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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, January 1, 2018 at 11:59 AM



Ahh, that down-and-distance will be ringing inside the heads of the Baltimore Ravens for the next umpteen months - they couldn't contain Cincinnati's QB Andy Dalton-to-WR Tyler Boyd 49-scoring strike on 4th-and-12 in yesterday's 31-27 loss to the 8-point underdog Bengals and thus it opened up the path to the playoffs to the Buffalo Bills.

You remember them - last seen in the NFL Playoffs way, way back in the 1999 season and dare we remind you that the Bills exited that year's post-season with the "Music City Miracle" loss to the Tennessee Titans. Yes, it's been a long time between playoff drinks for the ole Bills.

Now, here's a quick-hitter first look at this weekend's NFC and AFC Wild Card Round Games ...

On Saturday in the AFC it's ...
TENNESSEE (9-7) at KANSAS CITY (10-6) - 4:30 p.m. ET
Hats off to the Titans who were skidding along towards the end of the 2017 regular season with three consecutive losses till Mike Mularkey's crew beat the nothing-to-play-for Jacksonville Jaguars 15-10 despite a putrid 134-yard passing game from QB Marcus Mariota - is he hurting worse than anyone realizes these days? - and no doubt Mariota will stay clear of Kansas City's ace CB Marcus Peters here. If the visiting/7.5-point underdog Titans are gonna pull the upset in the first of the four wild card round games than Mariota must use his legs to convert some third-down plays while the Chiefs will bank on rookie RB Kareem Hunt (an honorable mention on our Rookie of the Year list) to bang out between-the-guard runs.

On Saturday in the NFC, it's ...
ATLANTA (10-6) at LOS ANGELES RAMS (11-5) - 8:15 p.m. ET
If the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons are gonna march all the way back to the Super Bowl on the first Sunday in February than they have to be road warriors and - maybe - they catch a break here against an inexperienced Rams team that could be feeling some heat by the time we all get to kickoff. The hosts have a potent one-two combo with QB Jared Goff and MVP candidate RB Todd Gurley but something tells us the LA gang (a 5.5-point betting fav) needs to spread the field and expose the Atlanta corners that often get caught out of position. On the flip side, it's no secret that the Falcons - who banged out a 22-10 win/cover against 5-point pup Carolina in Week 17 play to wrap up this hard-to-get playoff berth — can't get sloppy with the ball whether we're talking QB Matt Ryan INTs or the all-too-often fumbles by RB Devonta Freeman. Hey, WR Julio Jones took quite the body blow in the aforementioned win against the Panthers - will he be at all hesitant to go over the middle here?

On Sunday in the AFC, it's ...
BUFFALO (9-7) at JACKSONVILLE (10-6) - 1 p.m. ET
All hail the Bills for making it back to the post-season ... but what about the Jaguars who haven't been part of the playoff fun-and-games since 2007? Okay, so everyone knows the Jags lead the NFL in most every key defensive category but the numero uno part of the game plan strategy here is bottling up Bills' RB LeSean McCoy who better step it up following Sunday's no-show 11-carry, 10-yard rushing performance plus hope J'ville was paying attention to the Bills' 22-16 hang-on-for-dear-life win in Miami where TE Dan O'Leary (one TD reception and one near TD catch) was a critical red-zone performer. Gut feeling is the TD favorite Jags will play this one super-close to the vest - maybe fewer than 20 pass attempts here from QB Blake Bortles (158 yards passing and 2 INTs against Tennessee).

On Sunday in the NFC, it's ...
CAROLINA (11-5) at NEW ORLEANS (11-5) - 4:40 p.m. ET
Remember the N'Orleans Saints swept the season's series against Carolina - a 34-13 win at the 5.5-point fav Panthers back in Week 3 and a 31-21 win/cover as 6-point home favorites in Week 13 action - and so is this a case of a team finding it "tough to beat an opponent three times in a year" or does Sean Payton's crew merely have Carolina's number? No question that Panthers' QB Cam Newton was downright awful in Sunday's 12-point loss in Atlanta - he threw three picks and never did get Carolina's offense in any sort of rhythm and that's the goal here and how about more targets to WR Devin Funchess (two catches for 48 yards and a score against the Falcs)? The 6-point favored Saints must have some real concerns regarding their secondary - it was a unit that earned plenty of regular-season praise but the downfield breakdowns against Tampa Bay QB Jameis Winston (363 yards passing and an 18-point fourth quarter) and his receivers has to have "Who Dat" fans a tad frazzled, right?


On Monday, Jan. 1, it's ...

SOUTH CAROLINA (8-4) vs. MICHIGAN (8-4) - 12 p.m. ET, espn2
Let's face it: The Michigan Wolverines have not wowed the football world since hiring Jim Harbaugh as head coach following the 2014 season and even a "W" here against TD-plus pup South Carolina won't deliver much sizzle but let's see if this sluggish Michigan offense (scored fewer than 30 points on seven different occasions) can get revved up here behind kid QB Brandon Peters who is far from guaranteed the starting gig in the 2018 season. If South Carolina has an advantage here it's at the all-important quarterback spot where Jake Bentley (2,555 yards passing with 16 TDs) is a potential star.
Hey, the Big 10 is unbeaten in these bowls with Iowa, Purdue, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin a collective 7-0 SU (straight-up) and 6-1 ATS (against the spread), so there's some New Year's Day heat here on the Wolverines.
Spread Stats - Michigan is just 18-19-1 ATS (against the spread) under third-year head coach Harbaugh and that includes a 5-6-1 spread log this season; South Carolina has covered four of its last five games.

PEACH BOWL - at Atlanta, GA
#12 UCF (12-0) vs. #7 AUBURN (10-3) - 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
No doubt that the UCF Knights were one of the feel-good stories of this 2017 season - but much like the 2016 Western Michigan story that lost to Wisconsin in last year's Cotton Bowl, 'ya gotta beat a Power 5 team at bowl time to really make a splash. Watch for UCF slinger McKenzie Milton (3,795 yards passing with 35 TDs) against this Auburn defense that's held nine foes below 20 points this year. If War Eagle - a 10-point betting favorite for this Jan. 1st matinee - is gonna win/cover here, then RB Kerryon Johnson (1,320 yards rushing) must be back close to 100 percent after suffering an injury late in the year against archrival Alabama.
Spread Stats - Auburn is an ugly 3-5-1 against the odds when laying points this season; On the flip side, UCF is 7-4-1 odds-wise this year.

CITRUS BOWL - at Orlando, FL
#17 LSU (9-3) vs. #14 NOTRE DAME (9-3) - 1 p.m. ET, ABC
Second time in the past four years that LSU vs. Notre Dame is a bowl matchup (see Irish over Bayou bunch 31-28 back in 2014 Music City Bowl) and would like to tell you this New Year's game has lots of sizzle ... but nobody's talking about it at all! So, we'll give this game some "love" as it's the warm-up act for the college playoffs. Maybe Notre Dame's November losses to Miami and Stanford punctured the bubble for Brian Kelly's club that was dreaming of the playoffs when it was 8-1 SU - keep an eye on RB Josh Adams (1,386 yards rushing with 9 TDs) who goes up against a strong/quick LSU defense that ranks 11th nationally. The Tigers know QB Danny Etling (14 TDs / 2 INTs) doesn't often make the "wrong throw" but something tells us the Irish will be sending some odd-man blitzes at 'em here.
Spread Stats - LSU closed out regular-season play on a six-game pointspread winning streak; Meanwhile, Notre Dame skids into this bowl bash on a four-game spread losing streak.



ROSE BOWL - at Pasadena, CA
#3 GEORGIA (12-1) vs. #2 OKLAHOMA (12-1) - 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
Okay, so there's been a whole lot brewing 'round Oklahoma QB/2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield (4,340 yards passing with 41 TDs and 5 INTs) who's been battling some sort of illness this week - but the fiery Mayfield should be fine here thanks to modern science and now the challenge is to face this Georgia defense that yields a miniscule 13.2 points per game (that's fourth-best in the country) and has had a month to prep for the Sooners' spread-the-wealth passing attack. One part of the Dawgs' defensive game plan here is to bring LBs/DBs closer to the line of scrimmage and "crowd" Mayfield here so that he'll have to resort to a series of dump-off passes - and we doubt if any team in the land (including Alabama) tackles better than this here-and-now Georgia defense.
On the flip side, Georgia needs that all-important time of possession stat to be heavily in its favor (we're thinking something close to a 2-to-1 ratio) and so that means RBs Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D'Andre Swift - a trio that's combined for 2,720 yards and 29 TDs this year - must dent this Oklahoma defense between the tackles and then frosh QB Jake Fromm (2,173 yards passing with 21 TDs and only 5 INTs) must be able to zing in some occasional passes and don't be surprised if Fromm and Co. tries to "take the top off" this Oklahoma defense early on to loosen up a Sooners' defense that has allowed 35-or-more points on four different occasions.
Keep in mind all the money has been plunked down on Georgia - the Dawgs opened as a 1-point underdog here but they're laying 2.5 or 3 points here - and heading into New Year's Day the college football bowl favorites are 19-16 against the odds (a modest .543 winning rate).
Spread Stats - Georgia is 9-4 ATS overall this year and note the Bulldogs are have covered four of their last five bowl games; Oklahoma is 8-5 ATS overall this year and a collective 24-15 ATS the past three years.

SUGAR BOWL - at New Orleans, LA
#4 ALABAMA (11-1) vs. #1 CLEMSON (12-1) - 8:35 p.m. ET, ESPN
We meet again, eh?
There's something about these college football playoffs that loves to put together Alabama and Clemson - obviously, they split the last two national championship games with both of 'em thrill-a-minute affairs - and now they're the prime-timer here in a national semifinal contest that might not be as high scoring as those last two games (see Alabama 45-40 two years ago and then Clemson 35-31 last year). Okay, so former Clemson great QB Deshaun Watson was the whiz-bang star in both of those title tilts but here it's up to heir Kelly Bryant (2,678 yards passing and another 646 yards rushing with a combined 24 TDs) to challenge a 'Bama defense that has held eight foes to 10 points or less (including  pair of shutouts) and word is Tide head coach Nick Saban has been ultra-fiery in team practices and has DB Minkah Fitzpatrick and mates hell-bent on containing Clemson on first downs where the Tigers have done major damage in the last two playoff games against Alabama.
Much is being said about Tide QB Jalen Hurts (15 TDs and 1 INT) who might be the strongest player on this team pound-for-pound - didn't you watch him lifting weights on that ESPN feature the other day? - but this is truly a put-up or shut-up game for the redshirt sophomore. Hurts likely will attempt to run the ball 20-or-so times here and thus look to keep Clemson's star-studded defensive line (the best in the biz!) going backwards. If RB Bo Scarbrough - a star in last year's semifinal win against Washington - can be a 100-yard-or-so factor back here, then the 3-point favorite Crimson Tide should survive and advance.
Spread Stats - Alabama is just 5-7 ATS this year but the Crimson Tide's 14-7 versus the vig away from home the past three years; Defending champ Clemson has covered seven consecutive playoff/bowl games dating back to the 2012 season and that includes, of course, back-to-back covers against 'Bama the past two years in the title game.

NOTE: Catch our College Football Playoff re-caps in tomorrow's edition of Jim Sez.

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