I can’t lie. It isn’t easy going 0-4 against the point spread as I did last week to open my playoff run with a stumble. You start with Robert Griffin III kneeing your promising upset pick right in the groin. Then you add unrequited faith that the three other losers would at least keep things close. They did not, as the four Wild Card Weekend games proved a rather boring quartet decided by an average of 11.2 points. The upside of going 0-4? I literally can’t do worse this week. I doubt the NFL can, either.
|Final regular season||166-89-1||.651||114-120-22||.488|
Almost all signs point to a comfortable Broncos win. (Well, as comfy as a win can be played in low-20s frigidity.) Denver has won 11 in a row, is coming off a bye, is 13-3 all-time at home in the postseason and neatly handled Baltimore 34-17 only a month ago. Oh, and Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning. Now here is the one sign that suggests caution on the comfy-easy-rout stuff: Manning uncharacteristically is 0-3 in the playoffs — with one TD and seven picks — when the kickoff temperature is below 40. Could be why he’ll reportedly wear a glove on his throwing hand Saturday. (Things that make you go hmm …) Still like Stallions outright but thinking Crows with the points. Baltimore is much healthier now with four starters back who didn’t play in the teams’ first meeting including some guy named Ray Lewis. Besides, any team on an 11-game win streak is messing with the law of averages and might be at least due a struggle or scare.
New England (like Denver) is 13-3 all-time at home in the playoffs, is rested off a bye and has an offense that is as close to unstoppable as we saw this season, with a league-leading 34.8-point average. Houston found that out in Week 14 in a 42-14 Patriots breeze. It was 28-0 before the Texans got up off the canvas; Tom Brady had 296 yards and four TDs, and was sacked only once. Sunday’s rematch is bound to be closer, but I still like NE to cover a big betting line. Pats’ underrated defense helped fashion an NFL-best plus-25 turnover margin and will force Matt Schaub into mistakes. The Texans just don’t seem fully in synch to me, and them slipping past the Bengals by six points last week didn’t change the mind much on that. Houston was 6-2 on the road this season, yeah. But New England, in winter, with Brady and Bill Belichick staring at you, is a whole different kind of road.
First playoff meeting since 2001 in a heavyweight NFC duel, with Packers owning the most all-time NFL championships (13) and San Fran having the most division titles (16) since 1980. Pack quarterback Aaron Rodgers is a Northern California guy who grew up a Niners fan, while Niners counterpart Colin Kaepernick is a Wisconsin native who grew up a Cheesehead. Weird, huh? But it is another contrast in the two quarterbacks who will shape this game and that makes me like the Gee Bees in a road upset. Kaepernick is dipping his first toe in the playoff waters, and Rodgers all but owns this stage, with a 105.1 career postseason passer-rating feathered by 16 TDs and only four INTs. Niners beat Pack 30-22 in Week 1 and get DT Justin Smith back here. They are favored for a reason, coming off a bye. I keep going back to the two guys steering, though. And I just keep trusting Rodgers to outscore the other guy.
Falcons might bear the most pressure of any Final Eight team this weekend, as a doubted No. 1 seed. Doubted? They are favored by less than the home-field edge, and part of that is the much-talked-about 0-3 playoff record under coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, who has been mediocre at best (71.2 rating) in those three elimination games. That’s a small sample, but it will keep weighing a ton until these guys figure a way to win a playoff game. This is the only weekend game that is not a rematch of a regular-season meeting, and also these clubs’ first-ever playoff bout, lending a further air of unpredictability. Without much confidence I like Falcs to get off the schneid. ’Lanta was 7-1 at home, is fresh off a bye, and Pete Carroll is 0-3 against this opponent. Oh, and dig this (do people still say “dig this?”): No West Coast team since the 1989 Los Angeles Rams has won two consecutive playoff games in the East.