Opening Lines: Conference Championship Edition

A few quick notes before I get into this week’s games:

  • I really, really hate the Jets.
  • While I didn’t have much to cheer about this weekend, I could at least take solace in the fact that my 3-1 record against the spread guarantees a winning record of picking games in this space for the 2010-11 season. That was a small personal comfort on an otherwise dreary weekend.
  • I hope the groundskeepers at Foxboro make the turf extra-springy next year so if Braylon Edwards tries another a backflip on our homefield, he over-rotates and lands on his head. But I’m really not bitter or anything.
  • Even if I drop both Championship Games and the Super Bowl in this space, I’d finish at 27-23-1 on the year. That’s not only a winning record, but also good enough to beat the juice. If I were a betting man, I’d be playing with house money right now.
  • If I can win the three remaining games, I’d finish with a .600 winning percentage on the year, which is better than more than a few “professional” handicapping services. Having said that, I probably just doomed myself to a spectacular failure in the last two weeks. But if I can make it happen, I may put some online handicappers (who sell their “services” to the public) out of business. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?
  • That last point made me sound like a bit slutty. I think it’s time to make some picks.

Steelers (-3) vs. Jets

While my personal distaste for the Steelers is well-documented, I like them to cover the spread and win big this week at home. Besides the New England game in Week 13, all four of the Jets’ other losses this year followed a similar theme – they were playing against a team with a very good front 7 (Baltimore, Green Bay, Miami and Chicago) who shut down the running game. The Jets thrive when they are able to run the ball and take the pressure off Sanchez. They were able to do that last week against New England and the week before against Indy because they dominated the line of scrimmage. Generally speaking, if the Jets can run the ball, they can win. If they can’t, they’re sunk.

There may be no team in the league that has a better front 7 than the Steelers. They had the league’s best run defense during the regular season by an absurd margin, allowing less than 63 yards per game on the ground (the second-best team allowed 90 yards per game, so it wasn’t even close). When the Steelers lost to the Jets earlier this year, New York was aided by a kickoff return for a TD and a fluke safety. The Jets’ offense accounted for just 13 points, and that was with Steelers safety and defensive leader Troy Polamalu on the sidelines. I’d be surprised if the Jets offense mustered much more than 13 against the Steelers this time around.

One of the big reasons why the Jets beat the Patriots was a surprising gameplan on defense. The Jets played a lot of man coverage on defense throughout the year, relying on their playmakers to shut down opposing skill position players. In the New England game, they played a lot of zone coverage that made Brady hold onto the ball too long and settle for a lot of check-downs to the running backs. Against the Steelers, the Jets won’t have that luxury. Roethlisberger does not make a lot of mistakes throwing the football, and he’s able to use his huge frame to extend plays and give his receivers more time to get open. The Jets defense will have a hard time containing him regardless of what coverage they use. There is a rape joke somewhere here that I’m missing. I guess this hangover from the Patriots loss is worse than I thought.

The only way the Jets win this game is if they get big game-changing plays on defense and special teams. I can’t feel comfortable predicting that will happen. I would take the Steelers to cover at -7, so I love their prospects at -3. I also like the chances of the Steelers running all over the field after the game with their arms extended to mock the Jets patented “flying” celebration. I’ll admit it – if they do that, I will stand up and cheer.

Packers (-3) at Bears

All season, I’ve been picking on home underdogs. It’s usually a losing strategy, but I’ve made it work for me this year by being very selective. For that reason, I have a bad feeling that this game will buck conventional logic and end up a Bears victory. Still, the facts seem to “bear” out that possibility (no pun intended … ah who am I kidding, I planned that one).

The Packers are playing unbelievable defense right now. Here are the points scored against the Packers in their last 11 games since the bye: 0, 3, 7, 20, 16, 7, 31, 17, 3, 16, 21. Six of those games were against playoff teams, and the only two teams who broke 20 against them were the top seeds from each conference (the Pats scored 31, and the Falcons were responsible for the 20 and 21). You could make an argument that they have the best defense in the league.

Meanwhile, the Bears haven’t faced a truly difficult, meaningful game since the day after Christmas. Cutler may have trouble finding time to throw; the Packers sacked him six times in their Week 17 game, and they have shown no trouble in getting after the quarterback this season. Pass protection has been an issue, and the fact that the Bears will be facing one of the league’s best secondaries without a true go-to receiver will complicate matters further. The Bears won the matchup between these two teams in Week 3 in the ugliest fashion possible, but I really feel like this Packers team is a lot stronger than the one that visited Chicago in September. Make no mistake, I think this is a good Bears team. I just don’t think they match up well against Green Bay.

I’m picking the Packers to cover the spread and win by a TD or more.

2010 Record ATS 22-17-1 (regular season); 5-3 (playoffs)