Gregg Doyel makes some excellent points in his recent column, and his point about Bill Belichick’s comments about Wes Welker are echoed in part by Brian Billick in the video above.
Belichick tried to call out Welker as a dirty player, but the tape and the circumstances make his claim ridiculous. The bottom line here is that Belichick outsmarted himself by letting Welker go and trying to replace him with Danny Amendola. The experiment failed miserably, and he had to watch Welker help Peyton Manning to a record-setting season, capped off by an easy win over the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Belichick comes across as very bitter here. Even pathetic.
AFC Championship Game: Patriots vs. Broncos, 3:00PM ET
After the Broncos hung on to beat the Chargers last Sunday in the Divisional round, oddsmakers opened the line for the AFC title game at Denver -6.5, which immediately drew New England bettors. The line quickly dropped to Denver -4.5 but has since been bet back up to 5, indicating that books are receiving good two-way action on today’s game.
All of that aside, the Patriots have accomplished remarkable feats this year despite losing Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Brandon Spikes, Tommy Kelly, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker since the start of the offseason. It’s a testament to Bill Belichick’s ability to plan around his strengths and attack opponents’ weaknesses that the Pats are once again back in the AFC title game. That said, the Patriots might finally face their end, ironically at the hands of Peyton Manning, whom they have bested plenty over the past decade.
If Denver can stop LeGarrette Blount, which is no easy task, especially since they too are depleted defensively due to injuries, and force Brady to work outside the numbers, then the Broncos could flip the script on Belichick. It sounds insane for Denver to put the ball in Brady’s hands but New England, in its latest rebirth, is a team that plays power football and uses play-action to stretch defenses vertically. Take away Brady’s ability to use the middle of the field to get the ball to Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola and the Broncos may turn this thing into a track meet.
Again, Belichick has done amazing things with his defenses, including using rookie Jamie Collins as a moveable chess piece in last week’s win over the Colts. But tight end Julius Thomas didn’t play in the first meeting between these two teams, which gives Belichick one more weapon to worry about. While it’s tempting to take the points with a red-hot Patriots team (if not the smart thing based on the value that the point spread offers), I like the Broncos. FREE PICK: Broncos -5.
NFC Championship Game: 49ers vs. Seahawks, 6:30PM ET
Perhaps no team remaining in the playoff field is playing better than the Niners, whom have put together impressive back-to-back wins against the Packers and Panthers. This would be a perfect time to wax poetically about how difficult it is to win three-straight road games in the postseason but if any team is build to win on the road, it’s San Fran. First and foremost they play outstanding defense, their physical, they can pound the ball on the ground, and Colin Kaepernick’s ability to test the edge gives pause to even the most aggressive defensive coordinators.
But obviously San Francisco will meet its perfect match tonight in Seattle, which too plays outstanding defense, can run the ball and is just as physical is its counterpart – if not more physical. Pete Carroll’s hybrid front often gives opponents fits and nobody plays the Cover 3 better than the Hawks, who are tough to beat outside the numbers. Russell Wilson is also a versatile threat who forces defenses to adjust to his mobility.
So who offers the most value? Honestly, it’s the Niners, who are 3.5-point underdogs. One would expect this game to come down to a field goal based on how evenly matched these two teams are, although I don’t view the game that way.
I admit that this is more of a hunch than anything, but I believe Kaepernick will struggle today. Carolina gave him trouble for most of the first half last week in Carolina and Seattle will be even tougher on him today. The Panthers problem is that they couldn’t reach pay dirt twice in the first half when they had the ball at the goal line. And one thing that has separated Seattle and San Francisco in the previous three meetings is execution inside the red zone. The Hawks have made 11 trips inside the red zone versus San Francisco in the past three meetings, averaging 5.9 points in those three games. The Niners, meanwhile, averaged 2.6 points in 10 trips. Even though Wilson has struggled for nearly a month, I’ll take him in the red zone tonight over Kaepernick, who has had his fair share of issues in Seattle. While the Niners settle for field goals (much like they did a week ago in the first half against the Panthers), I expect the Hawks to eventually pull away with touchdowns. FREE PICK: Seahawks -3.5.
Saints vs. Seahawks, 4:35PM ET
The forecast for Saturday’s Divisional round game in Seattle is calling for a 70-perent chance of rain throughout and high winds ranging between 28 and 30 miles per hour. Considering Seattle already has the toughest defense in the NFL and has struggled offensively in recent weeks, the under seemingly holds more value than the side in this matchup. The Saints also went with a power run approach last Saturday in Philadelphia and may have to employ a similar tactic if they can’t stretch the ball vertically. The Seahawks also did a great job of limiting New Orleans’ screen and short area game in the first matchup, so offense could be at a premium for the Saints this weekend. The under is 5-0 in the Saints’ last five road games, 7-1 in their last eight games overall and 5-0 in the Seahawks’ last five games. FREE PICK: UNDER 44
Colts vs. Patriots, 8:15PM ET
Andrew Luck and the Colts staged one of the greatest comebacks in NFL playoff history last week when they knocked off the Chiefs, 45-44. But they also received some help along the way. Kansas City lost six starters throughout the game, including running back Jamaal Charles. Bob Sutton also failed to adjust to T.Y. Hilton’s ability to run free in his secondary in the second half and the Colts turned the ball over a whopping four times. Too many things went right for Indianapolis to bank on more fireworks Saturday night in Foxboro. (I’ll save everyone the “Luck” puns.) This is usually the time of year when Bill Belichick and Tom Brady make their money and Belichick won’t make the same mistakes that Sutton and Andy Reid did a week ago. FREE PICK: PATRIOTS -7
49ers vs. Panthers, 1:05PM ET
This truly is a coin flip of a matchup. The Panthers beat the 49ers 10-9 in San Francisco back in November of this year but the Niners were without Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith, and only had Vernon Davis for the first half before he injured himself. Colin Kaepernick has also been a different quarterback with Crabtree back in the starting lineup and the Niners are one of the hottest teams in the league. While Carolina plays outstanding defense at home, this will be Cam Newton’s first playoff game and his inexperience could shine through. With this game expected to be tight throughout, look for the Niners to hold onto victory in the end. FREE PICK: 49ERS PICK’EM
Chargers vs. Broncos, 4:40PM ET
The Broncos were held under 30 points only three times this season and the Chargers were able to do it twice. In their current five-game winning streak, San Diego has rushed at least 36 times per contest and gained over 143 yards in every game. Running the ball and stealing time of possessions away from Peyton Manning will be the key to their success but whether or not they can do it will be another story. Manning realizes that his window to win another Super Bowl is slamming shut and despite his issues in his first playoff games, the cold weather or Denver’s defense, I don’t think Manning will be outdone this weekend by a scrappy San Diego team. It’s too tempting to take the 10 points with the Chargers after they were able to dismantle an underrated Cincinnati team a week ago but I’m going to do it anyway. I think this is Manning’s year to at least get back to the Super Bowl and I see a rout in the final game of Divisional week. FREE PICK: BRONCOS -10
Will this be the last NFL game for Ray Lewis, or with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady get to another Super Bowl. The guys in Vegas have New England at more than a touchdown favorite, but the line has been moving in Baltimore’s direction.
The other hot pick seems to be San Francisco, as they are now a 3.5 to 4 point favorite on the road against Atlanta, as everyone seems to be jumping on the Colin Kaepernick bandwagon. It’s safe to say that quite a bit of money will be wagered today testing that premise.
1. Flacco still isn’t ready to carry Ravens.
For the past four years, Joe Flacco has been able to get away with inconsistent performance after inconsistent performance because his defense constantly bailed him out. The Ravens coped with his hot and cold production because they were dominant on the other side of the ball. But with injuries to Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb, Baltimore is no longer a force defensively. Houston’s receivers ran free in the Ravens’ secondary and the Texans’ offensive line had its way with Baltimore’s defensive front in the running game. For once, the Ravens needed Flacco to carry his defense and instead he turned in a brutal performance. He completed just 21-of-43 passes for 147 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, and when he wasn’t skipping passes to his receivers he was throwing over their heads. Granted, Houston relentlessly pressured the pocket and its secondary was excellent. But the game looked like it was moving way too fast for Flacco, which is troublesome considering he’s a fifth-year starter. Baltimore’s offense hasn’t been in sync for weeks and now that the defense is limping, the door has opened for the Steelers to chip away at their rival’s lead in the division.
2. Rodgers is heating up.
The Packers aren’t exactly the perfect specimens. Their no huddle isn’t firing on all cylinders, their running game is non-existent, and their defense can be ordinary at times. But when Aaron Rodgers plays like he did in Green Bay’s 30-20 victory over St. Louis on Sunday, the Packers are difficult to beat. Rodgers was insanely accurate versus the Rams, completing 30-of-37 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns. He was as good in the Lou as he was in Houston the week before and now that the Packers have gotten past the challenging part of their schedule (which included three straight road games), you can tell they’re ready to make a run at the Bears and Vikings in the NFC North. And thanks to Rodgers being Rodgers again, don’t be surprised if Green Bay eventually catches and surpasses its division rivals.
3. Pass defense makes Patriots vulnerable.
The Patriots claimed sole possession of first place in the AFC East with their 29-26 victory over the Jets on Sunday. Their rushing attack continues to be an important cog in their success, as they’re now 4-0 this season when rushing for more than 100 yards. But their pass defense continues to hold them back. Despite his best efforts not to at times, Mark Sanchez looked like a competent quarterback on Sunday. He completed a career-high nine passes of 15 yards or more and nearly led the Jets to what many believed to be an improbable victory in Foxboro. Opposing wideouts are allowed to run free in Bill Belichick’s zone and the pass rush continues to be inconsistent. Thus, even though the Patriots remain one of the most dangerous teams offensively, their defense will allow opponents to stay in games until the end, just as it did Sunday versus the Jets.
4. The Steelers’ defense finally steps up.
In Pittsburgh’s 24-17 victory over Cincinnati, the Steelers’ much maligned defense had to stop the Bengals on three separate drives in the fourth quarter. That’s usually not a noteworthy task for Dick LeBeau’s defensive unit, but the Steelers have become a team known for blowing fourth quarter leads this season. The Bengals didn’t even reach their own 40-yard line on each of their final three drives as Pittsburgh bowed up and finally resembled something of its past. Granted, it wasn’t all pretty for the Steelers. They dropped two touchdown passes in the first half and injuries continue to be a problem on defense. Still, the Ravens are a mess right now and the Bengals’ psyche has taken a huge hit. Furthermore, Pittsburgh was able to get its running game going thanks to Jonathan Dwyer (17 carries, 122 yards), so the Steelers might be able to help out their defense by sustaining drives and keeping opponents off the field. All of a sudden things are looking up again in Pittsburgh.
5. The Cowboys win but trouble remains.
The Cowboys essentially saved their season with a hard fought, but lackluster 19-14 victory over the Panthers on Sunday. There are several underlying problems in Big D right now. Sean Lee and Phil Costa had to leave the game with injuries, the Cowboys racked up just 19 points against a defense that allowed 25.0 PPG coming into Week 7, and there’s clearly a lack of trust between Jason Garrett and his team. Why else would he call a run on third-and-9 from the Carolina 15-yard line in the fourth quarter instead of allowing Tony Romo to fire a pass to the end zone? Maybe because Dez Bryant had just dropped yet another pass the play before? Or because Garrett is afraid Romo will once again turn the ball over trying to do too much? Garrett is playing not to lose and even though the Cowboys won on Sunday, that’s proven to be a losing proposition from week to week. Since their impressive victory Week 1 against the Giants, the ‘Boys have failed to generate much momentum over these last six games. If they’re not skating by with a win like they did in Carolina, they’re imploding like they did versus Chicago on Monday Night Football.
6. Despite the loss, RGIII’s statue continues to grow.
Robert Griffin III made several mistakes on Sunday, which included turning the ball over twice in New York territory and taking a 12-yard sack on a 1st-and-10 early in the fourth quarter. But the man continues to dazzle, so much so that following the game the Giants crowned him the best quarterback they’ve faced this season. There was the sensational 19-yard completion to Logan Paulsen on 4th-and-10 less than three minutes remaining that kept Washington’s hopes alive. There was the picture perfect 30-yard rainbow to Santana Moss that should have been the Redskins’ game-winning score. And there were the nine electric runs for 89 yards that sent the crowd at MetLife Stadium to their feet. It wasn’t a perfect performance and he’ll have to limit the mistakes going forward, just as he’s learned to cut down on absorbing big hits when he runs. But RGIII once again put on a show and once he figures out how to win on a consistent basis, then he’ll really impress.
7. How long before Ponder bursts Minnesota’s bubble?
Nobody expected the Vikings to be sitting at 5-2 after seven weeks. But thanks in large part to a restructured offensive line, a healthy Adrian Peterson and a defense that doesn’t have a glaring weakness, Minnesota is very much a playoff contender at this point. That said, how long will it be until Christian Ponder starts holding this team back? He completed just 8-of-17 passes for 58 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in Minnesota’s 21-14 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday. It was the second time in two weeks that he floated an interception to a defender, failed to sustain drives and generally misfired on most of his passes. Granted, he’s dealing with a sore knee so maybe that has affected his performance. But Sunday was also the second time in the past four games that Leslie Frazier and his coaching staff decided to run out the clock as soon as they built a second half lead. The Vikings turned the lights off at Mall of America Field as soon as Harrison Smith went 31 yards to the end zone on a pick six to start the second half. Are Frazier and Co. overly cautious or do they not trust Ponder? We’ll find out after Minnesota’s Week 11 bye when they play at Chicago and Green Bay before hosting the Bears in Week 14.
8. The Bucs are the Bucs’ own worst enemy.
The Bucs were screwed on the final play of the Saints’ 35-28 victory on Sunday. It’s more than a little unfair that Mike Williams was shoved out of bounds by a New Orleans defender and after hauling in a touchdown pass from Josh Freeman (who was outstanding, by the way), was penalized for being the first person to touch the ball. After all, what’s from stopping defenders from pushing receivers out of bounds all the time if they know the refs aren’t going to call pass interference? Regardless, the Bucs had already shot themselves in the foot twice before that game-ending play. With 14:54 left in the fourth quarter and the Saints leading 28-21, the Bucs drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for trying to simulate the snap count on a 51-yard New Orleans field goal attempt. Instead of possibly trailing by 10 with the entire fourth quarter left to play, the penalty kept the Saints drive alive and the Bucs fell behind by two touchdowns. Earlier in the half, Freeman hit Vincent Jackson on a 95-yard touchdown pass to set Tampa up at the New Orleans 1-yard line. The Bucs then proceeded to call three straight runs with LeGarrette Blount, all of which were stopped cold by the league’s worst defense. Freeman then lost four yards on 4th-and-1 and the Bucs inexcusably didn’t get points on the drive. Thus, while Tampa Bay fans have every right to cry foul on the final play of the game, their team didn’t do themselves any favors, which included blowing leads of 14-0 and 21-7 in the first half.
9. The Saints aren’t going away but their road back remains challenging.
Drew Brees reminded everyone on Sunday that he’s still one of the most dangerous passers in the NFL, one that is quite capable of leading a team out of the doldrums. He completed 27-of-37 passes for 377 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in the Saints’ 35-28 victory over the Bucs. He did all of this with one of his biggest and best weapons, Jimmy Graham, sidelined with an ankle injury. The 6-0 Falcons have a commanding lead in the NFC South but don’t forget that the Saints still have two games against their division rivals. It’s not inconceivable that New Orleans rattles off a few more wins and put itself in position to make a run at one of the Wild Card spots in the NFC. That said, the Saints are owners of the worst defense in the league and their schedule is challenging the rest of the way. They play Atlanta twice, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York and Dallas before the year is out. And even with Brees throwing for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns, it’s going to be difficult for the Saints to overcome that early 0-4 hole they put themselves into.
10. Injury roundup.
The Redskins were hit the hardest on Sunday. They lost tight end Fred Davis to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury and it was reported following the game that Pierre Garcon has a torn tendon in his foot. London Fletcher also left the Giants game with a hamstring injury. For the Browns, rookie running back Trent Richardson was apparently benched for ineffectiveness against the Colts but he says his rib injury is worse than people think. As previously mentioned, Cowboys’ linebacker Sean Lee left the Carolina game with a toe injury and Phil Costa suffered an ankle sprain that looked pretty bad at the time.