No charming tales or self-loathing confessions of failure this week. I’ll save those for the Super Bowl.
Instead, I’m going to take the plunge with three significant but mythical wagers. I’m in a Vegas state of mind today and would bet all four games if I didn’t find the notion of Philly hosting a playoff game so ridiculous that I simply refuse to get involved. So fasten your seat belt and loosen your inhibitions, because I’m putting no actual money but what’s left of my pride on the line.
To be exact, the bankroll stands at $1,061. It’s been a bit better and a lot worse this year.
Buffalo at Houston
Deshaun Watson’s enormous talents tend to obscure the reality that the Texans were a mediocre team this year. In fact, the Texans, despite a solid record and the AFC South Division title, are the only playoff team that scored fewer points than its opponents in 2019.
And, just for the hell of it, you might as well toss an accelerant into the fire: Watson himself, under the direction of the NFL’s most pusillanimous offense, never once threw for more than 300 yards against a winning team.
Maybe the wraps come off when it matters most. Maybe Watson goes back to being the daring gladiator who can defeat the most dangerous opponents with his arms, legs or just plain chutzpah.
It could happen. Perhaps Houston’s No. 1 goal was to make sure that Watson wasn’t cleaved in two by many tons of defensive bounty hunters. Not a bad strategy, given that Watson is still healthy and, probably, holding back all kinds of potential for when it matters most.
Which, in fact, I do not believe. For guidance, I look to the Texans’ final meaningful game of the season, vs. Tampa on Week 16. Tampa, it should be recalled, had one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL all season long, while being among the best at stopping the run. So what did Houston do? They ran up the middle to begin almost every possession. And with the inevitable result. In opening its 12 possessions, the Texans rushed nine times, for a total of 13 yards. Welcome to your 2019-20 Texans. Even knowing they were wasting first down, they ran into the middle of an impenetrable line like lemmings jumping off cliffs to a certain death.
The difference being that the whole lemming thing is a myth. The Houston thing is a reality.
So now the Texans must contend with Buffalo. The Bills are the most notable outlier in a pass-happy league in which good defenses do not typically overcome lousy offenses. In fact, the Bills are the only playoff team that is not among the top 15 in points scored. Only the Patriots have allowed fewer points.
I could go on, but you probably stopped reading when you received your first mid-column text.
So, for those who skipped to the very end of this write-up, I will end by saying that not only did the Bills go under to the tune of 12-4 this season, but that the 44-point over-under line matches the highest total of any Buffalo game this year.
The pick: Bills 17, Texans 16 — Buffalo under 44 for $100
Tennessee at New England
No NFL coach since Vince Lombardi has inspired as much fear and paranoia as Bill Belichick. Mister Bellicose is not only the shrewdest coach of all time, but is probably the most effective cheater ever.There was a time when athletes liked to say, “It’s only cheating if you get caught,” but Belichick gets caught and nothing happens except a little fine that barely exceeds Robert Kraft’s bail bond.
As a matter of fact, I know football freaks who swear that the Patriots purposely tanked in that shocking 27-24 loss to Miami last week — the reasoning being that there is no other explanation for losing as a 17-point favorite.
But there could be other explanations, if they really amount to just contributing factors. One is that even the Patriots might struggle to win without even one viable wide receiver. Such was the case in the final weeks of the campaign, when Julian Edelman had amassed so many horrible injuries that he had lost two steps and any number of ligaments. Edelman put together a 1,000-yard season (just barely), but in the final three games (vs. Miami, Buffalo and Cincinnati) he caught just 10 of 18 targets for a pathetic 107 yards.
Not that Tom Brady wasn’t part of the problem. He had the lowest quarterback rating of his career in 2019, and if he ever scrambled out of the pocket to buy time — as the not-quite-as-old Brady used to do — I didn’t see it.
Brady recently turned 42, an embryonic stage for a Presidential candidate, but a time when even a smug quarterback stops believing he can still be playing when he’s 50. Belichick himself is 67, and it’s possible that he has slipped a little. As general manager, he might have made some deals to put more than one qualified receiver on the field.
Like all successful coaches, Belichick is known for his ability to reduce or eliminate the effectiveness of the opposing team’s best offensive threat. The problem here is that the Titans’ combination of the NFL’s leading rusher, Derrick Henry, and the late-season blossoming of rookie receiver A. J. Brown, are probably the best one-two punch in the league. Both surged as the season went along. Brown became unstoppable after Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback; he caught passes for at least 114 yards in four of the final six games of the regular season after just one previous 100-yard game, in Week One.
Like most NFL fans, I’m more than ready to see Brady and Belichick knocked from their thrones, so I hope I’m not wagering with my heart. I have declared those two to be on the down side before, and have the scars to show for it. But we all need some hope to get through a Minnesota winter and so…
The pick: Titans 24, Patriots 20 — Tennessee plus 5 for $60
Minnesota at New Orleans
Much will be made of the revenge angle after Minnesota’s astonishing victory over the visiting Saints in the 2018 playoffs. (Astonishing only because of the comeback; our boys were favored by five in that game, so for our purposes it was just a push.)
In fact, the last time the Vikings won a road playoff game was in 2004. And this will be a lot tougher than most road games, because the Superdome is a super drag for visitors.
That, however, wouldn’t be my main worry if I were a Vikings fan. I’d be far more concerned by the fact that both Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook may not be of sound mind and body. The Vikings contend that both are basically in the greatest shape ever, but the reality is that the Vikings, and specifically Mike Zimmer, would probably have to be waterboarded to spit out the truth.
Thielen had just one 100-yard performance this year after a combined 16 in the previous three seasons. In those three years, Thielen amassed 3,616 total yards. This year: 418. In short, there is no evidence he is ready to be the danger he posed to opponents in those three seasons.
As for Cook, he had 100-yard games in five of the first seven weeks this season, but averaged just over three yards per carry in four games before sitting out the final two weeks.
At some point, the shoulder injury that sidelined Cook mysteriously morphed into a chest injury. Even in a post-truth era, Zimmer just can’t seem to get his story straight. What we do know is that Cook would have to suddenly be better than ever for the Vikings to win, and there’s no sign that he is.
Perhaps the rest will reinvigorate Cook; some time off certainly helped Drew Brees. After missing five games with an injury, Brees and the Saints averaged more than 36 points in their final seven outings. The line opened at 7, so I’m a bit queasy about laying 8, but quality is always expensive.
The pick: Saints 32, Vikings 20 — New Orleans minus 8 for $100