Opening Lines: Divisional Round

The Patriots opened as 13-point favorites as they prepare to host the Denver Tebows in the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs.

OK, stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The Broncos, fresh off a heavy dose of Tebow magic, are expected to knock off the Patriots. You can’t turn on a TV without seeing Tebow highlights where he looks as graceful throwing the ball as a Real Housewife trying to toss a live salmon. This is the guy who is going to take down Tom Brady and Bill Belichick? I didn’t buy it in Week 15, and I don’t buy it now.

While the media is reacting as if the Broncos beat the Yankees in a homerun derby, the reality is that Denver’s win over Pittsburgh was not at all surprising. The Steelers were missing about a third of their team’s starters, and the quarterback who has been their biggest asset was hobbled to the point that he probably shouldn’t have been on the field. This wasn’t a case of Denver mounting a plucky challenge to a strong defending conference champion; it was simply a painfully average team taking down an opponent who had been decimated by injuries and hadn’t played up to its potential for the last two months of the season.

I broke down this match-up a few weeks ago, and very little has changed. The Patriots won that game by three scores and haven’t lost since. The Broncos finished the regular season by scoring 17 total points against two of the league’s most generous defenses. Denver had no answer for New England’s tandem of tight ends. The best weapon the Broncos showcased in their victory over Pittsburgh was the big play down the field, and the New England defense has done a great job of keeping everything in front of them all season. The defense won’t need to do much different this time around.

With all that said, the Broncos lost by three scores in Week 15 largely due to a -3 turnover differential. I don’t expect them to be that careless with the football in this contest. They’ll hang around, but the Patriots aren’t the kind of team that takes the pedal off the metal when they have a team on the ropes. I’ll pick the Patriots to win and the Broncos to just barely cover the spread. Barely.

Ravens (-7.5) vs. Texans

I worry about Baltimore coming out flat in this game after the bye, but I think they’ll have some emotion on their side now that they finally get to host a playoff game. The Ravens had a -2 turnover differential when these two teams met earlier this year and still won by 15 while outgaining the Texans by more than 100 yards. That was before Torrey Smith emerged as a viable threat in the passing game. Don’t be surprised if Smith emerges as a difference-maker in this game as well. Ravens should roll.

Giants (+8.5) @ Packers

If not for an early pick-six, the Giants might have beaten the Packers when these two teams met in Week 13. The Packers defense has been non-existent this year, and the New York running game finally appears to be on track. Eli torched the Green Bay secondary for 300+ yards and three scores just a few weeks ago. If the Giants defense can get pressure on Rodgers, they could pull the upset. I’d settle for another close loss, if only for the sheer enjoyment of seeing Agony of Defeat close-ups of Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin.

Saints (-3.5) @ 49ers

Don’t look now, but the Saints have won nine straight and have positioned themselves as the biggest threat to Green Bay in the NFC. The 49ers were adequate against the pass this year, but their stats are buoyed by the fact that they didn’t face Brady, Brees or Rodgers and enjoyed 12 of 16 matchups against quarterbacks that didn’t rate among the top half of the league in QB rating (and one of those games was against a hobbled Rothlisberger who couldn’t hit corn in Iowa). I love what the 49ers have done this year, but I’m not ready to pick them to beat the hottest team in the league.