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That Championship Mailbag

The Sports Guy goes through the rest of his inbox before making his NFL playoffs picks

If you missed Part 1 of my NFL Playoff Mailbag that inadvertently turned into an All-Te’o Mailbag, click here. This is Part 2. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.

Q: My buddy and I caught highlights of Ray Lewis’s comments from his post-game press conference in Denver. I remarked that Ray, dressed as he was in a tweedy three-piece-suit, looked like the world’s most intimidating sociology professor. That led us to create a game: Least likely professions for Ray Lewis if he hadn’t played football. After discussing some options (most notable: flight attendant), we settled on “Pediatric Dentist.” We just couldn’t top the thought of a maniacal Ray squirrel-dancing into the room with poor little Bobby in the dentist’s chair, screaming “THIS IS OUR HOUSE, THIS IS WHAT WE DO!!” at the top of his lungs while fireworks exploded, then reaching into the kid’s mouth and ripping his teeth out with his bare hands. God we’re going to miss Ray Lewis.
—Kevin R., Treasure Island, FLA

SG: You know why I hate Kevin R. from Treasure Island? Because I just spent the last 20 minutes trying to top “Ray Lewis: Pediatric Dentist” and couldn’t do it. Best I could come up with: “Ray Lewis: Tennis Linesman.” Either way, we have the makings of a killer online animated series.

Q: Bernard Karmell Pollard has gone Uma Thurman on the Patriots. He has successfully knocked off Brady, Welker, and Gronkowski over the years. There only remains one man left on this man’s quest for vengeance. He must … Kill Bill. Don’t say I didn’t warn you when Bernard Karmell Pollard chases a Patriot out of bounds by Belichick, gives him what appears to be a simple “pat on the back”, when in reality he just performed Pai Mei’s Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. Here’s the trailer for this weekend’s coming attraction …
—Brian M, Chicago

SG: I don’t like YouTube sometimes. But lemme say this … if Pollard crashes into Belichick and knocks him unconscious during this Ravens-Patriots game, leading to a Ravens victory and completing Pollard’s annihilation of the Belichick-Brady dynasty, that would be the most unbelievable sports story in … well, in about four days.

Q: Who do you think will be this year’s Pollard victim? I think Brady is too obvious, and he’s already gone there. Same for Welker. Gronk is out. Lloyd’s been a disappointment. Hernandez isn’t really that well known. Shouldn’t Vegas have odds on the Pollard victim?
—Mike Bell, Alexandria, VA

SG: No!!! Vegas should absolutely NOT have a line for this! STOP IT!

Q: For whatever inexplicable reason, Fox decided to go with Thom Brennaman & Brian Billick over Gus Johnson and whomever, robbing America of the spectacular orgasmic delights in the crazy final moments of the Seahawks-Falcons game. Here’s how to prevent this in the future: Simulcast every game with different broadcast teams, just like they do for Spanish, and let the viewers decide if they want to hear Gus Johnson or the flaccid Joe Buck. This should be on your agenda the first week’s as Sports Czar.
—Yaakov, Houston

SG: Even though you’re kidding, this is a brilliant idea — NBC, Fox and CBS could send two broadcast teams to the same playoff game, then run play-by-play from the second group of announcers on either CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports channel or NBC Sports Network while using the feed from the live game. My three favorite outcomes here: (1) more Gus Johnson, (2) MORE GUS JOHNSON (!!!!), and (3) a solution for the problem of “We’re headed for a fifth hour of Dan Dierdorf … is this game showing on any other channels?” That actually happened on Saturday during overtime of the Denver-Baltimore game. Five hours of Dan Dierdorf! Five hours! I always thought Dan Dierdorf was like a Viagra erection gone wrong — if you’re on your fifth straight hour of Dan Dierdorf, you should see a doctor immediately. Anyway, I’m all for multiple announcing teams and more simulcasts. We certainly have enough channels.

Q: When a coach leaves a program that is about to go on probation for the NFL should we just call that a Pete Carroll from now on?
—Scott, Las Vegas

SG: And if you can Pete Carroll a football program while also Lennay Kekua–ing it, that’s called a Bobby Petrino.

Q: Last week on Grantland, Chris Brown wrote about Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense. They lost. The week before, he wrote about the Redskins’ run offense. They lost. He wrote about Manti Te’o right before Manti Te’o disappeared in the National Championship, and about Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense right before it was stuffed by Stanford in Oregon’s only loss of the year. This week, he wrote about the Patriots’ offense. I hope you’re prepared.
—Reid, Denver

SG: My most frightening scenario involving a “Chris Brown” will always center o the year 2027, when someone knocks on my front door to pick up my daughter for a date and it turns out to be Rihanna’s new/old boyfriend Chris Brown. The possibility of a Chris Brown/Grantland jinx sinking the 2013 Pats? That’s a distant no. 2. And I mean … distant. But it’s still on the board. Terrible job by me — we could have easily talked Chris Brown into writing about Baltimore’s deadly deep-ball offense. Dammit.

Q: There’s no more underrated story line in these playoffs than Gonzo. Just won his first playoff game. Capping off the greatest career of any tight end in history. Second all time in catches, only to Jerry Rice. Only tight end to catch 100 touchdowns. Still makes ridiculous catches look routine. Everyone thought he was washed up when he arrived in Atlanta, but he still ends up being one of the four most productive tight ends every year. Remember when Gates vs. Gonzalez was an argument? Me neither. Every Kansas City fan I know has adopted Atlanta as second team. God may hate Kansas City, but at least we get to watch our best player in franchise history do something in the playoffs. I’m sure God will show his retribution after Gonzo wins the Super Bowl by making a hand full of leaping touchdown grabs in traffic and goes into the Hall of Fame as a Falcon.
—Jordan Smith, Kansas City

SG: Wow, I didn’t realize that Kansas City sports had fallen into the Ray Bourque Zone. That’s what happened to Boston sports fans in the late-’90s — we were feeling so depressed and hopeless that we threw our support behind Bourque’s Stanley Cup run in Colorado. What’s more pathetic than living vicariously through the success of star athletes who left you behind? Here’s a hint: NOTHING! It’s the lowest you can go. Actually, that’s not true … the lowest is when you throw a rally for them after they win. (That happened with Bourque, too.) But look what happened — the next decade rolled around and we won seven titles. There’s hope for you yet, Kansas City.1

Q: Tebow now has more playoff wins in the last 12 months than Peyton Manning. Never cross Tim Tebow and God.
—Rocco, Wood Ridge, NJ

SG: Don’t forget to add this to the “What the hell happened during that one Teeeeeeee-bowwwwwwwwwww season?” files so we can look back on it in amazement after he’s won seven Grey Cups and finished his career as Canada’s most popular athlete since Wayne Gretzky. Tim Tebow won an overtime home playoff game in Denver 12 months before Peyton Manning lost an overtime home playoff game in Denver. And he won it on an 80-yard touchdown pass. This happened. We were there.

Q: Does the Bronco’s loss last week finally confirm that Peyton Manning is back? An awesome season followed by blowing it in the playoffs? (I don’t really agree with this, but I figured that it would appeal enough to your biases to publish it.)
—Lee Fink, Redondo Beach

SG: You figured right! For the record, I can’t hang Denver’s playoff loss on a 36-year-old QB playing in 13-degree weather who just submitted an amazing comeback season and gave them every chance to win last weekend. He wasn’t the one who allowed Jacoby Jones to run by the entire secondary; he also wasn’t the one who decided to kneel down and take his chances in overtime over throwing at least one pass in the final 30 seconds of regulation just to see what might happen. Under the circumstances, I thought Manning played well. Not great … well.

At the same time, it’s impossible to look at Peyton’s playoff résumé (broken down by Grantland’s Patricia Lee in detail this week) without noticing the following numbers: 9 (wins), 11 (losses), 8 (one-and-dones), 15 (times they were favored in those 20 playoff games), and 2-9 (Manning’s record in playoff games that came down to the final few minutes). It’s a team sport, absolutely … but you can’t discuss the entirety of Manning’s career without mentioning that he’s the greatest regular-season QB ever (that’s true), only that never totally translated to the postseason. Yes, I’m being diplomatic.

Q: I think I’ll order Papa John’s tonight. That’s the only way you can get Peyton Manning to deliver during the playoffs.
—Joseph G., Denver

SG: That’s a little overboard. Know this: I have been rooting for the Patriots for four solid decades, and during that time, I have never felt more hopeless against an opposing QB than I did against Peyton Manning during the second half of the 2007 AFC Championship Game (when the Colts roared back from 18 down to win in the final minutes). That has to count for something. At the same time, Manning’s two decisive Patriots losses in ’04 and ’05 coupled with three pretty big collapses as big favorites (against the ’07 Chargers, ’05 Steelers and ’12 Ravens) coupled with the last quarter of the Super Bowl against the 2010 Saints … that has to count for something, too.

Q: The Giants should trade for Peyton and start him in the regular season, then start Eli in the Playoffs. They’d win the next 4 Super Bowls.
—James Crocker, Fort Collins

SG: And as nutty as this sounds, James Crocker’s e-mail counts for something, too. Let’s say the Patriots were protecting a hypothetical lead during the Belichick-Brady era, with a hypothetical Super Bowl on the line, and you gave me the choice of going against Eli or Peyton. Who would I want to play against if I wanted the Patriots to win the game? (Thinking.) I’d probably pick Eli just because Peyton’s ceiling was always higher. But I had to think about it, and over everything else, that’s why Peyton Manning’s playoff résumé DOES matter. He just seemed a little too mortal a little too often in big moments … right?

Q: You know WHO is coming to New England? Right? It rhymes with Pernard Bollard? AKA @Crushboy31. The silence is deafening.
—Chris, Bel Air, MD

SG: I have to be honest — blocking @Crushboy31 on Twitter for no real reason felt really good.

Q: A second year QB gets to start because a relatively ineffective incumbent QB whose coach has no faith in him to win is injured. Said second-year QB wins with a swagger and grasp of his team well beyond his years, has a defense that does not need him to win every game, and is playing better than the conference favorite with a door wide open to the Super Bowl. Do we just crown this scenario, “Pulling a Brady” right now?
—Rob B., Providence, RI

SG: We covered this right after Thanksgiving,2 and I feel even more strongly about it now — for an official “Pulling a Brady,” we have to hear from Alex Smith on Sunday. That would bring it full circle. Either way, St. Louis linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar (a.k.a. the guy who originally concussed Smith) has become the prohibitive favorite to win the 2013 Mo Lewis Award for “The Random Guy Who Affected The Playoffs Most.”

Q: Colin Kaepernick should have a nickname at this point in the postseason. And that ‘nick’name should be Scampernick. It’s just too perfect.
—Justin Goodman, San Diego

SG: I disagree — Kaepernick’s nickname should be “Video Game.” Even the real Randall Cunningham didn’t resemble the superhuman Super Tecmo Bowl Randall Cunningham as much as Kaepernick did during that Packers game. He’s a human video game.

Q: I think of Phil Simms as The Conversationalist: “We talked about (the Patriots’ no-huddle, Ray Lewis’s retirement, Two Broke Girls) earlier this week, and now we are talking about it again. I had a conversation with (Bill Belichick, Ray Lewis, Kat Dennings), and he/she told me to watch out for this. Oh, and the officials got that one right.” Dan Dierdorf is more like The Mentalist: “If you’re (a Patriots fan, Jim Harbaugh, Ashton Kutcher), then you have got to be concerned about the way this is going. You have to be feeling a little sick about this turn of events. If they can’t turn this around, this will not end well.”
—John M., Shelburne, VT

SG: Looks like somebody has been watching a little too much CBS! By the way, does anyone else watch those CBS promos and think to themselves, WHAT THE F IS GOING ON?????? We can choose our own ending for a Hawaii Five-0 episode???? What???? I wish we could choose our own ending for the Manti Te’o story. Is there still time?

Q: After the Browns hired Chud to be their next head coach, I prodded my new roommate, a Cleveland native, to tell me what it was like to be a Browns fan. Very seriously and despondently he said, “It’s like watching your dog get put down every Sunday.”
—Will, Palo Alto

SG: Come on, the Browns just hired one of the greatest B.S. Report guests of all time, Mr. Mike Lombardi! Things are looking up! I couldn’t be happier for Lombardi — the guy loves Cleveland, loves working in football and desperately wanted one more chance. He’s one of the best people I have ever met in sports, as well as one of the most thoughtful. I know he’s gonna kill it there. Sometimes it makes me sad, though … Lombardi being gone from the B.S. Report. I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up DOES rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty now that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend. (Sorry, I had to.)

Q: For a Steelers fan, this coming AFC championship is akin to taking sides in the Iran-Iraq war.
—Josh Mehl, Pittsburgh

SG: It’s time for the snarky one-liners competition of today’s mailbag.

Q: Do you think that 72-year-old Monte Kiffin signed with Dallas just so he can watch re-runs of Matlock on the worlds largest HD TV?
—Mark in Fort Worth

SG: The new leader in the clubhouse.

Q: What are the odds that someone in London this week walks up to Carmelo Anthony and says “cheerio!” and has no idea why he flips out?
—Minger, East Boston

SG: Heading for a photo finish.

Q: One thing that everyone keeps leaving out of these Ray Lewis retirement stories: The guy is a GREAT friend.
—Jonathan, Chapel Hill

SG: Winner!

Q: How good should I feel about my Falcons? We’re the no. 1 seed but we’re getting 4½ points at home! Normally they say homefield advantage is worth three points, that’s a swing of over a touchdown. Nobody believes in us Simmons! NOBODY BELIEVES IN US! Can you please make sure Matt Ryan and Mike Smith sees this email?
—David, New York City (via Atlanta)

SG: That’s a pretty staggering spread. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only one home team has gotten that many points in a conference title game: the ’76 Raiders, who beat Pittsburgh as 4.5-point favorites in January of 1977. Since the mid-1980s, when everyone started throwing more and football started looking like the football we’re watching now, only six road teams have been favored in a conference title game.

2011: Green Bay (-3.5) at Chicago … a.k.a. The Caleb Hanie Game (sorry, Chicago). Green Bay won by seven.

2009: Philly (-3.5) at Arizona … a.k.a. the Never Bet Against God And Puppies Game. Arizona won by seven.

2005: New England (-3) at Pittsburgh … Patriots by 14 and it wasn’t that close.3

1998: Denver (-2.5) at Pittsburgh, Green Bay (-2.5) at San Francisco … both road favorites covered that day (Green Bay won by 13, Denver won by three).

1993: Buffalo (-2) at Miami … The Bills cruised by 19,4 followed by everyone desperately trying to convince ourselves that we weren’t headed for another crappy Super Bowl. (We were.)

So that’s six road favorites in all. The spread never mattered — five of the six favorites covered and won, and the sixth underdog won outright. I don’t know what this means, but I picked all six games successfully at the time. Is there a lesson here? Maybe that we shouldn’t overthink the spread in a championship game — just take the better team unless God and puppies are involved. More on this at the end of the column.

Q: On January 9th, 12:32 PM you tweeted, “Within 10 months, Seattle might have Russell Wilson, the Sonics and legalized marijuana. I’m putting my house on the market.” What has transpired since then: Justin Upton shut down a trade to our God forsaken baseball team, the Sonics return may be unraveling, and we just lost the most excruciating playoff game in our football team’s history. God may hate Cleveland, but I think you alerted Him that He hadn’t been around to screw us in awhile. Please stay in L.A., Simmons.
—David, Seattle

SG: The accompanying video for that e-mail …

Q: I don’t know about you, but I appreciate Dan Dierdorf clarifying not once, but twice, that the Ravens-Broncos game could not end in a tie. Me and my buddies were totally shocked by this information. We’re sitting there like idiots trying to figure out how the AFC Championship game would be played the following week with three teams. Would the Ravens and Broncos each get a half to see what they could do? Would they assemble a special all-star team of Ravens and Broncos to play the game? Who would get the start if that happened, Manning or Flacco? And what if the Texans and Pats also tied? With the clock ticking down to the end of the first overtime, we just could not figure out how the NFL was going to get out of this pickle? And then Dan Dierdorf whips out this amazing fact from deep inside his NFL rule book. Who knew that a playoff game could not end in a tie? Only Dan Dierdorf, that’s who.
—Jake Milman, Beverly Hills

SG: If only Dierdorf had pulled off a triple negative as it was happening for old time’s sake. I’m not so sure that Dan Dierforf isn’t the only one who couldn’t pull something like that off. By the way, imagining being a Broncos fan and blowing that game while also enduring five hours of Dierdorf? What a great setup for our next e-mail.

Q: Where does Denver’s choke-job against Baltimore rank in your Levels of Losing? They were somehow able to combine two historical gaffes (the 2003/2009 Vikings season-enders) into less than one quarter with the Flacco bomb and the Manning across-the-body-pick. As a lifelong Vikings fan, it was nice to see it happen to someone else!
—Kent, Grand Forks, ND

SG: That might be its own Level of Losing — any game that leads to a Vikings fan saying afterwards, “It was nice to see it happen to someone else!” But to answer Kent’s question, Flacco’s incredible touchdown throw to Jacoby Jones (and Rahim Moore’s gaffe on the same play) was a straightforward “Stomach-Punch Game.” Seattle’s last-second defeat is more complicated: We never created a level to cover the whole “Extraordinary comeback down the stretch followed by the team re-blowing the game in the last few seconds” scenario even though it’s happened so many times.

So why not create that level right now? I’m dubbing it the “Cast Away” level of losing. In Cast Away, the great Tom Hanks spends most of the movie trapped on a tropical island (Seattle falling behind by 20) before building a homemade sailboat, braving the scary currents and improbably jumping over a 20-foot wave (Seattle’s big comeback) to give someone a chance to rescue him (and right when he’s about to die, they do — shades of Wilson’s last touchdown drive). Why risk his life on that homemade sailboat? So Hanks can make it back home to his fiancée, Helen Hunt, the love of his life … who, of course, ends up being married (Atlanta’s game-winning field goal). The movie ends with Hanks given a second chance on life (for Seattle, a future built around a quality nucleus and a franchise QB) while also kicking himself that he didn’t do a couple of things differently (for Seattle, the way they finished both halves of the Atlanta game). Oh, and if those weren’t enough parallels for you …

Q: If 49ers and Pats make it to the SB, isn’t it likely that Jim Harbaugh will combine forces with bro John to create a super-Harbaugh to go up against the Pats?? Between the two of them, they would have seen the Pats play THREE times this season as opposed to the one time the Pats have seen the niners. Of course, knowing Bill, he is probably taping the phones of the entire Harbaugh extended family by now :)
—Bala, San Jose

SG: I literally hated every single thing about that e-mail. Speaking of hate …

Q: I don’t think the nation understands how much New Orleans HATES the Falcons. Pure, disgusting hatred for Atlanta. I’m not kidding. All week long on local sports radio and TV the mantra has been “anyone but Atlanta.” After having to live through the crap “bounty gate” allegations this city may go ballistic if Atlanta wins the Super Bowl in our Dome. I may cry. And we are a very suspicious city, so I am sure we will find a way to blame Goodell for manipulating something to get Atlanta here as a final f-you to all Saints fans. I don’t know how Goodell doesn’t get sick every time he eats out during Super Bowl. I think New Orleans may move into “God hates New Orleans” sports territory for a few weeks. At least we have Mardi Gras and alcohol to perk us up.
—Shayna, New Orleans

SG: What a fascinating point. So now you have two frightening forces in Atlanta’s favor: “Nobody Believes In Us” and “This Was the Season From Hell For New Orleans So What Better Way For It To End Than Atlanta Winning The Super Bowl In The Super Dome.” Hmmmmmmmmm. Repeat: Hmmmmmmmmmm.

Q: I think we all remember one of the great plot points of Face/Off, in which Castor Troy used his new identity as Sean Archer to sleep with Archer’s wife Eve. Troy had to have had at least one STD right? He was a nefarious criminal that fraternized with seedy underworld types and had the libido of a drunken frat boy. His sexual exploits were hinted at when his brother discussed Castor’s menage with Ivan’s sister and wife. Who knows how many of those experiences he had? He doesn’t strike me as the type of guy that would use protection either. And while Troy was disguised with Archer’s face, he still had his own body, which was probably rife with disease. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate “Eff You” Castor Troy could give to Sean Archer? Sleeping with his wife and leaving her with some kind of super-STD that she would most likely give to Sean during their “I’m Back From The Hospital And I Have My Own Face” sex? Sean Archer won the battle, but I think Castor Troy won the war.
—Pete Bladel, New York, NY

SG: Yup, these are my readers. Time for my Round 2 picks.

(Home teams in caps.)

FALCONS (+4.5) over Niners

I don’t love this Falcons team. It’s hard to think back to their second-half collapse against Seattle — no pass rush, wide-open receivers everywhere, Russell Wilson doing whatever he wanted — without also thinking, If San Francisco is a slightly better version of Seattle, and they watch that Round 2 tape, then why wouldn’t they just do for four straight quarters what Seattle did for two?

Throw in San Francisco’s superior quickness (always tough to prepare for when you haven’t seen it before), the Harbaugh-Smith coaching matchup (I mean, think about how Atlanta handled the last 13 seconds of last week’s game, then take a deep breath and try to pick Mike Smith over Jim Harbaugh), Atlanta’s sports history (tortured, and then some), Colin Kaepernick’s ceiling indoors (just about limitless), the Brady-Bledsoe/Kaepernick-Smith parallels (eerie), how desperately Vegas wants you to take Atlanta in this game (even moving the line to 4½, a startlingly high spread for a road favorite as covered earlier), and the storybook possibilities of a Pats-Niners Super Bowl (Belichick vs. Harbaugh, Brady vs. his hometown team, two of the most successful franchises ever, etc.), and it’s really easy to say, “Screw it, I’m laying the points.”

And then you remember the following 10 things.

1. There’s nothing sharps love more than the betting public overreacting to the previous weekend. San Francisco looked incredible, Atlanta looked shaky … so naturally, the line swung violently toward the Niners (all the way up to 4½). I thought San Francisco and Seattle were dead-even as football teams (and similar in a variety of ways), with the slightest of edges going toward the Niners because of Harbaugh. Seattle was getting 2½ in Atlanta last week. There’s just no way San Francisco is six points better than Seattle. You’re getting two free points with Atlanta’s spread this week (at least).

2. What are the odds that San Francisco is going to play two straight lights-out playoff games in Rounds 2 and 3? The 2004 Patriots, 2002 Bucs and 2000 Ravens were the last three teams that did it (before the Age of Parity). Check out Barnwell’s NFC preview for further details on this point.

3. Kaepernick has started eight games — total — and just came off his greatest game and one of the best performances by a QB in playoff history. He spent the next few days with everyone telling him how great he was, with sponsors and agents coming after him, with opportunities getting thrown at him left and right, with everything short of him filming a “My Name Is Colin” video.

Quick tangent: I had dinner with a buddy of mine on Thursday who’s close to Jeremy Lin. We started talking about Kaepernick’s last week and comparing it to Lin’s life last winter after that Lakers game, when his career took off and everyone started coming at him. I asked him how crazy those few days were. “You have no idea,” my buddy said, shaking his head. Welcome to Colin Kaepernick’s life this week. How could that not affect him on Sunday?

4. If you think Atlanta plans on defending Kaepernick in the same moronic way that Green Bay and Dom Capers did, I have some Manti Te’o draft stock to sell you.

5. Does anyone remember Kaepernick’s last nationally televised experience, on the road, with a deafening crowd that made it impossible for him to hear? Your final score: Seattle 42, San Francisco 13. Yes, this happened four weeks ago.

6. Atlanta has shown a habit of winning close games in the ugliest ways possible. Like, Leatherface ugly. Last Sunday was another great example: big lead, sputtered, blew the game, came back and won it. This is what they do.

7. Dome. Home. Deafening.

8. New Orleans hates Roger Goodell, the Falcons and staying sober, in that order. They might have to stomach all three indignities in two weeks. Oh, wait — you’re right. There’s no way anyone will be sober in New Orleans during Super Bowl week. Still, two of three. Yikes.

Even if the Niners end up winning, the potential for a Matt Ryan spread-covering garbage-time TD is off the charts. You can throw on the Niners. Brady did it, Wilson did it, Rodgers was doing it before they fell too far behind.

10. Atlanta has the biggest “NOBODY BELIEVES IN US!” case in a long time. It’s an insulting line. Nobody is giving them a chance. Nobody believes in the Atlanta Falcons even though they’re home. We’ve been here before. I’m tired of getting burned on these games.

The Pick: Atlanta 31, San Francisco 30

Ravens (+8) over PATRIOTS

I know why the line is too high: Baltimore played a marathon game in 13-degree weather last week, they’re a little old in the tooth, and Vegas loves jacking up Patriots lines because they know people are always going to want to lay points with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. I get it. Just remember:

• The Ravens loooooooooove playing the Patriots.

• The Ravens don’t care if they’re playing at home or on the road. They’re fearless. They’re the “irrational confidence” guy of NFL teams (like 45 J.R. Smiths).

• Even if New England’s secondary has been better against big plays these past few weeks, every time someone throws deep on the Pats, everyone who roots for the Patriots briefly stops breathing.

• Torrey Smith and Ray Rice have both torched the Patriots in the past, and Joe Flacco came within a stripped Lee Evans catch of making the Super Bowl last season in Foxborough and might be the AFC’s version of Eli Manning for all we know. (In other words, a QB that gains and loses your trust 10 times during the course of an NFL season, then inexplicably gets better when it matters.) They have the right playmakers for this specific game. God, I hate that Eli made this paragraph.

For the Pats to win this game convincingly without Rob Gronkowski (only their second best offensive player), they need to run the ball effectively with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen … two guys who were spectacular last week but have NEVER played in a game like this. (Against the Niners on national TV last month, Ridley put the ball on the ground twice.) They need to torture Ray Lewis over the middle because he couldn’t cover Hank Aaron at this point, much less Aaron Hernandez. And they need a first-class Brady game … but for whatever reason, the Ravens always give him trouble. It’s just a fact.

In 2007, the Patriots needed a holding penalty on fourth down to keep their undefeated season alive in Baltimore. In 2009, they edged the Ravens by six at home, then got lambasted by Baltimore at home in the playoffs. In 2010, they blew an overtime game to Baltimore at home. In the 2011 playoffs, they barely outlasted Baltimore by three to make the Super Bowl. In Week 3 of 2012, they blew a late lead and lost to Baltimore on Sunday night. This is what happens when New England and Baltimore play. The spread is too high. I’m already out of chewable fingernails and it’s Friday.

The Pick: New England 27, Baltimore 24.

Last Week: 3-1
Playoffs: 6-2
Regular Season: 132-120-4

Filed Under: The Sports Guy, Series, Sports, Bill Belichick

Bill Simmons is the founding editor 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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