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For The Win: Conference Championships

NFL Picks Against the Las Vegas Lines

Here I am again this year, back for more NFL picks. Just like last season I will still be picking all of the NFL games each week, but I will try and help some of you with some confidence and rankings of the selections - which also may assist those of you with Las Vegas trips. I tend to rate games that I like (and some extras like Over/Unders) with 1-3 "Stars", which basically highlight my best bets for the week. Those games which have zero stars I don't truly like one way or the other, but will select to help those trying to get some advice for their weekly office pools or other contests that they may be participating in either this week or this season.

Well, that was mostly better – but those teasers continue to fluster me in the postseason.  Hopefully you stuck with my main picks (3-1) and my Picks of the Week (5-4) rather than the mediocre Best Bets.  We have just three games left, and these are going to be challenging.  We have four of the best teams in the NFL left as the two #1 seeds host the Conference Championship round against a #2 and a #3 team.  The games should be fantastic, but picking winners may not be that easy.  They say that defense wins championships, and we have four of the best of them coming this weekend.  Points may be hard to come by, which makes picking winners even tougher.  I recommend to tread lightly this week, but here we go:

Note that the lines and Over/Unders are taken from VegasInsider.com.

(Sunday, 3:05PM Eastern, CBS)  JACKSONVILLE (+9-9.5) at NEW ENGLAND (Over/Under = 46.5-47)
Defense wins championships, but being able to score 45 points never hurts.  That is what Jacksonville did last week in Pittsburgh, but most of the scoring was set up by the defense and a strong rushing attack.  Blake Bortles did contribute a few short passes to his tight ends, but the 21-0 lead established by the Jaguars were predominantly due to strong efforts by Leonard Fournette and the defense.  Pittsburgh put up a strong comeback try, but a Jacksonville defensive score and more rushing from the offense gave them just enough to hold on against the Steelers.  I revisited that game as to show both how good Jacksonville can be but also what needs to go right for them to have their perfect type of performance.  New England is going to try and do what Pittsburgh could not – stuff the run and play smart against that stifling defense.  Last week the Patriots knew that they had to shut down Derrick Henry to force Marcus Mariota to beat them, and they did just that on Sunday, holding Henry to just 68 yards.  Tom Brady mixed up the offense enough with two understudy running backs (James White, Brandon Bolden) finding the end zone three times as they complemented the 300+ yard passing game against the Titans.

So what will happen this Sunday?  New England will key on stopping Fournette and forcing Bortles to beat them – pretty much the same recipe I described for the Steelers last week.  The difference here is that I think the Patriots can execute that game plan better, but I still believe that Jacksonville is unlikely to be completely shut down on offense.  Similarly, Brady and the Patriots will look to spread the ball around on offense and look for cracks in the defensive armor of Jacksonville.  The Steelers did hint at how the Patriots are likely to best move the ball against the Jaguars, as Vance McDonald had the best game of any tight end against Jacksonville (10-112) this year.  Rob Gronkowski is going to be a matchup nightmare for the Jaguars, and I expect him to have a big game and set up the three backs (including Dion Lewis) to find holes both as rushers and on short passes.  It will be a hard fought battle but the weather looks like it should be favorable for the offense, and that favors Brady at home.  Jacksonville keeps it close, but New England is heading back to the Super Bowl.  Patriots 27, Jaguars 17.     PICK:  Patriots    

(Sunday, 6:40PM Eastern, FOX)  PHILADELPHIA (+3-3.5) vs. MINNESOTA (-4) (Over/Under = 38-38.5)
The two top seeds in the NFC clash for the rights to head to Super Bowl LII, and the Vikings have the added bonus (or pressure) of playing to be the first team as a true home team in a Super Bowl, as Minnesota is the host for the NFL’s grand finale this year.  As mentioned above, the weather looks good for Sunday on the East Coast, so the Vikings playing outside of a dome should not be impacted by cold, wet or windy conditions.  That favors Minnesota, who had a miraculous comeback on the final play of the game to even get to play this coming Sunday. 

The victor of the Saints-Vikings clash did not matter too much for the Eagles, as both teams pose difficult individual player matchups for Philadelphia.  The same could have been said for the Falcons, and the Eagles somehow kept Atlanta to just 10 points last Saturday.  The Eagles’ defense will be tested once again this week with Minnesota presenting two good running backs (Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon) and three strong receiving options (Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph). The speed of Diggs and the size of Thielen will challenge the Eagles, but if Philadelphia can put pressure on Matt Ryan then Minnesota will likely try and move the ball more with their running backs.  That plays into the hands of the Eagles as they have shut down many teams this year with their top-rated run defense.  The question then comes down to what Philadelphia can do to put points on the board.  Turnovers cost Philadelphia last week with two key ones in the first half as Jay Ajayi fumbled then a miscue on a punt changed field position.  If the Eagles can play a clean game, they will be in a good spot to play this game close.  Throwing to outside receivers against Xavier Rhodes has been difficult all year, but Michael Thomas had an outstanding game last weekend with two touchdowns.  That gives Nick Foles, Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor hope to move the ball in the passing game, and they have to step it up with Zach Ertz going against one of the tougher defenses against tight ends in the NFL (the Vikings are #1 in normalized fantasy points against tight ends the past five games). 

So here is what I expect – the Eagles use the same game plan as they used against Atlanta, looking to get pressure on Case Keenum and shut down the ground game.  Then they have to play Thielen and Diggs tough just like they did against Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu.  Minnesota is going to look to find ways to break down that defense and get the offense moving, but I see both defenses shutting down both offenses for the most part and this to be a low-scoring, defensive struggle where every point will be critical. If either team hits one explosive play it could radically change the outcome, and both defenses know it.  Philadelphia may come out aggressive early on offense and look for a big play, and so could the Vikings.  I think both defenses will rise to the challenge, and with points hard to come by I have to take the home underdog once again in what should be a low-scoring affair.  Eagles 20, Vikings 17.  PICK:  Eagles  

BEST BETS

Once again this year I will give not only the "Best Bets" but also a rating of each one on a 1-3 "Star" scale. The more stars, the more I like that side of the game.

Before I delve into the picks, I will say this time of the year is when you can really use Las Vegas against themselves.  The sportsbooks spend extra time analyzing these four contests, and the lines they set are usually rather strong.  To use this, it is a great time to use teasers and pair up teams you expect to win and take the leverage that those teasers give you.

In addition, the spreads this week are set up perfectly for several Wong Teasers in play.  These are teasers that target margins of victories of 3 and 7, so point spreads at -7.5 to -8.5 are perfect targets as a 6-point teaser moves across both 3 and 7.

* ONE STAR *

  • 6-POINT TEASER:  NEW ENGLAND (-3.5) vs. JACKSONVILLE (Under 53)
  • JACKSONVILLE “FOR THE WIN” (+375) at NEW ENGLAND (Good odds / hedge)
  • 3-TEAM, 6 POINT TEASER (1.65-1 ODDS):

    • JACKSONVILLE (+15.5) at NEW ENGLAND
    • NEW ENGLAND (-3.5) vs. JACKSONVILLE
    • JACKSONVILLE at NEW ENGLAND (Under 53)
  • 4-TEAM, 6 POINT TEASER (2.65-1 ODDS):

    • JACKSONVILLE (+15.5) at NEW ENGLAND
    • NEW ENGLAND (-3.5) vs. JACKSONVILLE
    • JACKSONVILLE at NEW ENGLAND (Under 53)
    • PHILADELPHIA (+9.5) vs. MINNESOTA   
  • 5-TEAM, 6 POINT TEASER (4.1-1 ODDS):

    • JACKSONVILLE (+15.5) at NEW ENGLAND
    • NEW ENGLAND (-3.5) vs. JACKSONVILLE
    • JACKSONVILLE at NEW ENGLAND (Under 53)
    • PHILADELPHIA (+9.5) vs. MINNESOTA
    • PHILADELPHIA vs. MINNESOTA (Under 44.5)

** TWO STAR GAMES ** 

  • PHILADELPHIA “FOR THE WIN” (+155) vs. MINNESOTA  
  • 6-POINT TEASER:  JACKSONVILLE (+15.5) at NEW ENGLAND (Under 53)
  • 6-POINT TEASER:  PHILADELPHIA (+9.5) vs. MINNESOTA (Under 44.5)

2-TEAM, 6 POINT TEASER:

  • JACKSONVILLE at NEW ENGLAND (Under 53)
  • PHILADELPHIA vs. MINNESOTA (Under 44.5)

*** THREE STAR GAMES ***

  • None this week.

PICK(S) OF THE WEEK: 6-Point Teasers of Eagles/Under, Jaguars/Under, Patriots Under, Under for both games and PHILADELPHIA “FOR THE WIN”  

RESULTS

Last Week

  • OVERALL: 3-1 (75%)
  • BEST BETS (STARS): 16.4-18 (47.7%)
  • PICK OF WEEK: 5-4 (55.6%)

Playoffs

  • OVERALL: 3-5 (37.5%)
  • BEST BETS (STARS): 22-43 (33.8%)
  • PICK OF WEEK: 5-7 (41.7%)

Regular Season

  • OVERALL: 127-124-5 (50.6%)
  • BEST BETS (STARS): 172.65-213-3 (44.8%)
  • PICK OF WEEK: 58-60-1 (49.2%)

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to pasquino@footballguys.com.