DENVER -5.5 over New England
Marquee matchup No. 1 starts off our day. It’s supposed to be 53 degrees. (So much for having to worry about Peyton Manning in cold weather.) The main story line in this game is how many injuries both team has dealt with since their last meeting, yet they still find themselves one win away from making the Super Bowl. The question around that story line is which team has enough remaining to survive and advance.
Denver’s injuries come mostly on their defensive end, which was always their second-best unit. Last week’s loss of Chris Harris will have a major impact on how well Denver can cover New England’s main passing strength, their slot receiver. The loss of Von Miller obviously hurt, but Denver was able to get a pass rush going last week and should be able to do the same this week against the Patriots’ inexperienced right tackle Marcus Cannon. Denver’s run defense has generally been the same for a while now after some earlier issues, so it should be in decent shape to stop the Patriots’ new strength of running the football. The best thing for Denver is their offense is generally as healthy as it’s going to be, which is obvious in its nature of importance.
New England, on the other hand, is more limited than Denver. Their passing offense has suffered dramatically since the loss of Rob Gronkowski and they’ve shifted more to the run. The running game has worked out pretty well, but Gronk’s impact in the passing game is something that a running game can never fully overcome. Aqib Talib hasn’t looked the same over the last few weeks, which doesn’t bode well for taking out Demaryius Thomas. The loss of Vince Wilfork was never compensated for, with good reason, so Denver should continue to find success running the ball on Sunday.
So when all the chips fall, does Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s ability to consistently beat Manning hold enough value to overcome the injuries? It might if it was a cold night in Foxboro. Unfortunately it’ll be a mild afternoon in Denver and the deck is vastly stacked against them. The Gronkowski injury hurts them more than anything else. At least you could hope to get into a shootout with a banged up defense if he was around. Now there’s some smoke and mirrors needed to pull this one out. Indianapolis was right in the game until Andrew Luck fell apart in the fourth quarter. Peyton Manning should be a little more seasoned than to do that. Peyton, we’ll crack some Bud lights to celebrate after the game.
SEATTLE -3.5 over San Francisco
The second game may not feature the two best teams in the NFC based on seeding, but it does feature the two best teams in the conference. The record even spells that out. (Sorry Carolina. You were tied with San Francisco on record, but last week settled that.) The two games between these teams in the regular season were vastly different with Seattle cruising through the first one and San Francisco winning a tight one in the second. This Sunday we’ll find out whether Walmart khakis trumps over all. (Or something like that.)
Seattle’s home field advantage is something we all know about. It hasn’t looked as dominant in the latter half of the season, but it’s still the best home field advantage in football. Seattle’s defense has still been as dominant as it needs to be in recent weeks, but the passing offense has really hit the skids. Rusty Wilson hasn’t thrown for more than 206 yards since December 2nd. The Seahawks haven’t exactly steamrolled opponents in that time, going 3-2. Maybe other teams are focusing on what Wilson does well or maybe he’s just in a slump. There are few out there as competitive and as studious as Wilson, so you know he’s going to be prepared as ever this week. There’s obviously no time more perfect for him to return to form than the current.
All systems are go for San Francisco at just the right time. They’ve won eight games in a row including two games on the road in the playoffs so far. The could follow the same path as the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2007 New York Giants and 2010 Green Bay Packers in reaching the Super Bowl by winning three straight road games. Their offense has improved since the return of Michael Crabtree and he’ll need to be at his best with Richard Sherman likely shadowing Anquan Boldin. The defense is also firing since the return of Aldon Smith. Even though he didn’t have any sacks last weekend, his presence alone opens up opportunities for others.
The difference maker in this game is the recent history between the two in Seattle. As good as San Francisco is, they’ve gotten absolutely bitched in their two recent trips to Seattle. It’s one thing to go to Seattle having not played there before and thinking the home field advantage is overrated. It’s another when you’ve gotten trucked in the venue two straight times. As good as you are, you start to doubt your abilities. That doubt has to be creeping in on San Francisco after what they’ve experienced.
Last Week: 3-1
Reggie’s Picks : 3-4-1