The National Football League certainly has its share of surprises on a given week. For the opening round of the 2017 playoffs, it was not that Tennessee erased an 18-point deficit at halftime and won in Kansas City. Nor was it the perennial losers from Jacksonville advancing to the second round. It was that, in a week where no spread was smaller than six-and-a-half-points, every game was actually exciting and compelling. Of course, the defensive showcase of Buffalo and Jacksonville proved to lack fireworks, but the game was closely contested throughout.
It is rare that we get four games to produce a relatively high amount of drama, especially when it did not seem possible given the matchups. The opposite is true for the Divisional round, as we have quite the set of ‘storylines’ to read. In fact, ‘storylines’ are the key to this weekend’s action, as we even find them in places where they don’t normally exist.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team. An asterisk denotes a confidence pick.
*Confidence Picks – 2017 Season: 53-46-4 (Last Week: 2-0)
(2016 Season: 53-67-3) (2015 Season: 69-45-2) (2014 Season: 61-46-2) (3-Year Total: 183-158-7)
All Picks Against Spread – 2017 Season: 136-114-9 (Last Week: 2-2)
(2016 Season: 123-136-8) (2015 Season: 143-117-7) (2014 Season: 149-114-4) (3-Year Total: 415-367-19)
Divisional Round Picks Against the Point Spread
Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday appears to be the ‘Day of the Rematch,’ as we begin our Divisional Round doubleheader with a repeat of Week 5’s game between the Jaguars and Steelers. It was a noteworthy one, too, as Jacksonville torched Pittsburgh, forcing five turnovers and winning 30-9. It was a season-low output for the Steelers’ offense, and the second-most points allowed by Pittsburgh, all season.
At the time, the lopsided affair led to a few key narratives surfacing. The first was the ridiculous notion that Ben Roethlisberger was ‘done’ because he threw five interceptions against a team no one took seriously. Therein lies the issue with the narrative. Jacksonville put forth an eye-opening performance, yet eyes remained shut. Few wanted to see that the Jaguars – especially their defense – were here to stay.
When the bandwagon started to fill, however, it included the key component that we find with upstart teams time-and-again. That is, when a team gets traction from the football-watching world, its flaws are usually overshadowed. After all, if the team had no flaws, it would not have taken this long to get public support. By season’s end, the Jaguars were routinely favored in games. They had converted the non-believers.
What Jacksonville has accomplished is downright impressive and deserves praise. The team erased a decade of misery by flipping the script on a continually disappointing division – ironically enough, one that has two teams playing in the Divisional Round. Even though its past might include a decent resume, we saw firsthand how the entire game changes in January.
And we saw the flaws resurface.
As surprising as the Jaguars’ surge into the playoffs, the performance of the offense over the course of 16 games might be the story-of-the-year. Indeed, the defense was great, but it was built to be good. It simply delivered. The offense was led by the same quarterback who led dreadful seasons in the past, but 2017 was a completely different experience. So, too, was the first playoff game.
The Jaguars ranked sixth-best in yards gained offensively and fifth-best in scoring – although, to be fair, the Jaguars’ defense single-handedly scored its share of points. In its first playoff game, we saw a Jaguars offense nothing like what the last few months had given us. Instead, we saw the Jaguars offense that the last few years have given us. And that isn’t pretty.
Jacksonville’s ten points scored against Buffalo was the low watermark for the year, while the 219 yards of total offense – yes, you read that number correctly – is the third-worst outing of the season – it is equally concerning that the Jaguars actually had two games with worse offensive numbers. What appears to be overlooked due to Jacksonville’s defensive dominance is that the Steelers rank sixth-best in yards allowed. Buffalo ranked 26th.
The Steelers’ 13-3 record fluctuated wildly from outstanding to quiet over the course of the year. A win total of thirteen is incredible, but it is overshadowed by the Patriots winning just as many games. And, if we look at any game on the schedule randomly, we can point out a relatively average performance compared to what we would expect from the Steelers. That is, until we reach one game in particular.
After running a mediocre, albeit winning campaign, the Steelers hosted the Titans midway through the season on national television. It was Pittsburgh’s time to make a statement, and it was delivered loud-and-clear. The Steelers obliterated Tennessee, and reminded everyone how powerful they can be when the team is focused.
It will be focused on Sunday. And it will feast on Blake Bortles and the inept Jaguars’ offense.
The Steelers win by seventeen points and cover the spread,
Confidence Pick: Pittsburgh Steelers (-7)*
New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings
There are games that get me excited as a fan, and then there are games that look to make a point. The matchup between the Vikings and Saints has both characteristics.
On paper, we have an absolute treat for Sunday afternoon. The top-ranked defense in the league in both scoring and yards will play host to the second-best offense in the sport – in yards. This is as good as it gets. And, we are lucky enough to be watching it for the second time.
Click here to sign up for Sporfolio to see the rest of Mario Mergola’s NFL picks against the point spread. Mergola finished with the highest total of correct NFL picks against the spread for 2015 and 2016 – tracked by NFLPickwatch – and finished 2015 with an accuracy of 60.53% for his confidence picks.