2018 NFL playoff odds, picks: Steelers, Pats, give us the AFC title game we all want
In the NFC, the Falcons and Saints set up an NFC South rematch
Since before the start of the season, the AFC Championship game that almost everyone has wanted to see is the New England Patriots vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers. New England and Pittsburgh had the NFL coming into the season, and they had the two highest preseason in the NFL as well. As the season played itself out, they wound up snagging the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the AFC, and now we're just a week away from seeing them actually square off in the AFC title game.in the
All the defending champion Patriots have to do to get there is defeat the Tennessee Titans. They're 13.5-point favorites at home, playing against a team that had a negative point differential during the regular season. The Titans also went 3-5 on the road this year, and they'll be without their starting running back for the game. They also don't have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and the Patriots do. Some teams would be distracted by the hubbub caused by last week's ESPN article about supposed infighting between Brady, Belichick, and Robert Kraft, but not the Pats. They should be safe.
Pittsburgh has a much tougher matchup against the Jaguars. Jacksonville sports the best defense in the NFL. Calais Campbell is an inner-circle Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye might be the two best cornerbacks in football. Malik Jackson, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler, Telvin Smith, Marcell Dareus, Myles Jack, Paul Posluszny, Barry Church, Tashaun Gipson, Aaron Colvin ... these guys are all really good. If there's any team in the NFL that has the offensive skill players to test that Jacksonville defense, though, it's the Steelers. And don't you trust Home Ben Roethlisberger more than Road Blake Bortles?
The No. 1 and 2 seeds in the NFC will likely face much tougher sledding, as they both have to go against balanced teams that are strong on both sides of the ball.
The Eagles will welcome the Falcons to The Linc on Saturday afternoon, and they'll have to deal with the Matt Ryan to Julio Jones connection. They also have to figure out a way to have Nick Foles get the offense back humming at peak efficiency. They can lean on Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, and the running game, but if the Falcons jump out to any kind of lead and Foles has to lead a comeback, they'll be in trouble.
The Vikings are looking to become the first team ever to play in the Super Bowl at their home stadium. They have a tough road to get there, though, and it starts with the Saints. Last week, New Orleans beat the Panthers for the third time this season. Now, they get a chance to avenge their opening-week loss to the Vikes. A lot has changed for both teams since that point, but no change has been more impactful than the emergence of the Saints' defense and running game. They might be the most balanced team in the NFL right now, and that's a difficult thing to deal with.
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 (+3.0)
- The line remains unchanged from Monday.
- The Falcons are 8-9 against the spread and 7-7 when they're favored.
- The Eagles are 10-6 against the spread and 3-2 as the underdog.
Titans at Patriots (-13.5)
- The line remains unchanged from Monday.
- The Titans are 9-7-1 against the spread and 3-1 as the underdog, which includes their shocking come-from-behind win over the Chiefs, who were favored by 8.5 points.
- The Patriots are 11-5 against the spread (they've been favored in every game).
- The Patriots have been favored by at least 13.5 points three times this year. They went 2-1 against the spread in those games.
- The line remains unchanged from Wednesday.
- The line was -7.5 on Monday.
- The Jaguars are 9-8 against the spread and 3-2 as the underdog.
- The Steelers are 7-9 against the spread and 6-8 as the favorite.
- When the Jaguars beat the Steelers by 21 points in October, they were 7.5-point underdogs.
- The line was -3.5 on Monday.
- The line was -4.5 on Wednesday.
- The Saints are 9-8 against the spread and 1-4 as the underdog.
- The Vikings are 11-5 vs. the spread and 8-4 as the favorite.
Philadelphia comes in as the No. 1 seed, but this team is not the same team that accumulated all those wins. The Eagles weathered the loss of several important players throughout the year, but none of those players is as important as Carson Wentz. We saw over the last couple weeks of the season how much the Philadelphia offense was dependent on him, and given the Falcons' ability to put pressure on the quarterback, it's difficult to envision Nick Foles suddenly turning back into the 2013 version of himself.
The Philadelphia defense is good enough to win games on its own, but Atlanta's offense just seems to hit another level in the postseason, where Julio Jones becomes practically unstoppable. The Falcons aren't the best cold weather team anyone has ever seen, but they've actually been pretty good in Philadelphia over the years. If the Eagles were at full strength, this pick would probably be different; but right now, they're just not.
Just as my colleague Ryan Wilson did, I applaud Kevin Byard's the Patriots.
"It's a playoff game, so it's not like it's the preseason where I can go out there, 'Oh, it's Brady,' and I'm chillin," Byard said this week. "This is a playoff game. So I don't really care if it was Joe Montana. You know what I'm saying? I'm trying to go out there and win the game. I want to make him look like Blake Bortles if I can and try to catch a couple picks. Tom Brady is a great quarterback, but it's a playoff game. I'm not really looking at it like that."
Let's just say I don't see it happening. The Titans struggle to defend against the pass, especially against tight ends and running backs. That means Rob Gronkowski. That means Dion Lewis. That means Rex Burkhead and James White, if they return. They also struggle against short passes. That's the Patriots' speciality.
Tennessee's rush offense has to win this game for them, but without DeMarco Murray, that's just not going to happen. Pats take it in a rout.
Back in Week 5, the Jaguars blew the Steelers off their own field. Jacksonville harassed Ben Roethlisberger into one of the worst games of his career, forcing five interceptions in a 30-9 win. He averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt and Le'Veon Bell averaged barely three yards per carry.
Jacksonville's defense is even better now than it was then, thanks to the addition of Marcell Dareus and the development of players like Yannick Ngakoue, but the Pittsburgh offense is a different animal now as well. Bell averaged 3.6 yards per carry in the weeks up to and including the Jacksonville game, and 4.2 per carry afterward. Roethlisberger had six touchdowns and seven picks through the Jaguars loss and 22 touchdowns against seven picks after it.
The Pittsburgh defense is also one of the best in the NFL, and it's hard to see Blake Bortles going on the road and tearing that defense apart. Leonard Fournette could be counted on to do the heavy lifting, but he's hit four yards per carry in a game just once since Week 6 as he's struggled with injuries.
The Saints and Vikings have both come a long way since Minnesota won the season-opener, 29-19. That game took place so long ago that Sam Bradford was starting for the Vikings, Adrian Peterson was still on the Saints, Dalvin Cook was making his NFL debut, and the New Orleans defense was still considered one of the worst in the NFL.
Both teams finished the regular season ranked in the top-10 on both sides of the ball. There are a lot of strength vs. strength matchups involved in this one, but the determining factor for me here is the one weakness vs. weakness matchup. New Orleans' pass defense is excellent, but its run defense is less so. Minnesota, though, is not that well-equipped to take advantage of that fact. The Vikings averaged just 3.9 yards per carry this season, and ranked 18th in Football Outsiders' rush offense DVOA. (Minnesota also ranked 19th in both Adjusted Line Yards and the percentage of runs that were stuffed in the backfield.)
The Vikings have home-field advantage here, but the indoor setting should help mitigate it for New Orleans, which is always at its best in a dome. With how hot Drew Brees has been of late, it's just difficult to see the Saints losing -- even on the road.
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