Last weekend, when we were down to eight teams left standing in the NFL playoffs, on my radio show I placed the remaining starting quarterbacks into three distinct "buckets":
ELITE (3): Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning These three all were secure in their legacies regardless of the outcome of their games on Sunday.
YOUNG GUNS (2): Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson As first-year starters, both of these guys were essentially playing with "house money." If they lost, they'd live to fight another day.
TRYING TO ESCAPE QB PURGATORY (3): Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub All three of these guys have proven to be, thus far, just good enough to make you think you could win a Super Bowl with them, but have ultimately disappointed.
That's where the narrative for my championship game picks begins.
If last weekend wasn't depressing enough for a Texans fan, just know that while Matt Schaub was busy throwing picks to defensive ends dropping in coverage, the other two quarterbacks who were sitting squarely in the pressure cooker both took huge leaps toward putting their names alongside the Mannings, Bradys and Rodgerses of the league.
Adding insult to injury was the fashion in which both guys won their games -- they both did it in the most un-Schaubian ways possible. Matt Ryan orchestrated a late drive for a field goal to knock off the red hot Seahawks 30-28, and Joe Flacco took deep shots down the field all game long against Denver's beleaguered secondary, the last of which was a 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones (JACOBY. JONES.) with under a minute to play to tie the game at 35.
Clutch plays, deep shots, Jacoby Jones being involved in a positive fashion. If there were a Bizarro Texans Channel, these games would be Instant Classics.
So now we head into the conference championship weekend, and if either of our upwardly mobile second tier guys is going to make the leap, they will have to do it in contradiction to the opinion of Vegas.
49ers -4 over FALCONS Every gambling metric in this game screams "TAKE THE FALCONS!!" The Falcons are the biggest home underdog in the history of the conference championship round and in the history of number one overall seeds. Last week, Seattle (a team that smoked these same 49ers in Week 16 of the NFL regular season 42-13) was a three point underdog to the Falcons in Atlanta. Now, I'm guessing based largely on the images of Colin Kaepernick running shredding the Packers defense like they were a high school team last week, the Niners are four point favorites. A seven point swing!? Wow.
On the other hand, if you're even thinking about pushing "SEND" on an Atlanta wager, don't those images horrify you? Aren't you going to feel stupid when Kaepernick is in his fourth or fifth dead sprint for another explosive gain by the third quarter? When Frank Gore is pounding an Atlanta defense that gives up 4.7 yards per carry, won't you feel like a dope? You will.
Yes, Matt Ryan has won 85 percent of his home games since coming into the league in 2008, but I have a little theory that before I decide on whom to bet, I take one last look at a Google image of their head coach. If there are enough pictures of them to remind me of how beleaguered they are in big game situations, it's oppo time, kids!
I'll take Harbaugh over Smith, all day long.
Prediction: 49ers 27, Falcons 19
Ravens +8 1/2 over PATRIOTS If you recall last week, the story about the spread on the Texans-Patriots game went like this:
"The Texans were only a three point road dog in December against the Patriots, and on the strength of a 42-14 Pats win, the line moved all the way to 9 points at kickoff. Wow, six points is a huge move based on one bad night for the Texans. That doesn't seem right!" Well, it turns out it was spot on, to the point where a late field goal wound up blowing the cover for many Texans bettors who bought the spread up to 10 points (looks in mirror).
So now here come the Ravens, who were 3-point favorites in Baltimore during the regular season, and beat the Patriots on a last-second
replacement referee aided field goal. So if you swing the home field around for this game by six points, and consider the two teams played virtually even during the regular season, then we would expect a 3 or maybe 3 1/2-point spread, right? Especially considering the Ravens have proven time and again to be, at worst, a formidable, crazy tough out for New England, no?
Well, the Ravens are an 8 1/2 point underdog, a 5 1/2 point swing from where the line "should" be. So we are right back to where we were with the Texans last weekend, with an underdog who has perceived value. Now, before you get scared away by the egg the Texans laid last weekend, understand this -- unlike the Texans, the Ravens don't fear the Patriots. The Ravens have balls.
In their last six match-ups, each team is 3-3 against the spread, with the Patriots covering by a total of five points and the Ravens covering by a total of 44 points. Tom Brady's quarterback rating is 14 points lower against the Ravens than it is versus the rest of the league. The Patriots have won 14 of 16 playoff games, but covered only 2 of their 10.
On top of that, this Ray Lewis retirement festival is starting to take on that "team of destiny" feel, and Joe Flacco's long-term contract is beginning to feel like a reality. I can't believe I'm doing this....
Prediction: Ravens 34, Patriots 31
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Last week: 1-3 Season record: 54-56-2
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.