Coming off Wild Card Weekend when all four road teams (all underdogs) covered and two won outright, we should all agree to not be surprised by anything this weekend, including a Titans upset over the Patriots. Just kidding.
The AFC appears headed for the Patriots-Steelers championship round rematch. If there’s any AFC upset this weekend it will come in Pittsburgh where, yes, the Jaguars did throttle the Steelers 30-9 in Week 5. More on that anomaly later. The lines are tighter in the NFC this weekend. This isn’t going out on a limb the eventual NFC Super Bowl representative is probably playing this weekend a the site of LII (in Minnestoa, to be sure). If this weekend’s quartet of games is anything like last week’s, it’ll be another exciting football Sunday.
Let’s look at each (1) the lines and totals for every game (2) the best teaser leg for each (to combine with one more leg) and (3) explore prop bet opportunities.
TPS Report: NFL Divisional Round: Picks, Projections: The Vikings Are Too Much for the Saints; Patriots Total Titans; Steelers Claw Jaguars; Eagles Upend Atlanta (or at least cover)
Saturday 4:35 pm ET (NBC)
Atlanta Falcons (-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (o/u 41): As you know by now, never before has a road team visited the No. 1 seed laying points. This is an unusual situation and has everything to do with the downgrade from Carson Wentz to backup QB Nick Foles. What are we to make of Foles at this point? Yes, the resemblance is still there and cannot be unseen.
But what of his quarterbacking skills? No team is as bad as its last performance nor the player as bad as his last stinker. Wentz to Foles has Eagles fans resigned to an early exit but this perception of a wholly incompetent Foles — and a suddenly Super Bowl-bound Falcons team — is overstated.
I’m not sure I want to hitch my wagon to Eagles head coach Doug Pederson’s game-planning abilities, but he’s had a bye week to allow his players to rest, put in some new wrinkles and figure out how to make Foles work, i.e., keep him in his comfort zone. That should mean lots of running with a stable of backs all quite good at breaking tackles, foremost Jay Ajayi (25.4% broken tackles per touch) and also LeGarrette Blount (26.5%), Kenjon Barner (19%) and Wendell Smallwood (18.3%). We’re going to see a lot of Eagles running the ball with good doses of Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor inside and underneath. If the Eagles can run the ball effectively, get the ball out of Foles’ immobile body early and get into third and shorts, they’ll be OK.
Last week in Los Angeles, the Falcons clearly had the benefit of having been to the playoffs before. The Rams’ highly rated special teams crumbled when the punt return squad and return man Pharoah Cooper juggled or bungled three punts. We might be talking about the Rams now if not for those special teams errors that led to 10 Falcons points in the first half.
Anyhow, yes, this Falcons defense is much improved especially in the red zone where they’ve put clamps down, allowing TDs on just 44% of opponent red zone drives — not far behind the Vikings (40%) and Jaguars (38%). The Eagles actually led the NFL in red zone TD scoring percentage (65%) alas, that was a Carson Wentz speciality.
The Eagles defenses strength is its Fletcher Cox-led front seven and good coverage linebackers who should be able to limit Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman’s damage as receivers out of the backfield. Julio Jones will get his yardage, but I wouldn’t bet against Jim Schwartz’s defense to bring heavy pressure and make Matt Ryan complete some on-the-run throws where he’s not at his best. I think you see where this is going. The betting splits are showing a Falcons road chalk lovefest. I would grab the Eagles and the field goal while you can because I think the line may get whacked down to 2.5 where it opened.
Score projection: Eagles 21, Falcons 20
Best teaser leg: I might combine either the Eagles +10 or the Under with another leg below. Taking the total from 41 up to 48 in a 7-pointer looks tasty, too. This is going to be a defensive game.
[Hey there, have you hit “like” on our Facebook page? The page is real, and it’s spectacular.]
Saturday 8:15 pm ET (CBS)
Tennessee Titans (+13) at New England Patriots (o/u 48) The Pats are one of the most publicly-backed teams in the NFL if not the most. They went 9-1 against-the-spread (!) in their last 10 games this season. Should we just stop there? Seriously. We could.
I have a very hard time laying almost two touchdowns in an NFL game but if forced to pick a side in pool play, I’ll have trouble backing the Titans who are coming off a pretty surprising comeback win at Kansas City, thanks in part to the Chiefs’ loss of Travis Kelce, KC’s (known) run defense deficiency, a failure in play-calling by new Bears head coach Matt Nagy, and a Marcus Mariota touchdown pass to himself.
Maybe the Titans have installed that one in the playbook. Should be interesting. For the Titans to cover or somehow upset, the Titans’ solid offensive line is going to have to open some lanes for bellcow running back Derrick Henry to have the game of his life, following the game of his life. And the Patriots are not great in run defense — ranked a lowly 30th in DVOA per Football Outsiders. It’s a clear matchup advantage for Tennessee. The Pats have gotten much better on the back end where the Titans only real threat is TE Delanie Walker. I would expect the Patriots to load the box against the Titans’ offense and force Mariota to try and beat them in the air. More likely the Titans will be on the links at a Nashville country club by midweek.
On defense the Titans’ strength is their front seven and weakness is in pass coverage. They have a sure-tackling Pro Bowl SS in Kevin Byard but have gotten burned by good passing offenses. In particular, their linebackers are brutal in pass coverage: ranked dead last in that department. The Patriots are going to bleed them with long drives via Dion Lewis and James White while Rex Burkhead is making progress after a knee injury and might be inactive. White figures to be Lewis’ compliment for a game in which I think they’ll collect a combined 15-plus receptions. You remember running back James White, the guy who could have maybe should have won Super Bowl LI MVP after a 14-reception, 110 yard receiving yard, three-touchdown plus a two-point conversion performance?
And by the way, who the heck is covering Gronk? Finally, even if the locker room is a shithole (if POTUS can say it in the Oval Office, I can say it in a sports betting column) following that Seth Wickersham story, no group of football players is more professional than in New England. The rift is a non-factor right now and has no bearing. Brady and Belichick may soon divorce but both are driven first and foremost bywinning and for that, they both know they need each other.
Score projection: Patriots 34, Titans 17
Best teaser leg: I don’t really think there’s a good one here and won’t force it. Maybe look Over and tease the total down to 41 or 42.
Sunday 1:05 pm ET (CBS)
Jacksonville Jaguars (+7) at Pittsburgh Steelers (o/u 41): The hooks on the Jaguars have largely disappeared, although the MGM Mirage is still showing one. After a Blake Bortles performance against Buffalo in which he sailed easy checkdown passes, I’m leery of backing him even with a touchdown and the league’s best defense on the other side.
This Jaguars team reminds me a lot of the Chicago Bears during the Good Rex/Bad Rex (Grossman) era that culminated in a Super Bowl loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Any given Sunday nobody had a clue which version of Grossman would show up, likewise with an awesome Brian Urlacher-led defense holding even the best offenses to about 13 points. So it’s a tough handicap.
Against the Bills at home last week (as a 7.5-point favorite — hooks are indeed crucial and prevent nausea), Leonard Fournette and the running game just couldn’t get going. It looked like he was missing a gear, as he has been for large chunks of the season. In his most eight recent games played (Weeks 9 through 16 plus the Wild Card game) he’s averaged a pretty dismal 3.15 yards per carry and hasn’t been much of a factor pass catching.
Sore ankle or not, that’s not going to cut it. Perhaps we see more of Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon (inactive last week due to illness). Bortles will have his full complement of receivers with Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole, but if Bad Bortles shows up he’s liable to find the hands of Steelers defenders. The Steelers have seen their pass coverage wane down the stretch, but I don’t think the Jaguars are equipped to exploit it, even if DB Artie Burns (knee) is a no-go. The front seven — after leading the league in sacks (56) and bringing lots of pressures — can and probably will exert its will against a so-so Jaguars offensive line. That could spell another Bortles 10 carries (!) but probably not for 88 yards.
I’m tossing that Week 5 , 56-pass-attempt, 30-9 loss oddity out the window where the Jaguars scored two pick-sixes and stunned Pittsburgh at home. It’ll serve as a good lesson. Despite just nine points in that affair, Pittsburgh averaged a robust 28.3 points per game at home this year — a full six less than on the road. The Steelers also get back the NFL’s best wide receiver in Antonio Brown after his Week 15 calf injury scare. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he’ll be out there without limitation. Jaguars stud cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye will have their hands full and Brown’s presence will create more opportunities for Le’Veon Bell, who should be the fixture of the Steelers’ offensive attack this week.
Update: Friday 7:53 pm ET (we’ll look for more sources… I would think he’s out there but not a certainly):
Per source, Steelers WR Antonio Brown is currently expected to be a game-time decision. Calf injury is still an issue.
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) January 13, 2018
Pittsburgh has been there, done this, and ought to take care of business. If they get beat, they will have to beat themselves with another dose of pick-sixes or stalled drives. They’re rested and we could see an early flat performance. That’s reason to consider the first half under at 21 (if you can get it) or possibly 20.5. Also the Jaguars simply don’t score in the first quarter.
Score projection: Steelers 24, Jaguars 13
Best teaser leg: Take the Steelers down to -1 or a pick. I can’t see the Steeler losing this game but the Jaguars defense is certainly capable of keeping it close.
Sunday 4:40 pm ET (FOX):
New Orleans Saints (+4.5) at Minnesota Vikings (o/u 46): My first impression when the Vikings were opened favored by four was a lean to Minny. That’sh still where I’m at with 4.5 or 5, depending where you look. I’m not sure what or who moved out the total from a 43.5 opener to 46 — I suppose trends about playoffs turf scoring — but I think this one is a defensive battle with the Vikings doing most of the rowing.
This is a really superb Vikings defense without a weakness at any level and hasn’t really gotten enough credit. In the regular season they league-low 12.5 points per game at home, which includes a 24-7 smackdown of the top-scoring Rams. How are the Vikings and QB Case Keenum — making his first playoffs start — feeling? From ESPN’s Courtney Cronin:
“I call it not a scared nervous, but an excited nervous,” Keenum said. “I’m excited because I’m prepared and I know what I’m going to do. I know I’m going to play. But man, you get the adrenaline going, you’re waiting in that tunnel, you hear US Bank Stadium going crazy out there. I mean, if you’re not feeling something at that point, I tell people you might be an adrenaline junkie and need to go jump out of planes or bungee or do other stuff like that because it’s an exciting moment and it’s really cool.”
I dig that.
The Saints survived a bit of a scare at home against the NFC South rival Panthers in the Wild Card round in which the vaunted Saints rushing attack was pretty much a non-factor; Mark Ingram and Rookie of the Year RB Alvin Kamara combined for just 45 rushing yards (2.35 per tote) and two receptions for 23 yards. Drew Brees had to put the offense on his back in a 22-for-33, 376 yard effort, 80 of them coming on Ted Ginn Jr. gamebreaker TD pass.
That kind of play and a 131-yard effort from top WR Michael Thomas is much less likely to occur against (likely) shadow coverage from Pro Bowl DB Xavier Rhodes and with stud safety Harrison Smith lurking. The Vikes have played remarkably good third down and red zone defense this season, and let’s just pile on more compliments: they’ve given up just 2.8 yards per carry to opposing running backs at home this season, tops in the league (actually tied with Cleveland believe it or not).
The Saints running game has faded overall down the stretch, averaging only 81 yards per game (3.3 yards per carry), which is attributable in part to injuries on the offensive line, including another one on Sunday that puts guard Andrus Peat who’s now on the IR (broken fibula). In a very loud, hostile environment, I see a lot of arrows pointing down for New Orleans.
With the benefit of adrenaline and a prove-the-doubters wrong mentality, I think we’ll see Case Keenum find some passing success against a Saints defense that likewise has stalled a bit down the stretch, no thanks to a load of injuries. The Vikings’ offense is balanced and will get a healthy TE Kyle Rudolph out there for another big body threat. Between RBs Latavius Murray, scatback Jerick McKinnon, WRs Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs (a possibly non-factor due to Marshon Lattimore), there are weapons aplenty.
Can the Saints win? Absolutely. But I think this is the Vikings and it’s likely just one more home game or trip to Philly before we see a team “host” the Super Bowl at its own stadium.
Score projection: Vikings 27, Saints 17
Best teaser leg: I like the under period but even better tease up to 52 (through a key number 51) combined with, say, the Steelers at -1.
Happy Divisional Round Weekend! Before you place any wagers, check the weather and check for any key injuries/inactives on Sunday. Also, check your bias. Hit me up on Twitter with any thoughts, comments, concerns, questions, compliments or dad jokes.