With each passing week, a few teams fall by the wayside, the stakes are raised, and focus shifts to those good (or fortunate) enough to be left standing.
The oddsmakers are unscrupulous in trying to exploit that nebulous, slippery little thing called “public perception.” As well they should.
But we’re here to sift through that sort of thing, right?
The key to this week — what could be to our advantage — is that each of the four remaining teams, the Packers, Bears, Jets and Steelers, are all public teams, meaning the public, at large, likes to bet on them.
Normally, that might spell for an overcompensation or “premium” on a points spread. But, of course, each team’s so-called premium effectively cancels out its opponent’s. That means, all that’s left to look at, essentially, are the cold, hard facts.
Postseason record: 5-3
Regular-season record: 28-22-2
Total: 33-25-2 (57%, discounting pushes)
On with the picks (mine are in bold, and lines were retrieved from bookmaker.com at 4 p.m. ET on Friday) …
Packers (-3) at Bears
I didn’t predict each game of the bracket accurately (I had the Saints beating the Seahawks and losing to the Bears), but I did have a Packers-Bears NFC title game. If you read any of my preceding columns, you know I’m infatuated with the Pack and projected the Bears to get here by attrition.
The line is fair and where I’d have set it. The Packers are not a perfect, unstoppable force, but I think people have realized they’re far better than their regular-season record indicates and could have won 13 or 14 games, had things broken in their favor.
Now that each team has played upwards of 20 games this year, we know what they are. The Packers make their hay with a finesse but surgical passing-oriented offense, led by Aaron Rodgers, who was superb for my fantasy football team this season and has staked his claim as a top-tier quarterback on par with the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the world. Their defense is superb in the secondary and at linebacker, but it lacks size and push along the line.
The Bears are sort of the inverse. Their offense starts and ends with the bad line. It frequently exposes a mistake-prone quarterback in Jay Cutler to the pass rush and hampers the wonderful all-around game of running back Matt Forte. The defense is touted as stingy, and it is pretty good, but it plays soft, deep zones and is vulnerable in the middle of the field, beneath the safeties.
Divisional familiarity and the fact that the Bears blew the doors off the lowly Seahawks have this line at three points, but those are three points I’m willing to lay for what is a superior all-around team. Unless Chicago can break a big play on special teams or force turnovers and convert them into scores, the Pack should be able to win a hard-fought game and cover the spread.
Jets (+3.5) at Steelers
Who (or what) the hell are these Jets, anyway? This much we know: They’re inconsistent. Predicting how they’ll fare in any given week? A dicey proposition, at best.
On offense, we know the Jets have a rock-solid offensive line, especially in clearing the way for backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. After that, it gets murky. Mark Sanchez has saved his best stretch of quarterbacking for when it counts most, a run that began, incidentally, with the Jets’ Week 15 win over the Steelers at Heinz Field. In those four games (discounting the Bills game in Week 17, in which he handed off the ball nine times before taking a seat on the bench), Sanchez has posted completion percentages of 65.5, 64.9, 58.1 and 64, and, of equal importance, he’s thrown only two picks.
The four-game trend is encouraging, but can Sanchez keep it up?
Similarly, the Jets have saved their best defensive efforts for their biggest games. The cornerstone of the team, the D has channeled its 2009 form in stifling two pretty good units in the Wild Card and Divisional rounds, those of the Colts and Patriots. The question is: Will Rex Ryan go back to his base, blitz-happy ways, or keep his defense in pass-coverage mode, dropping seven or eight men into the defensive secondary?
The Steelers are a very good all-around team, but their weaknesses are glaring, and they can’t really be fixed without the benefit of an offseason. The offensive line is very shaky, especially at both tackle positions, and the secondary (like most in today’s pass-happy NFL) is vulnerable, especially with Troy Polamalu perhaps not 100-percent healthy. Accordingly, the running game is iffy (although Rashard Mendenhall tallied 99 yards vs. the Jets in Week 15) and Ben Roethlisberger has been under duress all season.
It should be a close, hard-fought game, like the one in which the Steelers were embroiled a week ago, and if you foresee such a battle transpiring, as I do, you’d always be well advised to take the points, which, as of now, total more than a field goal.
Speaking of nebulous, as I did early in this piece, there’s something at play here that I’d be hard-pressed to prove as “real” but is no less a part of my thinking: peaking. The Packers and Jets are hot, arguably coming off their best games of the season last week. It counts for something — or does it?