The NFL's conference semifinal weekend is upon us (and yes, I've chosen "conference semifinal" replacing "divisional playoffs" as my hill to die on), which most of us recognize as the best football weekend of the year (usually punctuated, as is the case this year, by a pretty decent college hoops slate as well), with four playoff games across two days and a Super Bowl appearance in sight for all eight teams competing.
Except that the Bengals are never playing this weekend, either because they've lost the week before or - as is the case this year - their season has been over for weeks. There are a thousand things that make Cincinnati's run of playoff futility so frustrating, but what might be most maddening about it is that when the NFL is at its most enjoyable, our team is always missing out on the fun.
Instead, we're left to sift through the makings of a new coaching staff for next year, convincing ourselves that Alex Van Pelt can squeeze more out of Andy Dalton, that Frank Pollack can turn Cedric Ogbuehi into a serviceable NFL player, and the Teryl Austin can take the good players he inherits and form a quality defensive unit around them.
I have no idea if the Bengals have replaced their old coaches with new ones. I do know that there are only so many way they can dress up Marvin Lewis, who's cycles through enough assistant coaches in 16(!) years to have earned the skepticism that's accompanied this winter's changes. There are reasons to think that some of their new hires can be successful - Austin coached a very good defense in Detroit three years ago and Pollack oversaw the best offensive line in football in 2016 - but because of who the head coach is and what the organization has done since last season ended, it's hard right now to muster up much confidence that one year from now, the Bengals will still be playing.
THERE ARE PLAYOFF GAMES
I went 0-4 last weekend, and I'm okay with it. Kansas City had an 18-point lead before Marcus Mariota threw a touchdown to himself. Jacksonville gave up three points at home. New Orleans was in control all afternoon. I stand by those guesses, and I was smart enough to sit out two of the games (both Saturday tilts were a little to dicey to wager on), and I did a little too well on a handful of college basketball games that I won't mention here because I bet against teams I shouldn't have.
I don't love these games this weekend, so I'm going to get exotic, which probably spells doom.
Philadelphia (+3) over Atlanta. I hate this game. I refuse to bet it straight up because I'm still really not sure that the Falcons were good enough last weekend to earn confidence in them that I never had, because I hate the fact that we have to balance the fact that a little too much of Philly's success is being attributed solely to Carson Wentz (who'd I'd give my imaginary MVP vote to) with how miserable Nick Foles looked in his final two games. The Eagles run the ball better than people think, but they don't run it often, and they're very good up front defensively, even if they're a bit of a wreck in the secondary.
And if you have to turn to a backup quarterback, there are worse options than Nick Foles.
But Nick Foles has played like the Bengals version of Gus Frerotte since replacing Wentz.
See what I'm doing here?
I'm really picking against the Falcons here, who were pushed around by Aaron Donald last week. Can they block the Philly defensive line? Can having essentially three weeks to get a very good team ready to play with a backup quarterback yield not only a prepared Eagles team, but one fueled by the fact that few seem to be giving them a chance to win the game outright? Will the Falcons revert to being the uneven team they were for most of the season?
I'm not betting the answers are yes, but I am guessing they are.
New England (-14) over Tennessee. I love the over (48), because the Patriots will score a lot and give up just enough, especially if Mariota can vex them with his running. I don't love double-digit favorites in the playoffs, especially when their offensive line is being held together by tape, when they have a defense that at times looks like its playing with nine guys on the field, and when the starting quarterback is older than me. But even with their stunning comeback this week, we don't think the Titans are good enough to stay within two touchdowns in Foxboro, do we?
Pittsburgh (-7.5) over Jacksonville. I'm holding new nose on this one. Yes, because it's the Steelers, but also because I realize how good Jacksonville's defense is, how effective Leonard Fournette can be running against Pittsburgh's defense, and how sloppy Roethlisberger has been in certain games during an otherwise very, very good season. And I did watch that 30-9 blowout won by the Jaguars at Heinz Field in October.
But, you know, one team has Blake Bortles.
The other has Le'Veon Bell.
I know which one I'm betting on.
New Orleans (+5) over Minnesota. Best game of the weekend, in what feels like the de facto NFC title game. The Vikings have the best team in football, with an exceptional, if anonymous, defense, better skills guys than given credit for, and one of the best head coaches in the game. Case Keenum has played better than he's given credit for (and he's been given a lot of credit), and they have arguably the best homefield advantage in the sport. I think they will win the game.
But from a value standpoint, I'm getting Drew Brees armed with a good running game, and improved defense, and five points?
I'll take my chances.
Since I hate these games straight-up against the spread, I'll resort to doing some crazy shit...
Teaser: Pittsburgh down to -1.5, New Orleans up to +11)
Teaser: Philly up to +9, New England down to -8, Pittsburgh down to -1.5, New Orleans up to +11
Teaser: Philly up to +9, New England down to -8, New England/Tennessee over/under down to 42, Pittsburgh down to -1.5, New Orleans up to +11.
Maybe if the Bengals could actually play in a conference semi, I wouldn't have to resort to handing my money over in order to enjoy the best and worst football weekend of the year.