Wednesday, January 14, 2015

NFL Picks - Conference Championships 2015

So close I can taste it

Can you smell it? No? Not even a little? That's too bad, because right now the aroma of success emanating from my very being is so intoxicating that Old Spice is considering making a permanent part of their product line. "Uncle Bones On Ya'" That's the working title anyway. We're still very early in the process.

Other than occasionally basking in the warm glow of accomplishment, I prefer not to give a terrible amount of thought to things when they go right. I expect them to go right, what more thought does it need? I do however obsess over things when they don't go according to plan. It eats at me. Its like 'How dare things not go exactly like I expected? Who do these people think they are?'

For my current 6-2 playoff run there has been plenty of basking, but those misses gnaw at me still, taking a little piece my self-worth with them. I think I finally found a way to rationalize Carolina over Arizona. In a way, my own hubris got in the way. I over thought it. Third string QB on the road(?) I know better, but Carolina vexed me all year. With the game as close as it was despite everything else I will eventually come to peace with this one. Indy over Denver however...

I understood that Peyton Manning was something other than 100% Peyton Manning. I didn't know he was the roughly 25% Peyton Manning that we witnessed, but I did believe that the rest of the Broncos team would be enough to pick him up. No, apparently for all of Manning's great ability to make everyone around him better, his teammates failed to understand their responsibility in that relationship. Manning needed them for this playoff run and they looked as flat as he did.

The hot question this week has been 'Is Peyton done?' Personally, I'm putting my chips down on that game being his last. His legacy is cemented and there is no way the Broncos are winning the Super Bowl next year with the existing team and him as QB. And now John Fox is out. The Broncos desperately need to retool, especially considering that they just got exposed and having a 39 year old brittle QB with a cap hit of $25 mil is not going to get it done. Go the Colts route. Taking a Manningless year to bottom out and strike gold in the next draft. Its that easy right?

One last thought on Manning. He has been remarkably skilled throughout his career at avoiding sacks taking an average of just under 17 per year (counting in his 2011 year out; the only games he missed in his career BTW). By comparison Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked at a rate of 38 per year over his 11 year career. That's right, Roethisberger gets sacked at a rate TWICE that of Peyton Manning. Point being, that if Manning is this brittle (I know, he's a 38 year old football player. It comes with the territory) without taking the kind of punishment that other QB's are taking he's just not going to be able to compete at the level necessary for the team around him to win. I'm sure Manning is currently doing this calculus. He has made a career out of making the right decisions at the right time, I can't see this time being any different.

On to the Champion Round

All playoffs lines are taken from ESPN and are a mode of accumulated lines.

Green Bay @ Seattle (-7.5)

Both of these teams' Divisional Round games played out more or less the way I thought they would. Seattle controlled the Panther from start to finish, but it wasn't as dominant an effort as I would have like to have seen (nitpicking a nice win over an improved opponent). Green Bay and Dallas played a close, competitive game that should be remembered for more than just the Dez Bryant "catch", and I think it will once we put it in the rear-view mirror and remember that if you are talking about the NFL then it has already won.

I feel like I have a pretty good handle on both of these teams right now. That is probably why I am having such a difficult time trying to wrap my mind around Seattle giving 7.5 to a Packer team who was at one point this season considered among the best in the NFL. The only real knock against the Packers is Aaron Rodgers's injured calf. Otherwise they are a fairly complete team with playoff experience capable of winning games in multiple ways.

In Seattle's corner is that stadium and that crowd. Not to mention an otherworldly defense, a solid running game, and Russell Wilson. Seattle also seems to have a ton of momentum right now which I guess means something, certainly in terms of where Vegas will set a line.

So do all these factors really add up to a 7.5 line in this game? The one thing that Seattle really seemed to struggle with last week against Carolina was once Cam Newton broke the pocket, coverage became jumbled and he was able to find some targets down field. Newton also did a good job of rushing for key yardage when needed (The when needed might be one of Cam's greatest strengths). Rodgers has a similar set of mobility skills when healthy (although Newton's faster), but with that calf injury he will not be able to exploit the Seattle D in the same way. If Rodgers is stuck in the pocket and Seattle is able to keep pressure by only rushing 4 its gonna be a long day for the Pack.

In going over a few numbers one thing really stood out to me. Seattle's D was only on the field for 949 plays (fewest in the league) this year while giving up 1.39 pts per drive. By comparison, the Buffalo Bills who had the only defense to give up less pts per drive (1.37) than the Seahawks were on the field for 1065 plays. That's 7.25 plays per game less for the Seahawks, which is basically doing the same job  in point prevention that the Bills did in one less drive.

This means a couple of things particularly as they relate to the Packers. One is that the Seahawks don't give up a lot of long, sustained drives. While Rodgers has got a big arm, he's going to have to make those throws quickly since he will have a hard time breaking the pocket and extending plays on that bum leg. Two, Seattle's offense does a good job of keeping their defense off the field. Russell Wilson takes good care of the ball, knows when to take his chances (with remarkable accuracy), and rely's on his running attack which is more than capable of controlling a football game. For the record, Green Bay's rushing D is pedestrian at best at 8 ypg lower than league average which is good for 23rd overall.

I've also fallen into this trap before with Green Bay. In the 2013 Divisional Round all signs pointed to the Pack going into San Francisco and quietly dispatching with a young upstart 49ers. Well, the Niners put on a clinic and won that game 45-31 on their way to the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers in his current state may be enough to keep this game close for a while, but come the 4th quarter the Seattle D and the Seattle crowd will be too much and the immortal words of Shane Falco "The quicksand will set it".

Pick: Seattle (-7.5)

Indianapolis @ New England (-6.5)

I wrote above about how the Broncos failed to show up when Peyton Manning needed them. That's a little unfair to a Colts team that probably played one of its best games of the season at the most important time. I'm not exactly going out on a limb here to say that Andrew Luck is the real deal, but every time I watch this guy play I am just in awe. The throws, the pocket presence, the shear grit to never give in; I just don't think the Colts are going to lose until its in the books.

So what happens when the indomitable will of Andrew Luck wanders into Bill Belichick's house of horrors? Looking at the formation "tricks" he used against the Ravens last week I was brought back to my high school football days (no, it will never be that kind of blog). But high school teams and even college teams will occasionally trot out "garbage formation" with like 4 down linemen to left of the center or tackles split out wide in bunch formations. Its not really all that different from that except the formations that the Patriots used looked more conventional. So, if high school football defenses have formation rules for coverage assignments and gap responsibilities then so do pro teams. Its just that the Ravens were caught so off-guard by these subtle assignment changes that it wreaked all sorts of havoc. And just like that, Belichick put it away and you never saw it again, and we probably won't see it again this week or maybe ever. He simply out coached Harbaugh, and if Belichick caught him, you can damn well believe he would have caught the other 30 coaches in the league too.

Even though I highly doubt we'll see anything like that again this week, I do think that its in the back of the Indy coaching staff's mind. If not that particular 'trick' then what else could be in store? So that little bit of doubt could have the Colts taking time away from their normal game plan to try and be prepared for well... anything.

What's really the impact of that though? (Other than I snuck in a high school football reference) Probably minimal I would imagine. OK, then what will matter in this game?

There's no sense in digging to deep into the numbers for this one. There's only one number that the Patriots care about. Did they score more points than their opponent? Then doesn't really matter how they got there. I would say its roughly the same thing for the Colts.

When I started this post I really felt like that Patriots always played close playoff games. Turns out that other than Super Bowls and Ravens games most Patriot playoff wins during the Belichick/Brady era have been by more than this 6.5 spread. I don't think that the Colts have enough to win this game outright, and I don't see any reason from the 2014 regular season or past Patriot post-seasons as to why this game will be decided by less than a touchdown.

Pick: Patriot (-6.5)

There you have it. At 6-2 so far this post season, I've been a lot more right than wrong. Disagree? There's a comment section below or feel free to crush me on Twitter @SleazyBones.

Thanks for reading.

All stats lifted from

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