By Rick Morris
On with the picks (1-3 last week, 121-129-10 overall, 27-21-3 in Big Three picks for the season, 9-7-1 gold picks for the season):
New Orleans (-4) over San Francisco – Good friend of our show Kenny Albert has been previewing this game on Twitter all week and he’s going to have a heck of a game to call on Fox Saturday afternoon. It’s your quintessential offense vs. defense clash, with home field for San Fran (earned because the Saints choked against the Rams) potentially looming large because of the difference between New Orleans in a dome (among the best offenses ever) and outdoors (merely great). Against a great defense (which, as Grantland reminds us, has a linebacker corps perfectly suited for the challenges the Saints present), that difference brings this matchup back near equilibrium. Nevertheless, it’s hard to put too much stock in Alex Smith and the Niner offense to keep up even in a game where the Saints won’t be scoring at will. The San Francisco special teams and a 100-yard game from Frank Gore (who wore down in the second half of the season, but benefited from the bye week) will keep it close, but not enough to prevent the NFC Title Game everybody would most enjoy seeing. New Orleans 23, San Francisco 16.
New England (-13 ½) over Denver – OK, so I was way off last week about the outcome, just like the rest of the world. As a lifelong Steeler hater, however, it’s unlikely that anyone else enjoyed being wrong as much as I did! The Broncos sprung their first counterpunch against the “put a spy on Tebow from the outside” method of taking away the run from the Missionary Man. Tim Tebow’s willingness to stretch the field was impressive, even if his accuracy was not uniformly so. And he’ll have a more target-rich environment against the horrific Patriot D – but then again, the Denver defense (which, let’s face it, has been far more opportunistic than impressive) will be facing a New England machine as opposed to a banged-up shell of itself as it did last week. Denver needed every advantage last week – a quick start, a fevered home crowd and massive adrenaline – to even get the game to overtime this week. This week, as the man who drafted Tebow and D Thomas (Josh McDaniels) peers on coincidentally from the other side of the field, tales of revenge will be told (just a week after Denver avenged their loss in the 2005 AFC Championship Game to Pittsburgh): Jon Fox won’t get over on The Hoodie in their rematch of the Janet Jackson Teat Super Bowl, but the Pats will get some payback for what happened the next season when the Broncos shockingly stopped their Super Bowl threepeat hopes. New England 34, Denver 19.
Baltimore (-7 1/2) over Houston – This game carries by far the least intrigue of the weekend, almost exclusively because of Matt Schaub’s season-ending injury. Sub him in for the rookie QB, and I would probably go the other way on this one. But even though I rate the Texans D slightly better than Baltimore’s strong unit, there’s just no way that the Foster-Tate 1-2 punch can take enough of the steam off of TJ Yates. There’s just not much drama here. Baltimore 23, Houston 13.
New York Giants (+7 ½) over Green Bay – Now, this game certainly has all of the intrigue that the early Sunday game lacks. Hipsters far and wide are jumping all over the G-Men, drawing simplistic comparisons to the magical and improbable 2007 run. It’s worth remembering, though, that month that encompassed those games is the only real stretch over the past half-decade where New York has lived up to their potential. The trendy rush to bet the Giants is just part of the roller-coaster the team has put the public on over this period of time, as they have been wildly overrated at times (I’m certainly guilty of this) based on their upside and also crapped on at other times as people sour on their underachieving. Certainly, the Giants are explosive enough to win this game and they’re capable of using a newly-healthy defensive line rotation to put uncharacteristic pressure on Aaron Rodgers. And they showed the ability to move the chains with the run last week against Atlanta that they would need to win the crucial time-of-possession battle against the Pack. What they don’t have, though, is the element of surprise in coming to Wisconsin as they did four years ago (although they do have a team that is going to be out for revenge for that NFC Championship Game). Yes, Green Bay’s defense is weaker than it was a year ago and the rushing game has been decent but far from outstanding. But the passing game rates with the best of all time and this pinball offense deserves the benefit of the doubt all the way through until February. Green Bay 38, New York Giants 24.
New England 24, Baltimore 17
Green Bay 31, New Orleans 26
Green Bay 41, New England 34