Conference Championship 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 Conference Championships
Straight Up: 181-83 (.686) Playoffs: 4-4 (.500) Total: 345-184-2 (.652)
Spread: 151-101-12 (.595) Playoffs: 5-2-1 (.688) Total: 302-209-20 (.588)
Over/Under: 148-110-6 (.572) Playoffs: 5-3 (.625) Total: 290-235-6 (.552)
Locks: 25-4 (.862) Playoffs: 1-0 (1.000) Total: 57-10 (.851)
Best Bets: 71-45 (.612) Playoffs: 4-2 (.667) Total: 200-145-1 (.579)
*Note: Total records date back to 2016 season.
CAPITAL Letters indicate pick with spread
*Aster-risk denotes LOCK
#3 vs #1
Spread: NE -7.5 Over/Under: 46.5
DVOA: JAC (10) < NE (1)
Public Betting: NE 60%
Support for the surging Jaguars is building. Four of SBNation’s seven pundits, for instance, are taking Jacksonville to knock off the defending champs on their home turf.
Is Blake Bortles (16 turnovers in the regular season; 53.1% completion percentage in the postseason) really going to lead a team into Foxboro and knock off Tom Brady and company? Well, potentially. With a stifling defense that ranks tied for first in opponent yards per play as well as a punishing rushing attack, Doug Marrone’s squad has been able to dominate opponents, as Jacksonville led the NFL with six victories by at least 20 points and held opponents to ten points or fewer on nine occasions during the regular season. And as they unexpectedly proved last week in their 45-42 win over Pittsburgh, the Jaguars are also able to prevail in shootouts.
Moreover, the ‘Jags match up well against New England in a number of ways. For starters, the nickname “Sacksonville” didn’t emerge out of thin air. With two outstanding pass rushers in Calais Campbell (14.5 sacks) and Yannick Ngakoue (12 sacks), Jacksonville fits the profile of other defenses that have historically given the Patriots’ offense trouble (i.e. Justin Tuck, Osi Umemyiora and the Giants; Von Miller and the Broncos). There’s also little doubt that the Jaguars’ top-ranked secondary is capable of locking down the likes of Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan while their pass-rush bears down on Brady. Plus, their offense even has an opportunity to exploit the Patriots’ run defense (31st in opponent yards per attempt) and control time of possession.
But let’s not overrate the Jaguars. Main reason why, of course, is because they’re quarterbacked by Blake Bortles, who sometimes struggles to complete even the most rudimentary of passes. However, I actually have some questions about their defense as well. Last week, for instance, they allowed 42 points to Pittsburgh. Sure, the Steelers’ final output was certainly deceptive, but it made me wonder: is Jacksonville’s defense as stout against quality offenses?
Here’s what I found after comparing Jacksonville’s performances against offenses that simply ranked in the top 20 of offensive DVOA with those that did not.
- Games against offenses ranked 1-20 in DVOA: 4-4; 26.9 points allowed per game
- Games against offenses ranked 21-32 in DVOA: 8-2; 9.8 points allowed per game
Translation: Jacksonville feasted on bad offenses and wasn’t nearly as dominant against good ones. This trend will continue against New England, too. Even though I project the Jaguars to shut down the Patriots’ receiving corps, I don’t expect their defense to find a way to contain both Rob Gronkowski and Dion Lewis. Jacksonville will almost certainly try to take away Gronkowski, but linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith ranked only 20th at defending opposing tight ends, according to Football Outsiders. As for Lewis, who is averaging close to 130 yards from scrimmage in New England’s last four games, he’s likely to exploit the Jaguars’ relatively weak run defense in order to take pressure off of Brady.
Look for turnovers and red zone scoring to also play a crucial role in this contest. Talk about strength vs strength matchups: the Patriots have the league’s second fewest giveaways; the Jaguars, meanwhile, have the most takeaways. New England has a top-five red zone scoring defense; Jacksonville, somehow, has the league’s top red zone offense.
Ultimately, however, the Patriots’ offense is dynamic enough to overcome Jacksonville’s feisty defense. I also doubt that Blake Bortles will build off his solid performance against the Steelers’ soft defense (28.0 points per game allowed in previous five games): after all, New England, surprisingly, is first in the NFL in points against since Week 5 (14.0).
Bill Belichick’s squad is simply more well-rounded and better quarterbacked. Unless Brady’s mysterious hand injury is actually serious, I’m confident that the Patriots will hold serve as 7.5 point favorites and advance to a third Super Bowl in four years.
NEW ENGLAND 24, Jacksonville 16
#2 vs #1
Spread: MIN -3 Over/Under: 39
DVOA: MIN (2) > PHI (7)
Public Betting: MIN 51%
Case Keenum vs Nick Foles in the NFC Championship: just as everyone expected! I feel like Peter Griffin can best describe how nearly all of us feel about this matchup: “My whole world has been turned upside down — black is east, up is white!” I mean, combined with Blake Bortles and the Jaguars appearing in a Conference Championship, how is this all happening?
I suppose the best explanation is that this season’s championship weekend serves as a reminder that two fabled football axioms remain valid. The first one is this: defense wins championships. Though I’ve actually been skeptical of this rather cliche expression in recent years (and though it remains impossible to deny the correlation between strong quarterback play and team success), there is no doubt that three of these four finalists are still competing for a Super Bowl mainly because of their terrific defenses. And in the case of both Minnesota (1st in scoring defense) and Philadelphia (4th), their defenses will have clear advantages over the respective offenses they face on Sunday.
The second axiom is that football games are won in the trenches. Unsurprisingly, the NFC’s two remaining teams are particularly strong in this regard as well. Philadelphia has multiple Pro Bowlers on both its offensive and defensive line (Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks, and Fletcher Cox), while Minnesota ranked 5th in run defense during the regular season and protected Keenum better than all but two teams in its conference.
As for how these matchups will materialize on Sunday, the battle at the line of scrimmage will undoubtedly be important for Philadelphia to win. The Eagles must neutralize disruptive players like defensive end Everson Griffen (13 sacks) because Foles (51.8 passer rating under pressure, 34th in NFL) doesn’t fare well under pressure. Conversely, it would also help if Cox and fellow defensive lineman Brandon Graham made Keenum’s life miserable, although it’s not necessarily true that this would drastically harm the Vikings’ offense, as the former undrafted free agent had one of the best quarterback ratings under pressure in 2017.
With respect to Philadelphia’s offense, though, it will need productive games from its running backs even if its offensive line is able to successfully keep Foles upright. In last week’s victory over Atlanta, Doug Pederson crafted a terrific game plan that relied mostly on Jay Ajayi (98 yards from scrimmage) and third-down back Corey Clement (5 receptions, 31 receiving yards) in order to provide Foles with both a solid rushing attack and short, efficient throws.
However, I highly doubt that the Eagles will have similar success against Minnesota. For starters, it’s not like they lit up the scoreboard in their 15-10 victory over Atlanta. And more importantly, whereas the Falcons ranked just 20th in rushing defense and 21st at defending opposing running backs out of the backfield, the Vikings rank 5th and 1st in these respective categories.
In other words, Philly will need Foles to step up, but I just don’t see that happening. The Eagles’ offense is limited without Wentz, and that will be made even more clear on Sunday night. Yet can Philadelphia overcome this weakness in front of a raucous home crowd like it did last Saturday? Sure, there’s a solid chance.
Nonetheless, I’ll side with a Vikings team that has won twelve of their last thirteen and has momentum on their side after that miraculous finish against New Orleans.
MINNESOTA 20, Philadelphia 13
And lastly, here are my Best Bets for Championship Weekend…
- New England vs Jacksonville UNDER 46.5
- Minnesota vs Philadelphia UNDER 39
- TEASER: JACKSONVILLE (+14) over New England & PHILADELPHIA (+9.5) over Minnesota
- TEASER: New England vs Jacksonville UNDER 53 & Minnesota vs Philadelphia UNDER 45.5