Championship Weekend picks

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Championship Weekend picks

Packers (+8.5) at Seahawks

It’s easy to look at last week’s results and conclude that the Seahawks should rather easily dispose of the Packers. Seattle, after all, walked away with a 31-17 divisional win over the Panthers, while Green Bay had to overcome a controversial overturned Dez Bryant catch to edge the Cowboys, 26-21. While the Seahawks defense made the biggest play of the day when Kam Chancellor returned a Cam Newton fourth-quarter interception 90 yards for a touchdown that resulted in a decisive 14-point swing, the vaunted unit that had allowed averages of 3.7 yards per play, 201.2 total yards and 6.5 points per game during a season-ending six-game winning streak was conspicuously absent vs. Carolina. The Panthers were able to run the ball for 132 yards and 4.4 per carry while racking up 362 total yards and 5.3 per play. The question becomes whether the slip was a case of excessive hubris on the part of the champs vs. an 8-8-1 opponent, or something more.

One constant during Seattle’s late-season surge was their ability to force teams to try and beat them on the ground. That was aided by the fact that the quarterbacks they faced ranged from backups (Mark Sanchez, Shaun Hill, Drew Stanton) to enigmas (Colin Kaepernick twice) to Ryan Lindley. That quintet combined to throw for an average of 166 yards with a total of two touchdowns and seven interceptions. Given that literal pu pu platter of signal-callers (no disrespect to Kaepernick, but he was a shell of himself this season), it’s not shocking that those teams were only able to muster 66 rushing yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry. Indeed, the hungry Seattle front seven was essentially able to live at the line of scrimmage while the secondary barely had to pay attention to the deep third of the field. That’s a formula for some dominating defense.

Now, no one is going to confuse Newton for, say, Aaron Rodgers, but compared to the competition the Seahawks had faced, he represented a significant upgrade. The result was an actual balanced offensive attack that made Seattle’s defense look human again. And while some may argue for the excessive hubris explanation, a look at their cumulative body of work this season would suggest otherwise. In fact, in seven games against teams with upper-echelon quarterbacks, Seattle was just 4-3 straight up and 3-4 ATS. Four of those seven teams were able to crack the century-mark in rushing yards, and they combined to average 3.8 yards per carry (a solid uptick from Seattle’s season mark of 3.5). It’s not a leap to conclude that Seattle’s defense has been historically great against teams with replacement-level quarterbacks, while merely very good against those with capable ones.

Which brings us to Rodgers. Despite being hobbled by a partially torn calf muscle, he was positively heroic vs. the Cowboys, completing 68.5 percent of his passes for 316 yards, three touchdowns and a QBR of 83.1. Obviously, if Rodgers were to suffer an aggravation of the injury that further hinders his mobility or knocks him out of the game, all bets are off. But if he is able to go 60 minutes and the Packers stay committed to pounding the football with Eddie Lacy to keep the Seattle safeties honest and open up their dangerous downfield passing game, this game will be a battle to the end. Rodgers has arguably been the best quarterback in football since 2010, is the frontrunner for league MVP, has won three straight games since suffering the injury and is familiar with CenturyLink Field. There’s a reason Green Bay has never caught this many points with Rodgers under center, and bettors can be sure he’s about to show everyone why.

Correlated parlay: Patriots (-6.5) vs. Colts and over 52

The betting public tends to have a short memory. Despite New England’s dominance of Indianapolis over the past few years, it’s easy to look at the Colts’ thorough playoff wins over the Bengals and Broncos, along with the Patriots’ great escape vs. the Ravens, and determine that the recent history between these teams is inconsequential. That would be shortsighted. To properly quantify the playoff performances of each team, some context is required. For the Patriots, facing the Ravens in the divisional round was the most perilous of scenarios. Baltimore boasts a veteran core that has made a habit of turning New England’s home-field advantage upside down. Compounded by the steam gained from their first ever playoff win over the Steelers that they in turn used as a springboard into Foxborough, the Ravens made for a dangerous foe. It took everything the Patriots had over 60 minutes to climb out of multiple 14-point holes and advance. However, instead of seeing the Patriots for what they are – a complete and battle-tested team that found a way to thrive amid adversity – the public appears to have instead determined that New England is ripe for the picking.

What they have seen from the Colts, on the other hand, is a team peaking at the right time, particularly on the defensive side. The Indy defense was able to hold both Cincinnati and Denver under 300 total yards and 4.3 yards per play while surrendering a total of 23 points. There’s no denying that qualifies as championship-caliber defense. There’s also no denying the Bengals have shown themselves to be the most impotent postseason team of this era, and one that was forced to play a road playoff game without its two most important receivers. The weakness of the Indianapolis defense lies up front, and despite having success on the ground to the tune of 110 yards and 5.2 per carry, the Bengals allowed themselves to become one-dimensional after going down 10 points in the second half. They never got any closer and Indy pulled away. Likewise in Denver, the Colts were again susceptible to the run, surrendering 4.4 yards per tote, but Denver, too, abandoned the run game after falling behind, with Peyton Manning passing the ball 46 times to just 20 rushes. That allowed the Colts to sit back in coverage and dare both Dalton and Manning to beat them. In the case of Dalton, he simply wasn’t equipped – with either the weapons or moxie – to bring the Bengals back. And Manning, as it was later revealed, was playing with a strained quad that rendered him completely incapable of throwing the ball downfield with any semblance of accuracy. So not only did both teams stop doing the one thing they were having success with on offense, but they placed their fates in the right arms of a pair of quarterbacks who were ill-equipped to handle the task.

Needless to say, the Patriots are an entirely different animal. Well-documented is the fact that the Patriots have stampeded the Colts with their ground game in the last two meetings between the clubs. Last January, it was LeGarrette Blount (166 yards, 6.9 per carry, four touchdowns) spearheading a 234-yard attack in a 43-22 win, and this past November, Jonas Gray (201 yards, 5.4 per carry, four touchdowns) ran point on a 246-yard output in New England’s 42-20 victory. It’s safe to say the Colts in their preparations for this AFC Championship Game have emphasized stopping the run. And it’s therefore reasonable to assume they’ll have made some adjustments that should help slow the Patriots ground game. But as evidenced in the Colts first two playoff wins, it’s clearly still an overarching weak spot in their defense, one the Patriots figure to exploit in some capacity. And if Indy succeeds in making New England turn to its air attack, that will only qualify as a minor victory. Making Tom Brady beat you with his arm is not exactly a formula for downing the Patriots. Just ask the Ravens, who succeeded in making the Patriots one-dimensional before watching Brady (and Julian Edelman) throw for over 200 yards and three touchdowns in a frenetic second half that ended their season.

In the Andrew Luck era, the Colts haven’t lost more than once to any team but the Patriots, against whom they are 0-3. Luck is playing at a high level and Indianapolis has found another gear in the postseason, which should enable them to put up some points and stay within striking distance in Round 4. But New England is simply too well-rounded on offense, too dangerous with its playmakers on defense, too well-coached and too driven after dropping consecutive AFC title games. It took Manning until his seventh try to top the Patriots in the original iteration of this rivalry. Sometimes a team just has your number.

Playoff parlays: 0-2
Playoff picks: 2-4-1
Overall picks: 29-24-3

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