Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots: 2017 AFC Championship Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (12-6) at New England Patriots (14-3)

I made a big play on the Jaguars last week as 7.5 point underdogs in Pittsburgh, but I am much less excited to do the same with the Jaguars here as 7.5 point underdogs in New England. While Pittsburgh had just 5 regular season wins by more than a touchdown, the Patriots had 9 and then had another one last week in a 35-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans. The Steelers were also never the same team after losing Ryan Shazier for the season, while the Patriots enter the playoffs relatively healthy, even if Tom Brady did miss some practice time this week with a cut finger.

The Jaguars could keep this game close because of their incredible defense, especially since they can get pressure on Tom Brady without blitzing, which has always been the formula to beat Tom Brady. Even if the Jaguars don’t have an answer for Rob Gronkowski on defense and even if the Patriots consistently move the chains with runs and passes to running backs, the Jaguars’ defense should be able to keep the Patriots from putting up too high of a number by pressuring him and locking down his outside receivers. However, the Jaguars’ offense is not that complex and could have trouble against a well coached New England defense that has played a lot better in since the first half of the season. I’m taking the Jaguars at 7.5, but if this line moves to 7 by the morning I would take the Patriots. That’s how close this one is for me.

New England Patriots 27 Jacksonville Jaguars 20

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +7.5

Confidence: None

Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles: 2017 NFC Championship Pick

Minnesota Vikings (14-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (14-3)

I am kicking myself for not betting on the Eagles as 3-point home underdogs last week. I knew the Eagles had a great chance to cover and even win straight up if the Falcons played like they had all season, but was hesitant to bet on the Eagles because of the possibility that the Falcons would start to click and play like they did last season, when they made the Super Bowl with essentially the same core of the team. The Falcons never really found their Super Bowl form all season and thus were eliminated in Philadelphia by the final score of 15-10.

The Eagles will try to follow the same formula this week, hiding Nick Foles with their defense and running game. Even without Carson Wentz, the Eagles still have a lot of talent on this roster. Because of their supporting cast, I picked the Eagles to get a first round bye before the season started and I wasn’t even completely sold on Wentz at the time. Given that, I wouldn’t be shocked if they were able to advance to the Super Bowl with Nick Foles, especially since they are at home, where their top level defense has allowed just 13.00 points per game this season. The Eagles get a tougher opponent this week, as the Vikings are a step up in class from the Falcons, so I’m not that excited to take the Eagles as 3-point underdogs, but I do think we are getting some line value with Philadelphia.

Outside of the quarterback position, I have these two teams about even and, while the Vikings have the edge under center, I don’t think Keenum has enough of an advantage over Foles to justify the Vikings being favored by a field goal on the road. Keenum has been impressive this season, but he hasn’t had to play in a lot of tough situations and could struggle on the road against a tough Philadelphia defense. He’s also coming off of a relatively weak performance in the wild card round and was really saved by that miraculous play at the end. I’m not that confident in the Eagles unless you can still get +3.5, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Minnesota Vikings 17 Philadelphia Eagles 16

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +3

Confidence: Low

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots: 2017 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Tennessee Titans (10-7) at New England Patriots (13-3)

The Titans pulled off a stunning upset in Kansas City last week, not only winning straight up as 8-point road underdogs, but coming back from down 21-3 at the half. I wasn’t that impressed with their performance though. I’ve thought for a while that the Chiefs were an overrated team and, even still, the Titans likely would not have had a real chance to come back if the Chiefs didn’t lose tight end Travis Kelce with an injury late in the first half. Losing him completely shut down their offense and even one good drive in the second half probably would have been enough to ice the game, given that the game was only decided by a point. Even without Kelce, you could argue the Chiefs deserved to win because of a few questionable calls by the officials that did not go their way.

On paper, the Titans have a solid roster, but they are poorly coached, especially on offense, where offensive minded head coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie have been unable to design an offense that suits quarterback Marcus Mariota’s skill set. They went 9-7 in the regular season, but were tied with the Jaguars for the easiest schedule in the NFL and still finished with a -22 point differential, by far the worst among remaining playoff teams (the Patriots finished first at +162). This line is substantial at -13 and the Titans are still a talented team on paper, so I am not that confident in the Patriots, but this should still be a relatively easy playoff win for New England.

New England Patriots 34 Tennessee Titans 20

Pick against the spread: New England -13

Confidence: Low

Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles: 2017 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Atlanta Falcons (11-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)

I’ve gone back and forth on this one all week and I have good arguments for both sides. On one hand, while the Eagles are obviously not the same team without Carson Wentz, they still have a strong supporting cast, including a top level defense, and they are at home, where they’ve had a ton of success this season, especially defensively (13.4 points per game allowed at home). Because of their supporting cast, I picked the Eagles to get a first round bye before the season started and I wasn’t even completely sold on Wentz at the time.

They have a ton of talent on this roster and are above average at every position except quarterback. Casual bettors and fans get fixated on the quarterback position and don’t think Foles has a shot to win a playoff game, betting the Falcons heavily as 3-point road favorites, but even worse quarterbacks like Tim Tebow and TJ Yates have won home playoff games in recent years and they did so with less of a supporting cast than Foles has.

The Eagles also get a fairly easy matchup in this playoff game, as the Falcons finished the regular season 11th in point differential at +38 and 11th in first down rate differential at +1.28%, both of which are 7th among the 8 remaining playoff teams, only ahead of the Titans. The Falcons actually have just 3 road wins by more than a field goal this season, beating the Bears, Lions, and Jets by 6 points, 4 points, and 5 points respectively and in all 3 games the opposing team had the ball with an opportunity to win on their final drive, including drives that went down to the goal line against the Bears and Lions. About 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, so the Eagles have a decent chance to cover or push even if they can’t win outright.

On the other hand, the Falcons are significantly more talented than they’ve played this season. They’ve underperformed and they are not nearly as well coached as they were last season with Kyle Shanahan as their offensive coordinator, but they still have the same core as last season’s Super Bowl team and they may have turned a corner following their 26-13 win in Los Angeles over the Rams last week, even if the Falcons did get some help from fluky special teams fumbles.

The Eagles had a relatively easy regular season schedule and didn’t play a single game against any of the remaining other 7 playoff teams, so, if the Falcons can play like they can, it shouldn’t be too hard for them to win by at least a field goal in this one, but that’s far from a sure thing. I’m actually taking the Eagles, mostly to be contrarian and fade the public, but this is a no confidence pick. In fact, I think this one has a very good chance to be a push.

Atlanta Falcons 23 Philadelphia Eagles 20

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +3

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings: 2017 NFC Divisional Round Pick

New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Minnesota Vikings (13-3)

These two teams met way back in week 1, with Minnesota winning 29-19 at home, but so much has changed since then. At the time, that game was seen as a breakout game for both Minnesota quarterback Sam Bradford (346 passing yards, 3 TDs) and Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook (137 yards from scrimmage) and yet another example of the Saints struggling defensively, as they had for years. Bradford and Cook combined to play just 4 games the rest of the way due to knee injuries, while the Saints’ defense finished in the middle of the pack statistically this season thanks to breakout performances by rookie defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, who both got better as the season went on.

The Vikings’ offense obviously managed pretty well without Bradford and Cook, but they too finished middle of the pack, despite looking like potentially a top offense back in week 1. The Vikings would go on to win 13 games with Case Keenum under center and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray as their backs, but their defense was the primary reason they were winning games, as they finished 2nd in first down rate allowed, only behind the Jaguars.

On top of that, the Saints’ leading rusher week 1 was Adrian Peterson with 18 rushing yards and he is no longer on the team, getting traded to the Cardinals back in week 6, which cleared the way for Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (who combined for just 35 rushing yards on 13 carries back in week 1) to become the first running back duo ever to both compile 1,500 yards from scrimmage. After losing their first 2 games of the season to teams that would finish 13-3 (Minnesota and New England), the Saints ripped off 8 straight wins and finished as 11-5 champions of the NFC South, despite having the toughest schedule in the league by opponents’ record.

After all that’s changed with these teams, these two teams are the best in the NFC and very evenly matched on paper. The Vikings have a dominant defense and a capable offense, while the Saints have a dominant offense and a capable defense. It’s a shame that these two teams had to meet before the NFC Championship and I think the winner of this game will be playing in the Super Bowl in 3 weeks. I said last week that I think the Saints are the most complete team in the NFC and I stand by that, but the Vikings are very close.

I give the edge to the Saints because of experience. Case Keenum is starting his first ever playoff game and quarterbacks do not have a good track record in their first playoff start, while the Saints are easily the most experienced team in the NFC, with the duo of Drew Brees and Sean Payton together for 11 playoff games since they united in 2006. The Vikings obviously have homefield advantage, which could end up being the deciding factor in this game, but the Saints have a good chance to cover this 4-point spread even if they can’t quite pull the upset, as about 30% of games are decided by 4 points. The money line is also worth a bet because this game is close to a toss up.

New Orleans Saints 24 Minnesota Vikings 23 Upset Pick +170

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +4

Confidence: High

Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2017 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (11-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)

The Steelers finished the regular season 13-3, but are more vulnerable heading into the post-season than that suggests. They finished the regular season with a +91 point differential, 6th out of the 8 remaining playoff teams, as 8 of their 13 wins came by 7 points or fewer, including 5 wins by 3 points or fewer. In their final 9 games of the regular season, they won by more than a touchdown just twice, once against the TJ Yates led Texans and once at home on a short week against the Titans in a game that was still close in the 3rd quarter. Their defense has also been significantly worse since losing Ryan Shazier.

Their lack of blowout wins is especially relevant considering this line is 7.5. That’s way too high, as the Jaguars are more than a capable opponent. They finished the regular season 3rd in point differential at +149 and 2nd in first down rate at +5.95%, both higher than the Steelers. They benefited from a slightly easier schedule than the Steelers, but they blew out most of the teams they beat (average margin of victory of 20.20 points per game in the regular season), while the Steelers had trouble with teams like the Browns, Bears, Colts, and Bengals (one win by more than a touchdown in 6 games against those teams).

The Jaguars also beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh this season. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Jaguars will win again, as the team that previously won only wins at a 63.1% rate in non-divisional playoff rematches (48.3% rate as underdogs), but the Jaguars don’t have to win straight up to cover this spread, given how much cushion we are getting. I have this line at Pittsburgh -4, so we are getting significant value with the visitors at 7.5. This is a high confidence pick.

Pittsburgh Steelers 20 Jacksonville Jaguars 16

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +7.5

Confidence: High

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams: 2017 NFL Wild Card Round

Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at Los Angeles Rams (11-5)

This would be a tough game to pick against the spread in the regular season. This line has the Rams favored by 6 points and I have this line calculated at 5.5, so we aren’t getting much line value with the Falcons at all. However, in the post-season, the Falcons make more sense for pick ‘em purposes because of how much more experienced they are than the Rams. The Rams not only have one of the youngest rosters in the post-season, but their quarterback Jared Goff has never started a post-season game, while head coach Sean McVay has coached in just 2 post-season games, first as a tight ends coach and then as an offensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins in 2012 and 2015.

The Falcons, meanwhile, have a quarterback with 8 post-season games under his belt in Matt Ryan and a head coach in Dan Quinn that has been on the sidelines for 14 post-season games, including 3 as the Falcons’ head coach in 2016 and 6 as the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks in 2013 and 2014. That alone isn’t enough to bet on the Falcons, but, between that and the minimal line value we are getting with them, they should be the right choice for in pick ‘em pools. This should be a close game.

Los Angeles Rams 24 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +6

Confidence: Low