The top three surprises from a zany divisional round of the NFL playoffs:
1. The Falcons—in a desperate attempt to claim the Playoff Choke Artists of the Year crown for the fourth time in five seasons—blew a 20-point second-half lead at home against Seattle, only to rally for a 30-28 victory at the gun.
2. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick—in just his eighth NFL start, and first in the postseason—finished with 263 passing yards, 181 rushing yards, four total touchdowns and one sparkling-clean uniform in San Francisco’s 45-31 rout of the Packers.
3. Peyton Manning, who helped the Broncos to an 11-game winning streak to close the regular season, tossed a game-deciding, Blaine Gabbert-esque interception in overtime against Baltimore as top-seeded Denver fell, 38-35.
OK, so I’m half-joking about that last one—Manning losing a playoff game was about as shocking as Jodie Foster coming out of her doorless closet. The man who’s always in the “Greatest Quarterback of All Time” conversation is now 9-11 in the playoffs, going one-and-done eight times. Hell, I recorded as many playoff wins last week (two) as Manning has in the last six NFL seasons (since winning the Super Bowl in February 2007, he’s 2-5 in the postseason).
Guess that means I’m now in the “Greatest Handicapper of All Time” conversation, huh? On to this week’s picks (all point spreads are as of January 15) …
$220 on 49ers-Falcons OVER 48½: Speaking of playoff surprises, how about that scoring binge last week? With combined point totals of 58, 69, 73 and 76 points, all four games easily soared “over” the total. This a week after the four wild-card games finished with 32, 33, 34 and 38 points. Here’s a stat for you: If you bet the first half, second half and game “under” the total in the wild-card round and all three categories “over” the total in the divisional round, you would’ve cashed 24 of 26 tickets!
In other words, playing NFL totals this week is a complete crapshoot—especially when you consider the “under” is 3-1 the last two years in conference championship games after the “over” went 7-1 the previous four years. Well, somebody pass me the dice, as I’m calling for a shootout in the Georgia Dome. Here’s why: The Falcons have scored 23 points or more 14 times this season, averaging 28 points per game in those contests. Meanwhile, the 49ers have put up 24 or more in 12 of 17 games (including 27 or more 10 times). And since Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith in Week 10, San Francisco has cleared the total in eight of nine games, including the last five.
$110 on Ravens +9 at Patriots: In six head-to-head clashes since 2007, Baltimore has won twice (33-14 on the road in the 2010 playoffs and 31-30 at home in Week 3 this season), while the Patriots’ four wins were by scores of 27-24, 27-21, 23-20 and 23-20 (that’s a total of 15 points). What’s more, the Ravens outgained New England in five of those six meetings. So why are the Patriots laying nearly double digits? It’s certainly not because they’ve been profitable in the playoffs lately; even with their spread-cover against Houston last week, they’re just 2-8 against the spread in their last 10 postseason games (2-7 ATS at home). Conversely, Baltimore is on a 10-4 ATS playoff run (including 2-0 in New England).
$88 on Falcons +4 vs. 49ers: When this line was posted minutes after Atlanta escaped against the Seahawks, San Francisco was installed as a 3-point road favorite, and I was all-in on the Niners. Then the line immediately jumped to 3½, then 4. I even saw 4½ flash briefly. At this rate, by kickoff, the sportsbooks will be on their knees begging for Falcons money. They won’t have to beg me, though, as I’m backing Atlanta on principle—the Falcons are 14-3 this season and 34-6 at home with Matt Ryan at quarterback (and that includes a meaningless Week 17 loss to the Buccaneers). Note this, too: The last time there was a home underdog greater than 3½ in a conference championship game was January 1977, when the Raiders were 4½-point home dogs against Pittsburgh ... and Oakland won outright. (Atlanta, you’re now free to play the “nobody-believes-in-us” card …)