Like the Dolphins, our timing was not great. We picked the end of the NFL season, when peaking is desirable, to pratfall instead. Our record against the spread last week was a season-worst, despite correctly having Panthers-with-points in our Upset of the Week, having Bucs-with-points as well, and hitting a rare exact score in Packers’ 30-20 win. Still, even with the tailspin, our .655 regular season overall is our best record since 2009, and our .508 vs. the betting line is our best mark since 2011. Modest gains, but it beats nothing. Plus, unlike the Dolphins, we’re on to the playoffs!
Final regular season
RAVENS (10-6, No.6 seed) at STEELERS (11-5, No.3)
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Line: PIT by 3.
Cote’s pick: PIT 24-20.
TV: 8:15 p.m. Saturday, NBC.
Wild Card Weekend’s only prime-time slot goes to the only division rivalry among the quartet of games opening the NFL playoffs. Pittsburgh is AFC North champion and Baltimore snuck into the postseason emitting a beeping sound, like when garbage trucks are backing up, luckily making it courtesy of a San Diego loss. The Steelers are hot (four wins in a row) and 3-0 all-time vs. Ravens in the postseason. Further, Pitt administered a 43-23 whuppin’ on Nov.2 as Ben Roethlisberger strafed a below-average Crows pass-D for six touchdown passes. Did I mention Baltimore is 6-10 on the road the past two years? What I’m saying is there are too many reasons to like Pittsburgh here to ignore. The one caveat: Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell, though he hopes to play, is questionable with a hyperextended knee, and BAL’s run-D gets back Haloti Ngata from a four-game suspension. That and the neutralizing effect of a bitter rivalry would make me feel a bit nervous if I were the type to be waving a Terrible Towel.
BENGALS (10-5-1, No.5 seed) at COLTS (11-5, No.4)
Line: IND by 31/2.
Cote’s pick: CIN 27-24.
TV: 1:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS.
“AAWWK!” cries the Upset Bird, wearing a New Year’s sash and flying tipsy from last night’s reunion with Jim Beam. “Cincinnaaawwwk!” Indy is AFC South champ and Cincy a wild card, and the easy storyline here is that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is 0-5 in the playoffs and Andy Dalton hasn’t won when it counts, either. The Queen City last celebrated a postseason win in Boomer Esiason’s 1990. Not only that, the Colts trounced the ’Gals 27-0 in Week 7, embarrassing the Dalton gang. So why on Earth am I hunching an upset? One reason is that rookie running back Jeremy Hill, new since the prior meeting, has infused Cincy’s offense with a real spark. Another is that it says here Cincy’s pass defense (20 interceptions) will pick Andrew Luck twice. Having said all that, my pick will feel much, much better, thank you, if WR A.J. Green (concussion) is cleared to play. “I say if he knows his name, he’s passed the concussion protocol,” suggests U-Bird. “A.J. Graaawwwk!”
▪ PATRIOTS (12-4, No.1 seed): Bill Belichick is dry-cleaning his gray hoodie. Tom Brady is buffing his dimple. The AFC East champs and top seeds, aiming for a first Super Bowl title since the 2004 season, will host the Ravens (if they win) or the Colts-Bengals winner next Saturday.
▪ BRONCOS (12-4, No.2): Does Peyton Manning have another championship in him on behalf of the AFC West-winning Broncos? The finding out starts next Sunday when Denver hosts the Steelers (if they win) or the Colts-Bengals survivor.
CARDINALS (11-5, No.5 seed) at PANTHERS (7-8-1, No.4)
Line: CAR by 6.
Cote’s pick: CAR 20-16.
TV: 4:35 p.m. Saturday, ESPN.
The game that launches Wild Card Weekend is an odd one. Carolina, after winning the sad NFC South, is by a quirk only the second losing team ever to make the playoffs (after 7-9 Seattle in 2010) but is strongly favored here. Arizona won four more games but is a clear underdog. Yet it makes sense. The reason is momentum — what have you done lately? The stumbling Cards enter the postseason having lost two in a row and four of past six, while Cam Newton’s charging Cats have won four in a row by a combined score of 111-43. Carolina’s defense and ground game really surged in December, and its improved secondary should dominate ’Zona QB Ryan Lindley, who is 1-5 as a starter and will pitch if Drew Stanton isn’t ready. Not many teams win a playoff game with their third-string passer. The bet-line should be a disrespecting motivator to the visiting Cardbirds, though. I see the challenged Cacti defense rising up to keep it close in a matchup likely shy on scoring.
LIONS (11-5, No.6 seed) at COWBOYS (12-4, No.3)
Line: DAL by 7.
Cote’s pick: DAL 34-23.
TV: 4:40 p.m. Sunday, FOX.
Two things jump out at me about Sunday’s late game concluding playoff Round 1, the first playoff meeting since 1991 for these traditional Thanksgiving Day hosts. One is the delicious duel between NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray of the NFC East-champ Cowboys and Detroit’s run defense — the best in the league and all the better because dirty Ndmaukong Suh’s suspension was lifted on appeal. That’s best on best. The other thing is that both sets of fans are probably swallowing Pepto Bismol, wringing hands and secretly expecting the worst. How can they not? Lions have lost seven consecutive playoff games and 10 of 11 in the Super Bowl era. And Cowboys are on a 1-7 postseason skid. (That’s why Jerry Jones usually looks like he has indigestion.) Somebody’s January curse will continue, and I think it’ll be Motown’s. Detroit has won past two vs. Dallas but ’Boys are home and coming in hotter, on the wing of four wins in a row. And give me Tony Romo over Matthew Stafford, especially this season.
▪ SEAHAWKS (12-4, No.1 seed): The NFC West-winning ’Hawks are the first team to lead league in scoring defense three consecutuive years since Minnesota in 1969-71, a big reason they’re faves to repeat as champs. Seattle next Saturday will host the Lions (if they win) or the Panthers-Cardinals winner.
▪ PACKERS (12-4, No.2): Aaron Rodgers piloted Pack to NFC North title and himself to a likely league MVP award. Now the Gee Bees await a home game next Sunday vs. the Cowboys (if they win) or the Panthers-Cardinals survivor.