Mike Carlson takes a look ahead to Wild Card Weekend and provides his three best bets including the Saints to progress past the Panthers...
"when you look at how the Saints have beaten the Panthers twice, you really don't see many reasons why they shouldn't be able to do it again."
Now it begins, the part of the NFL season where the rubber meets the uh, rubberized turf, if not the road? The Wild Card round offers four games which appear on the surface to have sure favourites, and the lines reflect that, but there is some caution to be exercised here, especially in the AFC.
Let's get a couple of old canards out of the way first. It is hard to beat a team three times in one season, but they used to say the same thing in college ball about beating a team twice.
When you've beaten a team twice, you can look at it as being like tossing a coin at the beginning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, or you can consider why the losing team has lost twice. In the last 20 match-ups between teams in this situation, the two-time winners are still 13-7, and though that's not as good as the 40-0 in the regular season, it's still good.
Second, the Falcons are not suffering a Super Bowl Losers Jinx. They are suffering from playing a tougher schedule as Divisional champions last-year, from the usual reversion to the norm of things like injuries and breaks, and from the loss of their offensive coordinator in the off-season.
The idea that 53 adults, some of whom weren't playing in 2016 for Atlanta would collectively be so traumatized they were unable to win a game (though they did win 10, down from 13) is an idea that is best left to medicine men, shrinks, and mainstream football pundits.
Let's start a new canard instead. How much to do you trust Blake Bortles?
Wildcard Weekend Picks
Here's where the three-time curse applies. But when you look at how the Saints have beaten the Panthers twice, you really don't see many reasons why they shouldn't be able to do it again.
Ex-Panther AJ Klein was lost for the season, and his presence at linebacker made him the lynch-pin of the Saint D, where mobility is the key to stopping the Panthers: you have to keep Cam Newton in check and not let him beat you with one or two big running plays or the odd deep pass.
With Marshon Lattimore back, however, odds of the latter have lessened, and I wonder about the Panthers' ability to get Jonathan Stewart running or Christian McCaffrey involved offensively. Meanwhile, the Saints have been able to run on the Panthers in both games, and the effectiveness of their backs as receivers, while theoretically minimized by the quick linebackers of the Panthers, creates mismatches the Saints can exploit offensively. At less than a TD, this seems a good bet.
I picked the Jags to win this game, but their play the past couple of weeks has not been inspiring. The Bills are likely to try to keep the game manageable, and the Jags have been too often content to play around with their opponents, mostly because Blake Bortles always seems to be able to make the bad play on top of the good.
There are similarities between Bortles and Tyrod Taylor, but Taylor uses his slow reaction time to avoid turnovers, whereas Bortles seems to be more willing to try to force things. I am tempted by the under in this game - 39.5 at 20/21 on the Betfair Sportsbook - and in a low-scoring game like that, 8.5 points seems pretty generous.
And having said that the Falcons are not labouring under great psychological cloud after last year's Super Bowl, I like the Rams to win, but I'm not so crazy about them giving 5.5 at 20/21. I hear the argument that Atlanta have more experience, and LA were 7-1 on the road but only 4-4 at home in the Coliseum, which gives me a little pause. So I'm not really recommending this one, but if you fancy the Falcons you might prefer to take the moneyline at 21/10, which to me is somewhere between a value bet and a way outside bet.
The Titans can kill a game even better than the Bills, and their defense is especially good at preventing big plays, which is the Chiefs' MO in games they win. They will be able to play rookie corner Adoree Jackson on Tyreek Hill, speed vs speed, and safety Kevin Byard on tight end Jason Kelce, so their chances of limiting the Chiefs big plays in the air are good; KC gets very little from their other wide receivers.
But Kareem Hunt has been running well, and he will be the test for the Titans' front seven, led by the massively underappreciated Jurrell Casey. I don't think the Titans have enough offensively to beat the Chiefs on the road, but I can see this being a close game, which makes Tennessee +8 at 10/11 something else to consider, but I feel like the under is a better bet.