Another solid week during the conference championship games (2-0), bringing my playoff record to 8-2. And the two losses were during the Wild Card round on games I deemed coin flips, so it's been a decent run. Hopefully, I can end the year on positive note on the one game on which everyone puts money. To that end...
SUPER BOWL XLIX
Patriots -1 vs. Seahawks
My quick estimate based on what I've seen from these two teams was the Patriots should be about three or four point favorites on a neutral field, a pick 'em were the game in Seattle and favored by nearly a TD were the game in New England. That's not so far off from the current line, but it's well off from the opening Vegas line that had Seattle as three-point favorites, a rare mistake that got beaten down by the market within hours.
My basis for thinking the Pats are the better team includes the obvious disparity in play during the conference title games - Seattle incredibly lucky to survive despite playing at home, and New England dominating their matchup, albeit against a weaker opponent. But it also extends a few games beyond that. As was the case in the Green Bay game, Seattle got virtually no pressure on Cam Newton during the divisional round, and the Panthers were able to move the ball fairly consistently. Even in the key Week 17 home win against the Rams that gave the Seahawks home field advantage, the margin of victory (14) was misleading; the Seahawks needed a late pick-six and a Rams fumble at the half-yard line to get there.
The last game the Seahawks dominated was against the Ryan Lindley Cardinals, and if the Cardinals-Panthers playoff game were any indication, that's hardly a major achievement.
Of course, a three-game sample is typically not enough on which to base an evaluation, and the Seahawks have been the NFL's best team - and easily its best defense - for the last two years. Moreover, last year's Super Bowl write-up in which I picked Seattle to roll over the Broncos, focused on the long list of Super Bowl teams with superior defenses beating up on offense-heavy opponents. Assuming Seattle's stellar second-half defensive numbers, combined with last year's historically good pass defense, keeps them among the all-time great units, one would think the same precedents and arguments apply. But the 1986 Bears, who like their 1985 predecessors also led the league in points and yards allowed, didn't make it out of the divisional round, and the 2001 Ravens, whose defense was also strong, suffered the same fate. In short, the precedent seemed to apply where the defense was at the peak of its powers, not merely a watered down, if still league-best, derivative of the previous year's historic group.
Last year's Super Bowl, where the Seahawks consistently got pressure on Peyton Manning with four rushers, stands in stark contrast to their playoff wins this year.
While the Patriots looked great at home against the Colts, that result too could be misleading given the struggles the Colts had against good teams all year before the playoffs, and Indy's easy postseason draw (no A.J. Green and a gimpy, ineffective Peyton Manning.) Don't forget the Patriots were life and death at home with the Ravens in the divisional round and needed some trick plays (eligible offensive linemen, a long TD pass by Julian Edelman) to escape. Moreover, in the home-field-advantage deciding Week 16 contest against the Jets, they barely scraped by, thanks in large part to a late missed FG by Nick Folk.
But the Ravens win, a game during which the Patriots trailed by two touchdowns twice, was telling because Baltimore was a savvy, physical, playoff-tested team with a top defense and a good coach who had won in New England twice before in the postseason. It was the worst possible matchup for the Patriots, and they survived it. And no matter how mediocre the Colts were for a conference title game opponent, New England's victory could not have been more decisive.
The one thing that gives me pause and makes me more wary of backing the Pats than I would be is the "deflate-gate" scandal, the details of which I have no interest in rehashing here. I have no idea whether or how it will affect the game, but I'm fairly certain from the Patriots perspective it can't be good. At minimum it's a distraction, and at worst, it gets under their skin. But because the scandal broke during the first week of the gap between the conference championships and Super Bowl and also because Bill Belichick and Tom Brady presumably have thicker skins and better focus than almost anyone on the planet, it's not going to move me off my initial conviction: that this team with a healthy Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis is the best the Patriots have fielded since 2007. And having passed the Ravens test three weeks ago, they'll win the Super Bowl.
Patriots 31 - 27
I went 2-0 last week in the divisional games to go 8-2 in the playoffs. I was 135-116-5 on the season. Best bets are 18-12-1. From 1999-2013 I've gone 1,933-1,764 (52.3%), not including ties.