Sunday’s Playoff Primer
Published on Jan. 6 at 4:40 p.m. Eastern
By Brian Edwards
The NFL Playoffs continue Sunday with another doubleheader starting at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. That’s when the New York Giants will take on Atlanta at MetLife Field in the Meadowlands on FOX.
Most betting shops are listing Tom Coughlin’s club as a three-point favorite with a total of 47 ½. Gamblers can take the Falcons to win outright for a plus-135 return (risk $100 to win $135).
New York (9-7 straight up, 8-7-1 against the spread) won three of its last four games to win the NFC East, including a win-and-you’re-in victory over Dallas last Sunday night. The G-Men captured a 31-14 triumph over the Cowboys as a three-point home favorite.
Eli Manning completed 24-of-33 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Victor Cruz’s breakout campaign continued as he hauled in six receptions for 178 yards, including a 71-yard TD reception in which he did most of the work with YAC (yards after [the] catch).
Perhaps most importantly, New York was able to get after Tony Romo, sacking the Dallas quarterback six times. Osi Umenyiora had a pair of sacks, while Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul both had one apiece.
Atlanta (10-6 SU, 7-8-1 ATS) is the NFC’s No. 5 seed thanks to last week’s 45-24 win over Tampa Bay as a 10-point home favorite. The victory, coupled with Detroit’s loss at Green Bay, gave the Falcons the fifth slot by virtue of their 23-16 win over the Lions earlier this year. (Therefore, they don’t have to face the Saints, at least not yet.)
Michael Turner rushed 17 times for 178 yards and two touchdowns against the Buccaneers. Matt Ryan completed 6-of-9 passes for 106 yards and a pair of scores before being given the rest of the day off. Rookie WR Julio Jones was on the receiving end of both scoring strikes.
For the season, Ryan has connected on 61.4 percent of his throws for 4,177 yards with a 29/12 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The Boston College product has three lethal weapons in TE Tony Gonzalez, WR Roddy White and the aforementioned Jones.
White had a team-high 100 receptions for 1,296 yards and eight TDs, while Gonzalez made 80 catches for 875 yards and seven TDs. Despite missing three full games and parts of two others, Jones had 54 receptions for 959 yards and eight TDs. Turner carried the load on the ground, rushing for 1,340 yards and 11 TDs while averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
Even without a reliable running game to lean on, Manning played extremely well during the regular season, throwing for nearly 5,000 yards (4,933) with a 29/16 TD-INT ratio. Cruz had 82 catches for 1,536 yards and nine TDs, while Hakeem Nicks produced 76 receptions for 1,192 yards and seven TDs.
Although both New York RBs are now healthy, Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw were bothered by various injuries throughout the year. They combined for 1,230 rushing yards and 16 TDs, but both players had mediocre YPC averages (Bradshaw: 3.9, Jacobs: 3.8).
In my opinion, the most important matchup of the game is Atlanta’s offensive line vs. the Giants’ defensive front four. Pass protection was an issue at times for the Falcons, but part of that was due to injuries and the entire group is now healthy.
They’ll go up against a fierce Giants’ pass rush led by Pierre-Paul, who had a team-high 16 ½ sacks. Umenyiora had nine sacks even though he missed seven games.
Atlanta went 4-4 SU and 3-5 ATS on the road this year, compiling a 1-2 record both SU and ATS in three road underdog situations. Meanwhile, the Giants posted a 4-4 SU record and a 3-4-1 ATS mark at home.
The ‘over’ has hit in four consecutive games for the Falcons with each contest having 54 combined points or more. However, they saw the ‘under’ go 9-7 overall while totals were a wash (4-4) in their eight road assignments.
The ‘over’ went 8-7-1 overall for the G-Men, but the ‘under’ was 4-3-1 in their home outings.
In the late game Sunday, Denver (8-8 SU, 7-9 ATS) will play host to Pittsburgh in the AFC quarterfinals. Most spots are listing the Steelers as 8 ½-point favorites with a total of 33 ½. The Broncos are plus-350 on the money line (risk $100 to win $350).
Pittsburgh (12-4 SU, 7-9 ATS) has won six of its last seven games, but it is not in a good situation in terms of health going into the postseason. QB Ben Roethlisberger sustained a severe ankle sprain in a Dec. 8 win over Cleveland and he hasn’t been the same player since then.
Big Ben was ineffective in a 20-3 loss at San Francisco and then sat out the next week’s win over St. Louis. In a 13-9 Week 17 win at Cleveland, Roethlisberger re-aggravated the injury. He’ll play at Denver but won’t be at 100 percent.
Three key players won’t be in uniform for the Steelers, though. RB Rashard Mendenhall (1,082 rushing yards, 9 TDs) tore his ACL last week against the Browns, while starting safety Ryan Clark (blood disorder in high altitudes) and Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) are also ‘out.’
Mike Tomlin’s squad has been favored by seven or more on the road three times this year, going 3-0 SU but 0-3 ATS. The Steelers won but failed to cover at Indy (23-20), at KC (13-9) and at Cleveland (13-9). They have won five of their eight road games but are an abysmal 2-6 versus the number.
Likewise, Denver has been atrocious at home for our purposes, limping to a 1-7 spread record at Sports Authority Field.
John Fox’s lost four of its first five games before benching QB Kyle Orton in favor of Tim Tebow, who promptly led the Broncos to seven wins in their next eight games. However, this momentum has been halted by a three-game losing slide to close the regular season.
Denver lost a 7-3 decision vs. Kansas City as a one-point home ‘chalk’ last week, but it nonetheless clinched the AFC West title thanks to San Diego’s win at Oakland. Tebow had an awful game, completing just 6-of-22 throws for 60 yards and one interception.
The former Heisman Trophy winner has been intercepted four times the last two weeks compared to just one TD pass. However, for the season, Tebow has a 12/6 TD-INT ratio and has rushed for 660 yards and six TDs.
Willis McGahee enjoyed a renaissance campaign, rushing for 1,199 yards, averaging 4.8 YPC. The combination of McGahee, Tebow and an improved offensive line helped Denver lead the NFL in rushing yards per game (164.5).
The ‘under’ is 10-6 overall for the Steelers, 4-4 in their road games. On the flip side, the ‘over’ is 9-7 overall for the Broncos, 5-3 in their home contests.
Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Eastern on CBS.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
–Green Bay is the 8/5 favorite to win the Super Bowl at Sportsbook.com. The rest of the website’s future odds look like this: Pats 7/2, Saints 5/1, Ravens 6/1, Steelers 10/1, 49ers 12/1, Giants 20/1, Texans 35/1, Falcons 40/1, Lions 50/1, Broncos 60/1 and Bengals 70/1.
–Pittsburgh has the NFL’s top scoring defense, giving up just 14.2 PPG.
–Denver owns a 5-2 spread record in seven underdog spots with Tim Tebow as its starter.
–The ‘over/under’ for Big Ben’s passing yards is 260 ½ at Sportsbook.com, while Tebow’s tally is 149 ½. Tebow’s totals for carries is 8 ½ and his rushing yards is 47 ½.