Friday, January 16, 2015

The Hail Mary - NFL Playoffs: Conference Championships

NFC Championship: #2 Green Bay (13-4) at #1 Seattle (13-4), Seattle favored by 7 1/2

In a rematch from the very first game of the NFL season, Green Bay travels to Seattle with the winner representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. The Packers squeaked by Dallas last week, aided by a Mike McCarthy challenge that was correctly overturned by the officials. Seattle let Carolina hang around for three quarters and then blew them away in the final 15 minutes.

In the first meeting between these teams, Seattle blew out Green Bay 36-16. Aaron Rodgers didn't throw Dick Sherman's way once and the Packers managed just 255 total yards of offense. Eddie Lacy was knocked out of the game with a concussion and the Packers were physically dominated on both sides of the ball by Seattle. The Packers talking point this week has been that they are a different team since that September game. Davante Adams has emerged at wide receiver, Richard Rodgers at tight end, and Rodgers rapport is better than ever with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. However, the Seahawks can also say that they are a different team. After that stomping of the Packers, Seattle limped to a 5-4 mark, but now are currently on a seven game winning streak. The defense has been a big reason for that winning streak, although the Panthers were able to move the ball on Seattle far more than I expected. This game will be all about how much protection the Packers can give Rodgers as he battles through his injured calf. The Seahawks aren't known for their pass rush, with Michael Bennett leading the team with just 7 sacks. Even with his injury, last week Rodgers was able to move around the pocket and evade most of the pressure the Cowboys put on him. Rodgers would be helped if Lacy can get something going on the ground. Even before he was knocked out of the game in September, he was being stymied by the Seahawks. Seattle hasn't allowed a back to rush for more than 100 yards since a loss to Kansas City in the tenth game of the season. Lacy doesn't need to go for 100, but the Packers best chance to win is if he has at least 20 carries.

Russell Wilson will be spending his day trying to evade pressure from Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. Wilson was excellent against the Panthers, spreading the ball to his receivers and avoiding mistakes. The Packers are a pretty strong pass defense, so expect the Seahawks to focus their offensive gameplan on the Beast, Marshawn Lynch. Lynch gashed Green Bay for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Week 1 matchup. Lynch was held mostly in check by Carolina, but I don't expect that to be the case Sunday. In a reversal from the Divisional round, I think Lynch will have about 25 carries and be scoring the touchdowns for Seattle. His running presence will open things up for Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and Luke Wilson.

I expect a far more competitive game this time than we got in September but ultimately the same result. If Rodgers was 100% I might be tempted to pick Green Bay to pull the upset, but the effect of his injury is going to show in ways it didn't against a mediocre Cowboys defense. I do expect Rodgers to try to challenge Dick Sherman at times, but his hubris could lead to picks, as Dick showed Cam Newton last week. You have to play your best game to win at Seattle and also have your stars at their best, and unfortunately for the Packers I don't think they have that with Rodgers right now.

Prediction: Seattle 27, Green Bay 20

AFC Championship: #4 Indianapolis (13-5) at #1 New England (13-4), New England favored by 7

Colts and Patriots is a rematch from the regular season, when New England and Jonas Gray destroyed the Colts 42-20 in Indianapolis. This is also a rematch from last year's postseason, which the Patriots also won, as Andrew Luck threw four interceptions in 43-22 loss. So the question is, will anything be different this time? Will the Colts make a game of it, or are we going to see another Patriots blowout victory?

The Colts were the most impressive team last weekend, handling the Broncos 24-13 in Denver. Indianapolis had struggled against elite teams all season, but after allowing an opening drive touchdown, the Colts defense played one of their best games of the season. CB Vontae Davis was all over the field, not allowing Broncos receivers any separation. Luck was not spectacular, throwing 2 interceptions, but he was good enough and Indianapolis even stuck with a run game that was producing very little, as Boom Herron averaged just 3 yards a carry. Can the Colts defense duplicate that effort against New England? They will likely have to since the Colts have almost no running game, and their passing game has not been as explosive in the playoffs as it was during the regular season. T.Y. Hilton has had some drops and Reggie Wayne serves as little more than a decoy at this point in his career. The Colts do have strong options at tight end between Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. The Colts offensive line did a fantastic job protecting Luck against Denver's fearsome pass rush, and should be well positioned in this game against a Patriots pass rush that doesn't generate much pressure. I would expect Darrelle Revis to draw Hilton, and mostly limit him, although Steve Smith did find some success against Revis last week. I think the Colts biggest producers on offense will be Fleener and Allen.

The Patriots twice overcame 14-point deficits against Baltimore last weekend, showing great resolve. Tom Brady was fantastic, throwing for almost 400 yards against the porous Ravens secondary. He didn't have nearly that level of success against Indianapolis in their regular season meeting but that was because Gray ran for 201 yards and 4 touchdowns.  Gray was inactive for last week's game, but you would have to think Bill Belichick would use him in this game. In last season's playoff matchup LaGarrette Blount ran wild against the Colts. He was not on the Patriots when these teams met earlier this season. With Blount and Gray's past success against the Colts, it would stand to reason that New England will not be as pass heavy as they were against Baltimore last week. The Patriots also have Bradon Bolden and Shane Vereen at running back, so their options are virtually limitless. Rob Gronkowski dominated Indianapolis in the regular season and he figures to be a major part of the passing game on Sunday. Danny Amendola has come out of hiding in recent weeks for the Patriots, giving Brady another receiving option to go with Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell. Brady should have plenty of time in the pocket, as the Colts aren't know for their pass rush. Mike Adams and Davis will be busy all day trying to cover all of Brady's options.

I am tempted to pick the upset and go with Indianapolis after their impressive performance last week. However, I think Luck and the Colts are still about a year away from being a Super Bowl team. I do think they will put up a much greater fight this time than they have in their last two meetings with New England. However, I think the Patriots offense is humming much better than Denver's was, and that the Colts defense won't shut down Brady like they did Peyton Manning. I also expect New England to be able to run the ball against the Colts and control the clock. Luck will do everything in his power to keep the game close, and with the Patriots struggles on run defense, I actually expect Herron to have some success. But in the end, Brady and Belichick will pull out the victory and New England will reach their 8th Super Bowl.

Prediction: New England 27, Indianapolis 26

Last Week Against the Spread: 3-1
Overall Against the Spread: 130-129-4

Last Week Straight Up: 3-1
Overall Straight Up: 181-82-1

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