Sunday NFL playoff odds: Patriots, Saints listed as favorites

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The matchup involves the New England Patriots and Tom Brady, at home, in January, with the prospect of nasty northeast weather – but then there’s also their opponent’s sterling record as an underdog.

The Patriots are 4-point betting favorites on the NFL odds against the Los Angeles Chargers with a 47.5-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com for their Divisional Playoff matchup at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

The Patriots are 15-0 straight-up and 12-3 against the spread in their last 15 games as home favorites, according to the OddsShark NFL Database, and are also 7-3 ATS in their last 10 playoff games. However, the Chargers are 5-0 SU in their last five games on the East Coast, and are also 7-1 SU and ATS in their last eight games as an underdog of 4.5 or fewer points.

The Chargers, who are 13-4 SU and 10-7 ATS, did not need a great show of offensive proficiency to advance out of Wild Card Weekend, but quarterback Philip Rivers is one of the NFL’s best at the chunk play – passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield – and the Patriots, at least in the regular season, showed some vulnerability in their deep coverage.

The Chargers’ leading rusher, Melvin Gordon, is expected to be healthy to face a run defense that was 29th in opponents’ yards per carry (4.9).

How the Patriots, who were 11-5 SU and 9-7 ATS, go about their business barely needs introducing – they give Brady a tightly insulated pocket and work in a bruising running game. New England allowed just 21 sacks in the regular season but the Chargers have strong edge pass rushers in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.

The Chargers boast a stout pass defense (7.1 yards per attempt) that particularly excels at taking away tight ends, so Rob Gronkowski could be limited, forcing Brady to find outside targets such as Julian Edelman. New England’s losses this season have come when their ground game was stifled, and the Chargers have an adequate run defense.

Weather could be a factor, and the total has gone UNDER in five of the Chargers’ last six games against the Patriots, with a combined score of 40.5 points. The total has also gone UNDER in eight of the Patriots’ last nine games, with an average combined score of 40.89 points.

Also Sunday, the New Orleans Saints are 8-point betting favorites against the Philadelphia Eagles with a 51.5-point total in their Divisional Playoff matchup. The Saints are 14-2 SU in their last 16 games at home, but just 2-8 ATS in their last 10 playoff games as the favorite. The Eagles are 1-4 SU and ATS in their last five games against the Saints.

The Eagles, who are 10-7 SU and 7-9-1 ATS after eking out a Wild Card Weekend win at Chicago, seem to be a changed team from the one that lost 48-7 against the Saints eight weeks ago. Quarterback Nick Foles has a matchup against a defense that was in the lower third of the league in stopping the pass, so the playoff-seasoned Eagles might be able to extend a trend of being 6-2 ATS in their last eight games in the playoffs on the road.

The Eagles’ by-committee backfield gets different conditions indoors at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome than at Chicago’s Soldier Field, but the Saints have the league’s No. 2-ranked run defense.

The Saints, 13-3 SU and 10-6 ATS, clearly rate the edge at quarterback since Drew Brees has been unstoppable in his climate-controlled home. While the Eagles seem sounder physically and schematically than they were in that Week 11 shellacking, Brees just has too many weapons – Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, just to name two – and an offensive line that allowed just 20 sacks should limit the Eagles’ capability of getting pressure with a four-man rush.

One reason why the Saints might not cover the touchdown-plus point spread, though, is that their rushing game has regressed while the Eagles have improved in this phase, which could mean the Saints end up being somewhat one-dimensional.

The total has gone UNDER in three of the Eagles’ last four games against the Saints, with an average combined score of 50.5 points. The total has gone UNDER in five of the Saints’ last seven games, with an average combined score of 42.14 points.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Five NFL players who could become stars in 2019

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By Sam Monson, PFF Senior Analyst

One of my favorite aspects of PFF data and grading is how it can spot the obvious coming when it’s still some ways off on the horizon—getting ahead of the curve and identifying talent before it becomes self-evident. Every year there are players who excel in limited snaps before ultimately being handed a larger role and workload for their teams. When they continue dominating, we wonder how they were ever seen as anything other than superstars.

Case in point: When Joey Porter was a star and the sack leader for the Miami Dolphins back in 2009, coming off a 17.5-sack season, we at PFF were clamoring for his backup –- a former undrafted pass-rusher who had not long before been playing in Canada -– to get more snaps because he was generating pressure at a far greater rate than Porter. Cameron Wake ultimately went on to be one of the best pass rushers of the past decade and looked it from Day 1 if you were seeing beyond the box score numbers.

Such examples are everywhere, and each year it’s always an interesting exercise to take a look through the PFF grading and predict the players that could take that next step if they get the right opportunity. This past week we unveiled our PFF 50—a list of the best 50 players in football entering the season—but in this case let’s look a year from now and predict some players who could make that list in 2020.

Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills: If there’s a player with the backstory to rival Wake’s, it’s Wallace. With precisely zero scholarship offers coming out of high school, Wallace walked on at Alabama, and eventually earned a starting job. Then he had to do it all over again when he went undrafted before signing as a collegiate free agent with Buffalo. As a rookie in 2018, he earned the highest PFF grade of any first-year cornerback, along with the highest coverage grade, and wasn’t beaten for a catch longer than 29 yards all season. Though he played far fewer snaps than first-round selection Denzel Ward of Cleveland, Wallace looks like a potential star in the making if he’s given greater opportunity in year two.

Vita Vea, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: At the other end of the scale, you’ve got Vea, a player who went in the first round in 2018 but fell off the radar a little because he began the season injured, then took a little while to get going and ultimately didn’t produce the box score production people want to see. Vea ended up with only three sacks, but had 23 additional pressures as a pass-rusher, 17 of which came in the final six weeks of the season. Over that stretch of play, his overall PFF grade was 86.4, and he had a top-20 grade at his position, hinting at what’s to come.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings: Changing positions in the NFL can be a significant adjustment, and sometimes it takes time. The Vikings drafted Alexander in 2016’s second round and moved him inside to the slot after he principally played outside at Clemson. His transition wasn’t smooth, but he has now seen his overall PFF grade improve each year of his NFL career: from 47.5 as a rookie, to 54.1 in 2017, climbing to 78.1 last year. Over the final half of the season, he was the highest-graded cornerback in the league at 88.2, surrendering just 80 receiving yards in a seven-game span. Alexander could emerge as a force with the right opportunity in 2019.

O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Another former first-round pick, Howard has yet to top 600 receiving yards or 35 receptions in a season, even while tight ends are breaking receiving records across the NFL. Dive deeper into the numbers, however, and Howard looks primed for a huge season with an uptick in opportunity. His overall PFF grade last season was 89.4, higher than any other tight end outside of San Francisco standout George Kittle. And on a yards per route basis, he was third behind only Kittle and Kansas City star Travis Kelce. His average depth of target was 11.3 yards downfield, a top-five mark in the league, and now the vertical threat he brings is being linked up with new Bucs coach Bruce Arians and an offense that lives down the field.

Jon Halapio, C, New York Giants: The Giants are revamping their offensive line in a major way, but one of the unsung components of the rebuild is at center, where Halapio could emerge as a foundation piece to the new-look front. He began last year as New York’s starter before going down with an injury after just 116 snaps of action. But in those snaps, he didn’t allow a single pressure, despite almost 50 pass-blocking snaps against the Jaguars and their array of pass-rushing weapons. With vastly improved players beside him, Halapio could prove to be a significant upgrade as a player who isn’t being talked about much heading into 2019.

Why Jameis Winston could win NFL passing title in 2019

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By Pro Football Focus

We think Jameis Winston will challenge for the passing yardage title in 2019. Last year he trailed only Josh Allen in average depth of target. These throws put Winston in a position to do great things at times (he was second among quarterbacks in the percentage of throws we grade as “positive”), as well as bad things (he was 21st in limiting negatively-graded throws). New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has a track record of succeeding with high-variance quarterbacks like Winston.  In 2015 Carson Palmer had an MVP-caliber season under Arians, posting roughly the same average depth of target as Winston in 2018 and leading the league in percentage of positively-graded throws.  With Mike EvansChris Godwin and O.J. Howard a very capable trio of pass catchers, look for Winston to either make good on his 2015 draft position or give the Bucs no other option but to find his replacement the following year.