Divisional round: How to know what to avoid

“Look, it’s a lock. It’s beautiful. Don’t even worry about it.”

–Santino “Sonny” LoSpecchio

If you’ve seen the 1993s gangster flick “A Bronx Tale,” you know precisely what happens next. For those who haven’t (guess what? You now have a homework assignment), allow me to paint the picture: New York mobster Sonny LoSpecchio — played by the well-dressed Chazz Palminteri — and his crew are at Aqueduct Racetrack betting the ponies and cheering on Kryptonite, the 1-horse who is out to a brilliant lead. LoSpecchio is celebrating the impending financial windfall Kryptonite’s win is set to deliver midway through the race before he hears a voice from the steps above screaming, “C’mon, Kryptonite!”

That voice belongs to none other than Eddie Mush, a degenerate gambler from the neighborhood known for one thing and one thing only: His uncanny ability to lose any bet he places. The moment LoSpecchio realizes Mush bet Kryptonite as well, he disgustingly states, “He bet Kryptonite? Give me the tickets,” before tearing up the crew’s betting slips three-quarters of the way through the race.

To which a young Calogero (aka “C”) responds, “But, Sonny, we’re winning!”

LoSpecchio responds, “We can’t win. Mush bet Kryptonite. C’mon. We’ve been Mushed.”

Sonny and his crew depart Aqueduct as Kryptonite gets caught from behind and eventually passed at the wire.

“Great call on Penn State. That was a smash.”

Oct. 20, 2007. Seven-point favorite Penn State was leading Indiana 36-24 with under three minutes to play. Thirty seconds before Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis ripped off a 56-yard touchdown run on third-and-10 to bring the final score to Penn State 36, Indiana 31. The Nittany Lions won, and the Hoosiers covered.

I can still remember this exact moment like it was yesterday. A group of friends and I were at a buddy’s house sweating Penn State -7 tickets on a dreary October Saturday in eastern Pennsylvania. The Nittany Lions took a 20-14 lead to the half and entered the fourth quarter up 23-17 before finally grabbing a 12-point lead with four minutes to play. We were all on Penn State, and we were starting to feel good. But nobody dared mention the possibility of a cover because that’s just something you don’t do… under any circumstance… ever.

Nobody wants to be a Mush.

The problem, however, is that every group of gambling friends has its very own Mush. That one individual who can’t keep their mouth shut. That one person who couldn’t pick a winner to save their life. That buddy who, if you heard he loved the Chiefs to smash the Bills, would make you dump your entire 401(k) on Buffalo without a second thought.

Our own personal Mush casually walked through the front door of my buddy’s house 30 seconds before that aforementioned Kellen Lewis touchdown run, stating with extreme confidence, “Great call on Penn State. That was a smash,” just before everything went to hell. It was almost as if those words were designed to dare to the Gambling Gods into making a play.

Well, the Gambling Gods made a play all right. Specifically, a 56-yard touchdown run that blew up our Penn State -7 tickets much like Eddie Mush blew up those Kryptonite tickets at Aqueduct.

15 years later and my own version of the Mush is telling me he wants a guest spot on Daily Wager. That’s not happening for reasons that would stretch the length of this column into something closely resembling Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” But I had a compromise for him: Send me your divisional-round bets with rationale — and I used that word with the loosest possible definition — and I’ll see if I can turn it into a column for ESPN Chalk.

Which leads us to the Mush’s best bets for the 2022 NFL divisional round. He wants to go heads up against me, so I figured we might as well let it play out for the entire world to watch. God help me if I come out on the wrong end of this little experiment.

Warning: tread lightly!

Tennessee Titans (-3.5, 47.5) vs. Cincinnati Bengals

Mush: Bengals +3.5

“Tennessee’s lousy defense isn’t stopping Big Game Burrow. Tannehill stinks and I don’t care if Henry is back, he’s not 100 percent. Chase goes for a buck fifty and the Bengals win by a touchdown.”

Fortenbaugh: I disagree. Mike Vrabel is 4-0 both straight-up and against the spread when coming off a bye week, covering the closing point spread by an average of 19.1 points per game. Cincinnati went 2-for-5 in the red zone against the Raiders last week, who boast one of the worst red zone defenses of the current millennium. This is a big step up in class for Cincinnati.

Green Bay Packers (-6, 47.5) vs. San Francisco 49ers

Mush: 49ers +6

“Nobody wants a piece of the Niners right now. Garoppolo is pissed they drafted Trey Lance and he’s out to prove everybody wrong. Aaron Rodgers always folds like a cheap suit in the playoffs, especially at home. Joey Bosa [editor’s note: Yes, Mush did say “Joey” instead of “Nick”] is going to wreck shop and the Niners are going to win the NFC.”

Fortenbaugh: I disagree. This is San Francisco’s sixth road game in eight weeks and it comes with just six days of preparation following last Sunday’s win at Dallas. Green Bay is getting healthy and has had two weeks to prepare. Garoppolo’s production plummeted significantly after he injured his shoulder against the Cowboys and Fred Warner’s ankle injury is extremely worrisome.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-3, 48) vs. Los Angeles Rams

Mush: Buccaneers -3

“Everybody’s all gassed up about Matthew Stafford and the Rams after they trashed the Cardinals on Monday night. But Stafford had nothing to do with it. It was all the running backs and defense and Kingsbury’s brutal coaching. I don’t bet against Brady in the playoffs. Except for last week. I didn’t think Philly was going to crap its pants like that.”

Fortenbaugh: I agree. Of the four games on this weekend’s card, this is the one in which I have the least amount of confidence. Tampa Bay’s banged-up offensive line is a big red flag. But the Buccaneers rank third in the NFL in run defense and if the Rams can’t get it going on the ground, they’ll have to put the game in Stafford’s hands. Is that where you want to be as a Rams fan? Shop around and get Tampa -2.5 if you’re siding with the Bucs.

Kansas City Chiefs (-2, 54.5) vs. Buffalo Bills

Mush: Over 54.5 points

“This total should be 60. Kansas City’s defense is a fraud. When they were hot, they were playing nobody. Josh Allen is going to throw for 400 yards against these guys. Nobody circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills.”

Fortenbaugh: Bills +2. Something clicked for the Bills at halftime of their overtime loss at Tampa Bay in Week 14. Buffalo was trailing 24-3 and then came back to tie the game and force OT before losing by 6. Since that game, the Bills have ripped off five straight wins by an average of 18 points per game. They have the better defense and won’t be intimidated by Arrowhead Stadium after playing there last year in the AFC Championship Game.

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