The opening round of the playoffs reminded us of that reality, when even the blowouts were fun to watch. The Saints easily could have lost but ended up winning by 17, and the Giants trailed (albeit by just two points) before scoring 24 unanswered. And not much needs to be said about how thrilling that Steelers-Broncos overtime game was.
Oh, and also, the Bengals played the Texans. There’s always gotta be something to ruin the party.
This week, we’re in for another three excellent games … and one more involving the Texans. Let’s get to the picks.
(Home team in caps.)
New Orleans (-3.5) over SAN FRANCISCO
I’ll be clear that I do have some concerns about the reliability of the Saints, particularly with their suspect defense and the Drew Brees offense that can sometimes stall out for seemingly no reason.
But I can’t pick San Francisco, because when the Saints lead 21-0 at halftime, I know I’ll regret it almost as much as I regretted my genius Cincinnati pick last week.
I know the 49ers’ defense is legitimate, but it’s not dominant, especially when defending the pass. The Niners ranked 10th in passing yards per attempt at 6.9; Brees averaged 8.3 yards per attempt this year and 10.8 last week. Put those two things together, and Brees should have some room to operate.
Where San Francisco’s defense was dominant was in the running game, allowing just 77.3 yards per game on the ground. That was a ridiculous 15.3 yards better than the second-best team. For some perspective, 16 yards separate the second-best and 12th-best teams. That won’t really matter though, because the Saints’ ground game is potent enough to contribute and is insignificant enough to not be relied upon. Basically, if the Saints have trouble running the ball, they won’t won’t mind letting Mr. Brees take over the game.
And as questionable as that Saints defense is, Alex Smith averaged fewer than 200 yards per game this season. He threw 17 touchdowns all year. By contrast, Aaron Rodgers threw his 17th touchdown on Oct. 16. Brees threw his 17th touchdown on Oct. 23. Hell, Matthew Stafford had 19 touchdowns by the end of October.
Yes, the Niners did enough this year to win 13 games and earn a bye, but that included feasting on the NFC West (where opponents had a combined record of 17-31). They had their moments against some playoff teams (like the Giants and Steelers with a one-legged quarterback), but ultimately, in this day and age, you’re going to need an elite quarterback to win games in January.
This meeting is no doubt a clash of the new-school, passing NFL and the old guard of ground-and-pound plus defense. Believe me, I’ve always been a fan of the latter, but I’m just not so sure the old style can work anymore.
Denver (+13.5) over NEW ENGLAND
Everyone knows the Patriots can score (32 per game in the regular season), but 13.5 points in January is a tough cover for a team that’s rarely blown out teams in the playoffs.
Just think back to 2007. Sure, it was a very, very different team, but the offense was even more explosive. They won their two playoff games by 11 points and nine points. The third one? I don’t remember it. Maybe it was canceled or something. Yeah, I think it was canceled. Anyway …
This year, of course, is completely different than past years, and any talk of the Patriots’ recent playoff failings is utter nonsense. The 2009 game against the Ravens started with Wes Welker on crutches and featured players like Laurence Maroney in the backfield and Chris Baker and Ben Watson at tight end. It was a weak team. And last year against the Jets, Aaron Hernandez was hobbled with a hip injury and Rob Gronkowski looked like a rookie all night long. This year, his 90 receptions and record 17 touchdowns indicate he’ll likely be a bit more effective this time around.
So no, the Patriots don’t have a playoff problem, and they’re not going to lose to Tim Tebow‘s high school offfense, especially considering they’ve already seen it this year. Remember when the Patriots got a hold of Miami’s Wildcat the second time around? How’d that end up?
But two touchdowns on what should be a cold evening in Foxboro is a bit too much. The points are the safe road here — especially if everything I just said turns out to be as ridiculous as everything I said before last year’s Patriots playoff game.
While I’d put the Ravens more in the 49ers category when it comes to the new NFL vs. the old NFL, the difference is that San Francisco is playing perhaps the best team in football right now, while the Ravens are playing T.J. Yates and the Texans. Those are the same T.J. Yates and the Texans who struggled to pull away from Andy Dalton and the Bengals until a defensive end scored a touchdown before halftime.
On the other hand, I know that Joe Flacco averages somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 passing yards per game in the playoffs (I’m estimating), but they’re capable of winning big (sorry, Kansas City and New England) in the postseason.
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.
But hey, at least those Texans fans will always have those division champion shirts. Those things rule!
GREEN BAY (-7.5) over New York Giants
The Giants are on a nice little run here, but let’s not get carried away. The Green Bay Packers are the best team in football. They lost once — once — all year, and it was to the 7-9 Kansas City Chiefs, so was it even real life?
They won their 15 games by an average of 13.8 points. An average of two touchdowns. That means that roughly half of the time, they won by more than two touchdowns. Against NFL teams. Every week.
Now, all playfulness aside, the situation with Joe Philbin is awful and horrible. I don’t know how it will affect the players or this game, but it should remind everyone that the game is not all that important. I’d rather not speculate as to how such a tragedy will affect the game on the field, but it will in some way. I just wish the best for Philbin’s family and everyone around them.
But even leaving the Packers out of it, I watched the Giants with all of you all season long. I watched them look embarrassingly bad against Washington and Seattle early on, I watched them look like potential champions in New England, and I watched them go from bad to worse during that stretch when they lost four in a row and five of six.
Yeah, they’ve 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.
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?
Last week: 3-1
Regular season: 123-124-9