NFL Playoff Picks: ATS and Straight-Up Predictions for Championship Week
NFL Playoffs Picks Record
Straight Up: 5-3
Against the Spread: 4-4 (But I feel 2-0 coming.)
Regular Season NFL Picks Record
Straight Up: 176-80
Against the Spread: 148-108
How we got here:
Memo to NFL coaches: stop resting your players at season’s end! The Pats never do it, the Giants never do it and the Steelers do it very judiciously. Winners of Super Bowls, all.
The Colts ruined two Super Bowl runs doing it and now the Packers have emphasized the folly once again.
It’s playoff football; rust is a killer—you cannot recover from many mistakes here.
Ask all of the GB WRs except consummate pro, Donald Driver. Driver was the only Packers skill position player possessing playoff focus last Sunday.
On the other hand, I don’t know why the seemingly tuned-up Saints lost their first-half focus two weeks in a row. They didn’t rest anyone and seemed to be on a hot roll going into San Francisco. But those early turnovers cost them the game Saturday.
I’m so sorry to say it, but for three quarters the Saints looked, well, soft. All of those dropped passes and fumbles were the direct result of not bracing well enough for the hard hits being dished out by San Francisco defenders.
I was afraid of that after seeing NO get rattled by both Detroit and Atlanta. I’m sure that Harbaugh saw the same thing. The 49ers defensive plan was obviously to get the Saints behind early by completely disrupting their offense. And it worked perfectly.
Worse, the Saints defense faltered badly. Gregg Williams’ squad struggled all year to achieve a consistently high caliber of play. When Jonathan Vilma wasn’t available to read the opposing QB's mind, the Saints defense was perplexingly weak.
I never got the feeling that anyone was scared of them, with the exception of the Atlanta Falcons in the second half of two games. And that will not win you a championship.
I’ll lighten up on Greer a little bit because of his two INTs in the Wild Card game. But as a group they couldn’t scare Alex Smith. Alex Smith!
The sentiment towards Williams in the Crescent City as soon as the game ended was, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
And he agreed to a deal with the Rams on Sunday. Wow.
The other failed D last week belonged to Denver. This squad declined throughout December and finished the month giving up almost 141 yards rushing per game. I still thought they would do better than that against a virtually non-existent Patriots running game.
Further, Denver went into Saturday night holding opposing passers to under 200 yards from December through the Wild Card weekend. Now, nobody expected that against the Patriots, but Tom Brady blew them out of the stadium.
We all know that Tebow’s offense has its issues—but the Denver defense evidently decided to send the body snatchers to Foxboro.
And isn’t John Fox supposed to be the “Egg McMuffin” of defensive gurus? He certainly wasn’t hired to coach Tebow. How does he explain a total defensive collapse?
I fully expect Fox to make first-year defensive coordinator Dennis Allen the scapegoat and fire him. In fact, Allen is already interviewing elsewhere.
You're not fooling me. Saying, “But it was Tom Brady” only goes so far, John.
While we’re talking about coaches—how about some love to Gary Kubiak for Coach of the Year? Yes, Wade Phillips was a huge part of the team’s success.
But Andy Reid received Coach of the Year for succeeding with a third-string QB—and Jimmy Johnson was coaching that defense. Or is this measure only applicable if you are continually revered Andy Reid?
Through the playoffs thus far, “offensive juggernauts” have been dropping like flies. Green Bay was simply dreadful against New York.
In a year where offense came out of the Lockout gate on fire and the defenses took more than a month to catch up—it’s defense that is getting it done in the playoffs.
Don’t you just hate it when platitudes prove true?
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots: The Pick
Straight Up: Baltimore Ravens
Against the Spread: Baltimore +7.5
Over/Under: Over 49.5
Weather: “A few showers” and in the upper 30s Sunday night in Foxboro. That settles it—I am definitely watching both of these games from my living room (as opposed, of course, to taking my private jet to Boston as had been my plan).
But Patriots fans show up in blizzards, so I wouldn’t expect a lack of home-field enthusiasm. The wetter the weather and the field, the more (theoretically) it favors Ray Rice and the Ravens running game.
Ravens—WR Anquan Boldin didn’t seem to show any ill effects from his recent knee surgery. In his first game back, Boldin was a key element in the win over Houston.
Safety Ed Reed had hip surgery a couple of years ago, suffers from chronic back problems and rolled his ankle on Sunday. But x-rays were negative and he swears he will be ready to rock against Tom Brady. Baltimore fans hope so.
Patriots—Safety Patrick Chung was back on the field for New England last week and Bill Belichick will rely on him heavily again if healthy. There is no reason to think that he aggravated the injury, so he should be out here.
TE Aaron Hernandez has a head injury. Most of us saw him being evaluated on the sidelines during the Divisional game. Naturally, the Patriots aren't giving us any indication of whether or not it was an actual concussion nor whether he will play. Without Hernandez, the Pats would just continue to focus on Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker. It's one less weapon, but the offense can function without him.
DE Mark Anderson suffered a leg injury in the Divisional win. No details have been forthcoming (what a shock), and he is questionable. Any starting defensive injury is a problem for New England.
OT Sebastian Vollmer was supposed to be back in the lineup this past weekend, but his back problems continue to keep him sidelined. By now, the O-line is used to playing without him.
Other offensive linemen. Matt Light and Logan Mankins have taken turns being hurt this year. Both managed to help out last weekend, but keep an eye on their status.
NFL lore would tell us that Bill Belichick is the best coach of our era. And he probably is. No matter what talent he has to work with, Belichick builds a winner. The only chink in this knight’s armor is an occasional inability to make on-the-fly game plan adjustments.
John Harbaugh is a top-tier coach. He has his team in the playoffs every year. The players like him and, while animated, he isn’t a nutcase. John knows that the offense needs help and is steadily building their confidence. His Achilles’ Heel is the Pittsburgh Steelers, helpfully eliminated by the Broncos. His team has a legitimate shot to get to the Big Dance.
Read on for Complete Game Analysis.
Baltimore Ravens Offense Versus New England Patriots Defense
In 63 snaps, the Ravens achieved 11 first downs for a total of 227 offensive yards. That is hardly a playoff offense. Trent Dilfer nailed it on NFL Primetime Sunday night, “The only offense the Ravens generated was by great catches.”
Joe Flacco is being flayed alive in the press this week after completing 14-of-27 for 176 yards. The fact that those yards included two touchdown passes and no interceptions is lost on fans worried about keeping pace with Tom Brady on Sunday.
The worse stat is Ray Rice’s 21 carries for only 60 yards and zero scores. That rushing anemia will be fatal to Baltimore’s Super Bowl chances if repeated in Foxboro.
One saving grace is that the team committed no penalties and did not turn the ball over.
Another positive point is the return of Anquan Boldin. Now that they aren’t trying to make him a vertical threat, Boldin is back to sucking up anything in the slot or red zone.
It would also be nice to see TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta targeted more than once or twice.
Flacco must complete a decent number of long passes to WRs Torrey Smith and Lee Evans (now that the offensive coordinator has remembered he is on the team). Plays of 20 yards or less exclusively will not win this game.
They’ll help, particularly if Rice is reeling off runs of five or more frequently. But Flacco must do his part in the passing game.
Pertinent Trivia: Since 2000, 9 teams have won playoff games gaining fewer than 250 yards of offense. The Ravens have done so 5 of the 9 times.
The Patriots defense has been “dissed” all year. Evidently, they are over it.
While not defensive perfection on Saturday night, this unit played with an angry ferocity that mirrored the intensity of their quarterback. They absolutely blew the Denver offense off the field with attitude backed by good play.
Where the heck did LB Rob Ninkovich come from? He has been a major defensive force over the last 6 weeks.
It turns out that Nincovich was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 2006 (fifth round, wow) and has also played for Miami.
Obviously it took a Belichick to figure out how to use Ninkovich in the NFL. In the 2011 season so far, No. 50 has 79 tackles, eight sacks, a forced fumble, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
Another standout from last weekend was third-year CB Kyle Arrington. This Hofstra product intercepted seven balls in the regular season and defended 13 passes. Joe Flacco, take note.
The New England rushing D held Denver's RB Willis McGahee to 76 yards in a game where he alone needed to run for over 150.
That’s really all one can deduce from Saturday night since the Tebow offense is completely unlike anything the Baltimore Ravens have ever thought about running.
Joe Flacco might have a better outing since the Patriots finished the regular season as the 31st ranked D against the pass.
But—and it is a big one—safety Patrick Chung was back on the field this weekend and had an enormous impact.
People are comparing the resurgent Patriots D to the Colts Super Bowl defenders. The Colts could not stop anyone on the ground for the entire 2007 season. Hard-hitting safety Bob Sanders returned from injury and they proceeded to beat opposing offenses all the way to the Lombardi Trophy.
I’m not at all sure that I think Patrick Chung is on par with Bob Sanders. But he did make a difference to Tim Tebow this weekend, so I would keep an eye on him.
New England Patriots Offense Versus the Baltimore Ravens Defense
Let’s put Saturday’s offensive showings in perspective. 49er QB Alex Smith had an amazing game and went 24/42 for 299 and 3 TDs.
Tom Brady's first-half statistics: 18/25, 246, 5 TDs. No. 12 finished the rout with 363 passing yards, six TDs and one INT.
The Pats racked up 31 first downs and 146 rushing yards. This was the 20th ranked rushing team in the 2011 regular season!
It was total offensive domination. The Pats went with the “Aaron Hernandez for the tough yards and then throw it to Rob Gronkowski for the touchdown” plan. And it worked as scripted. Again.
I don’t know why people insisted on calling this the “Year of the Quarterback.” It is clearly the “Year of the Tight End.”
San Francisco’s Vernon Davis became the top NFL playoff TE Saturday with 180 receiving yards. New England’s Rob Gronkowski put up 145 yards and three TDs.
Bill Belichick took a unit with two TEs, a slot receiver and a HOF QB and cooked up an offense to fit. He didn’t dream up the TE plan; he adapted to it.
And his team scored 45 points behind a very angry quarterback.
Regular readers will know that I only like Brady when he’s mad. He goes into a dark zone and comes out throwing lasers.
“I was like, ‘Is Tom OK?’ You know, he’s intense, but this was like a whole new thing, man. They were like, ‘It’s that time of the year, you just have to understand.' I’ve been around a lot of really competitive people…[but] Tom has taken that to a whole different level.”
Baltimore Ravens defense
It says something about this season that the most “high-flying” offense left in the tournament is a Patriots squad without one single deep-threat WR.
That is good news for the Ravens D, which stiffened in the second half against the commendably resilient Houston Texans.
The bad news is that Tom Brady is just a bit more accomplished at playing quarterback than T.J. Yates.
The good news is that the Patriots have only three A-level offensive weapons: slot man Wes Welker, TE Rob Gronkowski and TE Aaron Hernandez (who could be hurt).
The bad news is that the Ravens must still cover WR Deion Branch. He can’t usually get deep, but he remains a very credible mid-distance TD threat.
I would suggest not sticking rookie DB Jimmy Smith on Branch. For a rookie, Smith has done quite well, but I don’t think he’s a match for a former Super Bowl MVP WR.
The further bad news is that New England seems to have stumbled upon a decent RB in rookie Stevan Ridley.
Baltimore allowed Texans RB Arian Foster to run for 132 yards. Foster is one of the very best, but this D needs to completely shut down Ridley so that they can focus on Brady and his arsenal.
One excellent piece of information for the Ravens fans is that Ed Reed is clearly in Brady’s head. I’m sure both Brady and Belichick just hate the fact that NFL Films caught Brady on film asking his backup QB to keep an eye on Ed Reed.
I don’t care if that was a couple of years ago. Do you think that, after the game Reed had last Sunday, Brady isn’t going to be keeping No. 20 in his vision at all times? Yeah.
Mr. Reed brought down his eighth playoff interception, which is the highest INT total of any active player. I’d keep an eye on him too.
Surely a defense that features Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Lardarius Webb can handle an offense built around two TEs. Surely.
One of the Sunday night headlines on espn.com read "Ravens Hold Off Texans." The italics are mine. Playing at a level sufficient to “hold off” a team led by a rookie QB is not going to be nearly good enough at Gillette.
Let’s review the most important key to beating the New England Patriots: sack, hurry and generally annoy Tom Brady. The Giants are the best at this.
On the other hand, you must be able to pressure the Pats QB with only four so that your secondary can do their thing.
Repeat after me: Brady on his butt. It’s your only hope.
New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers: The Pick
Straight Up: New York Giants
Against the Spread: New York Giants +2.5
Over/Under: Under 43.5
Weather: Raining and in the 50s. Well, yuck. This will probably be an advantage for the Niners. They have the stronger running game and they are more familiar with what happens to their grass when it’s wet. If the forecast changes and it's clear, change to the Over.
Giants—TE Jake Ballard has been hampered by his knee injury. He has played, but his reception rate is way down. Backup Travis Beckum isn’t exactly what you’d call a “receiving threat,” but he’s caught a few key balls in the late season and the playoffs.
WR Mario Manningham’s knee still isn’t totally healthy, but he has managed to be productive now that he is back on the field.
WR Victor Cruz has a sore quad muscle, but should play. Ya think?
DT Chris Canty hurt his knee last week, but is probable. If he suffers a setback, it could put a significant dent in the Giants D-line. Canty has been playing exceptionally well down the stretch.
49ers—Ted Ginn, Jr. has ongoing right knee problems. Ginn is far more of a return threat than he is a legit WR, but Alex Smith has found him useful upon occasion. He is questionable and the team says they are optimistic. Of course they are.
Jim Harbaugh will probably win Coach of the Year. When it comes to team Gestalt and “winning culture” and all that jazz—heck of a job. He has this team believing in themselves, their formerly beleaguered QB and in him. That could carry them a long way. He is very aggressive and fiery. That may be a liability at some point, but thus far it has served the 49ers well.
Tom Coughlin is sort of the anti-Harbaugh. He’s not a former pro player. He's not a "players' coach." But Coughlin’s insistence on fundamentals has given Big Blue two of the best lines in the NFL and that has led to a Championship and a lot of wins.
He’s a strict disciplinarian that makes “old school” seem progressive. But he has adapted his style to the modern player and the modern player has responded. Did you see Brandon Jacobs hug him after the win on Sunday? Actually hugged him! Wow.
Read on for Complete Game Analysis.
San Francisco 49ers Offense Versus New York Giants Defense
San Francisco’s star TE, Vernon Davis, has christened his game-winning reception. He calls it—The Grab. Some news folk are referring to The Catch III. We will have to see which moniker sticks.
Davis was unquestionably the MVP of the Divisional game: His seven receptions averaged 25.7 per catch. Not bad for a player once sent to the showers by Mike Singletary for being...whatever it was Singletary said he was being. It’s all a little blurry in light of Davis’ stellar 2011 season.
In a game against the record-shattering Saints offense, the best call did not come from the New Orleans team. It came from SF offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
He put the ball in Alex Smith’s…feet. Yes, that was the Niners QB out there on a designed run. And it resulted in a 28-yard touchdown.
It’s easy for us to forget that this man was a No. 1 draft pick for a reason. Apparently one of those reasons was turn-the-corner speed. Impressive.
Smith also averaged 6.3 yards per pass, but the win came from several big plays rather than consistent offensive production.
In fact, the Niners managed 17 first downs all afternoon compared to 26 by the Saints.
They ended the game with 407 total yards against New Orleans’ 472 total yards. However, Alex Smith threw three TD passes and zero interceptions. Big plays.
Yes, it’s the same Alex Smith. Or is it?
You have to be glad for Smith. He's been a complete class act throughout a difficult seven years. And he has more mental toughness than most humans. He never stopped fighting. I hope his success lasts for the rest of his career.
Despite the presence of Pro Bowl RB Frank Gore, the SF play-calling ratio was still almost 2:1 pass plays to run plays on Saturday.
The team eventually finished with 143 on the ground, but the Saints did shut Gore out for almost three quarters.
Will the Giants try to do the same now that Alex Smith has proven he can win a playoff game with his arm? (Did you ever think you’d see that in print?)
Oh, and you can’t forget about PK David Akers for the offense. He kicked three more FGs this weekend after setting the single-season record in 2011. And Andy Reid kicked him out of Philly why, exactly?
The biggest liability on the Niners offense is WR Michael Crabtree. He doesn’t seem to ever have gotten over that foot injury. I don’t care about his draft status or what his stats are or are not—you cannot count on him.
The biggest question mark will be on O-line. Who will be playing center? Injured Jonathan Goodwin or Adam Snyder? In a game against the Giants defensive line—it matters.
Alex Smith's 28-yard TD run was the longest fourth-quarter or overtime go-ahead QB running score in a playoff game since Ken Stabler's 30-yarder in the 1972 Divisional Round. "The Snake" gave Raider Nation the lead in a game they would end up losing to the Steelers on the Immaculate Reception.
As exciting as the Giants passing attack was Sunday night, the game turned on four Green Bay turnovers.
Enter the healthy and hungry Giants defense. The worst Packer turnover was a sack/strip by Osi Umenyiora. He not only caused the fumble, he also prevented the Packers from recovering.
Good thing too, since Packer WR Greg Jennings was wide open for six down the sideline. Asked in the televised post-game media session if he saw Jennings on that play, Aaron Rodgers pulled off a soliloquy worthy of Kobe Bryant: “Yes.”
The defensive line and secondary locked Green Bay down all night and prevented Rodgers from working into a passing rhythm.
The New York linebackers, however, allowed 147 rushing yards from a team not known for successful running. That is worrisome for New York fans when the G-men are going to face a team featuring RBs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.
Even Aaron Rodgers rushed for 66 yards Sunday night. You might want to prevent Alex Smith from following suit. (See above on Smith’s TD run.)
New York Giants Offense Versus San Francisco 49ers Defense
Since 1966, three NFL players have had two playoff games with 100 Receiving yards and two TD catches: Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald and New York Giant Hakeem Nicks. (courtesy of an ESPNStats tweet during the game).
That was at halftime. The New York WR finished the night with 165 yards.
Elite Eli Manning passed for 330 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. No. 10 has an almost 70 percent completion percentage in his last three games. He has also thrown nine touchdowns and one interception. And that, my friends, is the definition of a hot QB.
Happy as we all are for Manning-the-Younger, the Giants couldn’t run the ball until the fourth quarter.
New York finished the day with 95 ground yards and only three rushing first downs. Big Blue managed only 3.5 yards per carry.
That doesn’t auger well when facing a defense that destroyed a seemingly emergent Saints running game.
Manning and Brees are top-tier quarterbacks. I expect Eli to play up to the high standard that he has set for every playoff game of his career.
He has proven able to throw thrilling passes to Plaxico Burress, David Tyree, Amani Toomer, Mario Manningham, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz ( I’m sure I’m forgetting some WRs and I’m not even including the backs or TEs). He’ll throw them open if he has to.
In January, Nicks has 12 receptions for 241 yards and three TDs. This month, Cruz has 11 catches for 252 yards and a TD. Manningham has five TD catches this season despite multiple games lost to injury.
When describing his “Hail Mary” reception to ESPN's Rachel Nichols on the field after the game, Nicks said, “It was just me and the ball in my mind.” Now that, my friends, is playoff focus.
But New York will not win if Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs cannot succeed on the ground.
I would suggest not waiting forever to give Jacobs a carry, by the way. I don’t know why Jacobs wasn’t in the mix earlier Sunday. I can only wonder if he had breached a team rule and was being disciplined or had an injury we don’t know about. I can’t think of any other reason for him not to be in the mix from the snap. Hmmmm.
Kicker Lawrence Tynes is extremely talented, but he is not the automatic three points represented by SF’s David Akers. Every once in a while he fritzes out. Makes me nervous. Makes Coughlin insane.
Despite Vernon Davis’ heroics, this was indeed a team win.
My two favorite parts of football are the offensive line and defense.
I’m one of those who didn’t think that “sudden death” overtime needed to be revised. Nothing commands my respect more than the defensive score.
Or the defensive shutdown. You may wonder how I can use that phrase when the Saints scored 32 points against San Francisco on Saturday.
But if you watched the game (and why would you be reading this if you hadn’t?), you know how many more points were denied.
Starting with Niners safety Donte Whitner’s devastating tackle of Saints LB Pierre Thomas inside the five-yard line. No wonder Whitner keeps getting hurt. Love the intensity but, dude, a little discretion perhaps? Or even some sense of self-preservation?
Only the stout Saints offensive line prevented Drew Brees from suffering double-digit “coverage sacks.” He stood back in the pocket seemingly forever over and over again because no one was open downfield.
Even with injuries, the Saints had Jimmy Graham, Robert Meachem, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles as receiving targets. And none of them could get open.
San Francisco's secondary was so dominant that it dictated a change in television coverage.
For quite a while, there were many, many television shots of Drew Brees just bouncing around in the pocket as 49ers defenders battled with the Saints offensive line. Not riveting TV.
CBS was forced into using wider and wider angles to try and show the audience why Brees couldn’t let the ball go. I have never seen that happen in a telecast.
And No. 9 was forced to seek receiving targets because San Francisco’s front seven had almost completely erased the Saints running game.
A team that ran the ball successfully with three different players in their Wild Card win managed 37 yards on the ground—on 14 carries! That’s a staggering stat and pretty much explains the entire game.
But the most shocking number for the SF/NO game was time of possession. New Orleans had the ball for essentially four more minutes than San Francisco! Once again—big plays.
San Francisco safety Dashon Goldson forced me to learn more about him. He is a Pro Bowl safety from California. He played his college ball at Washington.
In 2011, Mr. Goldson recorded 67 tackles, six INTs, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He is on a one-year contract extension with the 49ers. Oops. Should have locked him down before he became a household name on Saturday.
Twenty-seven-year-old CB Tarell Brown was also a factor. He went to Texas. He contributed 40 tackles and four INTs this year. Plus 15 passes defended. Plus some huge plays this weekend.
And those guys aren’t even on the defensive line. Brees was pressured 20 times, including three sacks. And that doesn’t include all of those short completions he threw after being forced, repeatedly, to check down when no WRs were open.
Note to Eli Manning: beware D-linemen named Smith.
Both Pro Bowler Justin Smith and outstanding rookie Aldon Smith made life miserable for Brees all afternoon.
I would expect Tom Coughlin to be pointing all of this out to the Giants offensive line. And WRs.
Bottom line note to fans
Please stop calling for Tom Coughlin’s job. It’s been happening since he got the job and it’s getting old.
This man has carefully built a championship franchise, working with multiple front office staffs. Over his coaching tenure he selected and coached one of the best offensive lines in the game, selected and coached one of the best quarterbacks in the game, selected and coached two separate excellent WRing corps and two generations of a defensive line that remains the biggest threat to any New England offense that has existed in the NFL since Drew Bledsoe got hurt.
Only Bill Cowher can claim that kind of consistent success and excellence. Enough already.
Break out the pizza coupons—it’s Championship Weekend!
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