Hit & Run (Divisional Game Picks)

I didn’t think last week’s picks were extraordinarily difficult to make, so going 4-0 wasn’t surprising. My biggest mistake was (a) rewriting the Detroit-Dallas preview after the NFL decided to let Ndumakong Shoe play and then (b) not removing the sentence saying he wouldn’t play.

My attitude toward the two controversial calls (or, rather, non-calls) were:

1. Referee Pete Morelli always calls fewer penalties– look at the data. He always calls fewer penalties on the home team, as well.He called the sort of game he usually does.

You put Jerome Boger on the game, he’s going to call both penalties– and about six more that he— but no one else– sees. few more he invents.

The NFL has these variances between crews, and I don’t know why they permit it. But Morelli called the game the way be always does.

2. On the non-call for pass interference, here’s how that transpired. Let’s start with this diagram of the officials

300px-American_football_officials_positions.svgWhat happened, courtesy of retired chief of officials Mike Pereira:

  • the back judge ( the circle with the B; his name is Lee Dyer) made the interference call. As the diagram shows. he lines up deep, so he was in front of the play, looking from behind the receiver (Brandon Pettigrew). That isn’t a great angle to see how much contact there was in front.
  • The head linesman (the H circle; Jerry Bergman), who was behind the play (look at the diagram), was the one who insisted that there was no interference. He was too far away to judge

So you have two guys– neither in a good position to judge– disagreeing. You have a referee whose well-established tendency is not to make the call. Whaddya think was gonna happen?

3. Another reason this happened is that NFL playoffs do not use existing crews. They don’t use the seven guys who have worked together all season, learning how to cover for each other– and learning which guy’s opinion should be trusted in the event of a dispute.

Plus, you had the worst possible combination. Dyer, who thought it was a penalty, normally works with Terry McAulay. McAulay is, with Boger and Ed Huchului, one of the three worst referees in the NFL, by my take. McAulay is the king of the “Borderline call followed by the make-good.” Time and again, his crews call things the cast of CSI couldn’t detect. Then they appear to regret his decision and call something equally ridiculous to compensate a few plays later.

Bergman, who waved it off, works for Boger. That’s the crew that worked the Carolina game– where Billy Winn (a) made an interception, (b) fell to the ground, (c) wasn’t touched by anyone (d) held it long enough to make sure everyone could see it was an interception and then (e) handed the ball to a teammate who ran it in.

The whistle didn’t blow, nobody stopped him…  but Boger ruled that the play had ended, because Winn had given himself up.

So, to reiterate:

  • Guy from the “phantom call” crew– who didn’t see the play well–  makes the call
  • Guy from the “it’s not a call” crew– who also didn’t see it well– says it isn’t
  • Guy who tends not to make calls goes with the “no call.”

4. The problem is that neither guy had a good look at the play. It’s in one of the blind spots on the field.

I don’t know why the NFL doesn’t put additional officials in the playoffs– on either sideline, between the head linesman and line judge (who are on the line) and the field judge and back judge (who are deep). Baseball does it in the playoffs– they have extra guys in spots where they usually aren’t needed, just in case.

But the NFL won’t.

5. Forgive me if I don’t weep about the play. Detroit was leading 20-17 with 8:25 left in the game when it happened. After that point (you can follow along on the play-by-play):

  • Detroit punter Sam Martin shanked a kick for 10 yards.
  • Dallas scored the go-ahead touchdown on an 11-play, 59-yard drive that took up 5:38.
  • Detroit got the ball back with 2:32 left on their 20– and let Matthew Stafford get sacked. Stafford fumbled the ball– and only a fumble by the Dallas player who recovered it gave Detroit the ball back.
  • With exactly a minute left and the ball on the 42, Stafford got sacked again, fumbled again, and this time Dallas hung onto the ball.

Seems like the Detroit offense, defense and kicking teams all had a chance to make some plays. They didn’t.

6. There was a terrible non-call in the game. It happened during Dallas’s go-ahed drive– on the 4th & 6 play where QB Tony Romo hit TE Jason Whitten for 21 yards.

On that play, Ndumakong Shoe was held pretty blatantly– and the NFL acknowledged it.

I thought it was a good non-call– because Shoe shouldn’t have been on the field. He deliberately attempted to injure Green Bay’s QB Aaron Rodgers during the last game, stepping not once, but twice on his calf.

It’s not the first time Shoe had stepped on a played who has been down on the field– hence the nickname– and it’s not the first time Shoe has been fined for it.

Reducing the suspension to a fine on appeal was ridiculous. The rationale boils down to “It would be mean to keep a thug from playing in the playoffs, just because he deliberately tried to hurt the best player on a team that he might face in the playoffs.”

Had it been anyone else, maybe you could make the argument. But this was Ndumakong Shoe– who has consistently done this. It’s not an accident, he isn’t sorry he did it, and you can’t fine the guy enough to have it mean anything.

I don’t believe in not making calls to even things up, but I’m definitely not sorry for Detroit. Shoe shouldn’t have been playing, and had he not, the Lions probably would have lost.

Well, that took longer than I’d hoped. Thankfully most of the predictions will be shorter.

Baltimore at New England: There is literally no reason to believe that the Ravens can win. I go through the following set of looks when I’m picking a game:

1. Who’s got the better record? New England has 12 wins, Baltimore 10.

2. Is there any reason I shouldn’t trust the record? Meaning “strength of schedule” or “record in close games.” No on both counts:

  • New England played the AFC West and NFC Central. The Pro Football Reference Strength of Schedule system claims they played the eighth-toughest schedule (+1.3 points per game). Baltimore, which got a cakewalk though the AFC and NFC South– played the second-easiest schedule (-2.1 points).
  • New England played only four close games and went 3-1– a game over the .500 expectation a team should have. Baltimore went 2-5; a game under expectations.

3. Where do they rank on points scored and allowed? New England is fourth (29.2 per game) in points scored and eighth in points allowed (19.6). That’s a margin of victory of 9.6 a game… factoring in the strength of schedule; 10.9 points.

Baltimore is eighth (scoring 25.6) in offense and sixth (allowing 18.9) in defense. Average margin of 6.7, which drops to 4.6 when you factor in the easy schedule.

4. How are they on head to head and common opponents? They didn’t play; facing four teams, New England went 4-1, while Baltimore went 2-3:

  • Cincinnati: New England beat them 43-17; Baltimore lost twice (27-24 and 23-16)
  • Indianapolis: New England won 43-20; Baltimore lost 20-13.
  • Miami: New England split (won 41-13 and lost 33-20); Baltimore won 28-13.
  • San Diego: New England won 23-14, Baltimore lost 34-33. won

You can tweak that– throw out the extra game against the divisional opponent, based on where the other team played them. This takes out New England’s home win against Miami and Baltimore’s road loss to Cincinnati, making it 3-1 for New England and 2-2 for Baltimore.

Because rosters can change so much during one off-season, I don’t pay any attention to prior-year meetings. Just so you know.

5. Are there any injuries, or in-year events that make the results misleading? Meaning, did some development affect things in a way the overall doesn’t show? Some examples would be, say, “The Beavers’ quarterback missed 6 games with a high-ankle sprain and Cleveland went 1-5 in them, averaging only 11 points a game– but he’s healthy now.”Clearly the overall stats need to be adjusted to reflect that.

Another example would be “Detroit was 6-5 when they fired Offensive Coordinator Bill Clinton– but when they dumped the triangle offense, the Squirrels went 4-1.”

Team names courtesy of my wife, who thinks the Browns don’t deserve to be the Browns and the thing on the Detroit helmet looks more like a squirrel than a Lion.

You could call the Ray Rice suspension– and then expulsion– an x-factor, except that Baltimore went 1-1 (the loss to Cincinnati, who beat them twice) during the two games he was suspended and 3-1 (the loss was to Indianapolis) in the four games after the elevator footage got leaked and Baltimore realized they’d have to cut him.

I don’t see it as a factor. The record doesn’t show it hurt them any; since Rice gained only 660 yards (3.1 a carry) last year and RB Justin Forsett gained 1,266 yards (5.4 per carry), it probably helped them.

They lost DT Haloti Ngata for four games with a suspension for performance-enhancers… but they went 3-1, allowing 13, 12, 25 and 10 points. The loss was to Houston (25-13), where the problem was the offense underperforming.

There is a factor, but it’s not something that can be adjusted. Baltimroe has two starting CBs (Jimmy Smith and Asa Jackson) on IR. But they haven’t fixed the problem, other than blitzing a lot more with DE-LB Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil..

New England, actually does have a factor. RB Stevan Ridley (340 yards) is on injured reserve and RB Jonas Gray (412 yards) jacked up his ankle a few weeks ago.

Shane Vereen (391 carries) is still there and they grabbed LeGarrette Blount after he had a Ben Tate moment and Pittsburgh cut him. Blount has 247 yards and a 4.7 average in 5 games.

And that decision might have cost Pittsburgh last week’s game, since the Steelers gained 68 yards on 19 rushes (with Ben Roethlisberger getting 16 yards on two carries).

Also, after New England locked up the #1 seed, they let a lot of their scubs play the last game. They lost 17-9 to Buffalo; rookie QB Jimmy Garoppolo played the second half.

And of course that’s fair to the “teams in contention for a playoff” or the Browns (who owned Buffalo’s #1 pick and dropped back a few spots in the draft order). Why should Bill Belichick risk letting someone get hurt?

If the game meant something to other teams, they should have played better. Cleveland had a chance to keep Buffalo from going 9-7, but they lost.

Prediction: There isn’t any good reason to think Baltimore will win. I can construct a rationale for it:

  • Baltimore’s defense (which is third in the NFL in rushing average allowed with 3.6) shuts down the anemic (22nd in rushing average with 3.7) New England running game.
  • Baltimore’s front seven (second in sacks with 49; seventh in sack percentage)  somehow overwhelms the New England line (which has allowed only 26 sacks; good for fourth; third in sack percentage).
  • Forsett and Pro Bowl G Marshall Yanda have a field day with the New England defense (though it’s ranked ninth in rushing average).
  • Griitty, gutty QB Joe Flacco— hero of their Super Bowl drive– slices and dices the New England pass defense… which is 10th in passer rating allowed (84.0), has a 24-16 TD-INT ratio and is 13th in sacks and sack percentage.

Hence New England can’t score and Baltimore gets just enough points to win.

The problem is that Baltimore would have been out of the playoffs if the Steelers had had the services of LeVeon Bell. Playing without the guy who produced 33% of their yardage, Pittsburgh still managed to put up 17 points and keep the game within a touchdown (13-9, actually) until 4:21 of the third quarter.

There’s no reason to think that the crippled secondary will be able to stop QB Tom Brady. The Patriots don’t have a weak line and shouldn’t be overwhelmed. Brady can throw to either:

  • WR Julian Edelman (92-134 for 972 yards and 4 TDs)
  • TE Rob Gronkowski (82-131 for 1,124 yards and 12 scores)
  • WR Brandon LaFell (74-119 for 953 yards and 7 TDs)
  • Either Vereen (52-447-3) or WR Danny Amendola (only 27-200-1, but 54-44e-2 last year) or TE Tim Wright (26-259-6)

Belichick has the habit of coming up with game plans that feature people that teams don’t expect. It’s why I mentioned the guys in the fourth bullet… you never know who the open guy will be.

I’ll say Patriots 27-14, but it could be a lot higher.

Carolina at Seattle: As was true in the above game, the visiting team, can thank Divine Providence for its presence here.

Last week’s 27-16 win over Arizona might have been the worst playoff game I have seen in years. Arizona QB Ryan Lindley threw for only 82 yards on 28 attempts– and he was sacked four times for 31 yards. He also threw 2 interceptions and fumbled once (recovering it).

Aruzona is a team that should think about someone like Brian Hoyer or Bruce Gradkowski. Carson Palmer is 35 and he got hurt for the third time in four years.  And he was 6-0 in his starts.

Drew Stanton was terrible (78.7 rating; 7-5 TD-INT ratio) and he still managed to go 5-3. Lindley loset both starts– meaning Arizona (which went 11-5) was undefeated when they got competent quarterback play.

With a guy like Hoyer, Ryan Fitzpatrick– anybody who doesn’t suck– that’s very possibly the NFC champion– or at least in the conference championship.

But even though Arizona couldn’t pass (and their running backs, as a result, went 15-27), Arizona still led 14-13 at the half. QB Cam Newton’s throws were all over the place; he went 19-32 for only 198 yards, threw a pick and didn’t get a TD pass until the third quarter… a quarter in which Arizona ran only 7 plays for 2 yards.

Newton won’t get the chance to screw around for the first half in this game. Seattle is ‘only’ 10th in points scored, but much of that is because they work so hard at controlling the ball. They aren’t eager to throw a 60-yard touchdown pass; they’d prefer to travel 60 yards on 12 plays, and chew up six minutes.

This is why WR Percy Harvin, who is very possibly the most overrated player in NFL history, was dispatched. Harvin didn’t care if they were winning— he cared about getting his touches,

With the team 3-2 (one win coming in an overtime game), Harvin was dispatched to Rex Ryan’s “Island of Misfit Offensive Players”, where he got to get his precious touches, but go 2-6.

Seattle is second in rushing attempts and first in rushing yards , rushing average (5.3) and rushing touchdowns (20). When RB Marshawn Lynch (1,306 yards, 4.7 per carry ) isn’t running, QB Russell Wilson is (849 yard, 7.2 per rush).. and they still found time to use RBs Robert Turbin (310 yards, 4.2 average) and Christine Michael (whose parents obviously hated him; 175 yards and 5.1 a carry).

The passing game is kind of an afterthought. WR Doug Baldwin i(66-98 for 825 yards and 3 scores) s a pretty good, and I’m guessing that rookie WR Paul Richardson (29-44 for 271 yards and a score) and TEs Jarmaine Kearse (38-69 for 537 yards and a score) and Luke Wilson (22-40 for 362 yards and 3 TDs)would look better in a lot of systems.

Seattle is 22nd in passing TDs, because they run when they get in close. They don’t look to burn 14 seconds on two passes, when they can run and burn up 1:13.

here’s a fun little statistic for you. Seattle has 20 passing TDs, and 14 of them traveled longer than 10 yards. Of the six TD passes for less than 10 yards, three were 9 yards and a fourth was 7.

Because the offense is so dedicated to controlling the game (they were fifth in time of possession, at 32:00), I think the defense is somewhat overrated. They’re 20th takeaways, 2oth in sacks and sack percentage.

What they are good at is playing the run (second in rushing average allowed) and preventing pass completions (12th in completion percentage allowed). They’re also so quick, that they keep passes in front of them (they’re third in yards per pass, with only 5,.5 yards), meaning they’re fourth in passer rating allowed (80.4).

I think a well disciplined offense can beat them– San Diego, Dallas, Kansas City and St. Louis did. But you have to be close to perfection to do it.

Prediction: After their 3-2 start (the losses were to San Diego and Dallas) they traded Harvin and went 9-2. The two losses were by a combined total of six points.

They won their last six; the closest game was 10 points (either a 24-14 win over Philly or a 17-7 win over San Francisco). Both those games were on the road; when Seattle went up against Ryan Lindley and the Cardinals in game 15– also on the road– they won 35-6.

Since Carolina beat Arozona 27-16 (18 points less), I’d figure that’s a reasonable guess at margin of victory. Seattle 24-6.

Since I managed to hit the point at where WordPress begins to crawl, I’ll post Sunday’s games tonight, so I can include any thoughts on what happens today.


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