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1) Home field. Unlike the regular season, where cost and expense and the general trudge can take some of the venom out of a crowd, playoff fans bring it from the first quarter, and are clearly worth more than the three points that's the general rule of thumb. And the home team usually is better, assuming that they aren't just the best of a bad division. At least one of these games goes south fast, and it almost always happens in the home team's favor.
2) Momentum and fake momentum. There was no clear #1/2 seeds this year, so we don't have any worries about sniffing out a team that dogged it down the stretch. But there's always the chance that a team that ran the table to get here just arrives spent and gets exposed.
3) Coaches and QBs that don't have it. The talent and competitive differences at this level aren't huge, so the places where big moves can happen -- like a coach that makes the wrong moves or a QB that can't keep a clean scorecard -- can make all of the difference. Almost to the point where analyzing the line play, or the special teams, or how the teams actually match up, seems like a fools' errand. Along with, well, betting.
4) Finding the dog. It's rare that the favorites go 4-0 at this stage, especially with four games that aren't going for more than a 7.5 point spread. This one might not matter that much this year.
And with that... on to the picks!
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Cincinnati at HOUSTON (-4.5)
This is kind of fascinating, in that whoever loses this game might be saying goodbye to their coach. Cincy has stuck with Marvin Lewis forever, and he's been one of the better ones in their sad history, but for the amount of talent that's on this team, a 6 seed in a fading division doesn't overwhelm. And if he loses this one, he'll still be without a playoff win. Even Bengal Fan gets impatient.
As for Houston, they were well on their way to a shocking #1 seed loss a couple of months ago when the wheels fell off the defense, then the running game. RB Arian Foster has looked run-down, not having a bye week is downright brutal for them now, and head coach Gary Kubiak has squandered what will eventually be considered as the brief window of Colts Retooling to a this middling record.
But, well, he won this game last year with TJ Yates (TJ Yates?) at QB, and he's still got a secretly great crowd that will make things difficult on INT-prone QB Andy Dalton. DE JJ Watt is going to make some plays, and the Texans aren't going to get torn apart by plodder RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Houston has secondary weapons that can help, especially at home, and is more effective in the red zone with the sure hands of WR Andre Johnson and TE Owen Daniels. I don't love the half point here, but I'm thinking the Texans win it, and it's an awfully thin number to play the back door cover.
Texans 24, Bengals 17
MINNESOTA at Green Bay (-7.5)
As the biggest point spread on the board this weekend, the betting public thinks the Packers are just going to roll at home, and I'm agreeing with them on one thing... they are going to win this game for two reasons: QB Aaron Rodgers and WR Randall Cobb. Rodgers is too good to lose this game against this team, and Cobb's absence last week was very telling on keeping the chains moving. They should win.
But here's the nasty not so secret point about the Packers. They aren't squat on defense, and haven't been all year.
To be fair, this was never a great squad on an every down level; instead, they were a big play / takeaway type that relied on sacks from their stars and picks from their secondary. But this year, with LB Clay Matthews unable to shake injury, NT BJ Raji being more of a name than a presence, and CB Charles Woodson on what should be the final year of his spectacular career, they just can't get off the field. There's a reason why RB Adrian Peterson has rolled up huge numbers on them, but even more telling in last week's game was how QB Christian Ponder was able to keep drives alive... against a defense that just made even the rare third and long way too easy. This line is too big, and the Vikings get too much pressure from their DL against the secretly sad Packer OL, to support this number.
Peterson's going to get his 100+, and Ponder will throw for a couple of scores. Rodgers will do more, RB DuJuan Harris is going to make a surprising number of plays, and TE Jermichael Finley and WR Greg Jennings will make a few plays on their way out of town. But covering this spread is too much to ask with that defense.
Packers 34, Vikings 27
INDIANAPOLIS at Baltimore (-7)
Like the other AFC game, this really doesn't matter, as both teams don't have what's necessary to go deep in the playoffs. Baltimore's defense is a shell of its former self, the offense is scattershot with a dicey line, and while the home crowd goes for blood, they also get boned on the ref calls. Indy's too young, thin, and dependent on the emotion of coach Chuck Pagano for a long run; on some secret level, they are just thrilled to be here after last year's 2-14 wipeout, and kind of amazed that the comeback only took a year.
But the bigger issue for the Colts is that they really aren't very good, especially on defense, and do-everything QB Andrew Luck has the confidence to try every pass, including the ones he shouldn't. They'll move the ball enough on offense to cover the number, and benefit from the Ravens settling for field goals instead of touchdowns (it's what they do in the playoffs), but this game will end in the hands of S Ed Reed, for one last time. On the weekend when Raven Fan has to say goodbye to Ray Lewis, that will be a pretty fair consolation. But not a cover.
Ravens 26, Colts 20
SEATTLE at Washington (+3)
Everyone's dark horse favorite to win the NFC championship has to go on the road and face a Redskin team that's been winning games and influencing pundits for two months now... but they've been doing it against the tomato cans of the NFC East. Seattle, with its monstrous corners, dominant running game and ball-hawking defense is an entirely different matter entirely.
The dumb money is going to go for QB Robert Griffin III and a home crowd, but he's not that much better than QB Russell Wilson right now, especially with his mobility compromised. As for the other 21 starters in this game, with the possible exception of Pierre Garcon, the Seahawks are just dramatically better, especially on defense.
Washington might have a better coach in Mike Shanahan, since he's been here before and won playoff games... but Seahawks HC Pete Carroll is doing great things with motivation. And the final nail in the coffin for Washington is that it's a late game, which means it's not even a problem from a time zone issue. The Seahawks will, slowly but surely, pull away in this game, and drain the life out of that crowd. They are that good, especially when the offense grinds the clock -- and the Washington defense isn't good enough to get off the field often enough.
Seahawks 23, Redskins 17
Last week: 7-9