I'm not going to get too in depth on the X's and O's of these games because the fundamental matchups are over-analyzed to death on every media outlet you can find. Instead I'll summarize the reasons I like or don't like a side--or skip the game altogether.
NEW ORLEANS @ SAN FRANCISCO: This line went up on the board not long after the matchup was determined last Sunday. I jumped all over -3 and it's clear that I wasn't the only one. Sharps pounded this line and drove it off the 3. It takes a lot to move a game off a key number like that so it should tell you how much support is out there for the Saints. When you consider that SF is rested and playing at home, then it's quite apparent where the initial value was. For those of you that missed out on that you can either find a place to buy the hook down or just take NO -3.5. Not many pros out there have been scared off by the extra half point.
As for the game itself, I look at a few key factors that should tilt the game in NO's favor. Beyond the obvious (Drew Brees), NO have the clearcut edge with their O-line. SF haven't been able to generate consistent pressure up front all year long and if they don't find a way to change that this weekend then they have virtually no chance to even compete in this game. You cannot give a guy like Brees all day to survey the field and pick his spots. Making matters worse is SF's O-line isn't that good either. They rank near the bottom of the league in pass protection and they don't exactly have Joe Montana back there compensating for the weakness. If you look back on all the Wild Card winners you'll see that the teams with the best line play won the game.
But this isn't late-breaking news. SF have had these problems all year long, yet they continue to win game after game. How are they doing it? Well they rank near the very top in several key categories that determine winning (and covering) and losing. This includes special teams, red zone defense, turnover differential, and points given up from long drives. They also rank high in their yards-to-points ratio. In other words, coach Harbaugh has got more value from the sum of the parts.
But can this continue in the playoffs when the big boys come out to play? Will SF just be happy to be there? Don't bother going back to their earlier matchup to figure out what will happen because SF won't be as susceptible to the NO blitz this time around. But one recent matchup that I do consider is their MNF game from last season. No one gave SF a chance in hell to cover that game, but they were so jacked up to be on prime-time that they played the game of their lives and almost beat NO straight up.
This is the lesson of home field advantage and if anyone doubts the impact that momentum train can have--then look no further to the recent set of games. All home teams not only won, but covered the line as well. Even when it appeared like PIT, CIN, ATL, and DET were well on their way to a solid road performance, one play in each game triggered a tidal wave that couldn't be stopped.
DEN scored 20 unanswered points in the 2nd quarter.
HOU never looked back after the pick-six.
NYG dominated the game after the stop on 4th and inches.
NO took over after halftime and never looked back.
This is the risk of picking a road team in the playoffs, especially in the divisional round. Usually teams are sky-high satisfied with winning one playoff game, but once they have to go on the road and play a rested team things can get out of hand pretty quickly.
This is the only caveat that I have with taking NO this week because most of the critical categories favor the Saints. They rank near the top in 3rd down conversions while SF rank near the bottom. The same goes for points from long drives. In fact, NO have almost three times as many. They also have over 100 more completed plays throughout the season. This is a team that dominates time of possession and that was on full display against DET. NO own the edge in the air and that should prevent any kind of blowout by the home team. Even if it's a tight game, SF don't have the personnel to stop Brees on a four-down drive.
DENVER @ NEW ENGLAND: Tim Tebow mania is in full swing. He almost single-handedly knocked out my AFC representative for the Super Bow. Having said that, I did indicate a lot will depend on the health of Big Ben's ankle and it was clear that he wasn't anywhere close to where he needed to be for a long playoff run. At the same time, their defense should have been able to do enough to slow down Tebow, but give the kid credit for expoiting a very ballsy approach by Dick Lebeau. If you would have told me that the "chosen one" would have won that battle a week ago I would have told you to seek professional mental help.
So does that mean DEN have value going up against a far more inferior defense this week? Very, very unlikely. Most of DEN's points came from the strong home-crowd momentum swing that I talked about earlier. Once PIT punched back, DEN's offense stalled until the big play in OT. This doesn't mean I don't think DEN can put up points. They demonstrated earlier in the season that even Tebow can put up points on this sad-sack group of defenders. The problem comes when Tebow has to match Brady drive for drive. We all saw how that worked out in their prior meeting.
NE is 7-1 at home and very well rested and prepared. DEN is coming off their biggest win in years. That was also the first time this year they beat a quality opponent. That won't happen this week, but the question is can they stay within two touchdowns? I don't think so. The main advantage DEN have is with their rushing attack. NE have the edge in the passing game. Unlike last week, DEN don't have an edge with their D-line this game. NE have whipped their pass-protection into shape over the course of the season and Brady and Belichick know how to design a game-plan that minimizes pressure. They will once again rely heavily on Welker and their young tight ends to exploit underneath coverage and aggressive upfield pass rushes/blitzes. Brady came out and said earlier this week that none of the X's and O's will matter come kickoff--and that the only significant factor will be the level of execution. That may sound like a typical cliche' response, but his latter comment couldn't be further from the truth.
Execution is what Brady knows best and while DEN's defense is semi-respectable, they aren't the NYJ unit of a year ago either. This NE team ranks among the top in every meaningful offense category. They also rank second in the NFL in yards-to-points ratio behind GB. They are near the top in turnover differential while DEN sit near the bottom.
Call me a square, but I'm laying the inflated line and riding NE in this game. Once this game gets out of reach I see a blowout in the works. The only caveat that I have is the fact that the line didn't get bet up to -14. That's a clear sign that there could be some line movement coming the other way. My suggestion is to wait as long as possible and get the best number you can. At the end of the day I'll settle for anything under 14, but there's a chance we gain back another point or two before kickoff.
The last thing I'll say about this game is that I usually never touch a double-digit spread on the favorite thanks to the potential of a back-door cover, but as bad as NE's defense is, I think Tebow is just as awful--despite his heroics of a week ago.
HOUSTON @ BALTIMORE: Sharps liked the early line of -7 and bet it off the key number. BAL can do what a lot of teams can't vs HOU--stop the run. Limiting that lethal running attack is going to put too much pressure on TJ Yates on a stage as big as this. It's one thing to cruise to a home win when you have an O-line like that, home crowd momentum, and a top-flight defense, but it's another thing to ask a third-string QB to go on the road and pull out a win against an equally devastating defense. Yates is going to feel the full brunt of pressure coming his way on Sunday and I highly doubt he's seasoned enough to cope with it.
Earlier in the season I put HOU in a teaser against BAL and lost on a very late play. If Schaub was still playing then I'd be picking them to win the game outright. Unfortunately, we must deal with what we have and I have little choice but to ride the home team. BAL pulled away from HOU in my power rankings down the stretch and when you throw in rest, extra prep time, and home field advantage then this pick is a no-brainer.
BAL is 8-0 at home, 6-0 in their division, and 3-0 vs tough teams in 2011. I've never been a fan of Flacco, but those numbers don't lie. They say to me that they are as ready as they'll ever be to make a serious run in the playoffs. All Flacco has to do is not lose the game and BAL should pull this one out convincingly. If he reverts back to his form from the JAX game or earlier playoff appearances, then we have a problem. I'm banking on the former. Buy BAL down to -7 or throw them in a teaser.
NEW YORK @ GREEN BAY: Unlike the previous games, I don't see the major advantage for GB in the late Sunday matchup. NYG will be able to throw in this one and GB doesn't have the pass rush necessary to put Eli on the ground. The problem for NY is that Aaron Rodgers isn't Matt Ryan and Lambeau Field isn't New York Giant Stadium.
GB is prolific as they come on offense. While NY's defense is good, they also aren't great either. Make no mistake, this is not the NYG Super Bowl winning defense of a few years ago. Give Rodgers an extra week of rest and preparation and kiss your championship dreams goodbye. Making matters worse for NY is the fact that GB leads the league in yards-to-points ratio and turnover differential. Even if you manage to put up a handful of points on the board, sooner or later GB is going to make a few extra plays to cheat their lead and pull away.
We all saw that NY can resurrect their running game when push comes to shove, but a lot of their success came against a deflated ATL team with home field momentum. Those conditions won't exist on Sunday. Don't be shocked if you see NY revert back to their earlier form and put up inconsistent numbers on the ground. Like BAL, GB is 8-0 at home, 6-0 within their division, and 3-0 vs tough teams in 2011. Despite their flaws, they rise to the occasion in big games.
I do think NY have the ability to cover the spread in a competitive game..and even in a back-door cover, but I don't see them winning outright either. Teasing GB down to under a field goal is a must-play for the weekend.