Archive for the ‘Picks’ Category

INDIANAPOLIS — I really don’t need to spend hundreds of words explaining this selection, because Sean Tomlinson, Joe Fortenbaugh, Laura Diakun, Alen Dumonjic and myself have already written over 60 posts and more than 20,000 words on this game.

Plus, it’s the end of the longest week I have to “endure” every year, and I’m so tired that I’m not certain I can still type, spell and edit.

So if you want an explanation for who I’m picking, please peruse the posts linked above and in the sidebar to the right, which literally preview the Super Bowl in every conceivable way.

The end result of all this? We’re going to have another close Super Bowl. I just can’t see either team coming out flat, or running away with it.

Both of these teams have glaring flaws to go along with rarely-seen-before strengths. The Giants have a better pass rush and a slightly better defense, but the Patriots probably have a small edge on offense. New York is extremely confident, but New England is surely thinking about revenge.

I’m sorry, I just can’t see Tom Brady and Bill Belichick losing two Super Bowls in a row to the same team. I love what Eli Manning’s done in the playoffs in recent years and I love the underrated Tom Coughlin, but I still think Brady’s the better quarterback and Belichick is the better coach.

Ultimately, I’m taking New England to win another Super Bowl by a three-point margin. That’s exactly the way in which they won three Lombardi Trophies in a four-year span less than a decade ago, and it makes a lot of sense here.

I apologize for the fact that this offers no help to those looking to bet on this game against the spread, but when I close my eyes I see two things: one is a vision of Kate Upton from today on radio row that is now permanently etched into my mind, and a the other is a game-winning field goal from the steady Stephen Gostkowski.

I can suggest that you bet the under, because I think that both defenses are better than most of us think. New England’s pass rush is vastly underrated and the Giants might have what it takes to limit the Pats’ scary tight end duo.

We’ll be back with some extra analysis and irreverence tomorrow, and will have wall-to-wall coverage from the stadium on Super Bowl Sunday, so please stay with us on the weekend. And if you feel the need to place a wager on the game in the meantime, feel free to take my advice and go with…Patriots 24, Giants 21

(Playoff record: 9-1 straight up; 5-4-1 against the spread)

GLS Preview & Prediction: Giants-49ers

I feel I’ve had a good grip on most of the playoff games I’ve previewed thus far (which is why I’m 7-1) but my gut is out of advice for this Bay Area bloodbath.

The top storylines:

1. Battle of first-round picks. Both Eli Manning (top pick of the 2004 draft) and Alex Smith (top pick of the 2005 draft) have faced quite a lot of criticism in their respective careers, but both might be playing their best football right now.

2. Revenge for 2003? The Giants blew a 16-point fourth-quarter lead in San Francisco on wild-card weekend, losing after a botched snap on what would have been the game-winning field goal.

3. Potential Harbowl II. If the Ravens win earlier Sunday, Jim Harbaugh will be fighting for the chance to face his big brother in the Super Bowl.

The last time they met…

  • The 49ers scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat New York 27-20 in Week 10.
  • Neither team was able to do anything significant on the ground. Ahmad Bradshaw didn’t play for the Giants, while Frank Gore was injured after struggling early for San Fran.
  • Alex Smith looked a lot like he did last week against New Orleans, especially early. He led the Niners with Gore down, posting solid numbers against a good defense that didn’t have the same bite in the pass rush (Justin Tuck was hurt and Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora were held in check).

Injuries to watch:

  • Eli Manning was limited early in the week due to the flu, but he’s back now. The Giants have some bumps and bruises, but all active players of significance will take the field Sunday.
  • It looks as though the 49ers offense will get one pass catcher back while another sits, as tight end Delanie Walker, who was the team’s leading receiver in the regular-season matchup with the Giants, looks to be ready to return from injury, while Ted Ginn might be sidelined after missing practicing Wednesday and Thursday.

As I said, I’m having trouble with this game. So here are eight reasons I’m leaning in San Fran’s direction…

1. The Giants are a decent road team, but… they struggled in both situations in which they had to travel more than one time zone this season, barely surviving despite being outplayed in Arizona and losing in San Fran. And while a 5-3 record away from home is nice, the Niners were still 7-1 at home with a tough-luck overtime loss to Dallas being their only blemish. In their last three home games of the regular season, they gave up a grand total of just 10 points. So while being a rugged road team will help the Giants, it might not be a big enough factor to make a difference.

2. The 49ers have been here, done this. They faced an offense that is very similar to New York’s just last week, right here in San Francisco. And against Drew Brees and Co., the defense was fantastic for much of the game, shutting down a red-hot passing game with great coverage and constant pressure up front while intercepting Brees twice. If they had the personnel to cover all of the Saints’ weapons, there’s no reason the league’s fourth-ranked defense won’t be able to do the same against Eli and his weapons on Sunday.

3. The Giants are in unfamiliar territory. While the Niners will face a familiar-looking offense, the Giants will be facing a defense that is much different than the ones they’ve been battling of late. During their hot streak, they’ve only faced one team that remotely resembles San Francisco from a defensive standpoint, and that was the Jets. In that game, Manning completed only nine of 27 passes and the running game was held in check. They won, but a sort of fluky 99-yard touchdown and ineptitude from Gang Green played a role.

4. The rain could help San Francisco. Yeah, there’s quite a high probability of precipitation in the Bay Area Sunday, and that could obviously play a role. If it does, history says it’ll help San Francisco, who makes its money with the power running game anyway. The Giants rely on the deep ball on offense, and bad weather conditions obviously make it more difficult to hit home runs.

5. And as clutch as Manning has been, Smith has been just as clutch. In fact, only Smith has led more fourth-quarter comebacks than Manning has this year, and we all saw what happened against New Orleans last weekend.

6. Vernon Davis is coming off one of the best games of his career. And his motivation level should be just as high as his confidence level after Antrel Rolle ran his mouth earlier this week. The Giants had their share of trouble stopping tight ends this year, and they have a secondary that can be exposed through the air. That’s a concern.

7. And don’t talk to me about San Francisco’s struggles in the red zone. Because lately, the Niners have actually been better than the Giants inside their opponents’ 20-yard line. They’ve scored eight times on their last 13 possessions, while New York has scored eight times on its last 17.

8. Don’t forget about the quarterback running factor. The Giants were vulnerable to Aaron Rodgers’ underrated legs last week, allowing Rodgers to take off seven times for 66 yards and five first downs. Smith scored on a 28-yard bootleg against New Orleans and has also been quite capable as a runner when called upon to take off.

And four reasons I’m leaning in New York’s direction…

1. The Giants might not turn it over like New Orleans did. The 49ers might not have beaten the Saints had it not been for the five takeaways they registered on defense and special teams. But the Giants have just two turnovers in their last four games and were very smart with the football last week against the only team that had more regular-season interceptions than San Francisco. The Niners’ bread and butter is forcing turnovers (they led the league in turnover margin and takeaways) but the Saints had turned it over seven times in their previous four games. It might not be as easy to take it away from New York Sunday.

2. And expect New York’s pass rush to cause problems. Gregg Williams’ fairly obvious blitzes made it easy on Smith as that game wore on, but the Giants don’t blitz much — instead, they simply have the fiercest pass-rushing defensive line in football. Smith isn’t exactly known for reacting well to pressure, which is a concern against such a red-hot rush. And San Francisco has had some pass protection lapses this season, particularly against strong pass-rushing teams. In seven games this season against teams that finished in the top 10 in sacks, Smith was taken down an unbelievable 36 times (or more than five times per game). All three of San Fran’s losses came under those circumstances. New York not only finished third in the league with 48 sacks, but they’re getting to the quarterback with more success than anyone in football right now.

3. If the Giants pass rush forces San Fran to run heavily, I’m not completely convinced that Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter will take full advantage. Both backs have disappeared at times this year, and the Niners only averaged 4.1 yards per carry during the regular season. Gore is healthy now, which is good, and both he and Hunter looked great in limited action against a bad Saints run defense last week. The Giants have proven to be beatable on the ground, but they were much better than New Orleans was during the regular season and they bottled up Michael Turner on wild-card weekend.

4. Watch for the big play. Despite having such a strong season, there isn’t a team in the league that has given up more pass plays of 40-plus yards than the Niners. And the Giants just so happen to lead the league with 19 pass completions of 40 yards or more. They had a 66-yarder last week in Green Bay, while San Fran gave up a 66-yarder and a 44-yarder against the Saints.

In conclusion, despite having eight points in favor of the Niners and only four in favor of the Giants, I think the factors on New York’s side are far more crucial. I just can’t see Smith outdueling Manning, and the Giants can go toe-to-toe with San Fran’s defense. It’s hard to believe this unit has only surrendered an average of 12 points in its last four games. New York has essentially ended four teams’ seasons in four consecutive weeks. I think that trend continues.

GLS prediction: Giants 17, 49ers 14

(Playoff record: 7-1 straight up; 4-3-1 against the spread)

There are a lot of fresh faces in the conference championship games this weekend, but with names like Belichick, Brady, Lewis, Reed and Suggs, the AFC tilt will still feel very familiar.

The top storylines:

1. Rivalry renewed. The Patriots have been synonymous with big offense for a decade, while the Ravens have been synonymous with fierce defense. It’s a great battle of good versus evil, and they have quite a heated history.

2. Tom Brady goes for four. Hard to believe it’s been seven years since Brady and Bill Belichick won their third championship together. This is their best chance since 2007 to relive the glory days. And let’s be real: the window might not be open for too much longer.

3. Final chance for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed? Both future Hall of Famers are close to retirement. Lewis would love to lock up his second championship, while Reed is still chasing his first.

The last time they met…

  • New England 23, Baltimore 20 back in Week 6 of 2010, but the Ravens pummeled the Patriots in the 2009 playoffs in New England.
  • In the Baltimore playoff victory, Ray Rice was the difference, running all over the Pats while Joe Flacco completed just four passes. The Ravens outscored the Patriots (who have been known as slow starters this season) 24-0 in the first quarter, cruising to victory after that. The Baltimore defense intercepted Brady three times and shut down the New England running game.
  • But in the more recent regular-season matchup, the Pats won in overtime despite losing the turnover battle 2-0. Flacco actually outplayed Brady, who has now thrown five picks in his last two games against Baltimore.

Injuries to watch:

  • Reed (shoulder and ankle) is banged up, but he’ll play.
  • Everyone’s practicing for the Patriots, including Brady, who sat out Wednesday with a shoulder injury.

Eight factors that have me leaning Patriots in a double-digit victory:

1. The Ravens can’t stop New England’s offensive weapons. At this point, I don’t think anyone can. Baltimore’s defense is fantastic against the run, but unfortunately, the Pats hardly rely on the run. The Ravens don’t have the personnel to stop the triple threat of Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker. Lewis and Bernard Pollard don’t have the ability to do so at this point, and while Brendon Ayanbadejo and Jameel McClain are good players, both are less than 100 percent.

2. Only a great pass rush can limit New England’s offense. And right now, the Ravens don’t have a great pass rush. Although they finished the regular season with 48 sacks, they failed to get to get to T.J. Yates last week and have just three sacks in their last four games. Terrell Suggs had a ridiculous season, but he still has a tendency to disappear at times. Again, if you can’t stop those receiving weapons, you have to hit Brady a lot. I don’t get the feeling Baltimore can do that.

3. I don’t trust Cam Cameron. The Patriots had an issue with slow starts during the regular season, but they kicked that last week in Denver. If they can get out to an early lead, I get the feeling Baltimore’s offensive coordinator will panic and abandon the running game, putting the skittish Joe Flacco on an island against an underrated pass rush.

4. Plus, New England’s front seven can stop Rice. This is a unit that is healthier than it’s been all year with Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes playing together for only the eighth time in 18 games. Patrick Chung’s presence has also helped a middle-of-the-pack run defense. Belichick is very familiar with this team, and I’m expecting him to outsmart Cameron by loading the box and removing Rice from the game early. Baltimore beat the Pats in the 2009 playoffs by jumping out to an early lead after Rice scored on the first play, and then rode him the rest of the way, throwing on just 10 of 62 plays. That’s the recipe for success Sunday, but the odds of them starting that well again at Gillette Field aren’t very good.

5. I don’t trust Flacco either. I don’t care about his playoff record on the road, Flacco has a career playoff passer rating of 66.7 with more interceptions than touchdowns. In eight postseason games, the guy has completed only 53 percent of his passes. To boot, he’s coming off of his worst season as a pro and a miserable game against Houston. I realize that this New England defense isn’t as good as the Texans’, but they’re actually much better than you think: they surrendered more than 27 points only once all year, have been superb in the red zone and the pass rush has stepped it up big time in December and January. It’s cliche, but this is a quarterback’s league, and you’d be crazy to pick a Flacco-led team over a Brady-lead team just because lightning struck once in the past.

6. Baltimore got lucky in the divisional playoffs. They were probably outplayed at home against a depleted Texans team led by a third-string quarterback, getting bailed out by turnovers. After barely surviving against a mistake-prone Yates, they’re in big trouble at Foxboro. Sure, they’ll benefit from having Torrey Smith go up against a weak secondary without the likes of Johnathan Joseph or Danieal Manning, but this is still a defense that has 16 sacks in its last four games.

7. More on lightning not being likely to strike twice: New England slipped up two years ago against this very Ravens team at Gillette, but that was an anomaly, as was their loss to the Jets last year. First, those teams didn’t have the unique offense that this one does. Second, Tom Brady is now 9-2 at home in the playoffs and has lost just three home games in total since 2006. Meanwhile, Baltimore was only 4-4 on the road this year, with losses to Jacksonville, Tennessee, Seattle and San Diego, all of whom didn’t qualify for the playoffs.

8. And about that Baltimore defense… A lot has been made of the fact New England hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record all season, while Baltimore is an impressive 7-1 against teams with winning records, but the seemingly bulletproof Baltimore defense still worries me on the road. They faced only one top-10 offense this season, giving up 34 points in San Diego only a month ago. And if you go back, they have struggled against elite offenses on the road dating back to 2008, winning in Houston last December (but giving up 28 points), in San Diego earlier in ’09 (yet giving up 26) and beating the Pats in a game carried by the offense in the ’09 playoffs.

In conclusion, the Pats could make a mistake against Lewis and Reed. Brady has five picks in his last two games against this smart defense. That worries me, as does the unpredictability of the New England defense. But a lot has changed since that previous playoff meeting, and winning once at Gillette doesn’t make it a trend.

GLS prediction: Patriots 31, Ravens 21

(Playoff record: 7-1 straight up; 4-3-1 against the spread)

Oh man, watch out for the friggin’ Giants again. As our man Joe Fortenbaugh pointed out earlier today, the Giants are 6-0 against the spread in their last six playoff games as an underdog and 5-1 ATS in their last six games overall. That means the Packers are almost certain to have their hands full in the final game of the weekend.

The top storylines:

1. Eli vs. Rodgers. Both Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers are Pro Bowlers coming off of career years. Rodgers is probably the MVP, but Manning might actually be just as hot.

2. Offense! It’s a battle of two former Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks and two top-10 offenses. The Packers have scored at least 27 points in nine of their last 10 games, while the Giants put up at least 29 in four of their last five regular-season games.

3. Heavy hearts in Green Bay. It should be a pretty emotional game for the Packers after offensive coordinator Joe Philbin lost his 21-year-old son in a tragic accident this week.

The last time they met…

  • It went down to the final play, but the Packers barely survived, winning 38-35 to maintain their perfect season in Week 13. Both quarterbacks were on fire, especially in the second half.
  • Total yards: Packers 449, Giants 447.
  • Despite only recording two sacks, the Giants got a lot of pressure on Rodgers.

Injuries to watch:

  • The Giants are healthier than they’ve been all year, but Osi Umenyiora is still bothered by ankle and knee injuries.
  • The Packers were quite banged up late in the season, but they’ll have everyone — including Chad Clifton, Bryan Bulaga, Greg Jennings and James Starks — in the lineup Sunday.

Just start reading my take on the factors at play and I’m sure you’ll quickly get a clue as to who I’m leaning toward:

1. The Giants are a team nobody wants to play right now. It’s that pass rush and that big-play ability. It’s their penchant for winning big road games. It’s their sudden dexterity in the running game. It’s the red-hot Manning. And maybe more than anything, it’s the memory of what they did in January of 2008, when they ran the postseason table on the road (including a win at Lambeau) to shock the world and win the Super Bowl. Sure, that was four years ago, but this team has many of the same pieces in place and a very similar feel.

2. The Packers had trouble with the Giants in the regular season. Since then, New York’s pass rush has improved, Eli has stepped it up and the running game has found new life. The Giants are also healthier now than they were then. Remember, they got steady pressure on Rodgers in the first meeting despite not having Umenyiora in the lineup.

More on the improved health of the Giants from ESPN’s Dan Graziano:

“One thing the Giants have going in their favor is that they’re much healthier on defense than they were in the first Green Bay game. That day, linebacker Michael Boley was still coming back from a hamstring injury. Chase Blackburn had just been signed off the street. Osi Umenyiora was out with an ankle injury. Safety Kenny Phillips hurt his knee in the second quarter and had to come out of the game. Safety Deon Grant said Wednesday he remembers the all-hands-on-deck feeling from a game in which he had to spend some time at middle linebacker.”

3. The Giants are more balanced on offense. In the first meeting, New York completely shut down Ryan Grant, and the Green Bay running game has failed to reach the 100-yard plateau in all but two of their last eight games. New York put up slightly worse numbers on the ground during the course of the season, and the return of Starks (who was a mini hero last January) should help Green Bay, but the G-men have somehow rushed for over 100 yards in five of their last six games. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw both busted through for runs of over 30 yards Sunday against Atlanta.

4. The Giants have the league’s hottest pass rush, with the three-headed monster of Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul really in a groove. New York has 13 sacks in its last three games and finished the season two shy of the NFL lead with 48. Considering that the Packers took 41 sacks this season, that’s a worry. Another worry is that the Packers struggled to register sacks of their own all year, finishing with just 28 only one year after recording a conference-high 47. Give Manning room to work with his streaking receiving trio of Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham and you could be in real trouble.

5. The Giants are very beatable through the air, but they’ve given up just four total touchdowns and 28 total points in their last three games, holding those opponents to an average of 10 points per game.

6. Plus, the Packers have the worst defense in football. It’s strange — they’re so much healthier than they were last year, especially on defense, but something’s off. Maybe the absence of Nick Collins is hurting more than anyone assumed it would. All I know is that no team with the worst regular-season defense has ever advanced to the Super Bowl (thanks to our girl Laura Diakun for that stat). And don’t tell me that Green Bay’s defensive numbers are inflated by the fact they’ve led a lot of games late — they surrendered as many yards on a per play basis as the unbelievably bad Buccaneers.

7. I also understand that the Packers have won 13 straight home games dating back to last season, but the Giants are a relatively strong road team, and it’s not like they’ll be fazed by the winter temperatures at Lambeau. The Giants struggled a bit in New Orleans and San Francisco, but they were really good in Dallas, Philadelphia, and, most importantly, New England. And even in the loss to the Saints at the Superdome Manning had a really good game. I realize that the Packers have outscored their last eight home opponents by an average of 17 points, but it’s not as though the competition has been stiff, and they barely got past fellow NFC playoff teams New Orleans and Detroit at Lambeau.

8. Comparing Eli and Aaron. We known that Rodgers put up better numbers over the season as a whole, but let’s just take the last six games for each:

Manning: 50%, 1,852 YDS, 12 TD, 6 INT, 8.5 YPA, 85.7 rating
Rodgers: 59%, 1,774 YDS, 17 TD, 3 INT, 8.2 YPA, 105.7 rating

A bad game against the Jets really hurts Manning in terms of completion percentage and passer rating, but he produced more yards per dropback than Manning during that span. The point is that Rodgers hasn’t been quite as untouchable as he was earlier in the year, and Manning is at least in his range in some categories.

More on Manning from Laura Diakun: ”He finished fourth in the league in yards, had eight games of 300 passing yards or more, threw 15 fourth-quarter touchdowns and engineered five comeback victories.”

Consider, too, that Manning had a higher passer rating and YPA average on the road than he did at home. If Eli is on his game against the league’s worst pass defense, this could be a true shootout, which is obviously dangerous for the defending champions. There’s a reason why so few teams repeat.

9. The key could be turnovers. Green Bay can make up for its weak defense because it gets a lot of takeaways. The Packers led the league with 31 interceptions while forcing 38 turnovers during the regular season. It just so happens that the Giants turn it over a lot when they’re off their game — New York coughed it up 24 times in its first 15 games. But — and a big “but” here — the Giants haven’t turned it over once in their last two games, both against solid defenses. Plus, the Packers forced just two total turnovers in back-to-back big December games against the Chiefs and Bears. If the Giants can have another turnover-free affair, they might be bound for the NFC championship game.

In conclusion, I’ll admit that I’m fearing a Giants flop. They’ve lacked consistency all year, and only three weeks ago Manning had a 9-for-27 game against the Jets. This could be a New York dud, but history and my gut tells me that won’t be the case against such a beatable defense.

GLS prediction: Giants 34, Packers 31

(Last week’s record: 3-1 straight up; 2-1-1 against the spread)

Look closely and you can see a lot of the Ravens in the young Texans. Will the baton be passed from one great defense to another Sunday in Baltimore?

The top storylines:

1. Defensive showdown. The Texans were ranked second defensively, while the Ravens were ranked third. In terms of points allowed, they finished third and fourth respectively. On paper, the teams are also evenly matched on offense, with the Texans having a slight edge in most categories.

2. Final chance for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed? The AFC is wide open and some would argue that the Ravens are the conference’s most complete team. But you also get the feeling an era is coming to an end in Baltimore.

3. Revenge! Vonta Leach hates his former team. (We had to really claw for a third storyline here.)

The last time they met…

  • The Ravens beat the Texans 29-14 in Week 6, but Houston actually had a 14-13 lead in the third quarter on the road. That was with Matt Schaub running the offense, but the Texans didn’t have a healthy Andre Johnson at that point.
  • Baltimore scored 16 unanswered second-half points to run away with it despite losing the turnover battle 2-0.
  • The Ravens defense completely smothered the Texans down the stretch, forcing them to punt three times in the final 17 minutes and six times overall.
  • Baltimore also averaged nearly twice the number of yards per play that Houston did (8.3 to 4.9).

Injuries to watch:

  • Injuries are barely a factor, but Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels aren’t 100 percent for the Texans.
  • The Ravens are remarkably healthy, but Ed Reed hasn’t been right thanks to a shoulder problem.

Here’s why I’m taking the Ravens to win quite securely:

1. The Ravens rise to the occasion. They were 6-0 against playoff teams this year, outscoring them 158-87. That’s just unbelievable. The Texans were 3-2 against playoff teams during the season, and they certainly upped their game for the Bengals on wild-card weekend. But Baltimore seems to have an extra level against elite opponents.

2. The Ravens are dominant at home. They’re 8-0 at M&T Bank Stadium this year and have lost just one game in Baltimore since the 2009 season. In their eight home games this season, they won by an average of 12.5 points per. This isn’t overwhelming evidence that Baltimore will win going away, because the Texans were 5-3 on the road, outscoring their opponents by almost a touchdown per and Houston faced four winning teams away from home (compared to only three for the Ravens), but it’s another factor that favors them.

3. The Ravens had a tougher road. Their opponents had a winning percentage of .496 in the rest of their games. That number for Houston’s regular-season opponents: .458. Baltimore won two more games than the Texans did despite a much more challenging schedule.

4. I’m a little worried about Baltimore’s energy level. The Ravens have been inconsistent this season, and I don’t think there’s a team in this league that seems to require motivation more than them. It might not be as easy to manufacture that motivation for a team like Houston as it would be for a division rival such as Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. Historically, the Ravens have also lost on this very weekend in three of their last four playoff appearances. For these reasons, I’m slightly cautious. Still, I think they’ll find the right motivation for a playoff game against a feisty defense like this one, especially considering that this is only their second home playoff game in over a decade.

5. And the Texans have a lot of momentum. Again, I don’t know how big of a role these intangible factors will play, but it’s tough to tell how the Ravens will react to the bye since they’ve never had one in the John Harbaugh era (and they’ve only had one in franchise history, which led to a loss). The Texans aren’t as well rested, but they’re coming off maybe their best game of the entire year, while we saw the Ravens lay an egg in San Diego only three weeks ago.

6. The pass rushes are wild cards. The Ravens gave up seven sacks in San Diego, but they’ve only surrendered two over their last two games. Houston’s pass rush was key against the Bengals, but it had also been hit or miss late in the season. Meanwhile, the Ravens led the AFC with 48 sacks during the regular season and had four in the last meeting with Houston. That could be the difference, especially considering the playoff experience Baltimore has on both sides of the ball.

 7. Joe Flacco > T.J. Yates. We compared Yates to Andy Dalton last week to prove that since the beginning of December Yates had been just as good. And while Flacco’s regular-season numbers weren’t much better than those Yates put up and Flacco’s postseason reputation has been greatly inflated by wins (his numbers have been well below par), I’ll still take the veteran over the rookie, especially knowing what Baltimore’s defense can do to deer-in-headlights quarterbacks.

8. Baltimore has more playmakers. With all due respect to Arian Foster, if anyone on either side can make a big play, it’s Ray Rice. As good as Foster’s been, he doesn’t have the same home-run ability that Rice does. Rice, who’s also a bigger contributor to the pass game, led the league with five runs of 40 yards or more during the regular season (Foster had two). Plus, the Ravens have the second-best run D in the league, while the Texans were only middle of the pack in terms of yards per carry allowed.

Same rule applies to the Baltimore defense, where there may not be a bigger playmaker in the league than potential defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs.

9. Which Texans defense will show up? The one that was a mess late in the season or the one that dominated Cincinnati? This is a probably a question we don’t have to ask with Baltimore. That’s the key.

In conclusion, Baltimore is simply too good for the Texans, especially at home. Houston committed zero turnovers in that first meeting, yet still lost by 15 points. This is a double-digit win for the Ravens.

GLS prediction: Ravens 27, Texans 17 

(Last week’s record: 3-1 straight up; 2-1-1 against the spread)

Obviously Tebow there Tebow are Tebow a lot Tebow of Tebow interesting Tebow angles Tebow to Tebow the Tebow Saturday Tebow night Tebow divisional Tebow game Tebow between Tebow Bill Belichick’s Tebow Patriots Tebow and Tebow John Fox’s Tebows Broncos. Let’s break it down.

The top storylines:

1. Tebow! I get the feeling elaboration isn’t necessary.

2. Josh McDaniels seeks revenge. The former Broncos head coach — and the man who drafted Tim Tebow and Demaryius Thomas — was officially added to the Patriots coaching staff just minutes after Tebow hit Thomas for the game-winning touchdown Sunday night in Denver.

3. New England tries to end its playoff slump. Hard to believe it’s been seven years since they won their last Super Bowl and four years since they won their last playoff game. Since the Giants spoiled their perfect season in Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots have gone 0-2 in two home playoff games. In that same span, Tom Brady has only lost one regular-season home game.

The last time they met…

  • Less than four weeks ago: Patriots 41, Broncos 23. But that obviously doesn’t do it justice.
  • It should be noted that the Broncos were actually running all over the Pats in the first quarter, outplaying them by a wide margin. But then they fumbled three times in the second quarter, leading to 13 New England points. As a result, they trailed in the second half and thus failed to rediscover the power running game that gave them an early edge.
  • Tebow actually made some decent passes against a lackluster secondary, but for whatever reason, the Broncos didn’t unleash him until it was too late. He did, however, rush for 93 yards and two scores.

Injuries to watch:

  • Denver will again likely be without three key starters in Brian Dawkins, Eric Decker and Chris Kuper. Only Dawkins has an outside shot at playing. Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller are both less than 100 percent, too.
  • The Pats are banged up, especially on the offensive line and in the secondary. But it’s really just bumps and bruises, and everyone of consequence should play Saturday night. They haven’t missed top pass rusher Andre Carter (who’s out for the year) as much as many assumed they would.

I’m taking the Patriots to win, but not handily. Here are the factors at play:

1. The Patriots are much healthier than the Steelers were. Pittsburgh’s injuries were the single biggest factor in that wild-card game. They weren’t the same on either side of the ball without Maurkice Pouncey, Max Starks, Ryan Clark, and Brett Keisel and with Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu hobbled. New England is actually healthier now than it was when these teams met back in Week 15, with defensive starters Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes back in the lineup.

2. New England’s No. 2-ranked passing game will create problems for Denver’s secondary. The Broncos’ inexperienced safeties were dumbfounded by Brady in the first meeting, and it’s very unlikely they get Dawkins back for this game (and even if they do, how effective would he be?). This passing game is much scarier and healthier than Pittsburgh’s was. Denver’s pass rush can carry them through a game, but Brady rarely gets sacked and Dumervil and Miller were barely factors for much of the game Sunday against Pittsburgh. Both could be running out of gas.

3. New England’s pass rush hasn’t missed a beat without Andre Carter. The rush actually played a significant role in New England’s Week 15 victory over Denver, sacking Tebow four times and forcing him to fumble twice. Many figured they’d take a hit when Carter went down for the season in December, but they’ve averaged 4.3 sacks per game without Carter after averaging just 2.1 sacks per game with him.

4. Tebow might not be able to shock the New England defense. The cat is out of the bag — he can throw passes like a real NFL quarterback. After what they saw last weekend, don’t expect the Patriots to make the same mistake Pittsburgh did by loading the box and daring Tebow to throw against single coverage. The Patriots actually applied the right strategy back in Week 15, which isn’t surprising because I think Belichick respects Tebow’s arm (and McDaniels certainly does). Yes, Kyle Arrington is an easier target for Demaryius Thomas than Ike Taylor was, and the Broncos are going from the best pass defense in football to the second worst, but that might only mean that Belichick doesn’t get trapped like Dick LeBeau seemed to. He’ll give his secondary a lot of support.

5. But that could help Denver’s running game. Obviously fewer men in the box benefits the league’s top-ranked rush offense from the regular season, so the Broncos will likely have to repeat what they did in the first half quarter of the Week 15 matchup by running wild. I have no doubt they can do that, but the presence of Spikes and the adjustments Belichick has surely made will make that more difficult.

6. Would you believe that New England’s defense actually gave up three fewer points per game than the Broncos defense? We’ve heard all year about how Denver’s defense carried a lackluster offense, but they still surrendered 24.4 points per game, a number exactly three points north of the Patriots’ average of 21.4. That’s because the Pats have been extremely good in the red zone. And that could be a game-changer on Saturday.

7. The Broncos might not have an answer for New England’s tight ends. Denver will have to pick its poison with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Last time out, they picked Hernandez, who caught nine passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. Without Dawkins, they surrendered 182 total yards on 13 catches to that dynamic duo.

8. But the Patriots are very slow starters. And suddenly, Tebow has found a way to succeed in all four quarters. That’s dangerous for the Pats, who were somehow outscored 87-82 in the first quarter this season. Considering that they outscored their opponents by 176 points in the other three quarters (an average of a touchdown per quarter), that’s pretty amazing. The problem has been especially bad of late, as the Pats have been outscored 37-7 in their last three first quarters. They can’t expect Denver to turn it over three times in the second quarter Saturday, so a slow start could be a death knell for the Patriots this time around.

9. And home-field advantage might not be a massive factor. I know the Patriots went 7-1 at Gillette Stadium this year and that the one loss was their first in the regular season since like 1993, but they have back-to-back home losses in the playoffs and have lost three straight playoff games overall. Plus, Denver’s actually been better away than at home in the Tebow era, winning in San Diego, Kansas City and Oakland and going 5-1 overall outside of Colorado.

10. Despite the numbers, the Broncos might be the hotter team. New England has won eight straight, but how much of its momentum was killed by the first-round bye? It’s tough to tell, but it’s interesting that they had also won eight straight headed into their first playoff game last year, and they fell at home to the Jets after having a bye. The Pats have been hotter on paper, but Denver has all the momentum.

11. Both teams are still mysterious. In that neither have had a lot of litmus tests. They were a combined 1-6 this season against teams that finished with winning records, and that only win came when the Broncos beat the 9-7 Bengals with Kyle Orton at quarterback way back in Week 2. Considering that, I’m not willing to take New England to win in blowout fashion.

12. And then there’s the #TebowTime factor. It’s an intangible that for me is worth at least a few points in trying to predict the final score.

In conclusion, the 13.5-point spread seems ridiculously high considering the circumstances. I still think the Broncos have a very tough time stopping New England’s weapons, but this is a one-score game in my opinion.

GLS prediction: Patriots 34, Broncos 26

(Last week’s record: 3-1 straight up; 2-1-1 against the spread)

GLS Preview & Prediction: Saints-49ers

Remember when these teams were mired in mediocrity together in the NFC? For six years between 2003 and 2008, the Saints and 49ers combined for a total of one winning season out of 12. But then of course New Orleans got good and became a juggernaut and now the Niners have finally caught up. This might be the game of the weekend, which pretty much means it’ll be downhill after about 4:30 p.m. PT on Saturday.

The top storylines:

1. Unstoppable force vs. immovable object: New Orleans has the league’s second-ranked scoring offense, while San Fran has the league’s second-ranked scoring defense. The Saints have scored at least 42 points in four straight games while the Niners have held their last three opponents at Candlestick to a grand total of 10 points.

2. Alex Smith makes his playoff debut. The top pick of the 2005 draft is finally paying off!

3. Drew Brees looks for his first road playoff victory. In fact, despite their recent success, the Saints have never won a playoff game outside of New Orleans (unless you count Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, which was obviously a neutral site).

The last time they met…

  • The Saints won 25-22 in San Francisco in September of 2010, but that’s largely irrelevant considering how much both teams have changed since then.
  • That said, it’s at least a tad interesting that the then-inferior Niners amassed 130 more yards and seven more first downs than the Saints. They were also more efficient on third down and didn’t give up any sacks while recording two. San Fran completely outplayed New Orleans, losing by three points because of one major problem: turnovers. The 49ers had four of ‘em, while the Saints had zero. This year, the Niners had the best turnover ratio in the league (plus-28) while the Saints were minus-3.

Injuries to watch:

  • The Saints might not have safety Roman Harper at full strength, as he’s been missing practice time with a surprise ankle injury. That could loom large for the New Orleans defense. Jury’s still out on Lance Moore (hamstring) after he missed Saturday’s game against the Lions.
  • The 49ers are getting healthier as Patrick Willis continues to get better. He’ll be unlimited Saturday. Ray McDonald (hamstring) should also be back for the Niners, who were only missing one player — receiver Delanie Walker — at their Wednesday practice.

And here are seven factors that have me picking the Niners, along with a few that have my thinking it’ll be a very close game:

1. The Saints aren’t the same on the road and outdoors. You’ve probably heard this one a few times already, and we established earlier this week that it’s probably been exaggerated a bit, but Brees and the Saints clearly take a step backward on grass and under the skies. Most pass-heavy teams do. But two of the Saints’ three losses this season came under those circumstances, and in five games outdoors they only managed to outscore their opponents by an average of one point per game (compared to 23 points per game at home). Brees has never won a playoff game on the road, nor have the Saints in their franchise history.

2. San Fran might have the personnel to stop the Saints’ top offensive threats. Or at least contain them as best a team can. See, this Saints team is different from prior versions because it’s not about the wide receivers, but instead about a tight end (Jimmy Graham) and a pass-catching tailback (Darren Sproles). But if there’s a front seven in the league that is able to cover that duo, it’s San Francisco’s, which has two All-Pro inside linebackers in Willis and NaVorro Bowman. That could force Brees outside more than he’d like, which could be tougher, especially with Moore hurt.

3. And as slippery as Pierre Thomas was against Detroit, he might not be as effective against the league’s top-ranked run defense. San Fran shut down dudes like LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice and LeGarrette Blount during the regular season, so that D shouldn’t have too many problems with Sproles, Thomas and the New Orleans running game.

4. Consider the turnover factor: Brees only had the one fumble against the Lions, but he also had a pair of would-be interceptions that were completely dropped by Detroit defenders. But he won’t be able to get away with that in San Fran. The Niners led the entire league with 38 defensive takeaways this season, and New Orleans committed 12 of its 19 turnovers on the road. On the other side of the ball, the Saints had the second-fewest takeaways in football, while the 49ers were quite safe and smart offensively.

5. The Harper injury could play a role. If the 49ers can get an early lead, Frank Gore (who may have benefited greatly from two weeks off) and Kendall Hunter could do some serious damage to a run defense that surrendered 5.0 yards per carry during the regular season and may not have a healthy Harper running things from the secondary.

6. San Francisco might have fixed its red-zone problems. That was their Achilles heel for much of the season, but they’ve managed to score touchdowns on six of their last eight red-zone possessions, and that spans games against the Steelers and Seahawks (both solid defenses). I don’t imagine that’ll be a huge factor Saturday.

7. If the Lions bothered Brees in the Superdome, and with Ndamukong Suh struggling, I fear for Brees in San Fran. San Francisco has 42 sacks during the regular season, which is only one more than Detroit, but rookie Aldon Smith has really come on in recent weeks and the Niners have 16 sacks in their last five games. Brees hardly ever gets sacked, but one of the league’s hottest pass rushes should be a factor.

8. I’m exercising caution, mainly because the Niners haven’t faced a quarterback like Brees all year. So this could be a whole new ballgame for them. Sean Tomlinson elaborated on that factor earlier this week. It should also be noted that on a very primitive level, this battle presents a matchup disadvantage for the Niners, who make their money stopping the run. The Saints, of course, don’t rely on the run very much at all.

9. And because the Saints have the big-play advantage. They gave up a league-high 14 passes of 40 yards or more during the regular season, but I’m not sure that San Fran’s conservative offense can exploit that (they had only six). And we all know what that New Orleans offense can do on any given play.

10. Finally, the Saints are simply red hot. They’re the hottest team in football, and peaking teams scare the hell out of me. I just can’t see them going down without a fight, which is why this is probably a three-point game decided on the last possession.

In conclusion, I still don’t quite get how a 7-1 home team is a 3.5-point underdog against a 5-3 road team, especially considering that the 49ers’ guarded offense actually averaged more points at home than the Saints averaged on the road. This is a steal in Vegas. Under these circumstances, San Francisco is simply a better team.

GLS prediction: 49ers 26, Saints 24

(Last week’s record: 3-1 straight up; 2-1-1 against the spread)