In terms of how to properly end a regular season, my performance last week ranked somewhere down there with the Dolphins’ 28-0 fizzle at New England. I had put myself in a position to finish over .500 against the spread after a long, steep climb, but instead fell backward and went pinwheeling into a ravine. Had ’dog Lions and Rams with the points and hit a rare exact score with Steelers’ 24-10 win, but had too many misfires to offset what went right. The good news? Unlike the Dolphins, I get to move on to the playoffs!
|Final regular season||166-89-1||.651||114-120-22||.488|
BENGALS (10-6, No. 6 seed) at TEXANS (12-4, No. 3)
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Line: HOU by 4 1/2.
Cote’s pick: HOU 24-21.
TV: 4:30 p.m. Saturday, NBC.
The Texans enter these playoffs emitting a beeping sound like when garbage trucks back up, after ending the regular season with two consecutive losses that cost Houston a coveted first-round bye. Bengals arrive hotter, on the wing of three consecutive wins. That hot-vs.-not factor suggests to me a very close game — unlike Houston’s 31-10 rout of Cincy in last year’s playoffs — but it does not quite suggest to me an outright upset. Bengals are 0-3 in the postseason under Marvin Lewis and last won a playoff game in 1990. Texans are a solid home team and have a clear edge in overall talent as reflected in their eight Pro Bowl selections. Arian Foster should roll around a 150-spot to help control the clock, and that J.J. Watt-led pass rush could make it rough go for Andy Dalton.
COLTS (11-5, No. 5) at RAVENS (10-6, No. 4)
Line: BAL by 6 1/2.
Cote’s pick: BAL 27-23.
TV: 1 p.m. Sunday, CBS.
Big and emotional story lines here, with future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis returning for Baltimore after a 10-game injury absence for what could be his final game (or at least home game) before retiring. And on the other side with coach Chuck Pagano, back from his leukemia battle, leading the Comeback Colts directed by super-rookie Andrew Luck. Pagano is a former Ravens assistant and knows that defense well, but that defense is healthier than it has been in a while, and I would not be surprised if Baltimore picked off Luck two or even three times. Indy is a trendy upset pick among the NFL prognosticating literati, but I’m not feeling it. Colts were only 4-4 away this year, and Joe Flacco is 34-7 as a home starter in a very tough place for anyone to visit, more so for a rookie.
BRONCOS (13-3, No. 1 seed): Denver enters postseason with an NFL-best 11-game winning streak, all by at least seven points. Last team to do that? The 2005 Colts, also led by Peyton Manning. Coincidence? Doubt it. (Denver would host Bengals if they beat Texans, otherwise the Colts-Ravens winner, at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 12.)
PATRIOTS (12-4, No. 2): If playoff experience matters, and if it matters most in a coach and quarterback, you could do worse than saddling up Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. (New England would host Texans if they beat Bengals, otherwise the Colts-Ravens winner, at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 13.)
VIKINGS (10-6, No. 6 seed) at PACKERS (11-5, No. 3)
Line: GB by 7 1/2.
Cote’s pick: GB 31-24.
TV: 8 p.m. Saturday, NBC.
Yeah, I know the Vikings beat the Pack just last week, 37-34, to dramatically earn a playoff spot and deny Green Bay a first-round bye. But it’s tough to beat the Gee Bees twice in one season — let alone twice in two weeks. Adrian Peterson legged for 199 yards last week to narrowly miss the season record, and I’m sure he’ll get his yards again. But consider that the Vikes are 0-3 at Lambeau even when A.P. tops 100 yards rushing. Count even more on a huge day by Aaron Rodgers, who has a 132.5 passer rating with 16 TDS and one INT his past five games vs. Minny. Vikings were a mere 3-5 on the road this season, and Packers will get a big boost — both defensively and emotionally — with the well-timed return of safety and leader Charles Woodson from a long injury absence.
SEAHAWKS (11-5, No. 5) at REDSKINS (10-6, No. 4)
Line: SEA by 3.
Cote’s pick: WAS 24-23.
TV: 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
This, to me, looks like the most intriguing game of the four opening-round matchups, with two hot teams — ’Skins with seven consecutive wins, ’Hawks with five — and sensational rookie QBs Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson at the helm. There also is an unpredictability factor. Remarkably, this is the 28th NFL season in a row with at least three new playoff teams that weren’t in it a year earlier, and here are two of this year’s four. Can Seattle (3-5 away) prove it can win a big game away from home? Can Washington advance as the first team since the 1943 Giants to make the playoffs led by a rookie QB and RB (Alfred Morris)? Seattle is a better all-round squad because of its defense, but D.C. Will be pumped for its first home playoff game in 13 years. “In RG3 We Trust.” Venue pick. Upset!
FALCONS (13-3, No. 1 seed): Onus and pressure are on the top-seeded Birds to erase that 0-3 playoff record under coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan. Losing last week at home to Bucs didn’t exactly allay concerns. (Atlanta would host Vikings if they beat Packers, otherwise the Seahawks-Redskins winner, at 1 p.m. Jan. 13.)
49ERS (11-4-1, No. 2): Jim Harbaugh’s mid-year QB switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick will continue to look smart … at least until a playoff loss enflames second-guessing. (San Francisco would host Packers if they beat Vikings, otherwise Seahawks-Redskins winner, at 8 p.m. Jan. 12.)