Beating the Book
By Christopher Liss
RotoWire Managing Editor
After going back and forth and back again last week, we switched our 3-1 slate to 1-3, but we're not too broken up about it because we didn't have strong feelings about any of the games. One of the things you're not supposed to do as a pundit is admit you don't know something because it makes you seem indecisive or uninformed. But in our case, we had the information, and we weren't worried about making a wrong call - we just didn't have a clear vision of the slate. Sometimes you just don't have a strong lean, and in my view, it's usually better to come clean about it.
This week is a different story. Before I had even looked at the lines, I texted Damon the following: "PIT, CAR, NYG, BAL". Now I knew more or less what the lines would be, and on the way back from the airport on Monday, I called Damon and had him quiz me on them, and I was within half a point on all four. He agreed with all of them without significant debate. Why we felt clearer about these is hard to say - perhaps we're just delusional - but these matchups seemed to have clearer precedents than last week's. In other words, each one fit more neatly into an NFL playoff archetype - the Steelers game was the brutal end of the line for the on-a-roll warm-weather team, the Panthers was the come-uppance for a team that had no business being in this round. The Giants was the best team all year adapts and wins when it has to and the Ravens was genuine upstart (a team truly on the rise this year) beating the overrated one that amassed its record against weaker competition.
Of course, these storylines that spoke to me and that I use to justify the clarity I felt are in fact delusions - the games will be played this weekend, and they will be under no physical or metaphysical compulsion to conform to anything that's happened before. But I mention them because it's how it occurred to me, and it's the closest I can come to explaining why I sent the text message to Damon before even knowing the exact numbers.
Ravens +3 at Titans
The Ravens can slug it out with anyone, and in fact, they did with the Titans in Week 5, outgaining them by 75 yards in a three-point home loss. But a couple things have changed since then, most notably Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has a lot more NFL experience, and some of the Titans key players (Albert Haynesworth, Kevin Mawae and Kyle Vanden Bosch) are less than 100 percent healthy. In the end, this game should look a lot like the last one with both teams trying to impose their will on the ground and both defenses being largely up to the task. As such, the three points has more value here than in a game between two higher scoring teams, and, in our opinion, more than offsets Tennessee's home field advantage. Back the Ravens who keep it close and quite possibly win outright.
Ravens 17 - 16
Cardinals +10 at Panthers
The Cardinals took care of business at home last week, but they were pretty lucky to get a momentum-changing defensive touchdown early in the second half. Moreover, Anquan Boldin got hurt again - this time it's a hamstring injury - and his status is in question for the game. Arizona also doesn't travel well - their three road wins came against the 49ers (with J.T. O'Sullivan at quarterback and Mike Nolan coaching), the Seahawks and the Rams. The Panthers, on the other hand, are far better at home, going undefeated and winning their two December games by 15 and 20. The Panthers played the Cardinals in Carolina in late October and won by only four, but the Cardinals were playing better at that point, and Carolina's running game hadn't yet hit its stride. The bottom line is that Arizona's already outlived its usefulness in these playoffs, and we expect the Panthers to wear its defense down and pull away late. Back Carolina.
Panthers 33 - 13
Eagles +4 at Giants
This is a tough draw for the top-seeded Giants, the only other team in the NFL with a top-10 offense and defense, and one that beat them soundly in Giants Stadium several weeks ago. But while the Eagles know they can win this game, the Giants have had plenty of time to make adjustments, and should have a healthy Brandon Jacobs for the whole contest. Jacobs' ability to deliver body blows and soften up the defense is key, both to open up other aspects of the offense and to keep the Eagles from being overly aggressive in going after Eli Manning. Manning knows the Eagles well, and should be able to spread the ball around to his competent but unspectacular corps of receivers - provided he's not put in too many 3rd and longs. The key on the other side of the ball is for the Giants to get enough pressure on Donovan McNabb with their front four and occasional blitzes, while limiting the damage Brian Westbrook does when he gets out in space as a receiver. The Giants secondary is underrated and should match up well against Philadelphia's receiving corps, provided McNabb isn't given undue time to find them. In the end, we think New York will wear down the Eagles defense and take control of the game down the stretch while its defense makes enough plays to close the deal. Back the Giants.
Giants 27 - 20
Chargers +6 at Steelers
The Chargers were lucky to escape with an overtime win last week (thanks in large part to some questionable penalty calls in overtime), but except for a couple fluky plays (Darren Sproles' goal-line fumble, Peyton Manning catching them napping on the big touchdown to Reggie Wayne), they did outplay Indy and were the better team. This week they go back to Pittsburgh where they gave the Steelers a tough game in Week 11, though the Steelers vastly outgained them (197 more total yards). (The final score was 11-10, the only game in NFL history with that score, but it really should have been 18-10 because Troy Polamalu scored a touchdown that was wrongly disallowed, costly millions (including us) the cover they deserved). In any event, the Chargers have improved defensively since then as midseason replacement defensive coordinator Ron Rivera has had more time to put his stamp on the unit. And with LaDainian Tomlinson ailing, it looks like the smaller and much quicker Sproles will again carry the load. While many people think this is a major plus for San Diego, we disagree - against a stout defensive team like the Steelers in what will likely be cold and perhaps snowy conditions, Tomlinson (at least the healthy version of him we saw against Denver) will be missed. It's one thing to ask the diminutive and unaccustomed Sproles to carry the load in good weather against the Colts and quite another to expect that out of him against a much tougher and harder-hitting defense in bad conditions. Philip Rivers had a great season, but he also benefitted from good conditions and largely weak competition - we don't expect him to be effective on Sunday. The Chargers can stay in this game if their improved defense also keeps the Steelers in check - but barring a total blizzard, we expect Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers to move the ball with some consistency against them. Back the Steelers who cover fairly easily.
Steelers 23 - 9
We were 1-3 in the Wild Card games and 124-122-10 on the season. From 1999-2007, we were 1184-1018 - not including ties - (53.8 percent).
Article first appeared 1/7/09