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Posts from the ‘Strictly Ballgame’ Category

Oops, he did it again

Of course Paul Pierce was going to take his time.

That stubborn deliberateness with which he’s able to get to his spot at his pace has always been his calling card; his contribution to the uniqueness of greatness. Pierce’s basketball CV reads like a case study of dichotomies: neither fast nor fast looking, yet spry enough to have routinely meandered past 2s and 3s alike for the better part of 17 years; neither hulking nor brawny, yet strong enough to have gone head to head with every iteration of LeBron over the last decade-plus; neither quiet nor humble, yet badass enough to call his shot and cold-blooded enough to make it time and again.

And as we now know, longevity is also one of his virtues. Pierce has been herking and jerking and pivoting and daggering his way through the NBA since the Clinton administration, which was around the same time he was bestowed with a nickname that would prove both prescient and lasting.

He hung 46 on Iverson’s 76ers in a winner-take-all Game 5 in his first playoff series. He scored 19 as part of a 21-point fourth-quarter comeback in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Nets that same spring of 2002. He squared up Kobe in his prime and tore from his grasp the final piece of hardware Bryant coveted after three title runs alongside MVP Shaq. He’s going to go down as LeBron’s most intense and only true rival.

And now, a full seven years after he captured his first and only championship and 13 years since he officially made Boston start believing it had found its next Pantheon Celtic, he splashed together arguably his masterpiece. It’s appropriate that his regular-season disappearance and subsequent sleight of hand into and through the playoffs came for a team deemed the Wizards, as his act had all the elements of a superb magic trick: it simultaneously wowed us, defied sensibility and left us wanting more.

Long before he called “Game!” and “Series!” in these playoffs, he sat down with a trusted reporter and put the entire East on notice via the type of knifing soliloquy usually reserved for postscripts and memoirs. He said the Raptors didn’t have “the ‘It’ that makes you worried” and the Hawks lacked the “aura” necessary to instill fear in opponents. He spoke in no uncertain terms about how LeBron’s career arc would have been different if the two had been at their respective apexes concurrently.

It was a striking and scathing preamble that had Pierce loyalists quietly smirking while casual fans hastily tapped at their smartphones to verify that the guy was even still in the league. And then at the creaking age of 37, he grabbed the mic and delivered his address over the course of a 10-game playoff run that can aptly be summarized as American Sniper on hardwood: His performance was riveting, divisive and he made certain to answer for every shot he took.

As for the shots themselves, were they ever plentiful. First came the Raptors, against whom he reprised his role as mercenary boogeyman of the north, rendering “Jurassic Park” extinct for the second straight year in a second set of threads.

Next up were the Hawks, a team Pierce once used as a perennial stepping stone to loftier goals and, most recently, one that would help him stamp his legacy as an all-time playoff assassin while staking his claim as the Vine king du jour. His buzzer-beating bank shot won Game 3, rescued the Wizards from a monumental fourth-quarter collapse and gave him celebrity status across the social-mediaverse. Then came his go-ahead three-pointer in the waning seconds of Game 5 – along with that subsequent premature salvo to the Atlanta bench – a parlay of vintage Pierce dramatics that was promptly reduced to a footnote because no Washington player could corral a game-sealing rebound.

Which brings us to Game 6, Pierce’s worst of the postseason by any measure. He had missed six of his seven field goal attempts, including a wide-open three with two minutes remaining that could have stretched Washington’s lead to four points. His shots had hit the front of the rim on multiple occasions, a tell-tale sign of heavy legs. For the first time, it looked like the 1,408 games on his NBA odometer were finally taking their toll. Yet when the Wizards improbably found themselves with a last-gasp chance to tie the game with six seconds left after a Hawks turnover and a missed free throw, everyone and their mothers inside the Verizon Center knew who would be getting the basketball.

The play was slow developing from the outset. By the time Pierce got the ball coming off a delayed screen, there was only 1.7 seconds left. Despite initially being flanked by Hawks on either side of him, he managed to slither into the corner and bury a fading game-tying trey off one leg. His internal clock is as finely tuned as there is – and to hell with anyone who has ever thwarted him from getting a good look before the buzzer – but replays revealed that the horn sounded about five one-hundreths of a second before the ball left his hand.

Was that his final shot? Did that odometer finally get the best of him? Perhaps. What was clear is he had emptied the chamber, both physically and mentally, maybe more so than any 10-game sample of his career. He admitted as much during a postgame interview in which he hinted at retirement. If it was indeed his outro, it will go down as a fitting encapsulation of “the Truth.” Dazzling. Clutch. And naturally he took his time.

NFL Championship Weekend breakdown

For divisional weekend, we broke down the games from a gambling perspective, looking at line movements, betting trends, public sentiment and historical precedents as they pertained to the four contests. Left unanswered were the all-important questions of whom would come out on top between the betting public and bookmakers, and how much bearing the actual results of the games – as opposed to the point spreads – would have on the direction of the cash flow.

In short, it wasn’t a good weekend for the gamblers and that’s putting it lightly. Gut-punch is a more apt term for what the public endured up and down the Las Vegas Strip and offshore. First came Broncos-Ravens, a double-overtime epic that turned into the upset of the playoffs, not to mention the longest game in a quarter-century. Although the public was significantly heavier on the Denver side of the 10-point spread, the Broncos money line was the most prevalent bet because of its natural fit in parlays. Since Denver was considered as close to a sure-thing as there was and it was the first game of the weekend, the money line was omnipresent in parlays.

In a dizzying back-and-forth thriller, just when it seemed liked the Broncos (and gamblers) were going to escape by the skin of their teeth, a slow death came for all involved. It began with Joe Flacco’s game-tying bomb to Jacoby Jones with 30 seconds left, which sucked the thin air right out of the Mile High crowd. Then came Denver’s decision to eschew a potential winning drive on the ensuing possession and its puzzling conservative approach to begin overtime, followed by Flacco’s cold-blooded third-down throw from his own end zone later in the first OT to flip field position, and finally Peyton Manning’s decisive interception near the end of the period.

Just like that, the bettors were in the hole and the bookmakers were licking their chops. It only got worse from there, as the weekend’s most public team and heavily bet money-line underdog, Green Bay, proceeded to tantalize the gamblers by returning a Colin Kaepernick interception for a touchdown on the game’s first series and take a 14-7 lead over San Francisco before being run straight into the Bay by Kaepernick. If anyone had money in their pocket by Saturday night, it certainly hadn’t been passed to them through a betting window.

Suffice to say, of the above-stated “all-important” questions, the first was answered unequivocally once the 49ers went up by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Indeed, the sports books would have been hard-pressed to finish the weekend in the red after that double-dose of devastation administered to the public. As for the second question about the direction of cash flow between bettors and the books, there are frequently scenarios in which there is no correlation between the outright winner of a game and the team that covers the spread. This happens mostly with favored teams, as recreational gamblers traditionally bet money lines because they feel more comfortable picking a winner as opposed to competing against the bookmakers. For example, if Team A is favored by six points over Team B, the public will usually play it safe and take the Team A money line. So if Team A wins by four points, although Team B will have beaten the spread, the public still wins.

If that sounds rudimentary, that’s because it is. I only spelled it out because the early Sunday game between the Falcons and Seahawks somehow found a new way to stick it to the gamblers. Because the line closed at Atlanta -2.5, the recreational bettors basically made one of two bets in an effort to recoup their losses from the Saturday bloodbath.

There were those who liked the hot team, Seattle, and therefore wagered on the Hawks money line. Then there were those who believed the Falcons were due to reverse their playoff fortunes and thus bet Atlanta. However, because of the 2.5-point line, the difference between betting the money line and point spread was negligible. It’s rare that a team’s margin of victory is fewer than three points, so to bet the Falcons money line was to sacrifice value in the name of insuring against the slim probability of a one- or two-point final margin. Of course, everyone knows what happened. The Falcons jumped out to a 20-0 lead and all the bettors on that side were already looking ahead to the Patriots-Texans game. Then Seattle roared back and went up 28-27 with 30 seconds left, seemingly giving those who took the Seahawks money line a most improbable hit. But a lightning-quick drive and field goal by the Falcons gave way to a 30-28 final score. Yup, whether you had the Falcons -2.5 or the Seahawks money line, you lost. Cue the gut punch.

If there was a silver lining to an otherwise nightmare weekend for the recreational bettors, it’s that the Patriots rather comfortably covered a 9.5-point spread and nearly hit the over on their own en route to a 41-28 domination of the Texans. That set up a final four that is nearly identical to that of a year ago, save for one omission (see: Giants fans nodding their heads sadly).

NFC Championship Game: 49ers (12-4-1) at Falcons (14-3)

So here we go, the Niners looking to avenge their home loss to the Giants in last year’s NFC title game by going on the road and taking down the top-seeded and having-just-now-finished-exhaling Falcons with a Super Bowl berth on the line. It’s not a surprise that the public – with its notoriously short memory – jumped headfirst onto the San Francisco bandwagon (or dove headfirst off the Atlanta bandwagon, depending on how you look at it). This was evidenced in the line opening at San Francisco -3 before getting bet up to 3.5 almost immediately and ultimately settling at San Francisco -4.

It’s clear nobody is giving the Falcons a chance in this game. Is that due to everyone overreacting to last week? Or are the Niners just that much better of a team than Atlanta? What if I were to say both the general overreaction and notion of San Francisco being the superior team were equally founded?

Let’s look at the Falcons. They drew a Seattle team playing a 10 a.m. game according to their body clocks on the heels of a second cross-country trip in a week. The Seahawks started predictably slow. Or did they? What was lost in the 20-0 deficit Seattle faced at halftime were the points they left on the board. After going three-and-out on their first drive and advancing 28 yards before losing a fumble on their second, the Seahawks proceeded to submit a six-play, 38-yard drive that resulted in a punt, a six-play, 58-yard march that ended on downs at the Atlanta 11-yard line, and a 13-play, 60-yard drive that again stalled at the Atlanta 11-yard line because Seattle had no timeouts left and the half expired. That says a lot about the lethargy the Seahawks were experiencing to begin the game. It says even more about the Atlanta defense given that Seattle’s second-half drives went thusly:

Nine plays, 80 yards, touchdown
Eight plays, 80 yards, touchdown
Four plays, 62 yards, touchdown
Five plays, 10 yards, punt
Seven plays, 61 yards, touchdown

Seattle may have scored all 28 of their points in the second half, but they had their way with the Atlanta defense in the first half as well. The scoreboard just didn’t reflect it. All told, the Seahawks amassed 491 total yards against the Falcons D, with Russell Wilson accounting for 445 of them (385 passing, 60 rushing). Wilson is a mobile quarterback who can also throw the ball very well. Who does that remind you of? Kaepernick, of course! Yes, but we’re not quite there yet. There’s in fact another quarterback built in the same mold as Wilson who happened to play the Falcons twice in the regular season.

Cam Newton, suddenly the sophomore-turned-elder-statesman of the mobile-thrower class thanks to the accelerated youth revolution initiated by Wilson, Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III, fared a little more than OK in Carolina’s two matchups with the Falcons this year. In the first, a 30-28 Carolina loss in Week 4, Newton threw for 215 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 86 more and a score with no turnovers. He was even better in a 30-20 win in Week 14, totaling 287 yards passing and two touchdowns, 116 yards rushing with a touchdown and zero turnovers. For those scoring at home, in three games against the two quarterbacks most comparable to Kaepernick (the Falcons also played Washington but Griffin III exited with a concussion), Atlanta surrendered an average of 383 total yards – with a 295/87 passing/rushing split – and three touchdowns to said signal-callers.

As for Kaepernick (or any quarterback whose primary perceived Achilles heel is his relative youth), there were two red flags that arose when assessing his big-picture potential: How would he respond on the road and how would he respond to adversity? On the first count, he established his chops by winning in New Orleans in his first road start, no small feat. He then stamped his street cred by besting Tom Brady and the Patriots in Foxborough in December, something anyone who has followed the Patriots for the last decade knows simply does not happen. As for overcoming adversity, throwing a pick-six on your first playoff drive and then proceeding to utterly annihilate a team many had pegged for a Super Bowl run qualifies.

The verdict: Atlanta has developed a knack for pulling out close games at home it has no business winning. That’s a virtue, but it’s also an indictment of the Falcons’ competition for not putting them away. Kaepernick and the Niners won’t fall into such a trap.

49ers 34
Falcons 23

AFC Championship Game: Ravens (12-6) at Patriots (13-4)

Let’s get something straight right away: The Ravens don’t think they’re better than the Patriots, they know they are. History, metrics and overall success obviously tell a different story, but that’s irrelevant. Baltimore is unfazed by the mystique of New England, which is why this rivalry is unquestionably the AFC’s best and has been for some time.

The root of it all was planted on a Monday night in 2007, when the 11-0 Patriots went into M&T Bank Stadium as 18.5-point favorites (not a typo) over the 4-7 Ravens. Baltimore punched the Pats in the mouth from the opening bell and didn’t relent, with the game’s outcome altered by a questionable holding penalty on a do-or-die fourth down with under a minute to go that gave Tom Brady a second shot. The Patriots escaped, but they probably know they shouldn’t have. The Ravens have always known. Since then, the teams have played three times in the regular season (the Pats winning twice) and split a pair of playoff games. Take away a 2009 wild-card game (33-14 Baltimore), and a total of 13 points separated them in the other four contests.

Add to all that Lee Evans, Billy Cundiff and last year’s AFC title game the Ravens know they should have won, then sprinkle a little of the Ray Lewis farewell tour on top. The result is a vengeance-seeking Baltimore team so hopped up on emotion that all standard modes of analysis should probably be thrown out the window for this game. The Patriots may be the more talented team and playing at home, but they are well aware the Houston Texans aren’t walking through that door. The bettors concur, as the sports books opened New England as a 10-point favorite on Sunday night and the line has steadily dropped (it was at 7.5 almost across the board as of Saturday afternoon).

With that said, a team’s greatest strength can also be the source its downfall. The ’07 and ’11 Pats were an aerial outfit that, among other reasons, couldn’t seal the deal against the Giants in the Super Bowl because they were too one-dimensional. The Ravens’ strength lies in their emotion; they feed off it more than any other team. That has often suited them well against the Steelers, their divisional blood rivals, but it has also historically caused them to experience significant letdowns the week after playing Pittsburgh. The reason being that it’s extremely difficult to sustain that emotional high week in and week out.

The Ravens have been able to ride that wave of emotion through their wild-card game against the Colts and into and out of Denver last week. They are certain to come out swinging again on Sunday (the fact that they are six-point underdogs in the first half is ludicrous when compared to the game line of 7.5). But at some point it all has to catch up.

Against Indianapolis, the Baltimore defense was on the field for 87 snaps and lost the time-of-possession battle 37:32-22:28. And last week vs. the Broncos, they were on the field for another 87 snaps and over 40 minutes of a 78-minute game played at altitude in sub-zero temperatures. For some reference, the Baltimore defense allowed an average of 70 plays per game by the opposing offense in the regular season. That was the worst mark in the league (the team with the second-worst number, Jacksonville, was closer to the sixth-worst team than they were to Baltimore), and yet it was still a full 20 percent fewer snaps than they have averaged in the playoffs! The primary culprit for the Ravens’ inability to get off the field all year was their poor run defense, as they gave up an average of 31.3 rushing plays (third-worst in the NFL) and 124.4 yards (20th) per game.

Conversely, the Patriots have done two things better than any of their previous incarnations: run plays and run the ball. New England, which came within nine plays of breaking the all-time record for total plays in a season, averaged 73.9 plays per game, which was tops in the league (in ’07 they ranked third at 65.8, and last year they were second at 67.4). The Patriots also finished second in the league with 32.2 rushing attempts per game (up from 27.7 apiece in ’07 and ’11, which ranked them around the middle of the pack) and seventh in rushing yards per game at 135.6. In other words, the Ravens’ most glaring weakness is in direct opposition to the Patriots’ greatest strength. That disparity can’t be overstated in a game of this magnitude.

The verdict: There is no denying the Ravens’ heart. It has spurred them to this point and will keep them in the game. But New England’s hyper-paced offense and ability to run the ball will keep the Ravens defense on the field for long chunks of time and ultimately wear them down.

Patriots 30
Ravens 24

Divisional preview for the bettors

There were two prevailing themes throughout a wild-card weekend that included three lopsided final scores and a lone good game that was thwarted from becoming a potential classic because one of the quarterbacks was playing on one leg for the final three quarters.

No. 1 – All four favorites covered the point spread with room to spare.

No. 2 – Each game finished comfortably under the total.

That made for an interesting weekend for the Las Vegas sports books, which pretty much never want to see multiple favorites covering because the public typically rides the favored team. On the other hand, they love seeing games go under, since the public almost always bets overs (the reason being that a recreational bettor doesn’t want to invest in a game and root for nothing to happen, which is what betting unders equates to). Despite the continued trend of favorites covering, thanks to each of the wild-card games finishing under the total, Vegas likely avoided sustaining heavy damage for the weekend.

A common misconception is that bookmakers prefer to have equal action on each side of a game, so they can simply take their 10-percent wagering fee (or “vig”) and reduce their own liability. While they are not opposed to such a scenario, there’s a reason why they are bookmakers to begin with. They enjoy the action just as much as any gambler placing a bet at the window, so when they have a solid read on a game they may not move the line if they are of the mind that the money is coming in on the advantageous side.

For example, this weekend’s divisional slate is highlighted by the Saturday night game between the Packers and 49ers in San Francisco. Not only does the contest feature a pair of well-known public teams (Green Bay being one of the most public teams in the NFL), it also represents a rekindling of one of the league’s great playoff rivalries. From 1995-2001, Green Bay and San Francisco met five times in the postseason, with the Packers winning four of those meetings.

For Saturday’s matchup, the line opened at San Francisco -3. It has yet to budge at any of the major Vegas sports books, which would indicate there has been equal action on each side. However, using the analytics of sportsinsights.com – a website that tracks betting trends and real bets made at seven offshore sports books – and pregame.com – a site that monitors the same thing in Vegas – you can see that approximately two-thirds of all tallied bets have come in on the Packers.

Now there exists the possibility that the heaviest bets (the four- and five-figure wagers made by pros and whales) have come in on the Niners side and are thus disproportionately accounted for in that 36 percent of total wagers. Or it could be that the bookmakers simply don’t want to move off that key number of three, which approximately 15 percent of all games fall on. In reality, it’s likely a bit of both.

While it’s tough to gauge exactly how the distribution of money shakes out on either side of that three-point spread, there is far less ambiguity in respect to which team the bettors favor to win outright and advance to the NFC Championship Game. That would be the Packers, whose money line (a sliding-odds bet on the outright winner of a game) opened at +150 (meaning a $100 bet returns $150) and has since been reduced to +125, and in some places +120. Nearly 80 percent of money line bets cast in Vegas have been on the Packers.

No such consensus has formed on the other NFC game between the Seahawks and Falcons in Atlanta. That was initially reflected in Atlanta opening as a cautious two-point favorite at home (home teams receive an automatic three points, meaning the bookmakers would have slated Atlanta as one-point underdog on a neutral field), which is indicative of the lack of confidence both the bookmakers and bettors have in the Falcons. It was then substantiated by the current 53/47 Atlanta/Seattle split in percentage of offshore bets, and 60/40 ratio in Vegas. That cumulative slight edge in total bets on the Falcons resulted in a fairly insignificant half-point adjustment by the sports books in Atlanta’s favor to -2.5. In addition, the money line bets have been split down the middle.

Add it all up and it seems neither the bettors nor bookmakers know what to make of this game. The cases for and against Atlanta are equally strong. On one hand, the Falcons are the No. 1 overall seed and were 7-1 at home this year. Their quarterback, Matt Ryan, is 33-6 in his career inside the Georgia Dome. However, one of those defeats was a 48-21 pasting at the hands of the Packers in the divisional round of the 2010 playoffs. And Ryan is 0-3 as a playoff starter. That, too, can be spun a few ways: Can such a good home team and its dominant-at-home quarterback really drop a fourth consecutive postseason game? Or are the Falcons’ playoff issues systemic?

That’s not even taking into consideration the Seahawks, who dominated the final three quarters against the Redskins last week after falling behind 14-0. There’s no doubt Russell Wilson proved his playoff mettle by not flinching in the face of a two-touchdown deficit, but would Seattle still be here had Robert Griffin III not re-injured his knee on the second drive of the game? Can the Seahawks overcome a second consecutive cross-country trip and win a game that begins for them at 10 a.m. local time? Again, there’s a reason this is the one game for which no clear consensus has formed.

On the opposite end of that spectrum are the AFC games between the Broncos and Ravens, and Patriots and Texans. Not only are New England and Denver public teams (the Broncos gaining that status because of Peyton Manning), but fresh in the minds of all bettors are the recent matchups between each pair of teams. In Week 14 on Monday night, the Patriots dismantled the Texans, 42-14. And in Week 15 in Baltimore, Denver rolled over the Ravens, 34-17, in a game that was more lopsided than the score showed.

The public typically aligns itself with Manning and/or Tom Brady, which compounded by the fact that the Ravens and Texans looked completely outclassed just a few weeks ago, made the bookmakers open both the Broncos and Patriots as runaway favorites of between nine and 9.5 points. The offshore sports books opened both games at -10 and actually pushed them to -10.5 late Friday night before settling back on 10 (for the most part). This is a classic case of line shading, which is a tactic bookmakers use to their advantage in situations like this.

For example, if bookmakers crunch their numbers and weigh the various factors and determine that the Patriots are 8.5 or nine points better than the Texans, the line that appears on the board will be 9.5. That’s because the bookmakers know that recreational bettors wager on teams, not numbers. Whereas a pro may like the Patriots at -8.5, if that number comes out at -9.5, the pro will potentially switch sides. Recreational bettors are riding the Patriots regardless of whether the line is shaded or not.

Now, in a season that has seen favorites cover at an inordinate rate, the question becomes does the line shading even matter for these games? After all, the Ravens and Texans were run off the field not even a month ago, so who’s to say the same thing won’t happen again? It’s generally understood that regular-season outcomes have little bearing on playoff outcomes because adjustments can be made, there’s more game-planning and teams are operating with heightened levels of focus. The opposite line of thinking is that if a team was able to assert its will over an opponent once, that should be sufficient enough to draw a definitive conclusion about the rematch. So which theory is most applicable to this pair of games?

Let’s use the last four years as a sample size and analyze playoff rematches of regular-season games that were decided by at least 14 points. Over that span, there were nine such games. In five instances, the team that won handily in the regular season went on to repeat its performance in the playoffs:

2011: Patriots 41, Broncos 23 in regular season; Patriots 45, Broncos 10 in playoffs
2011: Saints 31, Lions 17 in regular season; Saints 45, Lions 28 in playoffs
2009: Jets 37, Bengals 0 in regular season; Jets 24, Bengals 14 in playoffs
2009: Cowboys 24, Eagles 0 in regular season (second of two Dallas wins);
Cowboys 34, Eagles 14 in playoffs
2008: Ravens 27, Dolphins 13 in regular season; Ravens 27, Dolphins 9 in playoffs

On the flip side:

2010: Saints 34, Seahawks 19 in regular season; Seahawks 41, Saints 36 in playoffs
2010: Patriots 45, Jets 3 in regular season; Jets 28, Patriots 21 in playoffs
2009: Packers 33, Cardinals 7 in regular season; Cardinals 51, Packers 45 in playoffs
2008: Eagles 48, Cardinals 20 in regular season; Cardinals 32, Eagles 25 in playoffs

While this sample is small, two trends are clear. First, the teams on the winning side of the blowout in the regular season prevailed again more frequently in the rematch (at a 55-percent clip and by an average of 20 points). Second, if you look closely at the four instances in which the team on the wrong side of the regular-season blowout reversed course in the playoffs, you’ll see that not only did they compete in the rematch, but they all won outright.

Minus the 2010 Jets-Patriots game, when Rex Ryan’s decision to flood Tom Brady’s passing lanes with defensive backs flummoxed Brady and led to an upset of a generally young and inexperienced New England team, those other three games exceeded the bounds of quantification. The Seahawks were buoyed by nobody giving them a chance as a perceived 7-9 fraud against the defending champion Saints. And something simply got into the Cardinals during that 2008-09 run, when they came within a minute of becoming unlikely Super Bowl champions before carrying that momentum over into a wild-card game against the Packers the next year. One thing those games had in common – other than being among the most memorable wild-card games of all time – was both Seattle and Arizona enjoyed home-field advantage. And boy, did those delirious crowds ever do their part to inspire their teams. The point is, those games were undoubtedly the outliers of the bunch. Sometimes crazy stuff happens in the playoffs that defies explanation.

So back to Broncos-Ravens and Pats-Texans. Does either Baltimore or Houston have the look of a team that could follow the Seattle/Arizona blueprint, and do so in enemy territory? Are there chinks in the armor of the Broncos and Patriots that we’ve failed to notice? Or are Denver and New England simply in a higher class than their opponents and are set to showcase that for a second time? We’ll soon find out.

Predictions:

Broncos 27
Ravens 13

Packers 24
49ers 21

Falcons 27
Seahawks 23

Patriots 34
Texans 23

2013 NFL Wild-Card Weekend preview

Finish the following statement: The 2012 NFL regular season was defined by …

Not an easy answer, right?

Was it Peyton Manning submitting one of the best seasons of his career following four neck surgeries and a year away from the game? How about Adrian Peterson coming within a first-down run of breaking the all-time single-season rushing record on the one-year anniversary of tearing his knee apart? Could it have been the replacement refs? Or the No. 1 overall pick turning a two-win bottom-feeder into an 11-win playoff team while not even finishing as the second-best rookie quarterback? Was it the rise of Colin Kaepernick? The fall of the Giants? The rise and fall of the Texans?

Then there’s ChuckStrong, whose story was an Oscar-caliber sports movie that all but wrote itself in Indianapolis.

Indeed, no matter how you dice it, the subplots were numerous and rich. Not to mention unresolved.

What we do know is the field has been reduced to 12, with roughly half of those teams boasting the credentials for a potential run to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII. But credentials alone do not a title team make. We need only look back to championship weekend last year, when both the Patriots and Giants were beneficiaries of key bounces of the ball late in tight games. Anyone who remembers those clashes knows how close we came to a Ravens-49ers Super Bowl.

Talent, coaching, chemistry and a dash of good fortune: the cocktail that when mixed properly can give way to a Lombardi Trophy. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. First up is wild-card weekend, so let’s delve into the matchups.

Bengals (10-6) at Texans (12-4)

This is a rematch of a wild-card game from last year in the same location and occupying the same Saturday afternoon time slot, but pitting two teams seemingly going in opposite directions. On one side are the Texans, who as recently as early-December enjoyed a multiple-game cushion over everyone in the AFC. Despite dropping two of three after an 11-1 start, Houston remained in pole position for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs until a Week 17 loss to the Colts. Now they must play a Round 1 game they never envisioned against a Cincinnati team that lost only once in the second half of the season (20-19 to the Cowboys).

The Bengals have a lot going for them. They can rush the passer (51 total sacks, third in the NFL), are solid against the run (107.2 yards per game, 12th in the league) and create turnovers (30 takeaways, second in the AFC). They are also a good road team, having won their last four. A.J. Green is one of the most explosive playmakers in the playoffs and is a home run threat every time he touches the ball. If Marvin Lewis can only find a way to glue his challenge flag to the inside of his pocket in the first half of the game, Cincinnati will have a chance.

The Texans are built to beat a team like the Bengals. With Arian Foster spearheading the league’s eighth-ranked rushing attack and J.J. Watt anchoring a formidable pass rush, it’s tough to come from behind against Houston. They also take care of the ball as well as any team in the league (only 17 giveaways all season). On the flip side, they have struggled when getting down early. Can Matt Schaub be trusted to bring them back from a deficit after he routinely missed open receivers and threw just one touchdown against three interceptions during Houston’s 1-3 finish? And can the Texans turn it back on after playing mediocre football over basically the last seven weeks? Don’t forget they weren’t too inspiring in back-to-back overtime wins over the Jaguars and Lions in late November (the former requiring a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback and the latter being aided by a boneheaded move by Jim Schwartz.) The word at the time was Houston was proving it could gut out close games. But given the way they finished, it looks like those performances simply marked the beginning of a sustained stretch of subpar play.

In the first playoff meeting between the teams, Houston won, 31-10, but the game was closer than the score indicated. A classic “rookie mistake” interception by Andy Dalton late in the first half of a 10-10 game was returned for a touchdown by Watt, which shifted the momentum. This time around, Dalton should be better prepared for the stage, considering he’s familiar with Reliant Stadium in January and now knows how one ill-fated throw can be the difference between winning and going home. That makes him the playoff veteran when compared to Schaub, who will be tasting postseason football for the first time after being injured last year.

The Texans are the more talented team and Lewis has distinguished himself in all the wrong ways as a playoff coach, but I keep coming back to the state of shell-shock in which Houston must find itself. The Texans know they should not have to be playing this game. Will that affect their week of preparation and subsequent level of focus come game time? I say yes.

Prediction:
Bengals 20
Texans 17

Vikings (10-6) at Packers (11-5)

Like Bengals-Texans, this is also a rematch of a playoff game. Only for Minnesota, however. Although a first-round bye was on the line for the Packers when these teams met in Week 17, the stakes were far higher for the Vikings, who would have been eliminated with a loss. They played like it inside a charged Mall of America Field, with Adrian Peterson’s pursuit of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record adding to the drama. Peterson didn’t disappoint, trampling the Packers defense for 199 yards to fall nine yards short of history.

To say Peterson carried Minnesota to the playoffs on his reconstructed knee would be an understatement. On the morning of Dec. 9, the Vikings were a middling 6-6 outfit facing a daunting schedule and needing to leapfrog a handful of teams to have a shot at the postseason. Peterson proceeded to churn out 651 yards on the ground and score five touchdowns while willing Minnesota to wins over the Bears, Rams, Texans and Packers, and into the playoffs.

But back to Green Bay. In two games against his division rivals this year, Peterson ran for 210 and 199 yards. In other words, he was the constant. Yet when the teams met at Lambeau Field in early December, Green Bay won, 23-14. What was the difference in the two outcomes? The play of Christian Ponder. In the first game, Ponder completed just 12 of 25 passes for 119 yards. He also threw two killer interceptions, both in Green Bay territory (and one in the end zone).

In Round 2, however, Ponder was phenomenal, throwing for 234 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. With Aaron Rodgers leading Green Bay back from a pair of 13-point deficits to twice knot the game, Ponder made every throw he had to down the stretch to stave off the comeback. Two in particular were flat-out Rodgers-esque: a 65-yard bomb to Jarius Wright, which set up a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter after Green Bay had tied it for the first time; and a crucial 25-yard sideline connection to Michael Jenkins on a third-and-11 on the game’s final drive to set up the winning field goal. By all measures, it was Ponder’s best game of the season.

So do the math. In a contest that was of vastly more importance to the Vikings and played in Minnesota, with Peterson up to his usual and Ponder submitting his finest effort of the year while out-slinging Rodgers in the process, the Vikings still just barely squeaked by the Packers, 37-34. The odds of a similar occurrence taking place a mere six days later, at Lambeau and in a game of equal value to both teams are very slim.

While it’s certainly not a wise game plan to “let” Peterson get his 200, the fact that he has already done that twice – with Minnesota losing one of those games by two scores – is telling. As dominant and transcendent as he is, AP is not the Vikings X-factor. Ponder is. That is not a good sign for Minnesota heading into Round 3 against their NFC North rivals.

Prediction:
Packers 27
Vikings 16

Colts (11-5) at Ravens (10-6)

Without a doubt, this game will feature the two most emotionally-charged teams of wild-card weekend. The Colts are playing for Chuck Pagano. The Ravens are playing for Ray Lewis. Beyond that, it’s impossible to gauge how Indy’s in-remission coach and Baltimore’s soon-to-retire franchise icon will impact their teams’ play on the field. What is quantifiable are the teams themselves. And neither is as good as its record would indicate.

The Colts became the first team to win 11 games with a negative scoring differential. They played a schedule rife with soft competition (the Browns, Bills, Lions and Chiefs, along with two games apiece against the Jaguars and Titans). Nine of their wins came by one score or less, which was both indicative of their consistent struggles to beat mediocre opponents as well as Andrew Luck’s undeniable clutch gene. The rookie quarterback led four fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives.

The Ravens surged to a 9-2 start, but included in that run was a 31-30 win over the Patriots capped by a disputed field goal, a 31-29 win over the Cowboys in which Jason Garrett shot himself in the foot with awful clock management, and a 16-13 win over the Chargers highlighted by Ray Rice’s fourth-and-29 conversion. Baltimore proceeded to crash and burn against stiffer competition in December, dropping four of their final five to limp into the playoffs.

So what gives? First, Luck was a different quarterback and the Colts were a different team on the road. Luck threw 12 touchdowns against just five interceptions in leading Indianapolis to a 7-1 record at home. Outside of Lucas Oil Stadium, however, Luck was intercepted 13 times and lost four fumbles as the Colts managed only a 4-4 split of their road slate. Moreover, the four road games the Colts won came in Tennessee, Jacksonville, Detroit and Kansas City (combined record of 14-50), and their margin of victory in three of them was one score or less. Conversely, Indy’s four road losses to the Bears, Jets, Patriots and Texans were by an average of over 23 points. The pattern is pretty clear. The Colts labored in road victories over some of the worst teams in the league and were blown out by tougher opponents.

The Ravens may not be the Super Bowl contender many had them pegged as early on, but they still have the best player on the field and one of the league’s elite playmakers in Rice, along with a quarterback who, like Luck, plays far better at home. Joe Flacco threw 15 of his 22 touchdown passes at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens were 6-2.

Despite the Ravens’ 1-4 December, they remain a proud and veteran-laden outfit that has feasted on inferior teams in this round of the playoffs throughout the Flacco era (Dolphins in 2008, Patriots in ’09, Chiefs in ’10). Luck won’t roll over, but he will make at least one big mistake in the first half, which combined with a healthy dose of Rice against an overmatched Indy defense will stake Baltimore to a big lead that the Colts won’t be able to overcome.

Prediction:
Ravens 31
Colts 20

Seahawks (11-5) at Redskins (10-6)

Because NBC opted to select Vikings-Packers as the primetime game on Saturday night, Seahawks-Redskins drops back to the last game of the weekend. In some ways it’s fitting, because this one figures to be the main course of Round 1. It features the two hottest teams – Seattle enters on a five-game win streak, Washington having won seven straight – a pair of quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III who will likely finish 1-2 in Rookie of the Year voting, along with the return of playoff football to the nation’s capital for the first time since 1999.

There’s also the added intrigue of a rare road favorite in the playoffs, as Seattle enters the game as three-point favorites nearly 3,000 miles from home. Be it by employing advanced metrics (the Seahawks finished the regular season No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ total DVOA ratings) or the eye test (they scored a record 150 points over a three-game stretch from Weeks 14-16), the Seahawks are the real deal. But has their stock been inflated due to an overwhelming home-field advantage that is almost certain to be non-existent throughout the second season? Perhaps.

By all accounts, Seattle is the most complete team in the field. They have the league’s third-ranked rushing attack, fourth-ranked defense, excellent special teams and a rookie quarterback who simply does not get rattled. With that said, while they were unstoppable at home this year (8-0 with an average margin of victory of 18.5 points), they were a pedestrian 3-5 on the road. Let’s dig deeper.

Two trends have emerged for the Seahawks. The first is that despite boasting the league’s 10th-ranked rushing defense, over their last three losses (all, obviously, on the road), the Seahawks have given up an average of 149.3 rushing yards per game (for some perspective, the Saints had the worst rushing defense in the NFL this year, allowing an average of 147.6 yards per game). Second, when they have found themselves in a close game, Wilson has absolutely proven to be a closer. As for the Seattle defense? Not so much.

In a 28-24 loss to the Lions in Week 8, after Wilson led a 12-play, 87-yard touchdown drive to give the Seahawks a 24-21 lead with just over five minutes remaining, the defense couldn’t get off the field, as the Lions marched 80 yards in 16 plays to score the winning touchdown with 20 seconds left. Then against Miami in Week 12, the defense surrendered scoring drives of 80 and 65 yards inside the last six minutes as the Dolphins scored the game’s final 10 points for a 24-21 victory. Furthermore, in the other tight game they played over the second half of the season (Week 13 in Chicago), the Seahawks pulled out a 23-17 overtime win in spite of the defense’s poor play in the clutch. Trailing 14-10, Wilson led the offense on a 12-play, 97-yard touchdown drive to give Seattle a 17-14 lead with 24 seconds remaining. Yet the D somehow managed to give up a 56-yard catch-and-run to Brandon Marshall on the first play of Chicago’s ensuing drive, which set up an improbable game-tying field goal as time expired. The Seahawks won the coin flip in overtime and Wilson never allowed his defense to step back on the field.

Now let’s spin those two trends into the context of this playoff game against the Redskins. Seattle’s front seven has been run over in the team’s last three losses. Washington, meanwhile, features the league’s No. 1 rushing attack, led by Griffin and sensational rookie Alfred Morris, who has run for an average of 117 yards and eight total touchdowns during the Redskins’ seven-game win streak. Advantage: Washington.

As for the Redskins’ defense, look no further than a pair of key stops it recorded against the Giants late in a season-altering (for both teams) 17-16 win on Monday night in Week 13. Or the three-and-out the unit forced from Baltimore to begin overtime the following Sunday, which set the stage for Kirk Cousins to help lead Washington to a 31-28 win in relief of Griffin. And finally, last Sunday night in the de facto NFC East championship game against the Cowboys, when Tony Romo took the ball with 3:33 remaining in a 21-18 game and both teams’ seasons hanging in the balance. On the first play of the drive, Rob Jackson picked off Romo to seal the game and set the stage for the Redskins’ return to the playoffs.

There is no disputing the numbers when it comes to the Seahawks. They have been a phenomenal team all season and have been in every game they lost until the very end. But more often than not, the playoffs come down to which defense can get a stop in crunch time. In a game that figures to go down to the wire, and one that features two quarterbacks with a knack for coming through in the clutch, the outcome will likely boil down to which defense can rise up and make that one critical stop. Judging from each unit’s track record, the choice seems clear.

Prediction:
Redskins 19
Seahawks 16

Super Bowl contenders: Who makes the cut?

The NFL prides itself on being an equal opportunity league. The turnover of playoff teams from one year to the next is traditionally at least 40 percent. It was a 50/50 split in 2011.

Since the Patriots won three out of four Super Bowls from 2001-04, five of the last seven champions have played in the Wild Card round. Three of them (’05 Steelers, ’07 Giants, ’10 Packers) ran the road gauntlet as Wild Card teams, and a fourth – the ’08 Cardinals – came within a minute of doing the same.

While gaudy, prolific regular seasons can captivate the masses, the trend of the league over the last seven years has illustrated time and again that it’s not how you get there, but the momentum you carry into January. Because of that, it’s difficult to gain a good handle on the true Super Bowl contenders until December at the earliest.

Then again, if we wait until then, there won’t be much to talk about around the Thanksgiving table, will there? Here’s a pre-Turkey Day stab at categorizing the contenders:

The pretenders – Baltimore, Seattle
The Ravens look like they blew their best chance at a second Super Bowl last season. Since Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff teamed up to flush the AFC title down the toilet in New England last January, Baltimore has been careening toward mediocrity – despite a house-of-cards 7-2 record through nine games. The Ravens’ defense is banged up and unable to stop anyone, allowing over 390 yards per game, fifth worst in the NFL. Joe Flacco, who by his own admission was poised to enter the ranks of the elite, is barely a Top 15 quarterback and only seems to play well against the Patriots. Yet the Ravens appear charmed, drawing Pittsburgh twice in the next three weeks with Ben Roethlisberger’s status in question. Baltimore looks headed for a second straight AFC North crown and a home game in the first round. One it will likely lose.

If the Seahawks had managed to upset the 49ers for sixty minutes instead of forty a few Thursday nights ago, they would be occupying a far more significant tier of these rankings. Seattle has the league’s No. 4 overall defense, as well as the fourth-ranked scoring defense. Marshawn Lynch always gains steam as the season progresses and is the type of unrelenting, downhill runner that can make life miserable for opposing defenses in the playoffs (hello: New Orleans, 2010). In addition, the number-crunchers at Football Outsiders have Seattle ranked third in the NFL by their total DVOA metric. However, because of that loss on Oct. 18 (and San Francisco’s subsequent tie), the Hawks trail the Niners by two games in the loss column in the NFC West, meaning they are all but assured to be on the road in the playoffs should they get there. And Seattle can’t win on the road. Russell Wilson has thrown eight interceptions in five games away from CenturyLink Field, four of which the Seahawks have lost.

The faux-tenders – Atlanta, Houston
Has an 8-1 team ever looked as ordinary as the Falcons? They should have lost to Carolina in Week 4, were outplayed by an awful Raiders team in Week 6, did everything they could to blow a 21-point fourth-quarter lead to the Broncos in Week 2 on Monday night and couldn’t score with three chances from the 1-yard line and the game on the line last Sunday against the Saints. The argument for the Falcons is they are seasoned after consecutive one-and-dones in the playoffs. From this view, the Atlanta defense is pretty much the same unit that was tuned up by the Packers and Giants, and Mike Smith is pretty much the same coach that has tightened up in each of those blowouts.

On paper (and the field, for that matter), the Texans shouldn’t be lumped with the Falcons. Houston boasts the No. 2 overall defense and No. 3 scoring defense in the league, along with the presumptive defensive player of the year, J.J. Watt. They can stop the run and feature one of the game’s best safety/corner tandems. So why are the Texans relegated to this status? For one, despite the growing up they did in the playoffs last year, they did so without their starting quarterback. As well-constructed of a team as Houston is, this is still a quarterback-driven league, particularly when it’s all on the line, and I’m not convinced Matt Schaub is ready to stare down the Bradys, Mannings and Rodgers of the world with a championship on the line. And sorry, but Super Bowl contenders don’t get their clocks cleaned at home in a nationally-televised game like Houston did by Green Bay in Week 6.

The caveats – Pittsburgh, Chicago
The jury is still out on the Steelers and Bears because of their ailing quarterbacks. If Jay Cutler experiences lingering post-concussion effects, it could be deja vu for the 7-2 Bears, who were 7-3 at the two-thirds marker last year and had the makeup of a legitimate contender before Cutler was felled. Likewise for the Steelers, who simply have no chance without a 100-percent Roethlisberger.

The uncategorizables – Giants
So the Giants won six of their first eight, highlighted by a 26-3 stampeding of San Francisco that is neck and neck with Aaron Rodgers’ six touchdown passes in the aforementioned Sunday night smackdown for the season’s most impressive victory. They’ve since dropped two straight games, Eli Manning has looked terrible and the schedule is murderous down the stretch. Hmmm, where have we seen this before …

The lurkers – New England, San Francisco
As usual, the Patriots are tough to quantify. They once again feature the league’s highest-powered offense, ranking No. 1 in total yards per game (430.3) and points per game (33.2) with room to spare in each category. Seventh in passing, fifth in rushing. In terms of total DVOA, New England is second overall, and its three losses have been by a combined four points. Yet in two of their last three games, the Patriots have been forced to pull rabbits out of their hats against the Jets and Bills. Back-to-back games against Houston and San Francisco in Weeks 14-15 will be interesting, but will probably tell us more about the Texans and Niners than the Pats.

Indeed, if San Francisco is able to fly cross-country and knock off New England in primetime on Dec. 16, the road to New Orleans could realistically be going through the City by the Bay. That said, Tom Brady rarely loses at home, in December or to NFC teams in the regular season. Tough to see all three happening at once. That’s not to say the Niners aren’t serious contenders. Quite the contrary, as this team is built to beat any NFC heavy-hitter minus the Giants, who just flat-out have San Francisco’s number.

The favorites – Green Bay, Denver
If the 49ers are built to beat Green Bay (they are) and the Giants pose legitimate matchup problems for Green Bay (they do), how can the Packers be the favorite to come out of the NFC? First, the defense, which has quietly regained its 2010 form: solid against the run (98.3 yards per game, tied for 10th in the NFL) and able to bring consistent pressure (28 sacks, tied for second). Then there’s Rodgers, who far too many questioned after four lackluster performances (by his standards) dating back to the playoff loss to the Giants last year. Rodgers didn’t look great to begin the season, and Green Bay lost two of its first three games (well, according to the replacement refs). Since The Seattle Job, the Packers are 5-1 and Rodgers has been in message-mode.

During their four-game winning streak, the Broncos have scored 35, 34, 31 and 36 points. Peyton Manning has established himself as the clear front-runner for MVP, the defense leads the league with 33 sacks and is ranked sixth overall. And just in case you were wondering, the Broncos are No. 1 in total DVOA. They haven’t lost since Week 5 in New England, and a cursory glance at their schedule indicates there’s a good chance they won’t lose again until a potential rematch with the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. And by the looks of it, that one may very well be in the Mile High City.

Taking the NFL pulse at season’s midway point

Some quick-hitting thoughts as the calendar flips to November and the 2012 NFL season reaches the halfway marker …

The West is already won
The AFC West appears to be a tightly-contested race, with only one game separating the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders. Don’t be fooled. At 4-3, Denver is poised to run away with the division after emerging from a grueling first two months that included games against at least four contenders (Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Houston and New England). Peyton Manning looks more comfortable by the week and the schedule shakes out favorably.
The Broncos can start fitting themselves for a three-seed unless San Diego finds a way to keep playing the Chiefs.

The NFC West has calibrated itself after a collective September surge that few, if any, saw coming. Since the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams started a combined 11-4, they have gone 0-9. San Francisco, meanwhile, is humming along at 6-2. At their best, the Niners have looked like a team destined for another deep January run. But they have also been pummeled by the Vikings and Giants, raising some questions about their ability to consistently win in the trenches. While the Jekyll and Hyde act could be a cause for concern in the long run, it won’t prevent San Francisco from cruising to its second straight NFC West title.

Talib the difference-maker in New England?
Trades are rare in the NFL, but don’t tell that to the Patriots. Bill Belichick has proven over the years that he will buck the trend if he feels he can acquire a potential impact player at a reasonable price (Randy Moss in 2007 and Deion Branch in 2010, both acquired for fourth-round draft picks, come to mind). Hence the deal for corner Aqib Talib, whom New England obtained Thursday in return for a 2013 fourth-rounder.

The longtime Buccaneer is one of the elite corners in the game, a position that has been a major problem spot for the Patriots since the departure of Asante Samuel after the 2007 season. Talib arrives with a good deal more baggage than that which he will stick in his new locker, but Belichick has never been fazed by so-called “character issues.” Some of his bold moves have paid off (Corey Dillon, Moss), others not so much (Albert Haynesworth). If Talib embraces the opportunity and helps shore up the Patriots’ only glaring weakness, they will be tough to beat in the AFC.

Dolphins/Colts has playoff implications
On Sunday afternoon, the Dolphins and Colts will tango at Lucas Oil Stadium, with the winner moving to 5-3 and squarely on track for 10 wins. The 10-win plateau is traditionally a goal set by teams with playoff aspirations. Indianapolis is coming off a 2-14 season and Miami didn’t inspire too much confidence during its stint on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which is to say this game wasn’t exactly highlighted in yellow on the “games to watch” list as recently as early October.

But these teams have combined to win six of their last seven, Indy on the strength of a coming-into-his-own Andrew Luck and Miami thanks to the league’s No. 5 scoring defense. In a weakened AFC this year, whomever comes in second between Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North looks to have a secure hold on the first Wild Card spot. The second Wild Card is up for grabs, and the winner of this game will have the inside track heading into the cold months.

Another Giant slide in the offing?

The Giants pull into the midway point at 6-2, the fifth time in the last six years they have won at least six of their first eight games. Only once in that span did they manage better than four wins over the second half of the season (5-3 in 2008). To be fair, the schedule almost always breaks poorly for Tom Coughlin’s crew. This year is no different, as the Giants face a daunting second half that includes games against the Steelers, Packers, Saints, Falcons and Ravens, along with divisional games vs. the Redskins and Eagles.

It’s tough to envision the Giants managing better than a split of that slate, but given that they’re currently the only team in the NFC East over .500, it’s reasonable to assume that 10 wins will secure the division. Of course, the caveat to all this is the one time the Giants produced a strong second half and locked down home-field and a first-round bye in ’08, they were bounced in the divisional round by the Eagles. Go figure.

No matter what, NFL’s black eye will linger

It looks like the NFL referee lockout will end in time for the regular officials to be back on the field for the Week 4 games. But that by no means ensures the issue is a thing of the past. Not after the Packers were hosed on Monday night by an official who had been deemed unfit for Division I college football.

If and when late December rolls around and Green Bay is fighting for a playoff spot and comes up a game short (unlikely) or loses a tiebreaker it would have otherwise won (very much a possibility) and therefore loses a bye or has to go on the road in the postseason, the aftershock will be greater than the quake.

golden-tate1It didn’t take a polished football mind to see this coming. From the outset, it was clear the replacement refs were overmatched. Not counting subjective elements of the job (which even the regular officials struggle with, albeit not to the degree of the replacements) the scabs proved incapable of consistently spotting the ball correctly, marking off penalty yards, keeping timeout inventories, awarding challenges and generally maintaining order and game flow. In other words, the stuff that fans, and more importantly, players and coaches take for granted. That’s not even mentioning a few glaring conflicts of interest that surfaced.

That was the writing on the wall, the fodder for news conferences, talk shows and water coolers. You could take your pick of issues plaguing the replacements on the field, and make a solid case as to how they were overmatched. It wasn’t until Sunday night in Baltimore, however, that “overmatched” became “utterly ill-equipped.”

In the biggest game of the season to date – a rematch of the AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Ravens – the replacements were cooked from the word go. Players engaged after the whistle on nearly every play, which stripped the game of any semblance of rhythm. The refs tried to counterbalance that by throwing so many flags it was fair to wonder if it was free banana night at M&T Bank Stadium. Both teams were victimized by terrible calls.

Then, on the game’s final play with the Patriots leading, 30-28, kicker Justin Tucker hooked a 27-yard field goal over the left upright. Was the kick good? Did it sail to the outside of the upright? Replays showed it was too close to call. The only person who could definitively tell was the official standing underneath the upright. He signaled “good,” and the game was over.

Analysis of the first two weeks had already shown that the replacements were being influenced by the home crowds in respect to the calls they made and in what situations. After all, the majority of these guys had never worked in front of more than a few thousand fans, let alone upwards of seventy or more.

So was the kick good? Or more to the point, if it was indeed slightly wide left, was that official capable of processing the brain wave to criss-cross his arms in front of a bloodthirsty Baltimore crowd that not long ago had managed the clearest and “loudest manure chant” Al Michaels had ever heard? Was the official thinking about Billy Cundiff in the AFC title game and how he might not escape M&T Bank Stadium with his extremities intact if he signaled no-good? Or was he making the call he was paid to make? Would he have made the same call on the same kick at Gillette Stadium?

It’s impossible to know, but after a similar occurrence at CenturyLink Field twenty-four hours later – only this time far more egregious and hideous – one that unequivocally cost the Packers a win, all those questions are valid. And that’s what happens when a monolith like the NFL loses its credibility.

The referees may be on their way back this weekend. As for the integrity of the league, the best-case scenario is January.

Fearless Celtics ready for a bar fight

On Feb. 12, the Celtics had just finished holding off the Bulls at TD Garden in a nationally-televised Sunday afternoon game. The day belonged to Rajon Rondo, who messed around to the beat of a 32-10-15 triple-double as an injured Derrick Rose glowered from the opposing bench.

Rose or no Rose, the Bulls’ fate had likely been sealed by the mere time slot and presence of ABC cameras, for that combination had proven countless times to be the tonic that morphs Rondo into an unstoppable force, a slicing and diming hardwood maestro that no foe can contain.

Shortly after the final buzzer, an animated Kevin Garnett – is there any other kind? – approached Rondo near the sideline, embraced him and bellowed out a few emphatic love-fueled words of encouragement. The camera then cut to midcourt, where Paul Pierce was observing the one-sided exchange. All Pierce could do was laugh and shake his head. A scene at once all-too-familiar and yet somehow novel.

Welcome to Year 5 of the well-documented “Three-Year Window” for the Garnett-Pierce-Allen-(Rondo) Celtics.

kobepierceAside from Year 1, when it all went according to plan – the 66 regular-season wins, the silencing of LeBron Part I, the evisceration of the Lakers and accompanying NBA championship – nothing has come easy for the Green. Garnett’s knee injury halted the title defense; Kendrick Perkins’ torn ACL cost Boston another ring at the expense of LA in 2010; the Perkins trade gutted “Ubuntu” last year, and Rondo’s hyperextended elbow put to rest any notion of challenging the Heat in the playoffs.

One line of thinking heading into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season was that veteran-laden teams would have a distinct advantage. Be it flawed logic, untimely injuries or a general lack of player conditioning, that theory was debunked rather quickly when the defending-champion Mavericks, Celtics, and to a lesser degree, the Lakers, limped out of the gate.

In Boston’s case, the cause was a bit of it all. Pierce was both hurt and in less-than-stellar shape to begin the season. Garnett looked like he had swapped sneakers for cinder blocks. Jeff Green was found to have a potentially life-threatening heart condition. And for a team that prided itself on defense and situational execution, the lack of a proper training camp took an immediate toll.

The result was a 4-8 start, which in a 66-game season amounted to .333 ball for nearly 20 percent of the slate.

The Celtics, who had begun no worse than 20-4 in any of the previous four years and had never known life out of first place in the Atlantic Division, were six games behind the fast-starting 76ers and on the outside of the playoff picture looking in before wiping the crust out of their eyes.

Although the blows continued to come, first in the form of trade winds that swirled around each of the Big Three before centering on Rondo, then by way of further injuries to Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Wilcox and Mickael Pietrus – the latter two being particularly frightening – the Celtics nonetheless began to coalesce.

Proud, resolute and stubborn, the ex-champs climbed back to relevance, thumbing their noses at all those who wrote them off as too adversity-stricken and too old to make anything more than a whimper in this funky campaign. Through Wednesday’s loss to the Spurs, the Celtics were 26-15 since the 4-8 start, which is equivalent to a 52-win pace in a normal season.

Garnett has been sensational since assuming the 5, a position-shift he was forced to accept because, well, there was nobody else. Pierce is fresh off netting Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors for March. Second-year guard Avery Bradley has turned into Tony Allen 2.0, a ferocious perimeter defender who recently did this to Dwyane Wade.

And then there’s Rondo, who is playing at an otherworldly level these days, the end of the trade talks (and no visits from the commander-in-chief) having clearly helped him find a bit of mental equilibrium.

But as has been the case since Day 1 of Year 1, it’s Garnett who remains the beating heart of the team.

In late January, back when the 7-9 Celtics were gasping for air, they found themselves trailing the Magic by 27 points in Orlando. A third-quarter run got them within striking distance and a 27-8 onslaught in the fourth resulted in a rather breezy 91-83 victory, after which Garnett produced one of his more memorable postgame interviews with Craig Sager.

“It was a damned bar fight,” Garnett barked to no one in particular as Sager attempted to begin a question. “A bar fight. It was a bar fight, Craig. Tonight was a bar fight, man … You ever been in a bar fight?”

Despite returning to first place in late March after 50 games in unfamiliar territory, the C’s task only gets tougher. A brutal final stretch against a slew of contenders, along with a back-to-back-to-back on the road, loom. The playoffs, which Boston will undoubtedly enter with the label of also-rans, follow.

But hey, it’s Year 5 of a three-year window. This is borrowed time for the Celtics, which begs the question: Who else is ready for a bar fight?

Yes, the Saints’ bounty program was bad, but …

The following should not come as a newsflash: Football is a savage game, waged by self-proclaimed gladiators.

The sport has no room for the soft or merciful, a statement that is more applicable to the game’s greater culture than to those who contest it at its highest level. Indeed, before passing judgement on the New Orleans Saints and their bounty program, it would be foolish to overlook from whence the mentality originates.

Beginning in Pop Warner youth leagues, where kids as young as 5 years old – aptly named “Tiny-Mites” – are taught how to tackle, to high school programs that establish pecking orders primarily through hitting drills that (rightfully) reward those who can pack the most hurt, football athletes are hardwired early, with the welcome-and-embrace-violence mentality repeatedly hammered Saints Bounties Football in at every subsequent level of competition.

So then, why all the disbelief and outrage at the actions perpetrated by the Saints? Should it really come as a surprise that grown men who are paid specifically for their ability to inflict harm on other grown men have taken it upon themselves to also pay one another in pursuit of the same end? Anyone who believes so fails to grasp the most fundamental aspect of football.

Now there is naturally a moral argument at play here, and it’s evident in the circles of prayer that take place among combatants whenever a player is seriously injured. The game may be savage, but football players, in the end, are not.

Therein lies the issue, however, because up until that point when someone is lying motionless on the gridiron, the way in which a football player is hardwired allows for only one objective: destroy. The alternative is to be destroyed or be out of a job. It’s that simple, and it’s a reality that fans are able to grasp implicitly. But when the curtain is drawn and elements of the game’s nasty underbelly revealed – when the speculated becomes corroborated – there’s no going back.

That’s the crux of the matter with the Saints and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s unprecedented – and warranted – leveling of the organization through suspensions, fines and forfeitures of draft picks.

It’s not merely the act of issuing bounties that is such a symbolic black eye – the bounty system is (well, was) surely practiced by other players and teams – it’s the act of getting caught, and the ramifications for the sport in a day and age where issues of player safety have finally come to the forefront.

While I do not condone the practice of putting a bounty on someone’s head, I’m a realist. I know what makes football great and so lucrative of an enterprise, and to believe there isn’t a healthy amount of unholiness involved in creating the product is simply naive.

The problem is, not only did the Saints commit the ultimate faux pas by allowing everyone a glimpse behind the curtain, but the brazenness and defiance that characterized the whole thing insulted and incensed Goodell, who does not mess around when it comes to his duty of protecting the NFL shield (see: Spygate, Michael Vick, James Harrison etc.).

“A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious,” Goodell said in the official NFL release detailing the league’s response to the matter. “When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game.”

Message received.

NFL Championship Weekend Preview

A few leftover thoughts from a divisional weekend that went more or less by the book in the AFC while veering wildly off script in the NFC. Let’s focus on the latter.

History will determine where 49ers 36, Saints 32 ranks among the all-time classics. In terms of dizzying back-and-forth finishes to an NFL playoff game, it’s right there at the top of the list. Twenty-eight points and four lead changes in the final 4:02 after nearly 56 minutes of extremely physical, defense-dominated football made for a game the likes of we which we may not see again for a very long time.

While the Saints were in excellent shape to steal a berth in the NFC Championship game after clawing back from a 17-0 deficit to take their first lead (24-23) with four minutes remaining while simultaneously deflating what had been a raucous crowd, both defenses were running on fumes by that point, which laid the groundwork for the track meet that ensued over the final 242 seconds.

Defenses traditionally tire in the waning minutes of bone-crushing bloodbaths like the one these teams waged at Candlestick Park. In a game that featured everything ranging from extracurriculars to flat-out brawls after nearly every whistle, it becomes a lot easier to understand why neither defense had anything left in the tank for the furious finish. The last team with the ball was going to win, and the 49ers were that team …

The Packers didn’t merely lose to the Giants, they were completely undone. If it weren’t for some questionable calls and Aaron Rodgers’ ability to scamper for multiple first downs in key situations, the game could have been even more lopsided than the 37-20 final score.

NFL offensive Player FootballThe second-quarter fumble by Greg Jennings that was correctly called on the field, incorrectly changed to a down by contact after an officials conference and inexplicably upheld after a Giants challenge was an egregious officiating error. That sequence led to a Green Bay touchdown that tied the game at 10 early in the second quarter. Then in the fourth quarter with the Giants leading, 30-13, a phantom roughing the passer call on Osi Umenyiora gave Rodgers a new set of downs that enabled the Packers to ultimately strike for a touchdown that made the game close again.

In addition to the officiating nightmare and Eli Manning picking apart the Green Bay defense, what stuck out most was how New York’s defense defied conventional wisdom in stopping Rodgers and the Packers’ offense. Going into the game, the consensus was that the only way the Giants could slow Rodgers was via their front four. Yet for much of the first three quarters, the Green Bay offensive line did its job against the Giants’ pass rush. Rodgers frequently had all day to throw but no one to throw to, which forced him into seven scrambles for 66 yards. Six of those carries went for first downs, which were all that that prevented the game from turning into a laugher. While Rodgers also uncharacteristically missed his target on more than one occasion, the play of the Giants’ secondary and linebackers in coverage was exceptional …

Now, on to championship weekend, which is guaranteed to spit out a headline-grabbing Super Bowl, be it Harbaugh Bowl II (Ravens-49ers), a 2000 Super Bowl rematch (Ravens-Giants), a Tom Brady extravaganza (Patriots-49ers) or a seismic and end-all sequel (Patriots-Giants).

With everything on the line, matchups will be key. Here are three matchups from each championship tilt that will go a long way toward determining the AFC and NFC champs.

AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-3)

Key Matchup No. 1 – Matt Light vs. Terrell Suggs

When the Ravens tuned up the Patriots in a 2009 wild-card game, Suggs abused Light, and consequently, Tom Brady. The likely 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year has made no secret of his feelings for Brady (they are not warm), and thus will be playing with a chip on his shoulder. While the Patriots will attempt to slow Suggs with chips of their own (likely from tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski), it is incumbent on Light to do his job and keep T-Sizzle away from his quarterback.

Key Matchup No. 2 – Patriots linebackers vs. Ray Rice

Anyone who recalls the ’09 playoff game knows Rice had a field day from the outset against New England, his 83-yard touchdown run on the game’s first play from scrimmage setting the tone for a 22-carry, 159-yard, two-touchdown performance. The Patriots’ linebackers will need to have their heads on a swivel to keep track of the diminutive and explosive Rice, who is often tough to pick up behind a mountain of offensive and defensive linemen. Brandon Spikes – whose return has been key for the New England run D – must repeatedly punish Rice. If he can do that, the pressure will shift to quarterback Joe Flacco, which gives the Patriots the advantage.

Key Matchup No. 3 – Tom Brady vs. Ed Reed

There may be no love lost between these teams, but between Brady and Reed there is no doubt a deep-seated mutual respect. Reed remains one of the greatest freelancing safeties in the history of the game. Brady has consistently lit up opposing defenses between the hashmarks, his receiving trio of Hernandez, Gronkowski and Wes Welker proving to be virtually impossible to cover in open space. Whoever prevails in the cat-and-mouse game between Brady and Reed will be leading his team to Indianapolis.

Bottom Line: In 2009, Brady didn’t have Welker (injury) or his tight ends (college). As long as he is upright, the Ravens can’t contend with all three downfield.

Patriots 27
Ravens 21

NFC Championship: New York Giants (11-7) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3)

Key Matchup No. 1 – Smiths vs. Giants offensive line

The Giants have done a fantastic job of protecting Eli Manning throughout the playoffs, but neither the Falcons nor eli3Packers boast anything resembling the duo of defensive end Justin Smith and outsider linebacker Aldon Smith. The twin terrors combined to sack Drew Brees twice and hit him an additional nine times last week. Manning’s Achilles heel is making bad decisions in the face of a strong pass rush, which has been the calling card of the Smiths this season.

Key Matchup No. 2 – Bradshaw/Jacobs vs. Patrick Willis

Lost in the sublime play of Manning and the Giants’ defense of late has been the resurgence of the New York running game. Ahmad Bradshaw appears to be fully recovered from the foot injury that cost him the month of November and Brandon Jacobs has reprised his role as the ultimate downhill runner, the kind that evokes images of a boulder careening down the side of a mountain. With rain having pounded the Bay area all week, the Giants will need to get something from their rushing attack if they want to hold the San Francisco pass rush at bay. Willis spearheads the Niners run defense. If he is swarming to the ball and choking the point of attack, the Giants will have no choice but to become one-dimensional.

Key Matchup No. 3 – Giants kick units vs. 49ers return units

San Francisco was exemplary on special teams during the regular season, ranking first in the NFL in yards per kickoff return (27.2) and fifth in yards per punt return (12.4) while taking one of each to the house. The Giants, meanwhile, were middle of the pack in terms of return yardage allowed. They tied for 10th in the league in kickoff returns, allowing an average of 22.9 yards per, and tied for 16th by allowing 9.9 yards per punt return. If New York can battle the 49ers to a stalemate on special teams, that will be as good as a victory.

Bottom Line: It’s nearly impossible to lose a playoff game with a plus-four turnover ratio, which the 49ers almost did last week. The Giants won’t be nearly as careless with the football.

Giants 23
49ers 19