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NFL Picks Divisional Round: ‘Inevitable’ Patriots-Broncos AFC Championship Game Won’t Come Easy

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BOSTON (CBS) — Can we talk for a minute about Ray Lewis’ dance?

I’m just wondering how it became a popular phenomenon when a hulking football player dances like a fool. People celebrate it, like, “Ohhhh, Ray is going to really dance like heck during his introduction today! I can’t wait!” Like a bunch of weirdos.

The Ravens even brought out a chunk of dirt and grass for him — a full-on pro wrestling prop move — so that he could pick up a few blades of grass, a privilege robbed from him when the Ravens switched to an artificial surface in 2003. It was clearly a decision made without Ray Lewis’ dance’s best interests in mind, but at least the Ravens tried to make amends for it last weekend.

Oh, and then there was the end-of-game dance. Lined up deep in the victory formation, I believe Lewis checked in with the referee to declare himself an eligible receiver. As soon as Joe Flacco took the snap and went to a knee, another dance began. Robert Mathis of the Colts ran toward Lewis to congratulate him but then quickly turned 180 degrees and walked away, because the dance was in full swing.

Reggie Wayne took offense to the dance, which was ridiculous in its own right, but Lewis’ response — “It wasn’t even about them” — was even more preposterous. The fact that the dance was all about him, and the fact that he didn’t acknowledge his opponents for a hard-fought playoff game, was exactly what Wayne took issue with. No matter, though, because Ray Lewis is dancing!!

People seem to love this. I just don’t get it. And if you think the celebration of this dance is some weird creation in my head, I’ll show you this real life headline from NFL.com: “Ray Lewis delights Baltimore Ravens fans with dance.”

Delightful!

Look, I enjoyed watching Ray Lewis play football during his 100-year career. He was great. He’s a Hall of Famer. He tried to cover up a murder one time, but as a football fan, I don’t get too hung up on that. He was great at football, and I enjoyed watching him be great.

But the dance? Come on. Let’s all agree to grow up, kids.

OK, let me just do my pre-picks column pump-up dance … and …. yeah! OK, now I’m ready to get into the picks.

(Home team in caps; Thursday lines)

Baltimore (+10) over DENVER
ESPN introduced its QBR stat last year, a metric that measures quarterback’s effectiveness on a scale from 0-100. When the Ravens hosted the Broncos less than a month ago, Joe Flacco’s QBR was 0.4. I’m no National Football League analyst like Trent Dilfer, but I do not believe that is a very good stat for a quarterback in the National Football League.

Now, a repeat performance of that is highly unlikely, and that 17-point Broncos victory was inflated a bit by Chris Harris’ 98-yard interception return for a touchdown. Those are the types of somewhat random events that you have to take into account when you’re looking at a regular-season rematch (we have three of those this weekend).

I still believe the Broncos to be a superior team to Baltimore in almost every department. Denver’s on a roll, going 7-3 against the spread since their bye, covering spreads of 17, 11 and 10 points in three of the last four weeks. However, those games were against Kansas City, Cleveland and Oakland. This should be a different story.
Hopefully, for the sake of football fans who were “treated” to a wild card weekend where the average margin of victory was 11 points in the four games, this weekend gets off to a much better start.

(Plus, there’s the ever-present possibility of seeing a vintage playoff Peyton game, complete with three interceptions and 11 Sad Manning Faces. He is 9-10 in the playoffs as a starter, after all. That ‘guaranteed’ AFC Championship Game matchup of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning may happen, but it won’t be easy for Denver.)

Green Bay (+3) over SAN FRANCISCO
I felt that the 49ers became Super Bowl favorites on Dec. 16 in Foxboro, but I believe they lost their chance on Dec. 23 at Seattle, when they not only got beaten badly but also lost Mario Manningham to a knee injury and Vernon Davis to a concussion. (I have my doubts about Davis’ effectiveness as he plays through it. Concussions don’t just go away when you get hit like this.) A ho-hum win over Arizona and a week of rest don’t change that.

You might hear a lot this week about San Francisco’s regular-season win over Green Bay, but that took place in Week 1 and is essentially meaningless. It took place on Sept. 9. Clint Eastwood/empty chair jokes were still all the rage at that time. If you tried making an empty chair joke today, you’d get booed out of the room.

I know that Green Bay has introduced enough reason for doubt, most notably their loss in Minnesota in Week 17 to miss out on a playoff bye. But last week, they looked like a been-there-done-that championship-caliber team. Admittedly, that’s easy to do when Joe Webb is throwing rockets straight up into the air, but you can’t choose your opponents. As they take on a banged-up Niners team with a first-year starting quarterback with no playoff experience, I have no pause taking Aaron Rodgers and the three points.

ATLANTA (-2) over Seattle
The popular opinion on this game seems to be Seattle beating Atlanta because the Falcons can’t win in the playoffs and Matt Ryan stinks and all of that, like it’s a foregone conclusion that we have to see Pete Carroll hopping around in the NFC Championship Game.

But if there’s one thing I’ve proven since high school, it’s that I’m not very popular.

I don’t love the Falcons, but I feel the hatred and vitriol directed at them is a bit over the top. They may not be the greatest team, but 13-3 doesn’t exactly happen by accident. The Matt Ryan critics scream loud and proud when he has a bad weekend, but they’re always dead silent when he goes for 300 and three scores.

I don’t anticipate Ryan will have quite that exceptional  a day against Seattle’s passing defense, which ranked third in the NFL by allowing 6.2 yards per attempt this season and limited the three-legged duo of Robert Griffin and Kirk Cousins to just 99 passing yards last weekend. But I do think the difficulty of traveling from coast to coast in consecutive weeks will wear a bit on Seattle, and the fact that the Seahawks don’t have the passing attack to climb back into games in the event they fall behind early is enough to believe the Falcons can pull off a three-point victory at home.

NEW ENGLAND (-9.5) over Houston
I went 10 different ways on this one before coming to my senses: The Patriots are not going to lose.

I know it’s the playoffs and “anything can happen,” because I saw that happen two years ago with the Jets. But if you base your picks on “anything can happen” then you might as well ask your dog to make your picks (note: this method is undoubtedly better than taking my advice some weeks).

I went into detail this week about why we won’t see another 42-14 thrashing at Gillette, but that doesn’t mean the Patriots won’t win big. For one, Rob Gronkowski is back, and there is nobody more difficult to cover in the red zone than Rob Gronkowski. For two, Matt Schaub is still the quarterback of the Houston Texans, and he’s prone to make critical mistakes. Because he’s not that good. And he always looks so exhausted every week. Unless he’s been hitting the treadmill hard this week, I’d be very worried about him on Sunday.

But as much as anything, I think the Patriots’ track record against teams they’ve beaten in the regular season speaks for itself. Excluding divisional splits with the Jets, the Patriots are 5-2 when facing a team they’d beaten in the regular season again in the playoffs. That’s not a coincidence or a run of good luck. It’s the mark of having a great coach and a great quarterback. That Jets loss gets a lot of attention lately, but the Patriots’ dominating wins over the Broncos in December and January just last season tend to get glossed over.

The Texans spent the past month proving why they’re not a championship team, and the Patriots will go ahead and put the finishing touches on that campaign Sunday evening.

Last week: 2-2
Regular season: 124-125-7

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

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