Now we see who’s legit. Any NFL fan knows that the divisional round this weekend is when the real playoffs start; while the opening round provides the occasional surprise, this weekend will feature games in which 6 of the 8 teams remaining are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Even the other two teams (the Texans and Broncos) can present matchup problems for their opponents; Houston has a Super Bowl caliber defense and running game, while Denver has its own stingy defense and divine intervention on its side. (I’m kidding… I think.) Several questions will be answered: Is Alex Smith finally a legit QB? Will the Saints offense keep up its pace on the road? Have the Packers and Aaron Rodgers been solved? Can the good Giants show up in consecutive weeks? Can Joe Flacco take the next step now that the Steelers aren’t in his path? Can Houston’s run game and D carry a rookie quarterback? Will Tom Brady outscore everyone to cover his horrid defense? Is Tim Tebow the next coming of Jesus Christ? (this time I’m definitely joking).
But the biggest question is this: if this round contains so many solid football teams, then why is it that Vegas has made 3 out of the 4 home teams favorites by more than a touchdown? The fourth home team, the 49ers, are actually 3.5 point underdogs, which tells me that the Saints would also be favored by more than a touchdown at home. I’ll tell you why the spreads are so large, particularly for playoff games: we’re going to see at least two blowouts this weekend. Last time I checked, Vegas makes out pretty well on this whole sports betting thing. So while many NFL fans will be leaping at the opportunity to get more than a touchdown in a playoff matchup, or better yet throwing these games into teases, I’m declaring a giant BUYER BEWARE on this weekend’s matchups. Now figuring out which games will be the blowouts is the tricky part. Good thing I’m here to help you.
Saints (-3.5) at Niners (o/u 47)
I’m a little concerned about this one. If you read last week’s column, you know I picked San Francisco to be the NFC representative in the Super Bowl. I think the Saints are a different team outside of their dome, and the Niners D is good enough to put at least a partial brake on the explosive New Orleans offense. However, as the week has gone by, more and more prognosticators on TV and in print are picking the underdog Niners. I’m always a little leery of a popular upset pick.
But here’s the thing: despite the line, I don’t think this is an upset. I think the 49ers, as a whole, are a better football team than the Saints. The Saints undoubtedly have the best, and certainly the hottest, player in Drew Brees, but football is a three phase game, and San Francisco has the best defense and kicker remaining in these playoffs. Remember that last week’s game against the Lions was a 3 point game in the fourth quarter, and the Lions defense missed out on several opportunities to stop the Saints or force turnovers. The 49ers D will not be so forgiving of mistakes, and more importantly, the San Francisco running game can keep Brees in the one place he can’t score from: the sideline. I also love Jim Harbaugh with the extra week to prepare. A David Akers field goal is the difference.
49ers 27 Saints 24
Broncos @ Patriots (-13.5) (o/u 50)
We have our first blowout ladies and gentlemen. Yes, I know Denver kept things tight in the first half in their first matchup with New England. Yes, I know the Broncos can pressure Tom Brady with Elvis Dumervil and a healthy Von Miller. Yes, I do believe John Fox is a good coach. And yes, I know that Tim Tebow has God on his side.
(Side note: I keep joking about this but my buddy Ty informed us yesterday that a poll revealed, that of Americans that know who Tim Tebow is, 43% think God is helping him win. Ty responded by saying his own poll showed, that of Americans who know who Tim Tebow is, 43% are mentally challenged. But I digress.)
Look, Fox has done a great job but he’s not a miracle worker and Tebow isn’t the miracle. As bad as the Patriot defense is, they completely flummoxed Tebow in the second half of the previous game once they made adjustments. Now, with a whole extra week to prepare, and a pissed off Tom Brady who’s had to watch a week’s worth of coverage where people forgot he’s also playing in this one, I’m supposed to pick Denver??? Why?? Because they escaped with an overtime win against a Pittsburgh team that was decimated by injuries…at home?? Would we even be discussing this if, in place of Tebow’s name, we substituted “mediocre to below average QB who has to go to his primary read”??
Patriots 34 Broncos 14
Texans at Ravens (-7.5) (o/u 36)
If any team can win a playoff against the Ravens with a rookie quarterback, it’s the Texans. The Houston offensive line is the best in football, and they pave the way for a dominant running game. The Houston defense is also more than good enough to bring out the “girl with the curl” in Joe Flacco. My mother used to tell us a nursery rhyme about a girl with a curl who when “she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid.” That’s the epitome of Joe Flacco, which is why along with big wins over food teams, the Ravens also have losses to the Seahawks and Jaguars. The girl even showed up early this week and started whining about how he wouldn’t receive any credit even if the team won.
However, even if the girl with the curl is bad this week, I just don’t see Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed, and company letting this one get away. Lewis and Reed, in particular, know their chances are dwindling to win another Super Bowl. Don’t think for a minute the Ravens aren’t aware that their greatest obstacle and nemesis, the Steelers, have been removed from the equation. They know their opportunity is now and I expect the Baltimore defense to come out looking for blood. Would’ve liked to see this one with Matt Schaub playing for Houston, because I think T.J. Yates is in for a long day.
Ravens 24 Texans 10
Giants at Packers (-7.5) (o/u 52.5)
This is the trendy pick of the week. Everyone loves the Giants again all of a sudden, after they pasted three mediocre teams in consecutive weeks (Jets, Cowboys, Falcons). It’s as if the Giants that lost to the Redskins and Vince Young-led Eagles never existed. Part of me doesn’t blame those that are suddenly enamored with the Giants again; they’re back to running the ball, Eli is having the best season of his career, and the defense is as healthy as they’ve been all year.
But unlike the popular Niners pick, the Giants are NOT the best team in this game. That was determined pretty definitively earlier in the season, when the Packers scored against the Giants at will. The Packers stumbled down the stretch a bit, as they might’ve shifted into cruise control too early. But the masses are forgetting just how dominant the Packers can be. They too spent the week getting healthy, and listening to the pundits pick against them. Aaron Rodgers is more than an elite quarterback; he’s an intense competitor. Unlike Matt Ryan, he will NOT look timid and scared of the Giants pass rush. He and the Packers will come out with something to prove for the first time in weeks. I think they blow the Giants doors off, and the line tells me I might be right.
Packers 38 Giants 17