We went 3-1 last week which was nice, but the Texans-Bengals game seemed to turn on one fluke play at the end of the half. The Saints-Lions probably could have gone either way, too, especially had the officials not blown dead a fumble that would have been returned for a touchdown. The Steelers-Broncos was a great reminder of why you take a big home dog almost as a matter of principle, and the Giants-Falcons showed why using average full-season results isn't always the best barometer of a team's current strength.
This week, I feel strongly about the NFC picks but struggled on the AFC ones.
Saints -3.5 at 49ers
All the Saints do is win and cover, and even when you manage a backdoor late touchdown against them as the Lions did last week, they re-open the front door with a gratuitous score. Nonetheless, all three of the Saints losses were on the road, and they had trouble with teams like Tennessee and Tampa Bay on grass. The 49ers are among the best defensive teams in the league, but are stouter against the run than the pass. The 49ers offense hasn't had to do a lot, as they've played with leads most of the year, and it's also bogged down in the red zone quite a bit with David Akers breaking the NFL record for field goals. I'd expect Jim Harbaugh to open things up more this week against a Saints defense that's vulnerable to big plays in the passing game. The Saints also struggle against the run, another area of which the 49ers can take advantage. The bottom line, I'd lay more than a TD with the Saints were this game in the Superdome, but in San Francisco on the slower track, I'm happy to take more than a field goal with the Niners. Back San Francisco who wins outright.
49ers 26 - 23
Broncos +13.5 at Patriots
I was initially going to take the Pats here - bye week teams are usually great plays against upstart underdogs coming off improbable upsets. Just look at Denver's recent body of work, and you see a team lucky to make the playoffs and having to travel to New England against a rested one that's been putting up points consistently all year. The Broncos just won their Super Bowl, so to speak, exceeding any realistic expectations, while anything short of an actual Super Bowl win is going to disappoint the Patriots. Moreover, the Pats blew out the Broncos in Denver just a few weeks ago (though they were helped by some Denver fumbles), and there's no way Bill Belichick is going to copy the Steelers' strategy of putting everyone in the box and letting Denver's receivers bask in single coverage. Instead, I'd imagine the Patriots will give up yards on the ground and shorter throws and look to take away the big play, making it nearly impossible for the Broncos to keep pace. But the more I thought about it, a nearly two-touchdown line in the playoffs is an awful lot as it's usually what you see between a top team and a league doormat. And this is with a team fielding one of the most generous pass defenses in the league. So I was going to take Denver. But then as I made the case for the Pats in this writeup, I felt it was the stronger one. Back the Patriots.
Patriots 47 - 21
Texans +7.5 at Ravens
This game strikes me as fairly simple. If the Ravens win the turnover battle and get ahead, I think Houston and its rookie quarterback will have serious problems playing from behind. In that case, I'd expect a blowout. If Houston wins the turnover battle, the game will be close, and it's 50/50 who wins it. But if the turnovers are even - and that's all we can project - what happens then? I'm not quite sure. But my gut tells me the Ravens - with their elite defense and bye week - are the right play. Back Baltimore.
Ravens 27 - 16
Giants +8 at Packers
The Giants played the Packers evenly at home about five weeks ago, and New York's defense has gotten a lot better since with Osi Umenyiora and Michael Boley getting healthy and Justin Tuck getting up to full speed. The Packers are still capable of playing a close game for three quarters and pulling away by double digits, but unless they win the turnover battle - something they've done consistently - I don't see that happening against the Giants. Moreover, Eli Manning plays well on the road and won a huge game in Green Bay four years ago to send the Giants to the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers is still the best player on the field, but if the Giants pass rush can get to him a few times, I think Manning can keep pace. In a turnover-neutral game, I think it'll be close, and as a Giants fan, all things being equal, I'll pick them to win. Back New York.
Giants 31 - 30
We were 3-1 last week and 124-125-7 on the regular season. From 1999-2010 we've gone 1565-1387 (53%, not including ties).