Throughout the 2014 NFL season, the same comment was uttered by fans and analysts alike, "Something is off about this year." In fact, we touched on this sentiment in our Week 4 picks article.
This belief that the league was not following some set plan that apparently existed opened the door for opportunities to emerge. Playing largely against the popular belief, this column has now elevated to the top of the standings for picks against the spread, tracked by NFLPickwatch.com.
Oddly enough, as 'off' as the year appeared, quite possibly the biggest difference between this season and those of the past is the pairing of matchups for the Conference Championships. Of the four remaining teams - Seattle, Green Bay, Indianapolis, and New England - a strong case could be made for each as to why it should be crowned champion. There is no 'team getting hot at the right time.' Each of the four is battle-tested and deserving of its position.
The beauty of this weekend is that the fire in which each team was forged was already ignited by Sunday's opponent. Both sets of games are rematches from earlier this season, where this weekend's home team beat the visitor previously by a minimum of 20 points. Adding even more drama is the fact that New England also beat Indianapolis last postseason - in New England - by 21, while Seattle's victory against the Packers this year was the standalone 'Opening Night' kickoff game, nationally televised and universally watched.
With all four teams being powerhouses in their own rights, it is rather surprising that, according to the spreads, neither game is expected to be relatively close. That bodes well for the underdog, considering there is a large cushion on which to fall, especially when factoring in the immeasurable emotion that will certainly fill the air of each stadium.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team.
Playoffs Against the Spread to Date: 7-1
*Confidence Picks (Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread: 148-112-4
Green Bay Packers (+7.5) at Seattle Seahawks
"You can't beat Seattle in Seattle." More like, "you can't speak to anyone regarding the Seahawks without hearing that phrase." Then there's, "without Aaron Rodgers at 100 percent, the Packers don't stand a chance."
Granted, both comments have their validity. The Seahawks are historically great in their own stadium - an outrageous 25-2 in Seattle since 2012, including playoff games - and Aaron Rodgers' injured leg takes away a bit of the shine from the matchup, but we have reached a point in the season where most of the ancillary beliefs get thrown away.
Aaron Rodgers' performance against the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round of the playoffs yielded two confirmations: his leg injury indeed limits his ability to escape the pocket, but he is still deadly effective. To assume that, with another week of rest and sixty minutes of football to potentially earn a trip to the Super Bowl, Rodgers won't be able to perform at a high enough level to compete is largely dismissing the talent of one of the best quarterbacks of his generation.
Ironically enough, his counterpart on Sunday - Seattle's Russell Wilson - is also the victim of downplayed expectations.
Wilson is the prototypical 'do whatever needs to be done to win the game' quarterback, but even that distinction is disrespectful to a man who is every bit as talented as the next. While we commonly cast off quarterbacks with a propensity to scramble, Wilson escapes this denouncement, as well as his pursuers. Simply put, he doesn't get enough credit for being a great quarterback despite the fact that he receives no criticism for leaving the pocket.
This is probably because, like Rodgers, Wilson is also deadly.
The slam-dunk matchup of the game is clearly Green Bay's top-ranked scoring offense against Seattle's top ranked scoring defense, especially if Rodgers' injury doesn't become an outright detriment. But the key to victory likely rests in the battle between the Seahawks' offense and the Packers' defense, ranked fourteenth in points scored and thirteenth in points allowed, respectively.
Despite how effective Russell Wilson is at winning games – 41-13 as a starting quarterback, including the playoffs - his team isn't known for offensive outbursts. Including their Divisional Round win against the Panthers, the Seahawks' offense - excluding defensive and special teams touchdowns - has scored more than 30 points in a game only three times. Green Bay's offense reached the 30-point barrier seven times, the team broke 40 points – including defensive and special teams – four times, and eclipsed 50 twice.
As great as Seattle plays in its own stadium, it should not pull away from a Green Bay offense capable of striking at any time. In addition, while the Seahawks' defense is the best in the league against the pass, Green Bay arguably has the most weapons out of any team.
In the end, the Seahawks – a rare case of a defending Super Bowl Champion who looks just as hungry for their second title as their first - comes out on top. Seattle wins by four, but Green Bay beats the spread.
Indianapolis Colts (+6.5) at New England Patriots
For what seemed like every year since Tom Brady took over as quarterback of the New England Patriots, the team would face the Indianapolis Colts in the postseason. The rivalry was created and sustained by excellence at the quarterback position over a prolonged stretch of time, and it seems as if little has changed of late.
Where Peyton Manning once led an Indianapolis Colts team to one playoff berth after another, Andrew Luck is now doing the same. Perhaps, the rivalry is safe for a few more years. In fact, maybe the Colts are in better hands with Luck than they ever were with Manning.
At first glance, it seems to be a ridiculous notion that any quarterback in his third full season could be compared to one of the all-time greats, but consider not where the player is, but where he is expected to be. We have used this same comparison in other columns - including last week's picks - but wasn't Aaron Rodgers in nearly an identical position in his third full season as a starting quarterback? When he went on to win the Super Bowl, he immediately became elevated to the upper tier of quarterbacks, even though it was blatantly obvious that he would eventually reach that status, with or without ever winning a championship.
The same should be said about Andrew Luck.
The Colts are, by all accounts, a major liability on the defensive side of the ball, but they have now turned in back-to-back solid performances of ten and thirteen points allowed, respectively. Granted, the Bengals and Broncos were both not playing their best football at the time, but Indianapolis is now getting contributions from all aspects of play.
New England is obviously one of the most dangerous and feared teams in the league. The respect for quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick is palpable throughout the league, and there may exist no better pair at finding ways to win a game – 179 career wins, including the postseason. Belichick even unveiled a new trick from his bag when he toyed around with the alignment of eligible and ineligible receivers in the team's Divisional Round win against Baltimore.
Then again, while Belichick and Brady deserve a significant amount of credit for finding creative routes to victory, isn't it a little telling that they needed to perform such trickery? In reality, the Patriots trailed by two touchdowns at two separate points in their last playoff game, and used a bevy of trick plays to pull out the win. Indeed, this is an indication that they are never truly out of a game, but it's also clear that they could be outplayed when everything is stripped down.
With the league's third-best offense - sixth in points - led by arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the game already, why can't the Colts go toe-to-toe with the Patriots? We always preach about how perception drives the spread but not the actual game. In that regard, is any team more 'obviously going to win' than the Patriots?
Once again, the playoffs largely boil down to the quarterback position, whether it is on his shoulders or against him. Both teams have excellence under center, but Luck may be on his way to knocking off another all-time great during what could become a special postseason run.
It happens, as the Colts win in New England by a field goal, beating the spread, and opening a floodgates of storylines from the emergence of Andrew Luck to comparisons between Luck's and Peyton Manning's playoff runs.
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