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Saints-Falcons provides rare marquee Thursday Night Football

Jeff Fogle
VSiN City newsletter

December 6, 2017 11:07 PM
USATSI_10464494
Washington Huskies forward Hameir Wright (13) fights for the ball with Kansas Jayhawks guards Devonte' Graham (4) and Malik Newman (14) in the second half. Washington upset Kansas, a 21-point favorite.
© USA Today Sports Images

A huge Thursday nighter in the NFL, as the New Orleans Saints (9-3) visit the Atlanta Falcons (7-5) in a rivalry showdown with multiple playoff implications. Plus, Wednesday night college basketball shockers from outta nowhere! 

NFL: A lot at stake as Saints visit Falcons in a rare must-see Thursday nighter 
New Orleans currently leads the NFC South with a 9-3 record. The Saints are now a game behind both the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles in the race for a top two seed and a first-round bye. Nipping at their heels are a pair of divisional rivals. New Orleans can’t think too much about who’s ahead of it because there’s so little margin of error behind. 

Here’s a quick peek at the records and remaining schedules for the NFC South contenders…

New Orleans (9-3): at Atlanta, vs. NY Jets, vs. Atlanta, at Tampa Bay
Carolina (8-4): vs. Minnesota, vs. Green Bay, vs. Tampa Bay, at Atlanta
Atlanta (7-5): vs. New Orleans, at Tampa Bay, at New Orleans, vs. Carolina

New Orleans swept Carolina, so it owns that tie-breaker. But two games are still ahead with the Falcons. Lose those, and the Saints might fall behind the Panthers, and into a tie with Atlanta…which would hold that tie-breaker with a sweep. 

The Saints have the most control their destiny because they’ll be favored in all four games (as long as the current line for tonight holds). Carolina and Atlanta will probably only be favored twice apiece based on recent pricing. 

Let’s start handicapping what could be a fantastic free-for-all between playoff caliber opponents desperate to get a win.  

New Orleans (9-3) at Atlanta (7-5)
Las Vegas Line: New Orleans by 1, total of 52
Estimated Market Power Ratings: New Orleans 85, Atlanta 81

We had the Power Ratings at 85 and 82 on Tuesday when the game was pick-em. New Orleans has received some support since then. We’re not ready to push the Saints up to 86 yet given their showing in LA against the Rams, and the fortunate survival of Washington on their home field just prior. We’ll drop Atlanta to 81. Though, honestly, that’s not in line with how much support the Falcons were recently getting in Seattle. It’s possible that important market influences are weighing home field advantage at something closer to 1.5 points rather than 3 right now whenever veteran quarterbacks are involved. 

Yards-per-Play
New Orleans: 6.4 on offense, 5.4 on defense (vs. #7 schedule)
Atlanta: 6.1 on offense, 5.0 on defense (vs. #14 schedule)

When raving about New Orleans’ dominance of Buffalo awhile back, we mentioned the Saints had played a tough schedule. Still true. Posting a plus 1.0 YPP differential against that tough a slate is very impressive. That’s why the Saints deserve serious consideration as a Super Bowl entry. Though, following up a road loss at the LA Rams with a road loss at Atlanta would make it seem much less likely that the Saints could work through road efforts in Philadelphia and Minnesota come January. Good stuff from Atlanta too in this category. But as we’ve discussed all season…the Falcons have had a knack for underachieving their yardage production on the scoreboard.  

Key Passing Stats 
New Orleans: 8.1 yards-per-pass attempt, 17 TD’s, 5 interceptions thrown
Atlanta: 7.9 yards-per-pass attempt, 17 TD’s, 8 interceptions thrown

Very similar numbers, with two elite quarterbacks having great seasons. The higher interception count from Atlanta is worth noting now because it’s about to become important. 

Pass Defense 
New Orleans: 7.1 yppa allowed; 18 TD’s allowed, 11 interceptions
Atlanta: 6.5 yppa allowed; 15 TD’s allowed, 3 interceptions

Atlanta’s defense only has THREE interceptions all season! We’re 75% of the way through. That’s one a month! You’re going to slow down Drew Brees with a defense that doesn’t get any picks? This is likely a key reason many models are showing New Orleans as a road favorite here. The Saints get more yards-per-pass, don’t underachieve their production, and aren’t likely to self-destruct with interceptions. Particularly now that New Orleans also has a productive rushing game. 

Impact Defense 
New Orleans: 39% third down pct-allowed, 15 takeaways, 33 sacks
Atlanta: 40% third down pct-allowed, 10 takeaways, 32 sacks

Those third down numbers might allow both smart quarterbacks to play ball control. These guys obviously know the fundamentals. If Atlanta can also avoid interceptions…then we’re probably looking at a toss-up ending. They can’t count on their defense scaring Brees. 

If you believe that extremes in turnovers usually regress, then you can make a case for Atlanta at home when all they have to do is win the game. They’re “due” to get some interceptions. If you believe that turnover counts reflect skill sets, its easier to see New Orleans playing something closer to mistake-free football in a matchup where one dramatic break of serve could determine who wins and covers. 

Minnesota just won on this field this past Sunday, which gives us a measuring stick for New Orleans. Atlanta just won at Seattle in Week 11, who would then knock off Philadelphia on that same field. We’re very likely to see playoff caliber football Thursday night, from quality teams who might be destined to meet three times in five weeks.

Originally, we were going to skip college basketball in today’s edition of VSiN City because the most prominent big-name teams in action Wednesday night were all prohibitive favorites. CHANGE OF PLANS.

College Basketball: #5 Florida flounders again! Loyola-Illinois wins in Gainesville as a 17-point underdog 
Anything can happen in sports, particularly college sports. But it seems impossible that the Florida team which was crushing Duke by 17 points in the second half in Portland…could then lose THAT game…and the NEXT one at home vs. Florida State…and then the NEXT one at home against an unheralded opponent like Loyola of Illinois. That’s not a dry spell. That’s falling off a cliff. 

Loyola-Ill (plus 17) 65, #5 Florida 59
Two-Point Pct: Loyola 53%, Florida 48%
Three Pointers: Loyola 6/12, Florida 2/19
Free Throws: Loyola 7/9, Florida 9/14
Rebounds: Loyola 29, Florida 32
Turnovers: Loyola 13, Florida 8

Florida is always vulnerable to bad shooting games. A classic “live-by-the-three, die-by-the-missed three” squad. Certainly an issue here with that very poor 2 of 19 mark from long range. But you can see that defense was also a big problem. Loyola continually worked for good looks inside and outside. The Gators did win the turnover battle. Though, teams that launch a lot of treys often have low turnover counts (ill-advised treys serving as virtual turnovers). 

It was amazing when Arizona fell from #2 all the way out of the rankings in a single week. Florida is on the verge of doing the same thing. The Gators do play #17 Cincinnati Saturday in Newark, NJ, which gives them a chance to earn a win over a ranked opponent before the new poll comes out. They’re certainly not playing like a team ready to bounce back. Their head coach called them “soft” after the FSU loss. Now this. The last thing you can be is “soft” against a crew like Cincinnati. 

College Basketball: #2 Jayhawks rocked as chalk! Kansas stunned as 21-point favorites by Washington
As the Florida shocker was ending, early scoreboard looks were showing Kansas having surprising trouble against supposedly outmanned Washington. No way. There couldn’t be TWO top five teams losing as big home favorites on the same early December night? 

Washington (plus 21) 74, #2 Kansas 65 
Two-Point Pct: Washington 51%, Kansas 55%
Three Pointers: Washington 9/21, Kansas 5/20
Free Throws: Washington 7/15, Kansas 4/8
Rebounds: Washington 37, Kansas 34
Turnovers: Washington 12, Kansas 13

Nothing dominant jumps out as to why Washington beat the spread by THIRTY points. Kansas going 5 of 20 wouldn’t normally be a disaster in a home game because you’d expect the Jayhawks to rebound a lot of those misses…pick up points at the free throw line…and hold their opponents well below 50% inside the arc. None of that happened. Washington kept its head when the market assumed they’d be dominated up and down the floor. Amazingly, the Huskies won the battle of free throws despite hitting less than 50% themselves. 

The biggest concerns for Jayhawks fans should be:

  • Last year, Kansas ranked #4 in the nation in two-point defense, allowing just 40%. Here they allowed 51% in Lawrence to a relative weakling. 
  • Last year, Kansas was top 40 nationally in “rebound rate,” grabbing about 55% of missed shots. Here they grabbed only 48% against a team they were expected to dominate.  

Maybe it was just an off-night in terms of effort. An ugly boxscore.  

Wednesday NBA: Golden State not bothered by absence of Steph Curry
For some reason, important market influences thought the Golden State Warriors would be crippled by the loss of Steph Curry. They normally would be about 9-point road favorite at this site at full strength. A line that sat at Golden State around -5 much of the day was bet down to -3 before tip-off.

Then, the Warriors dominated Charlotte from start to finish. 

Golden State (-3) 101, Charlotte 87
Two-Point Pct: Golden State 54%, Charlotte 36%
Three Pointers: Golden State 11/30, Charlotte 6/19
Free Throws: Golden State 10/13, Charlotte 13/17
Rebounds: Golden State 47, Charlotte 49
Turnovers: Golden State 15, Charlotte 12

We’re not suggesting that Curry doesn’t mean much. He’s an annual MVP candidate, and obviously one of the greatest shooters ever. But this is a DEEP team…one that has a variety of ways to thwart opponents. You can see that in the numbers above.

  • Golden State was plus 15 points from behind the arc, even without Curry. That 11/30 mark is 36.7%, which equates to 55% on two-pointers. 
  • Golden State shot 54% on two-point baskets, reminding everyone again that they’re not just a “bombs away” team that has to make treys to beat people. 
  • Golden State held Charlotte to 28 of 78 on two-pointers. That’s FIFTY missed shots inside the arc for the Hornets! The most commonly ignored strength of the Warriors is their defense. They often play at a very fast pace, which artificially inflates scoring. They also have extended garbage time more than other teams because they win so many blowouts. Yet, they continually rank near the top of the NBA in defensive efficiency. 

The Warriors are so good right now in terms of star talent, depth, schematics, strategy, and mindset, that they can lose Steph Curry for a bit and still dominate an Eastern Conference playoff contender like this on the road. Let the mainstream media talk all they want about Kevin Durant’s triple-double. YOU need to know that forcing 50 missed shots inside the arc was the real key to this easy cover. 

NBA: Updated estimate of “market” Power Ratings
Time for this week’s NBA update. These work the same as the football ratings. We use three points for home court advantage in basketball too. NBA numbers are more volatile day-to-day than those in other sports because of injuries, schedule dynamics, and other influences. 

???: Golden State (Curry out, was mispriced like an 86 at close)
86: Houston
84: Cleveland, Oklahoma City
83: Boston, Toronto, San Antonio
82: Minnesota, Portland 
81: Philadelphia, Milwaukee, New Orleans 
80: Washington, Charlotte, Denver 
79: Detroit, Miami, Utah
78: Indiana, Dallas  
77: Orlando, Memphis 
76: New York, LA Clippers
75: LA Lakers 
74: Brooklyn, Atlanta, Sacramento
72: Phoenix
71: Chicago 

Quick notes:

  • Some key players have been in and out for a few teams. So, we may be a bit behind on how those teams will be priced the next time out. Golden State may jump back up into the 90s. 
  • Oklahoma City is still being priced like a superpower despite its shaky form of late. We talked about that last night. The early line for Thursday’s game at Brooklyn hasn’t shown any adjustment to the recent streak of failures to play to the market. 
  • Good test for recently hot Utah on Thursday night when they host Houston in game two of TNT’s doubleheader. The opener will be a youth showcase, with the Los Angeles Lakers visiting Philadelphia. 

Back with you Friday to finish another week. Our focus will be on key indicator stats in the biggest NFL games. 

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