NFL Conference Championship preview

NFL Conference Championship weekend preview and picks

We can only hope the NFL’s Conference Championship weekend is half as competitive as last weekend was. Three of the four games were nail biters, which made for some strange results in terms of predictions.

As has been the case throughout the postseason, games will be picked both straight up and against the spread. All point spreads are from rtsports.com at the time of my writing. You can see last week’s picks here.

Last week: 1-3, 3-1 against the spread.

Postseason totals: 4-4, 5-3 against the spread.

Jaguars at Patriots

Three teams have gone into New England and won a playoff game in the Brady-Belichick era, two Ravens teams led by John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco and one of Rex Ryan’s Jets teams. All these teams had one thing in common: They ran the ball and were very good on defense.

With the top ranked rushing offense and a sack happy defense that has dominated all year long, Jacksonville certainly fits that bill. This will not be a simple coronation for the Patriots. Just because the Jaguars approach to winning games is fairly bland does not mean they do not deserve to be here.

That defense will keep this interesting for four quarters. However, there are three pieces of insurmountable bad news for the underdogs. First, Blake Bortles is still their quarterback. Second, Tom Brady is the opposing quarterback. Finally, Bill Belichick is not going to run 15-yard pass plays on 4th and 1 or run an onside kick with two timeouts and more than two minutes left like Pittsburgh did last week.

One of the biggest yet simplest reasons New England has been so good for so long is they never make in game strategy calls that leave even casual fans scratching their heads in the moment. As good as they are, the Jaguars needed a lot of help to outscore the Steelers last week. New England will not be so generous this week.

Winner: New England

Good bet: Patriots (-9) NE 31 Jac 20

Vikings at Eagles

Something has to give here. These two teams have mastered the art of the playoff choke job over the years. Now one of them is going to the Super Bowl.

At this point in this season, these teams are going about winning games the same way. They both rely on their great defenses to make up for limitations at quarterback. Make no mistake, Case Keenum and Nick Foles have limitations.

Foles only threw for 246 yards last week against Atlanta. However, he did not make a big mistake that crippled the team. When you have a defense that is capable of holding what was a hot Falcons offense to just 10 points, that formula is good enough.

NFL Conference Championship preview

Photo from espn.com

Keenum tried to make that crippling mistake with his late third quarter interception that sparked the Saints comeback last week. However, he and the Vikings were bailed out by a miracle finish that was more blind luck than anything else. There is no shame in that. Every Super Bowl champion there has ever been has required some degree of luck.

What this game comes down to is both teams will try to run the ball. It is hard to imagine either having much success against two of the best front sevens in football. So which average quarterback will do a better job of getting the ball to their playmaking pass catchers?

Well, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen each caught over 60 balls in the regular season and accounted for several of Minnesota’s 10 third down conversions last week. Meanwhile, the Eagles pass catchers have virtually disappeared since Carson Wentz went out. Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery had seven catches combined last week. They need to have somewhere around seven catches each should Philadelphia struggle on the ground in this one.

Moreover, if there is a weak spot on either defense, it is the Philadelphia secondary. They got torched by the lowly Giants twice this year.  There is no reason Diggs and Thielen should not carry their team to a home Super Bowl.

Winner: Minnesota

Good bet: Vikings (-3) Min 23 Phi 17

 

Featured image from chatsports.com

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NFL divisional playoffs picks

NFL divisional playoffs preview and picks

We were fortunate enough to get four reasonably competitive games to kick off the NFL playoffs last week. You can check out last week’s picks here.

For this week’s divisional playoffs, games will be picked both straight up and against the spread. Outright upsets have an asterisk. All point spreads are from rtsports.com at the time of my writing.

Postseason record- 3-1

Postseason record against the spread- 2-2

Saturday

Falcons at Eagles – For the first time since the NFL adopted its current playoff format, a sixth seed is favorite over a home standing top seed. This is not without merit though. Without Carson Wentz, the Eagles are just another average to below-average football team. In the final two games of the regular season, Philadelphia’s offense accounted for a grand total of 13 points, and the team as a whole was pushed around for long stretches by the non-playoff bound Cowboys and Raiders.

The above paragraph is not a good recipe for taking on the Falcons at the moment. Atlanta needed to win as much as humanly possible late in the regular season to keep its playoff hopes alive. The sudden death nature of the NFL playoffs changed nothing for them last week. They have been in that situation for almost 2 months.

Reigning MVP Matt Ryan and the offense are not quite the juggernaut they were last year, but they are still very good. What has sparked Atlanta’s late-season run as much as anything is defense. The Falcons have not surrendered more than 24 points in a game since Week 11. This includes holding the top-ranked scoring offense to just 13 points last week. If all the offense has to do is score in the high 20s, this team is tough to beat.

Apart from winning a shootout with the lowly Giants, the Eagles offense has not gotten anywhere close to the high 20s with backup quarterbacks since the injury to Wentz. Philadelphia’s defense is pretty good and has stood on its head in recent weeks to keep the Eagles in games. Thus, this will not be a blowout.

However, one of these teams is quarterbacked by Matt Ryan and the other by Nick Foles. Sometimes, it is just that simple.

Winner: Atlanta

Good bet: Falcons (-3) Atl 21 Phi 13

Titans at Patriots – Tennessee did a great job of making a few plays to pull off the big upset in Kansas City last week. However, that result had more to do with Kansas City’s collapse. If New England has a double-digit lead, whoever is playing running back will get the ball a lot more than 11 or 12 times.

NFL divisional playoffs picks

Photo from USA Today

You can’t help but be impressed with the resilience and toughness of Tennessee. That roster is not good enough to get to this point on talent alone. Different guys have stepped up for them all year long. Last week, it was Marcus Mariota playing with his head on a swivel to complete a touchdown pass to himself and Derrick Henry rushing for 156 yards in the absence of backfield mate DeMarco Murray that made the difference.

However, the Titans lack the firepower to really make the Patriots nervous in a playoff game. At this point, nothing more can be said about the greatness of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They are 25-9 in playoff games. Moreover, only three of those nine losses have been at home. Tennessee will keep this close for a while with solid fundamental football, but New England will pull away late.

Winner: New England

Good bet: Patriots (-13) NE 34 Ten 20

Sunday

Jaguars at Steelers – Vegas is showing great restraint by making the Steelers only a seven-point favorite here. With the way the Jacksonville passing offense has looked for the last month, a double-digit spread would have been perfectly reasonable.

However, the Jacksonville defense has shut down some very good offenses this year. The Jaguars went in to Pittsburgh early in the year and intercepted Ben Roethlisberger five times in a route.

Also, there is more than one way to look at the performance of Blake Bortles last week. It is easy to say he threw for just 87 yards and therefore was completely awful, or you can commend him for his 88 rushing yards and ability to make enough plays for his team to win, even though he did not play very well.

Not very many people have subscribed to the second school of thought leading up to this game, but I am one of them. With a great supporting cast around him, Bortles is fine. Other than one or two games, Jacksonville has had no problem scoring points this year. Almost every offense is going to get shut down at least once or twice a year, no matter who the quarterback is.

Jacksonville is too good to get blown out. Any team that leads the league in rushing offense, as well as several defensive categories, is capable of going anywhere and beating anyone. However, Roethlisberger getting Antonio Brown back will be the difference in this one. Even if Brown is not fully healthy, his presence alone gives the vaunted Jacksonville defense another thing to worry about on a loaded Steelers offense.

Winner: Pittsburgh

Good Bet: Jaguars (+7) Pit 27 Jac 24

Saints at Vikings – No team was more impressive than New Orleans last week. All year, the Saints had done most of their damage by running the ball with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Carolina held that duo to under 50 combined rushing yards. The Saints still managed to win. Drew Brees showed us all why he is going to the Hall of Fame someday.

NFL divisional playoffs picks

Photo from si.com

Unless there is a truly dominant team, whoever wins the Super Bowl has to find a way to win a game or two where its best stuff is not working. There is no dominant NFL team this year, and that is exactly what the Saints did last week.

This week, the task is a little bit tougher as New Orleans goes on the road to face another very stout defensive unit in Minnesota. The vast majority of Minnesota’s success this year has come from backups, castoffs and other spare parts. Mike Zimmer and his staff have done an incredible job of getting the most out of Case Keenum. Keenum has nearly doubled his career touchdown passes this season. However, much like the other NFC matchup this weekend, it is foolish not to take the established star quarterback over the journeyman in playoff football.

Winner: New Orleans

Good Bet: *Saints (+ 5.5) NO 27 Min 20

 

Featured image from chiefs.com

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Week Nine NFL Picks Against the Spread

It is time for another week of NFL picks against the spread. I was just 5-8 last week, but did call the Bears upset of the Vikings. This week, I whiffed on the Thursday night game again and will start from behind the eight ball. 58-63-4 is my record for the year. My picks are bolded. Outright upsets have an asterisk. Read ‘em and weep.

Cowboys (-7) at Browns- With everyone continuing to sing the praises of Dak Prescott and the Cowboys, the gritty Browns are tempting here, but I just cannot do it. They are bringing a plastic knife to a gun fight each week. I expect Dallas to scrape by, but we could view the quarterback situation very differently come Monday morning. Dal 19 Cle 9

Lions at Vikings (-6) – Toughest pick of the week. After a hot start, the Vikings are slowly revealing their true selves. With zero production in the run game and an offensive line that has struggled to block a barstool the last two weeks, there are many nervous people in Minnesota. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s sudden resignation won’t help things in the short term. However, the defense will carry them to a win here. The Lions had a really bad performance on offense last week in Houston. A trip to Minnesota will not fix those issues. The Vikings are better equipped to win an ugly game. Min 17 Det 15

Jaguars at Chiefs (-7.5) – Jacksonville’s young talent on offense just has not come around, it seems to be time for yet another round of major changes there. Unlike the Raiders, the Chiefs play smart, disciplined, and complete football to win their games. Nick Foles is a more than capable replacement for dinged up quarterback Alex Smith.   This is the week the Chiefs emerge as the only real threat to Denver in the AFC West. KC 26 Jac 14

Jets at Dolphins (-3.5) – When was the last time a single player changed a team’s fortunes the way Jay Ajayi has for the Dolphins? He was not even active for the season opener. All he has done since getting a shot, is post back to back 200 yard rushing games. Most important, he has taken some heat off quarterback Ryan Tannehill who is not good enough to carry an offense. Miami has gone from dead in the water to a team that may get on a real roll. The Jets beat the Browns last week, yay. They still stink. Mia 27 NYJ 17

photo from espn.com

photo from espn.com

 

Eagles at Giants (-2.5) – Both these rivals are unpredictable and they tend to produce nutty games against each other. When in doubt look at the quarterbacks. Eli Manning > Carson Wentz. NYG 28 Phi 24.

Steelers at Ravens (-1) – These division foes always play fantastic games, no matter their records. This will be no different. Despite the Steelers having much better team results in recent years, the Ravens have won four out of the last five head to head matchups. If Ben Roethlisberger does play, how could he possibly be 100% about three weeks removed from knee surgery? The AFC North turns into a mess at the top with a Ravens win. Bal 24 Pit 21

Panthers (-3) at Rams – The Panthers may have finally gotten their mojo back last week. It may be too little too late for the playoffs, but the offensively inept Rams should not be an issue. Car 21 LA 10

Saints (-3.5) at 49ers – A win here gets the Saints back to .500, plenty could enough to be a factor in the NFC wild card race. The defense has gone from God awful to just bad. Despite splitting their last two games they have held opponents to under 30 points. Most times, that is going to be more than enough for Drew Brees and the offense. The 49ers are just dreadful in every phase of the game. The defense is spent by halftime because the offense cannot stay on the field. If I am Chip Kelly, I jump back to the college game as soon as I can. He is a college coach. There is nothing wrong with that. NO 38 SF 17

photo from cbssports.com

photo from cbssports.com

Colts at Packers (-7.5) – Andrew Luck is still forced to do it all on his own for the Colts. Much like last week, he is up against a pretty solid opponent. The offense in Green Bay finally returned to normal last week, and they are not facing the high powered Falcons offense this week. No drama here. GB 31 Ind 21

Titans at Chargers (-4) – The Titans are the worst .500 team I have ever seen. Meanwhile, the Chargers are the best below .500 team I have ever seen. Tennessee has a negative point differential. Conversely, if games were 58 minutes rather than 60, the Chargers would be 7-1. San Diego has closed games better lately. Expect them to roll here. SD 31 Ten 17

*Broncos at Raiders (-2)- My only outright upset pick of the week should surprise no one who knows me or reads my stuff. Even if I thought Oakland was going to win, it is not in me as a human being to pick the Raiders to beat the Broncos. This used to be a great rivalry, it is awesome to have the game be so meaningful again.

In this matchup, Denver will be able to do whatever it wants on offense, just like every other Raiders opponent this year. Oakland is allowing six yards a play on defense. Oakland’s offense has had to put up video game numbers to win games, including 600+ yards to get by in overtime last week against Tampa. If anyone thinks something like that will happen against the Broncos defense, they are sadly mistaken. The Raiders deserve a ton of credit for being where they are, but play time is over. Den 34 Oak 24

MNF: Bills at Seahawks (-7) – The Seahawks offense is just plain bad right now. Only Russell Wilson knows if he is truly healthy. Despite last week’s loss, any doubt about the defense is unfounded. Holding the Saints to 25 points in their building is nothing to sneeze at. Buffalo’s run first style keeps this close, but Seattle finds a way as they so often do. Sea 26 Buf 20