Teddy's Vegas Wiseguy Report: NFC Contenders
Last week, I spent my Sunday focusing on a handful of AFC playoff contenders, gauging their respective chances for a run to the Super Bowl. This week, it was the NFC's turn to go under the microscope.
At the start of the day, the Bucs were legitimate playoff contenders, despite their two game losing streak. By the end of the afternoon, four teams had jumped them in the NFC standings (Dallas, Washington, Minnesota and St Louis), leaving the Bucs as the #11 team in a conference that will send only six teams to the postseason.
Tampa was done in by two failures against the Eagles. First, QB Josh Freeman spent the entire first half in a nasty funk, completely out of sync with his receivers. Freeman is on pace for his lowest completion percentage since his rookie season and the fewest rushing yards of his career. He's no dual threat these days. Freeman's yards per pass attempt numbers are solid, and he's on track to finish the season with only half as many interceptions as he threw last year. But elite level QB's -- playoff QB's - aren't supposed to spend 30 minutes struggling to find any sort of rhythm against a bottom tier pass defense.
Secondly, the Bucs pass defense got absolutely torched, unable to hold a two score lead in the last half of the fourth quarter. After notching six sacks throughout the course of the game, Tampa's pass rush disappeared when it mattered most. And the secondary blew a handful of coverages when Nick Foles had ample time in the pocket, even on a day where their run defense was stout, leaving the Eagles offense completely one dimensional.
Tampa hasn't lost a game by more than eight points all year, and five of their seven defeats have come against opponents that currently sport winning records. But with the game on the line, this pass defense has come up short repeatedly against top notch QB's. Here, that same struggling pass defense came up short against a rookie QB looking for his first win as a starter.
The Falcons might have the best record in the NFL, but they are not the NFL's best team. The same fundamental flaw that has plagued Atlanta all year doomed them here -- they can't run the football and they can't stop the run. That flaw hasn't had a major impact on their regular season results for two reasons.
First, the Falcons have faced one of the easiest schedules in the league. Entering Sunday's games, they hadn't faced a team with a winning record since their Monday Night Football win over Denver back in Week 2. And secondly, the Falcons have been a great fourth quarter team all season; repeatedly finding ways to win tight games; notching a 7-1 SU mark in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Even against a weak slate, no team is going to start the season 11-1 by accident. This passing game is tremendous. They've got multiple downfield playmaking weapons. QB Matt Ryan is a confidence-inducing winner. The team chemistry is great. They said and did all the right things here after a miserable first half when the offense couldn't convert on third down even once, putting together a modest comeback attempt, even though it fell short. And the Falcons are certainly well coached -- Mike Smith and his staff don't cost the Falcons wins very often. But we've seen Atlanta lose their playoff opener in blowout fashion in each of the last two years, and I'm not convinced we won't see a repeat this time around.
I go back and forth about my opinion of this team and my opinion of Jim Harbaugh's decision to bench Alex Smith in favor of Colin Kaepernick. There's no question that this is a Super Bowl caliber defense: #1 in the NFL in points allowed, #2 in yards allowed, passing yards allowed, third down conversion percentage and first downs allowed, #3 in rushing yards allowed. Alden Smith is on pace to break Michael Strahan's single season sack record. This defense is healthy and despite a relative dearth of turnovers forced, it's a unit without a weakness.
And the 49ers playmakers all showed up here -- the quick strike TD guys. Randy Moss was targeted on a bomb to the end zone. Former Oregon speedster RB LaMichael James finally made his NFL debut against the Dolphins. Former #1 pick Michael Crabtree is suddenly a 'go-to' receiver. And, Kaepernick's 50 yard fourth quarter TD scamper to cover the spread sent Niners supporters into a frenzy in sportsbooks all over Nevada.
But San Francisco continues to settle for red zone field goal attempts, bad news ATS for a team that has been favored by a TD or more in seven of their last nine games. Kaepernick isn't taking many downfield shots -- the coaching staff is treating him like an untested youngster, calling mostly safe underneath routes in the passing game. And Kaepernick is making some bad mistakes - costing San Fran the win last week and botching a red zone opportunity before halftime here. I've been very bullish on this team as a moneymaker for the better part of the last two years, but the market may finally have caught up with them.
Eli Manning can been maddening to watch and to support with your wagering dollars. Manning threw about a half dozen 'what was he thinking?' balls against the Saints; not just his two ugly interceptions -- the type of throws that elite quarterbacks just don't make. But Manning is not one to let one or two (or six) awful throws ruin his day; mature enough to fight through adversity. And this passing game is most assuredly explosive; capable of converting on third and long and producing big play TD's in bunches.
It's a similar story defensively for the Giants. The stop unit is certainly opportunistic and loaded with guys who can force mistakes. But when the pass rush doesn't get to the QB without blitzing, the secondary gets picked apart and they give up big gainers in the running game as well. Up three scores in the second half, New York couldn't stop the Saints downfield passing attack, turning a potential blowout back into a tight game. But they stiffened in the red zone, stiffened in the fourth quarter and turned a tight game back into a blowout by the time the final gun sounded.
I'm certainly not willing to sell the G-men short -- they're 'live' to win a third Super Bowl title in the last six years. But I question whether this year's version of the Giants is fundamentally sound enough on either side of the ball to put together another strong postseason run when January rolls around.
This home field is as strong as it gets at the NFL level. Six home games, six SU wins and six covers by a combined 101.5 points ATS is an angle to ignore at your own peril. Obviously, a good portion of this week's blowout against Arizona was due to the Cardinals utter ineptitude on both sides of the football. But maybe it's time to start thinking of this Seahawks squad as a team in the top quartile of Super Bowl contenders instead of thinking about them as an overachiever primed to come back to earth by the time January rolls around. This is not a team to dismiss!
Russell Wilson doesn't have the prototypical quarterback's body like Andrew Luck does. He doesn't have RG3's track star speed. But Wilson is accurate. He's smart and extremely poised under duress. He's got a great soft touch on his throws, but he knows when to zip one at full speed into traffic. And with RB Marshawn Lynch quite capable of picking up tough yards between the tackles even against defenses with seven or eight men in the box, Wilson is every bit as important to his team's success as his two more heralded counterparts in their rookie seasons.
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These two teams are moving in opposite directions right now and I think those trends continue here. Columbus has lost seven straight, while behind the strong play of goaltender Corey Schneider the Devils are 6-1-1 in their last eight, most recently coming off a 3-1 home win over Central Division-leading Nashville on Tuesday. If history is any precedence, then New Jersey has to be loving its chances today as it's 6-0-1 with one tie at home in the all-time series vs. the Blue Jackets. The Devils have been particularly efficient on the penalty kill, staving off 21 of the last 22 chances, with Schneider posting a 1.33 GAA in the process. Schneider's numbers are equally as impressive against Columbus, he's 9-1-1 with a 1.71 GAA in 11 starts vs. the Blue Jackets life time, which includes a 33-save effort in last weekend's 2-0 road victory. Columbus comes in with zero momentum, it fell to 0-6-1 in its last seven after a 5-3 setback to Washington on Tuesday; note one big reason behind the Blue Jackets struggles is their inept power play, an NHL-worst 8.7 percent since the All-Star break. NEW JERSEY is now in the playoff hunt and I think is definitely worth the price of admission in this spot, but what do you think? Does the home side lay the hammer down, or can the Jackets score the upset?