Conference championship handicapping column

Posted Jan. 19, 2012 @ 1:09 p.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

Avoidance isn't a bad habit for a handicapper to practice.

This season, I've generally wanted to no part of picking against teams led by Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Tom Brady. This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, as you'll see below. But unless I have a compelling reason to do so, I'm not going to be looking to pick against a club led by a quarterback who's in top form.

This does not mean I am eager to back those teams, either, for that usually entails laying points, and most of the time, it is more points than I am interested in spotting when handicapping such a competitive league. Only when I perceive value will i even think if picking for or against a club led by one of the game's elite blue-chip quarterbacks. Otherwise, forget it. 

And should I pick against one of those quarterbacks … well, my desk is made of wood for a reason.

Do you hear me knocking?

On to this week's picks:

Baltimore (+7) at New England

You don't pick against the Tom Brady-led Patriots without acknowledging it could end badly, so let's begin that way. I could lose courtesy of a flurry of pinpoint darts from Brady. I believe the Ravens are going to have trouble with TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and Brady was just outstanding in the divisional round win vs. Denver. This is the best Patriots offense Baltimore has faced since that '07 edition rolled into Baltimore.

However. the Ravens' defense will provide more resistance than Denver's overmatched stop unit. Also, their offense will be a far tougher challenge than the Broncos' attack. Yes, the Ravens are a little flaky on offense, but RB Ray Rice has given the Patriots trouble in the past, as has QB Joe Flacco.

Yes, Flacco. I get the sense his anticipated play will be a key handicapping angle for some. And I know some are going to handicap the game this way: Brady > Flacco; therefore, Patriots > Ravens.

That might be the right answer. But I believe it's an oversimplification, especially as the pointspread is concerned, for it ignores the Ravens' material defensive edge, as well as the fact that recent meetings between the clubs usually have been close — and the only blowout was a Ravens win in the '09 wild-card round.

I'm taking the points. I do it respectfully, for only a fool would pick against the Pats with swagger. But I believe the underdog is the value play.

Wilkening's pick: Baltimore

N.Y. Giants (+2½) at San Francisco

In the regular-season meeting between the teams on Nov. 13, the Giants held a 13-12 lead at the start of the fourth quarter. Then, the 49ers seized control with two TDs, capitalizing on a poor punt for the first score and intercepting Giants QB Eli Manning for the second score. The Giants would cut San Francisco's lead to 27-20 and get as close as the Niners' 10-yard-line with 1:24 left, but they would get no closer as the 49ers' defense held.

In defeat, the Giants outgained the Niners 395-305 and converted 7-of-14 third downs. The 49ers' early fourth-quarter burst was the difference in the game, and San Francisco's playmaking capability in all facets — offense, defense and special teams — must be respected.

But can the 49ers beat the Giants a second consecutive time? And can they win a second game in a row against a club with a better offense? Some will answer in the affirmative, but I will not. Even if I'm wrong, I have a couple points to work with.

Wilkening's pick: N.Y. Giants

Last week: 3-1
Season to date: 40-36