NFL Divisional Round Normal Column

Over the course of Wild Card Weekend, I failed. I did not fail because my picks did poorly; my playoff pool looks pretty alright, indeed, and while going 0.500 against the spread isn’t exactly a success it’s about as positive an outcome as I could’ve hoped for. Rather, I failed because I defied my own explicit instructions regarding which games were and were not worth watching. In my estimation, only Raiders/Bengals, Patriots/Bills, and 49ers/Cowboys were mandatory viewing. The other three were filler games; a boring distraction at best, an endorsement of the seventh seed’s blighted existence at worst. While I know and understand that the seventh seed is here to stay, whether we like it or not, I still went into last weekend with every intention of skipping Eagles/Bucs and Steelers/Chiefs entirely.

And then, I ended up watching every single game. I didn’t watch all of every single game, mind, but I spent more than zero seconds on the seventh seed games and that means I spent too many seconds on them. In my defense, I only watched the first quarter of Eagles/Bucs, and I only watched that much because what else was I gonna do while I was bottle feeding my infant son? Okay fine, you got me, I also watched the last five minutes or so while I was sitting around waiting for 49ers/Cowboys to start. But that’s it!

Much more damning was my decision to watch the second half – and only the second half – of Steelers/Chiefs in its entirety. At first, skipping the game was going great. I sat down with a tall and frosty one and some Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and I was having a good time. But, having received a text that indicated the game was perhaps frighteningly close (I suspect this was after T.J. Watt’s strip-6, but I cannot be certain), and having checked the score late in the second quarter to see it was tied at 7, I made my way downstairs just in time for the second half kickoff. Somehow, the score had become 21-7, and it only got worse from there.

And yet, possessed with a bad case of playoff FOMO and not sure what else I wanted to be doing at the time (I played a lot of Fire Emblem last week), I sat with the whole rest of the game. Afterwards, I felt nothing, except disgust with the broadcast crew for their pro-Roethlisberger bullshit, and disgust with myself for sticking with the game through its least interesting parts. The next night, I was able to harness this disgust into action as I…finally bailed on Cardinals/Rams halfway through the fourth quarter, despite the game having been over since the second. You may sucker me into watching shitty playoff games, NFL, but you can’t sucker me into staying up past 11 PM Eastern to watch shitty playoff games on uh…consecutive nights. Fuck.

So yes, I am disappointed to return to this space broken by my own hypocrisy and lack of willpower, but the good news is this weekend also reminded me of my inevitable decline into reflexive crankiness, which in turn filled me with existential dread, as I understood I am doomed to watch my cognitive processes spiral further and further into incoherence for as long as I remain cursed to walk this earth! What fun!

This is all because of the end sequence of 49ers/Cowboys, but not for the reason you’re thinking! I think we can all agree that calling a quarterback draw with 14 seconds left and no timeouts, and having given no reminder to said quarterback that the ref has to spot the ball before the ball can be snapped again, is the very height of football as dadaist performance art. Kudos to Mike McCarthy, Kellen Moore, and Dak Prescott for continuing to push out against the boundaries absurdity in sport. All three of you are doing vitally important work.

No, it was not the very end of the game that kickstarted my steep mental decline, rather, it was the punt shortly beforehand. Let me explain. As you know, the 49ers punted from the Cowboys 42-yard line with 38 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Punting on such short yardage inside the opponent’s territory is frowned upon in smarter football circles, and for good reason, especially when your opponent is out of timeouts and you’re ahead by more than a field goal. All you need to do is pick up a yard or two to ice the game entirely, and even if you fail your opponent still has to traverse most of the length of the field in a short amount of time in order to have even a chance of winning. Going for it in this situation is clearly the right choice, even in the abstract. In the specific, going for it is even more clearly the right choice. The 49ers possess a superior run game that is more than capable of picking up a yard or two in these situations.

But the 49ers punted, thus costing themselves 17 percentage points of win probability according to EdjSports win probability model (also, EdjSports social media person, please find some chill, kthx), and also drawing criticism from the internet at large. And yet, despite generally believing in the value of advanced statistical analysis in football decision making, and despite desperately wanting to look like a hip, cool guy to all the cool kids on football Twitter at all times, I…don’t actually hate this punt? I feel like I sort of get why Kyle Shanahan made this decision, and think that even if it was the wrong decision, it was justifiable in the context of the game as a whole? What is happening!?

It feels wrong to even think this, but seriously, the Cowboys spent the whole game shooting themselves in the gonads. They spent the entire second half completely unable to accomplish a single damn thing on offense without being spotted favorable field position, only scoring a touchdown after a disastrous interception from Handsome Jimmy G. Their first half didn’t go much better, if at all, and frankly, I’m not so sure the Cowboys even practiced last week. It sure didn’t look like it. They looked like the exact sort of overconfident and un-self aware idiots who would, just to cite a hypothetical example, run a QB draw with 14 seconds left and no timeouts while down 6 points, then blame the refs for the loss afterwards. The Cowboys had done nothing in the game to suggest they were capable of scoring a touchdown in such sub-ideal conditions, even after benefiting from a touchback. I’m not saying it was right to punt – if you have a chance of icing a win you take it, and the Cowboys offense was still theoretically dangerous – but I understand. I hate myself for understanding, but I understand. Might as well start yelling about how passing is too risky and teams should run the ball more, while I’m at it.

Anyway, enough dwelling on the past! Time for Divisional Round picks. This week, there will be no hand wringing about whether each game is worth your time or not; if you can’t get hype for the Divisional Round, you probably don’t actually like football all that much (which is just fine, and perhaps even admirable and wise).

Playoff Stats Through Wild Card Weekend

Playoff Pool Points Accrued: 29

Playoff Pool Points Missed: 10

Differential: +19

Record Against the Spread: 3-3

All lines pulled from MyBookie at 8:45 AM Eastern Time on Thursday, January 20th, 2022.

My pick for each game, and the relevant spread, is always listed first. Home teams are displayed in bold.

Tennessee Titans (-3.5) vs. Cincinnati Bengals

Congratulations to the Bengals for winning their first playoff game since 1990! While a playoff win is a playoff win, I would not go so far as to call their victory over the Raiders impressive. They settled for field goals far too often and let the Raiders – who had played an overtime game six days prior and were also traveling, mind – hang around until the very last play of the game. I’ve had few nice things to say about the Titans at any point during their period of renewed relevance, but they’re well-rested, playing at home, and the better team in the first place.

San Francisco 49ers (+6.5) vs. Green Bay Packers

I put my 14-point maximum on the Packers in the playoff pool, in no small part because the way I saw it, none of their potential Divisional Round opponents posed a serious threat to them. Here I must again confess that not taking the 49ers seriously was a key component of this reasoning; I knew it was possible that they would advance, but I didn’t actually expect them to. Thus, the Packers now find themselves facing their biggest potential threat out of all their possible second round opponents. The 49ers could make things interesting if they manage to run the ball effectively and control time of possession (and my God, I think I aged 20 years just thinking that and another 20 typing it out), but their dicey secondary means that all the ball control in the world might not be enough. In other words, I anticipate the 9ers will be able to slow Rodgers down, but I don’t think they can stop him. That said, it took last-second Rodgers heroics for the Packers to beat the 49ers in Week 3, and while that wasn’t in Lambeau, it’s enough for me to take the points.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-3) vs. Los Angeles Rams

I think this is the hardest game to pick out of the bunch. As with 9ers/Packers, this is a rematch of a game from Week 3, in which the Rams beat the Bucs. But in this case, it seems like both the Rams and Bucs were different teams in those days. Both have seen significant churn at receiver (I 100% forgot that DeSean Jackson started the season with the Rams), and the Rams in particular have declined a good deal from the near-invincible obvious contenders they looked like in the early going. From the assorted bits of Eagles/Bucs I saw last Sunday, it seemed like Bucs were already struggling a bit with their own receiver depth issues, even against clearly lesser opposition. But I’m still rolling with Tampa. The Rams are traveling the length of the country on short rest (that Monday thrashing of the Cardinals still counts, even if they made it look easy). Also, I still don’t trust Stafford in the playoffs. If the Rams do win this one I’ll reconsider that stance, of course, but I can see the Bucs’ defense giving him fits, especially if they neutralize the run game and force Stafford to put the team on his back, whereas Tom Brady putting his team on his back is no issue.

Buffalo Bills (+2.5) vs. Kansas City Chiefs

It’s already going to be impossible for this game to live up to the hype, so let me diffuse that hype a bit by pointing out this is going to be the most face-meltingly awesome game ever played. It will be closely contested from wire-to-wire and won’t be decided until the last play of the game. Make sure to have a bucket of ice water handy to dunk your head in afterwards, even if you’re a neutral observer.

2 thoughts on “NFL Divisional Round Normal Column

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