This should be obvious, but both times this season I have said to trust the Jaguars and/or trust Blake Bortles, it has backfired badly. I probably should have seen that coming, making public declarations about why the Jaguars would smash people or why Bortles wouldn't lay an egg in his first career postseason start.
The oft-maligned quarterback actually ended up winning, but Jalen Hurts technically got credit for the Alabama win in the CFP title game on Monday night too. Bortles was a disaster. The Jaguars were scared to let him do anything down the field, or really anything outside of a one-read slant and/or short play-action pass. Bortles attempted six passes more than five yards down the field and completed three of them.
His Next Gen Stats passing chart from NFL.com is a beaut.
Credit to Bortles for the touchdown pass -- and credit to Doug Marrone for going for it on fourth and goal, plus credit to Nathaniel Hackett for the playcall. There was no chance the Bills thought the Jags would put the ball in Bortles hands in that spot and it was a well-designed play with a high percentage chance of completion.
Big game. Big drive. Big touchdown.@BBortles5 finds @koymonster for the touchdown.#BUFvsJAX #DTWD pic.twitter.com/NYnodz5smR— z-#Sacksonville (@Jaguars) January 7, 2018
And while we're at it, credit to Ben Koyack for the release, getting inside of the defender and making sure he got both feet down in the back of the end zone. It's the difference between advancing in the playoffs.
Bortles would finish the day going 12 for 23 for 87 yards and a touchdown. My initial reaction was "that won't work against the Steelers this week," but oddly enough, Bortles went 8 for 14 for 95 yards and a pick when the two teams met earlier in the season.
But here's the rub: the formula is just not there for the Jaguars to win this time around. Only three times since 1978 has a team scored 10 points or less and won a wild-card game. The Jags were the third, with their 10-3 win over the Bills, joining the 2015 Seahawks (the 10-9 Blair Walsh game win over the Vikings) and 1991 Chiefs (a 10-6 win over the Raiders).
Both of those teams failed to cover the following weekend, and in pretty convincing fashion. Seattle traveled to Carolina as a 2.5-point underdog and was down 31-0 at halftime to the Panthers before doing the Russell Wilson thing and climbing back into the game. They would lose 31-24 to a butts-clenched, conservative-in-the-second-half Panthers team. The Chiefs got smoked 37-14 by the Bills as 10.5-point dogs.
Comparing those two teams to the Steelers might seem like a pretty futile exercise, but here's a fascinating statistic: all three teams -- the 2017 Steelers, the 2015 Panthers and the 1991 Bills -- ranked No. 3 in offensive DVOA according to Football Outsiders. Neither the 2015 Seahawks (4th) or the 1991 Chiefs (9th) were as good as the Jaguars on defense (1st in DVOA by a longshot). But the Jaguars are substantially worse on offense (16th) than the Seahawks (1st!) and Chiefs (5th).
Put another way, there is a historical precedent for things to get ugly in Pittsburgh on Sunday. The Jaguars will need to stem the Steelers offensive tide early and play a nearly perfect game on defense. Bortles and Co. can't expect to win with 10 points again.
The real tipping point for a lot of these games is the playoff experience at quarterback. Look at the matchups and the number of playoff starts:
Matt Ryan (9) vs. Nick Foles (1)
Tom Brady (34) vs. Marcus Mariota (1)
Ben Roethlisberger (20) vs. Blake Bortles (1)
Drew Brees (12) vs. Case Keenum (0)
It's just different in the playoffs and any quarterback who's played in a playoff game will tell you the speed changes even more once the postseason gets started. Mariota shook off the rust early on Saturday to play well down the stretch, but Kansas City won because of Derrick Henry and Jeff Triplette. Foles didn't even get a full slate of reps in Week 17. Bortles we covered above. Keenum has been a great story but he's got a tough spot to make his first start.
Every little edge can matter in a close game. Here is the schedule for the divisional round.
Saturday, Jan. 13
NFC: (6) Atlanta (11-6) at (1) Philadelphia (13-3), 4:35 p.m. ET (NBC)
AFC: (5) Tennessee (10-7) at (1) New England (13-3), 8:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
Sunday, Jan. 14
AFC: (3) Jacksonville (11-6) at (2) Pittsburgh (13-3), 1:05 p.m. ET (CBS)
NFC: (4) New Orleans (12-5) at (2) Minnesota (13-3), 4:40 p.m. ET (Fox)
Falcons at Eagles (+3)
- The Eagles were only underdogs at home once this year, in Week 17, when they played the Cowboys as 3.5-point dogs. They didn't play their players for the most part -- Nate Sudfeld attempted 23 passes and Jay Ajayi was inactive.
- The Falcons went 2-4 as a road favorite in 2017, which is pretty incredible. Not the record -- the fact that Atlanta was favored in six of its eight road games this year. The Falcons went 0-3 as a favorite of more than a field goal and 1-2 as a favorite of a field goal or more.
- The Falcons went 5-1 straight up as a road favorite in 2017.
- The Eagles are the first team ever to be the No. 1 seed and be an underdog in its first playoff game since the playoffs expanded.
- The Falcons, as far as I can tell, are the first team to ever go from being a six-point underdog to a three-point favorite from Wild Card Weekend to the divisional round.
- The Falcons are getting 66 percent of the bets and the line moved from Atlanta -2.5 to -3 in most spots, although the Pinnacle still has the Falcons -2.5 per Sports Insights.
- The total in this game has dipped from 43.5 to 41 since it opened over the weekend.
Titans at Patriots (-13.5)
- The Patriots are 1-1 against the spread since 2001 as home favorites of 14 points or more.
- The Patriots are 2-2 against the spread since 2001 as home favorites of 10 points or more.
- Road underdogs of 10 points or more are 10-15 ATS in the divisional round since 1978. Road underdogs of 10 points or more are 4-9 against the spread since 1996.
- Road dogs of 10 points or more since 2006 are actually better than you would think straight up, going 2-4 in those games. Philip Rivers and the Chargers beat the Colts in January 2008 and Larry Fitzgerald dominated the Panthers in January 2009 for victories.
Jaguars at Steelers (-7.5)
- Teams scoring 10 points or less in a Wild Card Weekend win are 0-2 straight up and 0-2 against the spread the following weekend.
- The Steelers are 5-0 straight up and 5-0 against the spread as a home playoff favorite under Mike Tomlin.
- The Steelers are 3-0 straight up and 3-0 against the spread as a home playoff favorite of more than a field goal under Mike Tomlin.
- The Jaguars are 2-1 straight up and 2-1 against the spread as a road underdog this year.
- The under is 3-0 in the Jaguars three road games as an underdog in the 2017 season.
Saints at Vikings (-4)
- The Vikings were 5-1 straight up and 4-2 against the spread as a home favorite in 2017, including a Week 1 victory over the Saints in which they won and covered.
- The Saints are 1-2 straight up and 2-1 against the spread as a road underdog in playoff games since Drew Brees arrived in 2006.
- The Saints are also 0-2 straight up and 0-2 against the spread as a road favorite in playoff games over the same timeframe, meaning they are a cumulative 1-4 on the road in playoff games and 2-3 against the spread in those games. Worth noting: all of those games were outdoors.
I'm starting to get really scared off by the whole idea of the Eagles being mad about the lack of respect they're getting. This was the best team in football -- by a pretty large amount -- for 13 weeks of the season. Then Carson Wentz blew out his knee and everyone sort of gave up on them. Nick Foles looked fine in relief of Wentz, looked great the next week and then the wheels fell off against the Raiders on Christmas night. Philly stole a win anyway, but it was hard to see them doing a lot of damage in the playoffs.
The consensus is the Eagles will be run out of dodge by the Falcons and guys like Lane Johnson do not appreciate that sentiment.
"What bothered me was we were 12-2 [at the time] and treated like we were the Browns," Johnson said. "It happens, but I think although we don't like it, it's a good motivator to have people not write good things. I think it's the best motivator there is and you can go and change it."
The last thing anyone betting on the Falcons needs is an angry Eagles defensive line, turbocharged by Jim Schwartz and set on sending wave after wave of pass rushers in the direction of Matt Ryan. Steve Sarkisian outcoached Wade Phillips last week; if he can manage to mitigate the pressure Schwartz will bring against him in Philadelphia he will quickly flip the opinion of those who have been down on him this season.
I'm not sure who is going to stop Julio Jones. Everyone knows Julio is a freak, but he's healthy right now and he has quietly been a force in the playoffs. For his playoff career, he has caught 80 percent of his targets. 80! In non-Seahawks matchups (a.k.a. Richard Sherman games), he has averaged 101.2 yards per game. On the chance that Atlanta loses this week I'm getting this stat out there now: Julio Jones averages 181 yards per game in NFC Championship Games and he has played in more than one. The larger point here is he plays big in the biggest spots and I'm not sure who's slowing him down outside of the Big Guy upstairs in a bad weather situation.
The Falcons defense is just playing too fast for Nick Foles right now. If they bottle up the run game, they can limit what the Eagles do. Philly has been so good all year and they're more than just Wentz, but I can't bet against the hot playoff team with the more experienced quarterback.
There's a viable scenario where the Titans turn the Patriots over early, pound the ball and control the clock, minimize the amount of time Brady can have on offense and just put the Pats in a weird spot. Oddly that was the same formula for beating the Chiefs. Unfortunately for the Titans, the Patriots are the Chiefs but better.
Kansas City was third in the league in yards and points per drive; the Patriots were first. Travis Kelce was shredding the Titans until he got injured; Rob Gronkowski is a better version of Kelce. The Titans are susceptible to short and intermediate passes and no one really does it better than the Chiefs ... except the Patriots do.
Bill Belichick has an impeccable record against young quarterbacks. Marcus Mariota isn't a rookie or anything, but, again, this is his second playoff start. It's a tough spot. I've seen the Pats cover 18 points against the Texans in the playoffs and less than 14 should be doable against the Titans even if the number is just begging people to take New England.
See above: When it comes to the historical trends of low-scoring teams faring the next week. Too much is being put into the Steelers losing to the Jaguars. This is a different situation, with it being the playoffs and the Steelers having multiple weeks to prepare for this specific opponent. Yes, they could have played Tennessee or Kansas City, but it was very likely they were getting the Jags. They prepped for Jacksonville and a revenge game.
Le'Veon Bell at 100 percent is better than LeSean McCoy at 75 percent and the Steelers offensive line will open up similar holes to the ones that Shady had against the Jaguars. He runs it 25 times, minimum and Ben hits Antonio Brown for two scores in a boat race.
I actually kind of like the Vikings in this spot, but I'm already on three favorites and, again, let's go with experience here. Keenum is making his first start, Brees has been doing this for years. Brees and the Saints are bad on the road but they've never had a road playoff game in a dome before. To me, that nullifies a large portion of Minnesota's homefield advantage. It's going to be like -2 degrees in Minny over the weekend. Putting the Saints outside would be ROUGH. And Brees has played in this dome before, so it's not like he is learning a new building or anything.
Minnesota can definitely slow the New Orleans offense down, and it will be on Brees and Michael Thomas to beat them through the air. The question will be can the Saints defense, which was not exceptional against Cam Newton and the Panthers, beat up on the Vikings offense. The feeling here is they can take advantage of Keenum's first postseason start, turn him over a couple times early and give the Saints the ability to run downhill on offense and tee off with Cameron Jordan on defense.