LAS VEGAS--NFL fans eager to open the big presents like the Falcons and Saints on Christmas Eve will get an early stocking-stuffer the day before.
Saturday brings a double-header featuring two playoff contenders that are facing teams that are out of the postseason mix. But bettors, be careful. There could be a trap out there.
Indianapolis (o/u 41) at Baltimore (–13½)
My former colleague Dan Fouts, who is broadcasting NFL games for CBS, told us Thursday on VSiN’s “My Guys in the Desert” that whenever a team completely out of the playoff picture falls behind early in a game, that team will head for the exits. That team here could be the Colts (3-11 SU, 6-8 ATS), who were never the same after Andrew Luck checked out for the season. Jacoby Brissett has been a game warrior, but he’s not the long-term solution.
Meanwhile, the Ravens (8-6 SU, 8-5-1 ATS) are very much alive in the race for an AFC wild card. In my opinion they have been the most overlooked playoff contender of them all. Joe Flacco, who missed the entire preseason because of back trouble, has shown significant improvement this month. The first 11 games this season he had only nine touchdown passes to go with 11 interceptions. The past three games he has thrown for five TDs and only one INT.
The Baltimore defense is still strong – ranked in the top five in yards per play and points allowed – and John Harbaugh is a good coach who is often overlooked. A big surprise for the Ravens this year has been running back Alex Collins. After being cast off by Seattle, he has ground out nearly five yards a carry to rack up 844 yards rushing to go with another 154 yards receiving. The one setback the Ravens have had lately has been their inability to get wide receiver Jeremy Maclin back on the field from his knee injury.
With a victory the Ravens would take command in their battle with the Bills for the second AFC wild card. That’s because the Bills must deal with the Patriots on Sunday. If the Ravens get the jump early Saturday against the Colts, they’ll roll right past the spread.
Minnesota (–8½) at Green Bay (o/u 41)
There’s a common theme among NFL handicappers that Minnesota (11-3 SU, 10-4 ATS) should be backed, because it’s in pursuit of home-field advantage through the Super Bowl. Beware of that theory. When athletes wrap up division titles as the Vikings have, the edge frequently is not there.
This is a trap game for the Vikings against the spread. Expect Green Bay (7-7 SU, 7-7 ATS) to turn Brett Hundley loose. There is nothing left for the Packers except to spoil the Vikings’ pursuit of the Philadelphia Eagles for the best record in the NFC.
Hundley started seven games after Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone, and the Packers were playing not to lose. But in this game the Packers coaching staff will turn Hundley loose to see if they have a viable quarterback behind Rodgers. For me, the choices are to either back the Packers with the points – or pass on the game.
That brings us to Sunday – and a surprisingly good game.
Jacksonville (–4) at San Francisco (o/u 43)
Who would have thought last summer that on Week 16 in the NFL, we would be fascinated with this game? Who would have thought so even four weeks ago? And who would have thought Blake Bortles and Jimmy Garoppolo would be leading the two hottest teams in the NFL? Look it up. Along with the Cowboys, it’s the Jags and ’Niners have three-game winning streaks.
The arrival of Jimmy G. has changed the fortunes of San Francisco (4-10 SU, 7-7 ATS) and our perception of that team. We’re no longer talking about the Forty-Kneelers. Even though they are not going to the playoffs, they are back to being the 49ers.
Once he was named the 49ers’ starter by Kyle Shanahan, Jimmy G. has completed 68 percent of his passes for an average of 336 yards a game with two touchdowns and two interceptions. More important, Garoppolo is now 5-0 as a starter, including two wins before he was traded by New England.
Sunday will be the biggest test that Jimmy G. has faced. On its way to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years “Sacksonville” has the best overall defense in the NFL. This defense reminds me of what Pete Carroll started putting together six years ago in Seattle. That’s when the Seahawks made their move toward the championship that they would win in 2013.
The big question mark about the Jaguars has been quarterback Blake Bortles, but Doug Marrone and Tom Coughlin are sticking with him. Bortles has rewarded their faith with the best three-game stretch of his career, completing 71 percent of his passes for an average of 301 yards with seven touchdowns – and no interceptions. Most handicappers have been anti-Jacksonville because of Bortles, but he’s proving ’em wrong.
The Jags’ offense brings to mind what the New York Giants did in 1990, when they won the championship with backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler. Coughlin was on that staff that Bill Parcells put together, so he knows that you don’t need Tom Brady to win a Super Bowl.
At the same time I love what the 49ers are putting together with John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan in charge, but trust me, Jaguar defenders have been sitting there watching the ESPN video over and over of Jimmy G. They’re saying that that pretty boy is not beating us. So as long as Bortles doesn’t let me down, I’m buying into the Jaguars.
Atlanta (o/u 52½) at New Orleans (–5½)
This is the “el primo” game, even though both teams had trouble finishing off their last opponents. There is no doubt they were looking ahead to this matchup. I don’t care what people say; athletes and coaches do look ahead at the professional level.
I don’t have a strong feeling about this game, but I do know that the NFC South is still at the top of the league. Don’t forget, it is the division that has sent a team to the Super Bowl the past two seasons, and this year Atlanta (9-5 SU, 6-8 ATS), New Orleans (10-4 SU, 7-7 ATS) and Carolina may all wind up in the playoffs.
The one team from that division that will not playing in January is Tampa Bay, where Dirk Koetter does not figure to be back next year. I make the over-under 6½ on coaches who are going to be replaced next year, and I am including Ben McAdoo and Marvin Lewis. The others who may be on the way out include Bruce Arians (Arizona), Todd Bowles (New York Jets), Jack Del Rio (Oakland), John Fox (Chicago), Hue Jackson (Cleveland), Mike Mularkey (Tennessee), Chuck Pagano (Indianapolis), Vance Joseph (Denver) and Bill O’Brien (Houston).
We’ll see in the next week or so.