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NFL Picks For Divisional Round: How Andrew Luck’s Colts Can Keep Up With Tom Brady’s Patriots

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
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Andrew Luck (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Andrew Luck (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) — Here is some breaking news to share with you — it is the winter, and in much of the United States, it is cold out. For whatever reason, this development has gotten the country whipped up into a bit of a frenzy, despite the fact that it is typically the case from November through March. It’s America. It gets cold here.

Sure, it’s a bit colder than usual, with the poor folks out in the Midwest essentially living inside of an ice cube, but come on now. It’s 2014. We’ve got books and records and Wikipedia at our disposal. We should know by now that it’s going to be cold outside in the winter.

Yet with all of the hullabaloo about a “polar vortex” that’s all the rage, I’d like to address the issue of the NFL holding the Super Bowl in New York, outside, exposed to the wintry elements of early February in the Northeast. And by “issue,” I mean … not an issue at all.

I went on a minor rant about the uproar about the outdoor Super Bowl a few weeks back after Snowmageddon took over the NFL, but I’ve still only seen people continue to bash the idea of a football game being played — gasp! — in cold weather. Terry Bradshaw said the elements will affect the game too much. Richard Sherman called it “a big mistake.” Columnists around the country penned easy 800-word treatises on their fear of snow. Heck, even in the very building where I work, Scott Zolak said that a cold-weather Super Bowl is “one of the most asinine decisions I’ve ever heard any league decide” and it’s “absolutely ridiculous to have the best pro sport have their championship game decided in that.”

It’s become a common refrain, but to those making the statement, I ask a few simple questions:

What of the Packers-49ers game last weekend, where temperatures were in the single digits? And what about the Eagles hosting a night game in January in Philadelphia?

What about New England and Denver hosting playoff games this upcoming weekend, and likely one of them hosting another game next weekend?

And what about the 100 percent chance of rain in Seattle for Saturday’s NFC divisional round playoff game?

Did I miss the part where none of those games count? The Packers and Eagles, whose seasons ended with cold-weather losses, certainly wish that to be true. But it’s not. The NFL’s regular season ends near the new year, and the playoffs take place around the country in January, whether under sunny skies, domed roofs, driving snowstorms or “arctic vortexes,” whatever they are. And those playoff games are the most important three hours of a team’s season, which began some seven months prior in the summer heat.

The results of the playoff games count. They go down in history. If you don’t think the Super Bowl should be decided outdoors in a cold-weather city, then you must by necessity believe that playoff games should not be decided outdoors in a cold-weather city. A team cannot make the Super Bowl without winning playoff games, and whether a team loses in cold weather in the wild-card round or in the Super Bowl, the end result is the same: season over.

So three weeks from now, when two teams head to beautiful New Jersey aiming to take home football’s ultimate prize, they’ll have gotten there likely by winning a game or two while exposed to the elements — be it in Foxboro, Denver, Green Bay or anywhere else. Because again, it’s the winter, and it tends to get cold. If they have to play exposed to cold air, wind, rain and snow this week and next, then it’s not unfair to ask them to play one more game outside. Plus, last year in a perfect little dome, the power went out and halted play in the middle of the game for more than 30 minutes. That’s a much worse “element” to deal with than anything that’s going to fall from the sky in East Rutherford.

Now that I’ve convinced the entire world that a February Super Bowl in New Jersey is a good idea, let’s get right to the picks.

(Home team in caps; Thursday lines)

SEATTLE (-8) over New Orleans

I spent a long time on this one  before I came to the realization that I was overthinking it. Had it not been for a stinker of a performance in Week 16 by the Seahawks at home as well as a road victory for the Saints last weekend, there would be no debate whatsoever. You’d take Seattle (minus-anything), and move on.

Alas, those two things did happen, leading to at least some internal debate, but it’s best to judge these teams on the balance of their whole seasons, not just recent events. If anything, it’s time to be thankful for the Cardinals’ win in Seattle two days before Christmas and for the Eagles’ falling flat in their home playoff game. They probably helped drop this line from double digits down to eight, thereby making it the no-brainer of the weekend.

(As a friendly reminder, the Seahawks went 7-1 at home, outscoring opponents 233-110 — an average score of 29-14. Included in that stretch was a 34-7 win over the Saints just five weeks ago.)

Indianapolis (+7.5) over NEW ENGLAND

The Patriots have lost a lot of important players to injury this year, but surprisingly, it’s their most recent loss that has changed my opinion on this game.

It was the loss of Brandon Spikes that got me thinking about this one. The Patriots long ago lost Vince Wilfork … and Tommy Kelly … and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo, but they somehow still kept ticking. Spikes, a fierce run stopper and ferocious hitter, played no small part in that. He was by no means an MVP, but without him now, the Patriots are simply short on bodies to stop the run. They are low on human beings.

And if the Colts can exploit that gaping hole up the middle by going with a steady dose of Donald Brown and Trent Richardson, they can maintain long drives and keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands. They can shorten the game, thereby limiting the chances of the Patriots going on scoring sprees and setting a shootout tone.

Teams can run on the Patriots. It’s just a matter of that team trusting that it’ll keep them close enough to be in position to win late in the fourth quarter. Chuck Pagano and Andrew Luck strike me as men who are smart enough to realize it’s their best chance of competing. I still think the Patriots can and should win, but it may be of the 24-20 variety, rather than 49-24 or thereabouts.

CAROLINA (+1) over San Francisco
I’m inclined to go with the better defense. I’m inclined to go with the well-rested home team. I’m especially inclined to go with those teams when they don’t have to cover any spread.

This pick is without a doubt the toughest of the weekend. It features two teams that are legitimate contenders, and if I know anything about this sport, the game will come down to a late field goal to decide a winner. These teams are nearly identical in many ways. Look:

Passing Offense
San Francisco: 186.2 yards per game, 30th in NFL
Carolina: 190.2 yards per game, 29th in NFL

Passing Defense
San Francisco: 221 yards allowed per game, 7th in NFL
Carolina: 214.3 yards allowed per game, 6th in NFL

Rushing Defense
San Francisco: 95.9 yards allowed per game, 4th in NFL
Carolina: 86.9 yards allowed per game, 2nd in NFL

Turnover Differential
San Francisco: +12, 4th in NFL
Carolina:  +11, 5th in NFL

The only difference is that the 49ers ranked third in the league in rushing yards per game, while the Panthers ranked 11th. But even that was just an 11-yard difference, and the Panthers’ yards per rushing attempt (4.2) was right there with San Francisco’s (4.4).

Essentially, there’s no easy pick, and there’s no right pick and there’s no wrong pick. I just know I can’t wait to watch this game.

DENVER (-9.5) over San Diego
I Googled “How Chargers can beat Broncos on Sunday” and Google responded with, “Don’t be an idiot.”

I am fully aware that the Chargers controlled the entire game a month ago in Denver and won by seven points. I’m aware the Chargers put a thorough beatdown on the Bengals in the second half last week. I’m also fully aware that there is a real-life bolo tie movement going on in San Diego because Phil Rivers dresses like you might expect a guy from Alabama to dress (read: strange).

But I also know that Peyton Manning looked just about dead for nearly the entirety of the second half of his season. The man is old and his body aches, and he looked absolutely burned out by the time the final whistle blew. That he was able to still set all of those records while clearly slowed down a bit made the accomplishments all the more impressive.

Now, one could deduce that a tired, old quarterback will still be worn out in January, but one could also claim that with two weeks of rest, it’s fair to believe he’ll be even better than he was when he was tired … and still throwing four touchdowns every week.

And come Monday, we can all agree to stop talking about bolo ties. I mean, really — bolo ties?

Last week: 2-1-1
Regular season:
114-132-10

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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