The four NFL QB’s still standing heading into Sunday look like something reminiscent of the name of a famous rock band. You could call them “Tom Brady and the Newbies.”
Tom Brady is no stranger to conference championship Sunday while the other three QB’s participating are Blake Bortles, Nick Foles and Case Keenum, and that is something nobody could have predicted prior to the season.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are currently 9-point road underdogs to the New England Patriots. New England is in the process of replicating the strong close they had last season as they finished the 2016 season on a 14-1 SU, 13-2 ATS in their last 15 games en route to their remarkable come-from-behind Super Bowl victory against Atlanta.
The Patriots, despite being one of the most popular public teams to bet on in any sport, have managed to put together another strong run of pointspread success as they head into this game and look to advance to their second straight Super Bowl. New England is 10-1 SU and ATS in their last 11 games with no pointspread seemingly too high for them to topple. They are fresh off a dominating 35-14 win as 13-point home chalk against the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round.
The Pats offense continues to roll having posted 26 points or more in seven of their last nine games but it is the play of their defense that has improved quite a bit down the stretch. For the entire season, New England is yielding 360 total yards per game on 5.9 yards per play. In their last three games, the Patriots have shaved off quite a bit of those totals on the defensive side of the football, surrendering 280 total yards per game and just 4.9 yards per play during that span.
New England’s suspect 20th ranked run defense was stellar on Saturday holding Derrick Henry to 28 yards rushing on 12 carries, and the lack of a consistent ground attack did not allow Titans QB Marcus Mariota any opportunity to get comfortable in a one dimensional offense. Jacksonville obviously has relied on their defense most of the season and the Jaguars rank 1st or 2nd in the NFL in total yards, passing yards and points allowed but the Jags stop unit has not faced the type of QB play they will see in this game for quite some time.
Even in the Jacksonville victory on Sunday, Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger still threw for 469 yards and 5 TD’s against the Jaguars who also were aided by a +2 TO margin in their favor. Prior to that game, Jacksonville’s defense allowed San Francisco QB Jimmy Garoppolo completed 21-of-30 passes for 242 yards and a pair of TD’s. The Jags shut down Buffalo, Tennessee and Houston but I would only consider the Titans being an average or better offense as Tyrod Taylor and T.J. Yates were the QB’s for their respective teams in the Bills and Texans games.
The point of this is the Jaguars defense is very good but not incapable of having the football moved on them. The precision-like preparation, scheme and execution level of the Patriots is as good as it can be right now offensively and I believe the Jaguars will have their hands full on that side of the football.
On offense, Blake Bortles took massive steps forward in terms of his decision making and accuracy in the win over Pittsburgh than what we saw from him last week against Buffalo as he did not throw a single INT but he still barely completed more than 50% of his passes. Bortles will need to make more plays in the passing game to give the Jaguars a chance at the massive upset on Sunday, especially after the Patriots stepped up their game in terms of stopping the run against the Titans.
The battle between the Vikings and Eagles truly could be decided by which defense makes more impact plays in terms of key turnovers forced and key stops. In outdoor January weather, it would be surprising to see Nick Foles and Case Keenum move the football with ease through the air against a pair of really good defenses.
Minnesota ranks No. 3 and Philadelphia No. 2 in defensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) according to Football Outsiders which is a great defensive metric that calculates a team’s success based on the down-and-distance of each play during the season, then calculates how much more or less successful each team is compared to the league average. These are two elite defenses, especially along the defensive front where both are capable of stopping the run and also getting a pass rush on opposing QB’s.
The Vikings and Eagles have identical 14-3 SU, 11-6 ATS records heading into this game. Minnesota is currently in the 3 to 3.5 point road favorite range against Philadelphia with a total of 38 which is indicative of the potential defensive grind this game could very well turn out to be. This game is all about protecting the football and which team does a better job of it. Minnesota has a +0.4 TO margin while Philadelphia has a +0.5 TO margin so that battle looks very even.
The Vikings needed a true “Minneapolis Miracle” to get here thanks to a Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs pass with no time left on the final play of the game to beat the New Orleans Saints last weekend and get an improbable win and cover in the process. Re-focusing and recharging off that kind of win may not be easy for the Vikings. On the flip side, Philadelphia will get to play the home underdog disrespect card as the NFC’s one-seed one more time after they defeated the Atlanta Falcons as a home dog in the divisional round and have once again been tabbed as home underdogs in the NFC title game here.
One of the more interesting trends that has developed here in the playoffs this season is the success of underdogs, which have cashed at a 6-1-1 ATS clip in the first eight playoff games of this postseason. That is something to keep in the back of your mind as you prepare to punch your betting tickets for Championship Sunday this weekend.