Cam Newton is MVP and the Panthers are 15-1, yet they’re only a two point favorite at home. Rodney Dangerfield joke here. (Photo by vivi1867)
The Carolina Panthers rolled through the regular season with ruthless efficiency, opening with 14 consecutive wins on their way to a 15-1 record and top seed in the NFC. They’ve got the league MVP under center backed by a defense that was 6th in both yards and points allowed. Despite being a 3rd-and-9 Matt Ryan completion away from a perfect season, the Panthers are the afterthought entering the NFL divisional round. What gives?
The Broncos, Patriots, and Cardinals are all favored by at least five points, but the Panthers are giving two measly points at home, basically an underdog in their own yard. They’re taking on the defending NFC Champion Seahawks, but Seattle needed a hilarious field goal miss to advance past Minnesota last week and they’ve looked like garbage in two of their last three games. Sometimes a gem appears in the NFL playoffs and I think there might be one here, but we like to keep things orderly here at Pattison Ave so let’s get into the divisional round in sequence. I went 2-2 last week thanks to the Steelers shaving poi-, uh I mean blowing a 15-0 fourth quarter lead to the Bengals by playing Landry Jones and then bringing back Ben Roethlisberger when it was time to win. A lot happened in that game Saturday night.
And despite my tangent about the disrespected Panthers, some of these road teams have value.
Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots (-5)
Regular Season: No Game
Andy Reid finally has his first playoff win since that windy day in the Meadowlands seven years ago, but now the Chiefs travel to Foxboro for the annual Brady/Belichick title chase and not many folks are giving poor Andy a chance. The Pats are getting Julian Edelman back and he’s Swiss army knife of the New England offense, lining up all over the field to create mismatches. Belichick loves his shifty wide receivers and the Patriots offense is always such a unique threat when they have their full complement of offensive weapons. Steven Jackson has taken the LaGarrette Blount 15-carries-up-the-middle role filled by forgettable Patriots backs of the years, so Belichick can do pretty much whatever he wants on offense today.
But the Chiefs are perhaps the most underrated 12-game-winning-streak-team in NFL history. And Alex Smith’s offense is more efficient than you think. The Chiefs are 8th in points per drive and Football Outsider’s DVOA stat has their offense ranked 6th, only one spot behind New England (and first in rushing! Andy Reid!).
Asking the Chiefs offense to keep up with Tom Brady at home in the playoffs is still a tall task, but I think Kansas City has enough to keep the game close. And with the way their defense and special teams gave been grabbing touchdowns, New England better be prepared for all they can handle. Am I really doing this? Am I picking Andy Reid twice in a row on the road in the playoffs? Of course not, I haven’t lost my mind, but I swear this was the toughest game to choose this week. New England’s offense might be in snail-mode to get their injured players up to speed and a 23-20 Pats win isn’t a far-fetched outcome. I don’t think the Chiefs can win outright so I can’t pick them, but this game was tougher to pick than I expected. I’ll take the Pats and be very uneasy about it. Plus I kinda want Andy to win, sue me.
PICK: PATRIOTS -5
Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals (-7.5)
Regular Season: Cardinals won 38-8
The Cardinals trounced the Packers in their Week 16 match-up with stifling defense that held Aaron Rodgers to 151 passing yards. The game was so one-sided Scott Tolzien got a rare appearance in mop-up duty.
But the playoffs are a different story and the Packers had their best game of the season last week, never allowing the Redskins a chance to get close after their opening drive in the second half. Aaron Rodgers looked like his old self and the Packers defense shut down Kirk Cousins, which (don’t laugh) had been a tough thing to do at Fedex Field this year. Green Bay’s defense has been solid all year and the Cardinals game in Week 16 was their only hiccup since losing to the Panthers in early November. The only questions is, can Rodgers squeeze out enough points with these receivers?
I think he can. The Packers have played snake-in-the-grass before and I’m not buying the Cardinals defense as an elite unit without Tyrann Mathieu. Arizona’s strength is their offense and if Green Bay can get Eddie Lacy and/or James Starks going even a little bit, it’ll keep Carson Palmer on the sidelines and greatly increase the odds of Rodgers being able to pull this out of his hat late. I like betting on Aaron Rodgers.
PICK: PACKERS +7.5
Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers (-2)
Regular Season: Panthers won 27-24
The Panthers giving only two points here confuses me. The Seahawks looked terrible against the Rams in Week 16 and again last week in Minnesota, winning only because of this. So why only a two-point dog? Probably because Russell Wilson is the runner up in MVP voting and Seattle gets a little extra credit for being the two-time defending NFC Champions. Just think, last time they lost to an NFC team in the playoffs, Chip Kelly was coaching Oregon to an Orange Bowl win over Kansas State.
Seattle is 3rd in points per drive on offense (6th on defense) and they’ll probably give Carolina all they can handle tomorrow, but this Panthers team is really good and people seem to be taking them for granted. They’re actually ahead of Seattle in both points per drive on offense AND defense and they’re 4th in total DVOA (Seattle is 1st). These are two absolute monsters squaring off here and I’m expecting this to be the best game of the weekend. And as I insinuated in my first paragraph, I’m leaning towards the home team here.
Carolina has won the blowouts and the close games. They face the #1 rushing defense, but they don’t run the ball like other teams do. Cam has the ability to wear down even the toughest defenses and he’s going to do enough to pull out a win for the Panthers.
PICK: PANTHERS -2
PITTSBURGH STEELERS AT DENVER BRONCOS (-9)
Regular Season: Steelers won 34-27
The Steelers enter this game held together by duct tape and gum. They’ve already ruled out Antonio Brown and Deangelo Williams and Ben Roethlisberger will try to play through a sprained AC joint and torn ligaments in his shoulder. Pittsburgh’s win against Cincinnati last week came at a huge cost and now they’re in Denver to face the Broncos, who beat them with TIM TEBOW last time they met in the playoffs. This time, it’ll be Peyton Manning.
Despite all of this, I’m still taking the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger might not be able to feel his shoulder, but it’s going to be 35 degrees at kickoff (and dropping throughout the evening) so Peyton Manning probably won’t be able to feel his hands either. The game has the lowest point total of the weekend and for good reason – I think this has 17-10 written all over it.
I’m breaking one of the cardinal rules here (don’t pick an underdog unless you think they can win outright, thanks Simmons), but nine points is a lot for an old, broken-down Peyton Manning in cold temperatures. I’m taking the Steelers because this is going to be a close, low-scoring game that probably gets decided late in the 4th quarter. Taking the points and not looking back.
PICK: STEELERS +9
PROPS, FUTURES, AND OTHER ASSORTED BETS
I hit on three of four recommended props last week (would’ve been four for four if Gio Bernard didn’t get hurt!) and there’s no shortage of interesting bets this week too. Like I said last week, obviously not going to play all of these, but they’re worth a look if you’re trying to add extra intrigue to these games. (Numbers from sportsbook.ag)
- Travis Kelce UNDER 62.5 receiving yards – Kelce is a monster, but Belichick is an expert at taking away your best weapon and he’s going to eliminate the big TE any way he can. Kelce will get his targets, but I think his YAC will be limited.
- Aaron Rodgers OVER 241.5 passing yards – This is a good hedge if you’re betting Packers +7.5. The Cardinals are a team you need to keep pace with, so I’m expecting a lot of throwing with some deep shots from Rodgers.
- Russell Wilson OVER 35.5 rushing yards – I like any total under 40 in playoff games with Russell Wilson, especially against a solid defense like Carolina that will force him to make plays outside the pocket. He had 53 rushing yards last time these teams met.
- Steelers/Broncos UNDER 20 points in the first half – the first half of this game is going to be a lot of “figuring things out”. Both teams need to see what their QBs can do physically and go from there, so a slow first half is likely.
- Patriots +160 to win the AFC – this is down from +175 from last week. Still think it’s the Pats to lose in the AFC.
There’s your picks and predictions for the 2015 NFL Divisional Round, I’m expecting a Patriots/Broncos AFC Championship Game and then maybe Packers/Panthers (although a Cardinals obviously wouldn’t be a surprise). Underdogs are 19-28 in the divisional round since 2003, so an upset shouldn’t be unexpected. That’s all I have for this week, here’s some betting trends via sportsinsight.com to take it home. Happy wagering and don’t forget to fade the public.