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A strange-but-true victory goes to the Patriots

Jeff Fogle  
VSiN City newsletter

December 18, 2017 12:01 AM

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Steelers tight end Jesse james with the catch and TD that wasn't.
© USA Today Sports Images

Epic ending in Pittsburgh, as the New England Patriots survive a thriller against the Steelers to regain the AFC driver’s seat. Also, Rams roll…Packers kaput…and 49ers on the 2018 Futures map as we recap a busy Sunday.  

NFL: New nominee for “the greatest two minutes in sports” as Brady and Gronk survive WILD finish to position the Patriots for #1 seed in the AFC
You either watched it live…or watched multiple recaps before you went to bed…or watched multiple recaps after you woke up Monday morning! By the time you read this, you’ll be all talked out arguing your side of the “shouldn’t that have been a TD catch?” and “what was Ben Roethlisberger thinking throwing into traffic?” Nobody’s talked about the game stats, so let’s get to those. 

New England (-3) 27, Pittsburgh 24
Yards-per-Play: New England 6.4, Pittsburgh 6.6
Third Down Pct: New England 33%, Pittsburgh 63%
Turnovers: New England 1, Pittsburgh 1
Rushing Yards: New England 77, Pittsburgh 143
Passing Stats: New England 22-35-1-283, Pittsburgh 22-30-1-270
TD Drive Lengths: New England 77-75-77, Pittsburgh 69-78-22

If you zoom back out to see the big picture, it’s clear that both of these teams are championship caliber. Both have Hall of Fame quarterbacks and established head coaches. But neither is separated enough from the rest of the pack (meaning the NFC elite) to just assume a trip to the Super Bowl is an automatic Lombardi trophy. Though New England did ultimately match market expectations (pushing at -3, covering what became a game-day line of -2.5 in many places), the Patriots played about 58 minutes like an AFC runner-up…and just over 2 minutes like Houdini escaping from chains while walking on hot coals. 

Pittsburgh had this game won a few different times. You can see that the Steelers owned third down conversions and rushing yardage. Their defense only forced one pick and two sacks, but pressured Brady into multiple incomplete passes. If there is a rematch in January, it will feel like a re-start of this game…which just missed being a dead heat at the 60-minute mark anyway. 

Both teams are now 11-3, with New England owning the tie-breaker because of this victory. You’ll see in a moment that Jacksonville is breathing down both their necks at 10-4. The Jaguars own a tie-breaker over Pittsburgh because of a road upset several weeks ago. And the Jaguars would own a tie-breaker with the Patriots if they won out and the Pats were upset at home by either Buffalo or the NY Jets (a longshot, but longshots happen). Pittsburgh finishes at Houston and vs. Cleveland as favorites to win out, though attrition is becoming a serious issue. 

More on the playoff picture in coming days. For now, let’s run through the rest of the Sunday NFL card. Games are presented in Nevada Rotation order. 

Philadelphia (-7) 34, NY Giants 29
Yards-per-Play: Philadelphia 5.2, NY Giants 6.2
Third Down Pct: Philadelphia 46%, NY Giants 56%
Turnovers: Philadelphia 0, NY Giants 1
Rushing Yards: Philadelphia 108, NY Giants 75
Passing Stats: Philadelphia 24-38-0-233, NY Giants 37-57-1-429
TD Drive Lengths: Philadelphia 75-20-18-59, NY Giants 75-80-80

Nick Foles passed his first test in his return to the starting QB position with the Eagles. He had to overcome his own exhausted defense to do so. This was a third straight road game for Philadelphia, with the first two coming on the West coast. The defense played like its legs were gone considering how non-existent the NYG offense has been lately. Eli Manning led the G-men to a 504-341 yardage win! How did the Eagles pull this one out? Those two very cheap drives you see in the middle of their TD set. The 20-yarder came after Eli’s only interception. The 18-yarder came after a blocked punt. Philadelphia is lucky to move to 12-2, staying one game ahead of Minnesota in the race for the top spot in the NFC. New York is 2-12, staying "ahead" of the Colts in the backwards race for the #2 draft spot behind Cleveland. 

Carolina (-3) 31, Green Bay 24
Yards-per-Play: Green Bay 5.7, Carolina 5.6
Third Down Pct: Green Bay 36%, Carolina 50%
Turnovers: Green Bay 4, Carolina 0
Rushing Yards: Green Bay 120, Carolina 153
Passing Stats: Green Bay 26-45-3-264, Carolina 20-31-0-236
TD Drive Lengths: Green Bay 75-58-76, Carolina 85-73-49-75

Aaron Rodgers was a mix of rust and “wow” in his return from an injury layoff. Despite 19 incomplete passes and three interceptions, the Packers were in it until the very end. Carolina played safe and steady, and would have saved backers and ulcer if they had recovered Green Bay’s late onside kick. Green Bay falls to 7-7, meaning 9-7 is the best-case scenario for the season. That’s not going to be enough to get a Wildcard. Carolina is 10-4, still knotted with New Orleans at the top of the AFC South. Note that Carolina is 3-1 against the spread since it’s bye week, 9-5 ATS this season. 

Minnesota (-12.5) 34, Cincinnati 7
Yards-per-Play: Cincinnati 3.2, Minnesota 5.7
Third Down Pct: Cincinnati 8%, Minnesota 33%
Turnovers: Cincinnati 2, Minnesota 1
Rushing Yards: Cincinnati 46, Minnesota 124
Passing Stats: Cincinnati 14-28-2-115, Minnesota 20-25-1-222
TD Drive Lengths: Cincinnati 23, Minnesota 75-77-83

Cincinnati found out before the game that its head coach would be leaving at the end of the season. Felt like many of the players left before last week’s home loss to Chicago, and didn’t make it back for this one. An absolute squash that’s not really worth discussing in-depth. Cincinnati is looking ahead to a new coaching era, having fallen to a soft 5-9. Minnesota is 11-3, still positioned to peak at the right time as they try to become the first NFL team ever to play a Super Bowl on its home field. Minnesota is 10-4 against market prices this season, or 10-3 ATS when not playing in week three of a three-game road trip. Consistently underrated when fresh.

Buffalo (-3.5) 24, Miami 16
Yards-per-Play: Miami 4.8, Buffalo 5.4
Third Down Pct: Miami 31%, Buffalo 47%
Turnovers: Miami 3, Buffalo 0
Rushing Yards: Miami 100, Buffalo 116
Passing Stats: Miami 28-49-3-249, Buffalo 17-29-0-212
TD Drive Lengths: Miami 13, Buffalo 81-75-80

Not as interesting as that final score might suggest. Buffalo led 21-6 at the half, and sat on its lead against a visitor not well-suited to playing catch up. Miami’s only TD came on a very short drive. Three more picks for Jay Cutler. Buffalo moves to 8-6, but has to visit New England and Miami the next two weeks as they try to snatch a Wildcard spot from the grip of Tennessee or Baltimore. Miami is 6-7, but played most of the season like a 4-12 type team (or worse). 

Jacksonville (-10) 45, Houston 7
Yards-per-Play: Houston 3.3, Jacksonville 6.8
Third Down Pct: Houston 25%, Jacksonville 30%
Turnovers: Houston 1, Jacksonville 0
Rushing Yards: Houston 87, Jacksonville 138
Passing Stats: Houston 12-31-1-99, Jacksonville 21-29-0-326
TD Drive Lengths: Houston 81, Jacksonville 78-59-63-45-70-45

Another blowout that doesn’t need a lot of comment. Houston QB T.J. Yates had little chance to thrive on the road against this elite Jacksonville defense. Blake Bortles had a rare huge day thanks to facing a very soft Houston defense. Houston falls to 4-10, but will matter next season when Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt are back. Jacksonville is 10-4 with road games at San Francisco and Tennessee still ahead. The Jags have clinched a playoff spot…but need one more win (or a Tennessee loss) to lock up the AFC South. Two wins and they might catch a break for one of the top two spots and a bye week.  Three straight point spread covers for the Jags, who are now 9-5 ATS this season. 

New Orleans (-16) 31, NY Jets 19
Yards-per-Play: NY Jets 4.3, New Orleans 6.5
Third Down Pct: NY Jets 33%, New Orleans 30%
Turnovers: NY Jets 2, New Orleans 3
Rushing Yards: NY Jets 124, New Orleans 131
Passing Stats: NY Jets 19-39-2-170, New Orleans 26-36-1-285 
TD Drive Lengths: NY Jets 75-70, New Orleans 82-75-64-55

This one was closer than the final score makes it seem. The Jets were down 24-19 with the ball late in the fourth quarter. New Orleans got a stop and popped a late TD to break the hearts of Under bettors. You can see that the Saints won YPP huge, but couldn’t move the chains on what was also a bad turnover day. Kind of sticks out because so many other top teams were winning laughers as big favorites. New Orleans is 10-4 with a home game next week vs. Atlanta, and a road game at Tampa Bay left. The Jets are 5-9, but the franchise now believes in this head coach. Will they ever get a real quarterback? 

Washington (-4.5) 20, Arizona 15
Yards-per-Play: Arizona 3.6, Washington 4.6
Third Down Pct: Arizona 21%, Washington 11%
Turnovers: Arizona 2, Washington 1
Rushing Yards: Arizona 141, Washington 31
Passing Stats: Arizona 16-41-1-145, Washington 18-27-0-187
TD Drive Lengths: Arizona no TDs, Washington 6-63

Washington looked like they were in the tank the past two games (for team chemistry reasons rather than anything draft-related). Here, it’s like the offense stayed in the tank, but the defense showed up to play. That defense held Arizona to five field goals, and set up an early TD with a sack and fumble at the expense of Blaine Gabbert. Washington's offense was 1 of 9 on third downs while rushing for only 31 yards against a lame-duck defense. A virtual exhibition of the kicking game. Both teams are 6-8, in the no-man’s land between the playoffs and help in the draft. Like Cincinnati in that big changes are ahead. Arizona is only 4-9-1 against market prices in a wasted season. 

Baltimore (-7) 27, Cleveland 10
Yards-per-Play: Baltimore 5.1, Cleveland 4.6
Third Down Pct: Baltimore 44%, Cleveland 36%
Turnovers: Baltimore 0, Cleveland 4
Rushing Yards: Baltimore 97, Cleveland 130
Passing Stats: Baltimore 26-42-0-279, Cleveland 20-37-2-136
TD Drive Lengths: Baltimore 75-45, Cleveland 96

Another “veterans playing it safe as favorites” against “kid quarterback who’s likely to implode” game that we’ve seen so much of this season. Baltimore had a fumble-return for a TD to help pad its scoring. We’ve said this often…but it bears repeating. Defenses can create blowouts! You’ll hear pundits say “I don’t want to lay that many points with….” fill in the blank. Joe Flacco, Blake Bortles, Case Keenum. Those three guys won today 106-24 and covered by 52.5 points because their defenses held opponents to 4.6, 3.3 and 3.2 yards while forcing 7 turnovers. This is a relatively new dynamic in the betting markets because so many teams are now willing to play horribly on offense with very inexperienced quarterbacks early in a rebuild, or accept having a very inexperienced quarterback as the first backup while they hope the starter doesn’t get hurt. Used to be too much pride for that. Baltimore moves to 8-6 in the Wildcard battle. Cleveland is still “perfect” at 0-14. The Browns are also 3-11 against the spread. Perhaps a bug in the system of “bet ugly dogs for value” when a bad team has a rookie quarterback so bad he’s incapable of learning how not to keep making the same mistakes. 

LA Rams (plus 1) 42, Seattle 7
Yards-per-Play: LA Rams 5.2, Seattle 2.8
Third Down Pct: LA Rams 38%, Seattle 29%
Turnovers: LA Rams 1, Seattle 2
Rushing Yards: LA Rams 244, Seattle 78
Passing Stats: LA Rams 15-23-1-108, Seattle 14-30-0-71
TD Drive Lengths: LA Rams 1-36-39-47-46, Seattle 77

A lot of people were scoreboard watching this one because so many eyes were on Patriots/Steelers. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking Jared Goff must have had a huge game because the Rams scored 42 points. He quietly accepted great field position all day, and still threw a pick while tossing mostly short passes. How did the Rams manage FIVE touchdown drives of less than 50 yards on a day where Seattle only turned the ball over twice? Seattle was constantly struggling deep in its own territory (Russell Wilson was sacked seven times). Punts weren’t getting them out of trouble. Another blowout created by a defense. Though, here it came against a veteran quarterback who finally ran out of twirl moves and desperation heaves after carrying too much of the offensive burden for so long. The Rams are 10-4, and have reduced their magic number to “1” for the NFC West crown. Seattle falls to 8-6, with home losses to LAR, Atlanta, and Washington (and it should have been Houston with Watson too) possibly sticking a fork in that “toughest home field in the NFL” title for the time being. 

San Francisco (-2) 25, Tennessee 23
Yards-per-Play: Tennessee 5.3, San Francisco 6.1
Third Down Pct: Tennessee 50%, San Francisco 50%
Turnovers: Tennessee 1, San Francisco 0
Rushing Yards: Tennessee 90, San Francisco 51
Passing Stats: Tennessee 23-33-0-238, San Francisco 31-43-0-363
TD Drive Lengths: Tennessee 79-84, San Francisco 85

The market has caught up to San Francisco. Is it time to accept them as a likely playoff contender in 2018? They’re not necessarily a juggernaut during this 3-0 start, with the victims only being Chicago, Houston, and now Tennessee. But it seems very likely that the Niners are already within arm’s reach of being a .500 type team in the tough NFC. It’s hard to find guys who can throw 363 yards with no interceptions. And, it’s a relatively short leap for GOOD young quarterbacks to figure out how to turn field goal drives into touchdown drives. SF had to settle for six field goals here, after beating Chicago with five a few weeks ago. With Seattle and Arizona heading the wrong direction, the Niners just might be next year’s version of this year’s Rams. 

Dallas (-3) 20, Oakland 17
Yards-per-Play: Dallas 5.5, Oakland 4.8
Third Down Pct: Dallas 20%, Oakland 53%
Turnovers: Dallas 2, Oakland 1
Rushing Yards: Dallas 126, Oakland 122
Passing Stats: Dallas 18-27-2-204, Oakland 21-38-0-171
TD Drive Lengths: Dallas 65-75, Oakland 90-53

If you thought the ending of New England/Pittsburgh was crazy. This one had a first down ruled by a referee trying to stick a folded piece of paper between the nose of the ball and the first down marker. Soon after, you had a 55-yard pass interference play set up a virtually certain overtime, or a Raiders win. Then, you had Derek Carr making the increasingly common mistake of reaching the football toward the pylon on a dive to the end zone…only to lose the ball and watch it roll away for a touchback. At least Ben Roethlisberger’s last second miscue only cost his team one spot on the seed ladder. Oakland falls to 6-8 and will be watching the playoffs on TV with the rest of us. Dallas moves to 8-6 despite only converting 2 of 10 third downs, losing the turnover category, and getting called for 14 penalties. The Cowboys get Ezekiel Elliott back in the lineup in time for games with Seattle and Philadelphia. 

Today’s “Big Money Monday” showcase is Atlanta at Tampa Bay. A full game preview (plus additional stats and trends) for that matchup is available in Point Spread Weekly. Be sure you join VSiN programming all day for comprehensive coverage of Falcons/Bucs and in-depth discussion about the NFL and college bowl action.

We’re back with you Tuesday in VSiN City. We’ll have our weekly update of “market” Power Ratings in the NFL and a look at the playoff outlook in both conferences.  

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