NFL Playoffs by the odds: Vegas picks and preview of the divisional round

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New Orleans Saints defensive back Justin Hardee (34) reacts after a defensive stop in the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in New Orleans, Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018.

Thu, Jan 11, 2018 (2 a.m.)

Divisional Round: Saints at Vikings

Which side would you take in New Orleans at Minnesota? (Poll consenesus year to date: 8-9-1)

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One of the most popular topics of conversation in sports books in the days ahead of this year’s opening-round games seemed to be last year’s opening-round games.

Numerous gamblers discussed how favorites covered in every wild-card game during the 2016-2017 season. Let’s hope they didn’t let that color their impressions of this year’s games too much.

Underdogs promptly went 4-0 against the spread last weekend, with two of them winning outright.

It should have served as a reminder that there’s no tangible connection between two separate playoff fields. Any suggestion to the contrary is nothing more than a mutation of the gambler’s fallacy.

Handicapping should almost always be focused on the current teams and the data associated with them, not loosely-correlated situations that had their own sets of variables.

This weekend’s divisional round could bring its own misleading application of trends. Money line parlays stringing together all the favorites are bound to roll in, with bettors perhaps displaying extra confidence considering 16 out of last 20 teams laying points on the second weekend of the postseason have won outright.

It’s another interesting but ultimately meaningless piece of recent history.

Read below for Talking Points’ preview and picks of the divisional round. The blog went 2-2 on the wild-card round to bring the season total picking every game to 143-109-7 —35-16 on “plays”, 42-39-5 on “leans” and 66-54-2 on “guesses.”

Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles, 1:35 p.m. Saturday on NBC

The line: Falcons minus-3 The Eagles are the first top-seeded team to ever enter the playoffs as an underdog. It was bound to happen sooner or later; it’s just a surprise that it was ultimately a team as strong as Philadelphia taking points. The Eagles ended the regular season tied with the Patriots for the best point differential in the league at plus-162. They had wedged their way into second-choice in the future market behind the Patriots before MVP candidate quarterback Carson Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14. Nick Foles taking over for Wentz is the entire reason for the creation of this historic point spread.

The matchup: At full strength, the Eagles would be roughly a 6-point favorite over the Falcons. A 9-point swing means the betting market rates Wentz on par with the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady as the most impactful player in the league. And consequently it means Foles grades out as a mediocre-at-best backup. Foles’ statistics dispute that account, however, as most of his career numbers hover around NFL averages. Over a somewhat substantial sample of 49 games, he’s thrown for 61 touchdowns to 29 interceptions with a 7 yards per attempt average. He’s 18-17-1 against the spread lifetime in games where he’s taken the majority of the snaps.

Three of the losses have come in the last three games, though. There’s no defending impotent performances where Foles couldn’t even crack 5 yards per attempt against the Cowboys and Raiders to close the season. But one of the golden rules of sports betting is to not jump to conclusions too quickly, and the Falcons appear to offer another opportunity for Foles to get on track. They’re not great against the pass, ranking 19th in the league by Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Their 26-13 upset of the Rams to reach the divisional round also looks less impressive in hindsight. Los Angeles outgained Atlanta by nearly 1.5 yards per play, but was largely undone by losing both of its fumbles. Philadelphia’s defense is even better than Los Angeles’ as one of eight units in the league giving up 5 yards per play or less. With a number of defensive starters having rested since Week 17, Philadelphia has enjoyed nearly a month to rest up for this game as compared with Atlanta facing a gauntlet of must-win games.

The pick: Eagles plus-3 (play)

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots, 5:15 p.m. Saturday on CBS

The line: Patriots minus-13.5 A spread this high in the divisional round would have looked as out of place as the line on the previous game a decade or so ago. The Patriots have changed that. This marks the third time in the last six years that New England is laying two touchdowns to open the playoffs. The Patriots covered in each of the previous two instances, including a 34-16 win over the Texans while laying 16 points last year. Bettors haven’t forgotten. New England has unsurprisingly drawn 78 percent of the early money at William Hill sports books, driving the line up a half point. Bookmakers try to be cautious in not bulking up a line too much from early action, but if betting patterns continue at their current rate, they’ll have no other choice.

The matchup: Scandals. Injuries. Deficits. New England has weathered it all during its dynastical run of five Super Bowls in 16 years. Now it’s time to see if the Patriots can enact a similar mute function on internal conflict, after the report regarding the deteriorated relationship between owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady surfaced this week. They couldn’t have asked for a much easier first step. Tennessee is the lone below-average team left in the postseason, ranking 18th in DVOA despite last week’s 22-21 comeback win in Kansas City as 8.5-point underdogs. That doesn’t mean they don’t have their strengths.

The Titans had one of the better rush offenses in the league all season, and utilized it to stun Kansas City with Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariota combining to run for 202 yards and 6.5 yards per attempt. Like the Chiefs, the Patriots have struggled against the run this year. They’re two of the bottom three teams in the NFL, per DVOA, in rush defense. New England improved late in the season, though, and if the Belichick standard operating procedure holds, he’ll focus all his efforts on stopping the run and force Tennessee to pass. That could give Titans’ fans apprehension. Mariota, immensely talented as he may be, regressed this season including throwing more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (15). To have a shot against the Patriots, even the dysfunctional Patriots, Mariota is going to need to put together a breakout performance.

The pick: Patriots minus-13.5 (lean)

Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers, 10:05 a.m. Sunday on CBS

The line: Steelers minus-7.5 Jacksonville was unable to cover while laying a little more than a touchdown last week. And bettors aren’t counting on it to beat the number while taking a little more than a touchdown either. The Steelers have been the most-bet side of the divisional round early in the week, drawing about 80 percent of the action. That’s pushed a spread that opened as low as minus-6.5 to as high as minus-7.5 with a heightened price of minus-120 (risking $1.20 to win $1). The most widespread line is now identical to the one attached to these teams’ Week 5 meeting.

The matchup: Jacksonville, of course, thumped Pittsburgh 30-9 in its first trip to Heinz Field this season despite gamblers largely lining up on the home team. The weight that result carries going into a divisional-round rematch is debatable at best, especially considering the odd nature of the game. Jacksonville had less than 100 passing yards, winning almost entirely because it nabbed five interceptions from Ben Roethlisberger. The Jaguars didn’t blow the game open until the third quarter when Telvin Smith and Barry Church each returned an interception for a touchdown. Pittsburgh was far more efficient on a per-play basis offensively, and Jacksonville’s stats only looked respectable after Leonard Fournette broke a 90-yard touchdown run in garbage time.

Jacksonville obviously can’t rely on a plus-4 turnover margin and 13 defensive points again, but defensive heroics are what’s delivered it this far in the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. Jacksonville was second in the league during the regular season with 33 takeaways, and added two more that made all the difference in its 10-3 win over Buffalo as 8-point favorites last week. Pittsburgh’s offense also might be less formidable than it was early in the season. Antonio Brown is expected to return for this game, but will be far from 100 percent after injuring his leg last month. Pittsburgh’s defense has also slightly regressed, dropping to the middle of the pack in allowing 5.2 yards per play after ranking close to Jacksonville (4.5) at the top early in the year. Losing linebacker Ryan Shazier to injury two weeks before Brown appears to have had a significant effect. The Jaguars have been more fortunate on the injury front — aside from a wide receiver crops that’s been decimated all year — which could equal out the advantage the Steelers enjoyed in resting on a bye week.

The pick: Jaguars plus-7.5 (lean)

New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings, 1:40 p.m. Sunday on Fox

The line: Vikings minus-4 Here’s another rematch where sports books’ odds matched the first game — at least for a while. Minnesota opened minus-3.5 against New Orleans, the same price that accompanied its season-opening 31-19 win at U.S. Bank Stadium. The number is now up to 4.5 at most sports books, despite reports of the Saints taking the larger share of the action. The only explanation for the move, therefore, is that the big money is backing Minnesota.

The matchup: And why wouldn’t anyone feel comfortable riding the Vikings considering the season they’ve accumulated at sports books? They’re an NFL-best 11-5 against the spread, adding to Mike Zimmer’s resume as the most profitable coach to back since he took the post at Minnesota four seasons ago. Zimmer is known as a defensive guru, and he’s certainly lived up to that reputation this year. The Vikings are behind only the Jaguars in giving up 4.6 yards per play on the year. They’ve got a pair of standout edge rushers in Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter to go with a pair of run-stuffing linebackers in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. Even the Saints’ NFL-best rushing attack struggled to navigate the Vikings’ front, recording less than three yards per carry in their Week 1 loss.

Much has changed since then, though. Nobody back then expected the Vikings and Saints to rate as the two best teams in the NFC, but that’s where they stand in the power ratings. They’ve both climbed to that point by vastly improving on the sides of the ball where they perceived to be deficient. Case Keenum, who started the year as a third-string quarterback, leads all active quarterbacks in QBR — the injured Wentz still sits in first overall. That would have spelled trouble for a historically porous Saints’ secondary the last two years, but their turnaround is one of the most miraculous occurrences of the season. New Orleans is fifth in pass defense by DVOA, with rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore already performing like an All-Pro. This game is deserving of its spot as the week’s finale, because it’s the best matchup. The winner will be favored to reach the Super Bowl.

The pick: Vikings minus-4 (guess)

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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