It is always interesting how one season spills into the next. Last year, the chalk in any given fractal had success. The favorite – both for the playoffs and the game, itself – won the Super Bowl. The ‘easy’ teams to pick covered nearly every week. They also dominated the season.
Instantly, 2017 was different. Underdogs burst out-of-the-gate and never truly relinquished their against-the-spread hold on the league. Even when they would slip, a recovery was never far behind. And, this scorching hot run – one that we welcome and led us to a nice end-of-season stretch – carried over into the postseason. Based on the spreads used, underdogs are an outstanding 6-2 against-the-spread. In addition, three-of-the-top-five favorites to win the Super Bowl have been eliminated.
The top-two remain alive, however, and they look to take the next step in completing this journey on Sunday.
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: 53-47-4 (Last Week: 0-1)
(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: 136-117-11 (Last Week: 0-3-1)
(2016 Season: 123-136-8) (2015 Season: 143-117-7) (2014 Season: 149-114-4) (3-Year Total: 415-367-19)
Conference Championship Picks Against the Point Spread
Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots
The Jacksonville Jaguars opened eyes, last Sunday. If you had been sleeping on the team or were not completely convinced of its potential after a lackluster 10-3 home win over the Bills – I was guilty of the latter – you are now paying attention. What Jacksonville did to the Steelers in Pittsburgh was nothing short of abuse. In fact, it was equivalent to what has happened to the Jaguars countless times over the last decade of misery. But, the beating, alone, wasn’t shocking. That it was the second time, this year, that the Jaguars marched all over Pittsburgh is what is truly astounding.
Teams adjust. The Steelers didn’t. Or, did they, but the Jaguars still found success?
For a team built on defense – it finished the season ranked second-best in both yards and points allowed – the 45-point outburst from Jacksonville – granted, seven came directly from a fumble that was returned for a touchdown – is inspiring. That it was the third game in which it has scored at least 44 points is downright outstanding. By comparison, the New England Patriots – who finished the season with the second-most points-per-game – broke the 40-point barrier only once, and were capped at 41 as the high-point of the season.
Now that the Patriots have been introduced to this week’s column, let’s see how they arrived at Sunday’s AFC Conference Championship Game.
Unlike the Jaguars, the Patriots appearance in the group of final four teams for a given year is nothing new. In fact, if we scroll back through the last decade of New England teams, it is laughable how similar they are. Prior to this season, the Patriots enjoyed fourteen consecutive double-digit win seasons and eight consecutive playoff appearances. And, this Sunday will mark the seventh consecutive appearance in the Conference Championship.
“Unlike the Jaguars” should be the operative term for the historical reflection of this week’s matchup. The two franchises are polar opposites in terms of success. During those aforementioned eight seasons in which the Patriots reached the playoffs, the Jaguars suffered losing seasons in seven of them, did not have a winning record once, and just snapped a six-year streak of double-digit loss seasons. If we are looking backward to project ahead, the conversation would effectively end as quickly as it began. Of course, we cannot be so naive.
The Jaguars of 2017 operate differently from the iterations we have come to know – and mock. In addition to simply winning games, the Jaguars bring a tough, ‘us-against-the-world’ mentality that we tend to see associated with defensive-minded teams. It is this hard-nosed attitude that generally allows an underrated unit – in this case, the Jaguars’ defense prior to this season – to burst on the scene and single-handedly steal a few wins. It happened, as evidenced by the first time the Jaguars suffocated the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Or the unprecedented eight times – counting the playoffs – that Jacksonville held an opponent to a single-digit point total. It is this edge that always gives a team sneaky value.
That is, until it concedes the edge. Or, until it faces a Bill Belichick team. Unfortunately for Jacksonville, it will have to deal with both issues on Sunday.
For basically eighteen weeks, we have witnessed the Jaguars emerge in an organic process that leads to shifting the paradigm of how we view the once-pitiful franchise. But, within the confines of the organization, there was always confidence. It did, however, stay within the confines of the organization. That has since changed.
The new chatter out of Jacksonville is not one of an underdog. Not one who approaches a game defensively and counters the attack of an opponent. Instead, the Jaguars are approaching Sunday as the aggressor. Openly looking to attack the Patriots’ high-flying offense. How foolish.
The Jaguars are about to walk into their own ‘trap.’ In fact, it is a ‘trap’ that they laid frequently, this year. They are about to buy into themselves because of how well they played in Pittsburgh. They are following the same process of the ill-advised fan who sees a recent performance and ties it to a new trend. And this is before we add the opponent to the formula.
Jacksonville would be wise to avoid this tactic against any team, but it specifically will regret this display of hubris when it visits New England. The Patriots make it a point to cut down any quick riser where it stands, with-or-without antagonization. In the 2011 season, the Patriots hosted Denver after Tebow-mania struck the league and was highlighted by a Broncos playoff win – never mind that Tebow’s performance was greatly and inaccurately overstated in that game. New England ended the hype with one fell swoop, demolishing Denver by a score of 45-10. Two years later, the Patriots would host a Colts team that was led by a young Andrew Luck who had just won a thrilling, 45-44 game, highlighted by an improbable comeback. New England won by three touchdowns.
The Patriots win playoff games by double-digit scores for the same reasons they win double-digit games in the regular season: preparation and adjustment. Certainly, they fail, at times, but we have seen just as many recoveries as we have seen outright mistakes. We can even point to last year’s Super Bowl as the prime example of what happens when New England is losing a battle. It re-adjusts and wins the war. Unlike Pittsburgh, last week.
The Patriots are able to put together convincing wins for the obvious reasons that have already been stated and, of course, the play of its all-time great quarterback. Jacksonville will make it a point to put pressure on said quarterback and, with an outstanding secondary, the Jaguars can essentially slow down Tom Brady. What gets forgotten is that New England has the sixth-most rushing touchdowns in the league and has at least four players on the team with an average yards-per-carry of 3.7 or greater and a minimum of 40 carries. Jacksonville ranks 26th defensively in yards-per-rush.
The Patriots don’t necessarily explode, but they easily outpace the Jaguars, holding down Jacksonville on offense, as well. New England wins by two touchdowns and covers the spread.
Confidence Pick: New England Patriots (-7.5)*
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.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Flickr, C.C 2.0