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Super Bowl LII: Foles brings the Eagles their first Super Bowl title, earns MVP honors

Heading into Super Bowl LII, it figured to be a battle of the Eagles defense trying to hold down Tom Brady and the Patriots offense. The Eagles D got the better of the Patriots early on, with QB Nick Foles helping get the Eagles get out to a 15-3 lead, but the Eagles couldn’t feel comfortable with a lead of that size just a year after the Patriots overcame a 28-3 deficit to beat the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

Both offenses had long opening drives stall to come away with field goals for an early 3-3 score. The Eagles picked up the next two scores, with a passing touchdown from Foles to WR Alshon Jeffery; a missed PAT made it a 9-3 game after the first quarter. A LeGarrette Blount rushing touchdown about halfway through the second quarter made it a 15-3 Eagles lead after a failed two-point conversion attempt.

On the ensuing Patriots drive after the second touchdown, RB Rex Burkhead found a hole for a 46-yard catch-and-run, but the offense couldn’t capitalize on it and had to settle for a 45-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, who had missed a 26-yarder on his previous attempt, to cut the lead to 15-6 midway through the second quarter. After that field goal, the Patriots announced that WR Brandin Cooks was out for the remainder of the game with a head injury after he took a big hit at the hands of S Malcolm Jenkins earlier in the quarter. The loss of Cooks would make a Brady comeback harder to come by.

The game’s first turnover came with 5:01 remaining in the first half when Patriots S Duron Harmon intercepted a pass that was deflected when Jeffery nearly made a one-handed catch that would have put the Eagles in the red zone.

The Patriots took advantage of the takeaway — their first since Week 15 — with a 90-yard drive, helped by a holding penalty against the Eagles, that was capped off by a 26-yard touchdown run by RB James White, who scored the winning touchdown for New England in overtime of Super Bowl LI. Gostkowski missed the extra point, however, to make it a 15-12 game with 2:04 to go in the opening half.

It looked like the Eagles wouldn’t get much offense on the ensuing drive, but a 55-yard pass to RB Corey Clement on a third-down play put the Eagles inside the 10-yard line with under a minute to go before the break. The Eagles couldn’t find the end zone on the first three plays in the red zone. Rather than going for the chip shot field goal, they decided to go for it on fourth down inside the two-yard line. They went deep into their playbook for a trick play, with TE Trey Burton throwing a touchdown pass to Foles. The extra point made it 22-12 with 34 seconds left in the half.

The Patriots couldn’t get into field goal range on their drive following the Burton-to-Foles score and came up empty on their final play of the half. After nearly 700 total yards of offense in the first half, the Eagles had a 22-12 halftime lead. But that is far from an insurmountable deficit for the Patriots to overcome, especially with them receiving the second-half kickoff.

The Patriots came out with a quick scoring drive to start the second half. They went 75 yards in 2:45 with TE Rob Gronkowski making four catches on the drive, including a five-yard touchdown catch to make it 22-19 after Gostkowski tacked on the extra point.

The Eagles responded with a long drive of their own that ended with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Clement in the back of the end zone. It’s not clear that he actually made the case, but the call was upheld on the review to put the Eagles’ lead back up to 10, 29-19, following the successful extra point attempt by K Jake Elliott.

Neither offense let up in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots taking their first lead of the game with 9:22 left in the fourth quarter following another touchdown pass to Gronkowski — this one from four yards out — and the subsequent extra point, which made the score 33-32 in favor of New England. With that, the Patriots officially eliminated a double-digit deficit for the second straight Super Bowl.

The lead wouldn’t hold up, though, as the Eagles responded with another touchdown drive, culminating with a 11-yard touchdown pass to TE Zach Ertz that, like the Clement score, held up when it was reviewed. The Eagles missed the two-point attempt, leaving them with a five-point lead, 38-33.

The Eagles left Brady with 2:21 left on the clock, which could have been enough time for him to lead a game-winning drive for the Patriots. But that drive was cut short when Eagles DE Brandon Graham knocked the ball out of Brady’s hand on a sack and DE Derek Barnett recovered it for the Eagles’ first takeaway of the game to go with their first sack.

They had the ball with 2:16 left and came away with a 46-yard field goal to make it 41-33, leaving Brady and the Patriots about a minute to go 90 yards for a touchdown and convert the two-point try to tie the game and force overtime. Brady was able to attempt a hail mary in the end zone to Gronkowski, but the tight end couldn’t catch the ball. And that was the ballgame. Led by Foles, the Eagles won their first Super Bowl title in franchise history.

The game certainly wasn’t lacking for offense, with Brady breaking his own record for passing yards in a Super Bowl with 505 yards through the air. Foles threw for 373 yards, and the teams combined for a Super Bowl-record 1,151 yards with nine total touchdowns. There was only one punt in the game, which fell one point short of the all-time record for most points scored in a Super Bowl. Although it was close essentially the whole game and the Patriots had a brief fourth-quarter lead, the team that played better tonight ended up hoisting the Lombardi trophy — the first time the Eagles have been able to do that as the best team in the NFL. Not surprisingly, Foles was named the MVP following his tremendous performance in the biggest game of his life.

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Super Bowl LII Preview: Patriots seek 6th championship, Eagles looking for first Super Bowl title

We’ve made it through the NFL regular season and playoffs, and it’s time to determine the league’s next champion in Super Bowl LII. The top seed in each conference is playing in the game, with the Eagles representing the NFC and the Patriots having made it out of the AFC. It’s the Patriots’ second straight Super Bowl appearance and third in the last four years. For the Eagles, it’s their first appearance in the title game since Super Bowl XXXIX — when they lost to the Patriots, 24-21. The Eagles are looking for their first Super Bowl title in franchise history, while the Patriots are going for their sixth, which would tie them for the most all-time.

The Eagles didn’t have any problem winning the NFC Championship game, blowing out the Vikings by a final score of 38-7 behind a fantastic performance by QB Nick Foles, who had his best game of the season since taking over for injured QB Carson Wentz. He was 26-for-33 for 352 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. Three Eagles receivers had at least five receptions, with TE Zach Ertz leading the team with eight catches for 93 yards. WRs Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith had five receptions apiece, with Jeffery scoring two touchdowns and Smith getting one score. On the ground, RB Jay Ajayi had 73 yards and LeGarrette Blount — who was part of the Patriots’ championship team last season — scoring a touchdown on six carries. As good as the offense was, the defense may have been even better. After allowing a touchdown on the Vikings’ opening drive, the defense held them scoreless the rest of the way while recording two interceptions and recovering a lost fumble.

Things didn’t go as smoothly for the Patriots in the AFC title game. They needed to score 14 fourth-quarter points to help overcome a deficit to beat the Jaguars and continue their quest for back-to-back titles. QB Tom Brady completed 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. He did much of that without his top weapon, TE Rob Gronkowski, who left the game with a concussion after securing just one reception for 21 yards. WRs Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks picked up the slack in Gronkowski’s absence, catching seven and six passes, respectively. Amendola had two touchdowns and a total of 84 yards on his catches, and Cooks went for 100 yards on his six grabs. None of the running backs did much in the running game, but James White had a rushing touchdown and Dion Lewis had seven receptions for 32 yards. Defensively, the Patriots had one forced fumble but no interceptions.

The Patriots are favored by 4.5 points, which is down 1.5 points from the opening line, with an over/under of 48, a point higher than where it opened.

Looking ahead to the game, it’s a battle of the strong Eagles defense against the Tom Brady-led offense of the Patriots, which can seemingly score against any team. Gronkowski has been practicing this week and officially cleared the concussion protocol on Thursday, so he will be in the game, which will of course help the Patriots offense. Foles needs to come close to a repeat performance to what he did in the NFC Championship for the Eagles to have a chance to win the victory. The defense will keep the Eagles in the game and I think it’ll be close, but I don’t think the Eagles offense will be able to match up with the Patriots enough to get the win. I’ll go with the Patriots to win the game, but I’ll take the 4.5 points with the Eagles. I’ll go under the 48 as well. I think Gronk has a big game and takes home the MVP trophy.

(Spread and over/under from Vegas Insider)

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MLB Hot Stove: Brewers add to the outfield, Hall of Fame announces ’18 class

The slow offseason news cycle picked up a bit this week, starting with the announcement of the 2018 Hall of Fame class on Wednesday. But the bigger news as it relates to on-field moves came on Thursday, when the Brewers added to the outfield via a trade and the biggest free-agent signing to this point of the hot stove season.

The trade was announced first, with the Brewers acquiring OF Christian Yelich from the Marlins — who continue to trade their stars as they begin what looks to be a lengthy rebuilding process — in exchange for a package of four prospects led by OF Lewis Brinson. Also going to Miami in the deal are OF Monte Harrison, IF Isan Diaz and P Jordan Yamamoto. Shortly after that trade was announced, the Brewers announced the signing of OF Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million contract.

In Yelich, the Brewers get a 26-year-old who is a career .290 hitter in five MLB seasons. He has started to show some power in the last couple of seasons, hitting 21 home runs in 2016 and 18 homers last season. He’s also had double-digit steals in four of his five seasons and has steadily increased his walk totals over the last three seasons. Yelich was expected to be traded by the Marlins after he and his agent have publicly shown his displeasure for the Marlins’ trading teammates Giancarlo Stanton, Dee Gordon and Marcell Ozuna earlier in the offseason. Yelich is under team control through 2021, with a team option for the 2022 season.

Cain is the first player this offseason to sign a contract of longer than three years. Signing with the Brewers is a homecoming for the former All-Star, who was drafted by the Brewers and played his rookie season there before being traded to the Royals in December 2010. He spent the last seven season with the Royals, with whom he was part of the team that won the 2015 World Series. He is also a .290 career hitter but doesn’t have much power, hitting a total of 57 home runs in his eight seasons. He does have speed, though, averaging nearly 16 steals per season, with 26 last season. He made the American League All-Star team in 2015, when his career year — .307 average, 16 HR, 72 RBI, 28 steals — helped him finish in third place in AL MVP voting.

With these additions, the Brewers’ regular outfield will likely consist of Yelich in right field, Cain in center and Ryan Braun in left field. The acquisitions also give the Brewers depth in the outfield, allowing them to potentially use someone like Domingo Santana or Brett Phillips as trade bait to try to add to the starting rotation, which is the weak spot on the team as it stands. The Brewers were already an 86-win team in 2017 and finished just a game out of the playoffs and look to improve upon that record with these moves, which give them a bump on offense.

Other deals that have been made in the last couple weeks include the Blue Jays trading a couple minor league pitchers to the Cardinals for OF Randal Grichuk and signing OF Curtis Granderson, the Cubs signing P Brian Duensing, the Giants inking OF Austin Jackson and the Mets re-signing SS Jose Reyes. That leaves names like pitchers Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta, along with hitters such as J.D. Martinez, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer remaining in free agency.

The other big news of the week was the announcement of the 2018 Hall of Fame class. The BBWAA voters elected four members to the Hall — 3B Chipper Jones, 1B/DH Jim Thome, OF Vladimir Guerrero and RP Trevor Hoffman. They join P Jack Morris and SS Alan Trammell, who were elected to the Hall of Fame by the Modern Baseball Committee in December. Jones and Thome were in their first year of eligibility on the ballot, while Guerrero was in his second year and Hoffman his third.

Jones spent his entire 19-year career with the Braves, finishing his career with a .303 average, 468 home runs and 1,623 RBI. He was an eight-time All-Star and a member of the Braves team that won the 1995 World Series. He was named the National League MVP in 1999. He earned 97.2% of the vote.

Thome spent 13 of his 22 seasons with the Indians. He played more than 2500 games in his career, swatting 612 home runs to go along with a .276 career average and 1,699 RBI. He was a five-time All-Star who finished fourth in NL MVP voting in 2003 (with the Phillies). He earned 89.8% of the vote.

Guerrero played 16 seasons, spending the majority of his career with the Expos (eight seasons) and Angels (six seasons). He hit .318 in his career with 449 home runs and 1,496 RBI. He was elected to nine All-Star teams and won the AL MVP in 2004, his first season with the Angels. He earned 92.9% of the vote, a significant jump from the 71.7% he got his first time on the ballot in 2017. He has announced that he will go into the Hall of Fame as an Angel, becoming the first inductee to represent that team in the Hall.

Hoffman spent 16 of his 18 seasons on the Padres, amassing a then-record 601 saves by the time he retired in 2010. In 1,035 appearances, he threw 1,089.1 innings, with a 2.87 ERA and 1,133 strikeouts with a 61-75 record. He was named to seven All-Star teams and finished in the top 10 in NL MVP voting in 1998 and 2006. He earned 79.9% of the vote.

Just missing election was DH Edgar Martinez, who got 70.4% of the vote, falling a few votes shy of the 75% needed. That means he likely has a good chance to get elected next year in what will be his 10th and final year on the BBWAA ballot. Also on next year’s ballot will be a list of first-timers that includes RP Mariano Rivera (who surpassed Hoffman’s saves record), 1B/OF Lance Berkman, 1B Todd Helton, OF Juan Pierre, and SPs Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and the late Roy Halladay.

My NFL Picks: Conference Championships — Vikings play a road game hoping for a Super Bowl at home

Before the season started, not many people probably expected the starting quarterbacks in the conference championship games to be Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, Nick Foles and Tom Brady. The latter is probably the only one of the quartet that would have had many votes. But thanks to injuries and an upset in the AFC divisional round, that’s where we stand as we enter the semifinals of the tournament known as the NFL postseason.

The first game of the Sunday doubleheader features Bortles leading the Jaguars — whose defense has carried them to this point — into Foxboro to take on Brady and the Patriots, who are playing in their seventh-straight conference championship game — and 12th overall during the Brady era — as they look to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Then the nightcap features the top two seeds in the NFC, with Foles and the Eagles hosting Keenum and the Vikings, who are one win away from becoming the first team in league history to play in a Super Bowl being held in its home stadium.

I didn’t have a good week with my picks last week. I was 1-3 picking games, 0-3-1 against the spread, and 2-2 on over/unders. For the postseason, I’m 3-5 straight up, 1-6-1 ATS, and 4-4 on over/unders.

No. 3 seed Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 1 seed New England Patriots (-7.5, over/under 45)

The Jaguars were underdogs by a full touchdown against the Steelers last week, but they won a high-scoring affair, 45-42, to make it to their third conference championship game in franchise history. Bortles had one of his typical games last week, completing just over 50% of his passes for 214 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. RB Leonard Fournette ran for 109 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries. The defense kept the Jaguars in the game, with two sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery, which LB Telvin Smith returned 50 yards for a touchdown.

In the Patriots’ 35-14 thumping of the Titans, Brady was 35-for-53 for 337 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. He threw one touchdown each to TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Chris Hogan and RB James White, while WR Danny Amendola had 11 receptions for 112 yards. On the ground, RB Dion Lewis had 15 carries for 62 yards, and RB Brandon Bolden and White each had a rushing touchdown. The Patriots didn’t have any defensive scores or any takeaways, but the defense did sack Marcus Mariota eight times in the game and limited the Titans to one touchdown until late in the game when they added a second when the game was already out of reach.

That brings us to this week. There’s not much of a chance that the Jaguars will score in the 40s again this week, so if the defense gives up 42 points again, the home team will be celebrating another AFC title. Bortles has to make sure he doesn’tĀ  turn the ball over, but Fournette will be key to success for the Jaguars. Not only is he the team’s best offensive player, but the Jags have to run the ball a lot to keep the clock moving and keep Brady off the field. That is essential if the Jags want to make it to the first Super Bowl in franchise history. Also essential, the defensive players being at the top of their game. The Jaguars have one of the best defenses in the league, and good defenses have had success keeping Brady in check this season. The big story for the Patriots is Brady’s throwing hand. He injured it in practice earlier in the week and is questionable for Sunday. It a near-certainty that he’ll play, but if the hand is a real issue, it could prevent him from playing up to the level we’re used to seeing from him. He has a history of performing well in big games, and I think that will continue this week. I don’t think the hand will be much of an issue. I expect the Jaguars to give the Patriots a more competitive game than the Titans did last week, but the Patriots should come out on top. I’ll go with a final score of 30-20, so that’s Patriots (-7.5) and over the 45.

No. 2 seed Minnesota Vikings at No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles (+3, over/under 39)

The Vikings needed one of the best finishes in NFL history to beat the Saints last week after giving up a 17-0 halftime lead. Keenum was 25-for-40 passing for 318 yards, one touchdown and one interception. WR Stefon Diggs had six receptions for 137 yards, including the game-winning touchdown on the memorable final play. WR Adam Thielen added six catches of his own for 74 yards. RBs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon each had a rushing touchdown, with Murray running for 50 yards and McKinnon 34 yards. The defense sacked Drew Brees twice to go along with two interceptions.

The Eagles relied largely on their defense to beat the Falcons and get the chance to host the NFC championship game. Foles was 23-for-30 for 246, with neither a passing touchdown nor an interception. The Eagles’ lone touchdown last week came on a run by RB LeGarrette Blount, just one of nine carries in the game for him. RB Jay Ajayi was the most production Eagle on the ground, which isn’t saying much because he only had 54 yards on 15 carries. The leading pass-catcher was WR Alshon Jeffery, who had four receptions for 61 yards. RB Corey Clement caught five balls for 31 yards.

For this week’s game, it’s a battle of backup quarterbacks, with Keenum filling in for Sam Bradford and Foles seeing action because of the injury to Carson Wentz. Of the two quarterbacks, Keenum is probably better but neither is likely going to be the reason his team wins the game.This is going to beĀ  a defensive battle. Both teams have good defenses, but the Vikings have the better unit on that side of the ball. The Vikings also have the better receivers with Thielen and Diggs, but Eagles TE Zach Ertz could be an X-factor for his team. The Eagles haveĀ  a slight advantage in the running game, with Ajayi versus the Vikings’ duo. Overall, I give the Vikings the edge in what should be a close, low-scoring affair. I’m going with a Vikings win, 21-17, which means Vikings (-3) and just under the 39.

By the end of the night Sunday, we’ll know which teams will be playing in Super Bowl LII in Minnesota. In the NFC, it’ll definitely be a quarterback playing in his first Super Bowl. In the AFC, it’ll be either another first-timer or a quarterback with a lot of Super Bowl experience.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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MLB Hot Stove: Giants acquire McCutchen as Pirates rebuild continues

Earlier in the offseason, the Marlins were in fire-sale mode when they traded the likes of OFs Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna. Now, the Pirates seem to be dismantling their team to build for the future. Just two days after trading SP Gerrit Cole to the Astros, they are getting rid of another centerpiece of the team, sending OF Andrew McCutchen to the Giants.

The Giants were one of the teams who were reportedly interested in acquiring Stanton before he went to the Yankees, they and later turned their attention to McCutchen. Although he hasn’t hit higher than .300 since 2014, McCutchen is still a good hitter and had a bounceback year last season after a down year in 2016, hitting .279 last season with 28 home runs, the second-most of his career. He joins 3B Evan Longoria, who the Giants acquired earlier in the winter, to provide a power boost for a team that hit the fewest home runs in the majors last season. With the additions, the Giants seem to be heading in the right direction to compete in the NL West.

Although what players the Pirates are getting in return has not yet been announced, it is not expected to be much since McCutchen is entering the final year of his contract and will be a free agent next winter. Along those lines, two of the Giants’ top prospects — OF Chris Shaw and P Tyler Beede — are reportedly not part of the trade.

Also since our last update, the Twins signed RP Addison Reed to a two-year deal to further solidify their bullpen after already adding RPs Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke earlier in the offseason. And the Nationals have agreed to a two-year deal with OF Howie Kendrick, who they acquired from the Phillies in a July trade.

There’s still a month until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, with many players still out there in free agency and on the trade block — including potentially Pirates 3B Josh Harrison if they continue to move veterans — so there are still many moves to be made on the hot stove.

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MLB Hot Stove: Astros beef up rotation with Cole

It’s been slower than expected since our last hot stove report in late December, but there was a significant trade made on Saturday, with the defending World Series champion Astros adding to their starting rotation, picking up SP Gerrit Cole from the Pirates. The other big name who solidified his future plans in the last couple of weeks was RP Wade Davis, who signed with his new team.

The Cole trade is the big news of this period. There were reports during the week that the Astros and Pirates had reached an agreement on a deal for him, but it turned out those stories were not true. On Saturday, though, the trade was finalized and officially announced by the teams. In exchange for Cole, the Astros sent Ps Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, 3B Colin Moran and minor league OF Jason Martin to the Pirates.

Cole was a top prospect for the PiratesĀ  when he first came up, but he hasn’t lived up to the potential people thought he had in his first five seasons in the league. His best season came in 2015, when he posted a 2.60 ERA with 202 strikeouts in 208 innings. In the two years since then, his ERA has steadily increased to 3.88 in 2016 and 4.26 last year, both career worsts at the time. In the Astros rotation, barring injuries, he will likely be the No. 4 starter in the rotation behind SPs Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. That should take some pressure off of him as the Astros won’t be relying on him to be one of their top pitchers. He is, however, going from the National League to the American League — which means he’ll be facing designated hitters instead of opposing pitchers — and going to a more hitter-friendly ballpark at Minute Maid Park as opposed to PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

For the Pirates, the centerpiece of the deal is probably Musgrove. He has a career 4.52 ERA in 49 major-league appearances in the regular season, but he excelled in the second half of the season after the Astros moved him to the bullpen. In 23 games of relief, he posted a 1.44 ERA compared to a 6.12 mark in 15 starts last season. The Pirates’ rotation isn’t as deep as the Astros’, though, which should give Musgrove another chance to prove himself as a starter in the middle or back of the Pittsburgh rotation. Moran hasn’t had much experience in the majors yet in his young career, but he should get a chance to be the Pirates’ starting third baseman coming out of spring training — a chance he wouldn’t get in Houston with Alex Bregman the long-term option at third there. Feliz is just a middle reliever with a 5.13 career ERAĀ  who can serve as a long man when needed.

The big recent free agent signing was Davis inking a three-year, $52 million contract with the Rockies. The veteran closer is coming off a season in which he set a career high of 32 saves (in 33 opportunities) with the Cubs, but his 2.30 ERA was his worst mark since 2013. He struck out 79 batters — the most since 2014 — in 58.2 innings. He takes over the closer role from free-agent RP Greg Holland, who has not yet signed on with a new team, but there are rumors about him potentially going to the Cubs.

Although the team has not yet officially announced the signings, the Mets have reportedly signed a couple of veterans, OF Jay Bruce and 1B Adrian Gonzalez. Bruce’s deal is reportedly worth $39 million over three years. Gonzalez, who the Dodgers traded to the Braves earlier this winter and was subsequently released by Atlanta, signed a one-year deal, pending a physical, that will pay him the league minimum as the Braves are on the hook for the rest of the $21.5 million he is owed for the 2018 season under his original contract.

In addition to Holland, other notable free agents who remain unsigned include SPs Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb, along with hitters J.D. Martinez, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. There could be more players traded before the start of the season, as well, with names like Orioles SS Manny Machado, Pirates OF Andrew McCutchen, Rays SP Chris Archer, and Marlins SS Starlin Castro, OF Christian Yelich and C J.T. Realmuto all potentially on the trade block.

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My NFL Picks: Divisional Round — Can the Titans, Jags pull off upsets

After a couple of surprising results in the Wild Card round, we’re now at the NFL Divisional playoffs. After their bye weeks, the Patriots, Steelers, Eagles and Vikings are back in action and hosting games this weekend. The Vikings are just two wins away from becoming the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, while the Patriots are looking to repeat as back-to-back Super Bowl champions. The Eagles are hoping they’ll be able to win the first Super Bowl in franchise history, but that’ll be tough with Nick Foles starting at quarterback.

In last week’s games, I went 2-2 straight up, 1-3 against the spread and 2-2 on over/unders for a mediocre start to the postseason with my picks.

Saturday

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No. 6 seed Atlanta Falcons at No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles (13-3, NFC East champions)Ā (+3, over/under 41)

The Falcons are coming off somewhat of an upset, beating the Rams on the road last week, and they now face the top team in the conference in the Eagles. The Eagles aren’t at full strength, though, with Foles continuing to start with Carson Wentz injured. The Eagles have played so poorly since Wentz went down that they’re the underdogs in this game despite being the top seed in the conference and playing at home.

In the seven games he’s played this season, including three starts, Foles has completed 56.4% of his passes for 537 yards and five touchdowns, with two interceptions. He won two of his three starts, butĀ  those games were against the Giants and Raiders; the Falcons will present a much bigger challenge. The Eagles don’t have much of a running game, with RB LeGarrette Blount the most productive back this season with 766 yards but just two touchdowns a season after scoring 18 touchdowns with the Patriots. In the passing game, TE Zach Ertz was the team’s leading receiver this season with 74 catches for 824 yards and eight touchdowns, but WR Nelson Agholor wasn’t far behind him with 768 yards and eight touchdowns — but most of that production was with Wentz throwing them the ball. Defensively, the team gave up the fourth-fewest points in the league this season and had the fourth-most takeaways.

The Eagles will likely have to rely on the defense to stop the Falcons, led by QB Matt Ryan, RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and WR Julio Jones. With the way Foles has played since Wentz went down, I think the Falcons are the better team. I’ll give the points and go with the Falcons (-3), 27-20, and over 41.

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No. 5 seed Tennessee Titans at No. 1 seed New England Patriots (13-3, AFC East champions)Ā (-13.5, over/under 48)

This seems like the biggest mismatch of the weekend, with the Titans nearly two-touchdown underdogs in Foxboro. They fell behind the Chiefs early in last week’s game but came back to win by a point. They ultimately scored 22 points, which likely won’t be enough to beat the Patriots on Saturday.Ā 

Patriots QB Tom Brady had one of his typically strong seasons, throwing for 4,577 yards and 32 touchdowns with eight interceptions. For much of the season, the team didn’t have what would be considered a lead running back, but RB Dion Lewis came on strong late in the season to take on that role. He ended the year with 896 yards and six touchdowns on 180 carries.Ā  Despite playing in 14 games, TE Rob Gronkowski still surpassed 1,000 yards for the season, with eight touchdowns on 69 receptions. WR Brandin Cooks was right behind him, with 65 catches for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns. The defense gave up the fifth-fewest points in the league during the regular season but was in the bottom 10 with just 18 takeaways.

The Titans offense is clearly worse than the Patriots’, especially with RB DeMarco Murray already ruled out, leaving RB Derrick Henry as the team’s lead back. For the Patriots,Ā RB Rex Burkhead, who played a pretty big role in the passing game this season, missed the last couple games of the regular season with a sprained knee, but he is listed as probable to return to action this weekend.Ā Like Burkhead, WR Chris Hogan is probable to return to the field this week after missing some time due to injury. I’m not expecting a competitive game here. Titans QB Marcus Mariota isn’t in the same league as Brady. I’m picking the Patriots, 34-21, so the Titans (+13.5)Ā  barely cover. And over 48.

Sunday

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No. 3 seed Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 2 seedĀ Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3, AFC North champions)Ā (-7, over/under 41)

The Jaguars may have beaten the Steelers when they played during the regular season, but they needed Ben Roethlisberger to throw five interceptions in order to do it. The Jaguars offense looked terrible last week and only won because the Bills were worse. QB Blake Bortles isn’t good, and the defense will have to make sure this is a low-scoring game for the Jaguars to have any kind of chance to pull off the upset.

Roethlisberger played in 15 games this season, throwing for 4,251 yards and 28 touchdowns with 14 interceptions — more than a third of which came in the Jaguars game. RB Le’Veon Bell ran for 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns in 15 games, adding 85 receptions in the passing game for an additional 655 yards and two touchdowns. Those 85 catches were the second-most on the team, behind WR Antonio Brown, who caught 101 passes in 14 games. He totaled 1,533 yards and nine touchdowns on the year. Rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster came on strong late in the season — taking advantage of Brown missing the last two games with an injury — and ended the season with 58 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. WR Martavis Bryant had 50 receptions for 603 yards and three scores. Defensively, the Steelers gave up the seventh-fewest points in the league and was near the middle of the pack with 22 takeaways.

Brown hasn’t played since leaving the Steelers’ Week 15 game against the Patriots early with a partially torn calf, but he has been practicing this week and is expected to return to action. That doesn’t bode well for the Jaguars, whose best receiver, WR Marqise Lee had just 56 receptions during the season. The Jags’ best offensive player is rookie RB Leonard Fournette, but he’s only surpassed 100 rushing yards twice since Week 11. Steelers (-7) win easily, 27-14, and that’s a push of the 41.

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No. 4 seed New Orleans Saints at No. 2 seed Minnesota Vikings (13-3, NFC NorthĀ champions)Ā (-5, over/under 46.5)

For the second straight week, the Saints are playing in what appears to be the most competitive game of the four. Last week, QB Drew Brees threw for 376 yards and two touchdowns on the way to beating the Panthers, but star running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined for just 45 rushing yards.

An early-season injury to Vikings QB Sam Bradford led to QB Case Keenum becoming the team’s starter. In his 15 games, including 14 starts, during the regular season he threw for 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns with seven interceptions. RB Latavius Murray led the team on the ground, running for 842 yards and eight touchdowns and his backfield mate Jerick McKinnon ran for 570 yards and three touchdowns. McKinnon also had 51 receptions for 421 yards and two touchdowns. The Vikings had two strong receivers with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Thielen caught 91 balls for 1,276 yards and four touchdowns, and Diggs caught 64 passes for 849 yards and eight touchdowns in 14 games. TE Kyle Rudolph also had eight touchdown catches, on 57 receptions. While the offense was good, it was the defense where the Vikings shined all season, allowing the fewest points in the NFL, but the Vikings finished in the bottom third of the league with 19 takeaways.

This is the classic matchup of a strong offense against a strong defense. People say defense wins championships, but in this case I think the better offense will come out on top. The Saints are strong both in the passing game with Brees and WRs Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn and on the ground, with Kamara and Ingram. The running backs will have to do better than they did last week, though, if the team is going to be successful on the road against the Vikings. I expect it to be a close game, so I’m going to take the points with the Saints (+5) winning 28-24, with the score going over.

After this weekend’s games we’ll have the final four set, and they will each be one step away from making it to Super Bowl LII.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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