Another wide-open NFL playoffs, another ill-fated quest to finish 11-0 against the spread, another monster Brady-Manning playoff duel looming wait, what year is this? (Checking.) It's 2013! 2013??? More important, do we really have a chance to give fewer than 10 points against Christian Ponder — on the road, outdoors — in a legally sanctioned postseason game? We're less than 48 hours away, and to my knowledge nobody has screwed this up yet. Actually, I don't want to jinx it. Forget I said anything. Let's break down every line for Round 1. And I mean EVERY line.
Matt Schaub (-3) over Andy Dalton
As recently as one month ago, Schaub would have been laying a touchdown. Remember the guy who threw for 842 yards and six TDs in Weeks 11 and 12? Schaub's QB ratings for his last four games: 19.1, 90.4, 46.2, 37.1. He put up 22 points total in the final two weeks. He's thrown one touchdown pass since December 2. His body language has become so gloomy that he could join the cast of Parenthood tomorrow, then pull off any scene in which Monica Potter needs someone to stare sadly at her while she's wearing a prosthetic bald head that makes her look like the long-lost Conehead.1 So what happened? Is he secretly injured? Did he go into a funk? Did he switch bodies with T.J. Yates? Are Schaub and Josh Freeman starring in Contagion 2: Accidentally Touched by Ryan Leaf? What happened?
Meanwhile, you know what you're getting with Dalton — he's one of those guys who is never available on your fantasy free-agent wire, only nobody ever starts him, either (making him the Brad Johnson of this generation). Could he win a road playoff game? Depends on your version of the word "win." Dalton could be the starting QB of a road playoff team that won mainly because the other team sucked. I could see that. But down by seven, on the road, in a potentially loud dome, with only one legitimate receiving target, a flimsy offensive line (seventh-most sacks in the NFL) and J.J. Watt wreaking havoc? That makes me nervous. QBR ranks him 22nd, jammed right between Sam Bradford and Matt Hasselbeck. DVOA ranks him 20th, one spot ahead of Christian Ponder and Philip Rivers.
You're not gonna believe this, but the guy who still uses a ThinkPad, AOL and a BlackBerry also holds on to some old rules from years gone by. And one of those rules is pretty simple; shit, it might be THE rule. If you're picking a QB in a road playoff game, you better believe in that QB. If Andy was throwing to A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Aaron Hernandez with Alfred Morris running the ball, I might believe in him. But flanked by Green, Andrew Hawkins, Jermaine Gresham and BenJarvus Green-Ellis? I'm lukewarm. The best argument in Dalton's favor? Mark Sanchez won road playoff games in 2009 AND 2010. And you wouldn't trust that guy to successfully park your car right now.2
The Giants' "Nobody Believes In Us Factor" (-13) over Houston's "Nobody Believes In Us" Factor
If the Texans were favored by three or less, I could see the N.B.I.U. case here. But they're laying 4½ even after rolling over against ChuckStrong last week in a game they desperately needed to win. Seems generous. Meanwhile, Tom Coughlin completed the final level of N.B.I.U. — by the time Week 17 ended, NOBODY believed in the 2012 New York Football Giants. That's what he always wanted, that's what he got.
In general, it was a fascinating year for N.B.I.U., as teams proactively embraced the fact that people didn't believe in them and pointed it out ahead of time; as this was happening, we were searching for teams who ranked high on the N.B.I.U. scale and adjusting our expectations accordingly. The concept itself got thrown out the window. You're not supposed to realize that you failed to believe in a team until after they won and shoved it in your face, then they're doing the whole "nobody believed in us but the people in this locker room" routine. (Maybe the concept will trickle over into politics and economics — for instance, Paul Krugman wrote a "Nobody Believes in Supply and Demand" column recently, and someone could easily make a 3,000-word N.B.I.U. case for John Boehner right now.3 Although Harry S. Truman was the ultimate N.B.I.U. politician. I'm getting sidetracked.) What we really need? A new theory. A fresh one.
The Post-Holiday Diet Theory (+8.5) over Every Other Dumb Simmons Theory
You know how even people in good shape let themselves go a little over the holidays? For one thing, it's cold — you don't mind packing on a couple of extra pounds. You're on vacation, so your schedule gets thrown out of whack. You miss a week of exercising, jogging, playing sports or whatever else you're doing to stay fit. You're eating bigger meals, you're drinking a little more, you're eating more junk food, and there are 10 times as many desserts kicking around. If you're stuck at a family gathering making small talk with one of your annoying cousins, you might even reflexively get that third plate of food just to get away from him or her. At some point, you made the decision, "I'm letting myself go a little here," and you're fine with it. Then the holidays finish and you feel that extra flab around your belly, become disgusted and attack your everyday life with a new resolve — better eating, more exercising, no dessert, less drinking, you name it. It's just a matter of saying, "All right, enough messing around."
We watch the let-yourself-go phenomenon happen to certain contenders in December every year — they peak in October and November, lose their mojo for whatever reason and finish the season playing less-than-inspired football. When it happens, we have to decide if it's a funk or something bigger. In Houston's case, they got their butts kicked in New England, rallied back to beat Indy, got steamrolled by one of the greatest running backs ever during his greatest season, then found themselves ChuckStronged in Week 17. Funk or something bigger? The more I'm thinking about it, I say funk. And this is the weekend when the Texans say, "All right, enough messing around," rededicate themselves and go back to doing Texans things — namely, running the ball down Cincy's throat, harassing Dalton on every pass and protecting the football. Which leads us to
TEXANS (-4.5) over Bengals
Only one person could screw this pick up: Matt Schaub. This makes me feel better: The Bengals haven't won a road playoff game in the history of the franchise (dating back to 1968). Their last playoff win happened in January 1991 — when they beat the Houston Oilers before losing to Bo Jackson's Los Angeles Raiders. As reader Rob from Boston writes, "The Bengals have not won a playoff game since destroying Bo Jackson's hip. If you were God and you created Bo Jackson, perhaps the most naturally gifted athlete ever, wouldn't you seek retribution against the team who destroyed those gifts? Proof? Dave Shula, Bruce Coslet, David Klingler, Akili Smith, Dick LeBeau, Kimo von Oelhoffen I could keep going. Give the points and take the over on Marvin losing a challenge on an irrelevant play." I concur.
The Pick: Houston 27, Cincy 17.
"Don't EVER Bet Against Aaron Rodgers" (-3.5) over "Don't EVER Bet Against Adrian Peterson"
In the regular season? That's probably a pick 'em line. In the playoffs, you're always better off taking a frightening QB over a frightening running back. And did you see Rodgers's December numbers? 1,457 yards, 11 touchdowns, one pick, 113.3 QB rating. Yeeesh. Peterson was our 2012 MVP for throwing a mediocre Vikings team on his back and submitting the single greatest running back season any of us have ever seen. Manning was the runner-up for transforming Denver into a Super Bowl contender. But you can't sleep on what Rodgers did, as a Milwaukee reader named Michael explains:
Aaron Rodgers is so damned good that an off year for him means leading the league in Passer Rating and TD/Int ratio even though he has an absolute train wreck of an O-line, a rotating cast of always-injured receivers and a below average run game (by the way, what are the chances that Alex Green or DuJuan Harris puts up more than 2.0 YPC with that O-line and any QB other than Rodgers?). How anyone thinks he doesn't deserve just as many MVP votes as Manning is beyond me. The guy has nothing around him, gets destroyed every other play through no fault of his own, and yet is still the most feared player in the league. Hell, I think I might vote for him over Adrian I-Just-Carried-An-Entire-Franchise-To-The-Playoffs-While-Simultaneously-Having-The-Best-Season-Of-Any-Pro-Athlete-In-The-Last-20-Years-And-Oh-By-The-Way-My-Left-Knee-Is-Made-Out-Of-The-Same-Liquid-Metal-Shit-As-The-Bad-Guy-From-T2 Peterson.
Jadeveon Clowney, Physical Freak (PK) over Adrian Peterson, Physical Freak
Question: If Clowney jumped the snap and tried to tackle Peterson behind the line of scrimmage, what would happen? Would it be like the time Superman fought the guy who looks like Nikola Pekovic in Superman II? Would buildings fall over? Would the earth implode? And if you were the Chiefs, wouldn't you convince Clowney to declare for this year's draft and sue the NFL to become eligible? What do you have to lose? Does anyone think Clowney is NOT ready for the NFL? I'm adding this to my Sports Czar campaign — we need a special draft committee for all sports that's empowered to give special exemptions to any high school basketball player or college football freshman/sophomore who's prematurely ready to play professionally. Clowney is ready.
Antoine Winfield's Broken Right Hand (+3.5) over Every Other Key Round 1 Injury
Tough one for Minnesota — when Winfield (a superb corner) left last Sunday's game because of the pain in his already broken right hand, Green Bay tortured his replacement (special teamer Marcus Sherels) to the tune of nine catches and 162 yards. This weekend, Winfield is going to play with a hard cast — making it difficult for him to tackle and jam receivers at the line. There's only one sports scenario in which you want to hear the words "hard cast" — that's right, pro wrestling.
Blair Walsh (-10) over Mason Crosby
If you're talking yourself into a Vikings upset, part of that pick involves a nine-point swing that looks like this: Crosby (a mess this season) shanking an easy kick in the first half and making Mike McCarthy lose all faith in him, followed by Walsh (a stud) nailing two kicks of over 50 yards to keep Minnesota hanging around. And instead of Green Bay leading 20-10, somehow it's 17-16 as Cris Collinsworth is saying things like, It's four-down territory here for Green Bay, I know they're on the 30 but you can't bring Crosby out here, he's just too far gone right now. That's one piece. As for the other
Andy Reid (-7) over Mike McCarthy
You might remember me predicting that Reid would pass the torch to McCarthy as this generation's perennial successful coach who keeps blowing sloppy playoff games year after year while also gaining weight and maybe even growing a mustache. When Philly fired Reid, that made me worry that McCarthy would be grabbing that torch starting this weekend (threatening my Packers pick). But wait! Before we knew it, three teams were fighting to hire Andy before the Chiefs finally stepped in, delighting Chiefs fans and BBQ establishments all over the KC area. So I don't see any torch-passing. At least not yet.
Green Bay's receivers (-30.5) over Minnesota's receivers
On one side: Jordy "I'm Finally Healthy" Nelson, Greg "Me Too" Jennings, Randall "I'm Secretly Terrifying" Cobb and James "I Swung Some Fantasy Leagues" Jones. On the other side: Jarius Wright, Jerome Simpson and Michael Jenkins. Come on. Now throw in
Indoors Christian Ponder (-12) over Outdoors Christian Ponder
The 2012 Vikings played outside four times and lost all four games: at Washington (lost by 12), at Seattle (lost by 10), at Chicago (lost by 18), at Green Bay (lost by nine). Ponder's best game happened in Washington (352 yards, 2 TDs, 2 picks), although he had Percy Harvin at that point (11 catches, 133 yards). In Week 9 at Seattle, with Harvin hobbled, the Seahawks held him to 63 yards on 22 pass attempts (you read that correctly), sacked him four times and picked him once. In Week 12 at Chicago, he threw 43 times for just 159 yards (one TD, one pick). In Week 13 at Green Bay, he threw 25 times for a whopping 119 yards (one TD, two picks) — and that was with Peterson (210 yards, six or seven "HOLY SHIT!" moments) playing out of his mind. So in Ponder's last three outdoor road games, he attempted 90 passes that yielded just 341 yards. Not even four yards per pass attempt! I mean, I wanted no part of wagering on Christian Ponder in a road playoff game even before I looked this stuff up.
PACKERS (-7.5) over Vikings
Again, Aaron Rodgers vs. Christian Ponder in Lambeau and the line is less than 10????? Come on. Stop it.
The Pick: Packers 34, Vikings 17
ChuckStrong (-4) over Ray Lewis's Retirement
You have to hand it to Lewis — his retirement announcement was a valiant attempt to upstage ChuckStrong, especially considering Charlie Strong's Louisville team shocked Florida as 14-point underdogs and pushed ChuckStrong to a whole other level. Plan A was retiring; Plan B was convincing Torrey Smith to legally change his name to Chaz Strong just for Sunday's game. But there's a big difference between winning a playoff game for your cancer-survivor coach and winning it for your hung-on-a-little-too-long linebacker who's better off doing TV (where he's going to be fantastic, by the way).
Indy's Upset Victory Potential This Weekend (-3) over Everyone Else's Upset Victory Potential This Weekend
The recipe for a Colts upset in three parts
Part 1: They need the Ravens to look like the Ravens from the past seven games, when they barely beat Pittsburgh by three (the game Byron Leftwich played with broken ribs); won an OT game in San Diego (with help from Ray Rice's incredible fourth-and-29 play); lost at home to Charlie Batch (Charlie Batch!); lost in OT at Washington (to Kirk Cousins!); got slaughtered in Denver (lost by 17, wasn't that close); whupped the free-falling Giants; lost to Cincy (meaningless game). It's hard to believe the Ravens could be giving a touchdown in the playoffs to anyone right now. It's an average offensive team and an average defensive team (with a phenomenal special-teams unit, but still).
Part 2: The power of ChuckStrong. Remember when the 2011 Broncos ushered in the brief but lovable era of "TEEEEEEE-BOWWWWWWWWWWW!," kept winning games they should never have been winning, and then everything crested with that playoff victory over Pittsburgh? Isn't that a pretty good doppelgänger for the 2012 Colts and ChuckStrong? Football Outsiders ranks the Colts as the worst 11-win playoff team since 1991; they're even the worst 10-win playoff team since 1991. Like the 2011 Broncos, their season stopped making sense well before the playoffs. And like the 2011 Broncos, they landed a possibly over-the-hill playoff opponent who might be more reputation than actual substance at this point. If this particular Colts team was playing in Denver or New England, the talent discrepancy would become insurmountable. That's not the case in Baltimore.
Part 3: What Andrew Luck am I getting in this game? Am I getting the guy who turned the ball over 28 times (18 picks, 10 fumbles)? Am I getting the guy who looked like Roethlisberger 2.0 in last week's Houston game, keeping drives alive and staving off pressure play after play? Am I getting the guy who's proven to be truly clutch at a pretty precocious age? Am I getting all three of those guys at the same time? You can't pick the Colts to win this game without saying, "I think Andrew Luck is gonna be lights-out" and his habit of getting better when it matters bodes well for a playoff game.
Colts (+7) over RAVENS
You know the old saying, "When in doubt, take the points?" I'd like to tweak that to, "When in doubt, take the points especially if that means you can root for a head coach who just came back from fighting leukemia and who might deliver the greatest postgame speech that's ever happened if they somehow pull this one off, followed by that team trekking to Denver to battle the greatest player in Colts history."
The Pick: Colts 30, Ravens 24
Kevin Kolb (+4) over Bernard Pollard
Little-known fact: Do you realize Kevin Kolb swung the playoff byes in both conferences? If not for Kolb relieving an injured John Skelton and orchestrating an 11-play, 85-yard, game-winning drive against Seattle in Week 1, the Seahawks would have finished 12-4 and won the NFC West (and the no. 2 seed). And if Kolb hadn't slapped together four decent quarters in New England (140 yards, one TD, no picks, just two sacks) without ever doing any Kevin Kolb things, New England would have been the AFC's no. 1 seed. The other big culprits: Norv Turner, Phil Rivers and the Future L.A. Chargers, who blew a 24-point lead in Week 6 to Manning's Broncos, inadvertently rejuvenating the nerves in his neck and turning him into 2006 Peyton again. Since falling behind 24-0 on that Monday night, Denver has outscored its opponents 346-151, Peyton regained the Manning Brother championship belt, and this happened.
Anyway, the favorites for the 6th Annual Bernard Karmell Pollard Award — given annually to the most random person who affected the 2013 playoffs — are Kolb, Turner and Rivers right now. Special kudos to Pollard for winning his own award last year. And don't count him out this month since he's still playing for the Ravens and might be one hit away on Manning or Brady from winning back-to-back Pollards.
Mike and Kyle Shanahan (-91) over Me and My Son
The Shanahans teamed up to save football in Washington, master a devastating offensive scheme and capture the NFC East. Meanwhile, the Simmonses just completed World no. 5 in New Super Mario Bros. Wii together. They have a big lead over us. I'm not gonna lie.
Seattle Sports Renaissance (+3) over D.C. Sports Renaissance
D.C. fans couldn't have enjoyed a better 2012: They added a likable/electric/charismatic franchise QB (and a franchise RB as well!), rebuilt their baseball team around two marketable stars, nearly made the Stanley Cup finals and even hit rock-bottom in a good way when the pathetic Wizards became the new black sheep/laughingstock of the National Basketball Association (replacing the Clippers, who finally abdicated the title after a 35-year run). If you're going to be a train wreck, you might as well become a historic train wreck, right? Add everything up and it was D.C.'s most memorable sports year in eons. But could Seattle be positioning itself for a similar 2013 renaissance? What if the Seahawks make a prolonged playoff run (and it's definitely possible)? What if the Sacramento Kings get sold to a Seattle ownership group? What if the Mariners start scoring more than 1.5 runs a game? What if the Sounders win whatever the hell the MLS title is called? Keep an eye on this.
Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch (-2.5) over Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris
Only because of RG3's bulky knee brace. Great battle, though. I'd have so much more to say about this game, but unfortunately, someone gave me the ebola virus and I spent Thursday night and Friday morning lying in bed, shivering, sweating and basically having an out-of-body experience. Please allow me to make a pick so I can go back to lying on a cold bathroom floor.
Seahawks (-3) over REDSKINS
The easiest pick of Round 1 for me. The Seahawks aren't just the most balanced team in football, they're one of the most balanced teams ever. Football Outsiders' DVOA ranked them fourth in offense, fourth in defense and third in special teams. They didn't play a single bad game all season — even in their five losses, they had a chance to win each game in the final minutes. So if you're picking against them, you're doing it for three reasons: You think they're a better home team than road team, you're jumping at the chance to pick against Pete Carroll on the road, and you're banking on Washington's crowd (great fans, by the way) to push their boys to another level.
All solid reasons I just don't agree. I don't think the Redskins are good enough to win this game — even last Sunday, they benefited from three ghastly Tony Romo interceptions and some legitimate coaching incompetence on Dallas's end (really, you couldn't figure out a smart way to pick up those relentless blitzes, Dallas?) and barely won. Seattle is a whole different animal. We're headed for a final four of Seahawks-Packers and Brady-Manning, along with 250,000 replays of Golden Tate's Hail Mary. It's destiny. And on that note, I'm going back to the cold floor.
The Pick: Seattle 30, Washington 17
Last Week: 7-9