LAS VEGAS — The NFL awards the Lombardi Trophy to every Super Bowl champion. Someday college football will award the Saban Trophy to every national champion.
Saint Nick shoots for another Alabama title Monday night against Georgia. Here in Vegas the bookies and the money are saying the Tide will roll – a 4-point opener could be bet up to 4½ or higher by kickoff.
Georgia was electrifying against Oklahoma, but a brain-dead coaching decision by the Sooners at the end of the first half allowed the ’Dawgs to lift their heads on the way to the locker room. A 55-yard field goal cut a three-score deficit to 14 points, and the rest is history. Yo, Oklahoma, only attempt a squib kickoff after a TD when you’re certain you can kill the clock and not give an opponent great field position. A painful lesson learned.
Saint Nick won’t make a mistake like that Monday night. And here in Nevada, we’re betting on it.
Now Alabama is dealing with injury attrition at linebacker with Anfernee Jennings being the latest to go on the shelf, getting shut down after knee surgery. But no team in the country is as deep at that position as Alabama. Saban just plugs in another four- or five-star recruit. That’s how the Tide rolls.
Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combined for 326 yards and five TDs on 25 carries against Oklahoma. For Alabama to give up 326 yards rushing, it takes four games.
I have great respect for what Kirby Smart has accomplished in two seasons at Georgia. He learned how to put a program together as a Saban assistant. Oh, yes. Saban is 11-0 against his former assistant coaches. Make it 12-0.
Tide rolls – 30-17.
That game will wrap up a great weekend of football that my guys in the desert tell me will be the busiest one at the counter so far this season, even though the NFL offers up a Wild Card Weekend without much star power.
Missing from the playoffs: Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders.
Coming at you this weekend: Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans. They all deserve credit for making the playoffs, but all three teams are seriously flawed.
The bookmakers are telling us that with the possible exception of the Falcons-Rams matchup, we may not have a single game come down to a late field goal. So let’s take them one at a time with an emphasis on some finer points with the quarterbacks and the kickers.
Tennessee (o/u 44½) at Kansas City (-8½)
Saturday 1:30 p.m. PST (ABC/ESPN)
I agree with SI’s Peter King. The Chiefs are a difficult team to figure, because they really played three distinctly different seasons. First season: 5-0. Second season: 1-6. Third season: 4-0 – and by an average of 11.8 points per game.
The Chiefs enjoy a significant advantage at both quarterback and field-goal specialist. Alex Smith averaged eight yards per attempt, which put him in rarefied air among NFL quarterbacks. He also threw 26 touchdown passes with only five interceptions. Marcus Mariota averaged almost a yard less per attempt for the Titans, and he threw 15 interceptions vs. 13 touchdown passes.
Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker was 38 of 42 kicking field goals, and he didn’t miss an extra point. Ryan Succop was 35 of 42 FGs and missed two PATs for Tennessee. Don’t expect this one to come down to one of their right legs. This game could get out of hand.
Atlanta (o/u 48½) at Los Angeles Rams (-6)
Saturday 5:15 p.m. PST (NBC)
It says here that the Atlanta Falcons, who have not lived up to expectations, are very dangerous road ’dogs. Matt Ryan may not have had an MVP year, but he still threw for 7.7 yards per attempt and 20 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Matt Bryant hasn’t missed an extra-point kick, and he is 8 of 9 from 50 yards or longer. Yes, his home games are under a dome, but the weather figures to be nice in Los Angeles.
The Falcons are going to have to deal with in my opinion the league’s MVP. Running back Todd Gurley racked up more than 2,000 yards – running for 1,305 yards, catching passes for another 788 and totaling 19 touchdowns.
I don’t think the defending NFC champions will go quietly into the off-season. This is the game where we might find some value with the underdog.
Buffalo (o/u 40) at Jacksonville (-8½)
Sunday 10 a.m. PST (CBS)
The Bills are the feel-good story of the playoffs, getting there for the first time since the 1999 season and ending the longest active postseason drought in the four major sports. It would be nice if the Cinderella story could continue, but Buffalo needs Shady McCoy at 100 percent, and that’s a big question mark with his injured right ankle.
What the Bills do have going for them is a suspect Jaguar offense. Blake Bortles was Mr. December until he hit the wall in his last two games. For the season he wound up averaging seven yards an attempt, which isn’t bad, and he still threw for 21 touchdowns compared with 13 interceptions. But there aren’t many people who step up to the betting counter who are willing to back Bortles in a big game.
On the other side Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor is capable of slowing down “Sacksonville” with his ability to turn into an escape artist against opposing defenses. And he has done a good job of keeping interceptions to a minimum, throwing only four compared with his 14 touchdown passes. But this is not a passing attack that scares one of the AFC’s best defenses.
Carolina (o/u 48) at New Orleans (-6½)
Sunday 1:30 p.m. PST (Fox)
This is round 3 between these two with New Orleans exceeding 30 points in the first two meetings. The Saints won at Carolina 34-13 in Week 3, and they held serve at home in Week 13 with a 31-21 win.
If we knew which Cam Newton would show up, we might be inclined to grab the underdog, but he has been so inconsistent all season. He’s averaging only 6.7 yards per throw, and he has 16 interceptions to go along with his 22 touchdown passes.
Drew Brees on the other hand is enjoying another banner season for the Saints. He is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt – the best in the NFL – with 23 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. Brees just finished his 12th consecutive season with more than 4,000 yards.
Saints kicker Wil Lutz has missed three extra points, but he’s the only kicker who went out for 50 PAT attempts. He is also 4 of 5 on FGs 50 yards or longer. Carolina’s Graham Gano has also missed three extra points (34 of 37), but he has yet to make a field goal of at least 50 yards, missing on his only attempt from that far this season.
There’s no reason to doubt that the Saints will keep marching in this game unless Newton slips into that Superman cape. But if I’m not mistaken, they have ripped out all the phone booths from the Superdome.
If last year was any indication, this could be a blowout week in the NFL. The closest any underdog came to winning any of the Wild Card games last year was 13 points, and that was Oakland – without Derek Carr – losing to Houston 27-14.
If there is one sure sign early in 2018, it’s that the market is telling us that the NFL could feature one-sided games this first weekend of the new year.