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Boxscores don't tell story of thrilling NFL weekend

Jeff Fogle  
VSiN City newsletter

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Stefon Diggs (14) catches the winning touchdown pass over New Orleans Saints free safety Marcus Williams.
© USA Today Sports Images

Books will be written about the last five minutes of Saints/Vikings alone! We’ll try to capsulize this past weekend’s NFL thrillers to get you ready for the conference championships. That plus Big Monday hoop previews right now in VSiN City.

Saturday NFL Playoffs: Philadelphia outplays Atlanta, survives tight finish
Nick Foles played better than many expected in the first of four divisional round matchups this past weekend. It wasn’t enough to coast to victory. But it was enough to spring a small (pseudo) upset to keep the Eagles at home for Championship Sunday. 

Philadelphia (plus 2.5) 15, Atlanta 10 
Yards-per-Play: Atlanta 4.8, Philadelphia 5.3
Total Yardage: Atlanta 281, Philadelphia 334
Third Down Pct: Atlanta 31%, Philadelphia 46%
Turnovers: Atlanta 0, Philadelphia 2
Rushing Yards: Atlanta 86, Philadelphia 96
Passing Stats: Atlanta 22-36-0-195, Philadelphia 23-30-0-238
TD Drive Lengths: Atlanta 18, Philadelphia 86
FG Drive Lengths: Atlanta 59, Philadelphia 37-74-80

We included field goal drives because they add a lot of context to this game story. Philadelphia was doing a MUCH better job of driving the field for points. The Eagles missed the PAT on their TD, so they were up 12-0 on long distance scoring, 12-3 on scoring from drives of 50 yards or more. Atlanta got a gift touchdown, or the ending may not have been so nerve racking for the teams, fans, and bettors. Looking only at YPP and total yardage doesn’t tell the story the same way as seeing scoring drives of 86, 74, and 80 does.

Philly’s coaching contingent adjusted quickly to Nick Foles’ lack of precision (in a very strong wind) on anything beyond short passes. They then emphasized short, safe throws and runs to march and move the chains. Matt Ryan of Atlanta has a much stronger arm, but that led to double the number of incomplete passes, and less yardage on more attempts. That stubbornness created disappointing Atlanta numbers all the way down the stat box. Run your finger down Atlanta’s side, and you see the only good news was zero turnovers.

It looks, now, like the market overreacted to the switch from Wentz to Foles. Philadelphia was priced like they had become Tennessee or Buffalo. The Eagles were the better team here, though home field is worth 2-3 points obviously. Let’s say they proved neutral field “equality” with Atlanta. If didn’t feel like an upset to the eye or stat test. How will the market deal with that in this same stadium next week?  

Saturday NFL Playoffs: New England starts slowly, then crushes Tennessee
After a poor early drive, viewers were treated to another dominating performance by the New England defense. We talked about that in last Wednesday’s tutorial. It was good to hear Jim Nantz and Tony Romo explaining the improvement of this unit through the telecast. Tennessee was certainly hampered by having to play in very tough winter conditions with a quarterback who grew up in Hawaii. New England is used to this, and owned “the middle 75%” of the game thanks to an 11 of 17 mark on third down conversions with no giveaways. A virtual slaughter until the Titans got a late garbage-time TD drive to “lift” yards-per-play to 4.4.

New England (-14) 35, Tennessee 14 
Yards-per-Play: Tennessee 4.4, New England 5.5
Total Yardage: Tennessee 267, New England 438
Third Down Pct: Tennessee 33%, New England 65%
Turnovers: Tennessee 0, New England 0
Rushing Yards: Tennessee 65, New England 101
Passing Stats: Tennessee 22-37-0-202, New England 35-53-0-337
TD Drive Lengths: Tennessee 95-80, New England 73-48-91-56-90

Only concern if you’re a Pats fans is the fact that Brady threw 53 times. That will be much dicier against upcoming opponents in terms of sack and turnover potential. No reason to spend much time here. The scoreboard told the story of the game very well on its own. It was the only boring game.

Sunday NFL Playoffs: Jacksonville upsets Pittsburgh in unexpected shootout
Even if you were on the Jaguars bandwagon, you weren’t expecting a divisional round shootout in Pittsburgh to finish with 87 points! Wild ride.

Jacksonville (plus 7) 45, Pittsburgh 42 
Yards-per-Play: Jacksonville 6.2, Pittsburgh 7.0
Total Yardage: Jacksonville 378, Pittsburgh 545
Third Down Pct: Jacksonville 57%, Pittsburgh 44%
Turnovers: Jacksonville 0, Pittsburgh 2
Rushing Yards: Jacksonville 164, Pittsburgh 83
Passing Stats: Jacksonville 14-26-0-214, Pittsburgh 37-58-1-462
TD Drive Lengths: Jacksonville 66-18-75-61-75, Pittsburgh 64-51-77-75-75-75

Ends up being a weird stat composite because Jacksonville jumped to leads of 21-0 and 28-7…then softened on defense…AND saw its star running back lose almost all of his explosiveness after an ankle sprain late in the first half. So, we have one team worrying more about sitting on a lead in the second half, while the trailer was bombs away. 

If you focus on the “controlling the game” stats, which, here, were third down conversions, turnovers, and rushing yardage (even more dominant on the way to 21-0 and 28-7 leads), then it’s easy to see how Jacksonville won the game. Ben Roethlisberger can post huge passing yardage in desperation. But two giveaways set up easy Jacksonville points. It’s hard for even Hall-of-Fame bound quarterbacks to avoid giveaways when throwing 58 passes against an elite impact defense. 

You can also understand why Jacksonville won its division, because it’s usually not sweating second half comebacks against the likes of Ben Roethlisberger! 

The health of Leonard Fournette is a very big issue for next week. If he’s exploding into holes, with the ability to spin away from defenders…then any opposing defense is going to have headaches. If he can only lumber straight forward into the line at about 70% speed, then he’s not a factor, and Jacksonville's play-action doesn’t freeze anybody. 

Drives with Fournette healthy: Touchdown-Punt-Touchdown-Touchdown
Fournette’s rushing gains: 5-6-1-1-10-6-18-5-16-8-4-2 (82/12)

Drives after the injury: Punt-Punt-Punt-Touchdown-Touchdown-Field Goal
Fournette’s rushing gains: 4-1-0-0-2-3-2-3-1-2-1-3-5 (27/13)

He also had one reception for 10 yards when healthy (the play he was hurt on), one catch for no yards afterward. So, Jacksonville gained 7.1 yards-per-play when Fournette touched the ball healthy, and his presence opened up avenues for others. The Jaguars only gained 1.9 yards-per-play when he touched the ball after his injury. A week to get him ready for New England.

Sunday NFL Playoffs: Minnesota overjoyed, New Orleans despondent after wild final minutes
Condolences to Saints fans who had the rug pulled out from under them on the final play. Hopefully you at least got plus 5.5 on your bets! Congrats to Vikings fans who couldn’t believe their team had blown a 17-0 halftime lead. Hopefully you pushed at -5 or bet earlier in the week. 

Minnesota (-5.5) 29, New Orleans 24 
Yards-per-Play: New Orleans 5.3, Minnesota 5.7
Total Yardage: New Orleans 358, Minnesota 403
Third Down Pct: New Orleans 22%, Minnesota 59%
Turnovers: New Orleans 2, Minnesota 1
Rushing Yards: New Orleans 80, Minnesota 95
Passing Stats: New Orleans 25-41-2-278, Minnesota 25-40-1-308
TD Drive Lengths: New Orleans 80-30-40, Minnesota 55-58-75

The fourth quarter would be tough to capture in stats anyway. And, I have to say that this generic boxscore is about as detached from the thrills you witnessed as one could be. Are there any lessons for future handicapping? Case Keenum did a great job of moving the chains most of the game. The offense was fairly generic while building that early lead. Keenum was keeping his offense on the field with low yardage totals. That’s in his favor. But his horrible interception helped turn the game around. And he really wasn’t a dynamic player until the final play when a perfect pass positioned his team for a possible field goal attempt…that turned into the game-winning TD on a horrendous defensive miscue. 

Both offenses only had one TD drive longer than 60 yards, and Minnesota’s ended with a miracle. New Orleans got relatively cheap TDs after an interception and a blocked punt. Credit to Drew Brees that the Saints' offense found the end zone rather than settling for field goal attempts. 

Not much separating the NFC elite entering the postseason. Still feels that way. 

Now that the divisional round is finished, let’s take a quick look at summaries from the game-by-game stat previews provided Thursday and Friday here in VSiN City. We’ll cut and paste those and stick them in italics. Going in kickoff order…

“The heart of Atlanta’s issues this year involve its offense stalling when it was time to score. If you assume Foles isn’t going to be great in the red zone…and that weather may be helping defenses…heaven forbid, this could be a replay of Buffalo/Jacksonville in terms of scoring challenges…The better the conditions, the more likely Atlanta’s experience and recent form will justify or surpass the market price. The worse it gets, the better chance for a low-scoring coin flip that creates value on the dog. Advancing to the NFC Championship game might come down to which team can make field goals in swirling winds on a damp field.” 

The field wasn’t damp, but strong winds made scoring a challenge. The Eagles did win field goals 3-1 partly because Foles couldn’t finish drives. Atlanta’s season ended when it failed to succeed when it was time to score (shut out the whole second half). Straight up, was kind of a “coin flip” in the final moments…but Philadelphia was more impressive at the point of attack all game than “coin flip” makes it sound. 

"The Patriots finish drives, which is why they can be awesome without huge yards-per-play numbers…A tall spread near -14 is trying to discourage the public from laying the chalk. Just remember that Brady and company are much more experienced playing on this field in cold weather, and they’re facing a quarterback who can be shaky even in good conditions. Tough to ask Tennessee to have a strong offensive game unless the forecast takes a much nicer turn between now and kickoff." 

New England won touchdown count 5-2, and it was 5-1 before garbage time. Mariota did throw a fantastic TD pass on the first drive, but was in way over his head otherwise. Typical New England blowout in terms of fundamental football. 

“From a purely statistical or analytics point of view, there’s no case to be made for betting Pittsburgh. No indicator stats suggest they should be favored by a touchdown. The numbers are too soft, and came against a weak schedule. This looks like a relative toss-up keyed by a dog defense. To make the case for Pittsburgh, you have to assume a Bortles implosion is GOING to happen rather something that’s just on the radar…and you have to believe the suggestion that the Steelers have used the Cleveland Cavaliers’ approach of saving their best for the playoffs." 

Not the defensive struggle stats were hinting at. When Bortles didn’t implode, there was no justification for the Steelers laying a touchdown. 

“The case for New Orleans (plus) is that Drew Brees is so great…he’s a true pick-em on the road with anybody in a big game. And Brees vs. Keenum is an experience mismatch that could swing the straight up win to the dog. The case for Minnesota (-) is that smash mouth football is ideally suited to dominate what the Saints usually are. And, Keenum has shown that he can make enough big plays to lead the team to a win of a TD or more in front of a raucous crowd."

Minnesota built a lead with smash mouth. Keenum’s inexperienced helped bring Brees back. Big play won it. Feels in retrospect that the line was a touch high, even if it ended on the late-week number. 

NFL Playoffs: Early point spreads for Sunday’s conference championships
We’ll go more in depth through the week. Here are the early lines for next week’s conference championship games.

*Jacksonville at New England (-9/45.5)
*Minnesota (-3.5/40) at Philadelphia

Many offshore sites went up at the Pats around -9. In Las Vegas, the Westgate went up at only -8, but very swiftly moved to nine. Minnesota opened at some spots at -3 with a -120 vigorish instead of the standard -110. That was soon followed by Minnesota -3.5 but with even money vigorish. 

College Basketball: Market notes from a busy weekend
We wanted to alert you to a few college basketball developments from this past weekend as we continue our transition from a football-heavy schedule to a basketball-heavy schedule. Some quick notes, then Greg Peterson will wrap up the day with a preview of the Big Monday blockbuster doubleheader on ESPN. 

*Kansas once again missed the market by a mile on its home floor against a major conference opponent. We talked about this relatively recent tendency after earlier outright losses to Arizona State and Texas Tech. Since then, two “survival” wins against teams the Jayhawks were supposed to dominate. Here’s a look at the only four games in the Phog Allen Fieldhouse Kansas has played this season against teams from major conferences.

Kansas (-12) lost to Arizona State 95-85 (missed by 22)
Kansas (-7.5) lost to Texas Tech 85-73 (missed by 19.5)
Kansas (-16) beat Iowa State 83-78 (missed by 11)
Kansas (-12) beat Kansas State 73-72 (missed by 11)

All four missed by double digits. That on the heels of a 2-9 ATS mark in Kansas’ last 11 home games vs. major conference teams last season. So, 2-13 ATS the last 15 at home vs. non-cupcakes. Clearly opponents familiar with big-time basketball aren’t intimidated by this site, while the market continues to allot a steep home court advantage. 

*Michigan State not only failed to bounce back from the prior weekend’s debacle against Ohio State, Sparty suffered a couple more debacles! At least MSU survived overtime against lowly Rutgers. Look how big the market misses have been the last three games for a prior #1 team in the AP poll. 

Michigan State (-6) lost at Ohio State 80-64 (missed by 22)
Michigan State (-22) beat Rutgers 76-72 in OT (missed by 22 in regulation)
Michigan State (-9.5) lost to Michigan 82-72 (missed by 19.5)

Not just three double-digit failures, but a tick away from three misses by 20 points or more. You can see defense has been a problem, with OSU and Michigan reaching at least 80. Ken Pomeroy of kenpom.com talked to Matt Youmans and JVT on “The Green Zone” Saturday about a likely return to form eventually. For now, a developing story to keep an eye on. 

*Arizona State is another team that’s lost its form after a run high into the rankings. The prior #4 team has failed to cover five straight (0-3-2 ATS). The results in this past week’s home pairing with the Oregon schools were particularly dismal. 

Here’s the recent slide…

Arizona State (plus 6) lost at Arizona 84-78 (push)
Arizona State (-9) lost at Colorado 90-81 in overtime
Arizona State (-3) won at Utah 80-77 (push)
Arizona State (-7) lost to Oregon 76-72
Arizona State (-12) beat Oregon State 77-75

Two pushes, but then the three ATS misses were by 9, 11, and 10 points in regulation. You could say the line has caught up to ASU’s performance level when the team plays well. The Sun Devils are having trouble playing well lately after the electric November and December. Opponents aren’t taking them lightly. And, possibly, teams watching game film are seeing how to exploit a soft defense (whose poor efficiency ranking has worsened since Greg listed that in Thursday’s preview of the Oregon game). 

*Off the rankings radar, Vanderbilt has become the Cleveland Browns of college hoops in terms of poor point spread performance and sharp stubbornness. Vandy fell to 1-13 ATS for the season with a Saturday loss to Kentucky (the only cover all season got there by a bucket in a loss at Florida). Sharps were hitting the Commodores hard leading up to Saturday’s tipoff against the Wildcats, as many in the media commenting on the “tough home floor” Vandy enjoys at Nashville. Vanderbilt is 0-8 ATS at home this season. 

A look at the last four results shows that the market is in the neighborhood, but still giving the Commodores too much respect. 

Vanderbilt (-3) beat Alabama 76-75
Vanderbilt (plus 3.5) lost at South Carolina 71-60
Vanderbilt (plus 1.5) lost to Tennessee 92-84
Vanderbilt (plus 2) lost to Kentucky 74-67

That’s a two-point miss on the road, then failures of 4, 6.5, and 5 points at home. 

College Basketball: “Running the Floor with Greg Peterson”

Duke (15-2 Overall, 10-5 ATS) at Miami (Overall 13-3, 7-4 ATS)
7:00 p.m. ET on ESPN
Early Line: Duke -3

Bettors have been all over Duke since the turn of the new year. In all four of the Blue Devils’ games since the turn of the calendar, Duke has been bet up by at least 1.5 points. The last time a line has moved in favor of one of Duke's opponents was on November 29 when the squad took a trip to Indiana, with that line going from Duke laying 11 points to nine.

Miami has not received the same attention at the window, with the line moving away from the Hurricanes in six of the team's last eight games. Just one of Miami's games that have been on the board have been at home, with the team being 6-4 against the spread overall this season and 6-3 either on the road or on a neutral court.

On the Block: Key Analytics Rankings (out of 351 D1 teams)
Offensive Efficiency: Duke 1.223 (1st), Miami 1.041 (117th)
Defensive Efficiency: Duke 0.968 (85th), Miami 0.864 (6th)
Pace: Duke 76.2 (32nd), Miami 70.2 (259th)

This a classic game of opposites as Duke has a great offense and a defense that tends to struggle while Miami has some offensive woes but is superb on defense.

Duke's offense feasts on second chances, as the Blue Devils lead the country with 13.4 offensive rebounds per game. Duke is a solid, but not great outside shooting team, making 37.1 percent of its 3-point shots, which ranks 92nd in the country. With opponents shooting 28.5 percent from 3-point range on Miami, it makes Duke's ability to clean up the glass is even more important.

Miami is a team that causes tons of missed shots. Opponents shoot 37.3 percent against the Hurricanes, which is the fourth-lowest clip in the nation. Miami also does a solid job of not fouling with foes taking 0.245 free throws to every field goal attempt, which ranks 15th in the country.

If this comes down to free throws, Duke has the upper hand at covering, though both are poor at the line. The Blue Devils shoot 69.8 percent at the line, which is 215th in the country to Miami's 63.2 percent, which is 342nd nationally.

If Duke is able to play close to its normal pace, Duke should be able to cover thanks to its definite size advantage in the frontcourt and ability to rebound.

With that said, Miami must take care of the ball to feel good about its ability to stay within the number. Miami turns it over on 15.5 percent of its possessions, which ranks 101st nationally. Duke forces a turnover on just 16.2 percent of its opponents’ possessions, which is 299th in the country. If Duke cannot turn Miami over, it will make it easier for the Hurricanes to slow down the game and allow it to set up its half-court defense.

Kansas (14-3 Overall, 9-7 ATS) at West Virginia (Overall 15-2, 7-6 ATS)
9:00 p.m. ET on ESPN
Early Line: West Virginia -4.5

Kansas has been bet up in eight of its past 11 games. Though Kansas continues to get the majority of action in its games, Jayhawks’ support appears to be losing steam. Since the start of January, just one of Kansas' games has moved by more than half a point off the starting line. To compare, each of Kansas' seven games in December moved by at least one point off the starting line, five of which were towards the Jayhawks.

West Virginia has yet to be bet down this year. Though the Mountaineers have not really been a team that have made a profit for bettors for the year, they have covered three of their past four games. The most notable was Bob Huggins’ squad opening as a 3.5 point favorite against Oklahoma and the line closing with West Virginia laying six points.

On the Block: Key Analytics Rankings (out of 351 D1 teams)
Offensive Efficiency: Kansas 1.163 (8th), West Virginia 1.096 (49th)
Defensive Efficiency: Kansas 0.951 (59th), West Virginia 0.872 (8th)
Pace: Kansas 73.6 (102nd), West Virginia 74.9 (66th)

West Virginia has the famous 40-minute full court press approach that leads to the Mountaineers forcing 19.9 turnovers per game and a turnover on 23.9 percent of opponents’ offensive plays. Both those numbers rank second in the country, bested only by the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks.

While West Virginia uses its defense to set up its offense, Kansas uses a high-octane offense to bury opponents early and force opponents to take 3-pointers to come back. 35.2 percent of the points Kansas gives up are from 3-point range, that is 276th in the country. Kansas as a team shooting 41.5 percent on 3s, which ranks eighth in the country while making an average of 11 3s per game.

A big positive for West Virginia is Esa Ahmad returning for the team's loss against Texas Tech on Saturday. The 6-foot-8 forward missed the first 16 games of the season due to academic issues, but did not miss a beat as he had 18 points and six rebounds in 34 minutes.

Kansas must handle the press to win and or cover this game. Kansas typically values the ball quite well, turning out over on 14.4 percent if its offensive plays, which ranks 40th in DI basketball. West Virginia allows opponents to shoot 34.7 percent from 3-point range, which ranks 165th in the country. 

If Kansas can break the press, there are open shots to be had. But if the Mountaineers can force turnovers and have those lead to fast break buckets, it will be West Virginia's game to lose.

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Back with you Tuesday to monitor early Championship Weekend betting in the NFL and update our “market” Power Ratings. We’ll also crunch the numbers from Duke-Miami and Kansas-West Virginia. Greg Peterson will preview Clemson/North Carolina and other hoops action.

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