Greg Cote’s NFL playoff picks
HOW THE DARTS LANDED
Here is who did really, really bad in the first round of the NFL playoffs last week. The self-destructing Cincinnati Bengals, and me. I suppose I could add the gagging Kansas City Chiefs for blowing that big lead, but at least they HAD a big lead. Me? Only the Colts’ miracle comeback spared me the ignominy of going 0-4 overall. Likewise, I managed to get only one game right (Chargers with points) against the spread. Unlike the Bengals and Chiefs, at least, my playoffs continue, with hardly any place to go but up.
Overall ... Pct. ... Vs. spread ... Pct. ...
Last week/playoffs ... 1-3 ... .250 ... 1-3 ... .250 ...
Final regular season ... 153-102-1 ... .600 ... 110-132-14 ... .457 ...
COLTS (No. 4 seed, 12-5) at PATRIOTS (No. 2, 12-4)
Line: NE by 7 1/2.
Cote’s pick: NE 27-23.
TV: Saturday 8:15 p.m. EST, CBS.
Saturday’s prime-time game is the only Divisional Round duel in which the teams did not also meet in the regular season. A few numbers for you here: Tom Brady has QB’d 17 career playoff wins, the most ever. (Joe Montana had 16.) Bill Belichick has coached 18 postseason wins. (Only Tom Landry with 20 and Don Shula with 19 had more.) And New England is 8-0 at home this season and 14-4 overall in the postseason at home. Now you expect a dome team such as Indy to teeth-chatter into Brady’s igloo and win? I don’t think so, friend. You can extol Andrew Luck’s clutchness all you want and marvel over his 28-point comeback over Cincy last week. He’s still a babe in deep winter facing a QB who’s as historically clutch as anybody presently taking snaps. The point spread feels too big; Colts are 11-6 against the spread and Luck is 14-2 in games decided by seven or fewer. But Pats should ride a daunting venue to victory as long as their to-do list prominently includes blocking Robert Mathis and covering T.Y. Hilton.
CHARGERS (No. 6 seed, 10-7) at BRONCOS (No. 1, 13-3)
Line: DEN by 9 1/2.
Cote’s pick: DEN 31-24.
TV: Sunday 4:40 p.m., CBS.
These teams’ 109th meeting but first in the playoffs is a rather trendy upset pick, and I get that. Sunday’s late game finds Philip Rivers 10-6 all-time against Denver with a 98.8 passer rating, and he beat Peyton Manning 27-20 on Dec. 12. SD has left a winner six of its past eight trips to Mile High. That Bolts coach Mike McCoy spent the previous four years as Broncos offensive coordinator further lends to the notion it’s a favorable match-up for Diego. I’d also note that Denver’s record-setting offense (606 points) failed to top 30 points in only three games, and two of those were against the Chargers. All of this means the game figures to be closer than the bet line. But NONE of this means the league’s MVP, Manning, and his AFC top seeds won’t win. Two personnel factors contribute to my thinking. Manning gets receiver Wes Welker back from a concussion, which is like Bill Gates finding money. And RB Ryan Mathews (ankle) is very iffy for Diego, his likely absence a quietly significant blow to the playoffs’ surviving Cinderella.
SAINTS (No. 6 seed, 12-5) at SEAHAWKS (No. 1, 13-3)
Line: SEA by 8.
Cote’s pick: SEA 24-20.
TV: Saturday 4:35 p.m., Fox.
The playoff weekend kicks off with a match-up that would be a tough call were it in the Superdome, but isn’t so tough a call up there in the Great Northwest. N’Awlins was only 3-5 on the road this season, and Seattle has won 15 of its past 16 at home, where that “12th Man” breaks decibel records. Drew Brees’ passer rating goes from phenomenal at home (126) to average on the road (84), his offense’s point production dropping commensurately, and “the road” gets no tougher than here. Yes, the Saints won away from home last week to open the playoffs, edging Philly, but playing in Seattle is a different animal. Seattle has NFL’s finest defense, and that’s especially true against the pass. The secondary with Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas is the best around, with a league-leading 28 interceptions and a miserly opponent passer rating of 63.4. It was no fluke this defense dominated Brees in a 34-7 Hawks win on Dec. 2. It will be closer this time — much; I’ll take ‘dogs-with-points yet again — but I still can’t see Brees leaving the sonic din of this place with a smile.
49ERS (No. 5 seed, 13-4) at PANTHERS (No. 2, 12-4)
Line: SF by 1.
Cote’s pick: CAR 21-20.
TV: Sunday 1:05 p.m., Fox.
Sunday’s early game finds the lower seed playing on the road and yet (slightly) favored. That is rare. The question is whether that’s justified or simply a disrespect of Carolina. I get that perception, for sure. San Fran is the pedigreed franchise with five Super Bowl titles (though none since 1994), while the Panthers still seek their first championship and have much to prove. Yes and the Niners reached the Super Bowl last season — they bring that proven mettle — while this game marks the Cats playoff debut for both QB Cam Newton and coach Ron Rivera. Could I envision the Niners winning big? Yes. But I don’t. Carolina beating SF 10-9 on Nov. 10 was no fluke; it was the Cats’ fourth consecutive win in this series. “We owe them,” 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick said this week. OK. Fine. But a home team seeking to show its fans the club’s first playoff win since 2005 has incentive, too. Carolina will win this because it will harass Kaepernick in his pocket and because its run defense is good enough to limit Frank Gore. Upset.