NFL Playoff Bracket: Playing Contender or Pretender with Every Remaining Team
All Super Bowl odds come courtesy of TopBet and are accurate as of Wednesday, Jan. 17. Since these lines tend to be a little turbulent this time of year, when so few teams remain, please make sure to re-check the presented numbers before deciding on a wager.
Philadelphia Eagles (+650)
Sure, they tied for the NFL’s best regular season record with three other teams. But quarterback Carson Wentz is done for the year, and he has been for some time. That they made it past the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round is nothing short of a minor miracle.
Kudos to the Eagles’ defense for the job that they did, and their performance was far from an aberration. They rank fourth in points allowed per game. But they had help from an anemic Falcons offense, which simply couldn’t figure out how to score in the red zone and, later in the game, at the goal line.
Truth be told, the Eagles’ performance last week wasn’t worthy of a victory overall. Against an underachieving Falcons team? Sure. Relative to the Super Bowl conversation, though? Not even close.
Minnesota Vikings (+220)
The Vikings ruined many Super Bowl picks last week—including my own—by dispatching the New Orleans Saints with a game-winning touchdown pass from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs. And although Saints rookie Marcus Williams helped the cause by misplaying the throw with an inexplicable tackle attempt and subsequent miss, it’s not like the Vikings didn’t deserve to win this game.
On the contrary, they entered the fourth quarter with the lead. It took a nifty comeback from the Saints to force their hand. And, mind you, they needed to come back twice. The Vikings first responded to the Saints taking the lead with a field goal. And then, when they were stripped of lead yet again, they came up with the NFL’s biggest play of the year.
That’s what this team does: find a way to make plays. They aren’t always flashy, like the pass to Diggs. The big-time gains are infrequent. But that’s because the Vikings are experts at biding their time. They know they don’t have the consistent offensive firepower to engage in full-game shootouts and live to tell the tale. So instead of pretending to be something they’re not, they steer into their identity.
A top-seven rushing attack and league-best defense all play into controlling possession time. So, too, does Keenum’s accuracy under center. He is not flinging bombs one or two times per drive, but he is ensuring the Vikings don’t commit a ton of turnovers.
Yet, should the team need him to, he can let ‘er rip. We saw that against the Saints. We saw it a bunch of times during the regular season. This team is for real.
Jacksonville Jaguars (+700)
Look, I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news. I hate it. And the Jacksonsville Jaguars are good. Legitimately, seriously, viably good.
But…come on. Don’t fool yourself into thinking their presence in the Conference Championship is a harbinger of authentic Super Bowl contention. Never mind that they have to go through the New England Patriots, which they just won’t do. Take stock of their victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers instead.
On the surface, with a 45-42 win under their belt, it looks like they can hang with any team. Everyone knows about their elite rushing attack, and about their lockdown defense. But what would happen if they found themselves matched up in a shootout, as they did last week? Would they fold? Or would quarterback Blake Bortles showcase a previously unknown clutch gene?
The latter revealed itself versus Pittsburgh…sort of. Though he made some timely throws, especially on third downs, the Jaguars had it easy. They were playing from a position of strength. They built a big lead early and put the onus on the Steelers to come back. They could stand to be a little lax and mistake-fraught on defense, which is exactly what they were.
What happens, though, when they’re trailing, as they probably will be at some point in Foxborough? Can they survive a shootout then, with their backs firmly against the wall? No. No, they can’t. They’re not that team.
The Jaguars deserve all the praise in the world for getting this far, but they’re a significantly poorer man’s version of the Vikings at heart—and they, unlike Minnesota, don’t have the luxury of facing a backup quarterback this weekend.
New England Patriots (-110)
The sportsbooks know what they’re talking about in this case: The Patriots aren’t just contenders. They’re prohibitive favorites.
They proved as much during their Divisional Playoff victory over the Tennessee Titans. They owned Marcus Mariota and crew—so thoroughly, in fact, the Titans ended up firing their head coach shortly thereafter.
That decision didn’t have anything to do with one game, but you could see how overwhelmed the team was when stacked up against a well-oiled machine like the Patriots. They suffocated them, exhausting the defense with their offensive possession time, scaring receivers into dropped balls at the other side and coaxing Mariota into some poor decisions by constantly moving him out of the pocket.
To that end, the Patriots’ thoroughly dominant 35-14 win didn’t help answer our most, if only, pressing question: Is their fifth ranked defense for real? It remains tough to say. They have not really been tested by an elite offense since the very early part of the regular season. And their path forward doesn’t get too much more difficult when looking at the Jaguars’ offense.
But this says something about the Patriots overall, too. After all these years, they’re still so utterly dominant. And even if their stingy, albeit untested, defense proves to be a facade, they have the great quarterback of all time on which to lean: Tom Brady.
That’s more than enough to get them out of Conference Championship Weekend, into the Super Bowl and out the other end with yet another title.
Verdict: Contender, contender, contender
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