NFL Divisional Round Picks Against the Spread
NFL Divisional Round Picks Against the Spread
It feels as if the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers haven't played in ages. That's the kind of time-distorting effect created by a thrilling NFL wild-card weekend. This also provides great material to dissect in predicting the divisional round.
Vegas has a hard act to follow, setting lines that were razor-close to the final result in three of the four playoff games last weekend. The San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints escaped contests expected to be narrow while the San Diego Chargers, the only touchdown underdog, delivered the only blowout victory of the weekend.
Judging from point spreads, the divisional round projects to feature more uneven matchups than the wild card; Carolina as the only underdog getting less than a touchdown. Though, if the Broncos' 2013 divisional-round loss or several years of data have taught us anything, there's a decent chance at least one of the big favorites will fail to win outright.
Soaking up every minute of the wild-card round is definitely a wise move before predicting the next weekend while it's also key to avoid recency bias; We have seen each of this weekend's four road teams emerge victorious since last time the bye teams played at all. This could partly explain why the Niners' point spread over the Panthers jumped from an early line of minus-1 Sunday to minus-3 Monday. Everyone literally just watched them outlast Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Lambeau, as Carolina's road win at San Fran grows smaller in the rearview mirror.
I'll try to put on blinders against all bias as you read through my divisional-round predictions against the spread.
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
When: Jan. 11 at 4:35 p.m. ET
Why New Orleans would win:
1) The Seahawks defense is better equipped than any team to handle Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and the Saints' pass attack but New Orleans could give them fits in the run game. It's better late than never for Mark Ingram, who's emerged down the stretch and tallied 97 yards on 5.4 per carry last week in Philly. Zac Stacy gave Seattle's defense some trouble earlier this season and Ingram is running a lot like him, with Jahri Evans and the interior line clearing the way better than all season.
2) Marshawn Lynch's per carry average dropped by about two yards from November to December. If this trend continues then Seattle could struggle to make hay off play-action. Akiem Hicks, Cameron Jordan and Brodrick Bunkley are coming off a nice game on interior in their wild-card win over Philly.
3) Rob Ryan has shown that he can game-plan around losing his defensive glue in versatile rookie Kenny Vaccaro. Their first-rounder might be done for the year but Ryan can still throw the kitchen sink at opposing offensive coordinators.
Why Seattle would win:
1) Drew Brees finally guided New Orleans to its first win away from home in franchise history last week while bumping their season road record to 4-5, but now things wratchet up in traveling to the league's most difficult road environment.
2) Brandon Browner is suspended but Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane stepped up to give the 'Hawks level performance at corner. Pete Carroll is a DB wizard.
3) Russell Wilson has lost one home game in his career and dropping it three weeks ago might not be a bad thing. They rebounded nicely in Week 17 and have shown to be almost unbeatable at home when Wilson is on point.
The Call: Seahawks 31, Saints 20 (SEA favored by 8) Seattle crushed New Orleans 34-7 earlier this season without pressuring Brees all that much, which other good defenses have had success doing and the Seahawks could here.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
When: Jan. 11 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Why Indianapolis would win:
1) Andrew Luck can become a destroyer of worlds at any time. The second-year star guided Indy to 35 second-half points after throwing three interceptions. No lead is safe.
2) To that end, if Aqib Talib can't regain his early season form then the Pats secondary doesn't really have an answer for the Luck-TY Hilton connection. Devin McCourty gives New England one of the league's best free safeties and corner Logan Ryan has played well for a rookie, but New England's secondary looks vulnerable to the straight athletes that the Colts trot out at receiver.
3) The Indy secondary can't be as bad as it was in the first half against KC, right? Greg Toler struggled through a groin injury, miserably, before leaving the game midway and landing on injured reserve. Vontae Davis experienced a major off night. We've seen this secondary go toe-to-toe at times with some great pass offenses including Peyton Manning, so we know their secondary can elevate its game.
Why New England would win:
1) Toler's injury likely forces Cassius Vaughn and Darius Butler into some difficult positions as Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Tom Brady and Co. tear them up. Not to mention top CB Davis is dealing with a groin injury of his own.
2) New England's defense line became an injury-riddled disaster but rebounded down the stretch with the help of defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, signed in October. If Siliga gives them three-fourths Wilfork, Chandler Jones plays to his potential every posession and Bill Belichick works some magic, New England might just survive the loss of downhill thumper Brandon Spikes.
3) The Patriots' running game has only grown stronger down the stretch as LeGarrette Blount builds on his late-season form, piling up nearly 200 yards in Week 17. Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen can get it done too.
The Call: Patriots 38, Colts 31 (NE favored by 7.5) Not a fan of giving more than a touchdown to Luck on the spread right now, though I'm also not betting against New England outright if Brady has the ball with under two minutes to go.
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
When: Jan. 12 at 1:05 p.m. ET
Why San Francisco would win:
1) Colin Kaepernick continues to look like a quarterback you can trust when Michael Crabtree is 100 percent, which became apparent last week. Crabtree topped his season average by nearly a hundo at Lambeau Field last week despite subarctic temperatures. The combo should build on that performance at 60 degrees in Charlotte.
2) Vernon Davis only made a major impact in the receiving game on one play during the wild card. Granted it was a crucial touchdown, but San Fran typically relies on their veteran tight end much more during the postseason. Look for them to find matchups with Luke Kuechly, who's had an excellent season but also struggled in coverage in 2013, grading out just 14th among inside linebackers by Pro Football Focus.
3) NaVorro Bowman may be the league's best weapon when it comes to spying a dual-threat quarterback. The inside linebacker not only complements Patrick Willis' abilities but also possesses the speed to help San Fran keep fleet-footed passers in check from nickel or straight 3-4.
Why Carolina would win:
1) Cam Newton keeps developing his knack for late-game clutch. This was mostly absent the last couple years, yet instrumental this season in late go-ahead drives against the New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots.
2) The Panthers could find success in matching up Thomas Davis with Vernon Davis in coverage, neutralizing one huge, fast physical freak with another.
3) A very real possibility: The Niners' ground game, the lifeblood of their offense three years running, follows up a week in which it struggled running into the toothless Packers D by getting shut down against Star Lotulelei and Co.
The Call: Niners 16, Panthers 13 (SF favored by 3) I think you beat the Niners by beating their corners downfield. Newton and his receivers have not done that consistently enough this season.
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
When: Jan. 12 at 4:40 p.m. ET
Why San Diego would win:
1) Ryan Mathews racked up 127 yards on 29 carries carries in the Chargers' 27-20 win at Denver, allowing San Diego to control the game in a way that massively benefited both their offense and defense. Coach Mike McCoy shows brilliance in his knack for neutralizing the Chargers' issues on paper by dictating the pace of the game and eating up first downs in the most painfully methodical ways. The Chargers owe their second-leading time of possession mark to McCoy, Philip Rivers and Mathews, even if they got by with Mathews leaving injured last week. More than that later.
2) Rivers boasts a career record of 10-2 in temperatures below 40 degrees, while Peyton Manning has gone 11-23. This includes Denver's Week 14 win hosting the Titans and a Week 15 loss against Rivers and the Chargers. Last week's win in Cincy adds to Rivers' total.
3) Outside linebacker Melvin Ingram could deliver on his first-round pedigree by giving backup LT Chris Clark fits. The Broncos left tackle has done a decent job in place of the injured Ryan Clady yet has been exploited at times this season. Ingram led San Diego in combined quarterback pressures, hits and hurries in the wild-card round and is playing his best football since returning from injury five games back.
Why Denver would win:
1) Manning celebrates shattering major regular-season passing records by shredding the Chargers defense here in the postseason. San Diego was graded the fourth-worst in pass coverage this year by Pro Football Focus. And unlike last time these teams met, Wes Welker will play.
2) The Broncos remind us that they went 6-0 without Von Miller and manage to get pressure on Rivers with some creative wrinkles that defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has saved up for the postseason. Rivers did well last week despite some poor protection on the edge, but that isn't comforting to deal with every week.
3) Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie shuts down Keenan Allen and Denver's seventh-ranked run defense stifles Mathews, hobbled and ineffective on a bad wheel. Allen disappeared during the first half against Cincy and San Diego churned out the clock at the end but, much like Week 15, Allen will need to be involved early for San Diego to have a shot.
The Call: Broncos 26, Chargers 24 (DEN favored by 9) Rivers is a gamer in poor weather, but the return of Welker just tips the scales.