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Saturday, 17 January 2015

NFL Play Offs Conference Championship Game Picks 2015 (January 18)

After the controversy during the Dallas Cowboys win over the Detroit Lions in the Wild Card Round of the weekend, the NFL would have been hoping fans around the world would have focused on the games on Divisional Round weekend.

All seemed to be going well for the League after a truly classic Play Off game on Saturday when the New England Patriots just about outlasted the Baltimore Ravens, but it all turned around on Sunday in arguably the biggest game of the weekend.

The Dallas Cowboys were again involved, but this time a 'bad rule' prevented them having the chance to beat the Green Bay Packers and move into the NFC Conference Championship Game. Everyone would have called Dez Bryant's amazing play a catch if you were hanging out and in all definitions it seemed to be the case, but the rule states he has to maintain position going through the ground or make a 'football play' and what would have been an all time great play was overturned.

Dez Bryant's reaction said it all and it looks like the backlash from the game means that the rule is likely to be made more objective and cleared up from the 'grey area' it currently stands in.

Like last week, the Dallas Cowboys weren't guaranteed a win if the catch had stood, but it was a play that would have given them a very good chance. Dallas still had to score the TD and then would have gone for two points to try and extend the lead to three points over the Packers.

That would have still left Aaron Rodgers and the Packers around 3 minutes with three Time Outs to either score a tying Field Goal, if Dallas succeeded in going for two points, or they could have scored a Touchdown/kicked the winning Field Goal if they trailed by a single point.

However, I would have loved to have seen the team moving through to the Conference Championship Game because of what they did on the field rather than a 'bad rule' or the officials making the big, but ultimately wrong, call.

I mentioned the New England game against the Baltimore Ravens which became an instant classic after the Patriots became the first team to win a Play Off game having trailed by 14 points on two occasions. The story out of the game was the Offensive formations that New England used in the second half when only sending out four Offensive Linemen and then declaring one of their Receivers as ineligible on the play.

It infuriated John Harbaugh who took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty while complaining to the officials and looks to be another issue the NFL will have to deal with this off-season.

The Seattle Seahawks comfortably dismissed their 'attractive cousins' from Carolina and are the clear favourites to win the Super Bowl for the second season in succession. They are a big favourite to beat the Green Bay Packers this weekend and I would expect the Seahawks to be laying at least 3.5 points on a neutral field against either New England or Indianapolis if they get to the Super Bowl.

That's right- Indianapolis! I didn't predict the Indianapolis Colts to go into Denver and beat the Broncos in the Divisional Round of the Play Offs, but it has since been revealed that Peyton Manning was indeed limited by his thigh injury.

Manning's future has been left up in the air, but John Elway didn't wait too long to make changes after firing (well they claim mutual consent) John Fox as Head Coach and allowing the Coaching Staff to all explore their options. The Broncos also have some big decisions to make concerning which Free Agents they are going to extend, especially with Demaryius and Julius Thomas both needing extensions, while Manning is going to be involved in the search for a new Head Coach even if he decides retirement is the way forward.

The Denver Broncos fanbase must be a little concerned that they have missed their window to win a Super Bowl with Manning at Quarter Back and there could be a lot of changes at this team in time for the new season. It could shift the power in the AFC going into the new season if Manning does indeed retire and I think there are going to be a lot of questions to be answered over the coming weeks by the front office beginning with the announcement of a new Head Coach.

Green Bay Packers @ Seattle Seahawks Pick: The NFC Championship Game will be the first one played this Sunday and I think most would accept it would have a lot more potential to be a classic if Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers were coming in healthy. Rodgers couldn't disguise his limited movement on an injured calf last weekend against Dallas and, despite saying it probably feels better than a week ago, the Quarter Back has to have more than he did in the Divisional Round game to give the Packers any kind of chance in this one.

The Cowboys got some pressure on Rodgers, but he was mainly well protected by his Offensive Line and that allowed him to pick apart a Cowboys Defense that has given up a lot of yards this season. It will be tough to replicate that success against the Seattle Secondary that will have Byron Maxwell back at Corner Back opposite Richard Sherman.

Seattle can get a lot of pressure up front with a four man rush and the Green Bay Offensive Line will be tested to the fullest if Rodgers is unable to step up and perhaps scramble a little more than last weekend. The pressure without blitzing means there are less spaces to exploit in the Secondary, but Rodgers will at least be boosted by two more weapons he has this week than he did in Week 1.

For starters, Davonte Adams has become more comfortable in the Offense and being matched across from Sherman won't mean Rodgers automatically shies away from one side of the field as he did in Week 1. Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson remain key Receivers, but Richard Rodgers could be another new factor at Tight End.

Eddie Lacy and James Starks will find it tough to keep Rodgers in winnable downs and distance as Seattle's Defense is very strong against the run, but the Carolina Panthers showed it can be possible to move the chains on the ground. Keeping Rodgers in third and short will give their Quarter Back a chance to make plays and Green Bay have to be excited about some of the success that Cam Newton enjoyed in the Divisional Round here last weekend.

Lacy and Starks MAY have success, but Marshawn Lynch is almost a lock to be able to punish the Green Bay Defense on the ground. Max Unger looks like he won't miss this game which is huge for the Seattle Seahawks who virtually average a Touchdown more per game with the Center in the line up, while Lynch has also been a lot more effective when Unger plays. Lynch had over 100 yards and 2 Touchdowns when Seattle met Green Bay in Week 1 and he should be able to follow DeMarco Murray to rip some big gains on the ground.

If the Packers can make some Defensive stands, Russell Wilson is also a threat for the Seattle Seahawks when it comes to running the ball and could become the latest mobile Quarter Back to pose problems for the Packers Defense. It is Colin Kaepernick that has ended Green Bay's last two seasons in the Play Offs and Wilson is capable of getting out of the pocket and happy to run the ball for First Downs or scores.

Green Bay may want to dial up the blitz to try and force Wilson to get rid of the ball quicker than he would like- Seattle have allowed a lot of pressure on their Quarter Back through the season and Green Bay have an effective pass rush which could be their best avenue of success. However, the Packers would prefer to have made some stops on Lynch to set up third and long before they decide to bring these packages into play as Wilson could take off for the First Downs if in man coverage behind the blitz.

Wilson has also been very efficient with the ball when it comes to throwing despite not having the 'big name' Receivers that the NFL fans will be used to hearing. Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Luke Willson are all capable Receivers, but the Green Bay Secondary is a ball-hawking unit that will believe they can make the big plays to try and slow the Seahawks down.

Both teams will be confident they have the game plan to win this one and move to the Super Bowl where they will likely be favoured to win. The injury to Aaron Rodgers calf is really bothersome and Seattle have a very strong home record since Russell Wilson was Drafted, going 20-7 against the spread in those games including 2-0 straight up and against the spread against Green Bay.

Green Bay have neither been a good underdog (2-10 against the spread over last three seasons) nor on the road (10-14 against the spread last three seasons), but I think the Packers are getting too many points this week. They have an Offense that can score points and I like the earlier start which may suit them a little more than a late evening game on the West Coast.

It just seems like too many points to be giving a team like the Green Bay Packers and that is backed up by the trend that an underdog being given 7 or more points in a Championship Game are 9-3 against the spread over the last 18 seasons.

Another trend backing the Packers is the fact that teams who return to play a game at the same venue they have already been beaten at are 28-14 against the spread when that opponent is not from the same Division.

Lacy and Starks could get something going on the ground and I think Green Bay have more weapons than when they played here earlier this season. Rodgers' injury means I can only back this for minimum stakes, while Seattle could pull away as they did against the Carolina Panthers last week if they can establish the run and wear the Packers down. However, I think Green Bay will make enough plays against the tough Seattle Defense to keep this closer than most will anticipate and I like taking the points in this game.

Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots Pick: The AFC Championship Game is another repeat of one we have seen in a prime time spot earlier this season, but this one won't be taking place at the home of the Indianapolis Colts. This time it is the New England Patriots who will be hosting the Colts in Foxboro and there will be plenty of headlines written about Andrew Luck facing another sure-fire Hall of Fame Quarter Back in Tom Brady after last weekend.

With Brady and Peyton Manning dominating on the AFC side of the NFL for a number of years, Andrew Luck could be in a rare position of beating both in consecutive weeks on the road as he looks for a 'passing of the torch' moment. Getting to the Super Bowl would also vindicate Jim Irsay's decision to draft Luck and allow Manning to move on.

Luck had an effective game against the Denver Broncos last week but the stars of the show were the Defense who held the Broncos to 13 points. Peyton Manning was said to be suffering with a severe enough injury to make me wonder whether that was a real factor in this Defensive performance put forward by the Colts, especially as they had not only lost, but been blown out by a number of the better teams they have faced.

That includes a huge home loss to the New England Patriots, but Luck might feel better with the emergence of Dan Herron who has provided a running game to complement the passing. Trent Richardson is officially a bust in Indianapolis having been a healthy scratch last week, but Herron has proved the Colts can establish the run without him and he is also an effective Receiver coming out of the backfield.

New England's Defense has played the run well for the most part this season and they have a player like Jamie Collins who seems to make plays all over the field from his position at Linebacker. Darrelle Revis must have been running 'Revis Island' on a minimum staff last week as he could not handle the Baltimore Receivers, but the Corner Back is better than he showed and it might be difficult for Indianapolis to consistently move the chains.

The Patriots should get a better pass rush than the demoralised Denver Broncos managed, while I do think it would be foolish to ignore the fact the Colts only scored 24 points. Luck also turned the ball over twice in that game and these are areas where New England will look to thrive this weekend.

Last week the Colts also looked to dare Peyton Manning to throw the ball, but that might have been down to the fact that they were not convinced he was 100% healthy and that isn't the case this week. Daring Tom Brady to do that will give Indianapolis match up problems against Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, and that will open up the Colts to the New England ground attack which hurt them so badly when the teams met earlier this season.

Vontae Davis can take away one of the Receivers New England will be running, but this is an Offense that found the adjustments to beat Baltimore and I don't think the Colts Defense is as good as it showed.

Jonas Gray may not be the featured Running Back in this one, but his 200 rushing yards i the first game between these teams has to be a concern for Indianapolis. LeGarrette Blount is more of a power runner than Gray, but he could take advantage of running lanes that may open up if Brady shows he has a lot more in the tank than Manning had last weekend.

I think the Patriots are the right side in this one and I am surprised that they are actually favoured by a full Field Goal less than Denver went off against Indianapolis last weekend. Even the opening line that the Broncos had was more than what the Patriots have been given and I do think too much stock has been put into the Colts win last weekend. Andrew Luck played well in Denver, but also made some mistakes, and playing outdoors is going to be tough for him, especially if it remains cold in the north east of the United States.

New England have also blasted Indianapolis in their 3 games since Andrew Luck was drafted by the Colts and all of those wins have come by at least 21 points including in the Play offs here last season. Tom Brady will have heard all the talk about Luck after his win over Peyton Manning's Denver and that should inspire a typically big performance from the Quarter Back in this spot.

The Indianapolis Colts Defense looked better thanks to the injury Manning played through and I also think Luck is still good for a couple of mistakes against the best teams. I also expect Darrelle Revis to have a bounce back game at Corner Back and perhaps help himself to a key Interception at some point.

There are some trends that really favour Indianapolis, but I think New England are the better team and can cover this number thanks to a couple of adjustments made by Bill Belichick at half time. The Patriots have failed to cover in their last 5 Conference Championship Games, but this number remains too low as far as I am concerned and the Patriots should book their place in Arizona in two weeks time.

MY PICKS: Green Bay Packers + 7.5 Points @ 1.95 Bet Victor (1 Unit)
New England Patriots - 6.5 Points @ 1.95 Ladbrokes (2 Units)

Divisional: 3-1, + 3.76 Units
Wild Card2-2, + 0.90 Units
Week 175-3, + 2.55 Units
Week 165-6, - 3.55 Units
Week 155-4, + 1.56 Units
Week 142-10, - 14 Units
Week 134-7, - 6.36 Units
Week 123-6, - 4.36 Units
Week 115-4, + 1.20 Units
Week 104-2, + 3.90 Units
Week 94-3, + 1.42 Units
Week 81-8, - 13 Units
Week 78-1, + 11.20 Units
Week 62-3-1, - 2.46 Units
Week 53-4-1, + 0.84 Units
Week 44-4, + 0.02 Units
Week 38-2, + 9.82 Units
Week 25-3, + 1.50 Units
Week 13-6, - 3.18 Units

Season 201475-79-2, - 8.24 Units
Season 201386-70-2, + 22.27 Units
Season 2012- 4.78 Units

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