NFL Picks The Divisional Round


NFL Picks The Divisional Round

By Rich Levine

Its rivalry week in the AFC, so before we get to the picks, lets ask a relatively unimportant question:

Which rivalry is better?

Answer: It depends on what youre into.

If you have a fetish for big talk, blowouts, insult slinging and, uh, smellin feet, then PatsJets is the rivalry for you.

If youre into close games, competitive football and hatred that extends beyond press conference podiums and locker room Q&As?

Well, consider this:

Five of the last eight games in the RavensSteelers rivalry (including the last four) have been decided by a field goal, another was decided by four points, and the other two by single digits.

In all, the last eight games between the Steelers and Ravens have been decided by a total of 34 points. 34 POINTS! Thats eight less than the differential in the last PatsJets game alone.

Conversely, the last eight meetings between the Pats and Jets have been decided by 126 points. Only one game has been decided by three points, only three have been decided by single digits. If were being honest, theres really only been one good game in this recent rivalry, and the fact that Matt Cassel and Brett Favre were the two quarterbacks that day sort of kills the significance.

If theres one argument FOR the PatsJets, its that the two teams have split the last eight games, while the Steelers have won five of eight from Baltimore. So maybe in that sense, PatsJets has been slightly more balanced. But thats about it. In the grand scheme of things, this isnt even much of a conversation. Comparing PatsJets to SteelersRavens is like comparing the Jay-ZMC Hammer beef to TupacBiggie.

So why did I bring it up?

Well, I needed an intro. But even more, because these aforementioned numbers the almost unbelievably neck-and-neck nature of the RavensSteelers and the bogus blowouts of the PatsJets provide some solid direction on what to expect this week, and how to wager our fake money.

And dont even get me started on the vaunted BearsSeahawks rivalry; thats a whole column by itself. But theres no time for that now. Weve got fake money to win. 3-1 so far this postseason, and there's no looking back.

The Game: New York Jets at New England Patriots (-9)
Even before I knew who New Englands first playoff opponent would be, my main concern was the layoff. You know, considering the youth and inexperience in that locker room, and the fact that, believe it or not, these guys are actually human, its only natural to worry that the Pats could lose a little edge, or at least some momentum during the bye week. How could they not? How can you compare the intensity the Jets maintained through a week of preparing to play (and then playing) a postseason game, with the fact that Tom Brady spent his weekend on Broadway?

Thats not a criticism of Tom, either. What was he supposed to do? Throw on a helmet, some pads and fire couch pillows at Gisele all night? Its just the way it is. You earn the right to stay at home and rest your body, but you deal with the risk of resting your mind. Obviously, the positives far outweigh the negatives here, but if there was something to worry about in the second round, I thought that was the best bet.

So, what happens next?

On Saturday night, the tears hadnt even dried on Peyton Mannings face and the Jets were already talking. LT was whining, Braylon was tweeting, and before New England had even finished Mondays practice, Rex and the boys were at full speed on their anti-Pats onslaught.

Now when it comes to this Sunday, I dont think the Jets talk will have much of a direct effect. Its not like Bradys going to gather the team before kickoff and scream: Play your heart out today, boys! And never forget . . . he called me an A-Hole!!"

But I do think the Jets immediate and unsolicited attack on the Pats may have neutralized one of the few advantages they had. I think it erased any chance that these Pats would suffer from having even one day of practice that fell below their Super Bowl standards. The Jets expedited the bye week recovery.

So theres one clue on who Im taking.

The second is this Wall Street Journal post titled: Blowouts Usually Repeat Themselves. In the story, Michael David Smith looked into the effect last months 45-3 Pats win might have on Sundays game, and found five other times in NFL history where two teams met in the playoffs after a similar regular-season blowout.

He writes: The five teams that beat an eventual playoff opponent by 35 points or more in the regular season went on to win again by double digits in the postseason. The 42 points by which the Patriots beat the Jets on Dec. 6 is the third-widest margin in history for teams that would then meet in the playoffs.

When you think about it, it makes sense. When you think about just how much dominance must go into a blowout of those proportions, you can understand how that dominance might carry over into a playoff rematch.

And when you consider that the Patriots blowout only happened five weeks ago, its hard to imagine how this time will be different.

And really, how IS it any different? If you take away all the BS Rexs guarantees, Cromarties swearing, etc. why should we expect it to be different?

Darrelle Revis is healthier; Ill give the Jets that. Hes obviously a game-changing talent. But heres my question:

How do you shut down a teams No. 1 receiver when they dont have a No. 1 receiver?

Even if Revis does go out there and takes away Welker or Branch (although I wouldnt be surprised to see him jump around), whos stopping all the other guys? Whos checking the tight ends?

The Pats can survive the loss of one guy now. So Revis isnt quite as big of a deal. Still a great player, but its not the same story.

But otherwise, it is. The same as December 6, and Im expecting a similar outcome. OK, maybe not 45-3, but still convincing.

Is there a chance the Jets pull this out? That they get to Brady early, that maybe the Law Firm finally fumbles or Shayne Graham misses a big kick or Kyle Arrington gets burned a few times and the Jets score the upset? Sure, theres always a chance.

But if you can only put your fake money on one of these teams, youre placing it right into the ice cold, callused hands of Bill Belichick. Hes still the much better coach, with the much better team. And if the Jets had even a slight semblance of a mental edge they blew it by being the Jets.

The Pick: Patriots (-9)The Game: Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (-3)
In Week 2, after upsetting the Jets a week earlier on Monday Night Football, the Ravens went to Cincinnati and dropped an ugly 15-10 decision to the Bengals. Ravens vs. Steelers

That was on September 19.

Since then, over the course of the next 15 weeks and into the playoffs, the Ravens have lost three games.

October 17: At New England, the Super Bowl favorites, in overtime.

November 11: At Atlanta, the top seed in the NFC, on a last-second Roddy White touchdown that was only good after a blatant (but unflagged) offensive interference.

December 5: At home, 13-10, to the No. 2 seed Steelers. Baltimore was up 10-6, with the ball, at the four-minute mark.

My obvious point: This is an unbelievably good football team.

And they have been all year. In fact, considering that the Pats didnt really get started until Week 4, you could argue that the Ravens have had the most complete season in the AFC. Or if not complete, then certainly the most consistent.

They were just steadily dominant. They never got too high, and certainly never got too low. Unlike so many other teams still left in the playoffs, there was never a week when you had to watch a series of Whats wrong with the Ravens? packages on SportsCenter.

At any point in the season, you could have taken a poll of Patriots fans and asked:

Which team, other than the Pats, is most likely to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl?

And a majority would have said the Ravens, no matter when they were talking. From the very beginning, they were the team with the fewest weaknesses. They were the team that you watched and thought, Crap, I would not want to see those guys in the playoffs.

And right now, I think theyve played in Pittsburgh so many times, and are so accustomed to the Armageddon atmosphere of this rivalry, the Heinz Field wont be as much of a factor.

Either way, we know its going to be close. These guys dont know how to do it any differently. And call it a hunch, but I think the Ravens are the last one standing it what will obviously be an absolute battle.

Last week, I ended my BaltimoreKansas City pick with this poorly constructed sentence:

When it comes down to it, the Ravens just seem destined for Foxboro, and I dont see the Chiefs getting in the way.

The same rings true here. The Ravens always felt like the eventual team to beat, and the Steelers wont get in the way.

The Pick: Ravens (3)

The Game: Green Bay at Atlanta (-2.5)
The one Atlanta game that keeps popping into my head is that Week 16 loss to the Saints. At the time, the Falcons still had a lot on the line; with a win, they would have clinched the NFC South, as well as home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Not to mention it would have put the rival Saints in a precarious playoff position. The crowd at the Georgia Dome was insane. They werent supposed to lose games at home. This was their chance to not only ensure home-field, but also solidify themselves as a legitimate powerhouse; a team that youd have no qualms about trusting in the playoffs.

And they came up short.

Prediction machine: Packers vs. Falcons

Of course, the Falcons ended up wrapping up the division and everything else the following week against the rough-and-tough Carolina Panthers, but there was more to be to be gained by taking care of business the week before. It was after that loss against New Orleans when I thought, Hmm, maybe theyre not quite ready for prime time. (Copy and save that somewhere for when the Falcons win the Super Bowl.) And I still cant shake that feeling.

You could argue that if Im going to reference a game from the Falcons season, it should be Week 12, when the Green Bay Packers came to Atlanta and went home with a 20-17 loss. Youd think that might have more significance than a game that was played after Atlanta already clinched a playoff spot. But that Packers game was back in November. Things were different then. Green Bay was still messing around with Brandon Jackson at running back and the defense was still finding a rhythm after a slew of early season injuries. Now the Packers are fresh off a big road win in Philly, the defense is in tune, Aaron Rodgers has the swagger of a guy who just threw the playoff monkey off his back, while Matt Ryan still has to coping.

And maybe some of that rust that you (OK, I) worried about with the Pats comes to haunt a Falcons team with a bunch of key guys still looking for that first playoff victory? Maybe they really aren't ready? Or they are. Either way, if the Falcons fail, Im blaming it on Week 16.

The Pick: Packers (2.5)The Game: Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears (-10.5)
Im feeling flip floppy on this one.

First of all, the Seahawks are, or were supposed to be, the worst playoff team in NFL history. But, then again, I dont remember seeing many No. 2 seeds as mediocre as the 2010 Bears.

Prediction machine: Seahawks vs. Bears

Second, theres Seattles reputation as an awful road team, backed up by the fact that they went 2-6 this season away from Qwest Field. But then you look and see that one of those two roads wins came at Soldier Field.

Youve got the concern that the Seahawks might fall into the just happy to be here mentality. But I think thats an overrated excuse, especially in the NFL. And either way, look at their coach! Pete Carroll is always just happy to be here. He probably has the saying embroidered on his office doormat, next to a picture of a coach hugging one of his players. His attitudes not going to change. Plus, despite the record, and now that theyve reached this level, the Seahawks do have a solid base of veteran leaders guys like Hasselbeck and Lawyer Milloy who are pretty much getting their final shot at glory here, and will be sure to keep the rest on point.

Youve got the lingering fear that if the Seahawks can somehow win this game, and the Packers beat the Falcons, then your 7-9 Seattle Seahawks will host the NFC Championship. And theres something so very wrong, even dirty, about that. But, on the other hand, why not? Its not like the Bears are so fantastic. They lost at home to the Seahawks this season! Talk about awful!?

Why not Seattle? Man, they already lost the Sonics. The Mariners have two 100-loss seasons in the last three years. Maybe the city deserves it?

For me, this game (like most) comes down to turnovers. Can Matt Hasselbeck keep the ball away from the Bears D? Can Seattle somehow set off the self-destruct button on the back of Jay Cutlers helmet? Either guy has the potential to single-handedly sway the decision here. Honestly, I think it could go either way.

And the bottom line is that when youre flip-flopping on an NFL playoff game and have the luxury of getting 10.5 points in one direction, you take it.

But it sure does feel weird.

The Pick: Seahawks (10.5)
See you next week!

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on Rich can be reached at Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Pastrnak on B's loss: "We kind of stopped playing"


Pastrnak on B's loss: "We kind of stopped playing"

BOSTON – At the end of the day, it was simply a game where the Bruins allowed themselves to get outworked in the third period and overtime. 

The B’s held a three-goal lead in the second period and still enjoyed a two-goal lead in the third period, but eventually dropped a frustrating, futile 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres at TD Garden on Saturday night. It was clear to most speaking after the game that the Bruins eased up on the gas pedal once they’d scored their fourth goal of the game in the second period, and simply watched as the Sabres stomped all over them in the game’s second half. 

“I think we might have been a little bit too scared to play [in the third period], you know? We tried to just flip the pucks away, and didn’t make any plays trying to get it in the zone. Instead we should have just kept going like we did in the first two periods,” said David Pastrnak, who scored a pair of goals early in the loss to allow the Bruins to build up the three-goal lead. “Obviously we’re disappointed. We got one point. I think we didn’t play our game in the third period. We kind of stopped playing and they were all over us, and you know, it’s on us. We were the ones that gave them their point, but the first two periods were good. It’s just another learning session.”

To Pastrnak’s point, the Bruins were outshot by a 15-6 margin in the final 20 minutes of regulation and 21-6 overall in the third period and overtime prior to Ryan O’Reilly’s game-winner during 3-on-3 play. It was at this point the Bruins certainly missed stalwart stay-at-home defensemen Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller in the D-zone, and fell short of qualified penalty killers while trying to burn off a Brandon Carlo interference call at the end of the third period. 

All of that caught up to them once the Bruins loosened their grip on the Sabres, but certainly the feeling is that the loss should’ve been avoidable even if some of the circumstances made it difficult for the Black and Gold. It also should have been avoidable against a Sabres hockey club that was dreadful last season, and is again one of the doormats in the Atlantic Division in the early going thus far. 

“Those are the games you can’t lose. We obviously didn’t do the job there in the third and close it out, but we’re going to have to regroup and work on our game and be better for the next one,” said Brad Marchand. “We didn’t play the game we needed to play. We relaxed a bit and we started losing a few battles in the wrong areas, and you know, they just played better than we did.”

It’s mystifying that any team would need a crash-and-born loss like Saturday night in order to learn any lessons moving forward, and it certainly might have been a different story for the Bruins if they weren’t missing a few big defensive pieces. But that’s not how it went down for the Black and Gold as they sagged under rising pressure from the Sabres, and simply stopped working when the chips were on the table late in Saturday night’s game. 

Astros beat Yankees in Game 7 to advance to World Series, 4-0


Astros beat Yankees in Game 7 to advance to World Series, 4-0

HOUSTON - Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers combined on a three-hitter, Jose Altuve and Evan Gattis homered and the Houston Astros reached the World Series, blanking the New York Yankees 4-0 Saturday night in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.

Just four years removed from their third straight 100-loss season in 2013, the Astros shut down the Yankees for two straight games after dropping three in a row in the Bronx.

Next up for the Astros: Game 1 of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night. Houston aces Dallas Keuchel and ALCS MVP Justin Verlander will have plenty of rest, too, before the matchup begins at Dodger Stadium.

Houston has never won even a single World Series game. The only previous time the Astros made it this far, they were a National League team when they were swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005.

Now, manager A.J. Hinch's club has a chance to win that elusive first title, while trying to boost a region still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

Houston improved to 6-0 at Minute Maid Park in these playoffs and became the fifth team in major league history to win a seven-game postseason series by winning all four of its home games.

Morton bounced back from a loss in Game 3 to allow two hits over five scoreless innings. Starter-turned-postseason reliever McCullers limited the Yankees to just one hit while fanning six over the next four.

Combined, they throttled the Yankees one last time in Houston. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and their New York teammates totaled just three runs in the four road games.

CC Sabathia entered the game 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts this season after a Yankees loss. But he struggled with command and was gone with one out in the fourth inning.

Houston was up 2-0 in fifth when former Yankees star Brian McCann came through for the second straight game by hitting a two-run double after snapping an 0-for-20 skid with an ground-rule RBI double to give Houston its first run on Friday night.

The Yankees, trying to reach the World Series for the first time since 2009, lost an elimination game for the first time this season after winning their first four in these playoffs. New York struggled on the road this postseason, with this loss dropping the team to 1-6.