Divisional Wrap Up & Initial Thoughts about Conference Championships

WOW ... that is the first word that comes to mind after watching the end of the Minnesota - New Orleans game, capping an exciting weekend of football. Except for the New England - Tennessee game which was kind of a snoozer (unfortunately the NFL picked the wrong game to showcase on Saturday night just as it picked the wrong game the previous weekend for the Wild Card round), all of the other games had you on the edge of your seat. Let's recap each one before we share our thoughts about the two big games this Sunday.

We knew Atlanta being favored to beat Philadelphia was off and hopefully you heeded our advice in our piece last week that predicted Philly would win by at least 5 points. The result was a 5 point victory. We will acknowledge that losing Carson Wentz is a big blow to the Eagles' chances of finally winning a Super Bowl for a city that loves it sports but has had so much heartbreak over the years. However, making them a 3 point dog at home - after two weeks of rest and earning home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs - to a wild card team that barely made the playoffs showed absolutely no respect to the rest of the Eagles' roster. Most football fans realized throughout the season that the Eagles were perhaps the most balanced team the NFL has seen since the start of the salary cap era over 20 years ago. Losing a star QB will hurt your chances but not to generate that much of a swing in the point spread. The Eagles played smart on offense by not forcing throws into tight coverage and leaned on the running game as we accurately predicted. Speaking of balance, the Eagles had 30 pass attempts and 32 rush attempts. Every other team last weekend except for Jacksonville went pass heavy. Nick Foles did a superb job of managing the offense and the Eagles won the war in the trenches. Still, it was not easy. The Falcons came awfully close to pulling off another road victory when Julio Jones nearly came down with the football at the back corner of the end zone with a heave from Matt Ryan, reminiscent of "The Catch" by Dwight Clark. Philly moves on and is rewarded with another home game and an extra day of rest.

As for the other home field advantage team, Vegas was right in heavily favoring the Patriots against the Titans. We thought 13.5 points was too much and initially that seemed correct when Tennessee marched down the field at the start of the game to take a 7-0 lead. Of course you would expect the Patriots to figure things out on offense, especially at home against a mediocre defense ... and so they did. However, Tenneesee's offense was pretty much non-existent for the rest of the game. Credit defensive coordinator Matt Patricia (who is rumored to moving on to become the head coach for the Detroit Lions) for the improvements he made to the defense after a terrible start to the season. Except for a Monday Night game loss on the road at Miami in December (which seems to happen often when those two divisional rivals play near the end of the regular season) and wild ending the following week in Pittsburgh which, for the most part, determined home field advanatge, New England has not given up 20 or more points since a 33 - 30 loss at home to Carolina on October 1. That is a 13 game stretch of giving up fewer than 20 points per game except for the Miami and Pittsburgh games. On the stats sheet, the Patriots may not rank as high as the remaining teams in the NFL postseason like Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville, but lately the Patriots defense has been a far cry from being a liability as it was to start the season. The linebackers are still a bit suspect for New England but all other defensive positions look solid.

Moving on to the other AFC game, we should have stuck with our initial prediction of Jacksonville winning. At least we were correct with them covering the spread! I guess when you overthink these games, you tend to second guess yourself! We knew the Jaguars could run the ball since the Steelers run defense ranked really low during the final four weeks of the regular season. No coincidence there since that is when Ryan Shazier was sent to the hospital due to a career threatening spinal injury. Fortunately he has feeling back in his legs which momentarily was gone so it's safe to assume that going back to football is not worth it. Losing the heart of your defense definitely stings and the Jaguars took full advanatge of that with an amazing run game to the tune of 35 carries for 164 yards and 4 TDs. Otherwise, we think Pittsburgh would be playing New England for a rematch of last year's AFC title game. One thing we did not anticipate was the pace of this game. I don't think many people expected that game to be a track meet and with Pittsburgh playing from behind for the entire game, they did make it entertaining with their Killer B's (Big Ben, Bell, and Brown). If you happen to play DraftKings or FanDuel and took those three guys, good for you. You made a lot of money! Still, it wasn't enough as the Jaguars knew how to expose the Steelers' weakness of defense and also had a defensive TD which seemed to make the difference in the final score. QB Blake Bortles was never sacked and the Jaguars did not commit any turnovers. Like the Eagles, the Jaguars managed the offense well and the defense held its own for a good portion of the game.

We end our recap by saving the best for last. The ending to the Vikings - Saints game has to rival some of the greatest endings in NFL playoffs history. I was almost certain that the Vikings would lose with just 10 seconds left and no timeouts while they were still on their own 39 yard line. Then Stefon Diggs caught an accurate throw from Case Keenum. Fine ... you caught a great pass so try to get out of bounds and see if you can kick a game winning field goal. Nope ... #43 (as he was being referred to in most social media outlets on Sunday night and Monday morning) didn't play the right defense for that moment. Marcus Williams simply whiffed in trying to tackle Diggs instead of holding his ground first and tackling Diggs in bounds which would have ended the game as time expired and sent the Saints to Philadelphia for the NFC Championship game. At the very least, push Diggs out of bounds and force Minnesota to kick a 50+ yard field goal. I feel bad for this kid. He made a mistake and should not let that define his career. He is just 21 years old and a rookie from the University of Utah. Saints fans have been showing their support with billboards and business signs, one reason why I find New Orleans to be one of the classiest cities in the US and one of my favorite cities to visit. It was a great game with 4 lead changes in the last 3 minutes. Just when you give Brees a chance to take the lead with a costly special teams mistake, Keenum drives his team down the field for a field goal. However, when you leave too much time on the clock for Brees, he will make you pay and that he did with getting his team set up for what could have been the game winning field goal. Then the miracle happened and "Skol, Vikings" chants rained down at US Bank Stadium. I still get goosebumps thinking about that TD by Diggs and without my home team (SF 49ers) in the playoffs, I will be a Vikings fan for the rest of the NFL postseason. They have never won a Super Bowl and for a fan base as devoted as those from Minnesota, they deserve it. They could very well be the team of destinity and the chance of them being the first team to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium is very, very good.

So what happens this weekend? We will have our final analysis by Saturday morning. For now, the GE model likes the following to happen.

JAX @ NE: NE favored by 0.04 points with an over/under line of 46.71 points.
MIN @ PHI: PHI favored by 2.57 points with an over/under line of 38.21 points.

Clearly the GE analysis (linear regression analysis I have refined for the past 18 NFL season) disagrees with the Vegas lines. The AFC title game should be closer than the 9 point spread Vegas thinks will happen. The Eagles are dogs again, this time in the NFC title game, but should they be after they proved Vegas wrong last weekend? The published point totals are pretty much spot on with the GE lines so we know our analysis is correct there. Don't play the over/unders this weekend. Too close to call. However, expect the Jaguars - Patriots game to be tight. The Jaguars have the pass rush to knock Tom Brady on his ass often. We still think New England makes it to the Super Bowl but it won't be easy. The Eagles have a good chance of winning if they continute to play great defense and not make mistakes on offense. However, the Vikings defense is too good and they will make the Eagles pay if they continue to put the ball on the ground as they did 4 times last weekend against Atlanta. Plus, it's hard to bet against this year's "team of destiny". Here are our initial predictions.

New England 24 - Jacksonville 23
Minnesota 20 - Philadelphia 17

We could also see Minnesota just blowing out the Eagles and Jacksonville upsetting New England. Still, a Minnesota - New England Super Bowl is what most people want and things tend to turn out that way. We will be back with more analysis by the end of this week.