One constant in handicapping the playoffs is to bet the quarterbacks. As the NFL Divisional playoffs get set to start, the question right now is whether the betting public has taken that to an extreme.
Each of the four matchups for Saturday and Sunday feature lopsided examples of success and experience at quarterback against passers who have almost no understanding of what the playoffs are about. To put it another way, would anybody in their right mind bet on Jacksonville, with Blake Bortles under center, to beat Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger? Likewise, a monstrous 14-point line isn’t stopping most bettors from taking Tom Brady and New England over Marcus Mariota and Tennessee.
But the real question for everyone to consider is whether following the quarterbacks is wise in this round? The following is a breakdown of the four games for this weekend.
Atlanta (10-6) at Philadelphia (13-3) – The loss of second-year quarterback Carson Wentz has turned this from a likely walkover victory for the Eagles to one of the most fascinating games of the divisional round. In short, the seemingly inconsistent Falcons look like a strong bet to take down an Eagles team that seemed sure of making it to the Super Bowl when Wentz was healthy. The best news for the Falcons is that the weather in Philadelphia is expected to be nice this weekend, with a high of 51 degrees during the day before it cools off to below freezing at night. While Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is a Philadelphia native and played at Boston College, he is nine years removed from playing outside in bad weather on any type of regular basis.
The issue for Ryan is whether he can get his interception issues from the regular season under control. Ryan’s overall numbers regressed back to his career norms this season after his MVP performance in 2016. That wasn’t surprising. What was surprising were the 12 interceptions he threw because so many of them were in odd situations, such as the one off Marshon Lattimore’s back in the a late-season loss to New Orleans.
Moreover, the Falcons offense has struggled to get into the end zone this season. They have been held to two touchdowns or fewer in five of their past six games. The fortunate part is that 42-year-old kick Matt Bryant has been strong all season, including four field goals in the upset of the Rams in the first round of the playoffs and five in the critical season-ending victory over Carolina. The good weather on Saturday figures to help Bryant as well.
The other issue that is troubling for Philadelphia is that its yards per pass differential has plummeted under quarterback Nick Foles. After being at positive-1.6 yards per attempt with Wentz, the Eagles have dropped to negative-0.9 yards per attempt under Foles. That figures to play well into the hands of an Atlanta defense that has helped the Falcons maintain a positive-1.4 yards per attempt advantage all season.
Pick: Atlanta 19, Philadelphia 10
Tennessee (9-7) at New England (13-3) – This game is viewed as the most lopsided of the week, no matter how much Patriots coach Bill Belichick praises Mariota. But there are plenty of football strategists who believe that the Titans can keep this game close, although few believe they have a chance of winning.
The reason is that the Patriots defense will give up a lot yards, particularly to teams that like to run the ball. The Titans love to run it and have finally given second-year back Derrick Henry the majority of the workload. The key to this game is whether the Patriots can jump to an early lead and force Mariota to throw. That said, Kansas City did that very thing and Mariota posted the most impressive game of his young career.
That said, this is still a game with Tom Brady at the helm.
Pick: New England 24, Tennessee 14
Jacksonville (10-6) at Pittsburgh (13-3) – True believers in the Jaguars point to Jacksonville’s 30-9 victory over the Steelers in Week 3 as proof that there is a chance. Perhaps, but the notion that Roethlisberger will throw five interceptions again is more than a bit far-fetched. Furthermore, expecting Bortles to get through another game with only 14 throws is also unlikely.
The bottom line is this, Jacksonville was clearly scared to let Bortles do much in the playoff victory over Buffalo. That was a home game. This scenario is even worse. While Jacksonville cruised to victory the first time, the first half of that game was close (Jaguars led 7-6 at the halfway point) until the turnovers started to put the Steelers in a deep hole.
Pick: Pittsburgh 27, Jacksonville 13
New Orleans (11-5) at Minnesota (13-3) – This is another example of teams that matched up earlier in the season. The Vikings beat the Saints 29-19 in the season opener, but that was before quarterback Case Keenum replaced injured Sam Bradford for Minnesota. Keenum has had a career year in leading the Vikings to the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
That said, the betting public still loves Drew Brees more. While advanced analysis points to the fact that the Vikings should be a 6- to 6.5-point favorite, the betting line stands at 4 as of midweek because of Brees and his experience.
That may be a wise bet, but it’s best to consider that the Vikings defense isn’t just good, it’s historically good in some ways. Armed with an excellent secondary, the Vikings have the best third-down defense the league has seen in 26 years.
Pick: Minnesota 20, New Orleans 17