Divisional Round Edition
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*Note – DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average: It’s Football Outsiders’ primary efficiency statistic and I believe it to be the best and most predictive measure of assessing the strength of NFL teams
**Note – All betting odds courtesy of Vegas Insider
***Note – Public betting refers to the amount of wagers taken on the spread
Mando’s Records Entering the Divisional Round
Straight Up: 180-80 (.692) Playoffs: 3-1 (.750) Total: 344-181-2 (.655)
Spread: 149-100-11 (.594) Playoffs: 3-1 (.750) Total: 300-208-19 (.587)
Over/Under: 146-108-6 (.573) Playoffs: 3-1 (.750) Total: 288-233-6 (.552)
Locks: 24-4 (.857) Playoffs: 0-0 (.000) Total: 56-10 (.848)
Best Bets: 69-45 (.605) Playoffs: 2-2 (.500) Total: 198-145-1 (.577)
*Note: Total records date back to 2016 season.
CAPITAL Letters indicate pick with spread
*Aster-risk denotes LOCK
#6 vs #1
Spread: ATL -3 Over/Under: 40.5
DVOA: ATL (12) < PHI (7)
Public Betting: ATL 62%
In an unprecedented betting scenario, the books have the sixth-seeded Falcons as small favorites against the top-seeded Eagles. The main reason for this is the simple comparison of Nick Foles and Matt Ryan at the quarterback position. While Ryan hasn’t had his best year, anyone with even a sliver of football knowledge would rather have the 2016 MVP under center than Foles.
Yet while the Falcons have the clear advantage on offense, that edge could be countered by the Eagles’ stingy defense –a unit that quietly finished second in the NFC with just 295 points allowed. Let’s also remember that Philadelphia is at home. Neither Mando nor myself are big home-field guys, but 60 minutes at the Link is no fun if you aren’t from the city of BOOtherly love. If the Eagles can keep this game in the high teens or low twenties by the fourth quarter, they can win, as getting into a shootout with Atlanta will sink Philadelphia.
When all is said and done, I expect the Eagles to advance to their first NFC Championship since 2008, and their first at home since 2004.
PHILADELPHIA 24, Atlanta 23
No doubt that Nick Foles is Philadelphia’s biggest concern. In the three games the Eagles have played without Carson Wentz, the Eagles rank 29th in the NFL in yards per play. And to make matters worse for Philly, the Falcons’ underrated defense has been terrific of late. After shutting down the Rams’ high-powered offense last weekend, Dan Quinn’s squad ranks 3rd in the NFL in red zone defense over the past three weeks (this likely isn’t a short-term trend either, as Atlanta finished the regular season 5th in this category as well).
But there is good news for the Eagles. For starters, their defense is terrific: they finished 5th in DVOA and 7th against the pass, according to Football Outsiders (FO). And then there is this remarkable stat: dome teams playing outdoor playoff games in sub-35 degree weather are 4-23. 4-23! Today’s forecast? 34 degrees.
In short, I’m still taking Atlanta, but I’m not putting a penny on the spread for this game.
ATLANTA 22, Philadelphia 16
#5 vs #1
Spread: NE -13.5 Over/Under: 48
DVOA: TEN (18) < NE (1)
Public Betting: NE 71%
Tennessee will need to capitalize on its one distinct advantage if it wants to avoid being blown out by the top-seeded Patriots. After rushing for 156 yards last Saturday against the Chiefs, Derrick Henry has another favorable matchup against New England’s 30th-ranked run defense. The Patriots’ front-seven should benefit from the return of both DT Alan Branch and ILB Kyle Van Noy from injury, but the Titans clearly have an opportunity to successfully move the ball while also keeping Tom Brady and company off the field.
Regardless, I doubt Tennessee will be able to relentlessly pound Henry. That’s because the Patriots have plenty of matchup advantages of their own against the Titans’ pedestrian defense. Look for Rob Gronkowski to have a particularly big day, as Tennessee allowed the most receptions per game to opposing tight ends during the regular season. And don’t be surprised if the Patriots pour on the points in what could be a blowout by halftime.
*NEW ENGLAND 34, Tennessee 17
The Boston sports media is doing its job of trying to coax me into believing this game will be close. While I do believe the Pats-Titans clash will be closer than the 13.5-point spread suggests, I see the Patriots’ vaunted offensive attack as too much for the Titans to overcome. So my advice for Tennessee is this: keep the game within seven points at halftime, and don’t overuse Derrick Henry in the first half. The Patriots are certainly a weaker defensive unit against the run, but they’ve proven to be effective against the pass. Tennessee must play within their depth if it is to advance.
New England 31, TENNESSEE 19
#3 vs #2
Spread: PIT -7 Over/Under: 41
DVOA: JAC (10) < PIT (4)
Public Betting: PIT 61%
What a Sunday this is shaping up to be. This AFC tilt could be the best game of the weekend, due in large part to the 30-9 rout the Jaguars hung on the Steelers earlier this season. Jacksonville is going to make life difficult for the Steelers’ elite group of wideouts, which I think will open things up for Le’Veon Bell. Sure, the Jaguars have an intimidating front-seven, but I trust Bell enough to make the necessary plays to open things up for Pittsburgh’s offense (and with all the contract-related banter surrounding Bell, he better hope he does).
Here’s what it comes down to for me: Ben Roethlisberger and Blake Bortles are not even in the same realm of skill level. Bortles rushed for 88 yards against Buffalo last week, but passed for a putrid 87. Those numbers won’t beat the Steelers, and I can’t really envision Bortles elevating his play enough to send Jacksonville to the AFC title game.
Pittsburgh 23, JACKSONVILLE 17
I was surprised to read ESPN’s predictions for this weekend’s games and find that all 11 insiders predicted Pittsburgh to beat Jacksonville. Really? No one is predicting an upset? As JMac mentioned, this Jaguars team has already waltzed into Heinz Field and trounced Pittsburgh, albeit in early October. Plus, even though he is projected to play, who knows how Antonio Brown will perform in his first appearance since injuring his leg against New England?
In short, I give Jalen Ramsey, Calais Campbell, and Co. a realistic chance to beat the Steelers once again. But say your life depended on the outcome of this game: there’s no way any rational person would stake their faith in Blake Bortles. I guess those ESPN insiders have it right after all.
Pittsburgh 19, JACKSONVILLE 16
#4 vs #2
Spread: MIN -5 Over/Under: 46.5
DVOA: NO (2) > MIN (3)
Public Betting: NO 63%
Not only could this matchup ultimately decide which NFC team will appear in Super Bowl LII, but it pits the conference’s most prolific offense against the NFL’s stingiest defense. Which unit has the edge? Most numbers point to Minnesota, as it ranks in the top five in the NFL against both the pass and run and has allowed the lowest third-down conversion rate that the league has seen since 1991 (25.3%).
I still wouldn’t write off Drew Brees, though. The future Hall of Famer had one of the best playoff games of his career last Sunday; and as I have been saying since midseason, he hasn’t had a supporting cast as dynamic as the one he has now thanks to the combination of Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara, and wide receiver Michael Thomas. Plus, although the Saints’ defense was torn apart by Sam Bradford and the Vikings back when these teams met in Week One, New Orleans’ D has improved dramatically: in fact, the Saints rank 3rd in the NFL in defensive DVOA since Week Three thanks largely to the emergence of rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
Admittedly, a part of me feels foolish picking against the formidable Vikings on their home turf. But I will remain committed to New Orleans, my pick to reach the Super Bowl since early November!
NEW ORLEANS 24, Minnesota 20
I try to pass myself off as a knowledgeable football writer, but this game is a real toss-up. Drew Brees pulled off another remarkable performance against the Panthers last week, throwing for more than 370 yards as the Saints continued their run as the NFC’s dark horse. There’s no mistaking the fact that New Orleans is the best offensive team left in the NFC, but it is going up against Minnesota’s top-ranked defense on Sunday afternoon. This game will come down to how effectively New Orleans’ offensive line can withstand the Vikings’ vicious defensive line. Keeping Brees upright will be imperative if the Saints are to win. If New Orleans can do this, it has a real shot, unless Minnesota’s Case Keenum can find ways to attack the Saints oft-vulnerable defense.
NEW ORLEANS 33, Minnesota 30
And lastly, here are Mando’s Best Bets for the Divisional Round…
- TEASER: Atlanta vs Philadelphia UNDER 47 & NEW ORLEANS (+11.5) over Minnesota
- TEASER: NEW ENGLAND (-7) over Tennessee & JACKSONVILLE (+13.5) over Pittsburgh