Mike Carlson returns with a look ahead to the NFL Playoffs and the all-SEC Final between Alabama and Georgia...
"QB is why teams will question the Eagles' ability to go all the way despite being top seeds in the NFC. By some advanced metrics, Case Keenum of the Vikings has been the league's most efficient QB (apart from those 5 weeks of Jimmy GQ in SF), and his ex-Ram teammate Jared Goff has played well in Sean McVay's system to bring LA to a sense of balance between O and D that may match the Vikes."
Bucs oblige while Ravens fly home for the season
I warned you Friday about the perils of Week 17 in the NFL. And though my best-bet Bucs duly came through and upset the Saints, and my outside bet Pats covered 16.5 (though went under the O/U), the value bet Broncos couldn't beat the Chiefs B team, and the less said about the Ravens' the better.
The unlikely ascent of the Bills into the playoffs was the biggest story. They needed the Ravens to lose, which I had thought unlikely, given they were at home against the Bengals, and their defense had been playing better than Cincy made them look, but they also needed the Titans to win, which even in Nashville I thought unlikely. The loss raises serious questions about the Jags going forward (against the Bills, as it happens). It also reminds us of how important quarterbacking is in this league.
Those stories about the new Blake Bortles and the re-energized Jags' offense were shattered by back to back road losses to the Niners (Jimmy GQ, aka Garoppolo remained undefeated in the NFL with a week 17 win over the Rams B team) and Titans.
Don't expect surprises in AFC Final
Great defenses can carry teams to Super Bowl wins, think the Ravens in 2000 (the Ray Lewis-led defense, with Trent Dilfer at QB) or the Bucs in 2002 (the great Tampa-2 D with Brad Johnson at QB). The key for both teams was a decent running game, to help control the clock, and a passing game that avoided turnovers and costly sacks. Which is what good Bortles did for a few weeks before turning back into evil 'Mr. Hyde Bortles'.
QB is why teams will question the Eagles' ability to go all the way despite being top seeds in the NFC. By some advanced metrics, Case Keenum of the Vikings has been the league's most efficient QB (apart from those five weeks of Jimmy GQ in SF), and his ex-Ram teammate Jared Goff has played well in Sean McVay's system to bring LA to a sense of balance between O and D that may match the Vikes.
In the AFC, the Pats look like a balanced team if you look at scoring difference (almost exactly the same as the Eagles in points scored and allowed) but not when you examine personnel. The Steelers are almost exactly the opposite: big play players (especially if Antonio Brown is back from injury after their bye week) and beat-you-up defense. I expect those two to get through to the AFC final; the AFC is a much weaker conference this season.
Bulldogs appeal in all-SEC Final
We'll get into the bets in Friday's column (watching Shady McCoy's ankle injury for the Bills most of all) but in the meantime, did you notice the college football semi-finals on New Year's Day?
Oddly, the two lower seeds, SEC champion Georgia and Alabama - who didn't even make the SEC final - were favourites over the top two seeds. In the Rose Bowl, number two seed Oklahoma burst out to a big lead, but sort of like the Falcons in last year's Super Bowl, couldn't kill enough clock to hold off third-seeded Georgia, who tied the game and then won 54-48 in double overtime.
The NCAA OT is a version of a shootout, with each team getting the ball 25 yards from the end zone. I dislike it because it takes away the nature of the game, and of course it destroys your betting as well. The over looks pretty good now, but I had liked the Sooners to cover and they didn't. In the Sugar Bowl, top seeded Clemson, who beat Alabama in last year's final, lost to the Crimson Tide 24-6. This was predictable, as Clemson's offense was very one-dimensional with the run game, and Nick Saban is a smart enough coach to take one factor away.
Clemson's D didn't let the Tide run away with the game; Alabama's offense isn't great enough to do that. For those of you who, like me, are sick of the SEC, at least undefeated Central Florida, from the much-maligned American conference, ran over Auburn, conquerors of Alabama and SEC runners-up, to assure the world that the college playoff system undervalues non-SEC teams.
But we will have an all-SEC final on January 9th, 13-1 Georgia against 12-1 Alabama (both teams losses came to Auburn, ironically enough. The amateur scholar-athletes will be playing in seasons almost as long as the NFL's, for whatever that's worth.
It's no suprise that fourth-seeded Bama are the favourites; but you might like the persistence of Georgia's balanced, stay with you team as dogs. Right now, the Betfair Sportsbook has Georgia +5 at 10/11; I wonder how much more the Bulldogs can get before the line starts to swing back toward Bama? It's tempting.