Upset Watch: Conference Championships Betting and Straight Up Picks

19 Jan, 2018 by Shaun Lowrie

Oh how I love a good upset...

Remember last week when I said that the Jags had a good chance against the Steelers and listed them as our big upset in the making? Those are the major upsets that we thrive on. Think about it, there's a bunch of coin-flip games each week, and you're probably going to get lucky on some of them, and unlucky on others. The Saints and Vikings game is a case in point, with a <5pt spread that was miraculously covered in the last moment to send us to 3-1 on the week.

But those aren't the games that send you over the line.

Picking games is about challenging your preconceived ideas of teams and what they're capable of, and Upset Watch is here to help you do just that. Last week, we had the Jags, Patriots and Vikings right, missing on the Falcons-Eagles low-scoring dirge. That sends us to 100-71-3 on the year. I urge you to look at our against the spread page for some context to that figure.

But we're not infallible. One of the things we need to constantly do is understand where we're going wrong. In the wild card round, I was too skeptical of the raw data, while last week, I was perhaps a bit too heavy on the Falcons and some less comparable circumstances without the sample data we would need to make a judgement like that.

So this week we'll try to figure out the Eagles and Vikings again, while assessing the Jags and their chances of upsetting the Million-time AFC Champion Patriots.

Divisional Round Picks:

AFC Championship Game:

Jacksonville (+8.5*) at New England

First things first - I'm getting on this because if Tom Brady doesn't play, I think the Jags could win, but I want to be clear about this too, because recent playoff history is on the side of the Jaguars.

The Jags are a huge anomaly in some ways. It's incredibly rare for any team with more than 5 seasons outside the playoffs to reach a Championship game in the first year they return to the post-season. To put this in perspective, the last team to reach the AFC title game in such circumstances were the 2000 Oakland Raiders, who were 7 seasons removed from their previous playoff appearance. The Jags have 10 years. The nearest comparable team in the NFC is more recent, the 2011 49ers, who had gone 9 seasons before they got to this point.

But probably the best comparable team in terms of mentality and playoff history are the 2008 Cardinals, who advanced all the way to the Super Bowl and lost to the Steelers after 10 years in the wilderness, just like the Jags have an opportunity to do so.

Some things to note - the 2011 49ers were a Kyle Williams fumble away from the Super Bowl, and the 2000 Raiders are... well, they're not irrelevant, but I don't put much stock in their result (lost 16-3 against the stingy Ravens D that would win the 2000 Super Bowl against the Giants). The point is, I don't think those games are necessarily a negative when we think about NFL players and how they react to such a situation.

But the achievement is becoming more rare. Between 2000 and 2011, the Raiders, Saints, Cardinals and 49ers all managed to break a 6 year+ playoff drought by getting to the conference title game. Since then, none have managed it. In what constitutes a relatively new era of the NFL, post-2011 CBA, nobody has managed to get this far.

But what helps enormously from our point of view, is that the Patriots are their opponents.

Somewhat perversely, the Jags are facing the team with the richest playoff history in the NFL over the last 20 years. We can see exactly what happened in the last 5 years and apply it quite relevantly to this game, because one team has literally played in every single one.

The Pats have lost three times in that period, once to the Ravens in 2012, and twice to the Broncos in 2013 and 2015. What do those teams have over the Jags? Well, they both had substantial playoff experience over previous seasons. Even the 2013 Broncos had made the playoffs for two straight seasons before beating the Pats. To class the Jags in this bracket would be a mistake - their experience is lacking - but there are a couple more reasons to like them.

First of all, the Patriots are not immune to an upset. They've been beaten twice in the last 5 years as favorites at home, so let's not assume they're impervious to defeat. This is still the second-toughest game of the season for any team to prepare for, and while the Patriots have a record that is better than most at this stage, they don't actually win more title games than they lose.

Another factor in picking the Jags to cover is the spread. Whether the final spread is +7.5 or +8.5 is irrelevant in some ways, because no team has covered any spread greater than 7 at this stage over the last 5 years. In fact it's incredibly rare to see a spread this large at this stage and largely contradicts the way the Jaguars were able to take Pittsburgh down in the previous round.

But let's go full circle back to Brady's injury. If he plays, he'll have to play at his best to beat this type of spread. The NFL is largely designed these days to come down to a one possession game, just as we saw with the Steelers against the Jags last week, funnily enough. Think about it. The Steelers were down 42-28 with 4 minutes to go and methodically drove down the field twice, and even had a chance to blow an onside kick and allow a three and out. If a team wants to push the other team headed into the final minutes, their opponents will largely play conservatively and allow them multiple drives in which to do so. This is where Blake Bortles, despite his flaws, is at his best. When defenses sit off him, he can get you down the field via his arm or his legs.

So while I expect Brady to play barring the injury being more severe than anyone has figured, I expect the Jags to keep this one close no matter what the outcome.

NFC Championship Game:

Minnesota (-3) @ Philadelphia

Have I mentioned how much I love Case Keenum? Back in week 5 of Upset Watch, I said how much I thought he could keep the Vikings in the playoff hunt, so this isn't new information, but last week cemented him as a minor sporting legend. That pass to Stefon Diggs was only part of it, it's the way he carries himself... just whatever 'it' is, he has it in droves.

But this isn't about my man crush on Keenum, this is about how the Vikings perform. The two most important players on the field in Philly this Sunday will be Keenum and his opposite number, Eagles QB Nick Foles. The narrative will be about backups that have come good, but the real narrative here should be even simpler:

These two QBs are statistically as close as you will likely ever see.

Check out these stats from PFR:























































Despite Keenum having an awful lot more momentum, Foles is actually almost identical to Keenum in most regards. We'd be splitting hairs to say that Keenum is a better rusher and Foles a better passer, because neither is particularly bad at either.

So what will this come down to?

Well, first of all, like the Jags, both teams are coming off precisely zero playoff wins in the last few years. In fact, they have just 2 playoff appearances combined since 2010 prior to this season, so it's largely a clean slate. What this really comes down to is 2017, and that's where we can not only separate the Vikings from the Eagles, but Keenum from Foles.

Foles is easiest, because he has started just 3 games this season since Carson Wentz was injured against the Rams in week 14. In those games he has been largely bad. Yes, he beat the Giants defense in week 15, but that was not representative of his season. In fact, the Eagles have scored 19, 0 and 15 points since. Both of these teams are top calibre defenses, but the Vikings led the lead in most statistical categories. Foles put up all of his 2017 points against the Giants, Raiders and Falcons, hardly premier defenses. The Vikings are not just a different challenge, but this season, they're the biggest challenge he could possibly face.

But another reason I'm going with Minnesota this week is because quite simply, Keenum is at his best when he's in a close game and the pressure is on. The Eagles are yet to even cover a game that Foles has started, while Keenum? He's lost just 1 of his last 12 games vs the spread, and when he's outdoors, unlike most dome quarterbacks, he actually plays pretty well. In particular, Keenum scrambles incredibly well (13 attempts for 59 yards during the season outdoors) to make up for a slight downturn in accuracy. Nevertheless, during the regular season, he was actually more accurate outdoors than Foles was even at home.

The Eagles have the best run defense in the NFL, but the Vikings don't necessarily use the run like most teams. I think the interior will be stuffed for Latavius Murray, but Jerick McKinnon - one of my other favorite Vikings - will enjoy some freedom outside.

This one really does come down to body of work, however. Foles has simply not played enough games this season for us to understand how he'll perform in this game, whereas Keenum has earned our trust over multiple games, in many different situations, including this one as favorites.

Shaun Lowrie is the founder and editor of Pickwatch, a site designed to give you a new perspective on experts in the NFL media by tracking their performance when picking games or predicting draft picks, team performance, or player potential. You can contact him at [email protected] or on twitter at @pickwatch