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NFL Divisional Wrap-up

NFL Lessons Learned

Before he makes his playoff picks, the Sports Guy lists 10 things that added to his ongoing NFL education

You learn new life lessons every week. I learned last weekend that, when your young son becomes a huge wrestling fan, you shouldn’t ask him, “Hey, did you ever hear Billy Gunn’s entrance song when he wrestled as ‘Mr. Ass’?” Now we have a 6-year-old kid stomping around my house yelling “I’M AN ASS MAN!” and belting out lyrics like, “So many asses, so little time … only a tight one can stop me on a dime.” He’s definitely getting kicked out of school soon. Do you even need schooling when you’re an Ass Man? I guess we’ll find out.

Something else we found out last weekend: The abject wonkiness of the previous eight NFL postseasons (covered here last Friday) extended into 2014, yielding 14 relatively phenomenal hours of tackle football. We learned 10 lessons from these four games, some of which can even be used for wagering purposes. In no particular order …

Lesson No. 1: Colin Kaepernick is a man’s man.

Like everyone else with an IQ over 70, I watched that Niners-Packers game wondering, Why in God’s name would Kaepernick NOT wear sleeves in zero-degree weather? It was like watching one of those drunken maniacs in the stands who goes shirtless just to impress a bunch of strangers. The Wall Street Journal reports that, in the five coldest-weather playoff games of the last 10 years, Kaepernick was the only QB reckless enough to go sleeveless. You know who did opt for sleeves? Bart Starr and Don Meredith during the Ice Bowl! Exactly who were you trying to impress, Colin Kaepernick? But after seeing Kaep generate some monster plays down the stretch, avoid a double amputation and officially apply for “Packer Killer” status, I came to appreciate the no-sleeves idea. How could any Niners teammate let the windchill affect him when his lunatic QB wasn’t wearing sleeves???

In general, Kaepernick has to be considered our 2014 playoff wild card. He’s not as famous as Manning and Brady, as familiar as Brees and Rivers, as respected as Wilson and Luck, or even as hyped as Newton. In 23 regular-season starts, he’s thrown for 300-plus yards only two times, landed under 210 yards 13 times and rushed for more than 70 yards only twice. But he’s been better in his four playoff games — 256.3 passing YPG, 90.5 rushing YPG, three different come-from-behind fourth-quarter drives (none at home) — and along with Wilson and Rodgers, Kaepernick has to be considered a cocaptain of the “We’re Gonna Sack — Wait, How Did He Just Pull Off That 3rd-And-12?????” Club.

What makes him stand out other than the no-sleeves move? No QB vacillates between “Holy shit, that was amazing!” and “Oh god no, that’s getting picked!” quite like Kaep. You’re terrified when you wager against him … only you never feel comfortable if you wager ON him, either. That makes him this year’s winner of the Brett Favre Award for “Playoff QB Who Makes You Uneasy At All Times No Matter How You Wagered,” a trophy that has been hoisted by the likes of Jake Delhomme, Jim Kelly, Jake Plummer, Ken Stabler, Eli Manning, Aging Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason. I don’t know if I am taking Carolina or San Francisco in Round 2 yet; just know that I’m scared of Kaepernick either way.

Speaking of scared …

Lesson No. 2: Don Denkinger single-handedly prevented Kansas City from hijacking the “God Hates Cleveland” joke.

If Denkinger makes this call correctly …

… then the Cardinals win the ’85 World Series in six games, and Kansas City suddenly has this professional sports résumé: no championships since 1970 (Super Bowl IV); no Super Bowl appearances since 1970; 42 of 44 NFL seasons without a playoff victory (1993 excepted), as well as eight straight playoff losses (an NFL record); 28 Royals seasons without a playoff appearance; 24 straight Royals seasons in which they couldn’t win 87 games (including 18 of the last 20 when they couldn’t reach 78 wins); no NBA franchise because the Kings ditched them for Sacramento in 1984; the lifelong knowledge that their NBA team ditched them for Sacramento; a recent blog post on Arrowhead Pride called “Ranking The Kansas City Chiefs playoff losses by how much they sucked”; everything that happens daily on Rany Jazayerli’s tormented Twitter feed; the 453 much-ballyhooed Royals who never panned out; and, just last weekend, the second-biggest NFL playoff collapse of all time.

Could Kansas City be slowly mounting a serious challenge to the Lennon and McCartney of tortured fan bases, Cleveland and Buffalo? I’d say the ’85 World Series and two Jayhawks hoop titles (1988 and 2008) knock them out in the Tortured Final Four, along with Minnesota (which won the World Series in ’87 and ’91). But the Denkinger call clearly chewed up nearly three decades of professional sports karma for Kansas City. How many cities could have been leading 38-10 in an NFL playoff game and made you say, “I’m absolutely gonna keep watching this — there’s no way this lead is safe”?

Yeah, I know Andy Reid was involved. And I know Jamaal Charles got shelved midway through the first quarter. And I know other important Chiefs kept getting hurt. But when you’re up 38-10 and your entire fan base isn’t even remotely celebrating, you’ve accomplished something truly spectacular. Check out this email from Chris K. in Lawrence:

Me and my buddy Yonsey have lived and mostly died with the Chiefs since grade school. When we scored to go up 38-10, there was no celebrating, no planning for next week, just nervous silence. Yonsey’s wife — who knows next to nothing about sports — walks by, sees the score and says, ‘Why aren’t you guys happy? Isn’t this good?’ Neither of us looked up. I remember exactly what happened next. I looked straight at the TV and said “If you say you’re not thinking about the Bills/Oilers wild card game, you’re a f*cking liar.” Yonsey was quiet. I looked over at him, and he didn’t speak, didn’t flinch, didn’t do anything. He just looked at the TV with no expression. Indy scored shortly thereafter, and aside from the occasional cheer, we watched the rest of the game in dismal silence. We weren’t even tormented or pissed, just … I don’t even know how to sum up the emotion. Maybe an annoyed half-eye roll describes it best? I just checked my Google search history, and “Frank Reich Comeback” is right there at 5:28 pm Central time. THIS IS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A KANSAS CITY SPORTS FAN.1

(Of the 32 NFL fan bases, only Vikings fans, Bills fans and Browns fans could fully identify with that email.)

(Actually, you know what?)

Lesson No. 3: If I ever write another Playoff Gambling Manifesto, “Don’t Bet On Cleveland, Buffalo, Minnesota Or Kansas City For Any Reason” definitely has to be included.

I mean … why did that realization take THIS long?

Lesson No. 4: If I ever write another Playoff Gambling Manifesto, I need to convert last week’s Suggestion No. 6, “Before You Pick A Team, Just Make Sure Marty Schottenheimer, Herm Edwards, Wade Phillips, Norv Turner, Andy Reid, Anyone Named Mike, Anyone Described As Andy Reid’s Pupil And Anyone With The Last Name Mora Isn’t Coaching Them,” into an actual rule.

And Reid’s name might have to be converted to 18-point font. Of all the soul-crushing playoff losses that involved Andy over the years, Saturday’s colon-reamer in Indy was probably his most defensible performance; it featured two hours of brilliant play calling (much of it without Charles, no less) coupled with Alex Smith’s out-of-body experience, and if their wide-open 19th-string running back had hauled in Smith’s slightly overthrown, Charles-definitely-woulda-caught-it fourth-quarter pass down the right sideline, KC’s offense could have dropped 50-plus in a road playoff game.

(Hold on, big “but” coming … )

BUT …

They also gave up five second-half touchdowns, blew their first two timeouts for indefensible reasons, and unleashed the incredible fourth-down sequence of “no timeout, run 20 seconds off for no reason to the two-minute warning, last timeout, receiver catches the season-saving catch out of bounds.” They also couldn’t score a game-clinching touchdown against a ravaged Indy secondary that included The Artist Formerly Known As LaRon Landry, a Hobbled Vontae Davis, The Guy Who Limped After Donnie Avery On That 79-Yard Touchdown Like He’d Just Been Shot From Behind, and a Playing-Out-Of-Position Patriots castoff Darius Butler.

And as their world collapsed over that last hour, Andy stood there staring down at some mysterious sheet of paper like he was trying to read a takeout menu. Jesus, even Art Shell and Jim Caldwell thought Andy needed to show a little more life.2 What a bizarre game in general. At some point during that fourth quarter, every Pats fan ran through an enticing “Which Opponent Do I Want To See Most In Round 2?” checklist that included …

A. Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis
B. The aforementioned Colts secondary
C. Andy Reid and the injury-ravaged Chiefs

… then realized, “I’ll take any of these teams! This is the greatest! We’re going to another AFC title game!”

And then Andrew Luck completed that go-ahead bomb to T.Y. Hilton for the greatest gambling push of my lifetime … 3

And … well …

Lesson No. 5: There’s a chance that “Don’t Bet Against Andrew Luck” could end up in Playoff Gambling Manifesto 5.0 soon.

Like, very soon. Maybe even next week. You know what I loved about Luck’s performance last Saturday? He didn’t play well for two solid hours, only it never felt like his confidence wavered. He always seemed like HE thought they were coming back. As I’ve written a million times, for me, the NFL quarterback position is 25 percent talent and 75 percent attitude/charisma/personality/intelligence/confidence. You have to be the coolest guy on your team, basically. You have to own the room. You have to be a leader of men. Both Luck and Wilson nail that 75 percent; that’s what makes them special. Say what you want about Phil Rivers, but he’s had three games this season — at Kansas City, at Denver, Cincy at home — that displayed that 75 percent. He believed, and he played like it … and eventually, his teammates followed him. Even Kaepernick playing without sleeves — maybe that was partly about earning the 75 percent. I’m as tough as you guys. I’m not afraid of cold weather — you shouldn’t be, either.

On a personal note, my single favorite thing about watching football over the past four decades — well, other than rooting for the Patriots, gambling, Madden & Summerall, and gambling on Patriots games that were announced by Madden & Summerall — has probably been watching certain QBs “own the room.” It’s the reason every Manning-Brady battle mattered, it’s the reason I have Elway and Montana ranked over everyone else, it’s the reason I still have flashbacks to Dan Marino terrorizing the Pats, and it’s the reason I love watching Paul Crewe upend the Citrus State Prison guards so much. There isn’t a more difficult job in sports than playing quarterback, so if someone thrives while also capturing that 75 percent to its fullest, as a sports fan, I marvel at that more than anything else. Knowing that we’re almost definitely getting 12 to 15 more years of those moments from Luck, and maybe Wilson, too, is pretty thrilling.4 Shit, that’s taking me into my late fifties.

Anyway, Luck made two insane plays that made Pats Fan Bill say to himself, “Let’s hope Kansas City wins because I’d love to avoid Andrew the Giant in Round 2.” I already mentioned the first one — Luck’s game-winning laser to Hilton (60-plus yards in the air!) was ridiculously clutch and even included a bonus underlying Eff You for Phil Simms.5 But the other play was better — that crazy fumble-recovery touchdown, which stood out immediately because of how quickly Luck decided “I’m plowing into the end zone.” He didn’t pause for a nanosecond. He just went for it. Like one of those old-school heady Derek Jeter moments when he finished off some unorthodox defensive play before you could even process it.

An Atlanta reader named Andrew wondered later, “How would the other playoff quarterbacks have handled that exact moment?,” eventually deciding that only Wilson would have plowed ahead that quickly and that fearlessly. I think Elway and Young Favre could have made that play. Rodgers and Much Younger Brady might have done it. That’s about it. I am absolutely frightened of you in Round 2, Andrew Luck.

Lesson No. 6: Lone Survivor is the most extraordinary war movie since Saving Private Ryan.

I know, I know. Even worse, my buddy JackO was bitterly disappointed that I didn’t fulfill our old dream of becoming the real-life versions of Spy Magazine‘s mock movie critic Walter Monheit. Back in college, we loved Monheit’s carefully crafted, over-the-top blurbs that were specifically intended to land on movie posters. Anyway, JackO was incensed that I didn’t go with, “You know who’s the real Lone Survivor? OSCAR!” I have a lot of regrets.

Lesson No. 7: When you’re picking games on Friday morning, make sure you’re factoring in the late-week possibility of a “Nobody Believes In Us” team emerging.

Last week, I picked the Chargers to cover and barely lose while carrying the “Nobody Believes In Us!” torch.6 But I also knew the whole “New Orleans has to win four in a row outside the Superdome, no way that’s happening!” story line coupled with “Dome teams are 3-22 in playoff games in 35-degree-or-less weather” stat propelled the Saints into “Nobody Believes In Us!” status. I even wrote about it. So how did I blow that Saints-Eagles pick? Because I suck at gambling! I thought you knew! I watched Saturday’s pregame shows thinking, Uh-oh, they’re really playing up this Saints-on-the-road thing. I may have shanked this one. And I did. What else is new?

The big question: Since the Saints pulled off a road win in cold weather, can you still say nobody believes in them? Hold that thought. Speaking of Cajun heroes, let’s take a break for this commercial from our new sponsor, Bojangles’. That’s right, biscuit justice is served … Delhomme-style!

Lesson No. 8: Picking Round 1 games might be as simple as (a) making sure one team’s strength of schedule wasn’t significantly harder than the other team’s strength of schedule, and (b) just grabbing any home dog.

With the Colts becoming a game-day home dog, then covering, playoff home dogs are a jaw-dropping 23-12-1 since 1990. Guess what else? If you ranked every playoff team just by Jeff Sagarin’s strength-of-schedule rankings, the team that played a harder schedule is 36-12 straight-up and 36-12 against the spread since 2002. When you narrow those numbers to teams that finished at least 10 SOS spots higher than their opponent, they improve to a staggering 23-3 straight-up and 22-3-1 against the spread (including New Orleans, Indy and San Francisco last weekend). FILE THIS SHIT AWAY FOR 2015, FELLOW GAMBLING JUNKIES!!!7

And now, let’s break for another one of our new sponsors, JTM’s Beef Taco Filling. Mmmmmm … muy deliciosa! Buenos tacos, amigos!

Lesson No. 9: Anytime a playoff team is laying more than a touchdown when (a) it hasn’t won a playoff game in 23 years,8 (b) its QB generated just 23 points in his previous two playoff games (both losses) and just had a four-interception game, and (c) its coach could tie Jim Mora’s record for “Most consecutive seasons with the same team without ever winning a playoff game,” it’s probably the right idea to grab the points.

And it was! Thank you, Cincinnati! You saved me from a winless weekend. So what should you do moving forward if you’re the Bengals? Check out the numbers of the last three quarterbacks who started 0-3 in the playoffs. One of the three is Andy Dalton.

QB 1: 558 yards, 50-for-105 completed, 2 INTs, 1 pass TD, 33 points scored.
QB 2: 584 yards, 70-for-110 completed, 4 INTs, 3 pass TDs, 47 points scored.
QB 3: 718 yards, 70-for-123 completed, 6 INTs, 1 pass TD, 33 points scored.

Who were they?

Let’s see …

QB 1: Peyton Manning.
QB 2: Matt Ryan.
QB 3: Andy Dalton.

Translation: As much as I want to do it, I’m fighting off the urge to add “Don’t bet on a ginger QB for any reason, but especially if he’s laying points” to the Playoff Gambling Manifesto.

As for Dalton’s long-term future, even if Bengals fans can’t be blamed for quitting on Dalton or being wildly intrigued by Dalton-related trade possibilities (Mays alert!!!), it seems reckless to dump a 26-year-old QB with a 30-18 regular-season record just because of 180 minutes of football. Could Dalton lose his confidence completely and go full-scale Ginger Matt Schaub on us?9 Of course! It’s a pulsatingly realistic possibility. (As I wrote in Week 6, once QBs lose it, they LOSE IT.) But what are Cincy’s other options? Kirk Cousins? A soon-to-be 35-year-old Josh McCown? Christian Ponder? Josh “Two-Time Coach Killer Even If There Were Mitigating Circumstances But Still” Freeman? They’re better off drafting another QB, challenging Dalton and seeing if those three playoff losses hardened him, and/or convincing him to shave his head bald. And if he keeps regressing, you cut bait.

For me, the Lewis conundrum is much more simple — an 11-year playoff drought extends well beyond a sample size. Again, it has happened only one other time in NFL history: Jim Mora … the guy who left us this magical legacy:

Counting every head coach who took over an NFL team after the first Super Bowl (1967), every eventual Super Bowl–winning coach did it within six years of taking over, with two exceptions: John Madden (Year 8)10 and Bill Cowher (Year 14). So if the Bengals keep Lewis, they’re hoping he becomes Cowher 2.0. Here’s the problem — Cowher took Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl in Year 4, won five playoff games in his first six years, landed no. 1 seeds in 2001 (Year 10) and 2004 (Year 13), finally won the title (Year 14), and finished his career with a 149-90-1 record, giving him the 12th-highest winning percentage of anyone who coached 10 seasons or more (.623). Lewis had an 79-80 record heading into this season. He’s never won a playoff game or clinched a playoff bye. He’s not Cowher 2.0 — not even close.

So what is he? He’s Jim Mora 2.0.

Lewis in Cincinnati: 11 years, 90-85-1 regular season, 0-5 playoffs.

Mora in New Orleans: 11 years, 93-74-0 regular season, 0-4 playoffs.

And no, Mora never did win a playoff game.11 Any Bengals fan should be exceedingly more pessimistic about Year 12 of the Lewis era than Year 4 of the Dalton era. And actually, maybe they should just be pessimistic in general. Keep your heads up, Bengals fans. And enjoy this commercial from another one of our new sponsors, the National Coffee Association. Mmmmmm … coffee …

LESSON No. 10: In the Concussion Awareness era, every playoff game is now a Michael Conrad Memorial “Let’s Be Careful Out There” Game.

Once upon a time, well before NYPD Blue‘s groundbreaking influence on modern television dramas and Grantland’s game recaps, Hill Street Blues was considered the GOAT of police dramas. For the first three seasons, every episode started the same way: a likable police veteran (played by Michael Conrad) addressing the troops, then ending his morning report by urging everyone, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

You could play that clip before every NFL playoff game in 2014. And even if everyone will remember last weekend’s spectacular slew of games for what they were — 14 hours of high-powered drama — for me, that Chiefs-Colts game signified something bigger. Like the day we drew a clear demarcation line between Old Football and New Football.

A quick recap: Jamaal Charles gets dinged on Kansas City’s first drive, lands face-down and doesn’t move for an extra few seconds. Injury timeout. Every Chiefs fan immediately thinks, Oh God … I hope he doesn’t have a concussion … please God …  as we head into commercial. When we come back, NBC shows the replay — turns out one of the Colts inadvertently clipped Charles in the head. Now we see Charles sitting on the bench as Kansas City’s medical staff examines him. He has the semi–Troy Aikman Face going. Everyone watching knows right there that the league’s best runner isn’t coming back. A few minutes later, they show him heading for the locker room and that’s that.

Now — think of how different that sequence was compared to the old days. First, any Old Football playoff player who got his bell rung would have returned to the game unless he got knocked out. And even then, he might have returned and wobbled around for a few downs. In New Football, you’re wiped out instantaneously — it’s like the light getting turned off next to every injured player’s number in Rollerball (the 1975 version, not the indefensible 2002 remake). Second, the fan reaction to those moments has been irrevocably altered. Whenever anyone was injured in an Old Football playoff game, you thought to yourself, As long as we don’t see that guy sitting on the cart, he might come back. With New Football, you know he’s not coming back. Almost instantly.

And third, unexpected feelings of guilt pop up from both ends — for the opposing fans (trying not to anger the Karma Gods by celebrating that Jamaal Charles can’t play anymore because, you know, his head just got effed up) and the player’s fans (who fight off the urge to say, “Come on, Jamaal, you’re fine, shake it off!” when they know it’s probably worse than that). As my Chiefs buddy Connor texted me after Charles’s injury, “I am the most pro-concussion-safety football fan in the world. Until our star running back gets his bell rung in the playoffs.”

It’s the black cloud that hangs over every game now, as well as one of our biggest ongoing gambling wrinkles — you just never know when your fortunes might flip because somebody’s knee mistakenly grazed someone else’s helmet, or someone landed the wrong way on a play they’ve pulled off correctly thousands of other times. Injury luck has become the fourth-biggest Super Bowl X factor, trailing only quarterbacks, coaches and Janet Jackson’s partially exposed nipples. Anyone can disappear at any time. Even if that used to be the case to some degree, now it’s REALLY the case. This is our American pastime in 2014. As a Sacramento reader named Patrick says, “While watching the third Chiefs player get pulled off the field for a possible concussion and listening to Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life play in Indy’s stadium, I realized that song is the NFL’s concussion policy — or at least the one they would like to have.”

All right, let’s tackle the Round 2 playoff games. Don’t forget — for eight Round 2s in a row, at least one road underdog getting at least 4.5 points has won outright. You’re not allowed to make a three-team tease with Seattle, New England and Denver this weekend. If I find out you did, you’re grounded for a month. I’m not kidding. Don’t test me.

(Home teams in caps.)

Saints (+7.5) over SEAHAWKS

Key Player: I remember Russell Wilson shredding New Orleans’s defense in Week 13 when stud safety Kenny Vaccaro was still playing.12 I also remember him taking his undefeated home winning streak into Week 16 … and Arizona throttling him. Wilson’s numbers: 108 passing yards, one TD, one pick, 4 sacks, 11-for-27, 10 points produced, 24 moments when Seattle fans mumbled to themselves, “Shit, are we sure this offense is good enough?” Bad day? Something more? Did Wilson lose his “invincible at home” mystique?

X Factor: Get ready for either “25 plays with Percy Harvin!” or “three plays with Percy Harvin followed by a shot of Percy walking off the field accompanied by two trainers!” Imagine if Seattle hadn’t traded its first-rounder for Harvin, kept the pick and drafted Cordarrelle Patterson.

“Nobody Believes In Us” Edge: The Saints are riding the whole “Nobody thinks we can win a Super Bowl without playing in the Superdome” thing, but what about this email from Seattle fan Jebidiah?

I don’t really think you understand the Seahawks. This is a team that truly plays with a chip on its shoulder, a team built with players who were drafted late or not at all. Look at that roster — it’s loaded with players that nobody believed in. Sherman and Baldwin are both 5th round picks. Wilson had a punter picked ahead of him. Buffalo gave up on Lynch. They are hearing all of this noise about how #1 seeds aren’t a lock any more. This team takes its bulletin-board material very seriously.

And its Adderall supply. Sorry, I had to.

Possible Tragic Figure: Rob Ryan. There’s a version of this game in which I can totally see Ryan agonizing on the sideline and looking more confused than Michael Bay giving a three-hour Samsung presentation.

Generic Talking Head Point That You’ll Definitely Hear: “Guys, everyone is talking about Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III … when are we gonna start talkin’ about Russell Wilson???? NOBODY HAS HAD MORE SUCCESS THIS EARLY IN THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE!”

Possible Omen That Can’t Be Discounted: According to our friends at Field Gulls, Wilson’s three biggest home games all featured a frightening weather subplot. Seattle won those three by a combined score of 105-23. The forecast for Saturday afternoon? A 100 percent chance of rain! That’s a worst-case scenario for Saints fans. (Thinking.) You’re right, this is actually the worst-case scenario.

Relevant Email (from Chris in Seattle): “Peyton Manning threw 46 passes of 25+ yards. Drew Brees threw 41. Russell Wilson threw 36. The Seahawks’ WR’s can make big plays … this weekend vs. the Saints, you’ll see it.” If you say so.

Applicable Playoff Gambling Manifesto 5.0 Theories: “Beware Of The Nobody Believes In Us Team” … “Don’t Take A Dome Team In Bad Weather” … “Beware Of The Blatantly Obvious 2-Team Teaser on the Same Day” … “Don’t Pick The Underdog Unless You Genuinely Think It Has A Chance To Win.”13 Edge to the Saints: 3-1.

This Game As a WWE Entrance Song: Randy Orton’s “Voices.” In other words, I know I shouldn’t go against Seattle at home … but I hear voices in my head, they talk to me, they understand, they talk to me.

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Saints: Because the Saints barely got by a Philly team that gave up 48 points and 382 passing yards to Matt Cassel in Week 15, then 358 passing yards to Kyle Orton in Week 17. Because Seattle killed them last time, and you should have known better. Because Percy Harvin will make one big play. Because we’re destined for Seattle vs. San Francisco III: The Thrilla in Qwestilla. Because nobody throws on the Seahawks — they finished with one of the best pass defenses of the decade.14 Because you never want to go against the 12th Man AND crappy weather. Because you forgot how frightening Russell Wilson is, how he’ll turn four sacks into first downs every game. Because Brees missed a few throws (and short-armed a couple others) in cold weather in Philly last weekend, so why wouldn’t it happen again?

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Seahawks: You forgot that everyone on the planet is teasing the Hawks and Pats on Saturday. You forgot that we’ve had a second-round upset every year since 2005. You totally discounted the “Nobody Believes In Us” factor. You forgot that it’s really hard to defeat a good team twice in six weeks. You forgot that New Orleans is still in Eff You Mode from Bountygate. You forgot that these aren’t the stereotypical Saints — they can play defense, run the ball and shorten games now, which is exactly how you win in Seattle (particularly in the driving rain). You didn’t pay enough attention when Arizona ripped through the 12th Man, ran the ball down Seattle’s throats, slowed the game down and ground out a Week 16 win even though Carson Palmer got picked four times. You thought Arizona caught Seattle napping that day. You didn’t take any larger meaning from that game. You made a mistake.

The Pick: New Orleans 20, Seattle 16

♦♦♦

Niners (-1) over PANTHERS

Key Player: Hey, Cam Newton, here are Carolina’s point totals against 2013 teams that won 10 or more games and had a top-12 DVOA defense: 7 points (Seattle), 6 points (Arizona), 10 points (San Francisco), 13 points (New Orleans), 17 points (New Orleans). How many tackles are you asking for from Luke Kuechly in this game to keep you in it? 30? 35? Or do you plan on carrying the load a little?

X Factor: You’re telling me that Carolina’s offense (see above) is outscoring the Niners in a playoff game when Newton’s third-down security blanket, Steve Smith, has a sprained knee that’s getting worse (not better)? That’s it, we’re zooming through this section. I know my pick.

“Nobody Believes In Us” Edge: Yeah, I know … the Panthers are home dogs. And they have an EXCELLENT defense. Really, really good. But can you really play the “Nobody Believes In Us” card when you already beat the team you’re playing (on the road, no less)?

Possible Tragic Figure: Riverboat Ron Rivera … after such a thrilling transformation this season, couldn’t you see him taking it too far on Sunday and being too reckless? Something like an ill-fated fourth-and-5 from his own 40 or something? Wait, don’t go for it here, Riverboat Ron … NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Generic Talking Head Point That You’ll Definitely Hear: “Guys, I’ll tell ya who Luke Kuechly reminds me of … he’s a young Ray Lewis! That’s who Luke Kuechly is! You just don’t see linebackers cover this much ground this consistently in the National Football League! I’ll tell you what, fellas — HE COULD’VE PLAYED IN MY DAY, I’LL TELL YOU THAT MUCH! [Lots of forced laughter.]“

Possible Omen That Can’t Be Discounted: Remember when we said good-bye to Candlestick Park for a solid week, highlighted by an emotional Chris Berman showing the footage of himself right after “The Catch” for the 977th and final time? Well, if New Orleans defeats Seattle (as predicted earlier), then a Niners victory would mean San Francisco reopens Candlestick for one more Niners game! It’s so ridiculous that it almost has to happen. Candlestick Park is such a hellhole that, literally, we can’t get rid of it.

Relevant Email: Ben in Portland writes, “Don’t you think San Francisco is turning into the biggest ‘Everybody Believes In Us’ team? They barely get by that not-particularly-good Packers team, but now they are favored to win IN Carolina and half the Talking Heads are proclaiming them the most dangerous team left. Am I missing something here? How do you not feel insulted if you’re Carolina right now?” Noted.

Theories in Play: Just “Beware Of The Home Dog” and “Beware Of The ‘Everybody Believes In Us'” team. Edge: Carolina, 2-0.

This Game As a WWE Entrance Song: I’m dedicating the Miz’s “I Came to Play” to the Niners, who seem to be peaking at the right time with Michael Crabtree back and Aldon Smith looking like Aldon Smith again (and not a TMZ Sports staple). They’re certainly the most talented all-around football team left … right? By the way, The Miz’s ascension from Real World to the WWE heavyweight title should be a 30 for 30. When will we ever see anything remotely approaching that again? Did you see the first episode of the new Real World Ex-plosion season? That show has become such a debauched train wreck, we’ll never see another Real World cast member hold a job, much less the WWE championship belt.

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Niners: Because it looked too easy. All of it. And gambling is never, ever, EVER easy.

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Panthers: Because the previous paragraph is basically your only case for Carolina other than its defense single-handedly winning the game. Because the Panthers offense won’t be able to produce 20 points unless they’re allowed to use cheat codes. Because San Francisco’s zero-degree victory in Lambeau over an on-his-game Rodgers was pretty damned impressive. Because it would be far-fetched for Carolina to beat San Francisco twice in six weeks. Because the Niners have been the best football team of the last three years (as a whole), and they’re not going down because they couldn’t slow down Brandon LaFell, Greg Olsen and a hobbled Steve Smith. Because I trust Kaepernick more than I trust Newton. Because we’re destined for either “Niners-Seahawks III” or “Say Good-bye to Candlestick Again!” Because I believe in the Niners. Let’s hope I didn’t spray them with too much Billy Zima stink.

The Pick: San Francisco 19, Carolina 13

♦♦♦

PATRIOTS (-7) over Colts

Key Player: Either Luck will be trying to pull off a shocking upset or a backdoor cover, but you know he’ll be involved in the final two minutes. The Patriots played 11 games that were decided by seven points or fewer; the Colts are 12-5 but trailed in nine of those fourth quarters and came from behind to beat Tennessee in two others. You saw it last week: The 2013 Colts fall behind, then Andrew the Giant starts cleaning house like it’s a Battle Royal. I’m frightened.

X Factor: Look, I don’t know what’s going on with LeGarrette Blount lately. Either he went gluten-free, threw away all the vapes in his house, stopped eating five pounds of candy per day, got hypnotized into thinking he’s 2004 Corey Dillon, started doing hot yoga and Pilates, hired Angel Heredia and Anthony Bosch as his personal trainers, got motivated with Belichick’s version of Elmo’s “6 Minutes” speech from Vision Quest … I mean, who the hell knows? I just hope it doesn’t stop. He’s plowing over everyone right now. In general, it’s Tom Brady’s best running back situation since Dillon and Kevin Faulk in 2004 — Blount as a battering ram, Stevan “I Swear, I Won’t Fumble Again!” Ridley as a shifty change-of-pace guy, and Shane Vereen as Brady’s best third-down back ever (sorry, Faulk and Danny Woodhead, it’s true). In general, the Patriots quietly finished second in offensive DVOA and averaged 33.1 points during the last eight games. Now they’re playing a defense that almost gave up 50 points last weekend to Alex Smith, Knile Davis, Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery, Dexter McCluster and Anthony Fasano?

“Nobody Believes In Us” Edge: The Colts … but not by nearly as much as you’d think. They’re getting only seven on the road after miraculously outlasting a Chiefs team that was down to its third-string running back, Justin Houston’s backup, Brandon Flowers’s backup and Eric Fisher’s backup by the end of that game? Seems fishy.

Possible Tragic Figure: You can’t say Trent 3.0 (a.k.a. Trent Richardson), since Chuck Pagano isn’t letting him anywhere near this game after last week’s fumble. So let’s go with former Patriots busts Darius Butler and Sergio Brown, both of whom might be starting in Indy’s banged-up secondary this week. Wait, I shouldn’t talk about this; I don’t want the line to move.

Generic Talking Head Point You’ll Definitely Hear: “Here’s what Bill Belichick does, guys — he sees the one thing you love to do, and he TAKES IT AWAY FROM YOU. You’re not gonna advance in the National Football League playoffs against Bill Belichick doing just one thing, guys. Andrew Luck loves throwing to T.Y. Hilton? Guess what, Andrew — BILL BELICHICK IS TAKING T.Y. HILTON AWAY FROM YOU! That’s how Bill Belichick made his mark on the National Football League!”

Possible Omen That Can’t Be Discounted: As Chicago reader Adam Roberts writes, “Don’t think for a second it doesn’t not matter that Dan Dierdorf is calling this Pats game. I’m not so sure it isn’t a curse on the Pats, that shouldn’t not be considered if not for your lack of acknowledgement that this isn’t a big deal seeing he’s not calling another game after this one.”

I’m not so sure Adam isn’t 100 percent right, and that CBS doesn’t not want a Luck-Manning AFC title game and wasn’t not trying to put the stink on the Pats here. I couldn’t find the exact numbers, but Dierdorf was involved in approximately 92.75789 percent of the excruciating Brady/Belichick-era losses, including one of the most devastating Patriots games ever. Like every other Pats fan, I hear his voice and just think of Dierdorf babbling, This does not look good … this does NOT look good … I think Tom Brady hurt his knee … THIS DOES NOT LOOK GOOD. Let’s see the replay for the 935th time … THIS DOES NOT LOOK GOOD. Now he’s saying his farewell with a Pats playoff game? As my farewell, here’s something I wrote in 2008 — my impression of Dierdorf if he were a veterinarian giving an update to a distraught family whose dog was hit by a car.

Dr. Dierdorf: “Guys, this is bad. This is really bad. He’s in a coma.”

Wife: “Oh no!”

Dr. Dierdorf: “He is not waking up. He is NOT waking up.”

Husband: “When will we know more?”

Dr. Dierdorf: “In case you missed it earlier, your dog was struck by a car and he’s in a coma.”

(The couple is sobbing. Two seconds of silence pass.)

Dr. Dierdorf: “Witnesses said your dog flew about 20 feet. … Guys, he is NOT waking up. He’s in a coma.”

Wife: “Well … I guess we’ll just wait here in the waiting room until we get another update.”

Dr. Dierdorf: “And right now, here’s that update — your dog was struck by a car and he’s in a coma. HE IS NOT WAKING UP! NO SIGNS OF LIFE!”

Relevant Emails: Jeffrey in Chattanooga writes, “Andrew Luck is the anti-Romo. He can be both awful and unstoppable in the same game but actually pull a win out of his ass in the end.” Pretty much. And L.A. reader Bryan Cullison wonders, “Does it make you nervous at all that your Pats will be facing a team this weekend that 1) has the league’s lowest turnovers this season, 2) has the league’s fewest penalties this season, 3) has a QB whose freakin’ last name is “luck”, 4) has a horseshoe on its helmet, 5) is now the darling of the playoffs after their miraculous comeback this last weekend, and 6) is the only team to be able to claim having beaten the Seahawks, 49ers, Broncos, AND Chiefs (twice) THIS SEASON?!?!?” Yes! It makes me super nervous. That’s why I keep muttering the words “Sergio Brown and Darius Butler” to myself.

Possible Manifesto 5.0 Theories in Play: “Beware Of This Year’s ‘Nobody Believes In Us’ Team”; “Beware Of The Blatantly Obvious 2-Team Teaser In The Same Day”; and “Beware Of The ‘Shocking'” Round 2 Underdog Upset.” Hopefully we won’t end up adding these two rules: “Don’t Bet Against Andrew The Giant” and “Don’t Bet On The Pats During Dan Dierdorf’s Last Game Ever.” Edge to Colts: 3-0.

This Game As a WWE Entrance Song: The Wyatt Family’s “Live in Fear.” For obvious reasons. Hey, does it mean your 6-year-old son is a sociopath if he loves the Wyatts and wants his father to get him a fake beard and a flashlight? I’m asking for a friend.

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Patriots: Because the 2013 seasons of Indy and New England pretty much mandated that Luck would have the football in the final three minutes trailing by somewhere between three and 11 points. Because you realized in the first quarter that, if you had a friend mix up the names of five of New England’s defensive starters with five porn stars — Sealver Siliga, James Deen, Dane Fletcher, Nacho Vidal, Mike Adriano, Logan Ryan, Erik Everhard, Jamie Collins, Evan Stone, Chris Jones15 — you couldn’t have picked the five Patriots. Because “Luck vs. Manning” in Denver for the AFC title is the game that will make Jim Nantz spontaneously self-combust. Because you totally forgot that Adam Vinatieri was involved.

(Thinking.)

(Good Lord, Adam Vinatieri is involved??????)

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Colts: Because you overthought it. Indy won its Super Bowl last weekend — one of the greatest playoff comebacks ever in a game in which it secretly almost gave up 50-plus points and won because (a) there was an epic run of injuries for the other team, (b) a crucial goal-line fumble bounced off a lineman’s helmet and right into their QB’s hands, (c) Dwayne Bowe caught a season-saving pass six inches out of bounds, (d) Andy Reid was being Andy Reid and (e) Kansas City abjectly refused to double T.Y. Hilton when he’s the only above-average Indy skill guy. Oh, and you went against Brady and Belichick at home against a shaky defense. Come on.

The Pick: Patriots 44, Colts 34

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BRONCOS (-9.5) over Chargers

Key Player: Gee, I wonder if Peyton Manning will be motivated by the following story lines: “You’re the greatest regular-season QB ever, but when the playoffs start, it’s a different story” … “Phil Rivers beat you as a huge road underdog in the 2007 playoffs and he’s ready to do it again” … “Do you realize you’ve blown three home games in Round 2 as a prohibitive home favorite?” … “You can’t play in cold weather” … “San Diego won in Denver in Week 15 and could absolutely do it again” … “The Chargers might be a team of destiny!!!”

X Factor: The Philip Rivers Thing. What’s the Philip Rivers Thing? Well, just when it looked like he was going full Delhomme on us, he hooked himself to the Juvenation Machine in 2013 with a new coach and new offense. Last summer, he brought his young son to the Vatican and got him BLESSED BY THE POPE. He has beaten Denver, Kansas City and Cincy on the road this season. He has given so many lively interviews that Jason Whitlock predicted he’s eventually going to be the NFL’s version of Barkley on TV. He’s even wearing a lucky bolo tie given to him by a Chargers fan. There’s just a lot going on with Phil Rivers right now. I mean, a lot. A whole lot. Lots and lots and lots.

“Nobody Believes In Us” Edge: After falling to 5-7 and looking deader than dead, San Diego’s subsequent five-game winning streak included a variety of breaks ranging from small (Week 15’s Denver game being a Thursday nighter and sneaking up on the Broncos), the medium (Miami’s collapse and Baltimore’s collapse, the Bernard/Dalton fumbles last Sunday, maybe even the Incognito/Martin scandal), the large (they don’t make the playoffs unless Geno Smith plays well) and the extra-large (Ryan Succop missing a 41-yard field goal). Wait, I’m still not convinced. Is there video of Chargers coach Mike McCoy screaming, “It’s us against the world and that’s all we need!” after last week’s win? Wait, there is?

Possible Tragic Figure: You mean other than Peyton Manning? Imagine if he lost THIS one and dropped to 9-12 in the playoffs … with nine of those losses coming when he was favored, including four Round 2 stunners as heavy home favorites.

Generic Talking Head Point That You’ll Definitely Hear: “Guys, we can’t say enough about what Wes Welker’s return does for this Broncos offense — that’s Peyton Manning’s security blanket, that’s his little binkie, guys! [Lots of forced laughter.] And lemme tell you what — Wes Welker allows Peyton Manning to use EVERY PART OF THE FIELD, guys. There’s a reason he broke all these records this season!!!!”

Possible Omen That Can’t Be Discounted: You’ve seen the stat a million times this week — our last four Super Bowl winners won Philly’s home opener … and San Diego won Philly’s home opener this season. (Thinking.) I don’t know, I still don’t think that’s as threatening as Evil Manning, who might be the real-life Damien Thorn from The Omen.

Peyton Manning

Relevant Email: Tate in Greenwich writes, “Isn’t a key rule of yours is ‘never bet against God and puppies.’ Guess what? Phil Rivers’s SON WAS BLESSED BY THE POPE!!!! If that’s not a recipe for a playoff run, I don’t know what is.” And if you want to dig a little deeper, this playoff road would lead them through AFC West rival Kansas City (Week 17), the team that kept the Fouts/Coryell gang from the Super Bowl (at Cincy), their most hated rival (at Denver), their AFC rival who kept them from potentially beating Rex Grossman in a Super Bowl (at New England), and potentially, the team that crushed them in their only Super Bowl (San Francisco). Now that’s a run that seems preordained. It’s almost like Phil Rivers had his son blessed by the Pope or something.

Theories in Play: “Beware Of The Nobody Believes In Us Team”; “Beware Of The 3-Team Teaser In Round 2 (If The Other Two Big Favorites Come Through)”; and “Don’t Be A Hero, Just Try To Win Money” as the definites; “Beware Of Aging QBs In Cold Weather” (Just In Case The Weather Guys Are Wrong And It Ends Up Being Cold) and “Don’t Bet Against God, Puppies, Gambling Theories From Pakistan And QBs Who Had Babies Blessed By The Pope” as the possibles. We’ll see. Edge: San Diego, 20-1.

This Game As a WWE Entrance Song: I mentioned that Evil Manning is going against someone who just had a baby blessed by the Pope, right? Well …

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Broncos: You didn’t pay enough attention to Manning’s playoff legacy. You ignored how good San Diego’s defense looked these past few weeks, and how secretly mediocre Denver’s defense has looked without Von Miller. You didn’t pay enough attention to that Week 15 game. You forgot how frightening Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead were. You didn’t remember that San Diego can run the ball and use the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII strategy of “Chew up clock, keep the other team’s offense off the field.” You went against the “Nobody Believes In Us” theory AND the “Don’t Bet Against God, Puppies, Gambling Theories From Pakistan And QBs Who Had Babies Blessed By The Pope” theory, and you got burned by Peyton Manning on a big teaser yet again. You hate yourself right now. Go to your room.

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Chargers: So the Chargers beat Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton in a playoff game. Wow! Congratulations, fellas! What an impossible task! Now they’re going into Denver and beating a fired-up juggernaut that just scored more than 600 points, and they’re going to be doing that for the second time in four weeks? And that’s happening because of the Pope and a general lack of belief in a team that, by the way, was 5-7 after 12 games????? Are you on drugs? No wonder you lost money all season.

The Pick: Denver 48, San Diego 28

Last Week: 1-1-2
Season: 109-141-10

Filed Under: NFL, Bill Simmons, NFL Playoffs, People, Simmons, Sports

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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