|Making Shaky Sexy|
So this Sunday really is the last day of actual football, given that the Super Bowl is more of a national holiday for advertising than a game. And the way you should look at that is with relief. For the next six months, you get your Sundays back to do with as you will. If you spend them flipping around cable channels and settling for indentured servant basketball, the eternal abusive consumer relationship that is pro hockey, or the relatively palatable (at least to me) dish that is pro hoop... well, that's all your own choice and not nearly so hard as getting away from the methadone drip that is the NFL.
But for now, we've got this last day. Might as well enjoy it. And maybe make some money.
And with that... on to the picks!
SAN FRANCISCO at Atlanta (+4)
How they got here: Atlanta picked up a late field goal after blowing a 20 point lead at home to the Seahawks, then dodged a breathtaking kickoff failure to finally stake the Seahawks at the buzzer. San Francisco shook off an early TAInt to throttle the Packers at home.
The strengths: The Niner running game, led by QB Colin Kaepernick, might be changing the way the NFL views offense. WR Michael Crabtree moves the sticks, RB Frank Gore leads a varied corps that kills the clock, and P Andy Lee might be the NFL's best. The defense gets to the QB and hits, and isn't susceptible to substitution issues. The Falcons have the best WR tandem in the game, a top five TE in the remarkable Tony Gonzalez, a huge dome field advantage and the confidence that comes from having all of the answers this year in the fourth quarter.
The weaknesses: Kaepernick can have accuracy issues, and the Niner WRs, outside of Crabtree, are nothing special. K David Akers has been shaky all year. The Niner defense is far too prone to big plays for a supposedly elite unit, and LB Patrick Willis, in particular, might be living off his accolades. For the Falcons, RB Michael Turner has been only intermittently effective, and QB Matt Ryan has way too many picks for a guy whose game feels more like a game manager than a game breaker. Despite being the #1 seed, no one is scared of them.
The pick: The contrarian in me wants to take Atlanta again, since it worked out last week. They've got home field, a QB and TE that have to be breathing this week like the weight of the world is off their shoulders (since they both finally have playoff wins), the skill players on offense to get it done and a suspiciously large dog number for a home team with a lot of fourth quarter mojo.
But when you look at all 22 starters, the Niners might be better at 15 positions. Atlanta is lucky to be here, while San Francisco absolutely steamrollered their way here. They have a coach that's shown himself to be much less likely to screw himself into the floorboards when the pressure is on, and a far more explosive running game. I hate giving this many points on the road, and am totally prepared to lose this bet by a point. But Ryan's turned it over too many times, and Kaepernick has been too good against similar defenses, to think that there is going to be an upset of the spread line here. The best team in the NFC is going to go to the Super Bowl.
Niners 31, Falcons 24
Baltimore at NEW ENGLAND (-8.5)
How they got here: Baltimore survived 5+ quarters of fight, error and will to oust the #1 seed Broncos. New England did a slow steady slog through the game but overmatched Texans at home.
The strengths: The Patriots turn defense into a theoretical exercise fairly routinely, with QB Tom Brady taking advantage of every opportunity presented via tempo, scheme or talent. As a consequence of this, games with the Patriots are a race for the opposition to escape, before the defense is turned into hamburger. HC Bill Belichick is the best of his generation by a wide margin. WR Wes Welker isn't quite the possession weapon that he was in past years, but he still breaks backs routinely. The RB corps of Stephen Ridley and Shane Vereen is, secretly, the best the team has had since the Corey Dillon days of being able to close a game purely on the ground. The secondary is vastly improved since the addition of cornerback Aqib Talib.
The Ravens have ridden a wave of emotion, led by two all-time greats in LB Ray Lewis and S Ed Reed, to own the big moments in their first two playoff games. RB Ray Rice is the best back in this game, and has ended the Patriots in the playoffs before. Back up RB Bernard Pierce might be better between the tackles than Rice right now. WR Anquan Boldin has won his matchups with ferocious hand strength, and WR Torrey Smith has been the playoff's best deep threat. QB Joe Flacco doesn't look pretty, but the playoff numbers have been outstanding, particularly in controlling turnovers. K Justin Tucker has been aces, and P Sam Koch has a history of nice playoff moments. Unlike many of the Patriots opponents, they enter this game without fear, and a history of success.
The weaknesses: New England isn't the same offense without lead TE Rob Gronkowski; Hernandez is a match-up problem, but goes down on first contact way too often this year and does not get high YAC. The home crowd might be the most spoiled in the history of professional football, and rarely swing plays in their favor. As in past years, the Patriots' margin of victory in regular season games, based on their cupcake division, frequently leads to ugly exposures when faced with a physical opponent. Baltimore wouldn't be here without exceptional generosity from the Denver prevent defense, and doesn't get pressure on the QB if DT Paul Krueger is neutralized. They looked out of gas for big portions of the game last week, and this game isn't going to do them any favors when it comes to tempo. Flacco's lack of INTs has been more luck than skill.
The pick: I'd love for New England to lose this game. I'd gladly put up with another week of Lewis getting more mic time than a late night infomercial host, the world to grotesquely overrate Flacco, and for Rice to finally get his due as the semi-secret best overall RB in the game.
But at some point, this defense is going to form right angles in an attempt to get oxygen back into their depleted lungs. They are going to look up at the scoreboard and see a number in the 40s. And their offense isn't going to be able to match it.
Patriots 41, Ravens 27
Last week: 2-2
Season to date: 124-131-4