The purpose of this story is to make educated, well-reasoned decisions about the games of the upcoming weekend. I can't in good faith start talking about next week, though, without first talking about last week.
Last week, while Alex Smith was feeling for the first time what it felt like to be good at quarterbacking, while Tom Brady was assassinating the Broncos, while the Texans and Ravens allowed me to get in some early Sunday napping and while Tom Coughlin's Giants were beating the snot out of the supposed "best team in football," I was taking a beating of my own.
After a 3-1 start to the postseason, I was riding high and left out Ridiculous Quotes From Last Week's Picks when I was making my selections. I mean, how ridiculous could I have been with such a successful week? Well, as always, the football gods didn't appreciate my hubris, and they punished me thusly. Ergo, let's dedicate this opening section of the picks column this week strictly to my Ridiculous Quotes From Last Week's Picks.
"I can't pick San Francisco, because when the Saints lead 21-0 at halftime, I know I'll regret it."
The Saints trailed 17-14 at half thanks to two dozen turnovers in the first quarter. Still, I believed New Orleans would rally to win by 10.
"Ultimately, in this day and age, you're going to need an elite quarterback to win games in January."
This is still true, but apparently that elite quarterback's name is Alex and not Drew. Credit to you if you knew that going in.
" … but two touchdowns on what should be a cold evening in Foxboro is a bit too much. The points are the safe road here."
For some perspective on just how ridiculous this was, from eight minutes into the game until the very end, the Patriots led by less than two touchdowns for a grand total of 7:14. Whoops.
"I don't even want to entertain the idea of the Texans making the AFC Championship Game, and I don't even want to think about them competing to make the AFC Championship Game. Go ahead and make plans for Sunday morning and early afternoon. You won't have to watch this game. It'll be over by halftime."
Silly me. How as I to know that both teams would be so terrible?
"Yeah, [the Giants] been no joke the past three weeks, but at a certain point, you revert back to those wildly inconsistent ways that put you in the position of having to win your final two games just to qualify for the playoffs. And that point is not one from which you can beat the best team in football."
So I missed this one by a week. Sue me.
"My only questions are whether the Packers can score 40 and if I can fast-forward once this game ends to championship weekend. I'm ready for Saints-Packers to kick off, how about you?"
OK, hopefully that is enough to satisfy the cruel, cruel football gods and allow me to correctly forecaset the final three games of the season (double sad face). I think I deserve that. I think.
Let's get to the picks.
(Home team in caps.)
NEW ENGLAND (-7) over Baltimore
I'm sure this is the popular pick this weekend, but know that mine is not made in response to the 45-point showing last weekend.
That Denver team that showed up in New England was terrible with a capital T-E-R and B-L-E. Brady threw six touchdowns, and on at least two of them, he could have thrown the touchdown to several different receivers. It was practice. No, scratch that; it was easier than practice. It was laughable. Andre Goodman got burned on a deep route by Deion Branch, who's looked about 45 years old since Week 13 (Branch had six catches for 74 yards from Dec. 4 until the end of the season, and he had 85 yards on Saturday night.)
That said, what I can take from Saturday night's game was the glint in Mr. Brady's eye. Well, in his right arm, more specifically. He came out in full-on assassin mode, deciding that he was not just going to win, he was going to crush the other team's soul and make them question whether they even want to emerge from the locker room after halftime. In '07, '09 and '10, Brady learned the hard way that Super Bowls don't come easy, and all the legendary postseason performer did on Saturday night was have his sharpest postseason performance ever.
Now, in Baltimore, it's also important not get too caught up in last week's dismal performance. Pretty much everyone on earth knows that if Jacoby Jones doesn't drop that punt in the first quarter, then T.J. Yates and the Texans — T.J. Yates and the Texans! – almost assuredly walk out of Baltimore with a win. That's embarrassing, especially for a team that's supposed to be the best team in the AFC.
Now, the Ravens go on the road, where they went 4-4 and outscored opponents by just 26 total points. Compare that to their 8-0 home record, during which they outscored opponents by 86 points, and it's clear they're a very different team when they're not at home. (Those road victories also only came against the Rams, Browns, Bengals and Steelers.)
I also have somehow even less faith in Joe Flacco than I've ever had before. He takes the snap, stands tall in the pocket, looks at his two reads, and if they're not open, he just stands there and waits to get hit. It's easy to knock the football out of his hand, and frankly, it's easy to defend his passes. This is the same man who played his college ball at Delaware, who threw for 141 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions in his previous AFC Championship appearance, who has six postseason touchdowns and seven postseason interceptions, who has vocal doubters on his own team, and the man who has a handlebar mustache that just seems phony to me.
(The facial hair point is completely irrelevant yet oh-so important at the same time. You know?)
Ray Rice could cause problems, but if the Patriots get out to a seven- or 10-point lead like they did last week, his impact will be severely limited. The Patriots also have some bigger bodies to clog his running lanes this time around, so don't hold your breath waiting for that 83-yard touchdown scamper.
The other major factor will be turnovers. The Ravens boast the league's third-best defense in terms of yards and points, while the Patriots ranked 31st in yards and 15th in points. The Patriots, however, had a plus-17 turnover ratio, while the Ravens sat at just plus-2. So long as Stevan Ridley doesn't touch the football, the Patriots aren't going to give away the ball. And against the Ravens, who committed 24 turnovers this season, the Patriots will look to capitalize on one mistake.
But ultimately, what keeps me from betting against the Pats is Brady being locked in. With Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Branch at his disposal, this game for them will at worst be a shootout. Flacco and the Ravens aren't nearly good enough to keep up.
Final score: Patriots 31, Ravens 17
New York Giants (+2.5) over SAN FRANCISCO
This is without a doubt the harder pick this week, and that's because I still can't believe what I saw take place last Saturday. It's not that I didn't believe the 49ers could beat the Saints — I totally believed that to be possible — it's just that I never thought it would be with offense, behind Alex Smith. Behind Alex Smith!
But it did, and after several full days of deliberation, I've still yet to be convinced that one of these teams is a sure thing over the other. But I do know this:
With so many of the on-field factors nearly canceling each other out, the most important aspect to me becomes coaching. Jim Harbaugh's been great, but he's still an NFL rookie. Coughlin is 65 years old and has 15 do-or-die playoff games under his belt; Harbaugh has one.
Games like these often come down to one crucial moment, one big play or one big decision, so you have to go with what you know.
Final score: Giants 20, 49ers 10
Last week: 0-4
Regular season: 123-124-9