Culture of Hoops

Sonny’s NFL Picks: Divisional Round Edition

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Sonny’s NFL Picks is back with a look at each NFL Divisional Round game going down this weekend.

Right off the bat, let me make something very clear: In the past I haven’t fared so well picking NFL Playoff games. Actually, I’m not gonna sugar coat it. I’ve downright sucked at picking NFL Playoff games. Save for 2011 when midseason I correctly predicted that the New York Giants would defeat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, I’ve never once picked a Super Bowl matchup pre-playoffs, nor have I ever picked an entire four-game round correctly. Granted, it’s not like I’m a prediction guru elsewhere, but it’s particularly frustrating when you watch 10 hours of football every Sunday and it gets you nowhere.

Well, after a twentyish year drought, I finally managed to pick an entire four-game playoff slate of games correctly. I sniffed out the one underdog that wins every Wild Card Weekend (Baltimore). I remembered that you should never pick bad quarterbacks on the road in the Playoffs—Ryan Lindley and Andy Dalton—and that paid off with two wins (Carolina and Indianapolis). And I lucked out with a picked up penalty flag and yet another Tony Romo game-winning drive in the fourth game of the weekend (Dallas).

And now I enter the Divisional Round with a 4-0 record, totally foreign territory for yours truly. With more riding on these next four games than I am accustom to I’m not only ready to make my picks … I’m ready to guarantee that I enter the Championship Round still perfect. That’s not a misprint friends. I’m guaranteeing another perfect weekend and pickling the metaphorical beast that is the NFL Playoffs. Just call me Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez. Actually, stick with Sonny. Well, actually, Sonny “The Jet” has a pretty nice ring to it. Go with that. You know what, let’s just get to these games before I put off any other readers who haven’t seen The Sandlot and wouldn’t appreciate that forced reference I just made.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

Last week I fudged up when I said that the Wild Card Weekend would be more intriguing if Kansas City or Buffalo nabbed the two AFC Wild Card Spots. Maybe substituting one of those two in for the Cincinnati Bengals is fine, but I forgot about a few wrinkles as far as either of those two teams making it to Round Two in place of Baltimore.

I forgot that under no circumstances would Buffalo at New England be a remotely close playoff game. Sure, the Bills won in New England for the first time since 1949—that’s just a guestimate, it probably hasn’t been that long—but the game didn’t mean anything for the Patriots. In the playoffs, New England wins that game by 20 points.

I forgot that Chase Daniel would have probably been the starting quarterback for Kansas City and that’s really all I need to say about that.

I forgot that of any Wild Card team, Baltimore is the one which would feel like they could legitimately beat any team in the NFL, and actually have a chance.

That third point is the crucial one, and the one that made me think about this pick a hell of a lot longer than I thought I would four days ago. Baltimore just has a knack for winning big road games, and they have a bunch of guys who aren’t going to be afraid to go into Foxborough and compete. Joe Flacco has seven road playoff wins in his career, two more than any other quarterback ever. Let’s keep rolling with the Flacco points: you might not remember that he’s outplayed Brady the last two teams these teams have met in the postseason—Flacco: 546 yards, five touchdowns, 100.8 passer rating; Brady: 559 yards, one touchdown, four interceptions, 60.3 passer rating.

The Ravens defense is performing at a high level at the right time, and in the past their scheme has given Brady fits. If Baltimore can pressure Brady early and often, then they have a really good chance of winning this game. If the Patriots line can keep Brady upright and give him time to throw, the Pats offense should hum like it has for the majority of this season.

Ultimately, I like the Patriots in this game because the obvious upset pick—and this is the obvious one—seems to never be the one that works out in the Divisional Round. It’s coming, but this isn’t it. Flacco/Harbaugh’s road credentials scare me, as does Steve Smith’s potential “I’m Steve F****** Smith” game, but it’s just hard to pick against Brady and Belichick (and Gronk) at home.

The Pick: New England 24, Baltimore 20

Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks

You know what’s weird? I actually kind of feel like the seven best teams in the NFL are in the Playoff right now, and then the Panthers are the red-headed step child just tagging along being a nuisance. Forgetting conference affiliation, I’m not sure who the eighth best team in the league would be, but it’s definitely not Carolina. The Panthers defense has looked stout over the past month, and last week they put together a historically great performance, but you have to throw that game out since the Cardinals were operating with a college quarterback in Ryan Lindley. I don’t mean to spend more time bashing Lindley, but if you’re the most vital cog of an offense that can only muster 78 total yards of offense, you need to find a different possession. There are probably seventy college quarterbacks who could have done better than Lindley did last week; four of which are on the collective rosters of the two teams playing in the National Championship game on Monday.

So what kind of case can you make for Carolina over Seattle? Well, over the past couple years these two teams have played three times and not once has Seattle won by more than five points. This is going to be an ugly game, and on the scoreboard it will probably be close for a while. In games like that, all a team needs is one lucky break and the game can flip on its head.

Is it conceivable that Carolina can win a 17-13 game? Yes, but it’s certainly not likely. The Panthers defense has been getting praise for the way it has performed over the last month, but how about Seattle’s? Since November 23rd, the Seahawks have allowed 39 points. If you aren’t a math whiz, that comes out to six and a half points per game. This discussion is now over.

The Pick: Seattle 23, Carolina 9

Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers

Ladies and Gentlemen, Fox Sports’ wet dream! America’s Team vs. America’s Team! The Ice Bowl rematch! 8-0 on the road vs. 8-0 at home!The should-be MVP (Tony Romo) vs. the will-be MVP (Aaron Rodgers)! Dallas vs. Green Bay! Wow, I am certainly happy that I have the day off tomorrow and can enjoy this contest.

Of all the games this weekend, this one is the biggest and it has the most question marks surrounding it. As far as I can tell, there are four crucial questions that need to be answered before picking this game:

1: Can the Cowboys offense keep Aaron Rodgers off the field? 2: Can the Cowboys defense either pressure Aaron Rodgers or force a couple of Packers turnovers? 3: Will Dallas be able to survive another early deficit? 4: What is the more impactful injury: Tony Romo’s back or Aaron Rodgers’ calf?

DeMarco Murray plays a huge role in this game. If the Cowboys can consistently pound the ball, take pressure off of Tony Romo and keep the Packers high octane offense off of the field, then the Cowboys are in business. That’s step one for a Cowboys upset. Step two is getting pressure on a potentially gimpy Aaron Rodgers and either putting him down on that cold Lambeau turf, or forcing him into some rushed throws. Step three is avoiding an early deficit, because the Packers are the one team you probably don’t want to get behind.

Dallas has survived their fair share of early deficits—down 21-0 at St. Louis, down 10-0 at Seattle, down 21-10 at New York, down 20-7 against Detroit last week—but they remain poised, continue doing what works (running the ball and sprinkling in some passing) and figure out a way to win the game late. But you know what is better than being able to claw your way out of an early hole? Avoiding it all together.

If the Cowboys can get out in front, I believe they have a good shot to win. I just worry that the Cowboys defense, which has performed better than expected nearly all season long, will face a setback against this high powered Packers offense. So I begrudgingly take the Packers in this game, assuming that Aaron Rodgers will actually be able to move around at a semi-normal rate. If the calf injury is worse than we know, all bets are off.

The Pick: Green Bay 31, Dallas 27

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos

When Denver and Indianapolis met in Week 1, the Broncos looked like the clearly superior team. Despite the 31-24 final score, Denver dominated nearly all game long. Denver hit some bumps in the road throughout the season, but they weren’t nearly as up-and-down as the Colts were. The Broncos are a touchdown favorite in this one, and very few “experts” are even considering the Colts.

So why the heck would I stick my neck out there and pick the Colts to win outright?

Well, I picked Indy prior to the season, and I never like to abandon my pre-season Super Bowl pick until it gets to the point where I absolutely feel as though I must. I looked long and hard at this game, and I never got the feeling that I would be too out of my mind if I picked the Colts.

Ultimately, this pick is based on two things. First, I don’t know if Peyton Manning is right. Maybe the Denver offense is still operating fine—mainly thanks to C.J. Anderson— but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Manning hasn’t been the same over the second half of the season. In the last seven games Manning has thrown for 1,815 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions compared to 2,912 yards, 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions in the first nine games. That’s a pretty drastic dip, even considering the newfound rushing attack.

There are always questions about Manning in cold weather Playoff games, and I usually don’t buy into it but for whatever reason it feels relevant now. If the Colts defense can limit Anderson like they did Jeremy Hill last week, maybe Peyton Manning won’t have what it takes to come through in a cold-weather playoff game. Maybe his time has passed. Maybe it’s time for the younger generation of quarterbacks to have their time in the spotlight. Maybe Andrew Luck, the goofball that he is, is that next guy.

Yeah, this is a goofy pick, but the NFL is a goofy league and goofy things happen in the playoffs. Just chalk this up as one of those goofy things. Or maybe chalk it up as a passing of the torch moment.

The Pick: Indianapolis 38, Denver 35

Last Week: 4-0
Overall: 146-97-1

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