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Saints will try to avoid upset that Rams, Chiefs couldn't

Jeff Fogle  
VSiN City newsletter

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Cam Newton and Drew Brees meet again in the playoffs after two regular-season wins by the Saints.
© USA Today Sports Images

Shocker Saturday as underdogs Tennessee and Atlanta both win outright on day one of the NFL Playoffs…and the #2 and #5 college basketball teams fall as road favorites. Details and more in this special Sunday edition of VSiN City.

NFL Playoffs: Kelce concussed, Kansas City crashes out in playoff opener again
Maybe it’s technically not a “shocker” whenever the Kansas City Chiefs lose a playoff game. That’s what this coach/quarterback regime have become famous for. But you’d have thought it could have held on to a 21-3 halftime lead as 9-point favorites over a team that wasn’t playoff caliber!

The problem is, Kansas City without Travis Kelce isn’t playoff caliber either. Easy to see when the Chiefs offense fizzled throughout a 19-0 second half loss, that sent them home for the offseason with a 22-21 full-game defeat. 

Tennessee (plus 9) 22, Kansas City 21 
Yards-per-Play: Tennessee 6.2, Kansas City 6.1
Total Yardage: Tennessee 397, Kansas City 325
Third Down Pct: Tennessee 62%, Kansas City 36%
Turnovers: Tennessee 2, Kansas City 0
Rushing Yards: Tennessee 202, Kansas City 69 
Passing Stats: Tennessee 19-31-1-195, Kansas City 24-33-0-256
TD Drive Lengths: Tennessee 91-62-80, Kansas City 81-76-79

Amidst the vulnerabilities of Alex Smith and Andy Reid, and the loss of Kelce, the KC defense deserves its share of blame as well. Tennessee’s offense isn’t so good that it should compile numbers like THAT in a cold weather playoff game. Run your finger down Tennessee’s side of the column. The Titans look like the Patriots most of the way…until you get to rushing yards where it looks like Walter Payton is playing for the Patriots. Sixty-two percent on third down conversions as a big road dog, with an inconsistent performer like Marcos Mariota running the show? 

Interesting thing about those TD drives…Kansas City’s collection came first, all legitimately long forays…followed by Tennessee’s trio. A tale of two halves in the extreme. The loss of Kelce hurt on both sides of the ball. KC’s offense couldn’t drive without him, so the defense couldn’t get any rest. The Chiefs offensive only had FOUR second-half drives…

3 and out
4 and a missed field goal
5 and out
9 and a failed fourth down try with 2:09 to go in the game

Tennessee advances to next week’s divisional round. It will probably face New England in Foxboro. If Buffalo upsets Jacksonville Sunday afternoon, then the Bills go to Foxboro, and Tennessee has a return engagement with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Titans and Steelers played the Thursday night game in Week 11. Pittsburgh (-7) won 40-17, keyed by a 4-0 turnover edge and five sacks of Mariota. Total yardage was only 339-316.

NFL Playoffs: Atlanta avoids mistakes, kicks a lot of field goals in upset of the LA Rams
It wasn’t pretty. The surprisingly slippery sod at the Coliseum prevented that. But Atlanta did outperform the LA Rams when it came to cashing in opportunities. You’ll see below that Atlanta was best at avoiding turnovers and kicking field goals. The Rams spent a lot of time gaining low-impact yards in the middle of the field.  

Atlanta (plus 6) 26, LA Rams 13
Yards-per-Play: Atlanta 4.5, LA Rams 5.6
Total Yardage: Atlanta 322, LA Rams 361
Third Down Pct: Atlanta 33%, LA Rams 36%
Turnovers: Atlanta 0, LA Rams 2
Rushing Yards: Atlanta 124, LA Rams 115
Passing Stats: Atlanta 21-30-0-198, LA Rams 24-45-0-246
TD Drive Lengths: Atlanta 32-83, LA Rams 79

The Rams win every category until you get to turnovers. Atlanta won that (and it was more like 4-0 because LAR had two fourth down failures), rushing yardage, and then “fewest incomplete passes” if that was its own category. It’s easy to overlook something like that in a passing line. But Ryan only had 9, while Goff threw 21. The sharp veteran (even dealing with poor footing on a few throws) beat the erratic youngster. As we’ve discussed often this year, winning in the NFL often involves making fewer mistakes and letting your opponent hand the win to you. 

Both offenses had one long TD drive. Atlanta had a short one after the Rams fumbled a kickoff return. Atlanta won field goals 4-2. The Falcons weren’t as dominant in the flow of play as the scoreboard made it seem. But “been there before” kept squeezing out little advantages from “inexperienced head coach and quarterback” and those added up to a double-digit win and a 19-point cover for a team that could only manage 4.5 yards-per-play and 33% on third downs. 

Horrible betting day for the public, who had all the favorites this weekend in moneyline parlays and teasers. Also, the public typically prefers Overs...and both games stayed Under. Sharps were hurt on “basic strategy” teasers that included Kansas City at -2.5 or -2. But dogs and Unders generally smile on longtime bettors.

Atlanta advances to face Philadelphia next week. Jeff Sherman of the Westgate tweeted Saturday night that its opener would be Atlanta -2.5 with a total of 44.5. That tells you how much respect Philadelphia has lost with the QB switch to Nick Foles. The Eagles have home field and a bye, but are a home underdog of nearly a field goal to a Wildcard. 

NFL Wild-card Stat Preview: Saints want to prove they’re a Super Bowl threat 
There’s a lot to love about the New Orleans Saints this season. Drew Brees is still there, and still as dangerous as ever. But now the team appears to have a supporting cast worthy of this future Hall-of-Famer. There’s a running game to share the offensive burden. And, there’s a defense that gets stops! Many sharp market influences are enthusiastically investing in the Saints to go deep. Carolina’s Cam Newton might be the most dangerous quarterback the boys from the Big Easy have to face in the NFC brackets. 

Carolina (11-5) at New Orleans (11-5) 
Las Vegas Line: New Orleans by 6.5, total of 47.5
Records vs. the Point Spread: Carolina 9-7, New Orleans 9-7

Both teams had the same straight up and against-the-spread records. You’ll see in the indicator stats below why the Saints are laying closer to a touchdown than a field goal on their home field. 

Yards-per-Play
Carolina: 5.0 on offense, 5.3 on defense (vs. the #5 ranked schedule)
New Orleans: 6.3 on offense, 5.4 on defense (vs. the #8 ranked schedule)

As we mentioned in a prior preview, NFC South teams played brutal schedules this season. Carolina would probably be on the right side of equilibrium against a league average schedule. New Orleans was an amazing plus 0.9 in YPP differential despite facing a top eight schedule according to Jeff Sagarin of USA Today. You already see why quants love the Saints! The porridge is just right…and might actually be beef stew after you adjust for the tough schedule. 

Key Passing Stats 
Carolina: 6.6 yards-per-pass attempt, 22 TD’s, 16 interceptions thrown
New Orleans: 8.1 yards-per-pass attempt, 23 TD’s, 8 interceptions thrown

Cam Newton was battling a bum shoulder all season. That’s clear in his passing numbers. Six-point-six is very low for a veteran quarterback these days, and 16 interceptions is way too high in an era of conservatism. Basically Tyrod Taylor with a funkier postgame wardrobe. A huge edge in this category to Brees. 

Pass Defense 
Carolina: 7.2 yppa allowed; 25 TD’s allowed, 10 interceptions
New Orleans: 7.0 yppa allowed; 22 TD’s allowed, 20 interceptions

Similar until you get to interceptions. New Orleans has a secondary! And the fact that Newton could try to force things when he’s not at 100% could play right into the hands of this rejuvenated Saints defense. 

Impact Defense 
Carolina: 38% third down pct-allowed, 21 takeaways, 50 sacks
New Orleans: 41% third down pct-allowed, 25 takeaways, 42 sacks

How come nobody’s talking about the “Sack-o-lina” Panthers? They and the Jaguars both cracked the half-century mark. This is where Carolina has a chance to hang around. If it can get to Brees…that could serve as an equalizer as possessions see-saw. Carolina CAN’T win this game on the arm of Newton…because it’s just not strong enough to shine. The Panthers have to win by disrupting Brees. 

The most likely scenario is New Orleans controlling its own destiny to win by a touchdown or more. If Newton starts forcing dumb risks when playing from behind, the scoreboard could blow up quickly. Carolina’s defense must force punts and field goal attempts…enough for the offense to hang around and try to steal the game late. 

Regular Season Meetings
New Orleans won on the road 34-13, winning YPP 6.4 to 4.9 (and turnovers 3-0)
New Orleans won at home 31-21, winning YPP 6.2 to 5.3 (turnovers 1-1)

Carolina turned the ball over 4 times, and was sacked 6 times
New Orleans turned the ball over once, and was sacked 3 times

For this to be a game, Carolina’s offense has to play clean while the defense berates Brees. Not a combo that happened in the first two meetings.

College Basketball: NCAA Tournament intensity already as ranked teams battled Saturday
Four games on the Saturday schedule that matched ranked teams going head-to-head. We’ll run them in order of “ranking intensity.”

#6 West Virginia (-5.5) 89, #7 Oklahoma 76 
Two-point Pct: Oklahoma 47%, West Virginia 57% 
Three Pointers: Oklahoma 7/20, West Virginia 7/26
Free Throws: Oklahoma 19/28, West Virginia 18/21
Rebounds: Oklahoma 37, West Virginia 38
Turnovers: Oklahoma 17, West Virginia 11
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI Ranking: Oklahoma 13-15-21, West Virginia 11-6-12

Not the thriller most expected. You can see that Oklahoma was lured into turnovers by the West Virginia pace. And, you can deduce that WV turned a lot of those into easy points given the big advantage in two-point shooting. Those were the key categories, as both teams made the same number of treys and almost the same number of free throws. Trae Young scored 29 points. But the young OU sharpshooter was just 3 of 12 on treys while turning the ball over eight times. Every team has a “they look mortal when” weakness. For OU, it’s when Young gets rattled. He’s GOING to be the focal point. If he’s clanking treys and turning the ball over, the Sooners lose this badly. 

Strong result for West Virginia, who moves to 14-1 straight up, 6-5 against the spread. Oklahoma falls to 11-2, 6-7 ATS.

#8 Virginia (-5) 61, #12 North Carolina 49 
Two-point Pct: North Carolina 26%, Virginia 52% 
Three Pointers: North Carolina 8/23, Virginia 8/22
Free Throws: North Carolina 9/11, Virginia 5/9
Rebounds: North Carolina 42, Virginia 30
Turnovers: North Carolina 19, Virginia 11
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI Ranking: North Carolina 12-8-11, Virginia 3-5-4

Another great showing for Virginia, who played a real gem earlier this week on the road against Virginia Tech. Here, not quite as sharp from long range…and some clear issues on the boards. But the Cavaliers offense knows how to play smart and work for good shots. The defense is a BEAR, forcing 19 turnovers while holding Carolina to 8 of 31 on two-point attempts. The hustling Tar Heels grabbed 19 offensive rebounds, often just putting the ball back up for another miss. 

Virginia is 14-1 straight up, 9-3 ATS, and clearly playing like a top five team right now (not uncommon for this program, who’s consistency and discipline helps them excel during the regular season but seems to hold a ceiling over them in March). North Carolina falls to 12-4 (just 1-2 in the ACC), and 8-6-1 ATS. 

#10 Kansas (-2) 88, #16 TCU 84 
Two-point Pct: Kansas 48%, TCU 45% 
Three Pointers: Kansas 11/20, TCU 9/29
Free Throws: Kansas 23/33, TCU 21/22
Rebounds: Kansas 28, TCU 42
Turnovers: Kansas 10, TCU 12
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI Ranking: Kansas 7-6-5, TCU 23-22-19

In recent weeks, Kansas has looked like a Final Four team playing on the road, but somebody like Cal Poly when playing in Lawrence. Great bounce back here off the loss to Texas Tech. That was helped by a very sharp 55% on treys, which is the equivalent of 82.5% on deuces. That rebounding category is ugly though. If Kansas HAS to shoot lights out from long range to beat dangerous Big 12 foes, then we’re going to see more losses between now and the postseason. Kansas moves to 12-3 with the in, 9-5 ATS. TCU falls to 13-2 against a soft schedule, 7-7 ATS. 

#23 Tennessee (-4) 76, #17 Kentucky 65 
Two-point Pct: Kentucky 52%, Tennessee 52% 
Three Pointers: Kentucky 7/19, Tennessee 8/22
Free Throws: Kentucky 10/16, Tennessee 18/24
Rebounds: Kentucky 30, Tennessee 37
Turnovers: Kentucky 16, Tennessee 12
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI Ranking: Kentucky 19-16-33, Tennessee 24-43-27

Tennessee teams close strong! At least on Saturday. Mirroring Titans/Chiefs, the Volunteers fell way behind in the first half (37-29 at the break) only to storm home (47-28 in the second half) to earn a high-profile win and cover. Key stats look to be free throws, rebounding and turnovers. The road dog had more dry possessions. A dozen offensive boards for the Vols helped them keep drilling. Kentucky wasn’t getting much computer respect even with a 12-2 record. Now it’s 12-3 (7-8 ATS), and the Wildcats aren’t yet performing even like a Sweet 16 caliber team, let alone a national threat. Tennessee makes up for a recent home loss to North Carolina to move to 10-4 (7-5 ATS). 

College Basketball: Upsets befall #2 Duke, #5 Xavier, #11 Texas A&M, and #14 Arizona
Saturday schedules are so huge that there are bound to be upsets. But it’s rare to have two of the top five teams in the country go down on the same day…especially when only three of the top five were in action! (#1 Michigan State and #4 Arizona State play Sunday). Let’s run the numbers in the order from our subhead, starting with Saturday night’s stunner in Raleigh.

NC State (plus 12.5) 96, #2 Duke 85 
Two-point Pct: Duke 62%, NC State 55% 
Three Pointers: Duke 3/15, NC State 5/14
Free Throws: Duke 20/23, NC State 23/25
Rebounds: Duke 32, NC State 34
Turnovers: Duke 16, NC State 10
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI Ranking: Duke 6-2-6, NC State 90-74-62

Apparently, Duke didn’t learn anything from its upset loss at Boston College as a double-digit favorite. The Blue Devils are 13-2 on the season…but the two losses came against teams that shouldn’t have given them much trouble. You can see that Duke shot every well inside the arc, but couldn’t buy a trey. Long range woes are going to be an Achilles heel in March. Marvin Bagley III scored 31 points while only taking 14 shots from the field. Though, we might be learning that his lack of defensive aggressiveness will hurt vs. quality. He only committed one foul on a night where his opponent scored 96 points. Something to look out for vs. more dangerous ACC foes. Duke is still profitable at 8-5 ATS this season. North Carolina State is 11-5 straight up, 4-5 ATS. 

Providence (plus 6) 81, #5 Xavier 72 
Two-point Pct: Xavier 50%, Providence 50% 
Three Pointers: Xavier 5/18, Providence 9/22
Free Throws: Xavier 11/17, Providence 20/22
Rebounds: Xavier 44, Providence 28
Turnovers: Xavier 15, Providence 9
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI Ranking: Xavier 20-12-13, Providence 58-62-80 

You can see that the most respected computer ratings don’t have Xavier as a top five team, or a top 10 team. Another road favorite hurt by poor three-point shooting. Xavier did grab 17 offensive rebounds, which lessened the impact of all the bricks. Turnovers a big problem for the Muscateers. Maybe they were looking ahead to Wednesday night’s huge game with Villanova. Xavier falls to 15-2 on the season, 12-5 ATS. Providence is now 11-6. A huge money burner rises to 4-11 ATS. Is this a sign the Friars are about to cash some tickets? 

LSU (plus 6.5) 69, #11 Texas A&M 68 
Two-point Pct: LSU 38%, Texas A&M 55% 
Three Pointers: LSU 12/28, Texas A&M 5/25
Free Throws: LSU 9/13, Texas A&M 19/30
Rebounds: LSU 36, Texas A&M 40
Turnovers: LSU 13, Texas A&M 14
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI Ranking: LSU 65-78-74, Texas A&M 27-32-37

The Aggies haven’t been at full strength lately, and aren’t responding to adversity well. Though, it has to be said that this boxscore looks the way it should outside of the three-point category. Again, that’s what derailed a highly regarded favorite. The Aggies owned the inside game, but were just 5 of 25 on bombs (that’s 3 of 15, 5 of 18, and 5 of 25 for the upset victims thus far). All gambling experiences have elements of randomness that approximate the whims of roulette. In college basketball, it’s three-point shooting. You just can’t know when outliers will occur in either direction. Sharps accept that they need to grind for 54-55% winners while letting the whims take care of themselves. 

LSU moves to 10-4 straight up, 7-4 ATS. Texas A&M will probably fall out of the rankings at 11-4, and 5-7 ATS. The Aggies are off to an 0-3 start in the ACC when they were supposed to be the team that derailed Kentucky. They play Kentucky Tuesday night. 

Colorado (plus 8.5) 80, #14 Arizona 77 
Two-point Pct: Arizona 44%, Colorado 59% 
Three Pointers: Arizona 7/25, Colorado 7/16
Free Throws: Arizona 14/17, Colorado 15/17
Rebounds: Arizona 36, Colorado 34
Turnovers: Arizona 7, Colorado 15
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI Ranking: Arizona 16-14-15, Colorado 110-100-145

This is the second time in three nights we’re running the numbers from a Colorado upset. So much for Arizona and Arizona State running roughshod over the Pac 12. Ralphie just ran roughshod over them! It’s easy to overstate the influence of altitude when a team like Colorado pulls upsets. But again, tired legs from the visitor seemed to show up in the areas of poor three-point shooting (a running them in Saturday upsets) and soft inside defense. Arizona let Colorado shoot 59% inside the arc. The Buffaloes surge to 10-6 straight up, 7-6-1 ATS. Arizona suffers its first loss on the mainland (0-3 in the Bahamas) to drop to 12-4 for the season, 6-8-2 ATS.  

We have room for a couple of Sunday hoop previews from Greg Peterson.

College Basketball: “Running the Floor” with Greg Peterson

#1 Michigan State at Ohio State (4:30 p.m. ET on CBS)
Early Line: Michigan State -8

Michigan State is the nation's current No. 1 team and will be pitted against one of the three teams that have yet to suffer a loss in Big Ten conference play, Ohio State.

The Spartans are 14-1 overall and have also been getting the job done at the window for bettors, posting a 10-5 record against the spread. Michigan State opened in as an eight or 8.5-point favorite in most spots, which shows that most expect a Final Four run from Ton Izzo’s squad considering Ohio State is in the thick of things for an NCAA Tournament bid and playing at home.

Michigan State has been bet up in five of its past six games and the cover followed the money, as the Spartans cashed all five in which it received the majority of the action.

The Spartans are the third-most efficient offense in the country, averaging 1.211 points per possession, which has led to a number of lopsided wins. Michigan State's average scoring margin is 26.6, which leads the nation by 3.1 points. The margin is due in large part to Michigan State's 1.599 assist to turnover ratio, which is sixth in the country.

In its recent stretch, Ohio State has also been receiving a lot of action at the betting window. The Buckeyes have been bet up in four of their most recent six games, and the only game they have been faded in was a matchup against North Carolina.

The Buckeyes will look to do damage from inside the arc and at the free throw line. Ohio State gets just 26.7 percent of its points from 3-point range, which is 282nd in the country.

In regards to pace of play, these two teams are mirror images of each other. Michigan State gets 72.6 possessions per game and Ohio State 72.9 per contest. Those marks rank 161st and 171st in college basketball.

#24 Florida State at #15 Miami (6 p.m. ET on ESPNU)
Early Line: Miami -3.5

The battle for supremacy in the state of Florida will be renewed with both Florida State and Miami ranked in the top 25. The No. 24 Seminoles come in off a huge win over North Carolina while No. 15 Miami is reeling after a loss on the road against Georgia Tech.

Florida State has been one of the biggest money makers for college basketball bettors, going 9-2-1 against the spread. Despite this, the line has moved away from Florida State in three of its past four games.

The Seminoles are on the road for this contest and opened as three or three and a half point underdogs depending on the book.

Miami is also a team the public has not been crazy about, with the line moving towards its opponent in four of the Hurricanes' last six contests. Though Miami's success against the number hasn't been quite what Florida State's has been, the Hurricanes have exceeded the expectations of the market this year, going 6-3 against the spread.

Miami has some clear deficiencies, the biggest being struggles at the free throw line. The Hurricanes are 339th in the country in free throw shooting, converting 63 percent of its shots at the line.

This contest will involve a variance in styles as Miami ranks 262nd in the country in possessions-per-game with 70.2 compared to Florida State's 76.7, which is 31st.

Not only is Florida State the more up-tempo team, but it also averages the most points per possession with 1.112 compared to Miami's 1.045, which is 114th in the country to the Seminoles' ranking of 34.

Miami will look to do its damage inside the arc, as the Hurricanes get 57.6 percent of their points from 2-point baskets, which is 16th in the country.

Despite the range in pace, both teams are very efficient on defense with Miami being fourth in the country in points allowed per opponent’s possession with 0.839. Florida State is 18th in that category, allowing 0.891 points per possession.

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Back Monday to run the numbers from Sunday’s NFL action and to study our key indicator stats for the college football National Championship showdown featuring the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs. 

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