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2014 Super Bowl XLVIII Free Pick

Super Bowl XLVIII: Broncos vs. Seahawks, 6:30PMET
Whether it’s because of the overreaction to Richard Sherman’s outburst following the NFC title game or the fact that Peyton Manning can see the light at the end of his career, the Broncos have become “Joe Public’s” team for Super Bowl XLVIII.

It’s hard to blame the betting public for wagering on the Broncos at a near 70-percent clip. Teams have a difficult enough time beating Manning when he has six days to prepare for them, let alone two weeks. Denver also is a matchup nightmare for any defense thanks to Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno, and John Fox and Jack Del Rio has the defense playing as well right now as any point in the season.

Do you feel a “but” coming on?

I like the Seahawks. I’d shop around until I found the line at 3 or bet it up to a field goal, but it wouldn’t shock me if Seattle won outright. The team with the No. 1 defense in the regular season has often fared well in the Super Bowl, going 12-4 straight up over the history of the game. Not only did Seattle have the best defense in the league this year, the referees often “let ‘em play” in the Super Bowl, which benefits the physical nature of the Hawks’ back seven.

It’s not easy, but the way to beat Manning is to disrupt his timing with his receivers, just like the Colts did to Denver in Week 7. Indianapolis won that game in large part because its defense forced three turnovers and Andrew Luck played mistake-free football, but the Colts’ cornerbacks also got their hands on the Broncos’ receivers at the line of scrimmage and often re-routed them off the ball. That flustered Manning and while he still threw for nearly 400 yards and three touchdowns, it was a enough to send Denver to its first loss.

The Seahawks play “Cover 3″ better than any team in the league thanks to Pete Carroll. Outside of Week 2 when he shadowed Anquan Boldin (and subsequently shut him down), Sherman doesn’t “travel” a lot but he and his fellow cornerbacks know Carroll’s system perfectly. The Hawks like to funnel everything inside to where all-everything safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor can make plays between the hashes. K.J. Wright, Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin can also be a handful to deal with in coverage from their linebacker positions.

Carroll is also multiple with his fronts, meaning that half of his defensive line will play one-gap while the other half or at least some personnel will play two-gap. That can also cause confusion for an offensive line, especially one like Denver that uses a zone blocking scheme. It doesn’t happen often, but if you can confuse Manning and/or his offensive mates, that’s another way to beat the Broncos.

Speaking of Carroll, he’s likely to do something in this game to steal a possession or take a shot down field in order to come up with the big play. Fox, for as solid as he is, often plays things conservatively and I think in the end that could cost him. We saw what happened the last time Manning was in the Super Bowl and Sean Payton rolled the dice with an onsides kick. In the battle of Carroll versus Fox, I’m siding with the coach that’s going to roll the dice.

On the other side of the ball, there’s no question that Seattle’s offense is a concern. They haven’t been right in over a month. But hopefully Darrell Bevell has discovered something over the last two weeks and realizes that he has neutered Russell Wilson to the point of diminishing returns. When the handcuffs were off Wilson in the second half of the NFC title game, he delivered. While the offense still runs through Marshawn Lynch, Bevell needs to allow his young quarterback to make plays. And while Wilson is a Super Bowl virgin, he’s also one of the more poised young signal-callers in the league. Having Percy Harvin back should also help, if nothing else than to make Denver be aware of him.

In the end this is one of the best Super Bowl matchups we’ve seen in quite a while. Nothing would necessarily surprise me although the only true value in this game is taking the points with a Seattle team that should thrive in the underdog role.

SUPER BOWL XLVIII FREE PICK: SEATTLE SEAHAWKS +3

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Can Broncos avenge heartbreaking loss to Ravens tonight?

As a Cleveland fan, I have very little sympathy for Broncos fans after watching John Elway in the 1980s. But any fan can appreciate the agony of losing the way the Broncos did last year in the playoffs to the Baltimore Ravens. With less than a minute left in regulation time Joe Flacco threw a bomb to Jacoby Jones to score the tying touchdown. Inexplicably the Denver defenders let him get behind them. Then John Fox went into Marty Schottenheimer mode and got ultra-conservative, not letting Peyton Manning take a shot to drive for a winning field goal. It’s one of those games that will haunt Broncos fans forever.

Now we have a new season, and fans will be anxious to get back in the action tonight when the Ravens return to Denver for the rematch. You can enjoy NFL betting at TopBet.eu Sportsbook and other sites around the web. The Broncos opened as big favorites with spreads up to 9.5 points, but money has clearly come in on the Ravens as the spread has come back to 7.5. It’s understandable that the Broncos are favored, as Peyton Manning has a new weapon in Wes Welker and the Ravens had to completely rebuild their defense. There might be more talent on this year’s Ravens defense, but they have not played together in a real game and the leadership of Ray Lewis is gone.

But there are question marks with both teams. For the Broncos, Champ Bailey is out with a foot injury and Von Miller is suspended for six games. The Miller loss is huge while Bailey is getting old so I’m not sure he’s much of a loss. Then we have Elvis Dumervil, who now plays for the Ravens and helped mitigate the loss of some of their defensive players from last year like Paul Krueger. So for the Broncos young players like Derek Wolfe, Robert Ayers and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will need to play well.

For the Ravens, their losses aren’t just on defense. While Jacoby Jones was the hero last year, Anquan Boldin as the true stud of that offense. Can the Ravens keep things going on offense without him? They have talent, but now there will be more pressure on Joe Flacco, especially after the loss of tight end Dennis Pitta.

It should be a great game, and now the spread seems more in line with reality. It looks like a tough pick.

NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hits from the Divisional Round

+ Everyone thought the Ravens’ game plan on Saturday would be to take the pressure off Joe Flacco’s shoulders by making Ray Rice the focal point of the offense. Instead, John Harbaugh and Jim Caldwell put the game in their quarterback’s hands and Flacco repaid them out dueling Peyton Manning. Outside of two errant deep passes to Torrey Smith, Flacco was perfect. He relentlessly challenged Denver’s secondary downfield (his 9.7 YPA average was eye popping) and he used the entire field to orchestrate Baltimore’s offense. In the past two weeks we’ve seen one coaching blunder after another. But Harbaugh and Caldwell went against conventional wisdom and thanks to the play of their embattled signal caller, they’ll be heading to Foxboro next weekend. It’s good to see an aggressive game plan rewarded.

+ One other note on Flacco: His best throw didn’t come on a scoring play, nor did it lead to a score. On the second possession of overtime and his team backed up on a 3rd and 13, Flacco threw a frozen rope to tight end Dennis Pitta for a 24-yard gain while standing in his own end zone. Credit Pitta for making a spectacular adjustment on the catch, but Flacco put the ball where only his tight end could come down with the pass. Granted, four plays later the Ravens punted but if Flacco doesn’t convert on that third down maybe Denver uses marches up a short field for the game-winning score.

+ Manning’s crucial interception in overtime may have been a result of the Hall of Famer trying to do too much. You never see Peyton throw across his body while on the move, but he got impatient while attempting to make a play. That said, blame can be spread throughout the entire Denver locker room…

+…Manning’s interception directly led to Baltimore’s game-winning field goal but Denver was undone by its secondary long before Corey Graham accepted Peyton’s gracious gift. There’s simply no excuse for how safety Rahim Moore played Jacoby Jones’ 70-yard touchdown reception at the end of regulation. It wasn’t as if the Ravens caught the Broncos in a coverage breakdown – Moore just screwed up. If he’s two yards deeper, there’s a good chance he intercepts that pass and then nobody’s talking about Manning’s interception because it wouldn’t have existed.

+ … Moore isn’t the only member of Denver’s secondary that deserves a scolding, either. Champ Bailey had yet another solid season but he was torched for both of Torrey Smith’s touchdowns and also allowed 128 receiving yards in what was easily his worst game of the year. Jack Del Rio and John Fox have left Bailey on an island throughout the year and the results have been positive. But while hindsight is always 20/20, one would have thought that following Smith’s 59-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter that Denver’s coaching staff would have given Bailey more help. They didn’t, and they paid the price.

+…Then there’s Fox himself. Some are criticizing him for taking the ball out of Manning’s hands on that 3rd-and-7 play with just over a minute left in the game. But at least his rationale was just: Run the ball and force the Ravens to march 70-plus yards for a touchdown with a minute and no timeouts. Nobody could foresee Baltimore throwing a 70-yard touchdown pass three plays later, so it’s hard to eat Fox’s lunch for that decision. That said, his choice not to give Manning a chance to march the Broncos into field goal range with 37 seconds remaining in regulation and two timeouts was incomprehensible. This was proven less than 24 hours later when Matt Ryan drove the Falcons to a game-winning field goal with two timeouts and 31 seconds on the clock. The two situations weren’t exactly the same, but if Ryan could accomplish the feat in two plays, Fox should be embarrassed for not giving his living legend of a quarterback even an opportunity to pull off the same heroics.

+ Not that it matters now, but without Trindon Holliday’s record-setting day, is the game in Denver even that close? Take away his two touchdowns and the Ravens might not even need an improbable Jacoby Jones touchdown or a Justin Tucker 47-yard field goal to win.

+ Two underlying storylines in Baltimore’s upset victory: The Ravens’ run defense and their offensive line. After surrendering 152 rushing yards last week to the Colts, the Broncos running game was a big failure on Sunday (they rushed for 125 yards but at 3.0 yards per clip). Also, thanks to Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, Denver has one of the best pass rushes in the game. But for all intents and purposes, the duo had a quiet day against Baltimore’s revamped offensive line (which has now played well in back-to-back weeks).

+ Even if the 49ers were to lose to the Falcons in the NFC Championship, nobody will question Jim Harbaugh’s decision to replace Alex Smith after the show Colin Kaepernick put on versus Green Bay. It showed some resiliency on Kaepernick’s part to throw for 263 yards, rush for a NFL-record 183 yards, and record four total touchdowns after throwing that early pick-six to Sam Shields. Instead of allowing his emotions to get the best of him, he settled in and let his instincts take over…

+ …Not to take anything away from Kaepernick but where were the Packers’ adjustments? One would have thought Capers would have changed something at halftime in efforts to slow Kaepernick down and instead, the quarterback was still running free well into the fourth quarter. Granted, coordinators can only put their guys in position to make plays. It’s up to the players to execute the game plan and for the likes of Erik Walden, B.J. Raji and Charles Woodson, they didn’t. I’m just not sure what the game plan was to begin with.

+ Lost in Kaepernick’s big night was how well Vic Fangio’s defense played. When the Niners went with press man on the outsides, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers did a nice job of not allowing the Packers’ receivers to get a free release. And when Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith brought pressure, it completely took Aaron Rodgers out of his game. It wasn’t as if Rodgers played poorly – San Francisco just never allowed him to get into a rhythm.

+ Aside from Kaepernick turning Candlestick Park into his own personal jungle gym, the key to San Francisco’s victory was its dominance up front on both sides of the ball. Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis were unstoppable forces in the running game and immovable options in pass protection. There was plenty of great offensive line play this weekend but the best work may have been done on Saturday night by those two players.

+ Regardless of how fortunate the Falcons are to be advancing to the NFC Championship Game, it’s hard not to feel elated for Tony Gonzalez. Assuming he stays true to his word and retires at the end of the season, that man was 31 seconds away from never tasting postseason victory. Thankfully he doesn’t have to worry about what that would have felt like.

+ It’s easy to get swept up in the emotions of the game but Mike Smith blew it by calling his last timeout with 13 seconds remaining in regulation. Chances are the Seahawks would have still burned a timeout anyway but shame on Smith for not putting Pete Carroll in that position.

+ Matt Bosher either had a vacation to Cabo lined up next weekend because he nearly handed the Seahawks a victory by shanking two punts and then dribbling an impromptu onsides kick at the end of the game. For a second I swore the kid had Seattle on the money line.

+ Nobody should ignore the fact that Matt Ryan helped the Falcons blow a 20-point fourth-quarter lead on Sunday. The interception to Earl Thomas was brutal and his sudden inability to move the ball in the fourth quarter should come into question as well. But it is remarkable what he can do with less than two minutes remaining in a game that his team is trailing. He’s unflappable in those situations and nine times out of 10, he’s going to put the Falcons in position to win. Jacquizz Rodgers’ kick return was key in setting up that game-winning drive, but it took Ryan only two plays to erase everything the Seahawks accomplished in the fourth quarter. If nothing else, Ryan remains one of the most clutch performers in the game.

+ Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter did a great job not over thinking the game plan for Sunday. He wanted to take advantage of undersized rookie Bruce Irvin and that’s what he did, constantly running Rodgers and Michael Turner at the edge of Seattle’s defense. The Falcons haven’t run the ball effectively all season and Turner has looked like a back running with cement blocks for feet. But neither was the case on Sunday.

+ The Falcons actually might be the most predictable team in the NFL, you just have to understand their recipe for success: Dominant for two quarters, take two quarters off, give Matt Ryan the ball with at least 30 seconds left on the clock and make sure Matt Bryant is properly stretched out. Amazement, heartburn, jubilation, repeat.

+ Russell Wilson is special. After a shaky first half he was brilliant in the final quarters, including going 10-for-10 for 185 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Seahawks back from a 20-0 deficit. Granted, he had six days to find receivers that were generally covered by Atlanta defenders, but he also once again did a great job eluding pass rushers and buying himself more time. Both he and the Seahawks have a bright future.

+ Wilson and Kaepernick are quarterbacks first – not mobile players that happen to play the quarterback position. I watched both of those players force the defense to unveil where the blitz was coming from this weekend by making pre-snap adjustments. They’re intelligent players with big arms that just so happen to be blessed with mobility and speed. It’s not as if they’re beating teams because of their athleticism alone, like Michael Vick used to do. They’re beating you well before they take the snap.

+ The outcome in Atlanta was yet another example of why coaches shouldn’t waste time attempting to freeze a kicker. Why give a veteran like Matt Bryant an extra 20 seconds to compose himself when he’s already feeling the burden of an entire season on his shoulders? Carroll’s charade following Bryant’s missed practice attempt was silly and he deserved to watch the next kick sail through the uprights.

+ If anyone is looking for Zach Miller he can be found running free in Atlanta’s secondary. He’ll be there for the rest of the day.

+ Tom Brady loses Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead so he throws for 344 yards and three touchdowns…including two to his backup running back. The guy is incredible.

+ This is how good New England’s offense is: The Pats didn’t score until 1:28 left in the first quarter and still wound up with 41 points.

+ On a weekend when both the Broncos and Falcons blew late leads, the Patriots were still scoring with less than two minutes remaining and up by 10. Bill Belichick never takes his foot off the gas and his players revel in his philosophy.

+ Matt Schaub threw for 343 yards but both of his touchdowns came after the Patriots went up 38-13 and he also threw a brutal interception to kill a drive in the second half. Over the past month the Texans had trouble scoring inside the red zone and Schaub was a big reason for it. Only when it was too late did he respond with scores, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether he’s the right man to lead a talented team to the Super Bowl.

+ I thought Wade Phillips’ defense would respond to giving up 42 points in that Week 14 loss to New England in the regular season. Well, they did – by allowing 41 more points. The linebackers and defensive line couldn’t stop the run, there was virtually no pressure on Brady, who promptly dissected their secondary (again). This was all after Gronkowski and Woodhead left the game in the first half.

+ After that crap-fest of a wild card weekend, the Divisional Round was glorious. Upsets, comebacks, points galore, record-setting moments – how could you have not loved every second of this weekend? Championship Sunday? Can’t wait, Bart Scott.

+ Clearly oddsmakers weren’t phased by the Ravens’ upset of the Broncos because Baltimore has opened as a 9.5-point underdog versus the Patriots for the AFC title game. That’s with Gronkowski likely being sidelined for New England.

+ As for the NFC title game, the Niners opened as 3.5-point favorites versus the Falcons. What’s funny is that if Atlanta continued to dominant Seattle, the Falcons likely would have only been 1-point dogs on Championship Sunday. Perception is everything, isn’t it?

Matty Ice and a crazy weekend of football

The games aren’t even over yet, so we might get some more heroics and bizarre plays in the Pats/Texans game, but the Falcons and Seahawks seemed determined to come up with a game that was even more epic than Denver’s stunning collapse yesterday. Here’s some observations:

- Congrats to Matt Ryan. He sealed his “Matty Ice” nickname with two excellent passes starting at his own 31 yard line with 25 seconds left. All of this happened after what looked like a stunning Atlanta collapse that would have haunted Ryan for years. Instead, Seattle came up short after a great comeback. As a Cleveland fan, I know how Seattle fans feel.

- John Fox did his best Marty Schottenheimer impersonation, and the results were brutal for Denver fans, who had to watch their own version of “The Drive” against them engineered by Joe Flacco and the former Browns. Here’s Will Brinson regarding John Fox:

Remember when Fox decided on Saturday night that he shouldn’t give Peyton Manning a chance to win the game with two timeouts left, the Broncos on their own 20-yard line and 31 seconds left in the game? Yeah, he probably didn’t enjoy watching the Falcons take the ball at their own 31-yard line with 25 seconds and two timeouts and roll down for a score in about 15 seconds. It only emphasizes how bizarre his conservative coaching was against the Ravens.

Peyton Manning blew it in overtime with a rookie-type mistake, but he should have been given the chance to make 2 or 3 throws to get that last-second field goal in regulation. Also, before Flacco’s epic drive, Fox decided to run the ball on third down instead of letting Manning try to complete one pass that would have sealed the game. Brutal.

- Flacco was the hero and he made some awesome throws, but he also missed some open bombs and threw several passes that easily could have been intercepted. He made a ton of money for himself last night, but as a Cleveland fan I don’t mind seeing Baltimore eat up a ton of cap space for him.

- I was wrong about Russell Wilson. The kid can play and he was poised to be the hero, but Seattle left too many seconds on the clock for Atlanta after an epic comeback. That said, we saw today some of what we saw from Wilson in college. He’s at his best when his team is down and he can just try to create. In running a traditional pro offense he’s a little more limited. But, he had a hell of a rookie season and Pete Carroll made the right call starting him.

- Carroll did not make the right call trying to ice the kicker. Ouch!

- Atlanta did a good job playing the read-option today, and I think they’ll be ready for Colin Kaepernick. As for Kaepernick, people are focusing on the runs, and they certainly were huge in the win over Green Bay, but the guy has a rocket arm and he made the big throws that made the difference in that win. He’s still very raw on shorter throws and needs to shed the Derek Anderson approach of throwing short passes at 100 mph, but he’s a real weapon on offense. I’m not a fan of the read-option, and any team that uses it risks getting their quarterback beaten silly, but a team like San Francisco might sneak in a Super Bowl before that happens. The Shanahans weren’t so lucky with their irresponsible, high risk running strategy with RG3.

2012 NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hit Reactions from Broncos vs. Patriots

Tebowmania is officially over, as the Patriots smacked the Broncos around on Saturday night in the Divisional round of the playoffs. Here are some quick-hit reactions from this 45-10 beat-down.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (L) talks to head coach Bill Belichick during the NFL AFC Divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos in Foxborough, Massachusetts, January 14, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- This probably sounds a tad obnoxious after the fact but the outcome of this game wasn’t really a surprise, right? As soon as the Patriots built a double-digit lead everyone knew it would be hard for the Broncos and their 1960s style offense to keep pace. The only shot Denver had at beating New England was if its defense played out of its mind, which is no different from the previous nine games since Tim Tebow took over at quarterback. Last week was an aberration. The Broncos caught Ike Taylor on a bad day and Tebow just happened to play out of his mind for three and a half quarters, as opposed to his customary one. It was obvious coming in that if the Broncos didn’t turn Tom Brady into the reincarnate of Scott Zolak they would probably lose. Finally, the weight of carrying this team every week was just too much for the Denver defense.

- Speaking of which, how appropriate that Denver stopped playing defense as soon as Josh McDaniels reemerged.

- When Tom Brady and the Patriots play like they did Saturday night it almost makes you wonder if they’re trying to prove a point. Three minutes into the second half Brady had tied Steve Young and Daryle Lamonica with a playoff-record six touchdown passes, while Rob Gronkowski had tied the record for receiving scores (three) in a postseason game. The passing touchdowns, total yards (509), and points were all franchise playoff records and the Pats are now averaging 37.3 points per game over their last nine contests. The Ravens have already proven that they can beat the Patriots on the road in the postseason but even their defense will have a tough time next week if Baltimore advances to the AFC Championship Game.

- In no way was this loss solely on Tim Tebow and anyone who says as much is absurd. The defense stunk, his receivers didn’t do him any favors with drops and the running game was non-existent. But it’s painfully obvious that John Fox and Mike McCoy didn’t have enough trust in Tebow to get away from their ball-control ways, even down 35-7 at halftime and after the big passing performance Tebow had a week ago. And who could blame Fox or McCoy? Three minutes into the second half Brady had twice as many touchdowns as Tebow had completions. Tebow’s competition percentage of 34.6-percent was the lowest on 20-plus attempts in a playoff game in 14 years. I’m sorry, he’s a nice kid with but he’s so extremely limited as a passer. His limitations don’t fall at the feet of Fox and McCoy, which is why John Elway has a massive decision to make this offseason in whether or not Tebow is the future at quarterback for the Broncos.

- I thought the Tom Brady punt on third down was an arrogant move by the Patriots. One of the broadcasters thought that it was the “right” decision because it was third-and-10 and the Pats didn’t want Brady to get hurt, which is about the dumbest thing I’ve heard. If the Patriots didn’t want Brady to get hurt, why didn’t they just pull him? Or have him hand the ball off? There was roughly only three minutes remaining and the Patriots were up 45-10 – the game was over. There was no need to have Brady punt the ball on third down and basically say, “Here you go Denver, we’re so good and we’re up by so many points that we don’t even need all four of our downs. You can have the last one, poor little buggers.” Had it been customary for the Patriots to punt the ball with Tom freaking Brady when they were blowing somebody out, then I would have gotten the decision. But this wasn’t normal and while it wasn’t right of Von Miller to take a cheap shot at a New England player during the play, I don’t blame Denver for being pissed.

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