Saturday Divisional Round Matchups: Falcons, Patriots set as Favorites

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Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons nearly won at Seattle during the regular season, which is partially why they are a significant favorite against the Seahawks this week despite a poor playoff track record.

The Falcons are listed as five-point favorites against the Seahawks and Russell Wilson, with a 51.5-point total in their NFC Divisional Round matchup at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

Atlanta, which had a bye last weekend, is 7-2 straight-up and 6-3 against the spread in games following a bye week during Ryan’s career. However, Atlanta is just 1-5 SU and 0-6 ATS in its last six playoff games according to the OddsShark NFL Database.

The Seahawks, who are 11-5-1 SU and 8-8-1 ATS, seemed to get their running game untracked during their wild card win against the Detroit Lions. Thomas Rawls figures to have an opportunity for a big day since the Falcons allow 4.5 yards per rush, the worst of any playoff team.

Wilson will not be facing an imposing pass rush, and Atlanta’s ability to cover WR Doug Baldwin and TE Jimmy Graham could be affected without CB Desmond Trufant (chest). That said, Seattle has never won a playoff game on the road as the underdog, going 0-8 SU.

The Falcons, who are 11-5 SU and 10-6 ATS, may be capable of capitalizing on Seattle’s diminished deep pass coverage now that FS Steven Terrell is replacing injured All-Pro Earl Thomas. The Seahawks’ best chance of stopping Atlanta is through blitzing Ryan with DE Cliff Avril and MLB Bobby Wagner. Star WR Julio Jones will have a tough matchup against Seahawks CB Richard Sherman, but if Ryan has protection, there should be opportunities for playmakers such as RB Devonta Freeman and WR Taylor Gabriel.

The total has gone over in the Falcons’ last six games.

On Saturday night, the New England Patriots are 15-point betting favorites against the Houston Texans, with a 44.5-point total in the AFC Divisional Round matchup. The spread is the largest in the playoffs since 1998.

The Texans, who are 10-7 SU and 7-9-1 ATS, are going from facing Oakland Raiders rookie QB Connor Cook last week to facing Tom Brady in New England. The Texans rely on a  defense which has allowed the fewest yards in the league, with CB Johnathan Joseph and CB Kareem Jackson doing a stellar job of containing the short-range passes that are Brady’s specialty.

The Patriots, who are 14-2 SU and 13-3 ATS, already defeated Houston once this season, without Brady. New England, which is 4-1 ATS in its last five games against Houston, should be able to keep a run/pass balance thanks to RB LeGarrette Blount. Houston has struggled at covering running backs on pass plays and Brady, with Dion Lewis and James White, should be able to exploit that weakness.

The total has gone over in six of the last eight games between the Texans and the Patriots. In the last two years the favored team is 2-4-2 ATS in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs. Last year all four home teams won in the Divisional Round.

NBC Sports’ Josh Norris attempts the combine

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The lengths I go to entertain you.

Since I attempt to evaluate these prospects’ athleticism, my friends at NBC Sports thought it was only fair if I went through the same circuit of drills and tests as the future NFL players.

So what did I learn? I learned that I am no longer an in shape 18-year-old. I learned how important flexibility is for every single drill. I can’t even touch my toes, which does not help with the broad jump or turning the corner on a three cone. And I’m jealous of the rest these prospects get between their attempts.

For more of Josh’s drills, check out the full lineup here

T.O. controversy underscores need for Hall of Fame transparency

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I started down the T.O. Hall of Fame time out rabbit hole a week ago due primarily to concerns regarding a lack of transparency in the selection process. After a week of arguments, counterarguments, and a few condescending comments from voters who resent being questioned or criticized by people who don’t know the inner working of the process, I’m back to where I started.

Those who criticize the process indeed don’t know the inner workings of the process because the process is kept completely secret. And the T.O. case proves that the time has arrived for transparency.

As Peter King of TheMMQB.com pointed out earlier this week, those who voted against Owens largely have slipped into hiding.

The fact that Owens didn’t make it from the final 15 to the final 10 suggests that the nays are more plentiful than necessary to transform him from one of the final five into a Hall of Famer. Don’t underestimate, however, the possibility that the voters collectively realized that enough of them would never get behind Owens on the final ballot (where it takes only 10 to put the kibosh on Canton) to make pushing Owens to the final 10 or the final five an exercise in futility.

It ultimately may be only 10 people who are anti-T.O. Maybe there aren’t that many; maybe the handful was loud enough and zealous enough that they managed to convince enough of their peers to think that pushing Owens through to the final five would set the stage for an ugly filibuster at best or a complete waste of time (and a spot that could have gone to someone else) at worst.

The only obvious “no” votes currently known (by me) are Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News (he wrote a column about it), Jason Cole of Bleacher Report (ditto), Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts (he made his case against Owens in a radio interview), and Dan Pompei of Bleacher Report (his Twitter account makes his position clear). All of the “no” votes should be known, and those who have kept quiet while the process has been challenged generally and a small handful of their colleagues have been attacked specifically should speak up.

Even if all the “no” votes were known, we still won’t know everything that needs to be known. Those voters who have chosen to disclose their position on Owens refuse to disclose the identity of other Hall of Famers, players, and/or coaches who have privately said that Owens doesn’t belong. Setting aside the question of whether these non-voters should have so much sway over the process, the refusal to name them makes the process even harder to accept.

It’s one thing to gather facts anonymously. Gathering opinions anonymously allows for those anonymous opinions to be tainted by personal animus. Also, it makes objective assessment of the basis for the opinions impossible, allowing for all sorts of subjective factors to be twisted and warped — and for the voters to abdicate their responsibility to assess the candidate to the whispers of those who, given the benefit of secrecy, are far more likely to yield to the temptation of human factors.

The broader concern is this: When evaluating a player based on what he did on a 100-by-53-yard patch of grass or FieldTurf or green cement, it’s easy to assess the opinions of the voters and to develop opinions on the accuracy of the outcome of the votes. When things that happened from the sideline to the parking lot become relevant to the process, it becomes impossible to know what is being considered, why it’s being considered, which others have made it through despite similar concerns, and whether those standards will be applied to future candidates.

There can be no consistency without transparency, and with no transparency it’s impossible for those who view Owens as a knee-jerk Hall of Famer to understand his omission for a second straight year. The voters who oppose Owens can either sneer at those of us who think they got it wrong or they can heed the criticisms, lobby for meaningful change, and bring a different approach to the process in 2018.

If it’s the former, there will be more sneering at those of us who think they got it wrong, both as to Owens and as to others who seem to pass the Hall of Fame eyeball test but can’t get in.