It's crunch-time in the NFL with this weekend's Conference Championship games set to determine which two sides will meet in the Super Bowl for 2018. Mike Carlson selects his best bets.
"I think a low total is a reasonable bet in the sense that you have two good defenses going up against each other - in both yards and points allowed the Vikes ranked first and the Eagles fourth in the NFL."
Having only two games to spend the whole week thinking about is a recipe for over-thinking, though not quite as bad as two weeks to think about the single game that is the Super Bowl. Although the word from the herd is concentrating on quarterbacks, with Nick Foles and Blake Bortles in particular not getting much respect, the way these games break down to me is fascinating: although on paper Tom Brady and the Pats should legitimately be favourites over the Jags, Jacksonville is a team that is almost designed to be able to control the Pats, keep the game close, and beat them with a big play or two. Just like those New York Giants who beat the Pats twice in Super Bowls doing just that.
These are the kind of teams Tom Coughlin builds, not to beat the Pats, but to control games -- like Belichick he comes from the Bill Parcells school, only he sticks closer to the Parcells formula and that is what the Jags have done: run game, big tough O line, big tough D line that can rush the passer with just four. If anything their defensive back seven is better than those Giants teams, and Tom Brady will have his work cut out.
Meanwhile, the Vikes and Eagles are a really balanced match-up, two teams similar in a lot of ways and not just the way Eagles' coach Doug Pederson and Vikes' offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur both fell off the Green Bay/Andy Reid/Eagles tree. And defensively, they're similar as well: the Eagles may actually have the advantage in the front four, though it's close: watch Linval Joseph for the Vikes and Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan for the Eagles to see which way the game is tilting.
The Vikes are stronger in the back seven, and they have receivers who can put more pressure on the Eagles' secondary: both Thielen and Diggs made spectacular catches beyond Diggs' touchdowns. The Eagles can run the ball better, which would make Foles more effective if they can establish getting themselves into third downs with reasonable yardage. One note, apparently teams with 'walk-off touchdown' wins in the playoffs are 0-5 in the following games. For whatever that is worth.
I think this low total is reasonable in the sense that you have two good defenses going up against each other (in both yards and points allowed the Vikes ranked first and the Eagles fourth in the NFL). And the Eagles stifled a high power offense like Atlanta's (10 points), in a game with only 25 scored. The Saints are also a high powered offense, and that game generated 53 points, in part because the Vikes have playmakers. I see offenses getting some points, and maybe even defenses getting some or setting up field position for other easy scores, so were are talking about something more than 21-17 here, and that doesn't seem unreasonable to me.
I'm a bit less sure of this, but I think the Patriots will play smarter defense than the Steelers did against Jacksonville, and they are not a big play team like Pittsburgh, so the points total isn't going to rise. I believe the Jags will make it tough for the Pats, but I don't see the Jags being able to rack up three TDs, barring turnover ball. A scoreline of 28-17 or the like gets you there. But 28-21 doesn't, and if that worries you, there is some value in New England (-7.5 at evs). That line has dropped steadily all week, and could well go up when the casual money comes in on Saturday, but really the key thing is the TD. The half point means the Pats need to win by more than a TD, and if you think they can, evens is pretty good value.
Those odds make this a bit of a value bet; if you feel like you need help the Eagles (+3 at 20/23) remains an option. This is a bet tied in, in a way, with my feeling about the over/under: if the game reaches the 40s, it could work in the Eagles' favour -- though if it stays under the 40s it definitely will. That three points is basically just a restoration of home-field advantage, so what the line is saying is what I said up above: this is an even match-up, and in the pick 'em I have picked the Eagles.