Saturday, January 19, 2013

NFL Conference Championship Picks

Here we are! Tomorrow's games decide which teams will compete in the Super Bowl, and if they are anything like last weekend's matches, we are in for a good weekend of football. What the games may not decide, however, are which teams deserve to be in the Super Bowl. Luck is part of the playoff equation, and every year, there are teams that either fail to take advantage of it or fail to create it by not going for any plays that would require some luck. Sometimes, a team like the Denver Broncos will turn super conservative on offense and fail to create any plays where luck can manifest itself in the form of a pass interference call or a blown coverage in the secondary. On the other side, the Ravens went balls to the wall and caught some favorable luck to a shocking win.

When picking games, we, like the teams themselves, are at the mercy of a certain amount of luck. The Denver loss, along with some other picks (taking the Pack as an emotional hedge) led to a 1-3 record. After going 2-2 during the wildcard round, what makes me have any conviction in a 3-5 playoff picking record?

During the Wild Card round, I felt like both the Texans and the Bengals were desperate to not lose. Neither played well, both coaches were timid, and the game felt like a 3 point margin despite the final score. No regrets in picking Cincy and taking the points, even though I maintained the Texans would win. Colts +6.5 over the Ravens would have been much closer if Vinatieri hadn't missed a 40-yarder in the 3rd quarter. Moving on to last week: I should have stuck to the 49ers, but have no regrets in picking Aaron Rodgers. And the Seahawks had every Falcons fan in pure shock until Matt Ryan put together a drive that may find itself in Falcons' lore. The Falcons got some luck in that situation, ironically benefiting from one of their earlier  missteps. After scoring a TD to go up 19 points with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Falcons elected to kick and go up 20, instead of electing to for to on the half yard line (the Seahawks jumped offsides twice). After the Seahawks scored three touchdowns to go up one, the Falcons had no choice but to drive for the game winning FG. If they had gone for two earlier and were tied near the end of regulation, who knows if Mike Smith goes for the FG there or if he bails like John Fox and "plays for overtime."

While the Falcons got to the conference championship on some luck and after surviving an epic comeback by Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense, the 49ers dominated the Packers at the point of attack. Much has been made of the 49ers pistol read option and how Kaepernick ran away from the Packers. Though while the Pistol is hard to defend and the Packers didn't do a good job of defending it, but I believe the 49ers would have run all over the Packers no matter what offense they chose to run. Ben Muth at Football Outsiders put it perfectly here. The 49ers offensive line constantly moved the Packers off the ball, and if Kaepernick had simply chosen to hand off to Gore on many of those reads, he still would have been into the second level for 5-6 yards consistently. 

The other thing the 49ers are much better at than Seattle is run defense. But Football outsiders team DVOA rankings, the 49ers ranked 2nd against he rush in the regular season while Seattle was only 12th. Atlanta's 29th-ranked rush offense was able to exploit the Seattle front seven until Michael Turner started wearing down in the second half (which was part of the reason for the big Seattle comeback). But Atlanta will find it much harder to run against the 49ers, and should find it much harder to use play-action as a result. I still think that White/Jones should be able to get behind the defense, as San Francisco's safeties are sometimes more concerned with big hits than good coverage. But overall, I think the 49ers defense will hold up much better against the Falcons and I'm guessing Atlanta will struggle to score more than 24-25 points. With this, the pick:

49ers -4.5 over FALCONS.

I'm laying the points understanding that the 49ers should be able to move the ball against Seattle. Despite Russell Wilson's athleticism and ability to break the pocket, Seattle doesn't have designed quarterback runs as a staple of their offensive system. The Falcons have struggled to contain running quarterbacks, including a loss against the Panthers this year in one game and another game against Super Cam that should have been a loss if not for a ridiculous TD pass to Roddy White despite the obvious need to throw deep. I think the 49ers will be able to dictate what type of offense they want to run, and will win by at least one TD.

As far as Patriots/Ravens goes, I know the recent history has been for some very close games, including last year's AFC Championship in which the Ravens were a stripped ball in the end zone away from going to the Super Bowl. But I have a sneaky suspicion about this game, kind of like the feeling I had before the Alabama/Notre Dame game. I think Baltimore is lucky to be here. I thought the Broncos called an extremely conservative game and their players blew some big assignments. And I think the Patriots are tired of playing the Ravens close. The Ravens were able to keep Peyton Manning's Broncos in check, including a big stop in the 4th quarter when the Broncos were on the edge of running the clock out. But I think the Patriots will play this much more aggressively than the Broncos did. I think they are wary of the danger of letting Baltimore hang around. 

PATRIOTS -8.5 over Ravens

This line is at -9.0 in some places online. But the Patriots offense is on a roll. The Vereen-Ridley combo at running back has been a revelation the whole year, and the Patriots have been able to block adequately and get them the ball in space when Gronk is out. The Moreno injury really hurt the Broncos on both sides of the ball; Hillman's inability to hold in pass protection really screwed up what Manning wanted to do. I don't think the Ravens will have the same luck against New England, and I think Ray's magical postseason run ends here.

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