Thursday, January 19, 2012

Conference Championship Picks: Random Acts Of Gambling

So I was talking about football with the guy who finished second in my points league, who is also loving life and football because his 49ers are in the final 4 after 10+ years in the wilderness. To him, this is a golden age of football, where his team came through with a could not be denied win against a very dangerous Saints team, and he feels like he's got the world figured out.

I couldn't be further away from his position, of course.

To me, the year almost can't end fast enough. I find myself having to fight to remain awake and interested during games, and this has been true for *months*. My roto team stunk, my laundry hurt me bad, and worst of all... the game changed. For the worse.

I don't mean to rain on Niner and Raven Fan's parade... but their teams won last week because the ball bounced the right way on a handful of plays. (You've heard of these plays. They are called turnovers.) Giant Fan is living the second once-in-a-lifetime run in the past five years, which more or less makes my Eagle Fan blood boil with envy. It also doesn't hurt that where I live is middle ground between Philly and New York, so when Blue goes on a run, the car flags sprout like mushrooms. The Patriots might still be in the situation where they have not yet beaten a good team this year. And you'd have to say they are overwhelming favorites to win it all again.

You understand how I've had better times watching football.

But that, of course, doesn't matter at all to the pure business of picking games and making money. And there is money to be made here, folks. Money from embracing the inevitable, money from looking into the abyss and laughing, money from knowing that what the world and the league wants, the world and the league will get.

And with that... on to the picks!

* * * * *

BALTIMORE at New England (-9)

The case for Baltimore: They are 13-4 for a reason. They've got a defense that has smacked New England around before. They can make plays in special teams. They have the best RB left in the playoffs in Ray Rice. They won't struggle nearly as badly on offense this week, because the NE DL isn't half as good as Houston's. They've won on the road in the playoffs before. The secondary is highly opportunistic, and has a prayer of covering the tight ends. They aren't afraid. Last week could have been more about rust than anything else. They come into this game with relatively low expectations, and a clear "No One Believes In Us" vibe that's real. Can always play that last playoff game in Foxborough playoff tape for inspiration.

The case against Baltimore: If you take away Rice, the offense is pretty terrible. QB Joe Flacco was awful last week. Play-calling gets away from Rice way too easily. The pass rush is more rumor and reputation than reality. The secondary gambles and can be beaten. The coaching tends toward bravado and gambling. The team loses composure easily in the face of home-field officiating. They employ an ancient kicker, which makes long field goals an adventure. WRs don't get separation, and the TEs don't make enough plays. No one believes in them for cause. If not for Houston being down to a QB that will never start another NFL game again, they'd be home.

The case for New England: Just look unstoppable on offense right now. Employ the only coach left with multiple rings and the courage to use his best personnel regardless of convention (witness the TE running game). Defense finally looks competent. Home field at this level is pretty huge. Have the only QB left in the tournament that can pretty much win a game by himself. Ducked a karma bullet when TE Aaron Hernandez, concussed while taking a red zone carry in the fourth quarter of last week's Denver blowout, recovered quickly enough to make this game. Receive more than a few calls per game that makes you wonder if the NFL is invested in their success. Have been here before, but not for so long that there is any danger of complacency. Have generally handled Baltimore... except, of course, for that last playoff game against them.

The case against New England: Due to playing the NFC East and their own division, they haven't played a team with a winning record since Week 9 (!)... and that was a loss to the Giants, following another loss to the Steelers. So, unbelievably, they do not have a win this year against a team with a winning record. This kind of team -- all offense, dependent on passing, with a suspect defense -- has historically fallen apart under playoff pressure. The win last week against Denver was their first playoff victory in years and years. The WRs are nothing special, and the RBs are hit and miss. Brady can be handled with a strong internal pass rush, as he doesn't generally have the footspeed to prolong plays like he used to. He's also had fumble issues this year.

The pick: Baltimore to cover, but not to win. The line is about a field goal too high for me to feel good about, and the Ravens are going to be able to run the ball and keep the chains moving with the screen game. But they won't avoid big penalties, late turnovers, and won't be able to keep the Patriots under 30. But at least it will be a game.

New England 31, Baltimore 24

NEW YORK at San Francisco (-3)


The case for New York: Arguably the hottest team in the league right now. The best set of WRs left in the tournament. Won convincingly on the road against the #1 seed last week. Getting huge push from the DL, with DE Jason Pierre Paul becoming the dominant force at his position. The secondary has gotten better with health, and the LBs aren't making the big mistakes that were killing them earlier in the year. Special teams aren't making mistakes. QB Eli Manning is playing, by far, the best ball of his life. RB Ahmad Bradshaw can make plays, and RB Brandon Jacobs can put away leads. They've been here before, and have played their best playoff football on the road.

The case against New York: Running game can struggle, and ball security can be a problem. The WRs are historically prone to drops, though you'd never guess it from the past month. They don't get that much out of the TE, and the OL can struggle, especially with speed rushers. The defense can lose containment on mobile QBs, and they've struggled against pass-catching TEs this year. At some point, they've got to start losing 50-50 fumble recoveries, and it's hard to imagine that the defensive unit that was killing them for 3/4ths of the year won't re-emerge. Special teams are pretty ordinary.

The case for San Francisco: Home field is huge for them. Playing with house money, since even they probably didn't expect to be here, and especially not at home. TE Vernon Davis is a real matchup problem for the Giants. The running game is patient and productive, especially in the short yardage situations that the Giants have dominated in their two playoff wins. QB Alex Smith made some legitimately great plays last week, and really does seem to have turned a career corner. The defense is the best left in the tournament by a wide margin, and absolutely ends the opponent in the running game, especially in the red zone. Unlike most road games, the fan base is engaged and affluent enough to prevent the 15-33% Road Fan composition that routinely helps the Giants and other huge market teams. Beat this team in the regular season, in a game that most dismissed at the time, but was proven on the merits later. Have K David Akers, who is having the year of his life, and P Andy Lee, who is the best guy working who is not named Shane Lechler.

The case against San Francisco: Needed a shootout ending and some borderline miracles to win a home game against an opponent that was turning the ball over constantly. The offense can disappear for quarters at a time. Smith can take bad sacks trying to prolong plays, and has years of bad memories threatening to come up again if they fall behind. The WRs are some of the worst in the league, and clearly the worst unit of any team left in the playoffs. Coaching has never been here before, and might be a little too full of themselves after things like that Smith bootleg for the score; it would not shock me at all if they outsmart themselves and come in with gadget plays, onside kicks, and other rigamarole that compromises field position and ball security. Just because they survived one shootout does not mean they will survive another.

The pick: My seond-worst nightmare Super Bowl (behind only Dallas-New England) happens again, as the Giants stay close in the first half, take a lead in the third, and put it away late. That is, of course, if the Niners avoid turnovers... and if they don't, it'll get ugly. Either way, New York covers, and I spend the next two weeks watching the NBA. A lot.

New York 24, San Francisco 16

Last week: 1-3

Year to date: 135-119-8

Career: 540-524-25

2 comments:

snd_dsgnr said...

I'm inclined to agree with your picks, though it's going to be those weekends where I won't be particularly surprised to see any pair of teams advance.

Maybe I should just leave well enough alone about this given the streak of good fortune my own team has been on lately, but has there *ever* been a team with an easier path to the Super Bowl than the Patriots have been gifted with this season? The clearly in over their heads Tebows followed by the Ravens with their questionable QB and step slower defense? Both at home since they somehow got the #1 seed without beating a winning team all year?

Personally I think that if not for the Schaub injury the Texans would have been the best team in the AFC this season.

DMtShooter said...

Excellent point, and in re the Texans, don't discount the Mario Williams injury. The best defense in the AFC hasn't had their best player for nearly the entire year; if he was around, they probably win the Ravens game even with Yates.

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