Beating the Book
By Christopher Liss
RotoWire Managing Editor
We went 1-1 in last week's games, predicting correctly that the Colts would somehow find a way (though we didn't think it would take Bill Belichick making terrible decisions in the last few minutes of the game). We were also wrong about the Saints, but we did warn you that it was the sucker play. Not sure if we were more wrong in getting the Colts game right, or more right in getting the Saints game wrong, but that was TWO weeks ago, so it doesn't much matter...
I hate to say it, but we don't have a strong feel for the Super Bowl. It's too bad because of course we're going to bet it - not betting the Super Bowl is like going to a steakhouse and ordering chicken, or attending Woodstock and not getting high. You might as well not even show up.
I'm not sure why we're not big on this game - it might have do with the two-week layoff, the neutral venue and the circus atmosphere - it's not a regular football game in many respects, and it feels odd looking at things like regular season net YPA. But we've had strong feelings for the big game in the past, so it's not just that. Part of it is how different the teams are now than earlier in the year. The Bears are missing Tommie Harris and Mike Brown, and their defense hasn't been nearly what it was early in the season. The Colts got Bob Sanders back, and their run defense has been much better.
The other odd thing about this game is that early in the year, these were far and away the two frontrunners to be here (they were the last two teams to lose a game). But now that they're here, it doesn't feel like they're the best two teams at all. Everyone who watched the Chargers-Pats game knows the Chargers were the better team, and it's arguable that the Pats were better than the Colts given all the things that had to go right late in the game for Indy at home. And the Ravens certainly put the wood to bad teams much more effectively than the Colts did, though it's hard to argue for Baltimore after Indy handled them fairly easily in Baltimore. In short, the Chargers and probably the Patriots were the two top teams, with Indy a close third. And the Bears without two key defensive players might not even make the top five.
So it's an anticlimactic in a way, and the debate over Colts offense vs. Bears defense, something we might ordinarily be excited about, doesn't move us to take a strong position. But we have to pick the game, of course, and so we have - see below.
SUPER BOWL XLI
Bears +6.5 vs. Colts
At first glance, the Colts seem like the obvious play here because the Bears defense isn't that good right now (they were lit up by Detroit, Tampa Bay, Green Bay and St. Louis down the stretch), and they're missing their best defensive player in Tommie Harris. The Colts, as we mentioned, have one of their best defensive players, Bob Sanders, back, and the unit has played much better football as a result. So the Colts weaker unit has improved, while the Bears stronger unit has declined. And Peyton Manning is coming off the best playoff half of his career, and in his biggest game. So why aren't we sold on the Colts?
A number of reasons. First, the Colts haven't blown out teams consistently this year - they played close games or lost outright against teams like the Jets, Bills, Titans, Texans and Jaguars. Some of that was due to their inability to stop the run, but it was also due to their dink and dunk attack which necessitates more third-down conversions and longer drives. As good as Manning is, he has to be incredibly consistent and mistake free to sustain those drives all game long. While Manning was very good at converting third downs all season, it's better not to even get to third down, and this year, the team hasn't had the quick strike capacity it had in years past. As a result, the game should have less points than it would if the Colts were throwing more passes down the field.
Second, the Colts' kick coverage is poor, and the Bears' Devin Hester is coming off one of the best seasons for a return man in NFL history. That should shorten the field for Chicago and perhaps even result in a score.
Third, if Bob Sanders, who plays safety, is going to be such a major factor stopping the run, then the Colts will have just three defensive backs in coverage deeper down the field. The Bears will likely look to run the ball, and if the Colts commit to stopping it, as they did in their first two playoff games, Rex Grossman, for all his flaws, is capable of beating teams deep. Of course, the Colts are very good at preventing the long ball, but they did that all season at the EXPENSE of allowing teams to run wild. Bob Sanders might be good, but he can't be in two places at once - he's either on the line of scrimmage, or in coverage. The Colts will have to choose whether they want to stop the run or defend the pass. If they choose the former, Grossman can look deep. If they choose the latter, the Bears should run effectively and chew clock. Again, less points and/or closer game. Against the Chiefs and Ravens, two teams with virtually no vertical threat to worry about, this wasn't a problem, they could sell out to stop them at the line of scrimmage. The Bears (and Patriots) have more balance than that.
Fourth, the Bears are good at creating turnovers. They were second in the league in interceptions with 24, and first in forced fumbles with 23. Now, I hate the fumble - it's probably the cheapest, least skill-oriented game-changing play in football, but turnovers play a huge role in who wins and who loses, and it seems the Bears know better than most teams how to strip the ballcarrier without blowing the tackle. With the Colts moving more slowly down the field, there will be more plays per possession, especially ones where Indy's offensive players have the ball in traffic, and more chances for Chicago to strip or intecept the ball. (While Manning is very hard to intercept during the regular season, he has been very easy to pick during his last three playoff games. Consider that the Ravens would have had two more than they did if Ray Lewis didn't tip balls out of the hands of his teammates. Manning has six picks in the posteason, but might well have had eight).
Finally, we expect the public to be on the Colts - they're the better team, from the dominant conference with the higher profile players, particularly at the skill positions. And the public's usually wrong. So we're taking the Bears to cover, even though we think Manning will get his ring. Back Chicago.
Colts 23 - 19
We were 1-1 in the divisional playoff games to put us at 4-6 in the postseason. We went 139-108-9 on the regular season. From 1999-2005, we were 918-790 - not including ties - (53.7 percent).
Article first appeared 1/31/07