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Pats vs. Vegas II (and Giants-Pack)

It was just about two months ago that I waxed theoretical about the Patriots, hypothesizing that their most serious opponent was, and would remain, Las Vegas. At the time of the piece, New England was 10-0 overall, with its average margin of victory standing at 25 points. Because sportsbooks had traditionally shied away from allowing NFL spreads to approach the 20s, and considering the Patriots were thoroughly nullifying that stratagem–winning games by more than three touchdowns–the Pats were an astonishing 9-1 ATS (against the spread). I talked about how big gamblers with big money were taking Vegas to the bank on the backs of the revengeful-Patriots. And were they ever. (Past tense.)

It was no coincidence that after that ridiculous 1-9 start versus the Patriots, Vegas began to compensate for its losses. Overcompensate, in fact. Beginning with the Eagles game (Pats by 24.5), Vegas started making the Patriots such titanic favorites it was almost as if the sportsbooks had dumped the expertise of Jekyll in favor of Hyde. The lines for New England’s remaining games went like this: -19 at Baltimore; -11 against Pittsburgh; -20.5 against the Jets; -22.5 against Miami; -13.5 at the Giants; -13.5 against Jacksonville. They covered exactly one of those games, the Steelers. That’s six of the last seven going to Vegas, courtesy of the Patriots becoming human. Or was it?

There are two principle explanations for how Vegas pulled the strings on a total one-eighty, turning a team that was a historic 9-1 ATS into a run-of-the-mill 10-7 overall. First are the whales I referenced before; those gamblers with huge egos and huger bankrolls. They absolutely and undeniably reamed Vegas over the first two months and change. When someone is lucky enough to do that, what ends up happening is they generally catch a waft of invincibility, which Vegas pounces on. Pounce they did by way of the aforementioned spreads. And all those gamblers who spent more than half of the 2007 season lounging on Cloud 9, sustained by the fury of the Patriots, came crashing back to earth. Why? Because a gambler is swayed by the guise of a “sure thing”. Vegas adapted to the reality that on the football field the Patriots were the closest to a sure thing that American sports had ever witnessed. They were able to adapt because of the Patriots’ perfection and the confidence it instilled in the bettors. So they started skyrocketing the spreads, and the gamblers, captivated by the excellence of the Pats, kept drinking the Kool-Aid. In other words, Vegas actually succeeded in exploiting the strength of its adversary.

The second explanation, which Vegas duly incorporated into its bloated spreads, was the Patriots’ perfection itself. Specifically, the fact that with each passing week another professional football organization had no other ambition than to go out and conjure up every ion of collective hubris in an end-all attempt to derail this mystical and improbable march towards football immortality. Over the last six games of the regular season and the first game of the playoffs, the Patriots played seven Super Bowls through the helmets of their opponents. The Steelers failed miserably. The Jets and Dolphins performed admirably. The Eagles and Giants were as awe-inspiring in defeat as a team could possibly be. The reverberations from “the miracles in Baltimore” are still being felt. And the Jaguars fought tooth and nail for three quarters. Anyone who expected the Patriots to be throttling teams through December and into January simply doesn’t know football. Which brings us to this weekend’s AFC Championship Game.

The Chargers are a good football team. In light of their latest win against the Colts it’s safe to say they would have probably won the Super Bowl last year if the Patriots hadn’t ended their season at Qualcomm Stadium (better yet, if Marty Schottenheimer and Marlon McCree hadn’t joined forces to end their season at Qualcomm). They stumbled out of the gates this year but rebounded and regained form. They are banged up, for sure, and a combination of immaturity and classlessness (see: Phillip Rivers jawing with Indy fans last week and Igor Olshansky’s dim-witted comments the other day) has become this team’s calling card. But they are talented.

LaDainian Tomlinson, who has been as much of a non-factor in his team’s two playoff wins as a superstar can be, will give the Patriots some problems running between the tackles. It’s his cutback ability that is deadly, however, which means Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas will need to stick to their assignments and wait for the chance to knock LT out of the game with a big blind-side hit when he attempts a cutback. In the passing game, while Antonio Gates will be limited because of a foot injury, the Chargers wideouts have stepped up as the games have become more important. Vincent Jackson has been superb and Chris Chambers always menaced the Patriots during his tenure with Miami; don’t think for a second he’s planning on changing his ways.

Anyone expecting a repeat of the Patriots 38-14, post-CameraGate whupping of the Chargers in Week 2 better start reevaluating sooner than later. Patriots-Chargers has become the second best rivalry in the league behind Pats-Colts, not only because of the bad blood that has lingered between the two teams since the beginning of the 2004 season, but also because San Diego has shown to be the only other team capable of beating Indy. They’ve come too far to roll over. With that said, the Chargers most significant strength lies in their ability to create turnovers. They were +24 this season, which was best in the NFL (followed, of course, by Indy at +18 and the Patriots at +16). Needless to say, the Patriots defy anyone to win the turnover battle with them in the playoffs, which will lead to the demise of the Chargers. But don’t be fixated on 17-0, because the Patriots surely aren’t. Don’t be fooled by the Vegas-manipulation of Patriot-gamblers. Understand that this will be a game. And if Phillip Rivers is unable to play, don’t think for a second that Billy Volek won’t come in guns-blazing and start firing away (the Patriots, lest we forget, have met formidable opponents in perennial backups, AJ Feeley and Kyle Boller).

As opposed to the playoff game last year, the Patriots will control this game behind the greatest quarterback to ever play the position. They might even go up by two touchdowns. But the Chargers won’t back down. Time and again they’ve made it clear in their over-the-top, overly-arrogant manner that they are not scared of the big, bad Pats. What they still haven’t gotten through their thick heads, though, is that fear aside, they are simply not as good of a football team as the Patriots.

Patriots 27 Chargers 20

NFC Championship

Very few thought the Giants, led by Eli Manning, would be one of the final four standing this season. Fewer even could have predicted that brother Peyton would be finished before Eli. So what now? Do the networks honor their contractual agreements with Mastercard and play the requisite loops of “Priceless Pep Talks with Peyton Manning”, during a Peyton-less championship Sunday? Is that funny? Fitting? Sad? A conflict of interest? Not really, not when revenue is the only matter of interest. For now we’ll call it a funny, fitting and sad conflict of embarrassment. Plus, who knows, maybe Eli is a Lambeau-gem away from stealing the bit from his big bro. And now, another priceless pep-talk with Eli Manning! “Priceless” as that may be, let’s not jump the gun.

Let’s stick to the truth, which is Eli will be playing in a championship game a full two years before his brother did. More relevant is the fact that, beginning with the Patriots game three weeks ago, the bumbling little brother has grown up, grown into a Manning. He has done it on the biggest and most primetime of stages: against the Patriots with nothing on the line but football pride, and then twice on the road in the playoffs, the second against his team’s oldest rival. Say what you will about him, but regardless of Peyton’s shocking loss last weekend, Eli has marched his way into the spotlight. He’s earned it. You can mark it down now, the future belongs to Eli Manning. However, as much fun as it is to look ahead, we are perpetually stuck in the present, whether fully aware of it or not. Only experience can thoroughly validate that notion. On Sunday afternoon at Lambeau, the present will belong to Brett Favre, because he knows the future is a precarious concept to harness.

There is no doubt that the Giants have been playing like they don’t just want a rematch with New England, but they are entitled to it. The defense has been outstanding, tossing aside the Buccaneers like rag dolls before bullying the Cowboys into submission once Eli gave them a lead in the second half. But a Sunday on the frozen tundra of Lambeau with a berth in the Super Bowl at stake, well that’s a different story. Early forecasts are calling for a temperature in the low single digits. It also snows pretty much everyday in Green Bay during the winter. Given that Eli has never played in temperatures colder than 24 degrees, and given that Brett Favre, well uh, has, it’s simply not possible to expect Eli to maintain his level of performance. Both teams will want and need to run the ball. Both defenses will be stingy and stout in the red zone. This is going to be an old-school type football game, fought in the trenches, and decided in the fourth quarter. Eli and the Giants have had a defining season that will undoubtedly springboard them to success for years to come. Sunday, however, is reserved for one of the game’s legends to shine one more time.

Packer 20 Giants 16

NFL Divisional Preview

It’s Divisional Weekend of the NFL Playoffs. Need we say more?

Seattle at Green Bay “We want the ball, and we’re gonna score,” claimed Matt Hasselbeck four years ago. In that wild card game the Seahawks won the coin flip in overtime, got the ball, and scored. Problem was, Hasselbeck threw a pick-6 to Al Harris and the Packers advanced without Brett Favre even taking the field in the sudden death period. Since that day Seattle has won three playoff games and appeared in a Super Bowl. The Packers, meanwhile, have lost two straight in January. That streak will come to an end on Saturday. Proponents of a Seattle upset argue that the youth of Green Bay will have trouble dealing with the “Lambeau mystique”. I disagree. As much as he would like to reflect on the moment in jest, there must be a part of Hasselbeck that is haunted by that January day in 2004. He challenged the aura of Green Bay and paid the price of elimination. Now, once again, the Seahawks hopes will ride on the shoulders of Hasselbeck. The Green Bay defense is young and physical, led by a star in the making, AJ Hawk. They will stuff Shaun Alexander and put the onus on Hasselbeck to beat them through the air against one of the best matchup-corner tandems in the league (Harris and Charles Woodson). If Green Bay can establish any running game with Ryan Grant and force the Seahawks to bring extra defenders into the box, this game could get ugly because Favre’s primary receivers (Donald Driver and Greg Jennings) will have one on one coverage on the outside. Seattle should be able to bring pressure with their front seven and keep the game close. If any of Green Bay’s young guys are going to experience some playoff jitters, I would suspect Grant. But that’s okay when Favre is your quarterback.

Packers 27 Seahawks 17

Jacksonville at New England Take a look around and what you will find in some form is how or why the Patriots are going to lose to the Jaguars Saturday night. Look in the Chicago Sun Times. Check out NFL.com. The Los Angeles Times. And of course, the torchbearer, Jeremy Green of ESPN.com. Picking the Jags took form as a trend. Like the inevitability associated with all trends, it’s now so overblown that it’s bordering on ludicrous. Thirty-eight percent of nearly 40,000 voters on ESPN.com are picking the Jaguars. Anyone remember roller blades or starter jackets? In fifteen years you’ll remember the 2007 Jaguars the same way. Faintly. Jacksonville is a tough, run-oriented team with a hard hitting defense, but their secondary cannot contend with the passing attack led by Tom Brady (it couldn’t even protect an 18-point lead against the Steelers). The Patriots have an aging linebacker core that has proven susceptible to the run, which is justifiably a reason for concern. The Jaguars two-headed rushing monster of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew will have some success. Anyone expecting more than that is severely underestimating Bill Belichick. Rodney Harrison will be continually stalking the line of scrimmage, ready to blow up runs. The Patriots defensive line is fixing to explode, with Richard Seymour at last healthy and poised to regain his dominant form. Jacksonville will need to score a minimum of four touchdowns to compete with the Patriots, and Belichick’s schemes will force three of those to come from a source other than a score on the ground from a Jags running back. Jacksonville will play with the Patriots for two quarters before getting run out of Foxborough in the second half.

Patriots 34 Jaguars 17

San Diego at Indianapolis By early Sunday afternoon the Colts will be preparing to face the Chargers. A win will put them back in the AFC title game; their nemesis will already be waiting for them, a little less than a thousand miles to the northeast. Don’t expect lack of focus to be a problem for the Colts though. Twice the Chargers and Colts have met in the last three years. Twice the Colts have lost. The first was the fourteenth game of the 2005 season. San Diego waltzed into the RCA Dome and polished the 13-0 Colts, 26-17. The second was two months ago on a Sunday night, when Peyton Manning threw a career-high six interceptions (and Adam Vinatieri missed a potential game-winning chip shot field goal). In that game he had only one regular target in his arsenal, Reggie Wayne. On Sunday he should have everyone, most notably Marvin Harrison. The speed of the Chargers linebacker core has been the impetus of the havoc wreaked on Manning the last two meetings. An early heavy dose of Joseph Addai should keep Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips honest. After that Manning will go to work against a spotty San Diego secondary. On the Chargers side, LaDainian Tomlinson stepped up at the biggest point in the game last week against Tennessee, converting a key third down and a scoring an important insurance touchdown late. On Sunday he’ll need something in the neighborhood of 150 total yards and three touchdowns to give his team a chance. One thing to note is that amid all the hoopla surrounding the Patriots this season, the Colts are still the defending champs. Not only will this be a payback game against a team that has gotten the better of them over the last few years, but it will also mark the beginning of Indy’s title defense.

Colts 31 Chargers 20

New York at Dallas This will be the game of the NFC playoffs. Two old school rivals who have battled for a half century but have never met in January. Two rich football traditions that hit hard times over the last decade only to rise again. The two brightest young quarterbacks in the league; one an undersized no-name from Eastern Illinois; the other a kid-brother following a lineage of pioneers at the position. They played their two annual divisional games this year and Dallas won a couple of Texas shootouts. So who will take round three? The team that turns the ball over the fewest times. If Tony Romo and Eli Manning share a common weakness, an Achilles heel if you will, it is their tendency to turn the ball over in bunches. Like most young and talented quarterbacks, Romo and Manning are streaky. Over his last three games Romo has thrown five interceptions to just one touchdown. Eli has tossed six touchdowns and only one pick the last two games, against the Patriots and Bucs. He has also finally started to show an ability to handle a pass rush. So too has Romo, who at times has excelled when flushed from the pocket and been forced to make plays on the move. I expect both quarterbacks to play well, which means this game will end up swinging on the play of the defensive lines. Which pass rush will have the drive and stamina to go all-out for sixty minutes? Which unit will force a season-altering turnover in the fourth quarter to shift the momentum with a berth in a championship on the line? The logical choice is picking the team that’s 2-0 and not 0-2 head to head this season. The safe choice is going with the number one seed at home. Sometimes, however, the smart choice is sticking with the team that’s hot, the quarterback that’s hot. Michael Strahan will come up huge in the fourth quarter and Eli Manning will silence Texas Stadium.

Giants 34 Cowboys 31

NFL Wild Card Preview (plus picks)

Happy New Year. You know what that means. The NFL Playoffs are upon us. The first four of 11 games are set to kick off this weekend, and should mark the beginning of a January for the books. After playing wild card weekend last year, both the Patriots and Colts have reclaimed first round byes and restored balance in the AFC. The pigskin universe awaits another imminent rematch between the arch rivals in the AFC Championship, which will be their fourth playoff joust in the last five years. The NFC has turned back the clock even further. The Cowboys and Packers are the top two seeds again. Combined, the teams went more than two decades without a bye.

It must be noted that if there were ever a downside to the start of postseason football, it’s this year. And it has nothing to do with the game of football. I’m talking about 24. Jack Bauer. The post-playoff power hours. Because of the writers’ strike in Hollywood, 24 was forced to scrap production less than halfway through the season. For the first time in three years there will be no two-hour season premier of 24 coming directly on the heels of a Sunday playoff double header. No Bauer kill counts. No PDA-communiques between Jack and Chloe. No unexpected Tony Almeida returns (if he’s even still alive). What a pity. For the time being we’ll just have to monitor the illicit activity of Jack’s alter ego, Kiefer Sutherland.

(One quick tangent while we’re here. FOX has clearly tried to dupe us all into thinking they still have a killer winter lineup, in spite of the writers’ work stoppage. In lieu of the annual conspicuous 24 plugs and previews–which usually start around Thanksgiving–FOX has substituted Prison Break. I swear, I watched the first season of that show like three years ago and they were one night away from breaking out of prison. It couldn’t even hold my interest then. Now we’re supposed to believe that the fifth half of the first season of Prison Break is really going to quench that singular Jack-thirst? Come on. I’m just waiting for someone with more Hollywood knowledge to expand on the potential consequences of this atrocity. I’ll nominate the Sports Guy. Considering that his wife–in addition to weaning his infant son–is now the proprietor of his weekly NFL picks column, it’s time he gives ESPN a reason not to rename his site, the “Sports Gal’s World”.)

Onto the games this weekend.

Washington at Seattle I won’t deny that two weeks ago I didn’t even see the Redskins making the playoffs. Now they’re riding a surreal wave of momentum (four consecutive wins against the Bears, Giants, Vikings and Cowboys to close out the season) and are certainly not fazed by going into Seattle for a playoff game. Todd Collins (yes the same Todd Collins who hasn’t been heard from since the late ’90s) has been the catalyst (5 TD/0 INT/106.4 rating) of Washington’s run and will have to remain as he has been over the last month: flawless. He’ll also have to lead a team that has been playing emotion-driven football into the toughest road environment for an opposing team, Qwest Field. Given everything that’s transpired with the Skins this year and the stadium they’ll have to conquer in order to advance, I can’t see it happening. The Redskins will make a few vital mental mistakes, mistakes that a playoff hardened quarterback like Matt Hasselbeck will capitalize on.

Seahawks 23 Redskins 17

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh The Jaguars have become the super-trendy pick to not just win a playoff game, not just go into New England in round two and knock off the 16-0 Patriots, but possibly duplicate the 2005 Steelers by winning three road games en route to Super Bowl XLII. Hyping a good, not great team rarely pays off. This is the game I am most torn on, only because of Pittsburgh’s myriad injuries. No Willie Parker. No Max Starks. No Aaron Smith. That’s a Pro Bowl running back and his right tackle as well as the Steelers’ rock on the defensive line, if you’re scoring at home. The Steelers also haven’t looked the same since going up to Foxborough and getting stomped by the Patriots in early December. Since that game they’ve lost two of three, including one against Jacksonville at Heinz Field. What has been forgotten from that game, largely in part because the Jags racked up 224 yards on the ground, is that the Steelers were also able to run the ball (111 yards on only 17 attempts) and that Jacksonville too is without their playmaker up front (Marcus Stroud). Pittsburgh will be able to run the ball with Najeh Davenport. I believe this rematch is going to come down to quarterback play. David Garrard has shown himself to be the ultimate game-manager but Ben Roethlisberger has won a Super Bowl.

Steelers 30 Jaguars 27

New York at Tampa Bay Two teams that entered the final week of the season with nothing to play for. The Bucs used the time to rest key players while the Giants went for broke in a valiant attempt to derail a perfect season. Now the G-Men are a little banged up and the Bucs are healthy. Don’t be deceived though. The Giants are entering this game on an extreme high, a high that is probably unmatched in history by a team having lost its previous game. Tampa, on the other hand, has not looked good of late, losers of three of their last four. So much of the Giants success relies on confidence, specifically the confidence of quarterback Eli Manning. Eli played out of his mind against the Patriots last weekend, tossing four touchdowns and almost leading an upset of the greatest (regular season) team of all time. The Giants defense also feeds off the state of mind of the unpredictable-Manning. They are a tenacious and skilled group, but tend to lose focus when Eli is tossing ducks to the opposing defense and putting them in tough spots. The Giants are a week removed from the first-ever moral victory in the NFL. The odd feeling stemming from that battle left them ultimately unsatisfied, but also hungry for their first playoff win under Tom Coughlin.

Giants 23 Buccaneers 14

Tennessee at San Diego The only game that was in question for the Chargers in their current-six game winning streak was at Tennessee a month ago. The Titans had the Bolts on the ropes, leading 17-3 in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t seal the deal. LaDainian Tomlinson capped off the comeback with a 16-yard touchdown run midway through overtime to lead San Diego to a 23-17 win. To add insult to injury (actually the other way around), Vince Young strained a quad in the Titans’ season finale last week against the Colts. Now there’s a quarterback controversy in Tennessee. Kerry Collins is a better fit for attacking the Chargers defense through the air. Young is obviously the better option on the ground. It won’t really matter. LT has finally been running with the sense of fury and purpose I expected from Week 1. His play of late (602 rushing yards and six touchdowns over the last five games) has proven he’s still stewing over what went down in his house against the Patriots last year. He’s still the best player in the league, and come Sunday evening you’ll know why.

Chargers 34 Titans 20

Here are the rest of my playoff picks.

NFC Divisional Round

Packers over Seahawks

Cowboys over Giants

AFC Divisional Round

Patriots over Steelers

Colts over Chargers

NFC Championship

Packers over Cowboys

AFC Championship

Patriots over Colts

Super Bowl XLII

Patriots over Packers