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Friday, 18 January 2013

Picking against the Spread - Championship Weekend

Ok, so last weekend wasn't the best, especially on Saturday where not only did I miss both spreads but I didn't get the winners right either thanks to Rahim Moore's unique way of covering a deep third and Dom Capers inability to gameplan. Sunday was better because Russell Wilson and Tom Brady are amazing, I got a bit of help in the Atlanta-Seattle game from Mike Smith and his decision not to go for the 2 point conversion at 26-7 after the Jason Snelling touchdown while New England dominating Houston again.

So this week sees a sunday evening feast of San Francisco @ Atlanta Falcons kicking off at 3pm ET (8pm GMT) and then a repeat of last years AFC Title game with Baltimore going back to Foxboro at 6.30pm ET (11.30pm GMT). The lines might just surprise you too, so let's get into it.

49ers (-4) over Falcons

Sunday's 1st game is at 3pm Eastern, helping the 49ers fight the pacific-east coast time difference and hopefully allowing them to avoid the sluggish start that ended up costing Seattle last week.

With Atlanta having overcome their play-off demons last week, they suddenly find themselves underdogs at home, where they are 33-6 with Matt Ryan under centre. In fact, as the week has gone on Atlanta have found themselves going from 3 to 4 point 'dogs, and there are plenty of reasons on paper why the Falcons find themselves in that situation.

Let's start with the lack of Atlanta pass rush. Even with John Abraham on the field they struggled to get to Russell Wilson last week, and when he left the game it was even worse. Abraham's ankle injury has him listed as "Questionable" at the moment, and while I expect him to suit up and see the field, his impact will be greatly reduced. Atlanta ranked 28th during the regular season in sacks, and that lack of quality edge play doesn't just affect their ability to defend the pass, but also in defending running QB's, somewhere they really struggled this year. In 4 games against running QB's (2 vs. Cam Newton, Michael Vick & Russell Wilson and excluding their game vs Washington where RG3 got hurt) Atlanta gave up 9.5 yards a carry to them, having big issues in particular with the zone read, something Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco excel at.

San Francisco own the 6th best Offensive Line (according to our exclusive OLR stat) and boast a 1st team All-Pro left guard in Mike Iupati, a 2nd team All-Pro left tackle in Joe Staley and a right guard, Alex Boone, who should have joined his line-mates on those All-Pro teams too. This is a group who can dominate games and crush an oppositions will, just ask Clay Matthews...

From this base of strength San Francisco launch an offense which has gone from good to great since Colin Kaepernick took over the starting job. Last saturday they made a mockery of Green Bay's defense, who were horribly unprepared for things like San Fran's pistol formation and looked like they'd never once seen a zone-read even on tape. While Atlanta won't be as surprised by these things as Green Bay were, there's a legitimate chance that San Francisco's offensive line will just bully Atlanta's front 7 and carve open the holes required for the 49ers to run whatever kind of offense they want.

So what can Atlanta do to slow them down? Well first and foremost they have to stay disciplined up front and play their assignments. That should prevent the the big plays that were so damaging to Green Bay. They have to stay out of man coverage as much as possible to prevent Kaepernick scrambling, but most of all they have to get some turnovers. Asante Samuel will need to be at his ballhawking best. They were tied 5th in interceptions in the regular season with 20 (although that is inflated by Drew Brees' stinker of a 5-pick game against them) so it's perfectly plausible that they could snag one or two in this game.

On offense Atlanta shouldn't be fooled by last weeks success in the running game. Seattle were without their best edge player and have been a surprisingly weak run defense of late. San Francisco are a different beast all together. Their speed and strength up front is frightening, and Michael Turner's plodding, straight ahead running will almost certainly get them nowhere. San Francisco's speed on defense has surprised many teams when they first play them, so Atlanta are going to have to be careful early on and try not to hand early field position to the 49ers. Personally I would like to see a good dose of Jacquizz Rodgers in this game. Why? Well a good comparison is the success that New England had in running the similarly tiny Danny Woodhead out of the shotgun, his 5 yards a carry allowed the Patriots to keep some balance on offense as Woodhead played peak-a-boo behind his offensive line and was able to squirt through the small holes. Rodgers is a very similar player and has more power than you'd think (Just ask Earl Thomas). Whatever holes Atlanta are able to open up won't be big enough, or stay open long enough, for Michael Turner to exploit. But Jacquizz Rodgers is just the kind of player who can.

Atlanta will also have to modify their passing game slightly. San Francisco, thanks to Patrick Willis & NaVarro Bowman, are terrific against the tight end so Tony Gonzalez won't be as open as Matt Ryan is used to. I'm not saying go away from him entirely, but funneling some of Gonzalez's targets to slot-receiver Harry Douglas (San Francisco are markedly worse against the 3rd WR than any other player) would be a good idea.

As ever, a large part of this game will come down to who can convert on 3rd down. Atlanta's offense finished the regular season 2nd in 3rd down conversion at 45.1%, but San Francisco allowed just 33% of 3rd downs against them to be converted, good enough for 3rd in the league. With San Francisco's ability both to score and chew clock it will be vital that Atlanta stay aggressive all game.

Mike Smith has a bad history with his 4th down decisions. While his process has actually been very good, the outcomes of his 4th down tries have been miserable. Mostly this is due to vanilla play calls; just running straight ahead, or going with a full back dive will not be successful against San Francisco. Whatever 2-point plays Atlanta have had tucked up their sleeve all season will have to be bought out in short-yardage 4th down attempts. Any punt inside 49ers territory will be a huge victory for Jim Harbaugh, who almost certainly will not be as generous should his own team stall in Falcon territory.

Atlanta are going to need big games from their offensive line to allow Matt Ryan the time to find Julio Jones & Roddy White, and they're going to need to keep taking shots down field. While it's rare for teams to replicate the kind of performance San Francisco put in last week, especially in the playoffs, they definitely have earned the right to be favourites in this game, and I expect them to come away with the NFC Championship that so narrowly eluded them last season.

Prediction: San Francisco 31 - 24 Atlanta

Ravens (+8) over Patriots

Yep, it's these two again. After last season's tense finish to the AFC title game, with Sterling Moore stripping Lee Evans in the endzone and Billy Cundiff missed an easy kick to take the game to overtime, Baltimore and New England will renew their bitter rivalry.

These two teams met in week 3 with the Ravens winning 31-30, but a lot has changed since then. The Patriots will be without Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, but have added Aqib Talib to the defensive backfield and will have Aaron Hernandez back.

For the Ravens, they will be without top cornerback Lardarius Webb and Haloti Ngata is carrying multiple injuries that have greatly limited his play. But they have reorganised their offensive line which is now much improved while Terrelle Suggs, though not the fearsome player he once was, has also returned to their starting lineup.

Going back and watching the week 3 game there are some important things to consider (beyond just how awful the replacement refs were). Firstly is the lack of an sort of Patriots pass rush. They didn't sack, or even knock down, Joe Flacco once. While that was early in the season for rookie Chandler Jones who has since improved (only to hit the rookie wall it seems) the new-look Ravens pass protection (starting Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, flipping Michael Oher to right tackle and shifting rookie Kelechi Osemele into left guard) has handled Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller with ease in the last 2 weeks. If they keep Flacco clean and up right then Torrey Smith, who terrorized the Pats in week 3, will once again be the biggest threat in the Ravens passing game.

The other big takeaway from week 3 is just how badly the Patriots ran the ball against a lightweight Ravens defense who spent most of the day in sub-packages to combat their passing game. All season the Patriots have been running the ball with ease against sub-packages & base defenses alike, Stevan Ridley has lead the way with 4.4 yards a carry and the rest of the running back stable have backed him up ably. If the Ravens can stop the Patriots on the ground once again, without having to resort to heavy fronts, then it will take away a big part of the Patriots offense.

Those are some nice pluses in the Ravens column if you're looking for reasons to believe in the upset beyond the "Play for Ray" angle.

But the Patriots have developed into a truly deadly, and superbly balanced team. The addition of Talib to play cornerback has shifted Devin McCourty to safety where he's played much better and he gives then an answer to most of the best receivers in the league. Last week Andre Johnson was still making catches, but he wasn't able to get behind New England's defense nor was there much opportunity for yards after the catch because Talib was right with him. So Talib will be Torrey Smith's shadow on sunday, and ought to do a better job than McCourty did one-on-one with him in the regular season and so will allow better coverage on Anquan Boldin and the other receivers. This improvement in pass defense goes along with a strong run defense to form a unit that, while still prone to errors & giving up yards, might be the best the Patriots have had for some years.

The Patriots have also perfected their high-tempo no-huddle offense which was rarely seen in their week 3 match-up but has been used to such devastating effect late in the season, particularly against teams with weak cover linebackers, which is a problem for Baltimore.

The other big issue is how to handle Wes Welker. In the regular season match-up the Ravens used Lardarius Webb on Welker, but even his presence didn't slow Welker down much as he caught 8 of his 10 targets for 142 yards. Without Webb the question becomes who will try to stop Welker this time? Corey Graham seems to be the logical decision. He has great athleticism which should allow him to keep up with Welker's quick cuts, but his poor coverage skills could leave him vulnerable to option routes & double moves.

This line actually opened at 9.5, even 10 in some places and has since been bet down, but I'm still taking the points. Not having Gronkowski is huge and effects all areas of the Patriots offense, not to mention that these teams know each other too well. This has become the best rivalry in the AFC, perhaps all of football and the games are always close. Tom Brady might be 5-2 in his career against Baltimore but he's never beaten them by more than 6 points. This game will be close, hard-fought and possibly come down to a last minute field goal once again.

Prediction: New England 27 - 24 Baltimore

Record: 5-3

- Toby Durant (@TDonSport)
- The Pulling Linemen

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