11 months ago
Each week, Monty Andrews breaks down some of the underlying betting mismatches on the National Football League slate, giving you an inside edge when handicapping the schedule and setting your daily fantasy lineup. We are down to the final four teams and Monty has some dominant situations for you to consider.
Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots (-9, 46.5)
Jaguars' ball-hawking prowess vs. Patriots' lack of forced turnovers
One of the greatest quarterbacks in history is one win away from yet another Super Bowl trip, as Tom Brady and the New England Patriots host the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship game. Brady had little trouble against the Tennessee Titans last week, but should have a much tougher time against a Jaguars defense that tormented opposing QBs all season. New England is a big favorite, but Jacksonville has a sizeable edge when it comes to forcing turnovers - and that could even things up this Sunday.
Few teams provided as many defensive highlights this season as the Jaguars, who surrendered the third-fewest points per game (17.4) while limiting teams to a paltry 4.7 yards per play. Jacksonville unrelenting defensive pressure also resulted in a whopping 33 turnovers forced - second only to the Baltimore Ravens. As a result, the Jaguars finished the regular season as one of only six teams with a double-digit turnover margin (plus-10) despite having one of the shakiest pass offenses in football.
New England was very careful with the football this season, turning the ball over just 12 times; only the Kansas City Chiefs had fewer turnovers. Yet, while Brady and Co. took care of the pigskin on offense, the Patriots' defense struggled to produce turnovers. New England finished with just 18 forced turnovers during the season (12 interceptions, six fumble recoveries), ahead of only seven other teams - only one of whom reached the postseason. Look for the Jags to exploit the turnover mismatch this Sunday.
Patriots' surging rushing game vs. Jaguars' suspect run D
Much of the focus will be on how Brady fares against a Jacksonville defense that produced the most sacks in the NFL during the regular season. But a handful of other matchups are also worth watching. How will Blake Bortles fare in hostile territory, having produced one of the worst completion rates of any starting QB this season? How will Rob Gronkowski match up against a Jags defense that allowed just six red-zone targets to tight ends? And can Jacksonville's run D contain the Pats' solid ground attack?
The answer to the final question could very well decide the AFC Championship. And if past history is any indicator, New England could find itself with a decided edge in that matchup. The Patriots have averaged 147 rushing yards over their past three games, all lopsided wins - and while you could attribute the total to an increase in rush attempts, New England still averaged a robust 4.3 yards per carry in those games. Only the Denver Broncos have averaged more rushing yards over their most recent three-game stretch.
The Jaguars defended the pass well in 2017, but struggled against the run. They rank in the bottom third of the league in rushing yards per game allowed (115.2) even after limiting Pittsburgh to 83 yards on the ground this past week. That was more a product of game flow, anyhow; things will be much different against the Patriots, which will put added pressure on a defense that allowed nine more rushing yards per game this season than it did in 2016. If the Jags can't halt the Pats' run game, this could be a laugher.
Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles (+3.5, 38)
Vikings' third-down dominance vs. Eagles' recent drive-extension woes
Oddsmakers are expecting a defensive struggle Sunday evening as the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles square off with a spot in the Super Bowl at stake. The Eagles won a defensive slog against the Atlanta Falcons last weekend to advance, while the Vikings needed an incredible last-second touchdown pass to stun the new Orleans Saints. Minnesota is a modest favorite for this one, and will look to take advantage of a significant mismatch when it comes to third-down execution.
The Vikings were the top defensive team in the league by several metrics, most notably how they fared in third-down situations. Minnesota has allowed teams to score or extend drives on a minuscule 25.12 percent of their third-down opportunities; no other team in the NFL has a mark lower than 31.6 percent. All those crushed drives helped Minnesota finish second in the NFL in average possession rate at 54.15 percent - and if that happens again Sunday, the Super Bowl will have the host team on the field.
A look at the overall picture would suggest that the Eagles actually fared well on third downs, converting at a 42.0-percent clip - eighth-best in the league. But the majority of those conversions came with Carson Wentz under center - and now that he's out for the season, the Philadelphia offense has been far less effective. The Eagles have made good on just 23.7 percent of their third-down chances over the past three games - the third-worst rate of any team over its most recent three-game stretch.
Vikings' so-so ground game vs. Eagles' sensational run D
With both teams relying on journeyman quarterbacks who didn't begin the season as starters - and with this game being played outdoors - the NFC Championship could very well be decided by the respective ground games. And while both teams have been terrific at defending the run this season, the Eagles also ran the ball extremely well, averaging the third-most yards per game on a healthy 4.4 yards-per-carry average. The Vikings had the volume, but that quantity didn't translate to quality.
Minnesota's 1-2 punch of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon certainly produced plenty of points; the Vikings averaged a rushing touchdown per game this season, the sixth-highest scoring rate in football. But Murray, McKinnon and the rest of the Minnesota rushing game averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, good for 23rd out of 32 teams. Minnesota does have the eighth-highest yards-per-game average in the league, but that's more a product of running the ball more than 31 times per game.
The Vikings might not get 30+ rushes Sunday - and even if they do, there's no guarantee they will be able to do anything with them. The Eagles are the class of the league when it comes to run defense, leading the NFL in fewest rushing yards surrendered per game (79.6). And while that was largely due to teams skewing heavily toward the pass, Philadelphia also held opposing rushers to a 3.8 YPC average - sixth-best in the league. A repeat performance would almost certainly put the Eagles in the Super Bowl.