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NFL Survivor Pool Picks and Advice: Divisional Round
by Matt Severance - 1/10/2013

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Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings

Welcome to my final survivor pool picks column of the season – the 2013 opening weekend is only eight months away! I still very much remember opening week of this year, when the Redskins went to New Orleans and shocked the Saints, who hadn’t lost a game in the Superdome in 2011. That game wiped out many people in their competitions. Hopefully you took my advice in that one: “This game scares the life out of me if I am a Saints backer. Yes, New Orleans was literally unstoppable at home last season. But all those suspensions now are in effect from the bounty scandal and I’m not sure how the Saints respond. Plus, maybe Robert Griffin III tears up that suspect New Orleans defense. Stay far away.”

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That was one of the few I 100 percent nailed this season. Unfortunately, I was busted the following week when Arizona pulled one of the upsets of the year in winning at New England. I was able to buy back into my Pool, but the Saints got me two few weeks later when they somehow lost at home to Kansas City, 27-24, in overtime. It’s the first time I have failed to reach at least Week 12 in six seasons.

How on earth did New Orleans blow an 18-point, third-quarter lead against what turned out to be the worst team in the NFL? Seriously, how do the Saints let Jamaal Charles go wild for 233 rushing yards – including a Chiefs record 91-yard touchdown that began the comeback -- when the Chiefs were quarterbacked by the terrible Matt Cassel? (Charles’ total didn’t win the season as Bucs rookie Doug Martin had 251 yards on Nov. 4 against Oakland) Yes, that game still rankles me as you can tell. New Orleans finished 7-9, but you could argue if it wins that game, it might make the playoffs because climbing out of a 1-3 hole (Saints lost the following week at Green Bay) is a lot different than 0-4.

The Packers might have been damaging to your pool this year. They suffered surprising upsets in Week 3 at Seattle, although Green Bay fans would argue it wasn’t really a loss (Seahawks weren’t the force then that they are now) and in Week 5 at Indianapolis. We didn’t know Andrew Luck was John Elway in terms of comebacks back then. You may also have had a bit of a disagreement in your competition on the San Francisco 49ers in their Week 10 game against St. Louis, which ended in a 24-24 tie – the first tie in the league since 2008. Amazingly, the teams were just seconds from tying again in Week 13, a 16-14 Rams upset. Survivor Pools are pretty cut-and-dry: you are picking a team to win, not to lose. So a tie should be considered a loss. But you perhaps may have been able to debate your way forward if you had the Niners that week.

Clearly the best team to pick against this year was Jacksonville, which like Kansas City finished 2-14. The Jags weren’t able to pull off a big upset like the Chiefs did. The Jaguars were only three-point dogs when they upset the Colts in Week 3, and I know you didn’t pick Indianapolis that early in the season. And Jacksonville, which fired coach Mike Mularkey on Thursday, was only a 3.5-point home dog when it beat the Titans in Week 12.

The Jaguars did almost pull off a mammoth upset the week before, losing 43-37 in overtime at Houston in one of the most entertaining games of the season. Houston became the first team in NFL history to score twice in overtime – both teams kicked field goals, and then Houston won on a touchdown pass. That was also the game in which the Texans’ Matt Schaub threw for 527 yards, No. 2 all-time, and receiver Andre Johnson had 273 yards (No. 9 all-time; record is 336 by the Rams’ Flipper Anderson in 1989). Jaguars WR Justin Blackmon had 236 yards receiving, No. 3 all-time for a rookie. It was the second time in NFL history opposing players each had more than 200 yards receiving in the same game. The other was in 2007 when Kevin Curtis had 211 yards for the Eagles and Roy Williams had 204 yards for the Lions in a 56-21 Philadelphia win.

Last week, I liked all four favorites, with the Ravens as the top choice. They were never really in danger against Indianapolis. All four favorites did cover in the Wild-Card Round, but they are all underdogs in the Divisional Round, in which three of the four games are regular-season matchups. Here are my recommendations in order of confidence.

New England vs. Houston: I thought the Texans would flip the switch and roll the Bengals last week. The defense did its part, but the offense didn’t look very good outside of Arian Foster. The Texans well remember their 42-14 embarrassment in Week 14 in Foxboro. I expect this to be much closer – and in fact would take Houston and the 10 points – but I can’t see the Patriots losing with that week to prepare for a team it already has seen. One worry: Tom Brady started 10-0 in his playoff career and is just 6-6 since.

Denver vs. Baltimore: The Broncos are the other double-digit favorite this week. They had little trouble in a Week 15 34-17 win at Baltimore, although the Ravens didn’t have the injured Ray Lewis then. Denver enters on an 11-game winning streak and is a terrific 13-3 at home all-time in the playoffs. And Peyton Manning owns the Ravens, winning nine straight against them.

Seattle at Atlanta: I am one of those who doesn’t believe in Matt Ryan when it comes to the playoffs, as the Falcons are 0-3 in Ryan’s postseason starts. Atlanta is 6-11 in its playoff history, the second-worst winning percentage (.353) behind Cincinnati (5-11, .313). Seattle looks scary good right now, although the loss of sack leader Chris Clemons to a torn ACL will hurt. By the way, the NFC’s No. 1 seed has lost in this in four of the last five seasons.

San Francisco vs. Green Bay: I’ll be honest, I essentially flipped coin here, and I would not touch this game in a survivor pool or a betting perspective. The Niners are probably better nearly everywhere than the Packers except at quarterback. And QB play tends to matter just a little bit in the postseason. Plus, the Pack are 4-1 in road playoff games under Aaron Rodgers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Alex Smith, who was excellent in the 49ers’ Week 1 win in Green Bay, if Colin Kaepernick struggles in his playoff debut. No result here surprises me.

Thanks for reading this year and I’ll be back next summer.

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