By Mike Ivcic, UltimateCapper Contributing Writer
Nothing like a week 17 run to save my season and put my overall record over .500 for the year. Thanks to a 14-2 overall mark and a 10-6 record against the spread on the final Sunday of the season, I enter the playoffs with some momentum in my quest for the perfect postseason. The road to 11-0 starts on Saturday afternoon in Indiana, but first some quick overall analysis:
Two newbies enter this year’s postseason, as Kansas City and San Diego replace Houston and last year’s champion Baltimore. While a new Super Bowl winner is guaranteed, one thing that hasn’t changed is that the road to the championship in the AFC goes through Denver. The Broncos are clearly the favorite once again, and it probably isn’t a smart idea to pick against them. In fact, it may not be a smart idea to pick against any of the favorites in the AFC. If ever a conference was set up to see every higher seed/home team win their games, it could easily be this year’s AFC. Cincinnati and Indianapolis should both prevail in this weekend’s matchups (see below), which would set up two rematches in the Divisional Round. The problem is, Cincinnati beat New England in Cincinnati, and Indianapolis beat Denver in Indianapolis. Both of the regular season winners will now be forced to duplicate their feats on the road in less-than-ideal climates and environments, and it would be a bit of a chocker if either of those teams could pull that off. That means the Pats, without much of a threat on offense, would have to go to Mile High Stadium and beat the Broncos, who are loaded on offense – and one of those players is Wes Welker. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m just not seeing any upsets on this side of the bracket.
This side, however, is much more fun – especially since Arizona took some of the invincibility away from Seattle two weeks ago. My preseason pick was New Orleans, but that was predicated upon them winning the NFC South. When Carolina prevailed two weeks ago and then survived last week, it forced the Saints to win three road games to reach the Super Bowl, and not exactly in warm, friendly climates either – Philadelphia, Seattle, and then perhaps Green Bay. As much as I would love to write a column on January 30 claiming that my preseason prediction of a Denver-New Orleans Super Bowl has come to pass, I just can’t find a way for the Saints to pull that off. Still, the fact that the Eagles are just 2.5-point favorites over New Orleans shows that the consensus “Philly in a blowout” thought process might be a bit premature. The best game of this entire weekend, though, is Sunday afternoon in Green Bay, as the Niners begin the NFC-title defense by having to beat Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau. Rodgers has always held a special grudge in his heart for his hometown team passing on him in favor of Alex Smith, so this could be lots of fun. Both of those teams are also well-equipped to go into Seattle and win, too, and with most of the Panthers roster experiencing the playoffs for the first time, it really could be anyone’s conference to win.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Indianapolis Colts
Sun, 4:30pm, NBC
Line: Colts by 2.5
Two weeks ago at Arrowhead, with Indianapolis already having clinched the AFC South (and therefore having very little left for which to play) and Kansas City tied with Denver for the top seed in the AFC and just one Broncos loss away from claiming home field advantage throughout the entire playoffs (and therefore having a lot left for which to play), the Colts manhandled the Chiefs 23-7. In that game, KC scored a touchdown on their opening drive and never sniffed another point, while Indy used Donald Brown both on the ground (51-yard TD run) and through the air (33-yard TD pass from Andrew Luck) to complement three Adam Vinatieri field goals and come away with the win. Now, the rematch moves indoors to the Hoosier state, and there’s honestly very little reason to assume a different result.
For starters, the Chiefs schedule was, in hindsight, quite soft. Their week 3 win over the Eagles proved to be their only victory over a playoff team, having lost all four games against Denver and San Diego. They’ve also lost five of their seven games since the bye – not a good trend heading into the postseason after starting the season 9-0. Additionally, their once-vaunted defense – the one that didn’t surrender more than 17 points in any game during that 9-0 start – gave up 23 or more in six of the seven games post-bye, with a 45-10 romp over Washington serving as the only reminder of their previous dominance. As the schedule got tougher and the games got more and more important, the Chiefs slowly returned to planet Earth, and no longer get to feast on a schedule full of Raiders, Giants, Texans, Jaguars, Redskins, Browns, and Bills.
The Colts, meanwhile, suffered their lull midseason, on the heels of their week 7 upset of Denver. Losses to St. Louis, Arizona, and Cincinnati in which Indy allowed 38, 40, and 42 points respectively – the latter two on the road – raised some concerns that perhaps their early wins over San Fran, Seattle, and Denver were misleading. Since the Bengals loss, though, the Colts have allowed just 20 points total in three games as the defense has gained confidence. Sure, the beat Houston and Jacksonville in addition to the Chiefs, but it’s worth noting that this Colts team has been virtually an all-or-nothing team this whole season. When they’re on, they are quite capable of beating any team on any field, but when they’re off they could easily have their doors blown off. I’m guessing that Andrew Luck will continue his stellar play for at least one more week and help the Colts here. Besides, this could come down to a late field goal, and would you want to be the one that bets against Adam Vinatieri?
Pick: Indianapolis 24, Kansas City 21
New Orleans Saints @ Philadelphia Eagles
Sun, 8:10pm, NBC
Line: Eagles by 2.5
My initial instinct on this game was just like everyone else’s – Philly in a blowout. After all, the Eagles have suddenly become unstoppable at home – they’ve scored 82 points in their last five quarters of football at Lincoln Financial Field, while allowing just 17, both to teams competing for a playoff berth (Detroit and Chicago). The weather is supposed to be bitterly cold and possibly still somewhat snowy, and the Saints are an underwhelming 3-5 on the road with their only wins coming against Tampa, Atlanta, and Chicago in early October (i.e. pre-frigid temps). They also lost to the Jets, Patriots, and Panthers in close games and got steamrolled by Seattle and St. Louis – in a dome! All signs say Chip Kelly’s offense will light up the Saints and Drew Brees will struggle, leading to a fairly easy Eagles victory.
This, however, is where I need a little Lee Corso – “Not so fast, my friend!” I’m sure Sean Payton was watching Sunday night as Kyle Orton – yes, Kyle Orton – routinely hit tight end Jason Witten in fairly wide open situations, then began drooling as he thought about Brees hitting his own tight end, Jimmy Graham, who only happens to be bigger, faster, stronger, and overall better than Witten. Remember, the Eagles pass defense is now the worst in all of football as far as yardage (289.8 ypg). And speaking of pass defense, New Orleans comes into the game with the second overall pass defense in the league by the same measuring stick (194.1 ypg). Sure, the Eagles may be a running team and the theory of “running teams win in the postseason” still applies to some regard, but make no mistake – this is a passing league, and it’s quickly become important to pass well and stop the pass in order to win a Super Bowl. The Eagles haven’t beaten a single quarterback still playing in the postseason – their only win over a playoff team was a victory over the Scott Tolzein-led Packers in Rodgers first game missed to injury – and they are horrific against the pass, so all indications point to Brees actually having a big day.
In August, I picked the Eagles 6-10. I picked the Saints 13-3 and playing February 2 in East Rutherford. Normally I’m extremely averse to picking against my preseason picks, and I’ve spent all week slowly shifting away from an Eagles blowout to a close Saints win. Besides, I’ve never pretended to like the Eagles, and since I hate rooting against my picks it would only make sense to just take the Saintsâ¦ but I can’t. Something about this Eagles team says they’ll play one more week, just because I’m destined to live in a sports hell for just a little longer. So instead, just to appease my betting side, I’ll take the Saints to cover so I can still root for 11-0 against the spread, and then take the Eagles so people around me will stop calling me a hater, and leave you to do with this pick as you wish.
Pick: Philadelphia 35, New Orleans 33
San Diego Chargers @ Cincinnati Bengals
Sun, 1pm, CBS
Line: Bengals by 7
I don’t like this line. Let me just get that out there off the top, so we can understand my dislike and read the rest of the preview through that lens. I know I just got done saying that I’m predicting the entire AFC will hold true to seed, but the Chargers may be this year’s sneaky-good team. This is a group that went into Kansas City, Philadelphia, and Denver and won, beat Indianapolis at home, and also managed to be the only AFC team in week 17 to actually win their “do-or-die, win-or-go-home” game when they had the chance. Sure, they suffered some ugly losses – blowing the big lead on the opening Monday night to Houston, failing four times from one-yard-line in Washington, losing by double digits to the Raiders – and some tough, close defeats (Miami, Tennessee, and Cincinnati), but they come in having won their last four games since that December 1 loss to the Bengals and should be given a bit more respect than a full touchdown line.
That said, what Cincinnati did to Baltimore with the Ravens season on the line was impressive. All year long the Bengals have hung their hat on their defense, hoping Andy Dalton would at the very least not make a big mistake and give them a chance to win the game at the end. Now, Dalton appears to be gaining confidence in leaps and bounds, finally trusting skill players not named A.J. Green and making the Cincinnati offense quite scary. Defensively, though, is still where the Bengals strength lies – they’re ranked fifth against both the run (96.5 ypg) and pass (209 ypg) and only allowed 30 points twice all year (home win over Green Bay and a road loss to Pittsburgh). They also lost three games that easily could have been wins – at Chicago on a last-minute TD in week 1, then back-to-back overtime losses to Miami and Baltimore in weeks 9 and 10, both on the road. In fact, all five of the Bengals losses came on the road – which means they were one of the three teams in the NFL to go undefeated at home (Patriots and Saints). While that doesn’t bode well for next week, it should be a major factor in this week’s game against the mercurial Chargers.
Now, back to the line. Let’s ignore the fact that the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990 – there are players on the team that weren’t even born yet, so they won’t be affected by the long drought. This is a Cincinnati team that is peaking at the right time and has everything going in their favor for this game, but something tells me the Chargers still hang around. A full touchdown in a playoff game for a team that’s been bounced in the first round three of the last five years is just too much to give. Cincinnati will advance, but it won’t be easy.
Pick: Cincinnati 20, San Diego 17
San Francisco 49’ers @ Green Bay Packers
Sun, 4:30pm, FOX
Line: 49’ers by 3
This will almost assuredly be the best game of the weekend now that Aaron Rodgers is back. As I mentioned above, he has always held a special place in his heart for games against the 49’ers after they chose Alex Smith over him with the first overall pick in 2005. Now, Rodgers has the chance to eliminate the defending champs on his home turf after his fourth quarter heroics lifted Green Bay to the NFC North title. But this is a 49’ers team built for a deep playoff run in any weather, so they won’t have any issues with traveling to northern Wisconsin for a 4:30pm playoff game. It’s also why they’re a road favorite.
With regards to the Niners, let me start by saying I’m not a Colin Kaepernick fan. Yes, he had a good playoff run last year and yes, he is a very talented athlete, but I feel like he’s been given a little bit too much of a pass because of injuries to Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, and Anquan Boldin. Now that they’re all back in the fold, most people are expecting Kaepernick and the San Fran offense to return to their explosive capabilities, but if he was that good of a QB, wouldn’t he have managed to fair a little better even without those playmakers? Tom Brady has done it all year. Aaron Rodgers did it last season. Drew Brees has managed without a lot of playmakers during certain points in his career. Sure, receivers can make a good QB great, but it’s still, first and a foremost, a QB-driven league, which means excellent QB’s should be able to thrive in any environment, and I’m still not sold that Kaepernick is at that level. After all, the Niners have just the 30th-ranked passing offense in the league. Rodgers is, though, and while he didn’t play exceptionally well last week, he made just enough big plays to get the Packers a win. That’s a big-time advantage in favor of Green Bay.
The flip side, though, is that football is a game played by two different groups – offense and defense. While it’s my belief that, given the personalities and personnel of the two teams, Green Bay has the better offense, especially if Rodgers plays like Rodgers, it’s also my belief that the defensive side of things swings heavily in the Niners favor. The Packers rank 24th against the pass and 25th against the run, and have allowed 21 or more points in 10 consecutive games. San Fran is topÂ ten in both categories and also possess the third-ranked rushing offense, meaning Jim Harbaugh’s crew is built to close out a tight game late in the fourth quarter. While I will root for Green Bay, I always try to pick with my head and not my heart, and I just don’t see the Packers being well-rounded enough to pull this one out, even at home.
Pick: San Francisco 31, Green Bay 24
Against Spread: 0-0
Against Spread: 126-124-6
Against Spread: 126-124-6