After last weekend's action at times resembled the preseason more than the postseason, we can only hope for playoff-caliber football with the top dogs back in action in the Divisional Round.
When it comes to identifying the top dogs on this weekend's betting board, the notion of the NFL being a quarterback-driven league goes head-to-head with the adage that defense wins championships. Factoring in the tendency of casual fans and recreational bettors to gravitate toward offense, a small slate of games could prove to present a surprisingly large array of options to take advantage by zigging where others are zagging.
Tennessee First Half +7.5 at New England
The offense vs. defense dichotomy will be in full effect in Foxboro, where Tom Brady has the experience in his back pocket of five wins in seven Super Bowl starts. Saturday night will mark his 35th playoff start, whereas Marcus Mariota only made his first career playoff start last weekend.
Defensively, the Titans finished the regular season ranked 21st according to the Football Outsiders DVOA charts, and while that puts them below average it also puts them well ahead of the Patriots for the season. Having just gashed the #30 overall defense and #32 rush defense in Kansas City for more than 200 yards on the ground, the Titans shouldn't be too intimidated by the prospect of taking on the #31 and #30 defense in those respective categories. Football fundamentals say Tennessee's ability to match up physically can keep this one reasonably competitive, at least in the early stages.
Of course the Patriots are still the far superior team, and given time to adjust over the course of the game, Bill Belichick vs. Mike Mularkey presents a colossal mismatch. The Patriots rolled to a 66-18 scoring edge in the second half of playoff games last season, making the first half a more enticing option than the full game to back the Titans.
Lastly, a ticket on Tennessee represents a free roll in a sense, as Brady's health two months removed from an Achilles injury remains a major question mark. While he hasn't missed any game time due to the injury, Brady closed out the regular season with his worst six-game stretch in terms of passer rating in more than four years. If he's at full strength after the first-round bye then this line is fair value, and if he's still hobbled, it could set the stage well for the Titans' defense to hold its own and let the ground game go to work.
Jacksonville +7.5 at Pittsburgh
If offense vs. defense isn't pronounced enough in New England on Saturday night, just wait until Sunday in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger will take the field with 20 playoff starts under his belt, including two wins in three Super Bowls, against just one playoff start for Blake Bortles in which he compiled more yards rushing than passing last weekend.
The flip side: Jacksonville's defense ranks #1 in DVOA by a substantial margin, and while the Steelers finished in the top 10 for the season, they're closer to the middle of the pack without Pro Bowl LB Ryan Shazier and a limited-at-best version of snap count leader CB Artie Burns, who suffered a hyperextended knee in practice Wednesday but insists he'll play.
Something's gotta give, and if it's any indication DVOA's #1 defense has only been an underdog of a touchdown or more twice in this decade. Both times the #1 defense covered, including the Jaguars' 30-9 Week 5 win in Pittsburgh that's sure to boost their confidence.
Placing trust in Bortles always has been and still is next to impossible, but that's baked into this point spread. And for good measure, the low total of 41 increases the relative value of each point.
It would be no surprise to see the Steelers emerge victorious, but in this setting it should also be no surprise to see the NFL's best defense keep its team within a touchdown.
Pick of the Week: Philadelphia +3 vs. Atlanta
When a best bet involves one quarterback making his ninth playoff start, including the preceding Super Bowl, against a backup quarterback whose only previous playoff start came four years ago, it would seem obvious which side gets the nod. But in keeping with the theme of the week the Eagles boast the league's #5 defense, leaving the Falcons' #22 unit in the dust and mitigating the Matt Ryan vs. Nick Foles factor. And with this being a best bet, there's more to it than that.
For starters, by extension the Falcons offense vs. Eagles defense matchup pits Atlanta Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian against Philadelphia Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz. Sarkisian vs. Rams DC Wade Phillips never came to fruition last week after two special teams turnovers gave the Falcons a favorable game script from the get-go, but in a late-and-close situation in Philadelphia, Schwartz would have a clear-cut upper hand based on the coaches' track records. With last season's offense largely intact, the Falcons have regressed sharply from 6.7 yards per play under Kyle Shanahan to 5.8 under Sarkisian. The decline on the scoreboard has been even worse, Atlanta going from more than 34 points per game to a ho-hum 22.3. Meanwhile, Schwartz has taken a defense that ranked below average the year before he arrived according to DVOA and elevated it into a top-5 defense in each of his first two seasons in Philadelphia.
While it remains to be seen whether Sarkisian will have to match wits with a strong defensive mind in crunch time, we do know fatigue vs. freshness strongly favors Philadelphia. This marks the Falcons' fourth road game in five weeks, all demanding playoff-like intensity; during the same stretch, the Eagles' only road game entailed a quick trip to New York and they've been home since before Christmas.
And as much as anything, this pick boils down to line value and the concept of betting numbers, not teams. Yes, Ryan and the Falcons have looked impressive the last two weeks. And no, Foles hasn't inspired any confidence since replacing Carson Wentz as the starter in Week 15. But just like every fan, the oddsmakers know this, which explains why the Eagles are the first #1 seed in NFL history to be an underdog in the Divisional Round.
Prior to the Falcons' Wild Card Weekend win in L.A., the consensus had them as one- to two-point favorites in this matchup. They beat the Rams by 13, covering the spread by almost 20 points in the process, so what's the harm in upgrading them and making this line Falcons -3? The pitfall in doing so is that projecting the Falcons as short road favorites already assumed a good showing against the Rams, because without Atlanta winning outright as a substantial underdog, this Falcons-Eagles matchup doesn't exist.
For more perspective on line value, consider the Rams closed as a 6-point favorite at home against the Falcons last weekend and as the underdog at home against the Eagles in Week 14. With a healthy Carson Wentz, that implies the Eagles would be favored by more than a touchdown at home against Falcons. The current spread, therefore, implies a gap of 10+ points between Wentz and Foles. For reference, 10 points is on the high end of the gap Las Vegas pegged between Aaron Rodgers and Brett Hundley when Rodgers broke his collarbone earlier this season. This suggests that either Wentz is better than Rodgers or Hundley is better than Foles, neither of which would pass the smell test in Vegas (and the bar is set pretty low for a smell test in many parts of Las Vegas).
This brings the theme of the week full circle. When the rubber meets the road between good offense and good defense, especially in the NFL playoffs when the sheer volume of recreational money can make a serious impact on the point spread, more often than not the best value is on the good defense. That seems to be the case Saturday in Philadelphia, which makes it time to strike.
Last Week: 1-2
Picks of the Week: 12-5-1