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Friday, 12 January 2018

NFL Play Off Picks 2018- Divisional Round (January 13-14)

And then there were eight.

The NFL 2017 season is fast approaching it's conclusion and we are now down to just seven games left to determine the Super Bowl winner.

It's funny- when the season begins in early September it feels like it is a long road to the Super Bowl, but before you know it we are deep into the Play Offs and there are not many games left to go.

The final eight teams in the Play Offs look like they could produce some fireworks once we get to the Championship Round and the Super Bowl, but the Divisional Round looks a little underwhelming like the Wild Card Round did.

Now I am not sure if that is down to two underdogs prevailing last week, because the Atlanta Falcons were one and look a really dangerous team at this moment, or whether the 12 teams who began the Play Offs were not as good as their records indicated.

The Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs didn't leap off the page, while key injuries have hurt the Philadelphia Eagles to the extent that they are the home underdog in the Play Offs. That is the first time the Number 1 Seed has been set as the underdog in the Divisional Round which shows how much of an impact the loss of Carson Wentz has on that team.

Blake Bortles and Case Keenum are not the most fashionable of Quarter Backs but they are riding two very good Defensive units in Jacksonville and Minnesota and all in all it does feel like the games are not as good as you may expect in the Divisional Round of the Play Offs.

Of course I could be wrong and we get four fantastic games over two days this weekend.

Last week the Wild Card Round Picks went 2-2 after opening with two wins on Saturday and falling down twice on Sunday. It was a frustrating Sunday with the Jaguars holding Buffalo to just 3 points and still not being able to get over the number, while the New Orleans Saints seemed to be in control of their game with the Carolina Panthers until the final six minutes when they gave up a long Touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey and then saw the Panthers driving for the win inside the final two minutes.

A little more luck would be nice on a weekend where the four underdogs all covered against the spread.

Onto the Divisional Round Picks.

Atlanta Falcons @ Philadelphia Eagles Pick: A few weeks ago this could easily have been the best game in the NFL Divisional Round of the Play Offs with the Super Bowl Runners Up Atlanta Falcons picking up some real momentum before heading into Philadelphia to take on the Number 1 Seed Eagles.

The second Carson Wentz went down with an injury that is going to keep him out of action for several months the naysayers about the Eagles chances to reach the Super Bowl came out in force. Wentz has been a huge bonus at Quarter Back for Philadelphia and the drop off to Nick Foles has become more apparent in each passing start from the latter.

Any hopes that Foles could repeat what he did for Chip Kelly a few years ago have all but disappeared and it has led to the Eagles being the first Number 1 Seed to be set as the underdog in the Divisional Round of the Play Offs.

You have to imagine the entire Philadelphia organisation are going to be well aware they have been set as the underdog and the 'no one believes in us' mentality could put them in a good place. They are facing a team who have had to travel to the West Coast to win a Wild Card Game against the Los Angeles Rams seven days ago and the Eagles are well rested to at least give the Atlanta Falcons all they can handle.

However it is difficult to know how the Eagles will be able to compete unless their Defensive unit produces their best game of the season.

The Eagles have only allowed 16 points across their last two regular season games which will offer encouragement, but this Atlanta Offensive unit looks to be rounding into close to the form which took them all the way to the Super Bowl last year. Philadelphia have to win at the line of scrimmage and prevent the Atlanta Falcons from establishing the run and that certainly looks like something they will be capable of doing which will give the Eagles every chance of keeping the Falcons in third and long situations.

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman won't be completely shut down if they are not able to run the ball as they would like as both are very good pass catching Running Backs that can find ways to influence games. However they won't be expecting a lot of room up front as the Atlanta Offensive Line have struggled to open the big running lanes without holding onto Defensive players in recent games, and so both Freeman and Coleman will have to help Matt Ryan as a safety blanket in the passing game.

Atlanta's Offensive Line has not only struggled to open up the run, but they have had some tough times preventing the pass rush from getting to Ryan. That has to be a concern for the Falcons as they won't want Ryan throwing from third and long and with a bunch of pressure around him, but there are holes in the Secondary that the Quarter Back could exploit.

Steve Sarkisian has to produce a game plan that sees Atlanta come out throwing and perhaps that is the best way to open up the run for their solid Running Back duo. With the Eagles having a few issues in the Secondary, Atlanta have the Receivers to win their battles and move the chains through the air, although Matt Ryan will have to look after the ball against a ball-hawking Secondary that thrives on turnovers.

It might mean the Falcons are settling for more Field Goals than they would like, but Dan Quinn has to be comfortable with that considering how well his Defensive unit played last week against the powerful Los Angeles Rams Offense.

There has been a definite improvement by Atlanta Defensively since the injuries have begun to clear up and they have not allowed more than 23 points in any of their last seven games. Holding the Rams to 10 points is very impressive and this is a team who will dare Nick Foles to beat them by making sure they contain the triple team Running Backs that the Philadelphia Eagles will trot out to the field.

The Eagles have had a little more difficulty running the ball since Wentz went down as Foles does not command the same respect as the former Number 2 overall Draft Pick. I imagine the Atlanta Falcons will also play their Linebackers and Safeties a little closer to the line of scrimmage to force Foles into having to throw the ball or at least keeping Philadelphia in third and long spots.

It does feel like Atlanta will be successful doing that now they have more faith in a Secondary that is playing up to the talent level they have. With Foles struggling to get through his reads, he is also likely going to be put under pressure by a solid Philadelphia pass rush when he does drop back to throw the ball, while the other concern is that Foles is not as accurate with his passes and the Falcons have shown they can turn the ball over in their last few games as they moved into Play Off mode.

That seems to give the Falcons the edge on both sides of the ball with more faith in Matt Ryan to make big plays from the Quarter Back position than Nick Foles. There could be a few big plays by the Defensive units as both teams will likely need to take to the air to move the chains, while Sacks are also likely to play a big part in the eventual victory.

I am expecting that victory to come down in the favour of the road favourites who look to be in a much better shape than the Eagles at this moment of time. If Carson Wentz played it would feel a totally different game, but Nick Foles has gotten worse and worse over his three starts and I don't think there is enough time to really get him straightened out.

I wouldn't be surprise if Foles makes an unexpectedly good start to the game, but Atlanta can make the adjustments and turn this game back in their favour. A home underdog in the Play Offs would usually widen the eyes, but the Eagles look in an incredibly tough spot and I would be happy to lay the Field Goal worth of points in this one. It is possible you will be able to find a few 2.5 spreads which is clearly the better way to go, but I feel comfortable in believing the Falcons come back and win by around a Touchdown in the first Divisional Round Game of the weekend.

Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots Pick: After a story came out on ESPN that the New England Patriots were being split by a feud between Robert Kraft/Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, some may have been wondering whether the Patriots were about to implode. Those thoughts should have quickly been moved on when thinking this disarray happened in the midst of another season where New England have finished with the Number 1 Seed in the AFC and they are a big favourite in this Divisional Round Game.

The Patriots likely think the Tennessee Titans did them a big favour by coming back from 18 points down to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card Game last Saturday. The Chiefs look to have matched up pretty well with New England and had already blown them out at Foxboro in the regular season, although either way I could only see the Patriots as a big favourite to win whoever they faced.

Tennessee have confirmed that Mike Mularkey is going to return as Head Coach in the 2018 season, although some issues behind the scenes means it is not guaranteed that the Head Coach himself will agree in the off-season. Mularkey has been criticised for much of the season and would have been fired if the Titans had lost last week so he can be grateful to the huge comeback win as Tennessee almost backed into the post-season.

It is a huge ask for the Titans to now come into Foxboro and beat the Patriots and the layers agree with a big number on the spread. The Titans have been an Offensive unit that have been accused of being a little bland with their approach as they try and dictate things behind a strong running game, but DeMarco Murray looks set to miss out again.

Derrick Henry showed with a couple of big runs that he is more than capable as the starting Running Back, but he is going up against a New England Defensive unit that have improved against the run. Bill Belichick would have made note of the way the Titans played last week and I think the Patriots will make sure that Henry is not able to pick up some momentum and then force Marcus Mariota to try and make special plays again from the Quarter Back position.

Mariota did what he needed to do last week, including a huge block for the final run of the game from Henry which iced the game for the Titans. However he is now facing a Belichick Defensive unit who will try and bamboozle him, while playing from third and long all evening is not going to be what the Tennessee Titans will want to see.

The Quarter Back can make some plays with his arms and legs, but this New England Secondary is far more talented than the one Mariota just dissected in Kansas City. They also have a much better pass rush which should move the Quarter Back off his spots and a Secondary will be looking to make some big plays to turn the ball over which could mean a tough day in the office all around for this Tennessee Offense.

That does not look to be the case for the New England Patriots despite the drop off from Tom Brady at Quarter Back over the last few weeks. It is something to keep an eye on, especially at Brady's age, and it is entirely possible we may be seeing the first signs of a decline from the future Hall of Famer.

An article pointing out the similarities with Peyton Manning's end of career really shines a light on the recent Brady numbers, but this is a big chance to show there is plenty left in the tank. The Patriots will certainly want to see that having decided to trade away Jimmy Garoppolo during the regular season, and Brady is facing a Tennessee Secondary that has struggled mightily to stop the pass.

The Titans have a decent front seven, but it is also possible to run the ball effectively against them and New England won't shy away from the run like the Kansas City Chiefs did last weekend. The Chiefs decision is all the more baffling when you think they were leading by 18 points at half time, but the Patriots are a team that likes the balance running the ball gives their Offensive unit and I think they can have success establishing the run.

Of course that is also important to negate the pass rush which has been rattling Brady more than you would think in recent games. Running the ball will just give him slightly more time and Brady has shown throughout his career that he is able to dissect the Dick LeBeau Defensive unit that he will see on Saturday.

Brady's numbers against LeBeau Defenses makes for great reading for the Patriots and he is 6-2 against his teams since 2004. That includes a blow out win in the Play Offs as New England hung 41 points on LeBeau's Defense and I think there are big holes in the Tennessee Secondary that can be exploited by the Quarter Back with the assumption that recent form is temporary and Brady's class remains at a high level.

He has Receivers who can take the top off the Defense through Brandin Cooks, while Rob Gronkowski is a player that the Titans will struggle to have an answer for. It feels like the Patriots will be able to do much of what they like and that will put the pressure on Mariota and the Tennessee Titans to try and play keep up.

Ultimately I think they will be unsuccessful in doing that and I like the Patriots to find a way to pull away for a big win. Mariota will make good looking plays at times, but I can see a couple of back breaking turnovers which sees New England pull away and then cover what is a very big number for a Divisional Round Play Off Game.

Since losing in the Divisional Round to the New York Jets in 2011, New England have won six straight games in this Round. Blow outs have not been uncommon with four of those wins coming by 13 points or more and three of them by at least 18 points including last season against the Houston Texans.

With Tennessee on back to back road games, I think the Titans will be forced out of their comfort zone as they move away from the run in a shoot out. That should be the difference maker in the game and I like the New England Patriots to win and cover in this Divisional Round Game.

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Pittsburgh Steelers Pick: The big question going into this Divisional Round Play Off Game is whether or not the Jacksonville Jaguars can suffocate the Pittsburgh Steelers as they did in a 30-9 win in Pittsburgh during the regular season? While both teams will point out the 'evolution' of the teams since then, the Jaguars continue to rely on the Defensive unit that absolutely hammered Ben Roethlisberger that day, including 5 Interceptions and two of those going back to the house.

It has placed some intrigue into this Divisional Round Game after the Jaguars took care of business in the Wild Card Round with a 10-3 win over the Buffalo Bills. The Defensive unit were dominant and made up for a skittish performance from Blake Bortles and this is a team who won in Pittsburgh despite of Bortles once already this season.

Barring an unlikely Super Bowl win, Jacksonville have some big questions to answer about Bortles and whether they should move for another Quarter Back via Free Agency or a trade in the off-season. You do feel the Jaguars are a competent Quarter Back away from perhaps being the team to beat in the AFC, but for now it is Bortles who will hold the keys to the Offense.

Jacksonville will just be asking from a clean performance from Bortles and instead rely very much on their ability to run the ball. Keeping Bortles in a position where he doesn't have to force plays could be critical for the Jaguars, but I do think the Offensive unit have a better chance of moving the chains consistently this week than they did against the Bills last week.

For one I expect a less nervy performance from Bortles who was making his first Play Off start a week ago. The Jaguars are also facing a Pittsburgh Defensive unit that have not looked the same since Ryan Shazier went down with a scary looking injury and the absence of one of the best Linebackers in the NFL has been felt.

That has impacted on the running game and Pittsburgh may struggle to contain Jacksonville on the ground which should open things up for Bortles and also put the Jaguars in a position for the upset. There is a chance that the Steelers will sell out to stop the run and rely on their Secondary to win their battles with the Jacksonville Wide Receivers and this is going to be a key to the game.

Stopping the run will allow Pittsburgh's pass rushers to really get after Bortles who may have to rely on his legs to scramble for a few First Downs himself. Keeping Bortles in obvious passing situations will also be a big test for a Quarter Back who never seems that far away from throwing a critical Interception, which may be underlined against a Pittsburgh Secondary who have been able to make some big plays through the air.

However it does feel that Jacksonville can have some success controlling the clock and churning out yards on the ground as long as this game is close. With the Defensive unit they have, the Jaguars will certainly feel like they can remain in this game and have every chance of the upset, but they will be challenged by a Pittsburgh Offense that will want to make amends for the blow out loss at home to this same team earlier in the season.

Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell are in better shape than when these teams met earlier in the season, while JuJu Smith-Schuster has made a real impact at Receiver for the team. With Antonio Brown back in practice, the Steelers may feel they have a much better Offensive unit than the one that played the Jaguars earlier in the season.

Bell won't have an easy task in establishing the run against a Jaguars Defensive Line which has been much stouter since acquiring Marcel Dareus in a trade from the Buffalo Bills. They played well enough against LeSean McCoy last week too, but this time they are facing a healthy Running Back whose hesitation moves may just find a little more daylight than other teams have in recent weeks.

The Running Back is also a key player in the passing game with an ability to get open and make tacklers miss when Big Ben does look to him as the safety blanket. With Bell, Smith-Schuster and Brown in the Receiving positions, Roethlisberger should have more successes than in the defeat to Jacksonville earlier in the season and I think the Quarter Back is playing well enough to give this Jaguars Secondary some problems.

The battle at the line of scrimmage will be key as Pittsburgh's Offensive Line tries to contain the Jacksonville pass rush for long enough to give Roethlisberger the time to make his plays. Throwing under pressure will be difficult against a very good Jaguars Secondary, but Roethlisberger will also believe his Receivers can win their individual battles and allow him to make plays down the field.

Smith-Schuster's improvement could be a key to opening things up for the Steelers who also have Martavis Bryant capable of taking the top off the Defense. I do think Pittsburgh will have learned a lot from the defeat to Jacksonville earlier in the season and this Offensive unit can call the right plays to move the chains and get into a position to win the game.

It will certainly be a close one, and that may suggest taking the points with the road underdog is the way to go. However I don't believe this Jaguars team are capable of recovering if they fall a couple of scores behind as the Steelers Defensive unit can then get after Bortles and rattle him into making some big mistakes.

As well as Jacksonville have played Defensively, they will need all the chips to fall in their favour as they did when winning by 21 points here a few months ago. Roethlisberger has been playing much better now than he was then and I just can't see the Quarter Back imploding in the same manner as he did when first facing this Defensive unit.

Having seen them once is a big bonus and I think the Steelers are in much better shape now. I also just can't trust Bortles to help the Jacksonville Jaguars Offense score enough points to keep this one in hand and I am looking for Pittsburgh to cover a big number.

A small sample also shows a team scoring 10 points or fewer in a Play Off win have really struggled in the next Round. Two teams have done that before and both were beaten comfortably in the next Round and I am going to take the Pittsburgh Steelers to cover and make it a third favourite to win and cover in the Divisional Round of games.

Pittsburgh have been a strong home favourite in the Play Offs under Mike Tomlin and the revenge angle should have the players all focused to come out and produce a much more complete effort than the first game with the Jaguars.

New Orleans Saints @ Minnesota Vikings Pick: There are two Divisional Round Games to be played on Sunday which is a repeat of a regular season game and the second of those comes from Minnesota where the Vikings will host the New Orleans Saints. All the way back in Week 1 the Vikings beat New Orleans 29-19 at home, but a lot of things have changed since then.

That game was notable for Sam Bradford's three Touchdown passes and Adrian Peterson getting into an argument with Sean Payton on the sidelines. Bradford has been lost for the season at Quarter Back for the Vikings since then, while Peterson was traded away from the New Orleans Saints despite only being signed in the off-season.

Dalvin Cook was also the starting Running Back for Minnesota back in September, but he is another who has been lost for the season with an injury and so this Divisional Round Game does have a different feel.

The Minnesota Vikings actually come into the game as a bigger favourite than they were when the teams met in the regular season. That underlines how well the likes of Case Keenum and Latavius Murray have done when coming into the Minnesota team, while the Defensive unit may be the best in the NFL at all three levels.

Keenum has really enjoyed a career best year in Minnesota and he is sure to command some big money at the end of the season. Whether that will be here in Minnesota or elsewhere is yet to be seen, but there will be some pressure on Keenum who is making his first start in the NFL Play Offs this season.

Usually he would lean on the run to be established which can open things up in the passing game, but the Saints Defensive Line has stepped up their play in recent games. They held Carolina to 4 yards per carry which is impressive considering how much the Panthers have looked to dominate behind the run, and New Orleans dealing with a mobile Quarter Back like Cam Newton should mean they are ready for Keenum who is capable of scrambling for positive yards.

The Saints can then unleash what has been a very good pass rush that has improved outside of Cameron Jordan who is a star in the League already. Jordan and company should be able to get the better of the Minnesota Offensive Line in obvious passing downs and they will force Keenum to try and make plays outside of the pocket by collapsing the pocket effectively.

Keenum will feel there are areas for him to exploit too as the New Orleans Secondary have been guilty of giving up some big plays in their recent games. While much improved from last season, this is not a shut down Secondary and Keenum has weapons like Kyle Rudolph, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs who are capable of making big plays with the ball in their hands. Rudolph looks to be overcoming his ankle injury in time to take part in this game and the Vikings may need Keenum's arm at his best to move the chains down the field.

One aspect Keenum has to be aware of is that the Saints might give up big yards, but they are also capable of turning the ball over. Losing possessions to this New Orleans Offensive unit is not going to be the way to win the game and Minnesota have to play a clean game Offensively to make sure their Defensive unit can hold firm.

New Orleans will have to make some adjustments Defensively against a new look Minnesota Offensive unit, but they look like they are capable of matching up better this time around than in Week 1. However the Minnesota Defense will also feel they can make the adjustments against what is a more balanced Offensive team than the one they originally faced.

This time the Saints will look to feed their Running Back duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara to try and establish the run to open the pass. For much of the season Ingram and Kamara have been dominant, but the Minnesota Defensive Line is as good as it gets and I am not sure the Saints will have find any consistent running lanes in this one.

In recent games New Orleans have struggled to run the ball and instead they may need to use Ingram and Kamara in screens to try and open things up. Both are good pass catching Running Backs who are capable of making big plays in the open field, but it does feel this game is going to be similar to the Wild Card Game against Carolina with the Saints once again leaning on Drew Brees.

Brees is a Quarter Back with plenty of experience having won a Super Bowl before, and he has shown little sign of decline with his play from that position. He has been helped massively by the stronger running game employed by New Orleans, but showed last week that he can take a game on his shoulders and help the Saints to win through the air.

This week he is battling a better Secondary than the one he faced last week against Carolina, and it is going to be a big challenge for Brees to move the chains consistently with the pass. The Vikings pass rush is decent, but I don't think it will be a massive concern for Brees and the bigger worry is definitely going to be finding his Receivers in open space.

While the Panthers had some breakdowns in the Secondary, Minnesota have a strong set of Defensive Backs who will make it tough for New Orleans throughout this one.

Overall it does feel like this could be a lower scoring game than the layers expect. Picking a winner against the spread is difficult because I can make a case for both teams, but I am leaning ever so slightly towards the New Orleans Saints to cover, even in a backdoor situation as Minnesota play different coverages to help milk the clock in the Fourth Quarter.

My heavier lean is towards the 'under' being played in the total points market because I feel neither Defensive unit is going to give too much away. I feel both Defensive Lines can slow down the run which will make it tough for both Case Keenum and Drew Brees to throw the ball from third and long spots, and I would be surprised if either team scores more than 23 points in this one barring the Defensive units creating pick-sixes or fumbles returned to the house.

Minnesota are being backed by the sharp money with their superior Secondary likely to prove to be a difference maker, but I think the Saints will be in a position to win this game in the Fourth Quarter. I am concerned that the game goes into Overtime and scuppers the 'under' total points selection, but two Defensive units can show they are capable of shutting down the Offenses they face and I will look for a tight game in the final Divisional Round clash of the weekend.

MY PICKS: Atlanta Falcons - 2.5 Points @ 1.85 Ladbrokes (2 Units)
New England Patriots - 13 Points @ 1.91 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Pittsburgh Steelers - 7 Points @ 1.95 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Minnesota Vikings-New Orleans Saints Under 46.5 Total Points @ 2.00 Sky Bet (2 Units)

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