NFL Picks Week #19 (Divisional round)
NFL PICKS (WEEK #19 - Divisional Round)
BY PROFESSOR MJ
Hi everyone, this is Professor MJ, I hope you are doing well! Last week all four underdogs beat the spread, so since I picked two favorites and two dogs, I got two picks right and two picks wrong.
This week we’ve got another slate of four games for the divisional round in the NFL, including some very interesting matchups. The top two seeds from each conference are now entering the big dance, so it’s time to separate the men from the boys. Let’s do this!
PICK #1: Atlanta Falcons -2.5 at Philadelphia Eagles
Here is a very interesting stat about this game: according to Dan Hanzus from NFL.com, since 1998 we’ve seen 10 quarterbacks starting a playoff game with 3-or-fewer starts in that regular season. Nick Foles from the Eagles will be the 11th this weekend. Guess what is the combined record of those 10 quarterbacks? 3-7? 2-8? No, the answer is 0-10. Wow, that is not reassuring for Eagles fans.
Let’s talk about Nick Foles a little more. After throwing 4 TD passes in his first start against a weak Giants team, he looked really bad in his next two outings. He completed just 47% of his passes, averaged close to 4 yards per attempt, and threw one touchdown pass versus two interceptions. These two contests occurred against the Raiders and the Cowboys, two teams that finished near the middle of the pack in terms of points allowed.
This week, Foles will be facing a stiffer test against a very underrated Falcons defense who played great against the high-octane Rams offense last week. Much talk has been made about the Falcons offense not being as explosive as last year, but not enough talk has been made about how improved their defense is. Last year they finished 25th in yards allowed per game, while they ranked 9th this season. They allowed an average of 25.4 points per game in 2016 versus only 19.7 this year.
That being said, the Eagles defense is very solid too. They finished 4th, both in terms of yards and points allowed in 2017. Last week I mentioned that I do not handicap totals, but that I was tempted to take the under in the Buffalo-Jacksonville game because I expected a very low scoring game, which is what happened with a 10 to 3 score. This week I would probably go with the under in the Atlanta-Philadelphia game as I feel like both teams will struggle to move the ball, especially in a cold weather game and a few showers that are being forecasted as of now.
I’m taking the Falcons in this one, even though I’m a little concerned about the health of star receiver Julio Jones. He has been hampered by injuries throughout the year, and this week won’t be an exception. He did not practice Wednesday as he is bothered by an ankle injury, and you could see him limp a little bit during last week’s game. He will be needed for Atlanta to win this game.
I like the fact that the Falcons gained some valuable playoff experience last year.
By the way, the Eagles are the first #1 seed to open as an underdog in their first playoff game. It’s also interesting to note that Matt Ryan was raised in Pennsylvania.
PICK #2: New England Patriots -13.5 vs Tennessee Titans
One thing we have learned over the years about the Patriots is you don’t want to poke the bear. Don’t make them mad and even more motivated for a game. New England had to deal with a controversy about potential dissension among owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. They’ll want to quiet the critics, and that’s not good news for Tennessee.
I also feel like the Titans might run out of gas after playing back-to-back games where they basically needed a win to survive. Their comeback in Kansas City last week was great, but deep down inside they might feel like they’ve already accomplished something great.
In injury news, running back DeMarco Murray has been ruled out of the game, which is not necessarily a huge blow to the Titans considering how great Derrick Henry has been playing, but having him to keep legs fresh would have been nice. In contrast, the Patriots are likely to welcome back James White and Rex Burkhead in the backfield. With Dion Lewis already playing great, they will be loaded at this position.
Surprisingly, New England might need their running backs playing great because Tom Brady’s play has been dropping recently. The drop-off between his numbers over its first 12 games of the season versus the last 4 is jaw-dropping. During the first 12 games, he completed 68.5% of his passes compared to just below 60% the rest of the year. Brady threw 26 TD passes and 4 picks throughout the first 12 contests, while he got 6 TDs and 4 interceptions in his last four games. In other words, half of his interceptions this season occurred over the final four games.
There is a 16-year age difference between Brady and Mariota. Still according to Dan Hanzus from NFL.com, in 7 previous playoff games since 1970 featuring opposing quarterbacks with an age difference of 13+ years, the older guy went 6-1.
The Patriots have defeated the Titans on six straight occasions with Tennessee coming on top in Foxboro for the last time back in 1993. I am fully aware that players have changed over time, but I still thought I’d mention it even though that’s not a main justification for this pick.
I just don’t trust the Titans too much. New England finished the year with a +162 point differential, which is a lot better than Tennessee’s -22 point differential. Mariota threw just 13 touchdown passes versus 15 interceptions. Sure, he is great running the ball, but the Patriots are known for smart game-planning. And the playoff experience factor plays largely in favor of New England.
PICK #3: Pittsburgh Steelers -7 vs Jacksonville Jaguars
Back in week #5, the Jaguars came to Heinz Field and stunned the crowd with a 30-9 win, a game where Leonard Fournette ran for 181 yards and Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions and said after the game that he wondered “if he still has it.” Big Ben had a solid year after this match, and the team went on to win 11 of its final 12 games, the only loss being a heartbreaker against New England, a game they could have easily won.
There is no doubt the Jaguars defense is great. They finished 2nd in points allowed, yards allowed and total sacks. Guess which team finished first in terms of sacks? That’s right, the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s defense did a nice job, too. But their offense is much more trustworthy, not only in terms of how well they performed, but also with respect to playoff experience.
The Jaguars offense is just too one-dimensional, in my opinion. They rely on their running game too much, which makes game-planning much easier for opposing teams. Jacksonville scored 10 points last week against Buffalo and 10 points in their final regular season game at Tennessee. But seven of those points happened on a fumble return, so the offense has only generated 13 points over the past couple of games. Blake Bortles has been really horrible, there is no other way to put it. In case you are wondering, in the earlier meeting in Pittsburgh Bortles went 8-for-14 for 95 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. It was Fournette and the defense that did all the damage.
All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown is set to return after missing two games. He practiced in full this week. Whether he is 100% or not remains to be seen, though. But at the very least he should draw a lot of attention and could make the running game better.
One more thing to consider is the impact of Ryan Shazier. After suffering a scary spinal injury, he showed up at practice this week and he will probably be a source of inspiration for his teammates.
PICK #4: Minnesota Vikings -5 vs New Orleans Saints
It almost feels like this game will decide who moves on to the Super Bowl in the NFC because the #6 seed Falcons and the Eagles minus Carson Wentz appear like weaker teams. Minnesota will try to become the first team ever to play the Super Bowl at home.
The Saints had the #2 offense, while the Vikings had the #1 defense. We have witnessed seven occurrences of a top 2 offense facing a top 2 defense since 1990; the strong defense shows a 6-1 record.
This is the only game where I have observed a fairly clear reverse line move. The line opened at 3.5 and moved to 5 despite more than 60% of spread and money line bets going on New Orleans. In other words, sharp money is backing the Vikings.
The Vikings beat the Saints 29-19 at home in their season opener. But both teams underwent significant changes since that game in terms of player personnel. At that time, Sam Bradford was the Vikings’ starting quarterback and Dalvin Cook was their starting running back; both went down to injuries and were replaced by Case Keenum and a mix of Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray. As for the Saints, they got rid of ex-Viking Adrian Peterson, a decision that turned out great as the duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram had a stellar season.
Minnesota is pretty healthy, while New Orleans is battered which is a source of concern for them because depth could be an important factor when facing such a strong opponent.
Wow, can you believe I’m actually picking all favorites this week? As a sports investor that tends to pick more underdogs than favorites, even I am surprised by this phenomenon.
I am very grateful that you guys are there every week to read my reports, and please remember to take a look at my sportsbook reviews and clicking my affiliate links the next time you decide to do business with a new bookmaker. So this is Professor MJ, thanks again for your attention, I’ll be there next week to make picks about the Conference Championship games, see ya!