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Friday, 9 January 2015

NFL Play Offs Divisional Round 2015 (January 10-11)

Let's be brutally honest for a moment- the Wild Card Round of the Play Offs was mostly a yawn inducing experience until the moment that Pete Morelli's crew picked up the flag for pass interference in the Detroit Lions game at the Dallas Cowboys on a vital Third Down play. They then exasperated everyone watching the game by just stating simply that it was Fourth Down and failing to explain why the flag had been picked up and continuing with the game.

Matt Stafford was unhappy when his appearance in Mic'd Up was released on the Tuesday following the Sunday game, Jim Caldwell felt the explanation he was eventually given was 'not good enough' while many other players were unsure as to what exactly had happened.

Barry Church said he would have called Defensive Pass Interference on the play when Anthony Hitchens seemed to run through Brandon Pettigrew and that is Barry Church who was playing FOR the Dallas Cowboys.

Was it the correct decision? Most would have called DPI, but there was some suggestion that the call could have gone either way although Dean Blandino, the NFL VP of Officiating said the flag should not have been picked up once the call had been made. It probably hasn't made the Detroit Lions fans feel much better that there should have been an Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty on Dez Bryant for entering the field of play without his helmet on or the fact that it was later announced that the Cowboys had gotten away with a holding call on the critical 4th Down and 6 play they converted on their winning Touchdown drive, a penalty that likely sees them punt the ball away on their own half of the field while down by three points.

But did the 'phantom flag' call really prevent Detroit winning the game? I think the calls were terrible towards the end of the game and hurt the Lions, but I also think the footballing gods were disgusted with the decision of Jim Caldwell to not go for the 4th and 1 his team had been left with after the flag for DPI had been picked up.

The Lions had run the ball well and the Dallas Defense wasn't exactly one that Detroit should have been fearing at that point. It has been often said you should play to win, not to avoid a loss, but Caldwell ignored that and it seemed to all go downhill for the Lions following his decision to try and draw Dallas offside and eventually taking the delay of game.

The shanked punt that went around ten yards gave Dallas the short field and the missed holding call on Ndamukong Suh helped sustain the drive when the Cowboys may have punted, but all credit to Tony Romo for leading the comeback.

Detroit still had a chance to win the game with over two minutes remaining and with two timeouts plus the two minute warning, but Dallas' Defense stiffened at just the right time even after DeMarcus Lawrence recovered a fumble which he subsequently fumbled back to Detroit. Lawrence made up for that with the game winning Sack though and I don't think the one controversial call of picking up the flag genuinely changed the whole outcome of events.

Of course Lions fans will tell me that they could have scored the Touchdown to move up by 10 points if their own drive had been sustained by the penalties that should have been called, but Detroit had scored 6 points in two quarters and I don't think it is a given that they wouldn't have settled for another Field Goal. Tony Romo was clutch down the stretch and I would have backed him to lead the Cowboys to a winning Touchdown at that point.

The Arizona game at Carolina and the Cincinnati game at Indianapolis were both won by the favoured team, although both games were far closer than they should have been. Andy Dalton will have all the pressure on his shoulders to win a Play Off game next season for the Bengals, as will Marvin Lewis, while Ryan Lindley won't start another NFL game in my opinion.

One thing that did interest me was hearing Kurt Warner mention that he would have listened to a call from the Cardinals very seriously if they had asked him to return at Quarter Back. I had said the Cardinals could do worse than reach out to him if he is still healthy, but Warner never felt he was seriously asked and that it was rather mentioned in jest and so it never happened.

The biggest surprise of the Wild Card Round was the Baltimore Ravens win at the Pittsburgh Steelers, but perhaps I should have taken Le'Veon's Bell absence more into account than I did. I still thought Ben Roethlisberger would punish the Baltimore Secondary, but the Ravens had a huge performance and I also forgot how well Joe Flacco can play in these critical Play Off games, especially on the road.

Flacco has another chance to prove his credentials this week with the Ravens travelling to New England and it does look like 3 of the 4 Divisional Round games are going to make for fascinating viewing.

The one I am least intrigued about is the Carolina Panthers going to the Seattle Seahawks, but the other three games look brilliant on paper and I hope they produce the fireworks that the Wild Card Round was lacking for the most part.

Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots Pick: The New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens are familiar foes against one another in the Play Offs and this looks to be another battle between these two franchises that don't always see eye to eye. This will be the fourth time in the last six seasons that these teams have met in the Play Offs and it figures to be a competitive game.

Neither team is going to be able to run the ball effectively in this one against Defensive Lines that have been very good against that aspect of an opposition Offense through the course of the season. I would still expect both teams to try and stick with the game plan and probably look for a few different ways to get the team moving on the ground by using the end-around play through the likes of Shane Vereen, Julian Edelman and Jacoby Jones.

Also expect Tom Brady and Joe Flacco to get the ball out of their hands quickly for Wide Receiver screen plays in a bid to open up the running lanes, but both New England and Baltimore will try and continue keeping the Defenses honest by pounding the ball with LeGarrette Blount and Justin Forsett.

Both Quarter Backs will take their shots downfield too, particularly Joe Flacco, which means the pass rush and the Offensive Line play is going to be vitally important. That is an area the Baltimore Ravens feel they can have success with Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee all able to get plenty of pressure on Quarter Backs and Tom Brady is unlikely to be any different.

It is the one way that has been proven to slow down Brady in the past- no Quarter Back loves to play with pressure all around them and the pocket collapsing, but a few hits on Brady can also see him begin to feel 'ghost pressure'. That is when you see Brady ducking for cover when the pressure isn't really near him and getting him to do that will mean the Baltimore Ravens should have a great chance to cause the upset.

On the other hand, the Baltimore Offensive Line, which should also receive a boost from Eugene Monroe's return, has protected Flacco very well and given him time to find his Receivers downfield. Throwing against this New England Secondary will be tough, but Brandon Browner is something of a penalty giving machine at Corner Back and there can be success for the Ravens hitting deep down the field. Owen Daniels is a nice safety blanket for Flacco whose importance to the team has improved and Baltimore can score enough points to keep this close and perhaps win outright.

You'd still expect Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Brandon LaFell have their successes against this Baltimore Secondary that is missing so many players, but I am leaning towards the Ravens to cover.

I hate the fact that every 'expert' is talking about Baltimore having New England's number after going 3-0 against the spread in their last 3 Play Off games against the Patriots. That means Baltimore are going to be a well backed team and Tom Brady loves proving the doubters wrong when everyone is talking about his opponents.

However, there are some trends that favour Baltimore who have been very strong coming off a win over a Divisional rival, going 8-2 against the spread in their next game in that situation. Add in the fact that the Number 1 Seed in the AFC is just 4-5 straight up in this Round and are just 9-15 against the spread over the last 24 seasons, plus the New England Patriots being just 3-8 against the spread in their last 11 home Play Off games, and the Ravens become even more appealing with a lot of points to start off.

The last trend shows that teams winning on the road in the Wild Card Round are 11-3 against the spread in the Divisional Round and even all the 'experts' backing Baltimore is not enough for me to ignore the very competitive looking Ravens in this game.

Carolina Panthers @ Seattle Seahawks Pick: The least competitive looking Play Off game of the weekend also features the one with the widest spread as the Carolina Panthers visit the Seattle Seahawks in the late Saturday game.

The teams may be a mirror of one another, but there are some key elements ahead of this game that could make all the difference in which team comes through. Everything is pointing to the Seattle Seahawks to win this game by a wide margin beginning with the injury that Cam Newton suffered at the end of the win over the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card Round of the Play Offs.

If Newton's ankle is not up to par, the Quarter Back is not going to be effective running the ball and taking away that element is only going to make it that much tougher for Jonathan Stewart and the Panthers to establish the run. That is Carolina's first point of call and they have been running the ball up and down the field against teams over the last five weeks, but now face the Seattle Seahawks who have the second best rushing Defense in the NFL.

They have only improved in each passing week and the Seahawks will feel it is a win every time they can keep Carolina in 3rd and 5 or longer situations. The pass rush has been finding a way home without taking away too many men from coverage in obvious passing downs and Newton was not accurate enough last week to suggest he can keep the Panthers moving the chains consistently against the Legion of Boom.

Seattle should be much better running the ball in this game through Marshawn Lynch and the ability Russell Wilson has to get out of the pocket and take off for gains on the ground. While Carolina have limited teams to 107 yards per game on the season, this team is still giving up 4.4 yards per carry and now their Defensive Line is missing Star Lotulelei who is a huge body that will be difficult to replace.

Add the fact that Max Unger returns to the Seattle Offensive Line at Center and Lynch and Co should be able to wear down the Defensive front and get the Seahawks into third and manageable situations. That should negate an improved pass rush that the Panthers have displayed in the continued absence of Greg Hardy and should also mean the play-action should open up plenty of passing lanes for Russell Wilson when he decides to take shots downfield.

Unlike the Baltimore game at New England, I am actually favouring the team that all the 'experts' seem to think will struggle this week- a lot of people have spoken of Carolina's ability to run the ball and how they will have a chance for an upset in Seattle, but I think key injuries is actually sending the edge in favour of the Number 1 Seed in the NFC.

Those Number 1 Seeds are 0-4 against the spread in the last four seasons in this Conference, but favourites of 10 plus points in this Round are actually 15-11-1 against the spread. People have also spoken about how close Carolina have played Seattle in recent games with the last three decided by a combined 13 points, but all of those were on the East Coast and the Panthers have lost by 17 and 20 points in their last two games in Seattle.

Carolina have been very strong in revenging losses to teams in recent seasons, going 11-2 against the spread in that spot over the last three seasons, but Newton being banged up and the absence of Star Lotulelei are huge blows to their team. Seattle are also a very strong home favourite to back and I will look for them to snap the NFC's Number 1 Seed struggles against the spread in recent seasons.

It will likely be a close game for a while with both teams pounding the ball, but look for Seattle to wear down Carolina and eventually come through with a big win.

Dallas Cowboys @ Green Bay Packers Pick: The game of the weekend is going to begin with images of the 'Ice Bowl', the last time the Dallas Cowboys visited the Green Bay Packers in the Play Offs, and the temperature at Lambeau Field is going to be very cold, if not quite as cold as that. The frozen tundra is going to put together two teams that are unbeaten at home/on the road respectively and this looks like being a barnstormer.

Both Offenses are definitely going to be the strength in this game and there is every chance this develops into a shoot-out as long as the wind is not overbearing. The snow would be less of a concern for both Quarter Backs, especially with the running games that both teams have begun to put together over the last few weeks.

Eddie Lacy and DeMarco Murray might be the names on the fans lips rather than Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo, at least early in the game when both Green Bay and Dallas look to establish their ground Offense. The Detroit Lions showed the Packers that it is possible to run against the Cowboys Defense, especially as the likes of Jeremy Mincey and Roland McClain are both banged up and questionable, and Lacy could have a big game on the ground.

On the other hand, DeMarco Murray's Offensive Line has ripped open holes and will have a much easier time establishing the run than they did against the Detroit Lions considering Green Bay give up 4.3 yards per carry. The Packers have been stronger the last few games, but they haven't faced a team even close to what Dallas' Offensive Line can do and Murray will be there to extend drives and keep Rodgers cooled off on the sidelines.

The Packers have the Offense that can generate quick-strike Touchdowns and Rodgers will feel Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb will win their battles with Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick when he does decide to throw. The Green Bay Offensive Line has protected Rodgers very well and that has seen the Quarter Back go the whole season without throwing an Interception at home and the Cowboys just haven't got the pass rush that will consistently get to Rodgers.

I should say normally I wouldn't expect them to get to Rodgers- he has actually been suffering with a calf injury which could limit his movement and that might mean more of Lacy and shorter passes than scrambling for time to hit his Receivers deep down the field.

With Murray likely running effectively, Tony Romo will feel he can match what Rodgers produces with Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley all solid Receiving targets. Mistakes could be critical in a game where both teams should have a lot of Offensive yardage, but the issue of the calf has to be a concern for Green Bay fans.

Going against the Packers at Lambeau Field has not been much fun and they are 15-9 against the spread over the last three seasons here, but I like Dallas with the points. The sharps have backed the Cowboys heavily since the lines were released and so it has come down to 5.5 points, and looks to be heading further south, but I still like Dallas with these points in hand.

Murray can wear down the Packers and that should open things up for Romo, while also extending drives and keeping Rodgers standing in the cold of Wisconsin for long periods. Dallas have also gone 7-1 against the spread on the road this season and they are 14-6 against the spread as the underdog over the last three seasons.

Rested teams are just 12-20 against the spread in this Play Off Round over the last eight years and Green Bay have lost their last 2 home Play Off games outright. There is enough Offense in the Cowboys team to keep this competitive, while Aaron Rodgers is still dealing with that calf issue which may limit his effectiveness, even just enough to keep Dallas within the number.

Indianapolis Colts @ Denver Broncos Pick: All of the headlines will be about Peyton Manning versus Andrew Luck in the Play Offs for the first time, but the latter is a smart man from Stanford who knows there is so much more than just a battle between the Quarter Backs who don't get on the field at the same time.

Luck would have been excited to see Dan Herron running the ball effectively against the Cincinnati Bengals last week, but the two fumbles were poor mechanics from the Running Back. He was holding the ball away from the body and the Denver Broncos have quick players on their Defensive Line that won't hesitate trying to knock the ball out of his hands.

Even if Herron avoids those mistakes, the Indianapolis Colts won't have a lot of room to establish the run which means this game is likely to be very much on Andrew Luck's arm and that hasn't always been a positive against 'good' teams. Indianapolis have lost to the Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys this season and much of that is because Luck pushes himself too hard to stay in games with limited support.

TY Hilton had a number of drops last week which was another issue and that has plagued the Colts through the season and all of that will make it difficult for them to win this game. Even if they play a relatively clean game, Luck is also throwing against a Secondary that has two stand out Corner Backs in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, while facing a tonne of pressure up front from DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller against this Colts Offensive Line.

The lack of support is something Peyton Manning is not going to be worried about- despite the Quarter Back not playing that well over the last few games, Denver have still been in a position to win games because of some of his supporting cast. CJ Anderson has established a real running game for the Broncos and should have success against this Indianapolis Defense that struggled against Jeremy Hill last week.

Indianapolis can't just load the box because Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are huge threats in the passing game and Manning will be able to hit his targets if kept in third and short by Anderson. The Colts have some pass rush presence, but that won't be an issue if Manning is in short yardage spots with his quick release, even if he has thrown some terrible balls of late which have led to Interceptions.

Those 'ducks' that Manning has been throwing is a concern, but he has been resting for two weeks and could see an improved performance with the running game he can now lean on. Denver also have the better Defense and Indianapolis have struggled against the top teams they have played, while many of those losses have ended in blow outs.

The Colts were blasted by the New England Patriots in this Round last season and they are 1-4 against the spread against Denver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New England and Dallas in the regular season. Denver haven't been that good in the Play Offs when it comes to covering the number as they are 1-3 against the spread in that spot with Peyton Manning at Quarter Back, but I think the Broncos Defense is better than Indianapolis'.

I also think Manning can make enough plays with his arm to help Denver pull away from the Colts, while he can lean on a running game that is likely to pound the ball effectively more than Andrew Luck and all this will lead to Denver moving into the Championship Round. Those losses to teams with winning records just makes me doubt Indianapolis who have to play a lot cleaner than they did in the win over Cincinnati to make this a close game.

Therefore I will take Denver to cover the points in this one.

MY PICKS: Baltimore Ravens + 7 Points @ 1.83 Ladbrokes (2 Units)
Seattle Seahawks - 10.5 Points @ 1.95 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Dallas Cowboys + 5.5 Points @ 2.10 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Denver Broncos - 7 Points @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)

Wild Card: 2-2, + 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 201472-78-2, - 12 Units
Season 201386-70-2, + 22.27 Units
Season 2012- 4.78 Units

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