The NFL regular season was mostly bland and disinteresting. The playoffs have been anything but. We’ll have to see what the Conference Championship Weekend has in store for us, but if it’s anything like the Divisional Round, we should be in for a lot of fun. The AFC champion will be decided first, as the Jacksonville Jaguars visit the New England Patriots. The Patriots are favored by nine points at Bookmaker Sportsbook with a total of 46.5. That is mostly the consensus number, with some 9.5s out there. Bookmaker opened 8, so we’ve seen some initial investment on the Patriots.
The Jaguars won a 45-42 thriller over the Steelers, which was basically the outcome that we all expected with the Steelers favored by 6.5 and a total in the low 40s. The outright upset bumped the Jaguars to 12-6 straight up on the season and 10-8 against the spread. The 38-point fourth quarter was nearly enough alone to push the game over the total, but 42 first-half points did that anyway. This will be the fourth road game in five weeks for the Jaguars and their second straight cold-weather game.
The Patriots, the world’s most scrutinized NFL team, won and covered with ease against Tennessee to improve to 12-5 against the spread and 14-3 straight up. The Patriots are the only favorite to cover in this year’s NFL playoffs, as underdogs are 7-1 ATS (6-1-1 for those that had 5 on Saints/Vikings) and 3-5 straight up. The Titans scored first, but didn’t score again until it was a 35-7 game with 1:55 left. That touchdown pushed the game over the total. We have four overs and four unders thus far in the playoffs.
It certainly feels like the Jaguars are going to be the preferred side from pro bettors, despite the early line move. Jacksonville’s offense, however, was not as impressive as you would think with 45 points. Blake Bortles only had 14 completions for 214 yards and is just 26-of-49 for 301 yards and two touchdowns through two playoff games. Leonard Fournette did have a huge day on the ground with 25 carries for 109 yards and three touchdowns, but left hurt with an ankle injury prior to halftime. He came back, but that bum wheel has been an issue throughout the season. Jacksonville was outgained 545-378 and out first-downed 28-22, but didn’t turn the football over and went 5-for-5 in red zone chances. Jacksonville is now 6-for-6 in that department in the playoffs. For being the butt of a lot of jokes, this Blake Bortles-led offense was second in red zone efficiency during the regular season at 64 percent. When they had chances to put up seven points, they did, and that was the difference in this game. Well, that and Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley having no clue what was going on.
The Jaguars had a strip-six and a short field set up by an interception that got turned into 14 points, so the defense certainly contributed in that regard. The score had a lot to do with Pittsburgh’s ability to move the football in chunks, but the Steelers were also a couple of bad fourth-down play calls/audibles away from potentially hanging a 50 burger. The Jaguars allowed 545 yards, with 462 of them through the air to Ben Roethlisberger. Jacksonville only had two sacks totaling seven yards and had no answer for for everal of Pittsburgh’s weapons in the passing game. JuJu Smith-Schuster was held down, but Antonio Brown was not and the Jaguars’ linebackers had trouble with Le’Veon Bell and Vance McDonald. That will be the concern this week. Rob Gronkowski is a far better version of McDonald, who had 10 catches for 112 yards on 16 targets. The tandem of Dion Lewis and James White is very proficient out of the backfield. That is a big task for defensive coordinator Todd Wash and for defensive backs coach Perry Fewell heading into next weekend’s matchup.
The Patriots methodically beat up on the Tennessee Titans, which is what most people expected. Tom Brady was 35-of-53 for 337 yards with three touchdowns and no picks. He didn’t take very many shots and the Titans didn’t register a sack. New England barely crossed the 100-yard mark on the ground, but Brady spread the ball around well and just missed Brandin Cooks on a long touchdown throw. It was your typical Patriots playoff performance. Nothing overly flashy, but a high level of efficiency and a lot of high-percentage throws. Danny Amendola was the star with 11 catches for 112 yards on 13 targets. Dion Lewis caught nine of his 10 targets. Brady couldn’t get Chris Hogan involved as much, but you can bet that he’ll be a big part of the offense this week because offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels likes to give Brady options and his ability to roll through his progressions is his best asset. The concern for New England here is obviously keeping Brady upright. The Titans don’t have nearly the pass rush that the Jaguars have and Brady is used to dissecting that Dick LeBeau scheme from playing the Steelers in the past. Jacksonville’s team speed may be a problem here, although that was the sentiment going into the Steelers game. There were a lot of things Pittsburgh tried that didn’t work, like running wide or screen plays. New England won’t do those things. They run with a purpose between the tackles and like hitch and flat routes for the backs instead of screens.
Gauging the Patriots defense is a tough thing to do. Early in the season, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s defense was all over the map. Late in the year, the Patriots figured things out, despite a clear lack of talent and athleticism on that side of the ball. The game plan will obviously be to stop Leonard Fournette, but will the Patriots sell out to do that? As bad as this New England defense was statistically, there was one stat that really stood out. New England allowed just a 43.8 percent conversion rate in the red zone. That ranked fourth in the NFL. The biggest strength for the Jacksonville offense has been its ability to convert trips inside the 20 into touchdowns. The biggest strength for the New England defense is to prevent that. If the Jaguars can get set up with some short fields, it will put a lot of pressure on this New England defense. If Jacksonville can’t, will they be able to hold Tom Brady down long enough to pull the shocker?
Free NFL Picks: Jacksonville Jaguars +9
This number is a little bit high, but we aren’t talking about key numbers between 7 and 10, so it doesn’t really matter all that much from a line value standpoint. The Jaguars defense can fly to the football and was one of the best on third down in the regular season. The Steelers had three straight touchdown drives of 75 yards in the second half when Jacksonville had two-score leads. That seemed like it was more about a young team finishing a game than the defense showing holes. Also, despite last week’s 87-point showing, I would expect a tighter, lower-scoring game this week, so taking the nine points makes a lot of sense.