Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Conference Championship Game Picks

We'll get to the picks but first we need to do a few post mortem paragraphs on what went down last Saturday in New England. First and foremost, the Patriots won the game fair and square. I love John Harbaugh but, in addition to figuring-out a way to not squander his second half timeouts, he needs to learn that sometimes you just have to quietly eat the loss and move on. (In fact, you're kind of supposed to learn that on the way to being an NFL head coach, not after you get there). Even if the Patriots did cheat, which they apparently didn't, all post-game complaints will rightly beconsidered sour grapes as the Ravens have no one to blame but themselves for getting fleeced on a perfectly executed trick play (Brady to Edelman to Amendola) and for Joe Flacco throwing an ill-advised pass on the pivotal drive.

With that being said, I feel Harbaugh's pain because losing to a team that plays like the Patriots is just brutal. After it was over, I went through all of the sports experiences of my life to try to come up with an appropriate analogy. It's not like playing tennis against the guy who calls balls that hit the line "out" because that is actually cheating. So is the case of the lacrosse player with the pocket that's a quarter inch too deep and the golfer who puts the ball down an inch in front of his marker. No, the Patriots are something a little different and, when the right comparison finally dawned on me, I actually said out loud, "THAT'S THE GUY!!!"

"Sorry buddy. Just trying
to make a play out there.
No hard feelings right?"
The guy in question is fairly unique so you've probably never run into him and you can be thankful for that. If they made a movie about animals playing sports, he would be the weasel. If you were going to associate him with a real actor, it would be someone like Neal McDonough. So who is this athletic bottom dweller? He's the guy who runs at you as you're preparing to shoot in basketball and then, at the last second, ducks his head and runs past your legs to give you the impression that he's going to cut them out from under you. It's perfectly legal and highly effective but good luck trying to find a regular pick-up game if it's your go-to move.

That's the Patriots. Anytime someone defends their actions by saying "check the rulebook," your "ass-hat" antenna should go up. That was pretty much Greg Schiano's answer a few years ago when he had his defenders slam into the line as opposing teams were taking a knee to run out the clock on another Buccaneer defeat. I wouldn't want my favorite team to win that way just like I wouldn't want the quarterback of my favorite team to stamp his feet and throw a temper tantrum every time someone bumped into him. Hundreds of NFL quarterbacks used to get hit below the knees but it wasn't until Bernard Pollard knocked precious Tom Brady out for a season that the league said "well we can't have that now can we" and instituted "The Brady Rule." So after hundreds if not thousands of NFL players went down with severe and sometimes career ending knee injuries, it happens to Brady and the league essentially names a rule after him. Need I say more?

But it's not all bad because ultimately we need a team like the Patriots in the league. As enjoyable as it is to watch your own team win, it is nearly as enjoyable to watch a team like the Patriots lose. They are the modern version of the 70's and early 80's 
Dallas Cowboys with their acerbic head coach and their thoroughly detestable fans (I should know because I was one of them and I'm pretty sure nothing could get under your skin quite like a 12 year old Cowboy fan who knew a little too much about football at that age). The millions of Patriot haters will always have the blown undefeated season followed by the second gagged Super Bowl against the Giants. Ravens fans have the second half of the 2013 AFC Championship game when Flacco threw three touchdown passes and the defense simply erased Brady. And if there is any karmic justice in the world, the Colts, Seahawks or Packers will ensure that the Patriots remain without a title since they were caught cheating back in 2007.

And that brings us to the end of this season. The Patriots narrowly escaped a Ravens team that featured one of the worst and most inexperienced secondaries in NFL playoff history. Other than one Brady run and some kneel downs, the Patriots literally threw on every play in the second half. That probably won't work against the Colts who are better than the Ravens and it definitely won't work against the Seahawks who are waaaayyyy better than the Ravens. In fact, there is part of me that wants Brady to make it to his 6th Super Bowl just so we can see watch Seahawks defense coached by New England reject Pete Carroll completely demolish him like they did Peyton Manning last year. And I know I'm not alone.

Seattle by 7.5 over Green Bay: The Pick - Seahawks

The Seahawks could not have orchestrated this season much better. They started with a big win over the Packers and then immediately went into what appeared to be post-championship implosion mode by essentially dumping Percy Harvin, threatening to do the same with Marshawn Lynch and leaking stories to the press questioning the leadership style of Russell Wilson. During all of that commotion, they lost three of their next five and then struggled to beat the Panthers and the Raiders (the Raiders?!?!). But now look at them. They've won ten of their last eleven games allowing an average of less than 12 points. They appear to have rediscovered their juggernaut status and no one really remembers the shambles of the early fall. 

"Well gee wizz. I never
thought about it like that."
Then we have the Packers who have two playoff wins since their Super Bowl run almost four years ago. One was last week against the Cowboys (when then did not look particularly sharp) and the other was against the Vikings back in 2013 who were forced to start Joe Webb and his 152 career passing attempts. Factor-in Aaron Rodgers' suspect health and their 4-4 road record this season with those four wins coming over the Bucs, Bears, Viking and Dolphins (barely) and the picture just looks that much more grim. This game is going to look a lot like the Packers' Week 15 loss at Buffalo, only substitute Russell Wilson for Kyle Orton.   

New England by 7 over Indianapolis: The Pick - Colts

When the Patriots hammered the Colts back in Week 11, the rushing stats were slightly one-sided and probably made the difference in the game and, by "slightly," I mean the Patriots out-rushed the Colts 246 yards to 19 (you may remember this as the game in which Jonas Gray had four touchdowns before entering the witness protection program). It will not be that lopsided this Sunday because (a) it can't be . . . it just can't, and (b) through two playoff games, the Colts have improved in that area on both sides of the ball. (We're going to conveniently ignore the Week 16 game at Dallas when the Cowboys ran for 127 yards and the Colts ran for exactly one more yard than I have gained in my NFL career . . . to date).

This pick has less to do with stats, however, and more to do with the Colts' role in delivering the message to Manning and now Brady that their time has come and gone. Manning clearly wasn't right last week and the Colts were able to exploit that. Brady was solid against a terrible Ravens secondary but he's been slipping as evidenced by his eight interceptions in his last eight games after throwing only two in his first eight games (I'm not including the Week 17 game because it didn't matter and he only threw 16 passes). And then you have a supposedly upgraded defense that gave-up 428 yards and 31 points to a Ravens offense that is somewhere between above-average and good. There is no question that this pick is based in part on my desire to see the Brady-Belichik era come to an end but it's also based on the evidence that the end is closer than most people think.        

Last Week's Record: 2-2 . . . Playoff Record: 4-4.

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