LAS VEGAS--With four weeks to go the playoff push is in full swing – for both the NFL and for bettors.
You have to love teams that are giving you their best effort. Sometimes that’s not good enough as in Thursday night, when Drew Brees forced his final pass into coverage, and Atlanta held on for a 20-17 win over New Orleans, covering the two-point spread.
That brings us to Sunday, when four games match teams that would be in the playoffs if they started this weekend. Let’s begin with the one that matches NFC division leaders.
Philadelphia (o/u 48) at L.A. Rams (–1½)
Unfortunately the tragic fires that have raged throughout southern California have had a direct bearing on the Rams (9-3 SU, 8-4 ATS) and their preparation. Practice this week was at times reduced to a walk-through because of the smoky air or hit with fierce wind. It definitely has not been a normal week for the home team.
The Eagles (10-2 SU, 9-3 ATS) meanwhile stayed in California following their loss to Seattle. They did not face as much disruption practicing at Angel Stadium and sleeping in a nearby hotel.
Wide receiver Robert Woods is doubtful for the Rams with a shoulder injury, and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz remains in concussion protocol.
If the Rams have an advantage here it is with their kicking game, but I make a strong lean to Philadelphia, because I truly don’t think Carson Wentz and the Eagles will lose two games in a row. The Eagles win 27-20.
Seattle (o/u 40) at Jacksonville (–2½)
The Seahawks (8-4 SU, 5-6-1 ATS) travel cross country to play the Jaguars (8-4 SU, 7-5 ATS) in a battle of teams that would be wild cards in their respective conferences right now. One significant factor in favor of the Seahawks is that the game was flexed from a 1 p.m. EST start to 4:25 p.m. It always helps west-coast teams not having to start at 10 a.m. on their body clocks.
As great as Russell Wilson has been – and he’s a strong candidate for MVP – he faces a defense that takes no prisoners. The Jaguars lead the NFL in such statistical categories as points allowed, yards per game, yards per play, red-zone percentage and sacks.
It’s the other matchup where the Seahawks enjoy a big edge. Quarterback Blake Bortles is coming off his best game of the season – 26-for-35 for 309 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in the Jaguars’ win over Indianapolis. In fact any game is a great game for Bortles when he doesn’t throw an interception. But rookie running back Leonard Fournette is still dealing with ankle trouble, and wide receiver Marqise Lee is battling rib and knee injuries. He also just happens to lead the NFL with seven dropped passes.
I’d lean to the home team, but without great conviction.
Minnesota (–2½) at Carolina (o/u 41)
The leaders of the NFC North, the Vikings (10-2 SU, 9-3 ATS) make their third consecutive road trip traveling to play the Panthers (8-4 SU, 7-4-1 ATS), currently a wild-card team. The last time a Mike Zimmer-coached defense faced Cam Newton, he was sacked eight times. A week ago this “D” held Atlanta’s Matt Ryan to 1-for-10 on third-down conversions.
Believe it or not, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum is fifth in the NFC in passer rating. That puts him ahead of quarterbacks like Goff, Wilson and Ryan.
The inconsistency of the Panthers offense facing a defense that has traveled very well through Detroit and Atlanta gives a strong edge to the Vikings, who have a good chance to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
Baltimore (o/u 43½) at Pittsburgh (–5)
Somehow the success of the Ravens (7-5 SU, 6-5-1 ATS) has eluded most of our attention. Maybe that’s because they were 4-5 before their bye. But they have won three in a row since, giving up an average of only 12 points. Now they visit the Steelers (10-2 SU, 6-6 ATS) and Ben Roethlisberger, who has eight touchdown passes over his last two home games.
There’s an intangible factor that could deeply affect the Steelers Sunday night. This team has to be emotionally drained after its painful victory in Cincinnati. Linebacker Ryan Shazier lies in a hospital after undergoing spinal-cord surgery, and enforcer JuJu Smith-Schuster will be on the sideline in civilian clothes serving his one-game suspension. There is no question that these two incidents will have a direct impact on how well or how poorly the Steelers play against the Ravens.
N.Y. Jets (–1) at Denver (o/u 41½)
Hold on. How did this game get in here? It’s because bettors must be reminded that there are four NFL losers straight up that are winners ATS – the Bears, Bengals, Texans and, yes, the Jets (5-7 SU, 7-4-1 ATS).
They aren’t world beaters, but the Jets were the last team to cover against New England. Believe it or not, a lot of credit must go to Josh McCown. The only AFC quarterbacks with higher passer ratings than him are Tom Brady, Alex Smith and the injured Deshaun Watson. If there was an MVP for bettors, McCown might be it.
On Sunday the Jets could win a game on the road for the second time this season. If you had said back in August that the Jets would be favored in December at Denver (3-9 SU, 2-9-1 ATS), they would have immediately ordered a white jacket for you. But without a quarterback worthy of being an NFL starter, the Broncos are averaging only 17.9 points per game and are the worst team in the league against the spread.
On paper this appears to be a total mismatch – in favor of the Jets. These are the same Jets that the public actually thought might go 0-16. The New York media just crushed them before the season started and, at the same time, told us that the Giants were going to win the NFC East and be a strong, Super Bowl contender. Instead it’s Todd Bowles who may have saved his job and Ben McAdoo who lost his.
The conclusion is beware of media perception – especially before the season starts.