Sunday, February 2, 2014

NFL picks - Super Bowl XLVIII

The first cold-weather Super Bowl isn't going to be so cold after all.

Much was made about the potentially terrible weather forecast for the New York area. What was once supposed to be a winter storm turned into low-40s with a slight breeze. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the overkill analysis, but the Broncos went from three-point underdogs to three-point favorites.

Two very different legacies are on the line Sunday. Peyton Manning can cap off the greatest single-season performance by a quarterback in the history of the league with his second Super Bowl title. Russell Wilson can establish himself as the best quarterback in the fabled Class of 2012, giving him a leg up on Andrew Luck and media darling Colin Kaepernick.

Pete Carroll can complete the ultimate career restoration by raising the Lombari Trophy Sunday night. John Fox can erase the memory of a last-second Super Bowl loss 10 years ago if he can lead Manning and Denver's juggernaut offense to its first title since 1998.

It ought to be one heck of a game Sunday night. For the final time this season, let's get to the pick.

Super Bowl XLVIII: Seattle Seahawks (15-3) v. Denver Broncos (15-3)

Two very different teams will meet Sunday night at MetLife Stadium.

Peyton Manning has led the Denver Broncos to the greatest single season an NFL offense has ever had. No team has ever scored as many points as the Broncos did this season, and no quarterback has thrown for more yards and touchdowns in a season than Manning did.

Few defenses, however, have been as tough to play against as Seattle's defensive unit. From the trenches to the secondary, the Seahawks are incredibly talented and incredibly tough. That physical, smashmouth defense has been the catalyst for an offensive unit led my All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch.

It's strength versus strength Sunday in New York. Will it be Denver taking the Lombardi Trophy home for the third time, or will the Seahawks bringing the 206 its first championship since 1979?

The Case for Seattle

Defense, defense, defense.

The Seahawks have made their hay on defense. From top to bottom, Seattle has the league's best defense, and as Richard Sherman illustrated two weeks ago, they're not afraid to tell you about it.

Don't sleep on Seattle's offense, though.

Quarterback Russell Wilson is the league's best young quarterback. He leads his team like a tenured veteran, makes intelligent decisions, accurate throws, and can still beat you with his legs. While Seattle's receiving corps isn't elite, running back Marshawn Lynch is.

If Seattle is to win its first Super Bowl title, the Seahawks' offense will have to supplement their defense. Denver is going to score points, but Seattle will have to be able to do the same.

The defense is going to be there for Seattle. In fact, no defense in the league matches up with Denver's offense as well as Seattle's. Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are physical, talented and aggressive. Everyone in Seattle's front seven can give Peyton Manning a headache or, at the very least, put him on his back, over and over and over.

The Case for Denver

Offense, offense, offense.

For all that defense the Seahawks have, the Broncos have the most potent single-season offense in NFL history.

Peyton Manning's 2013 season has been well-documented, but if you think the success of the offense doesn't come down to Manning alone.

Demaryius Thomas is one of the league's best receivers. Wes Welker is the premier weapon out of the slot. Julius Thomas has become a difference-maker at tight end. And on top of all of that, the Broncos can still run the ball.

Look past Denver's defense at your own risk, though. Despite the absence of All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, the Broncos' defense has been nearly dominant this postseason, completely shutting down Tom Brady and the rejuvenated Philip Rivers.

If Denver is to win its first Super Bowl in 15 seasons, the Broncos defense will have to supplement its offense. Points won't come easy against Seattle's elite defense, but Denver will have to contain Wilson and Lynch.

Denver's offense isn't going anywhere. The Seahawks haven't seen an offense like Denver's. There are weapons upon weapons, and this record-setting offense is led by the most well-prepared quarterback in NFL history.

Many times in this space, I've written one of the oldest football cliches as a means of foreshadowing, and I'll do it once more:

"Offense wins games, but defense wins championships."

The Pick: Seattle 24, Denver 20

History tells us Peyton Manning doesn't respond well to physicality, and there may be no more physical, aggressive defense than Seattle's. The Seahawks' secondary is fast, they're big, and they're really, really good. Manning will find holes in Seattle's Cover 3 scheme, but it won't be enough to bring the title back to Mile High.

Last week: 2-0
Playoff record: 7-3
Season record: 165-100-1

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The 56th Annual Grammy Awards - Live! ... ish

Once upon a time, the Grammy Awards were a spectacle to behold.

Now, every winter, the "best" and "brightest" of the "music" industry gather to celebrate their collective "achievements" from the prior year. This splendid event features a who's who of people masquerading as a actual musicians while music luminary LL Cool J emcees the night's proceedings.

A long-standing tradition of live-tweeting the Grammy's was broken thanks to a social life - thanks a lot, actual friends - but, in lieu of scathing 140-character remarks, I've taken my vitriol to the pages of the Online Jargon.

Good friend and roommate Dave joins me for this two-hour hatefest. By being on this page, you'll have joined us as well. This will probably only be funny to Dave and I, but that's what happens when you have your own blog.

This ought to be interesting.

0:00 - Before we get started, I have to say this: I have almost no frame of reference regarding the show. I know Pharrell wears a ridiculous hat, and apparently, Daft Punk dresses up like Storm Troopers. I don't get it.

0:05 - I'm going to have a seizure if these lights don't stop flashing.

0:06 - Oh. It's Beyonce. Does she ever actually wear pants?

0:07 - Apparently, the new definition of "Grammy performance" is "writhe around on a chair while intermittently gyrating your pelvis." Who knew?

0:08 - I got so excited when Jay-Z came out that I turned off the cable.

0:10 - Robin Thicke is in the house ... with his wife. There's something new.

0:10 - What does LL Cool J have a Grammy for? Wearing a Kangol hat?

0:11 - There's Daft Punk and those ridiculous helmets. Apparently, the cool way to make a statement is to dress like a dipshit.

0:11 - You don't make music, LL. You rap. Nothing like shameless self-promotion.

0:14 - IT'S THE BEATLES!!! Well, what's left of them. Finally, some musicians on the show that CELEBRATES MUSIC.

0:15 - Is Pharrell a park ranger?

0:16 - Yoko Ono is in the house ... likely sitting nowhere near Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

0:17 - If Macklemore and Ryan Lewis don't win Best New Artist, I'll be shocked.

0:18 - No surprise there. These guys are everywhere. For a guy who raps, he isn't a very eloquent speaker. Maybe I don't get it because I'm not "reppin'," whatever that means.

0:19 - Lorde is up for Album of the Year??? Hell yes. I hope she wins. There's nothing quite like riding the popularity of a gigantic middle finger in the face of American music to victory on America's biggest night in music.

0:24 - They're gonna let Ringo Starr sing? Why??? Doesn't everyone know that drummers can't sing?

(See, that's funny, because I'm a drummer.)

0:28 - LL Cool J really needs to cool it with all the heartfelt messages.

0:28 - Y'know, Shinedown released a single about bullying and being different. Why didn't they get a ton of press for that? Oh yeah ... because they're not canned pop music. The lesson, as always: I hate everything about popular music. Well, except for Katy Perry.

0:32 - I fast-forwarded through Hunter Hayes' performance. I guess that means I support bullying.

0:33 - If "Blurred Lines" wins over "Suit & Tie," I'm gonna lose my shit.

0:35 - "Dude." Thanks for that epiphany, Pharrell. At least one real musician (Nile Rodgers) is on stage.

0:36 - We now break in the action because Katy Perry.

0:41 - Dave just unleashed the most sarcastic, "Oh, cool," when it was announced that Kevin Hart would play a part in this evening's show. Meanwhile, Robin Thicke is apparently going to "blur lines" with people who actually know something about musicianship.

0:46 - Dave Grohl sighting!!!

0:47 - On stage, a ton of musicians ... and Robin Thicke. Nice gold-plated microphone, asshole.

0:48 - This performance clearly shows Robin Thicke has no idea what to do with himself when he doesn't have four strippers grinding against him.

0:50 - ... and there goes all my respect for Chicago. They couldn't have played "25 or 6 to 4" instead of playing that garbage track "Blurred Lines"?

0:51 - Dave Grohl, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were on TV at the same time!!!

0:52 - Not interested in what Keith Urban has to say. Or sing. Fast-forward.

0:56 - I wonder which ex-boyfriend Taylor Swift is going to sing about.

1:02 - I may crap all over popular music, but I'll give credit where credit is due: John Legend is for real. No doubt about it.

1:04 - Chrissy Tiegen kind of looks like the Bride of Chucky when they show her admiring John Legend. I'd make a real joke here if I didn't know she's really hot.

1:05 - I just made a Babyface reference. Tom Haverford would be proud.

1:06 - Katy Perry. Yusssss.

1:06 - "God is Dead?" gets nominated for Best Rock Song??? Holy shit! That makes three actual rock acts nominated for Best Rock Song. That hasn't happened since the 80s.

1:07 - Dave Grohl wins!!! With Paul McCartney!!! And James Hetfield was on the television!!! I am losing my mind right now.

1:08 - Krist Novoselic looks like a lunatic! And Pat Smear looks like he's 67. This is, without question, the best thing that has happened on the Grammys in years. YEARS.

1:08 - Paul McCartney says that he said he "wanted to make something up" with Dave Grohl. The result? A Grammy Award-winning song.

1:09 - I really don't care what Taylor Swift has to say. Or sing. Fast-forward.

1:14 - Dave thought Kris Kristofferson was dead. His track record with celebrities being alive is shoddy, at best. Also, Daft Punk is going to "perform" later. (Read: Daft Punk is going to press computer buttons for four minutes.)

1:20 - Bruno Mars is here. Yay.

1:21 - Pink is doing a trapeze act while she sings. Haven't we seen this already?

1:24 - Nate Ruess sings and it sounds exactly like every other fun. song ever. You don't say!

1:26 - Best Pop Solo Performance, presented by Tony Toni Tone!

1:26 - Not sure if I'm rooting for Lorde, Katy Perry or Justin Timberlake in this one. All are acceptable.

1:27 - Best Pop Solo Performance? The song that makes fun of American pop music. Lorde is fantastic.

1:34 - BLACK FUCKING SABBATH!!! Best Metal Performance winners? No shit. THEY INVENTED METAL.

1:35 - Ringo Starr is playing with a 77-piece band, and one of his guitar players is Peter Frampton. Of course it is.

1:36 - Only three drummers in the history of music can sing. Ringo Starr isn't one of them.

1:39 - Jamie Foxx, who thinks he's an actor and a rapper, is going to present an award to some people who thinks they're actually musicians. How fitting.

1:41 - Justin Timberlake wins ... and he's not there. That probably says something. Jay-Z is rambling on about who-knows-what. And this guy is considered a genius ... why?

1:48 - Rick Rubin is a crazy person, but the guy knows how to sell records. Anyone he produces goes platinum. It's insane.

1:53 - Between the nonsense I could hear, and all the edited blocks, I tuned out from whatever the hell is happening with Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons. And, I just found out Motley Crue is going to be playing at the Marcus Amphitheater on the Fourth of July.

2:03 - Why is Julia Roberts at the Grammys?

2:03 - Four young lads from England? You mean THE BAND THAT INVENTED MODERN MUSIC???

2:05 - Ringo is behind the drum kit. Finally. Don't let the guy near a microphone anymore. Meanwhile, Sir Paul McCartney is doing ... well, he's being awesome. It really doesn't matter what the guy does. He's never not brilliant.

2:08 - As usual, Joe Walsh looks like he's completely lost. He's probably stoned out of his gourd, and he hasn't done drugs in 20 years.

2:09 - Ladies and gentlemen, (minority) owners of the Miami Dolphins, Gloria Estefan and Marc Anthony!

2:10 - Best Pop Vocal Album? Lorde and Justin Timberlake are the only acceptable winners.

2:11 - Bruno Mars? Really? What a joke. Nice bolo tie, dude.

2:12 - "Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit." Brilliant lyrics.

2:13 - Neil Patrick Harris, Dave Grohl and Metallica still remain in tonight's broadcast. It's going to be OK. I think.

2:20 - The fucks I have to give about country "music" expired decades ago.

2:25 - Why does Zac Brown need to wear a knit cap on stage? And why does he need to spell his name "Z-A-C"?

2:27 - Are country "artists" allergic to dressing appropriately when attending award shows? A cowboy hat/knit cap and jeans is not acceptable just because you're wearing a sport coat.

2:28 - Thank you for saving us, NPH.

2:29 - Stevie Wonder and Nile Rodgers are making up for the wannabe park ranger and the French dimwits playing with their computers. It's offensive that Daft Punk is famous for anything other than being a couple of nerds.

2:32 - Have I mentioned how hot Katy Perry is?

2:34 - It's really awkward watching a bunch of famous people dance in place. Except Katy Perry. She's hot no matter what.

2:34 - Dear Pharrell: Pat Smear is not impressed with your shit.

2:44 - Song of the Year. Now we're swinging with heavyweights.

2:44 - Katy Perry. Lorde. Bring it home.

2:45 - Lorde!!! A victory for actual music!!!

2:47 - I'm really nervous about Metallica playing "One" with a classical pianist. Interested, but nervous.

2:50 - Jared Leto is such a herb. What a dunce.

2:51 - Metallica time. I'm out.

2:59 - I'm not OK. That was something.

3:00 - Meanwhile, two people who are actually talented are probably going give a Grammy to someone who isn't. Unless Lorde wins.

3:01 - Your Record of the Year: "Get Lucky." Fitting, since the two artsy morons dressed like robots somehow managed to win. I hate everything.

3:10 - Queen Latifah is here to present Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and I wouldn't normally make note of this, but it comes along with an anecdote: Dave, who I mentioned earlier has a terrible track record with celebrities who may or may not have died, swore Queen Latifah was dead. He and I went back and forth for a solid 15 minutes before I went online to prove that Queen Latifah was, in fact, alive and well. That was two years ago. We still joke about it to this day, and we've already made a couple references to the discussion tonight.

3:11 - Why is everyone wearing a bolo tie???

3:13 - As I mentioned earlier, I'll give credit where it's due. Macklemore can go. He writes his own stuff, and it's different. And it's good.

3:15 - ... aaaaaaaaaand here comes Madonna to steal attention.

3:16 - In a show full of self-aggrandizing and grandstanding, the last five minutes were pretty fucking awesome.

3:24 - It's fantastic to have a music educator recognized. Very well deserved.

3:26 - In Memoriam time. Who gets "the hammer," as Bill Simmons would say?

3:32- Good to see George Jones, Richie Havens (the opening performer at Woodstock), Ray Manzarek, Chi Cheng (a metal guy!), Lou Reed, and Phil Everly make it. It's hard to catch all the important, influential, ground-breaking people who we lost in the last year. It's completely inexplicable for the Grammy Foundation to exclude Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman and Iron Maiden bassist Clive Burr. Slayer and Maiden are two of the most important metal bands in history, but they, like most metal bands, get looked over in every facet of the Grammy universe.

May all the the people the music world lost last year rest in peace.

3:39 - Time for Album of the Year. If it isn't Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, it's a joke.

3:40 - What a fucking joke. Two morons who play with computers win Album of the Year from an organization that has the balls to claim they celebrate and reward the best in MUSIC.

3:42 - At least the Grammys are going out with a bang. To be honest, I'm surprised the self-important Trent Reznor is allowing anyone to share the stage with him, much less someone as talented as Lindsey Buckingham.

3:44 - Josh Homme is in full greaser garb. That's two talented musicians hanging around Trent Reznor. I'm surprised Reznor let them play with him.

3:45 - DAVE GROHL IS PLAYING DRUMS!!! I'm losing my mind right now.

3:47 - .... and I'm spent. The show lasted a full hour longer than expected, so I had to run on vitriol fumes down the stretch.

Until next year ...

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Sherman solution

Once upon a time, the National Football League was fun to watch, and fans weren't so sensitive.

Those days are long gone.

The 2013 NFC Championship Game was a bright light in what turned out to be a fairly bland postseason. The NFC's top-seeded Seattle Seahawks played host to their bitter divisional rival, the San Francisco 49ers, in the rubber match of the 2013 season. It was a back-and-forth game that came down to the final minute of the contest.

Headlines were truly written after Seattle's 23-17 victory, though.

Fox's Erin Andrews interviewed Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, who tipped the pass that led to Malcolm Smith's game-winning interception in the game's waning moments. The rest, as they say, is history.

"I'm the best cornerback in the game," Sherman said in the post-game interview. "When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you're gonna get. Don't you ever talk about me."

Andrews asked Sherman who was talking about him, and Sherman responded.

"Crabtree," Sherman said. "Don't open your mouth about the best, or I'm gonna shut it for you real quick."

It didn't take long for talking heads, so-called experts, fans and fellow NFL players to vilify Sherman, tagging the Seahawks cornerback as a thug, a villain, and an embarrassment.

To those talking heads, so-called experts, fans and fellow players, I say this:

Grow up.

Sherman could have taken the Tom Brady route, using the media to take shots at someone who wears a different uniform. When asked about Sherman's reaction, Brady said, "He's that kind of guy, so ... I approach the game and I have respect for my opponents."

"We win with graciousness," Brady continued.

Sherman could have taken the Peyton Manning route, heaping praise on his opponent and making mention of the toughness of their next foe.

Instead, Sherman did what NFL players used to do: Show passion and fire in a rivalry game, and celebrate a huge playoff victory.

Any notion of Sherman being a thug or embarrassment to the NFL is nothing short of laughable. In fact, more NFL players should be like Sherman.

Richard Sherman graduated from Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., with a 4.2 GPA. He went on to Stanford University, graduating in 2010 with a 3.7 GPA and a degree in communication. Not satisfied with a "regular" degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the country, Sherman returned to Palo Alto to earn his Masters degree.

In his free time, Sherman returns home to notoriously troubled Compton, giving his time, experience and money to the community to help troubled youngsters change the course of their lives.

NFL fans need to stop being so sensitive. Players like Sherman bring an air of the old school back to the gridiron while setting a good example off of it. Professional football is a violent sport, and the men who play it are, generally, pretty intense individuals.

Sherman is one of the more confident and emotional players on any of the league's 32 teams. He and his teammates beat a hated rival, one of the league's best teams, to advance to the Super Bowl. But because Sherman was a little too intense for people's liking, he's a bad guy.

Please.

The NFL could use more guys like Richard Sherman.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

NFL picks - Championship Weekend

For such a crazy NFL season, the league's final four teams were pretty predictable.

When the playoffs began two weeks ago, the AFC seemed ripe for the taking, while the NFC road was always traveling through Seattle. After eight playoff games, three of the top four seeds remain, and the argument can be made that the best two teams in each conference will play for a trip to New York and Super Bowl XLVIII.

If you remember my preseason picks, you'll know who I'm picking to raise the George Halas Trophy Sunday night in Seattle. The winner of the AFC Championship Game is in trouble - whether I'm right or wrong, the NFC will take back the Lombardi Trophy after losing it to the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens last year.

(I had to do it one more time.)

Let's get to the picks.

AFC Championship - New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (14-3)

Line: Denver -5.5

It only took a couple minutes for the media to jump on the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady match-up.

For the fourth time in playoff history, Manning and Brady will lead their respective teams against one another. It'll be the third time the two will face off with the AFC title on the line.

In 2003, Peyton Manning threw four interceptions, and the Colts could only muster 14 points at Gillette Stadium, as the Patriots won 24-14 and advanced to Super Bowl XXXVIII. Three years later, the home team won once again. This time, it was Brady and the Patriots who fell, after blowing an 18-point lead in Indianapolis.

History favors the Broncos in this Manning/Brady rubber match. Both time, the home team has won and gone on to win the Super Bowl. NFL games, however, are not played on paper, and aren't played in history.

When these two teams played in Week 13, the Broncos raced to a 24-point first-half lead. Brady led a furious comeback, with the Patriots taking a late lead and eventually winning in overtime, thanks in no small part to former Patriots receiver Wes Welker's muffed punt.

It's hard to pin the blame squarely on Welker, because it was the Broncos who allowed New England to come back in the first place. That game was played in New England, where the Patriots are especially tough, and Manning historically struggles.

The weather will still be cold, which tends to favor Brady, but the Denver crowd hasn't seen an AFC Championship Game in person since 2005. Manning, Welker, Demariyus Thomas and Eric Decker give the Broncos a significant upgrade from their last home title game, when Jake Plummer and Ashley Lelie played prominent roles for Denver.

This isn't the Tom Brady we've come to know and, generally, despise. The rubber match goes to Manning.

The Pick: Denver 34, New England 24

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers (14-4) at Seattle Seahawks (14-3)

Line: Seattle -3.5

There are 14 teams that may disagree, but the NFC was always going to come down to Seattle and San Francisco. The Seahawks and Niners are not only the two best teams in the NFC, but the best the entire league has to offer. Only one, however, can advance through this weekend.

This will be San Francisco's third consecutive NFC Championship Game appearance, and the first for Seattle since the 2005 season.

We all know the recent history between these two teams. There may not be a hotter rivalry in the league. The difference in this one will not be any of the 22 men on the field of play at any given. It will be the 67,000 people surrounding the gridiron at CenturyLink Field Sunday night.

Much is made of Seattle's home-field advantage, but few players can back that reputation more than the media-deified 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick is a force to be reckoned with at home. Outside of his performances against a painfully porous Green Bay Packers defense, he's a different quarterback away from the Bay Area. Kaepernick could muster more than 250 passing yards only four times all season, and managed to compile 302 passing yards in both games against Seattle.

If San Francisco is to do something they haven't done since Kaepernick and Jim Harbaugh came to town - win in Seattle - Kaepernick will have to be the difference. The Seahawks and Niners are nearly identical in every way, save the quarterback position.

Kaepernick can be more dynamic than Seattle's Russell Wilson, but Wilson has the advantage in intangibles. Wilson is a better leader, and is more poised than his San Francisco counterpart. That will be the difference Sunday.

The Pick: Seattle 23, San Francisco 20

Last week: 3-1
Playoff record: 5-3
Season record: 163-100-1

Saturday, January 11, 2014

NFL picks - Divisional playoffs

What a weekend.

Last weekend provided us some of the best playoff football in recent memory. Three of last weekend's four games were decided by a combined six points. We witnessed the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history. A team scored 44 points and lost. No one player ran for 100 yards, but four players had 100 or more receiving yards, including T.Y. Hilton's 224.

This weekend may not be that good, but it's certainly going to be interesting. Three home teams are favored by more than a touchdown. Saturday night's weather may be the biggest wildcard.

A Flood Watch is in effect in Seattle all day Saturday, and it's going to be rainy and windy Saturday night in Foxborough.

The weather will calm itself Sunday, but the action on the field should make up for the chaos Mother Nature brings to Saturday's games.

Let's get to the picks.

New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Line: Seattle -9

It's sexy to pick the Saints to win this one. New Orleans shook its 0-for-franchise-history road playoff record against the Eagles, one of the league's hottest teams, last week, and if you listen to the people who supposedly know things, the Seahawks are ripe for an upset.

It just isn't going to happen that way.

The Saints needed everything they could muster to beat Philadelphia's 29th-ranked defense. Drew Brees was constantly missing his receivers - he threw short on deep routes, he threw behind on quick-hit routes, and was generally not the Drew Brees we've come to know.

The scene couldn't be more different this Saturday. Temps in Seattle will be in the upper-40s, but thanks to the wind and rain, it will feel like the upper-30s. Philadelphia can be a hostile environment, but the scene at CenturyLink Field is downright terrifying.

Philly's 29th-ranked defensive unit will look like a college team compared to Seattle's historically tough defense. Seattle ranked first in defense in the league, and by a wide margin. Their defense hasn't allowed more than 230 yards passing to anyone this year. Seattle's opponents managed a quarterback rating of 63.4 this year.

New Orleans is still a quarterback-driven team, despite showing signs of a running game last week. The Saints just aren't built to win in Seattle.

The Pick: Seattle 21, New Orleans 13

Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)

Line: New England -7

If you want to jump on New England's bandwagon, you'd better do it now. They're running out of room.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick just don't lose playoff games, especially when the games are played at Gillette Stadium. The Colts have a porous defense, one receiving threat, and no running game. It's Andrew Luck-or-bust.

Or so we're led to believe.

The Patriots are 3-3 in their last six home playoff games, and were a dropped touchdown pass away from losing the AFC Championship Game to the visiting Baltimore Ravens two years ago. New England hasn't had a 100-yard rushing performance in the postseason since 2007. Brady, in all of his media-derived glory, is no longer playing at the level that made him famous.

While Luck is certainly Indianapolis' best player, there is plenty of other praise to bestow upon the reigning AFC South champions. Defensive end/linebacker Robert Mathis is a serious contender for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is a threat all over the field. And even though he's only in his first full season at the helm, head coach Chuck Pagano has proven himself to be one hell of a coach.

Luck consistently finds a way to keep the Colts in games, no matter the circumstances. Saturday night will be no different.

In close games, a team's kicker often becomes the X-factor. The spotlight doesn't shine any brighter than it does in the playoffs. While Stephen Gostkowski is a very good kicker, there hasn't been anyone better than Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri.

Vinatieri has made thousands of Patriots fans happy with clutch kicks at Gillette Stadium. On Saturday night, he'll break those same hearts with yet another clutch field goal in Foxborough.

The Pick: Indianapolis 37, New England 35

San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)

Line: San Francisco -1

If you thought the Panthers were the NFC's fifth seed, you'd be wrong ... but you wouldn't be out of line for thinking so. After all, the media is treating this game as nothing more than a stepping stone to San Francisco's supposedly inevitable return to the NFC Championship Game.

Overlooked is the game these teams played in San Francisco two months ago, when the Panthers shut down Colin Kaepernick and left Candlestick Park with a 10-9 victory.

In that game, Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith was the team's leading receiver. Smith was also playing at 100 percent, but Smith will be anything but healthy Sunday afternoon. That spells trouble for Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who has failed to throw for more than 200 yards in five of Carolina's last eight games.

Smith's sprained knee is going to limit an already limited Panthers offense, which won't have any healthy, consistent receiving options outside of tight end Greg Olson. Without a threatening running game, or a receiver to stretch the field, Carolina just won't have enough on offense to put up the type of points needed to advance to the franchise's second NFC Championship Game.

The Pick: San Francisco 17, Carolina 10

San Diego Chargers (10-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3)

Line: Denver -9

On paper, this should be an easy win for the Broncos. NFL games aren't played on paper, though.

The stats obviously favor the Broncos and their record-setting offense, but history gives the edge to San Diego.

Strangely enough, we haven't had a Super Bowl-winning team with more than 10 regular-season victories since the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV four years ago. San Diego is coming off a dominating performance in Cincinnati, where the Bengals hadn't lost all season.

Peyton Manning may be the greatest regular-season quarterback of all-time, but he becomes a different player in January. Manning's career playoff record is 9-11, but it's how Manning's teams lost most of those 11 games that'll raise your eyebrows.

In eight of those 11 losses - eight - Manning's team (either the Colts or Broncos) was favored. In three of those 11 games, Manning's team were heavy favorites following a first-round bye.

The Chargers already won in Denver this year, and only lost by a touchdown when these two teams met in San Diego. Denver's defense hasn't been the same since Von Miller went down for the season, and Manning's massive load of baggage could weigh on his record-setting shoulders.

With that being said, this game will be Denver's to lose. The Broncos were prohibitive AFC favorites last season, and promptly lost to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens. They're the best bet to emerge from the conference again this season, and it's hard to imagine the Broncos letting another opportunity like this slip away.

It's going to be close - again - but, this time, the Broncos will avoid that dreaded one-and-done postseason.

The Pick: Denver 38, San Diego 30

Last week: 2-2
Season record: 160-99-1
Final season record v. spread: 117-139

Saturday, January 4, 2014

NFL picks - Wildcard Playoffs

This probably won't be news to anyone, but it gets cold in January.

There aren't very many NFL playoffs games contested on sunny, 80-degree afternoons. But this weekend may be one of the coldest Wildcard Weekends of all-time.

Kickoff temperatures range from chilly to downright dangerous. Our warmest kickoff will be where the outside temperature doesn't matter, Indianapolis, where it's scheduled to be 34 degrees when the Chiefs and Colts get the playoffs started Saturday afternoon.

It's elsewhere that it gets bad.

Kickoff temperature in Philadelphia is set to be 26, with wind chills around 20. It will be 35 in Cincinnati for kickoff Sunday, with wind chills in the mid-20s and heavy snowfall. The Ice Bowl temperature record may be in jeopardy Sunday afternoon in Green Bay, where it's set to be hovering around 0 degrees at kickoff, with wind chills as low as 55 below toward the end of the game.

Thankfully, I'll be watching all four games from the comfort of my climate-controlled living room.

Let's get to the picks.

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)

Line: Kansas City -1.5

Much like the 49ers, the Chiefs are a good team stuck in an incredibly tough division.

Kansas City bounced back from last year's 2-14 debacle, and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Waiting for them are the AFC South champions, the Indianapolis Colts.

After last year's "Chuck Strong" season, the Colts took over a division left wide open by the Texans. Quarterback Andrew Luck continued his development despite playing most of the season without a running game, and his only good receiver, Reggie Wayne. All of that couldn't keep the Colts from an 11-win season and their first division title since Peyton Manning was under center.

When the regular season ended last weekend, the Colts were slight favorites. Over the course of the week, the betting lines shifted, making Indianapolis a home postseason underdog for the first time since moving from Baltimore in 1984.

Kansas City has one victory over a team over .500 all season. The Colts have four such victories, including one over the Chiefs, in Kansas City, two weeks ago. It won't be as one-sided as that match-up, but the result will stay the same.

The Pick: Indianapolis 24, Kansas City 21

New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

Line: Philadelphia -2.5

Much has been made of New Orleans' road struggles.

Sometimes, media criticism is unjust. This time around, it's justified - the Saints are a different team away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints were one of only three teams in the NFL that didn't lose at home. Simple math tells us all five Saints losses came away from home. Two of New Orleans' three road victories came by a combined six points, and the third was an eight-point win. Those three victories came against Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Chicago.

Their next road trip sends the Saints to the home of one of the league's hottest teams, the Philadelphia Eagles. Quarterback Nick Foles has only thrown two interceptions, to go along with his 27 touchdown passes. His quarterback rating, 119.2, is the second-highest single-season mark in NFL history. Philly has been even better on the ground. Running back LeSean McCoy led the league with 1,607 rushing yards.

Defense has certainly not been Philadelphia's strong point, but they may not need it. Drew Brees is an elite quarterback at home, but comes back to the middle of the pack when he leaves home. Middle of the pack isn't going to be enough to outscore Philadelphia's high-flying offense.

The Pick: Philadelphia 34, New Orleans 27

San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)

Line: Cincinnati -6.5

Four weeks ago, many NFL games were blanketed by snow. Sunday in Cincinnati, that blanket returns.

A Winter Storm Warning is in place in Cincinnati, and heavy snow is expected when the Chargers travel east to take on the Bengals.

Despite the weather, this game will hinge on quarterback play. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers has experienced a resurgence in 2013, once again becoming one of the league's top signal-callers. Cincinnati's Andy Dalton is one of the league's best young quarterbacks, continually improving and becoming the best Bengals quarterback since Carson Palmer's best season in town.

Dalton can struggle with ball security, and that problem must disappear if the Bengals are to make any significant run this month. The defense is top-notch, and the Bengals are borderline unbeatable at home.

That defense, and San Diego's virtually invisible defensive unit, will lead to Cincinnati's ninth home victory in as many tries this season. Where the Bengals go beyond that is up to Dalton.

The Pick: Cincinnati 20, San Diego 16

San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at Green Bay Packers (8-7-1)

Line: San Francisco -2.5

It may not be the Ice Bowl, but it's going to be another frigid playoff game at Lambeau Field.

One of these teams will see their season end the way it began, as the Packers and 49ers meet in a rematch of the 2013 season opener. Each team traveled a very different road to lead them back to where it all began this year.

The trials and tribulations of the Green Bay Packers have been well-documented. They lived the life of the average NFL team, cycling through average starting quarterbacks while Aaron Rodgers healed a broken collarbone. Injuries once again plagued the Packers, who lost the likes of Randall Cobb, James Jones, Jermichael Finley and Casey Hayward to significant injuries.

2013 started rocky for San Francisco, but as the season wore on, the Niners became the team everyone expected them to be. Thanks to their placement in the league's toughest division, though, San Francisco fell short of another division championship, and will likely spend their entire postseason away from home.

Cold-weather games come down to the basics - running and defense. Those skills are the same that win teams championships. For the first time in years, the Packers have a good running game. Rookie Eddie Lacy is a superstar in the making, and will keep San Francisco's defense busy all game.

It is that 49ers defense that will be the difference. San Francisco has the defense to contain - or, at least, limit - Rodgers, Lacy, Cobb and Jordy Nelson, but the Packers don't have the defense to keep Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis under control.

The Pick: San Francisco 30, Green Bay 21

Last week: 14-2
Last week v. spread: 8-8

Season record: 158-97-1
Season record v. spread: 117-139

Fab Five last week: 4-1
Fab Five season record: 48-38-1

2013 NFL season, revisited

It's been a wild year.

It seems like yesterday that I was getting ready to watch my favorite team, the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, open the season against the Denver Broncos. There was excitement and optimism, not just for me, but for fans of the league's other 31 teams.

Three months later, we've arrived here: 20 teams have had their Super Bowl aspirations washed away, coaches have been fired, and the identity of teams across the league are beginning to change.

Last year, I began writing a regular-season post-mortem of sorts, re-posting my preseason NFL picks with the season's results, analysis and comparison. There will be some ugly moments along the way. There are going to be some victories, too. But it's all going to be out in the open.

AFC Division Champions

North
Preseason pick - Cincinnati
Winner - Cincinnati

The AFC North used to be one of the premier divisions in football, sporting two legitimate Super Bowl contenders and another up-and-coming team. Now, the division is painfully average, outside of Cincinnati. The Bengals have a fantastic defense and playmakers at wide receiver, running back and tight end. They're young. If Andy Dalton can take the next step, Cincinnati becomes the perennial Super Bowl contender Baltimore and Pittsburgh used to be.

South
Preseason pick - Houston
Winner - Indianapolis

Little did we know, but the AFC South was in contention for the worst division in football this season. Tennessee crashed when Jake Locker went down for the season, and the wheels dramatically flew off Houston's Super Bowl-or-bust wagon, as the Texans lost their last 14 games. Jacksonville stinks, but we already knew that. Indianapolis is a good team with a great coach, and they deserve the title. They'll probably have to work a little harder to repeat in 2014, though.

East
Preseason pick - New England
Winner - New England

Who else was going to win this division?

West 
Preseason pick - Denver
Winner - Denver

I thought the AFC West race would be close, and it was. I didn't think Peyton Manning would take personal issue with every major single-season passing record and seek to destroy them. Kansas City kept it close, and San Diego was a tough out, but in the end, the division's best team won the crown.

NFC Division Champions

North
Preseason pick - Green Bay
Winner - Green Bay

What a debacle of a season for the NFC North. Two talented teams - Chicago and Green Bay - were decimated by injuries. A third talented team, Detroit, finally broke at the hands of terrible coaching. Somebody had to win, and thanks to a miracle bomb on 4th and 8, it was the Packers. Again.

South
Preseason pick - Atlanta
Winner - Carolina

Don't ask me why I picked Atlanta. I knew they had a terrible season in them, but I ignored it anyway. Carolina's defense is for real, and Cam Newton is playing as good as he ever has in the NFL. If Riverboat Ron can keep it going, the Panthers will be a dark horse to win the NFC.

East
Preseason pick - New York
Winner - Philadelphia

I thought the NFC East race would be close, and it was. I didn't think Eli Manning would take personal issue with logical quarterback play and look to destroy the single-season interception record, all while putting a massive strain on the relationship he has with the Giants receivers. Did the best team win the division? Sure. Maybe. I don't really know. The NFC East, as it so often has been lately, is painfully average.

West 
Preseason pick - Seattle
Winner - Seattle

Before the season started, the sexy thing to do was to pick the Seahawks. Now, it's suddenly sexy NOT to pick the Seahawks. Seattle is the best team in the league, and as long as Russell Wilson does the things he needs to do, the NFC title is Seattle's to lose.

Wildcard Teams

AFC
Preseason picks - Baltimore and Kansas City
Winners - Kansas City and San Diego

Time to eat my crow. I said the Ravens would beat the Packers, and they didn't. I said they'd threaten to win the AFC North crown. They really didn't, even though last weekend's game against Cincinnati could have been for the division. I said they would make the playoffs for the sixth straight season, and they didn't. Kansas City faded down the stretch, but showed the talent they really have, bouncing back from last year's awful season.

NFC
Preseason picks - San Francisco and New Orleans
Winners - San Francisco and New Orleans

Nailed it. Nothing else to see here.

Sleeper Teams

Preseason picks - Kansas City and New Orleans

Picking sleepers wasn't very hard this season, and I may have copped out on this one. Everyone knew the Chiefs and Saints would be better, and I guess I justified the pick because neither one of these teams made the postseason last year. Both are in this year, and both competed for a division crown until the season's final weeks.

Super Bowl XLVIII

Preseason pick - Seattle over Houston

This is embarrassing. I'm still riding the Seattle pick, as I have been all season, but picking Houston to go to the Super Bowl may be the single worst pick in the history of the blog ... and I picked Jacksonville to go to Super Bowl XLIII.

Postseason Awards

NFL MVP: Preseason pick - Tom Brady

It's pretty clear Peyton Manning will be named NFL MVP once again this season after shattering NFL single-season passing records and systematically dissecting defenses all season. Brady, on the other hand, may finally be starting to show his age. He may no longer be the world-beater he used to be. Or, he just may need a decent receiving corps.

Offensive Player of the Year: Preseason pick - Aaron Rodgers

Manning will win this one, too, but you have to wonder if Rodgers would have been in the discussion if he didn't miss half the season with a broken collarbone.

Defensive Player of the Year: Preseason pick - Patrick Peterson

Luke Kuechly went from Offensive Rookie of the Year to perennial All-Pro this season. Carolina has a young, dominant leader for their defense. Kuechly is going to be a big name for a long, long time.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Preseason pick - Giovani Bernard

Gio Bernard is a fun player to watch, but the Offensive Rookie of the Year will come down to Chargers receiver Keenan Allen and Packers running back Eddie Lacy. Allen seems to have the slight advantage, but if I were handing out the award, it would go to Lacy.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Preseason pick - Jarvis Jones

When the Steelers drafted Jarvis Jones, the Ravens fan in me screamed. It looked like the Steelers had another beast linebacker. Instead, Jones was in and out of the starting lineup all season. Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso probably wins this one, but Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu led the race until his season ended due to injury.

Coach of the Year: Preseason pick - Sean Payton

Sean Payton was a safe pick, but I may have missed the boat on this one. (See what I did there?) Last year, I said Ron Rivera would be named Coach of the Year, and the Panthers head coach seems the favorite to win it in 2013.

Comeback Player of the Year: Preseason pick - Darrelle Revis

Revis seems to be a frontrunner for this award, with no real competition. Philip Rivers could be a longshot.