Saints field-goal favorites on NFC Championship Game odds

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The idea of a Superdome mystique boosting the New Orleans Saints is not supported by their record against the spread when hosting postseason games.

The Saints, led by quarterback Drew Brees, are 3-point favorites  on the NFL odds against the Los Angeles Rams with a 56.5-point total for their NFC Championship Game matchup on Sunday at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

The Saints are 9-0 straight-up in their last nine home games against teams with winning records, but are just 2-7 against the spread in their last nine games in the playoffs as home favorites at the Superdome. The Rams are also 9-2 SU in their last 11 road games.

Home teams are 10-0 SU in conference championship games over the last five years and favorites are 8-2 SU.

The Rams, who are 14-3 SU and 8-7-2 ATS this season, come into this matchup that decides a Super Bowl berth as perhaps the hotter team. Since Week 15, the Rams’ Jared Goff-led offense is averaging 33.0 points per game and 5.92 yards per play, compared to the Saints’ averages of 21.0 and 5.65 with Brees behind center in that same span.

Since losing to the Saints 45-35 in Week 9, the Rams have fortified their ground game, with Todd Gurley being spelled by C.J. Anderson. The Rams have a much stronger running game than the Philadelphia Eagles team the Saints edged in the divisional round, and New Orleans also lost run-stuffing defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (Achilles) for the year during that game.

The Saints are 14-3 SU and 10-7 on the point spread, and between future Hall of Fame passer Brees and his supporting cast that includes wide receiver Michael Thomas and running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, they often prove tough to contain at home.

Bettors who put stock in the conference-championship home-team trend likely also know that the Saints are 15-2 SU in their last 17 home games. Thomas, who had 12 receptions for 171 yards against the Eagles, was even more productive against the Rams in the regular season with 12 catches for 211 yards.

With that said, matchups and health are also paramount and Saints left tackle Terron Armstead (pectoral) will be playing hurt while lining up across from a defensive front that includes fearsome Aaron Donald, along with Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers.

The last four NFC title games has all gone OVER the closing total at sports betting sites.

The total has gone OVER in five of the Rams’ last six games on the road against the Saints. The total has gone OVER in eight of the Saints’ last nine home games where they were favored by 4.0 or fewer 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.

Previewing NFL’s divisional round playoff games

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I’ve always hated “the divisional round,” as a name for the second weekend of NFL playoffs. Doesn’t come much more boring than that. I christen this weekend the Conference Semis. The most compelling game, from my chair, looks like the first one.

Saturday

Indianapolis (11-6, AFC 6th seed) at Kansas City (12-4, AFC 1st seed), Arrowhead Stadium, 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC.

I don’t recall the last time a respected football voice (Steve Young, in this case) said of a sixth seed: “Nobody wants to play the Colts right now.” But he did, and there’s evidence for that. Indy’s 10-1 since Week 7, and it’s not just The Andrew Luck Story. The Colts’ D suffocated Houston till garbage time, using more secondary blitzes than I’ve seen in a while. Unknown corner/slot corner Kenny Moore blitzed 11 times, per Pro Football Focus, and extra men were swarming around Deshaun Watson all night. The wild-card win is exhibit A of why defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is on the radar of several teams looking for a head coach this month.

With the Chiefs likely to get speed receiver threat Sammy Watkins back from a nagging foot injury that never goes away, that means it’s going to be an interesting race: Can the Colts’ rush get to Patrick Mahomes before he can find an answer in his five-across receiver sets? I can’t wait to see how the Chiefs try to block this Indianapolis front, and whether Andy Reid will just keep his aggressive downfield spread ethos and trust Mahomes to get the ball out quick. This game would be great strategic fun on that alone. Now add in the Luck factor, and coach Frank Reich’s ability to free up a variety of receivers weekly, and the fact that someone named Marlon Mack rushed for 148 yards, most in Indy team history, and the Chiefs have allowed 164 rushing yards a game over the last five games.

This looks nothing like a 6 versus 1 playoff game. This looks like a pretty even ballgame with great storylines.

Dallas (11-6, NFC 4th seed) at Los Angeles Rams (13-3, NFC 2nd seed), L.A. Coliseum, 8:15 p.m. ET, FOX.

Let’s step back for a minute and think how interesting it is that two years ago, the two teams now in southern California, the Rams and Chargers, were a woebegone 9-23, and league owners were rolling their eyes at the possibility of the combo platter of two lousy teams owning this valuable piece of NFL property known as Los Angeles. Now they’re 26-7, and they’re legit members of the NFL’s elite eight. Nothing is forever in the NFL.

Other than Jerry Jones getting to take his entourage to Nobu in Malibu, the best thing for Dallas about this weekend is this matchup. In 2018, the Rams gave up 5.1 yards per rush, which is beyond an Achilles heel. It’s preposterous, and it’s the biggest reason why the Rams could be endangered species when Ezekiel Elliott rolls into the Coliseum on Saturday evening. Elsewhere in this column I write about how impressive a football player (not just a great back; I mean a complete player) Elliott is. And the more the Cowboys are able to ride Elliott, the less of a factor Aaron Donald will be in making Dak Prescott’s life miserable.

The tale of two backs in this game—which will be the ratings bonanza of the postseason—has one big mystery: How healthy is Todd Gurley, and how productive can he be? Gurley hasn’t been himself since he saved the Rams with a 155-yard performance (rushing and receiving) at Detroit, and regardless whether he practices this week or is listed on the injury report, I won’t trust him till I see if he can dominate a game the way he did in the first half of this season. This game’s going to be closer than it looks.

Sunday

Los Angeles Chargers (13-4, AFC 5th seed) at New England (11-5, AFC 2nd seed), Gillette Stadium, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS.

For the NFL-record 10th straight year, the Patriots open the AFC playoffs at home. New England’s edges entering this game: 13 days between games … Rob Gronkowski can always use the rest … Bill Belichick is pretty smart, and smarter when he’s got two weeks to prepare … The Chargers could be weary, with L.A.-to-Baltimore, Baltimore-to-L.A, and Baltimore-to-Providence flights, 17 hours in the air in all, in a nine-day span prior to the game.

Now to the football: The Chargers have multiple pass-rush threats that bedeviled a mobile quarterback, Lamar Jackson, in a seven-sack whipping of the Ravens. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are the major threats, but Justin Jones and Isaac Rochell are big and quick too, and they both got to Jackson in Baltimore. So it’s a big, athletic defense that will be the challenge for Tom Brady, with the Chargers’ weakness their injuries at linebacker. This is not a game the Chargers will want to play seven defensive backs. New England’s strength will be the ability to play an unpredictable offensive game, as coordinator Josh McDaniels has designed run-heavy, swing-pass-heavy, pass-heavy, and Gronk-light plans during the course of a malleable season—so the Chargers won’t have much of an idea what they’ll see until a little after 1 p.m. Sunday.

The Chargers won’t be cowed by much of anything. They’ve won in four times zones this year, including Greenwich Mean Time. That’s London. “We love the road,” Derwin James told me. “Maybe a lot of teams don’t, but we’re young, we’re all good with each other, and we love spending time together. The road’s good for that.” Well, whatever works. The Chargers are 8-0 outside of Los Angeles this year. Then again, New England is 8-0 at Gillette this year. Something’s got to give.

Philadelphia (10-7, NFC 6th seed) at New Orleans (13-3, NFC 1st seed), Superdome, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX.

I was in New Orleans the weekend the Saints hosted the Eagles in November. “Hosted” is a collegial, misleading word. “Pillaged” would be better. Saints’ best six drives that afternoon in the Dome, against a team that looked dead for the year: 57, 86, 89, 89, 70, 87. Eagles’ best six drives: 75, 31, 19, 17, 16, 14. This was as brutal a mismatch as either team had all season … and now the Eagles travel to New Orleans again.

So why should it be different? Maybe it won’t be. Except for Miracle Nick Foles replacing Carson Wentz, there’s not much different about the Eagles eight weeks later. But the Saints are looking less invincible since then. After putting up 45, 51 and 48 in three straight November weeks, they’ve averaged a quite strange 21 points per game in the last six weeks (including a meaningless Week 17 game). The real Saints need to stand up here, if they’re going to win the second Super Bowl of the Payton/Brees Era. The offensive mortality has to give Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz hope.

On the other side, Foles is 4-0 in playoff games as an Eagle the past two seasons, and there’s something strange and almost eerie about the Eagles when Foles plays. They find a way to win. Fletcher Cox told me the Eagles players “just flushed” that November game—didn’t watch or study it; it got out of control against a secondary ravaged by injury, and Philly just moved on without allowing that game to defeat the players. We’ll see if that approach works.

The one thing you do notice about the Eagles on the defensive side now is they’re not held hostage by awful pass coverage. They’ve allowed 30 points just once since the Saints game. I think this game comes down to Drew Brees finding completions, short and intermediate, and not giving Foles more than eight or nine possession to make his magic.

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Predicting NFL playoff seeding ahead of Week 17

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Lots on the line next Sunday in Week 17. Nothing monumental, but there’s one win-and-you’re-in scenario and at least 22 teams have something to play for, as improbable as some of the scenarios are. The key games next Sunday as the league’s 99th regular season ends:

• For the sixth seed in the AFC: Indianapolis at Tennessee, 8:20 p.m. ET. The winner is the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs. The loser is eliminated. Two hot teams: Indy’s 7-1 in its last eight, Tennessee 6-2. A bit of irony: When Colts GM Chris Ballard was choosing his next coach, he was down to Mike Vrabel and Josh McDaniels in mid-January. I thought he was leaning Vrabel. But he chose the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, and Vrabel went to Tennessee, and Ballard got jilted by McDaniels, and Ballard chose Frank Reich as his head coach. And now Reich has the Colts, stunningly, one win from the playoffs after a 4-12 season. (Watch it on NBC on on the NBC Sports app)

• For the AFC North title: Cleveland at 9-6 Baltimore, and Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, both 1:05 p.m. The Steelers, as crushed as they must be after the weird and slightly unjust loss at New Orleans, will beat the woebegone Bengals. Since only one team from the North can make the playoffs—Ravens or Steelers—that means the Ravens would have to beat Cleveland to win the division. A Steeler win would leave the division in the hands of the revolutionized Ravens, who are running at a pace we haven’t seen in more that 50 years. But here comes Baker Mayfield, who doesn’t give a crap about anything but playing great and winning. The Browns are 5-2 since whacking Hue Jackson for Gregg Williams/Freddie Kitchens, and I think they have a chance to pull off a crazy win.

Now … about the Ravens running game. This is the craziest factoid of a crazy season—and it certainly is crazy when the Cleveland Browns are 7-7-1 with a game to play: Since Lamar Jackson has taken over the quarterback job in Week 11, the Ravens are 5-1, and they have run the ball 63.6 percent of the offensive plays. The 1964 Browns, with steamrolling MVP Jim Brown dominating the ground game, ran it 53.9 percent of the offensive snaps. The 1966 Packers, the first team to win the Super Bowl, ran 57.6 percent of the time. It’s Lamar Jackson’s world, and we’re just living in it.

• For the final two NFC seeds: Arizona at Seattle, Philadelphia at Washington, Chicago at Minnesota, 4:25 p.m. Seattle clinched a playoff spot Sunday night, and now has to beat the worst team in football, the Cardinals, at home, to clinch the fifth seed. The Vikings (8-6-1) and Eagles (8-7) will battle for one spot. If Minnesota beats the Bears, the Vikings make the playoffs; if they lose and Philadelphia beats Washington, the Eagles are in.

Will the Bears play all-out to win, with only a whisper of a chance to pass the Rams for the second seed? Good question. “We need some help,” Zach Ertz told me after the dramatic Philly win over Houston, “but we’ve had the kind of year where you just don’t know anything.”

The Eagles have had the strangest of seasons; they’ve gone 4-1 since being embarrassed 48-7 by the Saints last month. I asked Ertz what he’s learned in 2018 after the Eagles stormed to a Super Bowl win last year. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “The NFL is really hard. It’s really had to win football games, any game. I cannot believe the Miami Dolphins went undefeated all the way through the Super Bowl. I cannot believe the Patriots went undefeated [in the 2007 regular season]. That sounds a little simplistic, but it’s what I think.”

• For AFC seeding: The Chiefs host Oakland (4:25 p.m. ET), and if the Chiefs beat the 3-11 Raiders, they win first seed and will play at home throughout the playoffs … The Patriots host the Jets (1:05 p.m.), and if the Pats beat New York, they win second seed in the playoffs … Houston has a nightmare scenario: losing to Jacksonville (1:05 p.m.) and falling to the number six seed, with the Colts-Titans winner advancing to first place in AFC South. The 11-4 Chargers are locked at five, unless Oakland beats KC and LA wins at Denver (4:25 p.m.)

• For NFC seeding: New Orleans (13-2) has clinched the top seed … The 12-3 Rams must beat the Niners (4:25 p.m.) to clinch the other first-round bye and will be heavily favored to do so … The 11-4 Bears are likely locked into the three seed; they can only move up with a win over Minnesota and loss by the Rams to San Francisco … Dallas (9-6) is locked in at the four seed, with a Seattle-at-Dallas rematch likely in wild-card weekend. Very attractive TV matchup there.

So … my very imprecise crystal ball shows:

The AFC
1. Kansas City
2. New England
3. Houston
4. Baltimore
5. Chargers
6. Indianapolis

The NFC
1. New Orleans
2. Rams
3. Chicago
4. Dallas
5. Seattle
6. Minnesota

Under that scenario, all four wild-card games would be rematches of 2018 regular-season games, with three played at the same site, and all four games played in Eastern or Central time.

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