Friday, January 17, 2014

NFL Picks, Conference Championships

Today's witty introduction has been wiped out by the plague making its way through my house this week. 

Sunday, 3:00 PM
New England at DENVER (-5.5)
What I'm watching for: 

Can the Patriots maintain balance? Yes, they ran the Colts into the ground, but the Colts defense a) wasn't very good and b) was ill-equipped to stop a power running game. Denver's defense isn't very good either, but they should be able to provide some resistance to the LeGarrette Blount show. 

Can the Patriots defense get off the field? When these two teams faced off in week 12, the Broncos ran for 280 yards. Yes they had the lead for most of the game and yes, Peyton Manning never really got going, but they still averaged 5.8 yards per carry in the game. If you combine 5.8 yards per rush and 59 degree weather (the current forecast for Sunday in Denver), the Broncos may be able to deactivate their punter. Add in the main change to the Patriots defense from then to now being the loss of Brandon Spikes, their best run stopping linebacker, and the prognosis doesn't look great. 

Which Peyton Manning will show up? The one who rewrote the record books during the 2013 regular season, or the one who's 10-11 all time in the playoffs, and 4-10 head-to-head with Tom Brady in his career? The weather should not be a factor, the defenses are about equal (maybe the edge to Denver), and the supporting cast greatly favors Manning. 

Can the Broncos cover anyone? The good news for the Broncos: All of the points scored by New England in the week 12 game came after starting cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie injured himself diving for an interception on the last play of the first half. DRC will play on Sunday. The bad news? Their other starting quarterback, Chris Harris, tore his ACL against San Diego, and the Chargers scored 17 points in about a quarter of play after he left the game after scoring 0 points with both starting CBs healthy (sound familiar?) While it's true the Patriots will be missing Rob Gronkowski, leaving them with Julain Edelman, a gimpy Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen, and a whole lot of nothing else to catch Tom Brady's passes. 

This looks like a high-scoring affair, as I don't fully trust either defense to get many stops against these two quarterbacks. The supporting casts favor Manning, but history favors Brady. 

The pick: Denver wins 34-30 (Patriots cover)

Sunday, 6:30 PM
San Francisco at SEATTLE (-3.5)
What I'm watching for: 

Can the 49ers step up their red zone offensive game? Since Jim Harbaugh took over the 49ers head coaching duties, here are the number of points scored by San Francisco's offense against the Sehawks:
2011 Week 1 (SF W, 33-17) - 19 points (1 touchdown), Ted Ginn returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the 4th quarter
2011 Week 16 (SF W 19-17) - 19 points (1 touchdown)
2012 Week 7 (SF W 13-6) - 13 points (1 touchdown)
2012 Week 16 (SEA W 42-13) 13 points (1 touchdown)
2013 Week 2 (SEA W 29-3) 3 points (0 touchdowns)
2013 Week 14 (SF W 19-17) 19 points (1 touchdown)
The most touchdowns they have scored in any game Harbaugh has coached against Seattle is 1. Never in 6 meetings have they managed more than 1 offensive touchdown against the Seahawks. If they want to win in Seattle, that will have to change. 

Can the Seahawks move the ball on offense? Seattle has been in a bit of a slump since week 14, scoring 17 (@SF), 23 (@NYG), 10 (vs ARI), 27 (vs STL), and 23 (vs NO) points. That's the narrative. Look a little deeper, and you have 3 top defenses (49ers, Cardinals, Saints) and two teams with tremendous pass rushes. Teams have also made adjustments to not allow Russell Wilson to leak out of the pocket and find receivers down the field, which is how many of Seattle's big plays would happen. Seattle has the best pass defense in the league, and they have made Colin Kaepernick's last two visits to CenturyLink Field miserable, but they've done so because the offense has scored enough to force the 49ers to chase the game. Absent that pressure, San Francisco will simply continue to run the ball all game long, stay balanced, and chip away at the Seahawks defense. 

Note: at the time of this writing, Percy Harvin had not been cleared to resume practice, meaning he's unlikely to play on Sunday. Harvin is a game-changing talent, and his presence would likely open things up for the rest of the offense. 

Which X-factor steps up and makes some plays? Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, Marshawn Lynch, Percy Harvin (if he plays), Golden Tate, Zach Miller. Even casual fans have heard of these names. Against most teams, these are the names you'd expect to see making the big plays. But San Francisco and Seattle are so good defensively, you need someone else to step up. Here are some names to watch for:
SF TE Vance McDonald - He has had issues with drops when targeted, but Vernon Davis will require lots of attention, so McDonald could find himself in position to make some plays. 
SF WR Quinton Patton - Injuries have held him back this year, but the rookie could be in position to showcase himself with all of the attention going to Crabtree and Boldin. 
SEA TE Luke Willson - He caught 2 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown in the week 14 matchup between these two and has shown an ability to stretch the field. He is recovering from a sprained ankle in week 17. 
SEA WR Doug Baldwin - Baldwin has shown a propensity for making insane boundary catches in many of Seattle's wins. He also has 121 yards and 3 touchdowns combined in his career against the 49ers at home. 

The truth is, since week 2 of 2011, Jim Harbaugh is 3-2 head-to-head against Pete Carroll. But the combined score in the 49ers 3 wins is 51-40, and the combined score in their two losses is 71-16. Yes, the 49ers are rolling (they are on an 8-game winning streak), and yes, they looked better last weekend than Seattle did, but they have yet to play well in Seattle with Colin Kaepernick under center. History suggests that if the 49ers win, it will be by the skin of their teeth. 

In the end, I trust Russell Wilson to make a couple more plays against the 49er pass defense than Colin Kaepernick will make against the Seahawks pass defense. 

The pick: Seattle wins 17-16 (49ers cover)

Here are my almost 3-year-old son's picks:

Enjoy Championship Sunday!

Last week: 2-1-1 (.625)
2013 Postseason: 3-3-2 (.500)
Miles (my almost-3-year-old son) last week: 2-1-1 (.625)
Miles' 2013 Postseason: 4-2-2 (.625)

2012 Postseason: 6-4-1
2011 Postseason: 6-5

2013 season: 115-134-7 (.463)
2013 Midweek Picks: 7-9-1

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