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NFL Championship Game Free Picks

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.

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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Joe Montana explains the quarterback position

Here’s a quote from Joe Montana:

“The game is changing. Nobody wants to throw with pressure anymore. But the guys who can win in this league are the ones who can make throws from the pocket.”

You can read the article for more context, as Montana is discussing how he likes the game of Colin Kaepernick but sees room for improvement. Kapernick is part of the new wave of mobile quarterbacks, but give him and head coach Jim Harbaugh credit as they have tried to limit how often Kaepernick takes off and runs. He’s starting to look more like a young John Elway as opposed to a “running quarterback” like year one RG3.

But as Montana points out, the most important part of a quarterback’s game involves throwing in the pocket, and particularly the ability to make the right throw accurately under pressure. This is where many young quarterbacks struggle, but it can be even more difficult to develop this skill for mobile quarterbacks who take off running when the pressure gets too hot, as opposed to shifting in the pocket and making the big throw. Relying on scrambling will cause a quarterback to leave some big throws on the field, limiting some big plays.

We’ll see if Kaepernick or Russell Wilson can actually win a Super Bowl. One of them will be matched up against a classic pocket passer in either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. And yes, the game is changing and we’re seeing more mobile quarterbacks. But Montana is pointing out a critical element for ultimate success in the NFL, and this gives us some perspective as we enjoy the rest of the NFL playoff season.

Jim Harbaugh whines about read-option ruling

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, as Jim Harbaugh wants to keep any advantage he has with Colin Kaepernick playing quarterback. But, Harbaugh is also a baby who loves to whine when he doesn’t get his way. He’s a great coach, but he cries with the best of them.

His latest antics involve the NFL’s interpretation of what is a legal hit on a quarterback in the read-option offense. Basically, as long as a quarterback is faking the run, he can be treated like a runner by the defense, and he doesn’t get the modern, over-the-top protections that the league has put in place for passers. Basically, the rules of traditional football apply. Naturally, Harbaugh responded by saying the ruling was “flawed and a bit biased.”

This sets up what was already the most interesting storyline of 2013 in the NFL – will the read-option continue to proliferate or will it be a fad?

I’ve always been in the fad camp, because coaches are taking huge risks when they run their quarterback and let them take hits usually reserved for running backs. You want your quarterback to have a long career (if he’s a good one), but running backs have very short careers for a reason. Having your quarterback act like a running back is a huge mistake in the long run.

That’s why I was saying all last year that Mike Shanahan was committing coaching malpractice by letting a stud like RG3 run so much. He was hailed as a genius as Griffin and the Redskins offense racked up huge stats against defenses who were not prepared to handle the read option and Griffin’s amazing athleticism, but then he was rightfully ripped to shreds when he kept playing and running RG3 after he was clearly hurt and limited. He never should have let him run like that to begin with. Now, with the clarification of the rule, it’s an even bigger risk.

We know why he did it. In the short run it’s almost impossible to resist turning Griffin or Kaepernick loose. Look what happened to the pathetic Packers defense in the playoffs against Kaepernick and the 49ers. But in the long run you risk a quarterback’s career by playing with fire too many times.

Now, it’s important to differentiate between the read-option and planned quarterback runs with scrambling. Having a mobile quarterback like Griffin and Kaepernick is a huge advantage, and having them take off when the opportunity presents itself is an important weapon. Look how many games quarterbacks like John Elway, Steve Young and Donovan McNabb won with scrambles that broke the back of the defense. Mobility is a real weapon, but you don’t have to go to that well too often with planned runs that put your quarterback in danger.

That’s particularly true with Robert Griffin III, who is one of the best quarterback prospects in a generation. He can be the next John Elway with his golden arm and accuracy, but you put all of that at risk when you run him too much, particularly with with his history of knee injuries.

It’s less true with a guy like Russell Wilson. I know Seattle fans and many in the media want to anoint this kid as a “great” quarterback, but he really didn’t start playing well until the Seahawks started running the read-option to mix up the offense. Russell Wilson was a third-round pick for a reason. He doesn’t have the size or arm of RG3. If he just played from the pocket, I don’t think he’d be nearly as effective, and he might be the quarterback who suffers the most from defenses adjusting to the read-option and this rule clarification that makes it clear that defenses can light him up if he’s faking the run.

Now, throw in Chip kelly and whatever the hell he has planned with Micheal Vick and the Eagles and you have even more intrigue around the read-option for this season. And with Vivk at this stage in his career, I’d probably run him even with his injury history, as he’s shown that he really can’t cut it playing strictly as a pocket quarterback. And that’s where the read-option in the NFL makes most sense. If you don’t have a real franchise quarterback that you want to keep around for years, then read-option quarterbacks can be treated more like disposable commodities like running backs. Grab a group like Vick, Tim Tebow, Vince Young and Terrelle Pryor and just rotate the next one in when one goes down.

But don’t do that with a franchise quarterback like RG3. Let’s see what the Shanahans do with RG3 this year, and let’s see if he has some growing pains taking the read-option out of his arsenal. In the long run it will make him better, and he’ll have a better chance of being around ten years from now.

NFL Preseason Week 3 Observations: Rex, sleeper contenders & more

+ At this point it would be an upset if Rex Ryan wasn’t handed his pink slip before the end of the regular season. What he did Saturday night in New York was a joke, inserting his starting quarterback Mark Sanchez into a game that didn’t matter and watching him get planted by Marvin Austin. The result was rather Jets-like: Sanchez was injured and now Ryan will likely be forced to play rookie Geno Smith Week 1. (And that isn’t a good thing, as Smith looked completely overwhelmed in a disastrous performance on Saturday.) What was it all for? Apparently the annual “Snoopy Trophy,” which is handed to the winner of the Jets-Giants preseason game. Ryan and the Jets have progressively gotten worse every year he’s been head coach. He doesn’t have a handle on how to manage quarterbacks, he hires overmatched assistants, and no offensive player has show improvement under his guidance. He should go back to doing what he does best: Coordinate defenses.

+ Don’t fall asleep on the Lions this year. The interior of their defensive line is going to cause headaches for opposing quarterbacks and Jason Jones might turn out to be one of the more underrated signings of the offseason. He had his way with New England right tackle Sebastian Vollmer on multiple plays last Thursday.

+ Speaking of the Lions, they’ve been searching for years for a complementary piece for Calvin Johnson and they may have finally found that weapon in Reggie Bush. He remains a home run threat when he gets the ball in his hands, which Detroit plans on doing plenty of this season. While he still tries to bounce too many runs outside at times, he’s difficult to tackle in open space and the guy has the ability to take a screen pass 60-plus yards in the blink of an eye. He provides the Lions offense with an element they haven’t had since they drafted Johnson in 2007.

+ The Patriots’ passing game will be fine as long as Tom Brady is still under center. He has the rare ability to put the ball in places only his receivers can catch it, including when said wideout otherwise blanketed in coverage. That said, it’ll be interesting to see how much growing pains Brady’s new weapons will go through this season. Kenbrell Thompkins scorched Detroit for eight catches and 116 yards, but he also dropped a pass on a potential first down in the first half and fellow rookie Aaron Dobson needs to play with more physicality. While they should win the AFC East with relative ease, it’s fair to wonder whether or not this new receiving corps will hold the Patriots back this season.

+ Halfway through the first quarter of the Falcons-Titans game I was ready to write about how Atlanta’s reshaped offensive line won’t be as big of a problem as some believe. Then came Tennessee’s five sacks and the police report that Matt Ryan filed on RT Lamar Holmes for the abuse he suffered in the second quarter. The run-blocking was good for a second consecutive week, but pass protection could be a recurring issue for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations heading into Week 1.

+ While new OC Dowell Loggains would be wise to lean on Chris Johnson this season, Jake Locker has improved as a pocket passer. He threw a couple of frozen ropes in his 133-yard, one-touchdown performance on Saturday night versus the Falcons. He remains most effective when he can use play-action, deception and mobility to free up receivers, but his confidence is growing in the pocket. He specifically looked good during a second quarter drive that resulted in him completing all three of his pass attempts for 41 yards and a touchdown strike to Nate Washington off a play-action fake.

+ Opponents will find it difficult to run against the likes of Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones and Terrence Cody in Baltimore. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will also continue to be headaches for opposing quarterbacks from a pass-rush standpoint, and getting cornerback Lardarius Webb back from injury will benefit the secondary greatly. The Ravens lost a ton of leadership and experience when Ray Lewis retired and Ed Reed left for Houston via free agency. But from an overall talent perspective, they didn’t suffer much of a drop off and this idea that Baltimore will ultimately sink to the bottom of the AFC North is an overreaction to the losses they experienced this offseason.

+ Luke Kuechly is going to keep plenty of offensive coordinators up at night. Last Thursday he forced a fumble on a perfectly timed read in Baltimore’s backfield, intercepted Joe Flacco in the red zone, and damn near decapitated Aaron Mellette when the receiver went over the middle (which led to a penalty). He plays like a man possessed and he’s seemingly involved in every defensive play Carolina makes. He’s the exception to the current notion that teams should wait to draft linebackers in the middle rounds.

+ The biggest reason the Seahawks will survive Percy Harvin’s injury is because they have a fantastic stable of backs, led by Marshawn Lynch. The trio of Lynch, Robert Turbin and Christine Michael is the best in the NFL and each runner brings something different to the table. Lynch is a bruiser but he’s also versatile in that he can change directions quickly and explode through open lanes. Turbin is more of a plodder but like Lynch, it’s difficult to bring him down on first contact and Michael’s speed and quickness complements the other backs’ styles. Toss in Russell Wilson’s running ability and Seattle’s backfield will once again be a headache for opposing defenses.

+ While nobody will argue that the Cardinals are an improved team, they’re still going to struggle offensively this year. Carson Palmer is a significant upgrade over the signal-callers that Arizona trotted out last year but he’ll have no running game to lean on and he’s likely to face as much pressure as Kevin Kolb and Co. did a year ago. Losing Jonathan Cooper to a potentially season-ending fibula injury was a crushing blow.

+ Some are expecting a massive rebound from the Saints this year and given how much explosion they have offensively, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them atop the NFC South again. That said, they better average 30-plus points a game because the defense is liable to give up 40 on a given Sunday. Former first-round pick Cameron Jordan is emerging as a stud but the Saints are going to need more than him and newly acquired Parys Haralson to drum up a pass rush. Matt Schaub did a nice job of getting the ball out of his hand quickly on Sunday but there were a handful of times when he had all day to allow his receivers to find openings in the Saints’ zone. The first-string wasn’t much better on run defense for New Orleans, which allowed Ben Tate to gash them for 6.7 yards per carry. Rob Ryan is a creative playcaller but he simply doesn’t have the manpower to keep top offenses in check.

+ Rams fans had to be encouraged that four of their offseason additions made impacts on Saturday versus the Broncos. While rookie LB Alec Ogletree continues to struggle getting off blocks, he caused a fumble of Ronnie Hillman, recovered the ball and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown early in the contest. Then later he got excellent depth in coverage and intercepted one of Peyton Manning’s passes down the seam, then nearly had another pick of Manning in the end zone. Fellow rookies Tavon Austin (81-yard punt return) and T.J. McDonald (blocked field goal) also made impacts, as did tight end Jared Cook (4 catches, 50 yards, 1 TD), who could be in store for a breakout season. Throw in another stellar performance by a motivated Jake Long and St. Louis’ collective 2013 offseason had quite a night.

+ There’s little to suggest that Christian Ponder will start all 16 games for the Vikings this season. Thus far, he’s completed 62.2 percent of his passes but his 4.97 YPA average paints a much clearer picture of his abilities. While his mobility is a plus, his slightly above-average arm will continue to hold Minnesota’s offense back. If Adrian Peterson doesn’t rush for another 2,000-plus yards, the Vikings are a horrible bet to make back-to-back playoff appearances.

+ The Bills need to resist the temptation of rushing E.J. Manuel back to the field. He’s their franchise signal-caller and while Week 1 will be an ass-kicking that Jeff Tuel has yet to endure, Doug Marrone and his coaching staff need to keep their eyes on the future. Heading into a season where they’ll be fortunate to win four games, it makes no sense risking further injury to Manuel in hopes of receiving less of a beat-down from New England in the opening week.

Let the Russell Wilson hype begin . . . again

Bill Barnwell takes a look at the big four rookie quarterbacks from 2012 and tries to project out to 2013 and beyond. He offers up some interesting statistics and comparisons that contribute to any conversation about the future prospects of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.

Yet while he addresses how Andrew Luck had little to work with in Indy, he then brushes that off when deciding which of the group has the biggest upside. Like many NFL writers he obsesses too much about the stats and spends less time discussing what he actually sees on the field.

Andrew Luck was the single factor that drove the Colts. Plus, he did it as a classic drop back passer. Sure, he’s big and strong and he can scramble, but he didn’t rely on the trickery of the read-option to open up the passing game.

RG3 showed tremendous passing ability, but he’s the best runner at the quarterback position since Michael Vick, and the Shanahans milked that for all it was worth until the “geniuses” outsmarted themselves and almost destroyed Griffin’s career. Griffin is a rare talent with a golden arm, but now he’ll probably need to rely more on that arm without the same threat posed by his legs. His numbers from last year mean much less in that context.

Kaepernick and Wilson also benefited from the threat posed by their running ability, but both of them had the luxury of playing for teams that were loaded with talent. Both teams had excellent defenses and two of the best running games in football. Alex Smith looked like a pro-bowler in the same 49ers offense before Kaepernick took over. So it’s hardly fair to compare their stats to Luck’s stats without taking that into account.

Wilson definitely showed me a lot last year, but he’s also playing a dangerous game when he runs out of the pocket. At least Pete Carroll isn’t as reckless as Mike Shanahan, but I’m still not completely sold on Wilson being an elite quarterback. That said, he gets another weapon this year with Percy Harvin, but I suspect NFL defenses will adjust to his game.

I’ll take Andrew Luck over all of them, any day of the week.

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