Tag Archives: Super Bowl

4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Carolina Panthers

As our previews of all 32 NFL teams continue, we move on to the next team in the NFC South, the Carolina Panthers, who finished in last place in the division last season.

A year after going 15-1, the Panthers finished 2016 with a disappointing 6-10 record behind a subpar season from QB Cam Newton, who failed to throw for 20 touchdowns a season after earning NFL MVP honors. They tried to improve their offense in the early part of the draft, taking Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey as the No. 8 overall pick and making Ohio St. WR Curtis Samuel their second-round pick. McCaffrey is expected to see a lot of action right away as the backup to veteran RB Jonathan Stewart and as an action in the passing game, catching passes out of the backfield. The team is also welcoming back a familiar face with the signing of free-agent DE Julius Peppers, who began his career with the Panthers, playing with them from 2002-2009.

In 15 games last season — 14 starts — Newton completed just 52.9% of his passes for 3,509 yards and 19 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. Newton also rushed for 359 yards and 5 touchdowns. TE Greg Olsen’s 80 receptions was a team high. He totaled 1,073 receiving yards with 3 touchdowns. WR Kelvin Benjamin faded a bit after a good start to the season, finishing with 63 catches for 941 yards and 7 touchdowns. Stewart led the rushing attack with 218 carries for 824 yards and 9 touchdowns. The offense was middle-of-the-pack, scoring the 15-most points in the league. The defense allowed the seventh-most points but was tied for the fourth-most interceptions with 17.

With his track record of success in the league, I don’t expect Newton to have another season with numbers similar to last year.He may not return to the level of his 2015 MVP campaign, but 20-25 passing touchdowns should be attainable for the quarterback. Olsen is one of the best tight ends in the league, but the Panthers don’t have much depth in the receiving game behind him and Benjamin. That is where McCaffrey could be a help, He had 99 receptions in three seasons at Stanford, giving Newton someone to throw to in the backfield when McCaffrey is not running the ball to give Stewart a breather. At 37, Peppers obviously isn’t as good as he was in his prime, but he still had 7.5 sacks last year with the Packers. He could provide some help for a defense that didn’t do great last year.

The 2017 Panthers schedule begins with what looks to be a relatively easy road game against the 49ers. The Panthers then go home to play the Bills in Week 2 and the Saints in Week 3. They hit the road again in Week 4, heading to Foxboro to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. After a Week 5 game at the Lions, the Panthers return home for a Thursday night game against the Eagles. The Panthers face the Falcons at home in Week 9 before a Monday night game against the Dolphins in Week 10. Week 11 is when the Panthers finally get their bye, which is followed by consecutive road games against the Jets and Saints. A couple NFC North opponents follow, with the Vikings in Week 14 and Packers in Week 15 — both at home. The Panthers host the Buccaneers in Week 16 before hitting the road to finish the season against the Falcons in Week 17. I think the Panthers will win eight or nine games this season, better than last year but not likely to get them in the playoffs.

Source: http://www.panthers.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Atlanta Falcons

As our previews of all 32 NFL teams continue, we turn our attention to the NFC South, beginning the division with the Atlanta Falcons, who won the division last season and made the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

The Falcons’ season ended on a bitter note in February, giving up a 28-3 lead to lose to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI by a score of 34-28. Leading up to that, though, the Falcons had a strong year in which they finished the regular season 11-5 to secure their first division title since 2012. The team didn’t have any notable additions in the offseason, so the front office must think the team the Falcons had last season is good enough to have similar success in 2017. The team made UCLA DE Takkarist McKinley its first-round draft pick.

QB Matt Ryan had the best season of his career in 2016, completing 69.9% of his passes for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns, with 7 interceptions — all career bests. The bulk of his production went to WR Julio Jones, who recorded 83 receptions for 1,409 yards but just 6 touchdowns in 14 games. WR Mohamed Sanu played 15 games, with 59 receptions for 653 yards and 4 touchdowns. RB Devonta Freeman ran the ball 227 times for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns;l he added 54 receptions for 462 yards and 2 touchdowns in the passing game. RB Tevin Coleman had 118 rushing yards in 13 games, totaling 520 yards and 8 touchdowns, in addition to 3 receiving touchdowns on 31 receptions. Not surprisingly with the numbers Ryan put up, the Falcons’ offense scored the most points in the NFL last season, and their 540 points was 71 points better than the No. 2 team. They needed to score a lot because the defense allowed opponents to score the sixth-most points in the league.

When a player has a career year, you expect him to slip back a bit the next season so don’t expect Ryan to get close to 5,000 yards this season, but 4,500 yards or better is likely given that he’s surpassed that number every season since 2012. He still has all of his offensive weapons entering the year, and I expect TE Austin Hooper to take a step forward in 2017 after a rookie season that saw his reps increase as the year went on. One thing to note is the team has a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian, who replaces Kyle Shanahan, who got the head coaching job in San Francisco this offseason. With the way the offense played last year, I wouldn’t expect Sarkisian to stay from the offensive game plan that obviously worked well in 2016.

The Falcons open their post-Super Bowl season on the road against the Bears in Week 1. They get a home game in Week 2 as they play their first regular-season game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, hosting the Packers on Sunday night. Up next on the schedule is a road game at the Lions, followed by a home game against the Bills in Week 4. That leads into an early bye in Week 5, followed by a home contest with the Dolphins. Week 7 has a Super Bowl rematch on tap as the Falcons head to Gillette Stadium to try to avenge their overtime loss to the Patriots. They host the Cowboys in Week 10 and then take a cross-country flight to Seattle to take on the Seahawks in Week 11’s Monday night contest. A divisional battle with the Buccaneers in Atlanta follows in Week 12. Another primetime game is slated for Week 14, with the Falcons hosting the Saints on Thursday night. The same teams meet two weeks later, this time at the Superdome in New Orleans in Week 16. The Falcons finish out their regular season schedule at home against the Panthers in Week 17. I think the Falcons are looking at a 10-12 win season this year, and I’m leaning more toward the higher end of the range.

Source: http://www.atlantafalcons.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Detroit Lions

We continue our previews of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so) leading up to the start of the 2017 season in the  NFC North with the Detroit Lions, who are coming off a second-place finish in the division last season.

The Lions barely missed winning the division last season, falling a game shy of upending the Packers for first place. They did make the playoffs but lost in the wild card round. Their notable free-agent signings this offseason include CB D.J. Hayden and RB Matt Asiata, who will look to help shore up a running game that was among the league’s worst in 2016. Among the team’s losses on offense is the departure of veteran WR Anquan Boldin

QB Matthew Stafford had a good season last year, completing more than 65 percent of his passes for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. His leading receiver was WR Golden Tate, who recorded 91 receptions for 1,077 yards but just 4 touchdowns. Despite only catching 55 passes, WR Marvin Jones had similar numbers, totaling 930 yards and 4 touchdowns. TE Eric Ebron had 61 catches for 711 yards and 1 touchdown in 13 games. RB Theo Riddick was the team’s leading rusher, but that included carrying the ball just 92 times for 357 yards and 1 touchdown in 10 games, eight starts. He added 371 receiving yards and 5 receiving touchdowns on 53 receptions. RB Zach Zenner played in 14 games and scored 4 touchdowns on 88 carries. With the Vikings, Asiata had 121 rushes for 402 yards and 6 scores. Overall, the Lions were 20th in the league in points scored while the defense was near the middle of the pack in points allowed.

Offense looks to be a challenge again for the Lions, entering the season without a running back who has proven to be a top-of-the-line starter at the position. Asiata could be the best of an underwhelming bunch, but he’s never started more than nine games in the first five seasons of his career. Stafford will have to increase his touchdown output to allow the Lions to score more points to keep the team in games. While Jones and Tate aren’t necessarily big-name receivers, they are able to put up decent numbers, with 1,000-yard seasons possible for both if they can stay healthy. Ebron has never been able to play all 16 games in a season, if he can do it this year he also has a chance to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career.

The Cardinals come to Detroit to open the Lions’ schedule, which then takes the Lions to New Jersey to battle the Giants in Week 2. The Super Bowl runners-up are up in Week 3 with the Falcons visiting the Lions. Week 6 has the Lions visiting the Saints, followed by a bye and a home game with the Steelers in Week 8. The first game against the Packers is next on the slate, with a Week 9 visit to Lambeau Field. The Lions visit the Buccaneers in Week 14, with a trip to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals in Week 16. The team ends the season hosting the Packers for the second straight year. The Lions won nine games last season, and it’s looking like they’ll be right around there again in 2017. That was good enough to make the playoffs last year, but 10 wins may be needed to make it this time around.

Sources: http://www.detroitlions.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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Patriots, Falcons make history with first Super Bowl to go to overtime

It was expected to be a high-scoring affair heading into Super Bowl LI with the high-powered offenses of the Patriots and Falcons in the game at Houston’s NRG Stadium. That wasn’t the case, though, early — at least on the Patriots side as they were shut out in the first quarter and scored just three points in the opening half, going down 21-3 at halftime. Things got better for the Patriots in the second half as they came back to force overtime and eventually win the game.

Both offenses got out of the gate slowly, with a scoreless game through the first quarter. The Falcons got on the scoreboard first with a five-yard touchdown run by RB Devonta Freeman, who made a nice cut to the outside, where there were no defenders, to get in the end zone early in the second quarter. That touchdown came on the ensuing drive after Falcons LB forced a fumble by Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount when the Patriots were in field goal range. he next score came on a 19-yard touchdown catch by TE Austin Hooper from QB Matt Ryan to put the Falcons up 14-0 nearing the midway point of the second quarter. As the Patriots were driving later in the quarter — helped by three defensive holding penalties that resulted in Patriot first downs — QB Tom Brady threw a pass that was intended for WR Danny Amendola but landed in the hands of Falcons CB Robert Alford, who had nothing but open field in front of him and took it into the endzone for a pick-six that made it 21-0 with under three minutes to go in the half.

The Patriots looked like they’d follow that score with a touchdown of their own on the ensuing drive, but it wasn’t meant to be. As they were driving down the field, a holding call against TE Martellus Bennett negated a run by RB James White that would have gotten the Patriots inside the five-yard line. Instead, they had a 2nd-and-15 at the 20-yard line with 12 seconds to go. A screen pass to Bennett didn’t go anywhere and because he got taken down in-bounds instead of getting out of bounds, the Patriots had to use their final timeout to stop the clock with five seconds to go in the half. They then settled for a 41-yard field goal off the foot of K Stephen Gostkowski to get on the board and cut the deficit down to 18 points heading into halftime. Although Falcons WR Julio Jones only had three catches in the first half, he did make this seemingly impossible grab.

The second half began with the Patriots defense forcing a much-needed three-and-out followed by a good punt return by WR Julian Edelman to get the Patriots in good field position close to midfield to try to cut into the lead further. They can’t capitalize on it, though, and are forced to punt after a couple of dropped balls by Edelman and Amendola not helping Brady out. The Falcons struck first again in the second half with a six-yard touchdown pass to RB Tevin Coleman to end a drive that featured a 35-yard reception by WR Taylor Gabriel.

Brady then drove the Patriots down the field on a 75-yard drive that culminated with a five-yard pass to White. Gostkowski’s PAT attempt bounced off the upright and was no good, making it 28-9. An unsuccessful onside kick attempt gave the Falcons good field position, which they couldn’t take advantage of and didn’t score, punting to begin the fourth quarter. The Patriots’ subsequent drive ended in a 33-yard Gostkowski field goal to get the Patriots within two scores, 28-12. That drive could have been better for New England had it not been for two sacks on the drive by Falcons DT Grady Jarrett, the second on a third-and-10 that forced the field goal attempt. A sack-fumble on the ensuing Atlanta drive — the Falcons’ first turnover of the postseason — gave the Patriots hope. Despite DE Dwight Freeney sacking Brady for a five-yard loss on the first play of the Patriots’ drive coming off the fumble, the Patriots were able to finish off a quick drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to Amendola. A two-point conversion by White brought the Patriots back within one touchdown, 28-20, with 5:56 left in the fourth. Gostkowski’s kick pinned the Falcons back at their own 10-yard line, but a 39-yard catch-and-run by Freeman got them near midfield on the first play of the drive. That was followed up later in the drive by another outstanding sideline catch to get the Falcons in field goal range on a 27-yard completion.

But a sack by Patriots DE Trey Flowers, followed by an offensive holding call knock them out of field goal range, giving Brady and the Patriots a chance to tie the game with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Patriots’ drive started at their own 9-yard line, but Brady was hitting his receivers — including an amazing catch by Edelman that rivals the greatest catches in Super Bowl history — leading up to the two-minute warning.

White finished off the drive with a three-yard touchdown drive after making a couple of nice catches to set the Patriots up in that position. The ensuing two-point attempt is good with a pass to Amendola to tie the game at 28-28 with 57 seconds to go in regulation and no timeouts for the Falcons. They didn’t do anything on the drive, making this the first Super Bowl ever to go to overtime.

The Patriots won the coin toss and chose to receive the ball, giving them the first shot on offense in the extra period. A touchback caused the Patriots to start at their own 25-yard line but Brady was able to take the offense down the field. A defensive pass interference call in the end zone gave the Patriots a first-and-goal from the two-yard line. After an incomplete pass to Bennett, Brady gave the ball to White for the game-winning touchdown.

Patriots win the game in overtime, 34-28, earning Brady and head coach Bill Belichick their record-setting fifth Super Bowl titles. The Patriots also obliterated the Super Bowl record for a come-from-behind victory. Prior to this game, no team had come back from being down more than 10 points to win a Super Bowl. With the victory, Brady wins his fourth Super Bowl MVP trophy, the first player in NFL history to achieve the feat. Brady threw for 466 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.

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Super Bowl LI Prop Bets: Coin toss, Trump mentions, Lady Gaga hair color?

The Super Bowl is the most-watched TV event in the U.S. every year, with well over 100 million people watching the game. That audience is split up between football fans and casual viewers who watch the game for the commercials and/or the halftime show, which features Lady Gaga this year. There are also the bettors who watch the game hoping to make money off of their wagers. But because the Super Bowl is such a big deal, you can bet on much more than just the line or the over/under. And Super Bowl LI is no different. There are a number of interesting bets you can make, often involving people not actually playing in the game. I’ll list some of the more unique bets here, including my picks, but without the odds that you would find if you were actually betting on them.

Coin flip
Heads
Tails
This is the classic Super Bowl prop bet. It’s obviously purely random. I’ll go heads.

How long will it take for Luke Bryan to sing the U.S. national anthem?
Over/under 2 minutes, 15 seconds
This is another classic Super Bowl prop. Luke Bryan doesn’t strike me as the type of singer who will stretch the anthem out as long as possible, as some others have in previous Super Bowls, so I’ll take the under on this one.

How many times will “Trump” be said on TV during live broadcast (halftime/commercials excluded)?
Over/under 1.5
I’ll take the over because Brady and Belichick famously supported Trump during the election so I think he could be mentioned. Play-by-play announcer Joe Buck and analyst Troy Aikman just need to say his name once each in order to make the over.

Will “Houston, we have a problem” be said on TV during live broadcast (halftime/commercials excluded?
Yes
No
I’ll go no here because I think the overused cliche would only by used during the broadcast if it’s a blowout and one team falls far behind. I think it’ll be a close game so I don’t think the phrase is said.

What color will Lady Gaga’s hair be when she comes on stage for the halftime show?
Blonde
Any other color
I’m going to take the field here and pick any other color. This is the biggest stage Lady Gaga has ever performed on and with her personality, I don’t think she’ll go as conservative as having blonde hair.

Which song will Lady Gaga play first during the halftime show?\n”Born this Way”
“Bad Romance”
“Edge of Glory”
“Poker Face”
“Just Dance”
Any other song
I’m going to go with “Edge of Glory” here. I’m unfamiliar with the song, but with the title it seems appropriate for a Super Bowl halftime show since both teams are on the edge of glory by being one-half away from a Super Bowl title.

How many times will “deflate” or “Deflategate” be said on TV during live broadcast?
Over/under 1.5
I think it’ll be over. Buck and Aikman will have to mention the four-game suspension Tom Brady served at the start of the season. Since Deflategate was the reason for the suspension, I think it’ll be said a couple times.

How many times will Gisele Bundchen be shown on TV during the broadcast?
Over/under 1.5
She’s Brady’s wife. I expect her to be shown at least once near the beginning of the game, so there would need to be just one more appearance for the over. I’m going over.

Will the opening kickoff result in a touchback?
Yes
No
I’ll take yes on this one, which seems like the more likely outcome.

Will either team score three straight times?
Yes
No
I’m expecting a close game and think it’ll be close throughout so this is an easy no for me.

Will LeGarrette Blount score a touchdown in the first half?
Yes
No
I’m expecting multiple touchdowns from Blount, which is why I picked him as my MVP, so I think he’ll get at least one in the first half. Yes.

Total yardage of all touchdowns
Over/under 100.5
I’m expecting a relatively high-scoring game so there will be a few touchdowns. Just one long one puts it on the path to the over. A long touchdown reception by Julian Edelman is a distinct possibility. With that out there, I’ll go over here.

Will the Patriots convert a fourth-down attempt?
Yes
No
The Patriots go for it on fourth down more than most teams so I’ll go with the odds and take yes on this one.

Distance of the first Matt Ryan touchdown pass?
Over/under 13.5
The Falcons have some receivers who can make big plays. Over.

Total number of penalties in the game by both teams
Over/under 12.5
The Patriots don’t get a lot of penalties so I think the under is the way to go here.

Total receptions by Mohamed Sanu
Over/under 4
I think Bill Belichick’s game plan will be to limit Julio Jones’ production. If he’s successful with that, Sanu will have to step up so I’ll go over.

Who will throw the first touchdown pass?
Patriots
Falcons
Although they didn’t in the AFC Championship game, the Patriots usually defer if they win the coin toss. With that in mind, I expect the Falcons to get the ball first. If Ryan has the first chance on offense, I think he has a good shot at throwing a touchdown pass. Going Falcons.

Total rushing yards for LeGarrette Blount
Over/under 57.5
Again, Blount is my MVP pick so I’m going way over on that number.

Longest successful field goal in the game
Over/under 47.5
The Patriots have one of the best kickers in the league in Stephen Gostkowski. If he has a shot at a 48-plus yarder, I think he nails it. And Matt Bryant on the other side is also a pretty good kicker who also has a shot at converting a long one. Over.

What will be higher on Super Bowl Sunday?
Patriots total points scored
Russell Westbrook points scored
I’m predicting 31 points for the Patriots. Westbrook is averaging 30.8 points per game this season, which puts him right there with that total. He’s playing the Blazers, who are near the bottom of the league in points allowed. Given that, I think Westbrook will surpass his season average so I’ll go with Westbrook points scored.

Higher number?
Phil Mickelson fourth round score
Patriots rushing yards
Mickelson will likely score in the low 70s in the fourth round. I keep going back to the fact that I expect a big game from Blount, so I’ll go with Patriots rushing yards.

Who will the Super Bowl MVP mention first?
God
Team/teammates
Coach
Family
Owner
Donald Trump
Does not mention anyone above
I’m expecting a Patriots win, which means a Patriots MVP. I think Belichick has drilled the idea of team into his players’ heads so I think the MVP mentions team/teammates first.

Will Matt Ryan win regular season MVP and Super Bowl MVP?
Yes
No
I think he’ll be named the regular season MVP, but because I’m projecting a Patriots win I don’t think he’ll be Super Bowl MVP. No.

What color will the liquid be that is poured on the winning coach? (Bovada)
Clear
Lime/green
Orange
Yellow
Red
Blue
Purple
It was blue Gatorade when the Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX so I’ll go with blue for them again.

If the Patriots win, will Brady, Belichick or Kraft be seen shaking Roger Goodell’s hand on TV?
Yes
No
Goodell having to give the Patriots the Lombardi Trophy if they win has been a discussion all season because of the Deflategate punishment levied on the team. I’m going yes here because it’ll be best for all parties involved if the Patriots show there’s no ill-will with the commissioner.

(Prop bets from CBS Sports and Football Outsiders)

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Super Bowl LI Preview: Brady, Belichick go for record 5th rings as Patriots battle Falcons

For the first time in four years, the Super Bowl does not consist of the two No. 1 seeds going against each other. It’s the AFC’s top-seeded Patriots — going for the franchise’s fifth title, which would tie the team for second-most all-time behind the Steelers — taking on the Falcons, the No. 2 seed from the NFC, who are playing in just their second Super Bowl and looking for their first title. The Patriots, on the other hand, are playing in their NFL-record ninth championship game. Patriots QB Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have each been part of the Patriots’ four prior championships and are making their seventh overall Super Bowl appearances, the most in league history for a player or coach.

Neither team struggled to win its conference championship game, both more than doubling their opponent’s score. The Falcons defense stifled QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense and Green Bay’s defense couldn’t stop QB Matt Ryan and the rest of the Atlanta offense as the Falcons won 44-21. Brady and the Patriots put up 36 points on the Steelers defense and limited Pittsburgh’s offense, which played without RB Le’Veon Bell for most of the game when he exited early with a groin injury. New England won the game by a final score of 36-17.

With two of the league’s best offenses playing in Super Bowl LI, it looks to be a high-scoring game, which is reflected in the 59 over/under in Vegas, which is up from the already-high 56.5 where it opened. The Patriots are three-point favorites in the game, which opened as a pick ’em. Heading into the final game of the postseason, I am 9-2 picking games straight up, 6-4 against the spread and 5-5 on over/unders.

The Falcons had the league’s top scoring offense during the regular season and have kept up the offensive attack through their first two playoff games, scoring 36 and 44, respectively. The Patriots can put points on the board, as well, scoring 34 and 36, respectively, in their first two games of this postseason. Both quarterbacks are MVP candidates after putting up big numbers during the season but I’ll give the advantage of the Brady and the Patriots. It’s hard to go against the clutch performances he has put up throughout his career and the four Super Bowls he has one. I say the Falcons have the advantage at the receiver position with WR Julio Jones, who is one of the best in the game, gaining more than 1,400 receiving yards with 6 touchdowns during the season and adding another 4 touchdowns in his two playoff games so far this season. The question is how healthy he is, as he has been limited in practice this week. WR Julian Edelman should have a good game for the Patriots, but a key for them could be WR Chris Hogan repeating the performance he had in the AFC Championship, when he had 9 receptions for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Steelers. Falcons RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 19 rushing touchdowns in the regular season, but Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount ran the ball into the end zone 18 times himself while rushing for more than 1,100 yards. The Patriots rushing attack hasn’t been able to get much going yet in the postseason, which could hurt them against the Falcons if they can’t keep up with the Freeman-Coleman combo. I think the running games are pretty even between the two teams.

The Patriots had the top scoring defense during the regular season and the Falcons defense has improved in recent weeks, having allowed 21 points or fewer in five of their last six games. Other than the Packers last week, though, they didn’t face a team with as strong of an offense as the Patriots have so New England will present a big challenge for the Atlanta defense. For the Patriots defense, CB Malcolm Butler — who made the game-winning interception in Super Bowl XLIX — led the team with 4 interceptions during the regular season. Patriots have the advantage at defense.

There’s no doubt that the Patriots have the advantage at head coach, with Belichick coaching in his record-setting seventh Super Bowl. Although Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is in his first Super Bowl as a head coach, he was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator when they made it to Super Bowls XLVIII and XLIX so he knows what it’s like to be on the sidelines for a Super Bowl. But it’s Belichick who is considered by many to be the best coach in NFL history. He knows how to come up with a game plan that helps to limit the opponent’s best weapon. If he can do that on Sunday, it’ll likely mean Jones has a subpar performance.

This should be a close game, but I think Brady and Belichick will lead the Patriots to the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl title. I’m predicting a final score of 31-27 Patriots so I’ll take them to cover and that’ll be under the 59. Blount is named MVP.

(Spread and over/under from Vegas Insider)

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NFL Divisional Round Preview: Patriots are big favorites, Packers-Cowboys play to advance to the NFC championship

With the wild-card games in the books, the top two seeds in each conference take to the field for the first time in this postseason. That means the Patriots, Chiefs, Cowboys and Falcons host games coming off of their first-round byes. For a team like the Patriots, that means veteran QB Tom Brady, one of the best in the postseason, takes on a Texans team with a mediocre offense while Cowboys rookie QB Dak Prescott not only gets his first taste of the playoffs but also the first truly meaningful game of his career, as the Cowboys led the NFC East virtually all season. The Falcons and Chiefs, meanwhile, have veteran quarterbacks — Matt Ryan and Alex Smith, respectively — who haven’t achieved a great deal of success in their postseason careers, save for Smith helping the 49ers reach the 2012 NFC Championship game. After finishing two games over .500 with a 129-127 record against the spread (and 156-98-2 picking games straight up) in the regular season, I went 2-2 against the spread (and 4-0 straight up but just 1-3 on the over/unders) last weekend.

Saturday

No. 3 seed Seattle Seahawks at No. 2 seed Atlanta Falcons (11-5, NFC South champions) (-5, over/under 51.5)

The Seahawks are coming off of an impressive win in the wild-card round against a Lions team with a quarterback that has been dealing with a broken finger for the last several weeks. This week, they’ll have a tougher matchup against a squad led by Ryan, who is a leading candidate for league MVP honors. RB Thomas Rawls was the Seahawks’ main offensive weapon last week, running for 161 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. QB Russell Wilson was 23-for-30 for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns. Catching nearly half of those completions was WR Doug Baldwin, whose 11 receptions led to 104 receiving yards and a touchdown. WR Paul Richardson put up decent numbers for him, with 3 catches for 48 yards, including a touchdown on an impressive catch in the end zone, making up for a lack of production from TE Jimmy Graham.

Ryan is coming off of a career year in which he threw for 4.944 yards and 38 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions, giving him a NFL-best passer rating of 117.1. He hasn’t had much success in his postseason career, though, going 1-4 with a 9-7 TD-interception ratio in five starts, and he has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in three of those five games. Looking at what the rest of the Falcons offense did during the season, RB Devonta Freeman led the way on the ground, carrying the ball 227 yards for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns. No. 2 RB Tevin Coleman added another 520 yards and 8 scores on the ground on 118 rushes. WR Julio Jones had another of his typically great seasons, with 83 receptions for 1,409 yards and 6 touchdowns in 14 games. WR Mohamed Sanu added another 59 grabs for 653 yards and 4 touchdowns, and Freeman had good production in the air game out of the backfield, with 54 catches for 462 yards and 2 touchdowns. Defensively, the Falcons are among the worst in the league,ranking in the bottom 10 in both points and yards allowed.

This game is a battle of the league’s best scoring offense in the Falcons against a Seahawks defense that allowed the third-fewest points in the league during the season and gave up just 6 against the Lions last week. If the Seattle defense can’t keep the Falcons from getting into the end zone, which I don’t think they will, I think the key offensive weapon for the Seahawks will be Rawls. He’ll have to have another good game, like his 161-yard performance against Detroit, if the team has a chance to win. I don’t think Wilson will be able to keep up with Ryan in the air so it’ll be up to the rushing attack to outplay Freeman and Coleman, in my opinion. I don’t think they’ll be able to do it. Falcons win the game, 30-24, to advance to the fifth conference championship game in franchise history. They’ll cover the five-point spread, and the game will go over the 51.5.

No. 4 seed Houston Texans at No. 1 seed New England Patriots (14-2, AFC East champions) (-16, over/under 44.5)

In a rematch of a Week 3 game that saw the Patriots — with QB Jacoby Brissett starting — shut out the Texans at Gillette Stadium, the Texans head back to Foxborough for a chance at redemption as they try to make it to their first AFC Championship game in team history. Last week, the Texans beat the Raiders at home behind a strong showing by the defense — particularly DEs Jadeveon Clowney, who recorded his first career interception, and Whitney Mercilus, who had 2 sacks and 5 tackles in the game. CB A.J. Bouye had an interception of his own in the winning effort. The offense, as has been the case all season, wasn’t very explosive, although QB Brock Osweiler did show some promising signs at times, making a couple of nice throws to WR DeAndre Hopkins, who had 5 receptions for 67 yards and 1 touchdown on 9 targets. Overall, Osweiler was 14-for-25 for 168 yards and 1 touchdown. Not impressive but the lack of interceptions was a good sign because he had more interceptions than touchdown passes — 16 vs. 15 — during the regular season. The Texans couldn’t get much done in the running game; RB Lamar Miller was only able to get 73 yards on 31 carries, though he did get into the end zone once.

After missing the first four games of the season while serving his suspension for Deflategate, Brady put up impressive numbers, leading many to make him their MVP pick despite missing a quarter of the season. In his 12 starts, Brady had a 28-2 TD-interception ratio while throwing for 3,554 yards. Unlike Ryan, who hasn’t done well in the postseason historically, Brady almost seems to up his game in January. He has won 22 of his 31 starts — including four Super Bowl victories — and thrown 56 touchdowns compared to 28 interceptions. With TE Rob Gronkowski missing most of the season to injury, WR Julian Edelman was the team’s leading receiver with 98 receptions 1,106 yards and 3 touchdowns. TE Martellus Bennett stepped up in the second half of the season after Gronk went on IR. He finished the year with 55 catches for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns. RB James White was productive in the passing game out of the backfield, with 60 catches for 551 yards and 5 touchdowns. RB LeGarrette Blount was the team’s leading rusher, carrying the ball 299 times for 1,161 yards and an impressive 18 touchdowns. As if having one of the league’s best offenses wasn’t enough, the Patriots also had the best scoring defense during the season, giving up only 250 points — 34 fewer than the next best team, the Giants.

On paper this game seems like a blowout, and that is reflected as well in the 16-point spread. The Week 3 shutout doesn’t do much to refute that. While I don’t think this game will be close, I find it hard to give a team 16 points in the playoffs. The Texans defense will have to keep Brady and the Patriots in check if they want to have any chance of pulling off the upset because the Texans offense may be hard pressed to get into the 20s against a Patriots defense that allowed an average of 15.6 points per game during the regular season. Patriots win the game easily, but with a 27-13 score I’ll take the Texans with the points, and that will also be under the 44.5.

Sunday

No. 3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 2 seed Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, AFC West champions) (-1.5, over/under 44)

The Steelers easily took care of the Dolphins in the wild-card round to earn the trip to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs. In Sunday’s game QB Ben Roethlisberger didn’t have a great outing, going 13-for-18 for 197 yards and 2 touchdowns with 2 interceptions, but he didn’t have to be at the top of his game thanks to RB Le’Veon Bell, who set a Steelers postseason record by rushing for 167 yards and 2 touchdowns on 29 rushes. WR Antonio Brown helped the Steelers jump out to an early lead with a couple of first-quarter scores. Overall, he had 5 receptions for 124 yards and those 2 touchdowns. The defense had three turnovers, including an interception by LB Ryan Shazier.

For the Chiefs, Smith set a career high this season with 3,502 passing yards, though that resulted in just 15 touchdowns and he threw 8 interceptions, which was his highest total since throwing 10 in 2010. RB Spencer Ware was the team’s leading rusher, getting the start in 14 games and carrying the ball 214 times for 921 yards and 3 touchdowns. TE Travis Kelce caught 85 passes to lead the team with 1,125 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. It was WR Tyreek Hill who was the Chiefs’ breakout star on offense this season. He had 61 receptions for 593 yards and a team-high 6 touchdowns in the passing game, but that’s not the only part of the game in which he was active. He had 24 carries for 267 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he added another 3 touchdowns on special teams, returning two punts and a kickoff for scores. Defensively, the Chiefs allowed 311 points during the season — seventh best in the league — but was in the bottom 10 in yards allowed.

The 1.5-point spread indicates that this game is expected to be close. The Steelers have the better offense with the Roethlisberger-Bell-Brown triplets, but the Chiefs have the better defense, which the team will rely on to keep the Steelers out of the end zone as much as possible as Smith and Ware can’t compare to Roethlisberger and Bell. The X-factor for the Chiefs is, of course, Hill. If he can continue the strong second half of the season that he had, it could be enough to get the Chiefs the win If he can score on a kick or punt return, that would certainly help take some of the pressure off of both the offense and defense. In the end, though, I don’t think the Chiefs will be able to score enough points to pull out the victory. The Steelers are the slight underdogs so I’ll take the points. I think Pittsburgh wins, 23-20, and I’ll go under the 44.

No. 4 seed Green Bay Packers at No. 1 seed Dallas Cowboys (13-3, NFC East champions) (-4.5, over/under 52.5)

The Packers pulled away from the Giants in the second half of their wild-card game last week and ended up winning by 25 points, but they may have lost a key player in the process. WR Jordy Nelson left the game early with what was later determined to be fractured ribs. Even without Nelson playing the entire game, QB Aaron Rodgers had a big game for the Packers, going 25-for-40 for 362 yards and 4 touchdowns. He had two receivers cross the 100-yard mark; WR Davante Adams had 8 receptions for 125 yards and 1 touchdown, while WR Randall Cobb came back after missing a couple games with an injury and had 5 receptions for 116 yards and 3 touchdowns, including one on a hail-mary pass just before halftime. The running game struggled, as it has most of the season, with RBs Christine Michael and Ty Montgomery splitting the touches almost evenly but totaling just 74 rushing yards between them. On defense, LB Clay Matthews had a sack and a forced fumble and CB Damarious Randall intercepted an Eli Manning pass.

Led by rookies Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys had their best season since 2007 with a 13-3 record. Prescott threw for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns with 4 interceptions. He also had 6 rushing touchdowns on 57 carries. That was nothing compared to what Elliott did on the ground, carrying the ball 322 times for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. WR Cole Beasley was the team’s leading receiver with 75 receptions for 833 yards and 5 touchdowns. Veteran TE Jason Witten added 69 receptions for 673 yards and 3 touchdowns while WR Dez Bryant had 50 catches for 796 yards and 8 touchdowns in 13 games. The defense was the team’s weak point during the season, allowing both the fifth-most points and yards in the league.

Both teams have good offenses and questionable defenses so points should be easy to come by in this one. Nelson’s availability is a big question mark for the Packers. The team is saying he likely won’t be able to practice until Saturday, so a decision on his status for the game won’t be known until the weekend. If he can’t go, that would be a blow to the Packers offense and would require the likes of Adams and Cobb to repeat their performances from last week. I give the Cowboys a slight edge in this game because of Elliott. The Packers run game can’t come close to the production he is likely to put up, and that could be the difference in the game. Cowboys win, 30-27, so they don’t cover the spread but do advance to the NFC Championship game. And that score means I’m going over 52.5.

If these results happen, it’ll eliminate the possibility of my preseason Super Bowl LI pick — Packers over Patriots — from happening. With the Patriots likely beating the Texans, that prediction will stay alive if the Packers can manage to beat the Cowboys.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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