Football! This Weekend's Best Bets, NFL Divisional Round Nut Cuttin' Time!
This past Monday night, I had the privilege of attending the BCS Title Game in person in Miami. I say "privilege" because, despite my Notre Dame background, the trip itself and the magnitude of the event were amazing. Yes, my team lost, but the vibe in the building before kickoff was surreal.
As the clock ticked down on Alabama's 42-14 massacre of the Irish, a strange feeling of deja vu came over my, like I had been there before. And I started to think -- "What other time has my team fallen behind 21-0 in the first quarter of a 'Game of the Year' and go on to lose in a rout by a score of 42-14?"
And then it hit me...Notre Dame-Alabama was basically the collegiate version of Texans-Patriots, right down to the final score (42-14) and the cries of "FRAUD!" directed at the game's loser.
Uncanny, and I was in attendance for both of those games.
Well, you'll all be happy to know that I'm staying home this weekend, right here in Houston, so the score at the very least should be closer than 42-14. (NOTE: My other two live attendance games this season were Stanford-Notre Dame and Texans-Bears, both played in monsoon conditions, so Texans-Patriots II should also be dry! That's good.)
Onto the picks:
BRONCOS -9 1/2 over Ravens
At halftime of the Monday night game in Week 6 this season, the 2-3 Broncos trailed the Chargers 24-0 in San Diego. The halftime line for Denver to win that game was +2500, which meant they had a 25 to 1 chance of winning, which was a terrible value at the time. It felt more like a billion to one. Well, I don't know what John Fox said at halftime, but the Broncos scored 35 unanswered points in the second half of that game to pull themselves off the precipice of 2-4, even their record at 3-3, and begin the climb toward the number one overall seed in the AFC. Eleven weeks later, they wrapped up a 13-3 regular season, and are now the favorites to win the Super Bowl. During that eleven game stretch, the Broncos were 9-1-1 against the spread, had seven double digit wins, including a blowout of the Ravens in Baltimore 34-17 in Week 15. If you watched Baltimore last weekend against the Colts, that was a team that felt like they had over-invested emotionally in a wild card round game. If you need specific "X's and O's" reasons to take Denver on Saturday, I could spend the next thirty minutes typing them up. How about instead I just give you two names -- Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco. Good night, Baltimore.
Packers +3 over 49ERS
In a storyline laden weekend slate, this one has the juiciest. Apparently, each quarterback grew up rooting for the other team (Aaron Rodgers was a Niners fan, and Colin Kaepernick grew up a fan of the Pack), but Rodgers' story goes a step further, when the 49ers opted to take Alex Smith with the number one overall pick in the 2005 Draft, passing on Rodgers, who proceeded to slide all the way to the Packers at 24 (insert requisite "and the rest is history" here). Remember?
Seven seasons later, Rodgers gets a chance to end the 49ers season in front of his former fellow Niner fans. The gap between Rodgers and the other quarterbacks in the NFC playoffs (Kaepernick, rookie Russell Wilson, and winless-in-the-postseason Matt Ryan) might be the biggest individual position delta between top and second place in these playoffs. I'll go with the better QB here.
Seahawks +2 1/2 over FALCONS
My favorite play on the board this weekend. The feeling I'm getting waiting to moneyline the Seahawks is the same feeling I get as I'm about to attack the Sunday buffet at Cadillac Bar. FEEDING. FRENZY. The first thing I always look at is the quarterback play, and I think the sample size on Russell Wilson is still too small to give him an edge over Matt Ryan, who is a regular season Tarzan and a post season Jane. So what's next? Well, let's see how well the road team can run the football, always a formula to keep the game close and churn clock if they get a lead. Well, well, well, looky here....the Seahawks are averaging 4.8 yards per carry (5th in the NFL) and the Falcons give up 4.8 yards per carry (4th from the bottom in the NFL). On top of that the Seahawks pounded the ball on the ground against the 6th toughest schedule in the league, while Atlanta let the 26th toughest schedule march through their defense unfettered 4.8 yards at a time. Seahawks? YES, PLEASE.
Texans +9 1/2 over PATRIOTS
Which brings us to our Texans. I'll be glad when this game kicks off because it means we can stop dissecting the 42-14 trouncing from December 10. As sports talk goes, spending an extra week dwelling on a 28 point loss that's already been dwelt upon a month ago is like getting on a transatlantic flight and having the divorce decree from your first marriage as the only available document for some light reading.
So if the Texans are going to keep this one close or maybe even pull off the upset, what are the reasons I believe this can happen? What's so different this time around? Well, here you go:
1. The line when these two teams played a month ago was around a field goal. Here we are five weeks later and it's practically double digits, which in the NFL is a BLOWOUT. To give you an idea, the Texans were favored over the Titans at home this season by 11 points (a 38-14 pasting by the Texans). Do we really think that on a normal day the delta between the Patriots and Texans is equal to the delta between the Texans and the Titans? This line is a public overreact to December 10.
2. On December 10, the Texans were on the last stop of three consecutive road games and a five game stint that saw them start off with a slugfest in Chicago, continue with two five quarter games within four days versus the Jags and at the Lions, then travel to Tennessee to play a division game, before winding up in New England. Players will never admit it, but that's a grind.
3. In that first game, the Patriots were fighting for their "home field and first round bye" lives while the Texans had just clinched the division and had plenty of margin for error for "home field and first round bye." The motivation levels that night, while Texan fans don't want to hear it, was significantly different. Sunday, the motivation is equal -- loser goes home.
4. All six playoff losses of the Belichick-Brady Era came in rematches from the regular season.
It cannot be understated how huge this game is for Texans quarterback Matt Schaub. If the Texans win this game, all of a sudden his lackluster "big game resume," which contains a win or two that fit into a very loose definition of "big game" (Pittsburgh 2011 comes to mind) and several soul crushing losses, is completely expunged. A win in New England is a functional CTRL-ALT-DEL on every Schaubian moment dating back to the moment he was traded here in 2007, and enough equity to withstand a loss in the AFC title game and have Texan fans cautiously on his side heading into 2013.
Lose here, especially if he plays like he did a month ago, and "Did the Texans jump the gun by signing Matt Schaub to a contract extension?" will be the top "lazy radio" topic for the spring and summer months this year.
I don't think Schaub will play as poorly as he has the majority of the last several weeks, I just don't think he will play well enough to win. Let the "lazy radio" begin!
Patriots 27, Texans 23
Last week: 3-3
Season record: 53-53-2
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
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