I went a perfect 4-0 over the wild card weekend picking straight-up winners, and 3-1 against the spread. Someone in Las Vegas apparently knew that Joe Webb was a poor quarterback and was likely to tank the game for Minnesota, hence my bungling of the initial 9-point spread (updated to 7 later in the week) favoring the Green Bay Packers. Who would’ve thunk it that the Packers would cover after losing in a shootout to the Vikings a week prior?
The funny thing is we’ve got two more ridiculous spreads for the divisional matchups, but I actually think at least one of the teams should cover. The Patriots are 10-point favorites over the Houston Texans. No one seems to have forgotten the Patriots’ 42-14 drubbing over the Texans on Monday Night Football in Week 14. The Texans certainly haven’t forgotten. And then the Broncos are 10-point favorites over the Ravens. Which brings me to my first upset pick.
Ravens (+10) at Broncos (-10) — The Ravens’ ground game is special because Ray Rice is phenomenal between the tackles. But now add Bernard Pierce (103 yards last Sunday) to the mix and you’ve got two talented runners who are good inside and outside that the Broncos have to be wary of Saturday. The Broncos are on an 11-game winning streak thanks to the mastery of Peyton Manning and one of the league’s best defenses (No. 2 overall). But I’m hardly impressed with their body of work. Since they lost to the Patriots, the Broncos have beaten up on some poor teams. But one of their quality wins did come against the Ravens in Week 15. It was one of those typical bad Joe Flacco games (20 of 40 passing overall and an interception returned for a touchdown along with a fumble in the first half). I know this may seem like a stretch of the imagination, but I think Flacco will have a much better game this week and that will go a long way for a Ravens team that will have to emphasize the run. I’m taking the upset and I’m definitely taking the Ravens with the spread. The Ravens just seem more equipped to handle Manning and the threat that the Broncos provide.
Straight up winner: Ravens
By the line: Ravens
Packers (+3) at 49ers (-3) — These two teams played so long ago and have changed so much, I think it’s safe to say they’ll each throw out that Week 1 game film in which the 49ers pulled out a 30-22 win. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, on the bench in that Week 1 win, brings an entirely different dynamic to the 49ers offense. The second-year quarterback out of the University of Nevada is much more confident throwing the ball downfield than Alex Smith, the veteran backup, and he complements the team’s No. 4 rushing offense well with his ability to run the option and scramble when plays break down. The Packers haven’t seen a quarterback like that — matched with a defense of the 49ers’ caliber — since the team’s infamous Week 3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the “Fail Mary.” But the 49ers have been shaky in the past month, rising to the occasion against the Patriots and then falling hard the next week against the Seahawks. They’re lucky to be the No. 2 seed in the NFC. The Packers will certainly put the game on Aaron Rodgers’ shoulders. If 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith (triceps) is even at 75 percent capacity for the game, Rodgers is certain to have a much tougher night. And as of this writing, Smith looks like he’s going to play. This will be the game of the week.
Straight up winner: 49ers
By the line: 49ers
Seahawks (+3) at Falcons (-3) — If Seattle’s defense has a better start than it did against the Washington Redskins in the wild card, this could be a cake walk. I’m definitely high on the Seahawks right now and looking at the matchup with the Falcons makes me even more confident in the pick. The Falcons are the No. 24 defense in the league, going up against a team that has consistently been able to run the ball well with Marshawn Lynch (132 yards, 1 TD against the Redskins) and has able to shut down the best receivers in the game. Seattle cornerbacks Richard Sherman (8 interceptions, 24 passes defensed) and Brandon Browner will have to put their best effort forward against receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White. And it’ll take a team effort to account for tight end Tony Gonzalez. Each are among the best in the business at their respective positions. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (4,719 yards, 32 touchdowns, 99.1 quarterback rating) is playing out of this world right now. But the last time he saw a top-5 defense like the Seahawks’ (No. 4 overall) was in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos. I don’t think Atlanta is ready.
Straight up winner: Seahawks
By the line: Seahawks
Texans (+10) at Patriots (-10) — It’s not hard to be so down on the Houston Texans after watching their 19-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild card. One might argue that the Bengals lost, rather than the Texans won in an ugly, ugly game. Matt Schaub, who had his best outing in a month against Cincy, comes back to Gillette Stadium, where he was basically rendered useless. The Patriots took away the dump-off passes over the middle of the field that he likes to tight ends Owen Daniels and James Casey. The Texans ended up 4 of 14 on third down and fell into an early hole before losing all fight in them. The Patriots won 42-14. Schaub will have tight end Garrett Graham back to target this time around. But if Houston focuses on running the ball with Arian Foster (they’re 8-0 when he has 100 or more yards) they have a shot to keep it close. But they have to keep up with Tom Brady and the No. 1 offense in the NFL. A hot start by the Patriots will all but doom the Texans. And after watching the film of the Texans defense — the number of miscues against the Patriots was plentiful — they’ll need to play much better to keep this close. It doesn’t help Houston’s cause that Rob Gronkowski is back, Rob Ninkovich appears to have benefited from the bye week as he nurses an injury, and Aqib Talib has been able to rest for at least three weeks. Houston may be seeking revenge, but the stars are aligned for the Patriots.
Straight up winner: Patriots
By the line: Patriots
Last week: 4-0 (3-1 by the line)
Postseason: 4-0 (3-1 by the line)