Friday, January 12, 2018


Atlanta @ Philadelphia (+3)

This line is wrong.  I could understand Philly being dogs, even at home, to New Orleans or the LA Rams, but Atlanta is a 6th seed for a reason and Philly is a top seed for other reasons.  This line reflects a perception that the Eagles, under Foles, have suddenly become the worst team in the playoffs, and by a significant margin.

In the superficial analysis of this game, there is simply too much focus on the difference between Wentz and Foles.  There is a difference, but Foles is not nothing.  I mean, how many back-up quarterbacks have been to the Pro Bowl?  This perception, or misperception, is exacerbated by the fact that Foles does nothing spectacular while Wentz makes highlight-reel plays every game, and the result is that Wentz is routinely given too much credit for Philly’s success this year.  He’s wonderful, of course, but the reason the Eagles are 3-point dogs here is that the defense, special teams and the peculiar football genius of Doug Pederson are not being given their props.

And then there’s Atlanta, and I guess I’m not as impressed with them as I should be.  The 26 points they scored is---well, a lot of teams did that against the Rams this year. (Eight teams scored 20 or more.)  The surprising thing was the Falcon defense holding the Rams to 13 points, though it wasn’t really all that surprising if you saw it.  Atlanta held only four teams below twenty during the regular season, so for the playoffs, they instituted a new defensive strategy called “assault and battery.”  Basically, every Rams receiver got mugged as he crossed the line of scrimmage and, mirabile visu, yellow flags were nowhere to be seen.

After the embarrassment of the 2014 Superbowl (Seattle 43 Denver 8), in which the Seahawks were permitted actually to win a championship with such a “defense,” there is NO chance Atlanta will be allowed to do to Philadelphia what they did to LA.  The NFL will speak to the officials about this.  The Falcons will have to leave their truncheons home and play their actual pass defense, which is among the worst in the playoffs.

Foles will not scintillate; he rarely does.  But the Eagles can be expected to put some points on the board.  Somewhere in the 20s will be sufficient against the Falcons, who will struggle to get above the teens against the Eagles’ defense.

The Eagles win the game.

Tennessee @ New England (-13 ½)

New England’s AYP is 6.8; Tennessee’s is 4.7.   The Pats beat their opponents by more than ten points per game, while the Titans were outscored.  In games decided by more than 10 points, Tennessee was 3-3 and New England was 8-1.  DeMarco Murray, the heart of Tennessee’s running game, will not play against the Pats.

Want more?  Well, Brady’s QB rating this year was 102.8.  Mariota’s was 79.3

I (and everybody else), assume New England will win, but the problem with this game is the line.  Will the Pats win by 30, or will they be leading by 30 at halftime and then cruise to a 10-point victory?  Both scenarios are plausible.

I can’t bet this line.

Jacksonville @ Pittsburgh (-7)

 Pittsburgh beats J’ville in the AYP battle by a few ticks---6.2 to 5.6, while the Jags win the defensive AYP by a score of 3.3 yards to 4.8 yards.  (The Jags have the best defensive AYP in the NFL.)  Also, the Jags outscored their opponents by 9.3 points/game while Pittsburgh only won by 6.1 points/game.  In addition, Jacksonville handed the Steelers its worst defeat of the season on October 8, in Pittsburgh.  The final score of 30-9 featured two pick-6s for the Jags and 181 yards rushing, with two TDs, by Fournette.  Not a great day for Roethlisberger, obviously, but Bortles’ helmet won’t be headed to Canton, Ohio either.  He passed for 95 yards with one interception.

That was Jacksonville football at its best, and maybe Pittsburgh at its worst, and this weekend will almost certainly look a lot different.  Still, the spread is too much.  I think Pittsburgh wins this game, but a Jaguar win would not surprise me, and I certainly take the seven with the Jags.

By the way, though I don’t usually opine on totals, the over/under here is 41.  I can’t envision the sort of game between these two teams that would produce that many points.  I would go under.

New Orleans @ Minnesota (-5)

This is another game where the line is simply wrong.  New Orleans is a slightly better team, but they have to try to win at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Vikings are 7-1 this season.  Fortunately for the Saints, they are also a “dome team,” so the venue represents less of a disadvantage than it might for some other visitors.  The game is about even. The only sensible play here is to take the five points.

Brees had an AYP of 7.1 yards this year, highest in the league, while Minnesota (Bradford and Keenum), registered an excellent 6.4 yards.  Minnesota’s pass defense was superior by a small margin, and they gave up the fewest points (252) in the league.  New Orleans beat seven teams by more than ten points and Minnesota won eight games by that margin, so they both pound the weaklings.  These are both serious contenders for the crown.

They met in Minnesota in the first game of the season, and the big story that day was the debut of Adrian Peterson for the Saints.  With six carries for eighteen yards, he was not a factor. The quarterbacks were the real story that day with Brees throwing for 291 yards and Bradford for 346.  There were no interceptions.  Minnesota won 29-19.  Arguably, both teams have improved since that day.  In the case of New Orleans, the obvious change is a running game that compliments Brees and must be taken seriously.

(Note: it has been reported that Bradford, who last played in Week 5, will be activated for this game, though Keenum will start.)
I will pick Minnesota to win the game, but with no particular enthusiasm.  They are among the best teams in the playoffs this year, but their real edge lies in the way the draw has fallen.  This first game, at home against the Saints, is winnable, though it may be the most difficult one they face.  If they win, the NFC Championship will be a home game against Atlanta or a road game in Philly, and the Vikings will be favored in either case.  Should they get to the Superbowl, they will be favored there as well because it will be a home game.  If the Vikings don’t get the ring this year, there will be a lot of woulda/coulda/shoulda conversations in the Vikings front office for the next six months, and it will be a cold winter in the land of 10,000 lakes.


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