks and they got on Ben Roethlisberger last week in his stadium. If they can knock Tom Brady around this could be another bad day for the home team.  New England has 40 sacks so Joe Flacco better be at his typical playoff best as well. I look for a tight game. This time I expect Brady with a healthy Rob Gronkowski to grind it out, but no outcome would really surprise me here in either direction: New England 24, Baltimore 20 (BAL +7.5/under 49) 

Carolina (8-8-1) @ Seattle (12-4): I suppose the Panthers can hang their hats on not having a losing record right? Well, they did win their fifth in a row and have not allowed more than 17 points during that stretch. It might have been a third-string quarterback they were facing last week, but 78 total yards allowed was impressive nonetheless. I think they would like to have the 3 turnovers and 8 penalties back though. If that is how sloppy they were at home, how can I expect them to clean it up traveling across the country to the loudest stadium in the NFL? I am worried. Overall they are 3-4-1 on the road, and all of those wins came against the NFC South which was a dumpster fire this season. All told they were outscored 27-24 on average in those games, but I do not expect nearly as much scoring here. The same goes for the Seahawks who are a perfect 8-0 on this field with an average scoring edge of 26-15. Using those figures Seattle wins 27-19 and that is not a score I expect to see here.

On the season Seattle was 8-3 against teams who finished 8-8 or better. Carolina is now just 2-5-1 and I see no signs pointing to any sort of historic upset here. The first meeting was tight, won by the Seahawks 13-9 on a late touchdown, but that was a home game for the Panthers in the middle of the season. It means nothing here. Both teams are a defensive tackle down and that should have an impact on the running games. Carolina has been starting to run the ball better and Seattle is a force on the ground. Star Lotulelei for the Panthers is more of a loss than Jordan Hill will be for the Seahawks, but Hill was on a line that already lost Brandon Mebane. Bottom line, Carolina allowed 4.5 yards per carry during the regular season and has lost a huge player capable of eating up space. I see them getting rolled here.

Cam Newton finally has his playoff win and I hope he enjoys it because he is not going to get another one here. He survived a car crash during the season and this game might feel like he is in another one. Seattle should still be able to contain the run and get after Newton because their corners are going to lock down Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen. There are no other options for him in the passing game, and if he takes off to run good luck to him. On the other side, Carolina's defense has a good chance to at least slow down the home team. Ultimately, however, they are going to tire out when their own offense keeps punting the ball away after short drives. It should be a tight game through the first half. I expect the Seahawks to slug their way out to something like a 9-3 or maybe 10-6 lead at the break. After that, they are going to bring it home in a big way. I rarely anticipate a playoff rout, but in this case I see it: Seattle 30, Carolina 13 (SEA -10.5/over 39.5) 

Dallas (13-4) @ Green Bay (12-4): One result in a four-month long season can change everything. In this case, the venue of a critical playoff game. The Cowboys had the rival Redskins, in the midst of a disastrous season, on their home field in primetime. Tony Romo got knocked from the game, and they wound up losing 20-17, shifting this contest from Texas to Wisconsin. Fans are thrilled to be sure. Ice Bowl II? We are in. The cold weather is going to be a huge detriment to the visitors though, and yes I know they are 8-0 on the road this season, outscoring opponents 34-23 on average. None of those games were in weather like this, or even close. Quarterback Tony Romo and running back DeMarco Murray are likely going to see their injury issues crop up when they get knocked around the chilly field. 

On the season the Packers are only 5-3 against teams who made the playoffs or finished at least 8-8, but they did beat two other teams here who are playing this weekend (New England, Carolina). They have outscored opponents 40-20 on average, and quite frankly crunching the numbers for a 31-27 win by the home team seems pretty reasonable. However, these cold weather playoff games tend to hold the scoring down. Green Bay's run defense (4.3, 119.9) is below average and Dallas is above (4.2, 103.1) but the key stat for me is the Cowboys giving up a lot more rushing touchdowns (18 to 11). Cashing in on the ground is an easy way for the Packers with Eddie Lacy and James Starks to bring this one home. We know the Cowboys have run this season (4.6, 147.1) but with Murray's injured hand and how they looked last week, albeit against a stout run defense, I am uncertain they can do a lot here. The Packers have the stats on the ground (4.4, 119.8) and those numbers could balloon here if they get a lead. 

Certainly the quarterbacks are going to get the attention, especially with Aaron Rodgers expected to earn another MVP this year. A combined 75 touchdowns against 17 interceptions in the regular season is impressive. The stat jumping out at me on pass defense is completion percentage allowed. Dallas is giving up 66.5% and if Rodgers is able to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers two out of three times he throws it they are in trouble. Plus, his defense has generated 41 sacks compared to 28 for the Cowboys. Mixing in the home field advantage it does not add up to an upset as I see it. If this game was played three weeks from now in mild weather I think I would pick Dallas. Green Bay has rested up at home and is ready to expose a defense that at times had trouble stopping a Detroit offense that struggled this year big time. I like the favorite: Green Bay 27, Dallas 23 (DAL +6.5/under 53)  

Indianapolis (12-5) @ Denver (12-4): Four months have passed since these teams met her on opening day. The Broncos sprinted out to a 24-0 lead on the strength of three touchdowns in the second quarter from tight end Julius Thomas. Andrew Luck threw 53 passes and Colts back in it before eventually losing 31-24. His running backs had only 9 carries, which became a trend for the season. About the only thing to take away from the game is that the visitors gained experience playing here. Personnel has changed on both sides, and certainly adjustments are going to be made by the teams based on the first result. Denver was kind of a quiet 8-0 at home this season and overall they finished 9-3 against teams who finished at least 8-8. They were 5-1 down the stretch, slipping up at Cincinnati on MNF in week 16 but that 37-28 loss marked the only time their defense allowed more than 17 points over the final five games. 

On paper the running games are both average, but in reality the edge goes to Denver. They have found C.J. Anderson who has been terrific in the second half. Indianapolis has gotten a boost from Dan "Boom" Herron, but he put the ball on the ground twice last week and figures to be attacked by the Broncos here as a result. Defensively the home team can certainly clamp down on the run (3.7, 79.8) and force Luck to challenge their cornerback duo of Chris Harris and Aqib Talib while trying to avoid a pass rush that had 41 sacks. The Colts are below average against the run (4.3, 113.4) and figure to allow north of 100 yards here any way you slice it. Giving Peyton Manning help in the form of a balanced offense is huge. Even without Robert Mathis, they also have 41 sacks from their defense this year and have limited quarterbacks to a low completion percentage (58.9%). Vontae Davis can help clamp down Demaryius Thomas who caught just 4 out of 11 targets in the first meeting for only 48 yards. 

These are two of the top four passing offenses in the league going at it, so Luck and Manning are going to determine the outcome. They finished 1-2 in passing touchdowns with a combined 82 in 32 games. Luck has a turnover problem, but he has the unbelievable opportunity to help end Manning's last, best shot at winning another Super Bowl after ending his tenure with the Colts. It would be a feat if he can pull it off. Manning is fading and that worries me. If he has trouble getting the deep ball down the field, defenses get hip to it quickly and it appears to be the case right now. Defending a smaller field is quite a bit easier. Indianapolis showed well on defense last week at home. This is a taller task to be sure, but I wonder if Denver has as much on offense as they did last season. Wes Welker is invisible. If they can get Davis to lock down one side and roll double coverage on the other side, things could get interesting. 

On the year Denver is outscoring teams 35-21 on this field and Indianapolis, a 5-3 road team, is outscoring opponents 29-28 away from home. Putting those numbers in the blender, the Colts win 32-25 and that is a realistic result. As much as I believe the upset is possible here, I have a hard time anticipating a road win when I know how much stress Luck will be under in this game. He will need to throw the ball over 40 times, avoid the rush and protect the football. Manning can rely on his running game, trust his defense and pick his spots to do damage. There is no reason for him to force anything and that is a great thing because, as we might find out next week in New England, that is when he is at his worst. I am going with the boring result: Denver 28, Indianapolis 24 (IND +7/under 54) 

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