Bengals (+4) over Texans: I wouldn’t read all that much into Houston’s late slump in itself. But I do think that the improved play of the Bengals is meaningful, since their defense has gotten better as it’s gotten healthier. The teams ended up as nearly even in point differential, and while Schaub is mildly better than than Dalton the Bengals have a better pass defense, so it’s a wash. Playing at home, Hoston should be mild favorites, but in what is likely a close game I would take the points. Besides, has any team coach by Marvin Lewis ever flopped in the playoffs?
Packers (-7 1/2) over Vikings: Barnwell makes the best MVP case for Adrian Peterson — if you compare Peterson’s value to other players at his position, it’s the highest, although this wouldn’t be true if C.J. Spiller had started 16 games. Does this mean that I would vote for him? Absolutely not. The problem is that even with Peterson having a historic season, the Vikings still had a mediocre offense. Making an offense led by an below-average (although not terrible) QB slightly above average is an enormous impact for a running back. But it obviously doesn’t compare to the impact of Peyton Manning, who immediately transformed the Broncos from a poor offense to an elite one (although the quality of play from running backs got worse.) More to the point of this game, the Packers had a much better offense than the Vikings, because the difference between an elite QB and a not very good one is vastly more important than the difference between a world-historically good running back and a random assortment of terrible ones. (And the thing is, nobody really thinks Peterson is the most valuable player in the NFL. In a retrospective draft, would anybody with the possible exception of the deposed leadership of the Cleveland Browns take Peterson over Manning or Brady or Rogers? Would you take him over J.J. Watt? If so, I hope we can be GMs in the same league sometime.) I’m not entirely comfortable with this line, but I’ll take the star QB over the star RB any day, especially with Green Bay’s defense looking healthier.
Ravens (-6 1/2) over Colts: The Colts, while they came a long way with Andrew Luck, were not nearly as good as their record, which was the product of a weak schedule. The Ravens aren’t really much of a team either, but at home, I think that Flacco and Rice will be able to do enough against the atrocious Colts defense to cover. I wouldn’t consider placing an actual bet on this game, though; I don’t remotely trust either team and don’t see either getting past the next round.
Redskins (+3) over Seahawks: Granting that I tend to have a McClellan-like outlook about the chances of my teams, I don’t mean this as an insult to my Seahawks, who I’m very optimistic about. It’s just that when a home team in a game between fairly even teams is getting three points, I think you have to take them (although I’d make Seattle a very slight favorite to win the game outright, I wouldn’t give them a better-than-even chance of winning the game by more than 3 points.) Speaking of the Browns, though, I should mention that the Seahawks deserve immense praise for taking Russell Wilson, which embodies both the “we’re not selling jeans” and “sunk costs” insights of sabermetrics. I actually think that Schatz buried the lede a bit while noting Wilson’s off-the-charts Lewin Forecast numbers. To be clear, I’m not saying that the scouts should be ignored entirely; it’s reasonable to conclude that being shorter than average may make a transition to the pros a little more difficult, and it’s entirely reasonable to rank Luck and Griffin ahead of him. But to take Brandon Weeden — whose credentials were far, far worse than Wilson’s and is five years older — over Wilson because Weeden just looks more like a quarterback? That’s insane. There’s no rational basis for the belief that a 6’0 QB can be championship caliber but someone who’s 5’11 can’t play at all; that’s just arbitrary nonsense. (I should also mention the Jaguars, who despite having nothing remotely resembling an NFL QB took a punter before Wilson. But I’m sure Tebow will solve all their problems!) Whether or not they beat the Racist Nicknames tomorrow, I like where the Seahawks are headed.