Tag Archives: Patriots

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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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’t¬† 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 be¬† 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 have¬† 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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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) (+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, but¬† 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) (-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.¬†

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.¬† 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,¬†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.¬†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)¬† barely cover. And over 48.

Sunday

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No. 3 seed Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 2 seed Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3, AFC North champions) (-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 North champions) (-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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My NFL Picks: Wild Card and Playoff Predictions — Can the Bills win their first playoff game in 18 years?

With the 2017 NFL regular season complete, it’s time to move on to the playoffs. This year’s postseason features a number of teams who didn’t make it past the regular season last year, as well as a team that hasn’t been in the playoffs in 18 years as the Bills make it to the postseason for the first time since the 1999 season, ending the longest active drought in the four major pro sports leagues in the U.S. The Bills aren’t the only new blood in this season’s playoffs; they join the Rams, Titans, Jaguars, Panthers, Saints, Eagles and Vikings as teams in this year’s field that weren’t there a year ago, which means 75% of this year’s playoff field is new, with the Steelers, Patriots, Chiefs and Falcons the holdovers. The Patriots and Steelers hold the AFC’s byes as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, and in the NFC the top two seeds are the Eagles and Vikings, who will wait until the divisional round to play as they vie for their spot in Super Bowl LII.

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As I start picking the playoff games, I wrapped up the regular season with a record of 132-124 against the spread and 166-90 straight up.

Saturday

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No. 5 seed Tennessee Titans (9-7, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Kansas City Chiefs (10-6, AFC West champions) (-8, over/under 44)

It was basically a tale of three seasons for the Chiefs in 2017. After starting 5-0 and being the last undefeated team in the league, they went 1-6 in their next seven games before finishing the campaign on a four-game winning streak. They’ll look to continue that momentum Saturday afternoon when they host the Titans, who are playing in their first playoff game since the 2008 season. Somewhat surprisingly, the Chiefs have the advantage at quarterback, based on how they played this season. Chiefs QB Alex Smith had a career year, throwing for 4,042 yards and 26 touchdowns in 15 games while throwing five interceptions, just one off from his career-best in that category. Titans QB Marcus Mariota, on the other hand, regressed from his 2016 production. He also played in 15 games, throwing for 3,232 yards, which was just a couple hundred behind last year. His 13 passing touchdowns, however, were half of the 26 he threw in 2016, and his interceptions increased from nine to 15.

The Titans could have an issue in the running game if RB DeMarco Murray can’t play. He missed the team’s Week 17 game with a knee injury, which could put his status for this weekend in question. Like Mariota, Murray’s production went down this season, running for just 659 yards and six touchdowns in his 15 games this season. He also had 39 catches for 266 yards and 1 touchdown. If he can’t go, the Titans have one of the league’s best backup running backs in Derrick Henry, who only had eight fewer rushes than Murray and totaled 744 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. The Chiefs have the best running back in the game with rookie RB Kareem Hunt, who ran for 1,327 yards and eight touchdowns, along with 53 receptions for an additional 455 yards and three touchdowns. The Titans don’t have great options in the receiving game. TE Delanie Walker‘s 74 receptions led the team; he had 807 yards and three touchdowns. WRs Eric Decker and Rishard Matthews had 54 and 53 catches, respectively; Decker’s catches went for 563 yards and 1 touchdown while Matthews had 795 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Chiefs had two pass-catchers who surpassed 1,000 receiving yards. TE Travis Kelce had a team-best 83 catches for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns, and WR Tyreek Hill caught 75 balls for 1,183 yards and seven touchdowns.¬†

Both teams were middle-of-the-pack in scoring defense, but the Chiefs were ahead of the Titans with 26 takeaways, compared to 21 for Tennessee. S Kevin Byard led the Titans defense with eight interceptions, and CB Marcus Peters five interceptions were the most on the Chiefs. Titans K Ryan Succop made about 83% of his field goal attempts this season and converted 31 of 33 PATs while Chiefs rookie K Harrison Butker was successful on 90.5% of his attempted field goals, and he made all 28 of his PATs in the 13 games he played.

The Chiefs have the clear advantage offensively in this game, while the defenses are pretty evenly matched. I’m not sold on Smith being one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but I think the combination of Hunt, Hill and Kelce will be too much for the Titans to be able to keep up with them. I think the Chiefs win the game fairly easily. I’ll go with a 27-17 final score, which means I’m taking the Chiefs (-8) and barely over the 44 points, even though my projected score would be a push.

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No. 6 seed Atlanta Falcons (10-6, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Los Angeles Rams (11-5, NFC West champions) (-6.5, over/under 48.5)

After failing to hold onto a 28-3 lead, the Falcons ultimately lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI in February, and now they’re looking to get back to the Big Game for another shot at winning it. Playing in a second straight Super Bowl won’t be easy for the Falcons, though, as their offense this season isn’t nearly as good as it was a year ago. A big part of that is because of QB Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP who took a big step back this season. He threw for 4,095 yards and 20 touchdowns, which were his worst numbers since 2010 and 2008, respectively. He also threw 12 interceptions, five more than in 2016. In his second season in the league, Rams QB Jared Goff showed a vast improvement over his rookie campaign. He sat out the regular season finale so played in 15 games, throwing for 3,804 yards and 28 touchdowns with seven interceptions, matching the number of picks he threw in seven games in 2016.

RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman split the bulk of the Falcons’ carries, with Freeman leading the way with 865 yards and seven touchdowns on 196 rushes; Coleman ran for 628 yards with five touchdowns in 156 attempts. If you combine their stats, they pretty much match the production of Rams RB Todd Gurley, an MVP candidate. He carried the ball 279 times for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns, a nice bounceback performance from subpar numbers he put up in 2016. Gurley was also highly involved in the passing game, catching 64 balls for 788 yards and six touchdowns. Those numbers were better than pretty much all of the Falcons pass-catchers other than WR Julio Jones, who had 88 receptions for 1,444 yards but just three touchdowns. WR Mohamed Sanu‘s five receiving touchdowns led the Falcons; he had 703 yards on 67 catches. For the Rams, rookie WR Cooper Kupp had 62 receptions for a team-best 869 yards and five touchdowns. WR Robert Woods matched that touchdown total, and WR Sammy Watkins led the team with eight receiving touchdowns.

The Falcons had a better defense during the season in terms of points allowed — 315 vs. 329 — but the Rams’ 28 takeaways were the fifth-most in the league and significantly more than the Falcons’ 16, which placed them in the bottom five of the NFL. If the game comes down to kicking, the Falcons have a clear advantage with veteran K Matt Bryant, who was successful on 34-of-39 field goal attempts and converted all 35 of his PATs. With Rams K Greg Zuerlein going on IR after Week 16, they’re relying on rookie K Sam Ficken, who made two of his three field goals and went missed one of his five attempted PATs in Week 17.

I don’t think the Falcons have much of a chance to win this game, unless Ryan happens to return to his 2016 form rather than the way he played in 2017. Even then, Goff and Gurley may be too much for the Falcons to be able to keep up with them. To me, it’s not a question about which team wins the game, but rather what the Rams’ margin of victory will be. I think the Rams win by better than a touchdown, so I’ll go with the Rams (-6.5), 31-20, and over 48.5.

Sunday

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No. 6 seed Buffalo Bills (9-7, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6, AFC South champions) (-9, over/under 39.5)

The Bills are the most surprising of the playoff teams to me, as I predicted them to win four games in my season preview. Even though they ended up going 9-7, I don’t think they’re as good as that record would indicate, and they’ll face an even tougher challenge in the game if they’re without their best offensive player, RB LeSean McCoy, who left Sunday’s game with a leg injury and whose status for this game is in question. Bills QB Tyrod Taylor played in 15 games this season, 14 starts, and threw for 2,799 yards and 14 touchdowns with just four interceptions. Jaguars QB Blake Bortles had a stretch of playing well during the season, ultimately throwing for 3,687 yards and 21 touchdowns on the year with 13 interceptions.

McCoy ran the ball 287 times this season, gaining 1,138 yards with six touchdowns. But if he can’t go, RB Mike Tolbert will likely get the start, and he had limited opportunities during the season. He played in 12 games but had just 66 rushes for 247 yards and one touchdown, and he was outgained on the ground by Taylor. If the Bills are without McCoy on Sunday, the Jaguars will have a significant advantage at running back with rookie RB Leonard Fournette, who ran for 1,040¬† yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games. McCoy also led the Bills with 59 receptions, going for 448 yards and two touchdowns. TE Charles Clay, who dealt with injury issues during the season, had 49 catches for 558 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games, and WR Kelvin Benjamin played six games with the Bills after being traded by the Panthers, nabbing 16 receptions for 217 yards and 1 touchdown. WR Marqise Lee led the Jaguars with 56 catches in 14 games, totaling 702 yards and three touchdowns, but he is questionable for Sunday’s game as he recovers from an ankle injury. WR Dede Westbrook came on late in the season, finishing the year with 27 receptions for 339 yards and one touchdown in seven games.

The Jaguars had one of the best defenses in the NFL this year, allowing the second-fewest points in the league at 268, while the Bills allowed opponents to score 359 points. The Jags’ 33 takeaways also ranked second in the league, and the Bills were tied for ninth with 25. Bills K Steven Hauschka was 29-for-33 on field goals and converted all 29 of his PAT attempts. Jaguars K Josh Lambo played in the team’s last 10 games¬† of the season, missing just one of his 20 field goal attempts and going 22-for-24 with his PATs.

Neither team has a great offense, but the Jags have the best offensive player in Fournette, especially if McCoy misses the game or is limited. Taylor and the Bills should have an especially difficult time moving the ball down the field against the tough Jaguars defense. This is the Bills’ first playoff appearance in a long time, but I don’t think it will last long. I’ll expecting the Jaguars to win a low-scoring game, 20-14, so I’m taking the Bills (+9) and under 39.5.

No. 5 seed Carolina Panthers (11-5, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed New Orleans Saints (11-5, NFC South champions) (-6.5, over/under 48.5)

The Panthers and Saints both went 11-5 this season, but I don’t think they’re as evenly matched as that would indicate. Panthers QB Cam Newton had one of the worst seasons of his career, throwing for 3,302 yards and 22 touchdowns with 16 interceptions, one off of the most he’s had in any¬† season of his career. Saints QB Drew Brees also had a down year but performed better than Newton. He had 4,334 passing yards with 23 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, which almost matched his career-best of seven.

Newton led the Panthers with 754 rushing yards and six touchdowns, with RB Jonathan Stewart adding 680 yards and six touchdowns. Rookie RB Christian McCaffrey ran for 435 yards and two touchdowns, but his bigger contribution came in the passing game; he had a team-best 80 receptions for 651 yards and five touchdowns. The Saints had the best running-back duo in the league, with RB Mark Ingram leading the way with 1,124 yards and 12 yards. Rookie RB Alvin Kamara had 728 yards and eight scores on 120 carries. Both were effective in the passing game, as well, with Kamara grabbing 81 receptions for 826 yards and five touchdowns, and Ingram catching 58 balls for 416 yards. Panthers WR Devin Funchess had 63 receptions and led the team with 840 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. TE Greg Olsen missed much of the season, playing in just seven games and totaling 17 catches for 191 yards and one touchdown. For the Saints, WR Michael Thomas led the way with 104 catches for 1,245 yards and five touchdowns. 

The Saints’ defense was improved over recent seasons, ranking 10th in the league in points allowed at 326, but the Panthers were right behind them at 327. The Saints had 25 takeaways, compared to the Panthers’ 21. Panthers K Graham Gano made all but one of his 30 field goal tries and missed three of 37 PATs. Saints K Will Lutz went 31-for-36 on field goals and 47-for-50 on his attempted PATs.

Of the four games this weekend, this one should feature the two best offenses. For the Panthers, Newton needs to avoid turning the ball over and Olsen, who returned from his injury a couple weeks ago, needs to be close to 100% and have a good game if they want to be able to beat the Saints on the road. I think the Saints are the better team overall and I trust Brees more than Newton with the way they played this season. I think Saints win 34-27, so I’ll go Saints (-6.5) and well over 48.5.

Based on the above picks, here is how I see the rest of the postseason playing out:

Divisional Round

Saints beat the Eagles
Patriots  beat the Chiefs
Steelers beat the Jaguars
Rams beat the Vikings

Conference Championships

Steelers beat the Patriots
Saints beat the Rams

Super Bowl LII

Saints beat the Steelers

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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My NFL Picks Week 17: Playoff spots up for grabs, Browns look to avoid 0-16 (Updated)

It’s the final week of the 2017 NFL regular season, which means some teams are still battling for the final playoff spots, others are just playing out meaningless games, and the Browns are trying to avoid becoming just the second team in league history to go 0-16. Seven of the eight division titles have been wrapped up — only the NFC South remains in contention, along with both AFC wild cards and one wild card in the NFC. The teams that have not clinched a spot in the postseason but remain in the hunt are the Titans, Ravens, Chargers and Bills in the AFC and the Falcons and Seahawks vying for the final NFC berth.

As usual in Week 17, some teams with nothing to play for will either not play their key players or only play them for part of the game. The Chiefs have already announced QB Alex Smith will sit out and rookie QB Patrick Mahomes will make his first career start, and the Rams have said a number of starters, including QB Jared Goff and RB Todd Gurley, will not play in their season finale. That makes picking games more difficult than usual this week, especially with teams like the Jaguars who are looked into their playoff seed but claim they’re still going to play to win this week. I went 6-10¬†last week, giving me an overall record of 123-117 for the season. I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick (straight up, not ATS) is in red

Sunday 1PM games

Bears¬†at Vikings (-12.5) – The Vikings, who are coming off a shutout of the Packers, are currently the NFC’s No. 2 seed, but could fall out of that spot — and the accompanying first-round bye — this week, so they’ll likely play their starters this week. But I think the spread could be a bit much because the Bears have a pretty good defense. I’ll take the points.

Browns¬†at Steelers (-14.5)¬†The 0-15 Browns need to beat the Steelers to avoid joining the 2008 Lions as the only 0-16 teams in NFL history. I don’t think that’s going to happen, it’s just a question of how much the Steelers win by. The Steelers are locked into the No. 2 seed but could still move up to No. 1 and get home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win and a Patriots loss. If the Patriots get a big lead on the Jets and look like they’re on pace to win by halftime, the Steelers could pull their starters in the second half, which would limit their scoring potential so I’m going to take the points.
(Update: There are reports that OL Marcus Gilbert has said that QB Ben Roethlisberger and RB Le’Veon Bell will not play in the game. If that’s the case, it wouldn’t change my pick of taking the points with Cleveland.)

Cowboys at Eagles (+2.5) –¬†The Eagles locked up the No. 1 seed in the NFC when they beat the Raiders Monday night, which means they’ll probably put their backups in at some point during the game — if the likes of QB Nick Foles and RB Jay Ajayi play at all. The offense didn’t even look good on Monday with them playing, so I think the Cowboys have a pretty good chance to win the game. I’ll give the points.

Packers at Lions (-7.5)The Packers couldn’t score last week against the Vikings. The Lions defense isn’t as good but Packers QB Brett Hundley isn’t good. The Lions lost to the Bengals last week, but they should be able to beat the Packers and I’ll give the points.

Texans at Colts (-3.5) – Both of these teams have had disappointing seasons but the Texans have the best offensive player in the game with WR DeAndre Hopkins, so I’ll take the points. (Update: There are reports that Hopkins is not expected to play, but even if he sits I still think the Texans will be able to stay within a field goal, if not win outright, so I’ll keep my original pick.)

Jets¬†at Patriots (-15.5)¬†The Patriots need to win this game so clinch the top seed in the AFC, which they should do. I wouldn’t be surprised if they sit some of their starters late in the game, so I’ll take the points.

Redskins¬†at Giants (+3.5)¬†The Redskins and Giants have both been plagued by injuries this season but the Redskins seem to be handling it better. The Giants were shut out by the Cardinals last week and I don’t see them keeping this game very close. The most notable aspect of the game for the Giants is the possibility that it will be Eli Manning’s last start with the team. I’ll go with the Redskins.

Sunday 4PM games

Panthers at Falcons (-3.5) – The Panthers have already punched their ticket to the postseason and have a chance at winning the NFC South with a win and a Saints loss. They also have a shot at the No. 2 seed with a win and help. The Falcons are currently the No. 6 seed with a wild card but need to win to hold off the Seahawks, who would overtake them with a win if the Falcons lose. That means both teams are playing for something, but it’s more critical for the Falcons to get a victory. They’re at home, but I think the Panthers are the better team. I’ll take the points.

Bills at Dolphins (+2.5)¬†–¬†The Bills are on the outside looking in for their first playoff berth since 1999. They need a win and a Ravens loss, or other help, to get into the postseason. They’re facing a relatively easy game against the Dolphins and I think they should be able to win by about a touchdown, so I’ll give the points on the road.

Bengals at Ravens (-9.5) – The Ravens are currently the fifth seed and just need to win to clinch a spot in the playoffs. If they lose, losses by Bills or Titans would also get them in. They shouldn’t need that help, though, as I think they beat the Bengals, but I don’t think they’ll win by double digits so I’m giving the points.

Chiefs at Broncos (-3.5)- With the news that the Chiefs, who are the AFC West champions and locked in as the No. 4 seed, starting Mahomes at quarterback, you have to wonder how much their other stars — such as RB Kareem Hunt, WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce — will play in the last game of the regular season. That gives the Broncos a better chance to win the game, but I’m still not sure they’ll be able to do it. If they do win, it probably won’t be a big margin of victory so I’ll take the points with the playoff-bound squad.

Jaguars at Titans (-5.5) – The Jaguars continue to say they’ll play to win on Sunday despite¬† being locked into the third seed, but given the line the oddsmakers aren’t believing them. I believe the jags will play their starters for at least the first half, which I think would be enough to win the game. Give me the points.

Raiders at Chargers (-7.5)The Chargers need a win (or tie) and help to sneak into the playoffs, and they’re playing a Raiders team with nothing to play for that didn’t have much offense on Monday night. One concern for the Chargers is the availability of RB Melvin Gordon, who suffered an ankle injury on Sunday but says he’s ready to go this week. I think the Chargers win and it probably won’t be that close.

49ers at Rams (-3.5) – The Rams can’t improve their playoff positioning beyond their current No. 3 seed and have already said that Goff, Gurley and DT Aaron Donald are among their starters who will sit for the finale, so they are clearly treating it as a preseason-type game. With the way the 49ers have played since installing Jimmy Garoppolo as their starting quarterback, and with QB Sean Mannion getting the start for the Rams, I expect the 49ers to give the Rams outright so I’m taking the points.

Saints at Buccaneers (+7.5) – The Saints simply need¬† a win (or Panthers loss) to clinch the division title, and I expect them to get it easily. I’ll give the points.

Cardinals at Seahawks (-8.5)¬†The Seahawks need a win (or tie), combined with a Falcons loss, to earn a playoff spot. I think both of these will happen, and I don’t expect the Cardinals-Seahawks game to be that close so I’ll give the points.

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My NFL Picks Week 16: Zeke returns, Falcons-Saints battle in the NFC South

The penultimate week of the regular season in the NFL has an underwhelming slate of games after last week’s schedule had a number of featured matchups. The best game of the week looks to be the NFC South battle between the Falcons and Saints, as the visiting team is a game out of first place in the division. The Cowboys are among the teams looking to win to stay alive with their slim playoff hopes, and they get RB Ezekiel Elliott back after he has finished serving his six-game suspension. There’s an unusual schedule this week with the Christmas holiday. There’s no Thursday game and there are doubleheaders on both Saturday and Monday, with no Sunday night game due to Christmas Eve. I went 7-9¬†last week, giving me an overall record of 117-107 for the season. I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick (straight up, not ATS) is in red

Saturday games

Colts at Ravens (-13.5) – This is a surprisingly large spread for a Ravens team that doesn’t have a great offense. They did win by more than I thought last week against the Browns, but the Colts aren’t the Browns. I have a hard time picking a Joe Flacco-led offense to win by two touchdowns, so I’ll take the Colts and the points, but I expect the Ravens to win the game to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Vikings at Packers (+6.5)¬†The Falcons’ win on Monday Night Football eliminated the Packers from playoff contention, and with that the team decided to shut QB Aaron Rodgers down for the season and placed him on IR. That means QB Brett Hundley is back as the starter for the last two games of the season. With that in mind, the Packers probably won’t score many points against a good Vikings defense. At 11-3, the Vikings are battling for the top seed in the NFC, and they should beat their division rivals to stay alive in that race. I’ll give the points on the road.

Sunday 1PM games

Falcons at Saints (-5.5) –¬†The Falcons need to win this game to try to stay alive in the race for the NFC South as they currently sit a game behind both the Saints and Panthers, who are tied for the division lead. I don’t think the Falcons will be able to keep up with the Saints’ offense, led by QB Drew Brees and RBs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, enough to win the game. I do think they’ll keep it close, though, so I’ll take the points but the Saints win the game.

Bills at Patriots (-12.5)The Patriots hold the top seed in the AFC after the thrilling win against the Steelers on Sunday. Now they hit the road for a divisional game against the Bills, who are desperate for a win as they try to hold on to the No. 6 seed in the conference. I don’t think the game will be a blowout, but the it’s hard to go against the Tom BradyRob Gronkowski¬†combo on the Pats. Bills QB Tyrod Taylor isn’t good enough, so it’ll have to be RB LeSean McCoy to lead the way, and I don’t think that’ll be enough to pull off the upset. Patriots win, but I’m taking the points again.

Browns at Bears (-6.5)The Browns have just two more chances to avoid becoming the second team in NFL history to finish a season 0-16. With the Steelers looming in Week 17, this could be the Browns’ last realistic chance to get a win. I don’t like their chances, though. Rookie QB DeShone Kizer doesn’t look like he’s getting better as the season progresses. I think the Bears will win and cover, though I’m not confident about that part.

Lions at Bengals (+4.5)¬†It seems like the Bengals have given up on the season, coming off of back-to-back losses of 33-7 and 34-7. I’m expecting another blowout here and am surprised the spread is as low as it is. I think the Lions win by double digits.

Broncos at Redskins¬†(-3.5)¬†Both of these teams have had disappointing seasons, but the Broncos have been the worse of the two. Their defense has not been good lately and they don’t seem to know yet who will start at quarterback this week, Brock Osweiler or Paxton Lynch. I’ll go with Kirk Cousins and the Redskins.

Rams at Titans (+6.5) – The Rams are coming off of a blowout win against the Seahawks, and I don’t think the Titans are much better than the Seahawks so I don’t know why this game would be much different. Titans QB Marcus Mariota may be the most disappointing player in the league this season. I expect Rams RB Todd Gurley to have another big game like he did last week. Rams win big.

Dolphins at Chiefs (-10.5)¬†–¬†The Chiefs seem to be back to playing the way they were early in the season when they were 5-0, as opposed to how they played during their midseason swoon. Facing a Dolphins team led by QB Jay Cutler, I don’t think this game will be that close, and WR Tyreek Hill and RB Kareem Hunt will lead the way for the Chiefs as they look to potentially wrap up the AFC West this week.

Chargers at Jets (+6.5) – The Chargers are on the fringe of playoff contention but need significant help to get over the edge. Bryce Petty is the Jets’ starting quarterback, which is why I’m taking PHilip Rivers and the Chargers to do their part and win the game — and cover — but I don’t think they’ll still be alive for the postseason by the end of the weekend.

Buccaneers at Panthers (-9.5)- Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston had his best game in a while on Monday, dropping a close one to the Falcons. I think Winston and WR Mike Evans can keep it close again this week when they take on the Panthers, but I think the Panthers win. TE Greg Olsen looked like himself in Week 15 as he continues to work his way back from injury, which gives QB Cam Newton another offensive weapon. Panthers win, but the Bucs cover.

Sunday 4PM games

Jaguars at 49ers (+4.5) – QB Jimmy Garoppolo has played well in the games he’s played for the 49ers this season, but he faces perhaps his biggest test yet against the Jaguars, who have one of the best defenses in the league. Last week, the Jaguars clinched their first playoff berth in a decade, but they still have something to play for because they can earn a first-round bye if things go in their favor. RB Leonard Fournette looks like he will play after missing last week’s game. I’m going with the Jags.

Seahawks at Cowboys (-4.5)The Seahawks are coming off a bad loss to the Rams, while the Cowboys held on to beat the Raiders last week and now get Elliott back from his suspension as they try to keep their playoff hopes alive. With Elliott, who could get a heavy workload, back I think the Cowboys will win this one fairly easily. I’ll give the points.

Giants at Cardinals (-4.5) – The Giants offense came alive last week, with QB Eli Manning throwing for more than 400 yards, while Blaine Gabbert had a forgettable game for the Cardinals and is being replaced by Drew Stanton this week. Overall, neither team has been good this season so I’ll go with their most recent performances and take the points, though I think the Cardinals could eke out the win at home.

Christmas games

Steelers at Texans (+9.5)The Steelers will be without WR Antonio Brown this week after he injured his calf in the team’s nailbiter against the Patriots on Sunday. That could be a blow to the offense if WRs Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster can’t make up for Brown’s lost production. It could also lead the team to lean more on RB Le’Veon Bell than if Brown was healthy. I expect the Steelers to win the game, but I think the spread may be too high since the Steelers tend to play down to their competition when they’re facing an inferior team. Give me the points.¬†

Raiders at Eagles (-8.5) –¬†Eagles QB Nick Foles played well in his first game starting in place of Carson Wentz on Sunday, but I need to see him do it again before I truly buy into him being able to play like that again. I’m going to go with the Raiders to cover, but the Eagles should win the game.

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