· Some may wonder whether I stand firmly behind my picks when I make them, especially on a weekend when I go 1-3 (Thank you, Tom Brady… the NFL thanks you too—more on that later). Well, let me put it this way: I never regret my picks. One of the reasons I love the NFL is that the games are not played on paper, and there are so many unforeseeable intangibles, that the games always hold some kind of excitement due to the many scenarios that can unfold. That’s why a team that looks as unbeatable as the Pats do right now can get beaten by a team like the Arizona Cardinals. Or, to put my faith in my picks another way, I missed out on a $137.00 parlay because the Packers failed to cover against the 49ers (that’s right, I live in Canada, haven of legal sports betting).
· Elvis Dumerville and Von Miller: Where were you guys? You came up really small in a really big game where one big play on defence could have made the difference.
· I was a little surprised when the Broncos decided to play it conservatively at the end of the 1st half and not attempt to score, but when they got the ball back at the end of the 4th with 2 timeouts left and a chance to win the game, and I was excited to see some Manning magic, I was speechless when they chose to kneel and go to OT.
· I couldn’t help wondering, as I watched Manning throw the ball without much zip, whether he regretted choosing a cold-weather team like Denver. One of the hallmarks of his successful Indianapolis teams was that, due to them playing in the AFC South, and having their home games in a dome, they never had to play many cold-weather games. That was before Manning’s neck surgeries. In Indy, home field advantage was a big deal, as it kept Manning from playing road games in ungodly-cold places like Foxborough and Heinz Field. In Denver, home field turned out to be a disadvantage.
· That tableau during the coin toss: talk about a picture being worth a thousand words. There’s Manning, head down, looking absolutely miserable, while Ray Lewis, head held high, is muttering what I can only guess is some sort of prayer. I was ready to call the game for the Ravens right there.
· Aaron Rodgers played a good game, not great, but good enough to win, against a really tough defence. As I was watching him try to buy time and find open receivers, this was my overriding thought: Tom Brady has Aaron Hernandez (and occasionally, Rob Gronkowski); Matt Ryan has Tony Gonzalez; Colin Kaepernick has Vernon Davis; Joe Flacco has Dennis Pitta; Tony Romo has Jason Whitten; Drew Brees has Jimmy Graham, and; Phillip Rivers has Antonio Gates. Aaron Rodgers, the best QB in the NFL, is stuck with an under-achieving, butterfingered whiner like Jermichael Finley. I hope the Pack upgrades the TE position in the offseason.
· I thought that Green Bay’s defence seemed woefully unprepared for the eventuality that Kaepernick might run the ball effectively, which is one of the upgrades in the ‘niners’ offence since the switch from Alex Smith at QB. Then I read that, according to Charles Woodson, who I had expected to have a huge role in limiting Kaepernick’s effectiveness, the Packers’ defence weren’t prepared to stop the San Fran QB’s running. Stunning.
· Between Woodson’s assessment of his own team’s lack of preparedness, and the Broncos’ inability to stop the brilliant Baltimore offensive strategy of “let Joe Flacco drop back and throw the ball as far as he can,” I’d have fired both Green Bay’s and Denver’s Defensive Coordinators .
· Say what you want about the Seahawks-Falcons game, but the real disappointment for me was in the fact that Pete Carroll and his coaching staff cost his team a victory they earned through superior effort. First, Seattle got put in a hole due to some highly questionable play-calling on a couple of red zone trips in the 1st half. Then, there’s Carroll’s abject failure to understand basic psychology at the end of the 4th. OK, so let me get this straight: You're playing against a team that has a history of choking in the playoffs. You've just come back from being down 20 points, twice, to take a 1 point lead with 31 seconds left in the game. You've watched as your opponent has failed to be able to move the ball when it counts after being able to move it well during most of the game, while their defence all of a sudden can't stop you. Your opponent, the one with a history of choking, playing in front of a stadium full of nervous fans who have watched them choke again and again in big games, is choking again in a big game. You have now forced this team into a situation where they have to try a last-ditch, win-or-lose, 49-yard field goal. As a coach, you think that the best strategy is to give the obviously nervous opposing kicker a practice kick? Mind-boggling.
· I love seeing LB Rob Ninkovich, special-teams player made good, playing such a key role for the Pats. He’s one of those “big plays when it counts” type of players that led the Pats to three Super Bowl wins in four years, like Mike Vrabel. When I heard it mentioned during last week’s telecast that Ninkovich used to play TE, I couldn’t help envisioning him catching a TD pass in the Super Bowl.
· Speaking of the Super Bowl, on a weekend where the playoffs lost both Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning, the NFL must be relieved that Tom Brady is still around. A Patriots-49ers Super Bowl is probably the game the league is hoping for right now.
· Aqib Talib: another Belichick windfall. He’s an extremely talented player, big, athletic, and physical enough to cover any team’s best receiver. Talib loves playing for the Pats; being around so many quality, character players, and in an environment where winning is an attitude, he probably feels like he’s been rescued from himself.
· Lots of Pats fans mourning the loss of Gronkowski for the rest of the playoffs. I say it’s a blessing. It’s time for the Pats to seriously think about moving on, without Gronkowski. Healthy, he’s the best TE in football. However, he’s the porcelain TE, like fine China; valuable, breaks too easily, and once broken, is useless. Or, as my wife, a huge Pats fan (who can’t stand Gronkowski because of his fragility) says, “He’s like that person you work with who’s sick all the time, so everyone else ends up picking up the slack.”
· No tears for Pats fans, please. Brady still has Welker, Hernandez, Woodhead, Ridley, Vereen, Branch, and Lloyd. They’ll be better than fine.
· And speaking of Brandon Lloyd, I am sick of hearing about what a disappointment he’s been this season. Anyone who thinks that either doesn’t watch the games (I do), relies too much on statistics (I don’t), or listens to too many talking heads on TV or too much talk radio (please). All season, Lloyd has been there, working hard, making highlight-reel sideline catches, and being a team player. He’s always a threat to beat you deep, which allows Brady more leeway to work the ball underneath, sideline, cross, seam, etc., plus Lloyd helps open up more space for the Pats’ resurgent running game. Tell me this, Pats fans: would you rather have a guy who whines because he doesn’t get the ball enough (there are lots of those in the league)?
· More Lloyd: What exactly was the deal with that flag for tossing the ball to the official too hard? No more playoff games for you, zebra. You’re much too sensitive.
Before I get to my picks, I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to call out, yet again, my favourite target, Peter King of Sports Illustrated. King has always curried favour with the league and its players. He has also devolved into a bully who takes potshots at the weak while ignoring his cronies and buddies. Case in point: In his December 31st MMQB, when discussing Vikings coach Leslie Frazier’s approach to Adrian Peterson’s pursuit of the single-season rushing record, King took a shot at basketball player Nykesha Sales, referencing her as an example of a record that was achieved under dubious circumstances. He did this in a week where more than one NFL defender had a legitimate chance of breaking the single-season sack record, which was achieved when King favourite Brett Favre took a dive to allow Michael Strahan to get the record-breaking sack.
Well, how’s that for an intro? Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s get down to business.
49ers at Falcons
First, I have to talk about the very recent controversy surrounding top 49ers’ receiver Michael Crabtree, who was questioned by San Francisco’s Special Victims’ Unit regarding an allegation of sexual assault last week. According to reports, Crabtree is with his team in Atlanta, and, having not been charged, faces no sanction by the league. I did come across this quote, by ‘niners’ Safety Donte Whitner, which piqued my interest:
(Coach Harbaugh) said that we can do anything in the world and we can come and talk to him and he’ll forgive us except put our hands on women. If you put your hand on a woman then you’re done in his book. So other than putting your hands on women, you can do anything and come talk to him, and it’s true. Open-door policy. Everybody around here really likes him and we want to win for him and for ourselves.
So, here I am, ready to pick the 49ers, by a comfortable margin, and this happens. Is it a big deal? I honestly don’t know. Harbaugh wants to win. Crabtree is a huge part of what the 49ers want to do on offence. Does he play? How much? What’s his mentality going into the game? How do his teammates look at him? So many questions.
The Falcons are a different team on offence this season. WR Julio Jones has made a huge impact. Jones, playing opposite the immensely talented Roddy White, with ageless wonder Tony Gonzalez at TE, has made this Falcons offence much more dangerous than in past seasons. The 49ers counter with a well-balanced defence, capable of rushing the passer, with the LB depth to prevent huge running plays, and talented and hard-hitting Safeties to shore up both the run and pass defence. That’s a great matchup. I anticipated the 49ers utilizing TE Vernon Davis to great effect; he has been an afterthought on offence since Kaepernick took over at QB, and Davis’s athleticism will be a strength against the Falcons. Without a doubt, Atlanta will be prepared for Kaepernick’s running. The Falcons also have some dangerous ball-hawks in the secondary. This game has the potential to be much closer than I had initially anticipated. The effect of each of the teams’ previous games is a wash, psychologically. The Falcons won a highly emotional game against the Seahawks, pulling out the game in dramatic fashion, and supplying Matt Ryan, and amazingly Tony Gonzalez, with their first-ever playoff victory. The expected letdown from such a game is equaled in effect by the ease with which the 49ers dispatched the Packers, because easy wins have a tendency to soften a team’s resolve. In cases such as both of these teams face, focus is the key to recovery. The Falcons are on a mission, seeking respect, underdogs at home. The 49ers have had this unexpected distraction introduced into their preparations. I can’t believe I’m doing this, but, with so many unanswered questions, I have to go with my gut. Winner: Falcons
Ravens at Patriots
No surprises here, thank goodness. I promise you, the Pats are relieved that Gronkowski is a non-factor; he was in the lineup last week, got hurt, and the offence barely missed a beat. This week, the Pats can gameplan without thinking about Gronkowski at all. And believe me, they are not short of options for Tom Brady. The Ravens will key on Wes Welker, and rightfully so, but he’s impossible to cover with one player; he requires help when he runs those short, sharp routes. So, either the Ravens do what it takes to stop Welker, and they allow Brady free reign to hit one of his myriad other options, or they let Welker kill them slowly. The Ravens will play hard on defence, inspired by their leader Ray Lewis, but they just don’t have the personnel to stop the many-headed Patriots attack. On offence, the Ravens have Ray Rice, and that’s significant. The Pats will bottle Rice up, keep him from getting big gains. Meanwhile, the New England secondary, much more flexible since the acquisition of Aqib Talib, will work to prevent the types of big gains in the passing game that doomed the Broncos last week. On both sides of the ball, this is not a good matchup for Baltimore. Winner: Patriots