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Shockingly, Saints flame out fast

The New Orleans Saints suffered a surprisingly early exit from the NFL playoffs Sunday with a 26-20 overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

Betting markets had priced the Saints as second best on the NFC futures board behind San Francisco. That meant they were projected to get past the Vikings as 7-point favorites, then visit Green Bay as slight road favorites in the divisional round. Instead, they’ll be watching on TV like the rest of us.

The key indicator stats that best explain Minnesota’s upset are:

— Third-down conversions: Minnesota moved the ball easily, cashing 10 of 18 third-down tries for a 56% success rate. Kirk Cousins wasn’t supposed to beat Drew Brees at that in a high-pressure game. The Saints managed only 4 of 11 for 36%. 

— Red-zone touchdowns: Minnesota made four trips into the red zone, scoring three touchdowns (75%). New Orleans made only two forays that far, scoring one TD (50%). Those percentages are much more a strike against the Saints defense than their offense. 

— Turnovers: Minnesota lost the ball only once, New Orleans twice. The final miscue for the Saints was big — a fumble by Brees on first-and-10 from the Vikings 20-yard line with 4:18 to go. New Orleans seemed assured of at least a field goal and had a great chance to score the go-ahead touchdown. The Saints did rebound to force overtime, but without the fumble, overtime probably wouldn’t have been necessary. 

Offenses need to protect and move the ball, then finish their drives with touchdowns. Defenses aim to disrupt. Handicappers should focus on those skill sets when trying to pick winners. But even high-quality teams can surprise you with disappointing performances. 

Despite Sunday’s loss, the Saints were a good betting investment for the season. They finished 11-6 against the spread, a 65% success rate. 

Minnesota advanced to face San Francisco, and the Vikings will likely close as underdogs of plus-6 to plus-7, depending on late-week betting.

College notes

— Mississippi State fired Joe Moorhead after a disappointing 38-28 loss to Louisville in the Music City Bowl. They were outscored 38-7 from the middle of the second quarter to late in the fourth quarter before tacking on a last-minute touchdown. 

Mississippi State lost total yardage 510-366 and third-down conversions 55% to 36% to an opponent with one of the worst defenses of any bowl qualifier. 

Poor point-spread performance can be a leading indicator for a coaching change. Teams aren’t playing to cover spreads. But point spreads are a great reflection of expectations. Coaches who aren’t covering spreads are performing below expectations. 

Moorhead was hired as an offensive guru. But the Bulldogs finished the season ranked only No. 67 nationally in total yardage, then gained about 100 yards less in the bowl than Louisville usually allows. 

— Only one college football game remains: Monday’s national championship featuring LSU of the Southeastern Conference and Clemson of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Early betting shows the line settling at LSU -5.5 with an Over/Under of 69.5.

Sharps who liked LSU jumped in at lower prices. Circa Sports in Las Vegas had posted LSU -3 over the winner of Clemson-Ohio State before that semifinal had ended. Dog lovers have taken plus-6 in the limited time it was available. 

We’ll have to see how the public bets over the weekend. A tug-of-war could develop between public money on LSU -5.5 and sharps on Clemson plus-6. But if recreational bettors decide defending champ Clemson offers value at such a high price, the number will drop to 5 or less. 

The public usually bets Overs in big TV games because it’s more fun to root for points than defense. But this high mark might discourage that approach. Sharps have been taking Under 70 whenever it’s available, assuming that’s a likely apex.

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