The Age of Conference Parity is Over (if it ever existed): NFL Divisional Round Picks
For much of the 90s, right up until the Denver Broncos’ victory over the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII, the NFC was the dominant conference in professional football. Following the Broncos’ dual victories, following a brief period in which the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams were the NFL’s best, the pendulum swung the other way, with 6 of the 7 Super Bowls between the Rams’ 2000 win and the Giants’ victory in 2008 going to AFC teams (Ravens, Patriots, Steelers, Colts), in many of those years the AFC runner-up would have been a Super Bowl favorite as well. Recent history reveals another shift in the dynamic, towards greater NFC dominance, as NFC teams have won three of the last four Super Bowls.
For whatever reason, the dominant teams in any given year seem to cluster in one conference and this year isn’t any different, as is illustrated by the remaining playoff teams. The lowest remaining seed in the NFC are the fourth seeded Giants. Not only are the Giants a more balanced, dangerous team than anyone in the AFC right now, they’ve already beaten that conference’s top-seeded team, the New England Patriots, in Foxboro. Of the remaining AFC teams, only the Patriots have the type of offense necessary to score at the same rate as the NFC contenders (excluding San Francisco) and the Pats’ defense is severely flawed, lacking both a consistent pass rush and quality coverage players. The other three AFC teams (Broncos, Texans, Ravens) rely on stout defenses and strong running games to win, but lack the types of passing games necessary to score at a rate to match the other teams still in the hunt. So if you’re looking to pick a Super Bowl winner, may I suggest picking an NFC team?
Picks follow after the jump, as always they are done in conjunction with my friend Ryan:
New Orleans (-3.5) @ San Francisco
Ryan:This game too obviously screams New Orleans for my liking. The 49ers essentially wrapped up the NFC West in Week 4*, had a bunch of games that didn’t require urgency, and acted a little bit accordingly. Down the stretch, they dropped a hard-fought game in Baltimore, lost a two-score lead late to Arizona, and beat Seattle and St. Louis by less than they probably should have.
Bill Barnwell wrote an excellent preview of this game on Grantland, and I won’t steal too much of it but suffice to say that the Saints are MUCH better at home than on the road; they lost to the Bucs and Rams away from the Superdome. Starting Week 6, the Bucs and Rams were a combined 3-20, with two of those three wins coming against the Saints.
Drew Brees has an unbelievably fast release. Sometimes, it defies what I thought I knew about the laws of physics that Marques Colston is 12 yards down the field approximately half a second after the snap when Brees throws the ball. Part of the danger in getting rid of the ball this quickly, though, is that Brees throws a lot more interceptions than, say, Brady and Rodgers; in the past two seasons Brees has thrown 36 INTs while Rodgers has thrown 17 and Brady has thrown 16. The Lions dropped two or three interceptions last week and I expect the 49ers to make more of their opportunities.
The Saints gave up over 100 yards rushing in 10 of their 16 regular season games while the 49ers ran for over 100 in 10 of their 16 match-ups. Frank Gore has been banged up but he had the extra week off to recover. The 49ers will play ball control, limit the amount of Saints possessions, and score enough to keep the game close.
Basically, I think that the Saints are a little bit overrated while the 49ers are comparatively underrated. Semi-bold pick: 49ers cover and win outright.
Asif: The Saints are much better in the dome as Ryan says, but I’m not convinced that the 49ers are actually that good. Their most impressive win to date was against a hobbled Steelers team in Week 15. Since then they’ve had a 2-point win in Seattle, and a 7-point win in St. Louis. Color me unimpressed. Meanwhile, the Saints have steamrolled every opponent that they’ve played since narrowly beating Atlanta in Week 10–that’s six straight wins by at least 14 points, including wins in Detroit and Atlanta. So yeah, I’m taking the Saints.
Denver @ New England (-13.5)
Ryan: It’s been pretty impressive that Bill Belichick was able to cobble together this Patriots roster to go 13-3, winning their last eight, this season. This is only slight less impressive when considering that the Patriots didn’t beat any teams that finished the regular season over .500.
The Patriots and Packers had similar defensive models this season–bend, break sometimes, and force a lot of turnovers. They were the worst two teams in terms of passing yards given up (Packers gave up 4,796; the Patriots 4,703) but the top two in interceptions (Packers had 31; the Patriots 23). For both teams, this mode of defense makes sense because it creates extra possessions for their explosive offenses. That the Patriots had so many injuries and other roster turmoil in their secondary only made this strategy more advantageous.
New England’s foremost concern this week is its rushing defense. The Patriots’ rush defense was right around league average this season, giving up 117.1 yards per game. Against the Broncos in Week 15, though, it gave up 252 yards on the ground as Tebow, Lance Ball, Willis McGahee, and Jeremiah Johnson combined for more than eight yards per carry. Last week, the Steelers kept Troy Polamalu in the box to guard against the run and Tebow was able to beat the single coverage with regularity. If he is able to sustain that accuracy, the Patriots will have to pick their poison. Their best defense may need to be their outstanding offense.
The aforementioned Week 15 match-up was closer than the 41-23 Patriots victory would indicate. I think this spread is just a little bit too high. Broncos cover.
Asif: Meh, I’m not buying another Tebow miracle. The deep throws against the Steelers were pretty, but he still was horrendously inaccurate for the most part (although it was fun to watch Tebow hilariously miss a receiver on an out route in the 1st quarter only to have Phil Simms to deem it a “nice throwaway”).. It’s hard to predict a similar performance in a second straight week. As for the Week 15 match-up, I watched it end-to-end and after the first quarter it was just as lopsided as the score would suggest. The Broncos simply didn’t have an answer for all of the Patriots’ weapons, they made a concerted effort to keep Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski in check and ended up getting burned for 129 yards by Aaron Hernandez. Nothing’s really changed about either team since that game, so the Broncos will likely have to “pick their poison,” as Ryan put it, again. I have a hard time seeing the Patriots lose this one.
Still, the spread is awfully high. I have a feeling I’ll regret this, but Broncos cover.
Houston @ Baltimore (-7.5)
Ryan: This game is the least compelling of the weekend but I’d still be kind of bummed that other circumstances are keeping me from watching most of the second half of this game if said circumstances were anything beside the fact that I’M GOING TO LAMBEAU FIELD!!!!
As Asif alludes to below, Flacco got a little hurt that he hasn’t been given the Tebow white glove treatment as a league average quarterback who happens to play for a team with an outstanding defense and running game. If he wants more praise, he should stop missing receivers on routes that top-10 quarterbacks could hit in their sleep. Well, that or he could wear his religion on his sleeve, pants, helmet, and cleats. It’s probably too late for that behavior to be considered sincere, though.
Although the Ravens beat the still-quarterbacked-by-Matt-Schaub Texans 29-14 in Week 6, I’m still unconvinced that they are that good. They will probably win this game but I don’t trust them with a line this high. Texans cover.
Asif: Apparently Joe Flacco is all butthurt that everyone wants to talk about the great QBs remaining in the playoffs (Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Manning) and no one’s giving him his due for being the definition of a replacement level NFL starter. In semi-related news, I could care less about this game. I guess it would be nice if the Texans won, but does anyone really care? This AFC playoff slate is terrible. Ravens cover.
NY Giants @ Green Bay (-7.5)
Ryan: It’s pretty miraculous how little attention is being paid to the 15-1, defending Super Bowl Champion Packers coming into this weekend. While Tebow was mentioned 160 times in a one-hour SportsCenter yesterday, it’s gone comparatively under the radar that the Packers have won 21 of their last 22, a magical run that started with a 45-17 shellacking of the Giants in a de facto playoff game Week 16 last season.
There have been a lot of comparisons of this game to the 2007 NFC Championship Game (a game that still causes me great anguish when it runs on ESPN Classic–I can never bring myself to look away and still shudder every time Favre throws a perfect pass to Corey Webster) but those similarities really don’t do anything to cause me to think that a similar result will occur this Sunday. This year’s Packers team would be favored over the 2007 Packers by a touchdown on a neutral field (if it were to exist in a plane of the same alternate reality that would allow teams from different seasons to play each other…2007 Favre would definitely get picked off at least once by 2011 Woodson). The Packers are into this and the fact that so many people are counting them out against the Giants this week will only further their motivation.
I have seen very few people pick the Packers against the spread this week. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve seen it at all. When the public is so united behind one team, give me the house’s side. Packers cover.
Asif: The early line in this game was set at 9 points in a blatant attempt to get people to bet on the Giants. Over the course of the past month my enthusiasm about this latest incarnation of the Giants has gradually built from complete dismay (following their Week 15 loss to the Redskins) to boundless enthusiasm heading into this Sunday’s game. So screw it, I’m going with my guys, Giants cover.