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Written Wednesday November 4th, 2020 at 11 a.m. Eastern Time (spreads/odds may have changed) ALERT, ALERT, BIG RED ALERT!!! We have a 5-star pick for just the third time this season! Here is the record of those high-confidence predictions over the past three seasons (I started rating my picks in 2018 – too bad I didn’t do it in 2017 since we had great lucrative year!): 2020 SEASON: 2-0 RECORD Week #1: Cards +7 at 49ers (win) Week #7: Jets +13 vs Bills (win) 2019 SEASON: 2-2 RECORD Week #5: 49ers -3.5 vs Browns (win) Week #7: Bears -3 vs Saints (loss) Week #14: Raiders +3 vs Titans (loss) Week #17: Cowboys -12 vs Redskins (win) 2018 SEASON: 3-0 RECORD Week #12: Ravens -10.5 vs Raiders (win) Week #12: Bills +3.5 vs Jaguars (win) Week #14: Saints -8 at Bucs (win) OVERALL: 7-2 RECORD (77.8% WIN RATE) Again, I feel obligated to remind you an important piece of advice: do not bet your house on a single bet. As a matter of fact, you shouldn’t bet more than 5% of your bankroll on one selection. Before we get going, here is a quick review of the performance of this year’s NFL picks: 5 STARS: 2-0 record 4 STARS: 4-2-1 record 3 STARS: 6-7 record 2 STARS: 1-4 record 1 STAR: 4-2 record OVERALL: 17-15-1 record (a 53.1% win rate) While the overall winning percentage is decent, notice this interesting trend: PICKS RATED 4-5 STARS: 6-2-1 record PICKS RATED 1-2-3 STARS: 11-13 record In other words, the best plays have been hitting at a higher rate. All right, let’s get started! PICK #1 (5 STARS): DENVER BRONCOS +4 AT ATLANTA FALCONS Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. The Falcons will be benefiting from three extra days of rest since they played last week’s Thursday night game. Still, I absolutely love the Broncos in this matchup. I even sent an alert to my mailing list subscribers and my Facebook/Twitter followers as early as Monday to let them know I was taking Denver. At the time, I bet the Broncos +4 points at -105 odds. I was convinced the line would only deteriorate as the week would progress and so far I’ve been right. At the time of writing (Wednesday morning), Pinnacle now has Denver +4 at -113 odds, while many bookies have dropped their line to 3.5. I believe it might even go as low as 3 points. Despite some key injuries on defense, Denver remains very solid on that side of the ball. They have lost Jurrell Casey, Mike Purcell and Von Miller. Still, their 11 starters have an average 2020 ProFootballFocus grades of 68.3, while the league average is 61.6. They have a much better defense than Atlanta’s. On offense, you might want to give the edge to the Falcons, though. However, Calvin Ridley is on the wrong side of questionable due to a foot injury he suffered last week. He is a big part of their offense. The big question is how Drew Lock will perform this Sunday. He had a good first outing against the Titans. He got hurt in Week #2 and had two straight disappointing games upon his return. Indeed, he did not throw a single TD pass versus four picks in those two matchups. Last week, trailing 24-to-3 early in the third quarter, it looked like Lock would finish with another poor performance, but he threw 3 TD passes in the second half to seal a stunning 31-30 comeback win over the Chargers. This game will certainly boost his confidence, and facing a suspect Falcons secondary should also help. A few interesting trends: The Broncos are 4-1 against the spread (ATS) in their last five games as road underdogs; The Falcons are 0-4 ATS over their past four matches as home favorites. Final note: it would help the Broncos if the coaching staff realized that Phillip Lindsay is a superior running back than Melvin Gordon. Give him more touches for crying out loud! Lindsay has rushed for over 1,000 yards both in 2018 and 2019, while averaging between 4.5 and 6.4 yards per carry in each of his three years in the NFL. Meanwhile, Gordon averages 4.2 yards per rush and he doesn’t look as explosive. I know that Gordon was given a fat contract, but you need to put your best players on the field if you want to win! PICK #2 (3 STARS): WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM -3 VS NEW YORK GIANTS First of all, I tend to back favorites coming off their bye week, as they held a 98-60-5 ATS record during a four-year span. Washington will be much more rested than New York. Not only are they coming off their bye, but the Giants fought hard against the Bucs last Monday night, which means they are getting one less day than usual to game plan and to rest for this upcoming divisional matchup. Notice that Washington will be at home for a third consecutive week, and also a fifth time in six weeks! Their lone road game during this time period was in New York, which wasn’t a long trip. Speaking of making a trip to New York, do I need to remind you that I love betting teams that have lost the first meeting between two division rivals? Back in Week 6, the Giants won a close call by a 20-to-19 score against Washington. At times, Daniel Jones looks like a franchise quarterback. He makes good throws and you start thinking he is the future of this organization. And then he makes dumb mistakes that leaves you scratching your head. He just doesn’t seem to learn from his mistakes! He is a turnover machine. I like what Kyle Allen has done this year. He has thrown four TD passes versus just one interception. Granted, he faced the Giants and the Cowboys, which are not among the league’s best defenses, but he still did his job. He has also completed close to 69% of his passes, which is impressive. He seems to have a good connection with Terry McLaurin and Logan Thomas. The Giants have beaten the spread on five of their last seven matchups in Washington, though. Still, I’m going with Washington. According to PFF grades, Washington has a slightly better defense, and a much better offensive line. PICK #3 (2 STARS): SEATTLE SEAHAWKS -2.5 AT BUFFALO BILLS It is very rare that I bet against the same team three weeks in a row, but that happens to be the case here. I am fading the Bills once again, the team that made me win my biggest wager ever last season (over 6.5 regular season wins). I have nothing against Buffalo; I just go where the value is. In this case, I think getting Seattle to lay just 2.5 points is good value. The Bills defense has been a huge disappointment this season, and they have not done much better than Seattle’s unit. Buffalo has allowed less points per game, but the average PFF grades of the 11 Seattle defensive starters stands at 63.7 versus 58.4 for Buffalo. Based on those figures, it’s hard to claim that the Bills defense is clearly superior to Seattle’s. On offense, no one is doubting the fact that the Seahawks are more powerful. They have the better quarterback for sure. At wide receiver, Buffalo has a good trio with Diggs-Brown-Beasley, but in my opinion Lockett and Metcalf are more dominant. Also, Seattle’s running game has been more convincing, although Buffalo’s ground game finally got going against the Patriots last week. Finally, the offensive lines are fairly comparable; I might even give a small edge to Seattle here. The Seahawks are 7-1 ATS on the road when facing a team with a winning record. However, they have been a losing bet against the spread in their last four matchups on turf. Meanwhile, the Bills are 3-8 ATS in their past 11 games as home underdogs. Even though the Seahawks will be playing an early Sunday game as a West Coast team, I’m taking them as 2.5-point favorites. UNOFFICIAL PICKS Last week, many people told me they appreciated the fact that I added unofficial picks to my weekly write-up. So back by popular demand, here are some leans: Colts +2.5 vs Ravens (I came close from making it an official one-star pick, but didn’t pull the trigger. Philip Rivers scares me a little bit. The Colts defense against the run ranks 2nd in the NFL in terms of yards-per-carry average, which matches up well against Baltimore. The Ravens are 0-4 ATS in their last four trips in Indy, and hold an overall 1-10 ATS record over the past 11 meetings with the Colts. Many players from Baltimore won’t practice this week after being in close contact with Marlon Humphrey, who was diagnosed with covid-19); Lions +4 at Vikings (I love betting weaker teams in a divisional road game coming off a big straight up loss. In this case, Detroit lost by 20 points last week. They are looking for revenge after losing both meetings versus Minnesota last year. Kenny Golladay is out, which hurts Detroit’s offense. The Vikings defense did surprisingly well last week against the Packers, despite fielding seven rookies. They might go back to normal and allow tons of yards/points this week); Saints +5.5 at Bucs (Tampa loses one day of preparation due to playing the Monday nighter, but will be looking to avenge a Week 1 loss to those same Saints. New Orleans beat the spread in the last four meetings with Tampa and you cannot ignore the fact that they are 20-6 ATS in their last 26 games as underdogs and 6-2 ATS on grass. The Saints could get both Emmanuel Sanders and Michael Thomas this week); Cards -4.5 vs Dolphins (We did not learn much about Tua last week since Miami’s defense and special teams won the game for them. Their defense has allowed just 11 points per game over the past three games, but I believe they are not that good and will revert to the mean. The Cards are another favorite coming off their bye week and have not had to travel in any of the last three weeks); Under 50 points Broncos-Falcons (this total seems high considering I expect both offenses to have trouble moving the ball on offense); Over 41.5 points Patriots-Jets (if we pretend like all Patriots and Jets games had a total of 41.5, the over would have gone 8-7. However, if you remove games where Cam Newton and Sam Darnold were out due to injuries, this record shoots up to 8-4. Some might argue the under is 7-1 in the last eight meetings between these two clubs, but I’m still backing the over). Best of luck my friend! Professor MJ Twitter https://twitter.com/DavidBeaudoin79 Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/ProfessorMJ https://www.youtube.com/c/ProfessorMJ/featured
Written Thursday October 29th, 2020 at 7 a.m. Eastern Time (spreads/odds may have changed) Yeah, baby! The 5-star pick was a winner last week, lifting our record on such plays to a perfect 2-0 record this season! Backing the Jets was a bold call, especially considering they were 0-6 against the spread (ATS) this year, but we took them at the right moment. Notice how New York was a 13-point underdog when I took them last Thursday, while the line dropped all the way to 9.5 prior to kickoff. That was a huge indication it was a good value bet. I’ve got four official picks for you this week, as well as five “leans”. Let’s get going! PICK #1 (4 STARS): ATLANTA FALCONS +2 AT CAROLINA PANTHERS The Panthers were supposed to be one of the worst NFL teams this season, but surprised many by winning three of their first five games. They have now lost a couple of games in a row, and I would not be surprised if they go on a downward spiral. It is still uncertain if Christian McCaffrey will return to the lineup, but even if he does it looks like his ankle is still not 100%. Left tackle Russell Okung is a long shot to be available, which would be a big blow to this offensive line. I also believe losing Kawann Short for the rest of the year will have a big negative impact on Carolina’s defensive line. He was a key part of this defense. Matt Ryan is the type of quarterback who struggles a lot when pressured, but thrives when given time to scan the field. Carolina ranks dead last in sacks with only six. I expect Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst to shine on Thursday Night Football. I also like to pick teams who have lost to the same opponent earlier in the season. That’s the case of the Falcons who lost 23-16 against Carolina three weeks ago. It’s time for some payback! Atlanta suffered another mind-boggling loss last week and I really expect them to lash out on their division rivals this Thursday. I wouldn’t be surprised if they won the game by 10 points or more. PICK #2 (3 STARS): NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS +4 AT BUFFALO BILLS After a hot start to the 2020 season, the Bills have cooled off in a big way. They were hammered 42-16 in Tennessee before getting stomped by the Chiefs despite a fairly close 26-17 score. Last week’s win over the Jets wasn’t convincing either. What I like the most about this prediction is how well the Patriots match up against Buffalo. Let me explain. First, let’s think about the case where New England has the ball. Their passing attack has been very inconsistent and they lack playmakers catching the ball. In order to have success, they must run the ball effectively, which happens to be Buffalo’s Achilles’ heel on defense (they rank 23rd in terms of yards-per-rush average). Now, how about when the Bills are on offense? Buffalo has the sixth-most passing yards per game this year versus 29th in rushing yards per game. Guess what is New England’s strength on defense? That’s right, their pass defense with Stephon Gilmore and the two McCourtys leading the way. Some might also argue that the Pats are 13-3 ATS in their last 16 meetings in Buffalo, but I’m not sure this stat is relevant with Tom Brady gone. Without hesitation, I’m going with New England to keep this game close. PICK #3 (3 STARS): NEW ORLEANS SAINTS -4 AT CHICAGO BEARS In today’s NFL, it is hard to win if you cannot throw the ball effectively, unless you are exceptionally good at running the ball like the Baltimore Ravens. Clearly, the Bears have a bad passing attack with Nick Foles posting 6 TD passes and 6 interceptions in five games. And their running game is just as bad: the team ranks last in rushing yards per game. Somehow, Chicago rode their defense to go 5-2 thus far in 2020. However, everyone knows they are not that good. Even their defense started to show some signs of weaknesses last week against the Rams, who picked up 24 first downs and 371 total yards. Relying on a stifling defense was a good recipe 20-30 years ago. It does not work as well in the modern NFL. Even then, the Bears defense is good, but it’s not a dominant force either. I do believe Sean Payton’s team will be able to move the ball offensively. Here are some interesting trends: Are you worried about how the Saints will perform on grass this weekend? They are 6-1 ATS in their last seven games on grass. New Orleans is 5-1 ATS in their last six matchups as road favorites, and 36-17 ATS in their past 53 road games overall. Also notice that the Bears are playing on a shorter week due to playing the Monday nighter, a game in which they traveled all the way to Los Angeles. PICK #4 (1 STAR): NEW YORK JETS +19.5 AT KANSAS CITY CHIEFS No need to discuss the mismatch on paper. We all know how much better the Chiefs are compared to the lowly Jets. I’m going with the Jets for a couple of reasons: Since the AFL-NFL merger, 13 teams have been favored by 20 points or more. Those teams have gone 13-0 straight up, but just 3-10 ATS. Technically, New York is not a 20-point underdog, but the line opened at 21.5. I’ll mention the same stat as last week for those of you who didn’t see my Jets pick against the Bills. Since 1985, six teams have started the season with six straight losses both SU and ATS (which is the case of the Jets in 2020). How did these teams fare in the remainder of their season? They went 34-24 ATS, a 58.6% win rate. Personally, I’m holding off before placing a bet on New York. I am waiting to obtain the injury status of wide receivers Jamison Crowder and Breshad Perriman. If both are out, I need a point spread of at least 21 to bet the Jets. Hopefully, at least one of them suits up this Sunday, otherwise Sam Darnold may not have any reliable targets. Granted, I thought rookie Denzel Mims showed promise in his NFL debut against Buffalo last week. The Jets also have four offensive linemen who are listed as questionable. In other words, depending on who plays and how the point spread changes, I’ll make a decision once I have more information. UNOFFICIAL PICKS For entertainment purposes, here are some leans: Bengals +6 vs Titans (Cincy’s five losses were by 3, 3, 4, 5 and 24-point margins, so they kept all games close except against the Ravens); 49ers +3 at Seahawks (tight divisional matchup and Seattle’s defense is horrendous); Steelers +4 at Ravens (don’t like the fact that Baltimore is coming off its bye week though); Dolphins +4 vs Rams (too much uncertainty due to Tua’s first start to bet, but the “rest” factor favors Miami in a big way. They are coming off their bye week and have been at home three straight weeks, while the Rams played last Monday night and are now traveling across the country); Over 48.5 points Jets vs Chiefs. I hope you enjoyed this post, go get your bookie man!!! Professor MJ Twitter: @DavidBeaudoin79 FB: ProfessorMJ www.professormj.com https://youtu.be/NeppsXY9WRQ
1. Introduction From 2013 to 2015, the Cardinals won at least 10 games in each of those seasons. They followed up with a couple of years where they finished close to a .500 record. Things got even worse in the past two seasons, during which the franchise compiled an 8-23-1 record. Now in year #2 of head coach Kliff Kingsbury and QB Kyler Murray, it’s time for Arizona to make a leap forward. 2. Regular Season Wins According to sportsbooks, the Arizona Cardinals are expected to win 7 games this season. Should we bet the “over” or the “under”? Here is the methodology I used in order to answer this vital question: Use BetOnline.ag’s point spreads on all 256 regular season games. Convert those point spreads into win probabilities. Simulate each of the 256 games, according to those win probabilities, via the R statistical software. Repeat the previous step one million times (you get 1M simulated seasons). Count the proportion of seasons where the Cards won more or less than 7 games. Here are the results (excluding simulated seasons where they won exactly 7 games, in which case the bet ties): Estimated probability Sportsbook Odds ROI OVER 7 wins 53.1% 10Bet -110 +1.4% UNDER 7 wins 46.9% William Hill +110 -1.5% Tip: Bet OVER 7 wins Return On Investment (ROI): +1.4% Rank: 32nd-highest ROI out of 32 teams Minimum odds required to bet (i.e. ROI = 0%): -113 (i.e. 1.88 in decimal format) Note: The “Best odds” from the table above were obtained after looking at 13 well-known online sportsbooks on May 18th, 2020. 3. Offensive Position-by-Position Breakdown 3.1 Quarterbacks (QBs) Kyler Murray had a very successful rookie campaign as Arizona’s new franchise quarterback. Despite a suspect surrounding cast, he posted very respectable numbers with 3,722 passing yards, 20 TDs and 12 interceptions. He was also dangerous as a runner, as shown by his 544 rushing yards. Murray was the victim of 48 sacks, but he was hard to catch. Indeed, he finished in 2nd place in terms of average time from snap-to-sack among all QBs in the NFL. Now with one full year of experience under his belt, you can expect Murray to take a nice leap and improve his game even more in 2020. Brett Hundley will once again back up Murray this season. The Cards must hope they won’t need him because he has never shown he could lead a team to success. The former Packer is clearly no more than a #2 QB in this league. 3.2 Running Backs (RBs) The Cards got a nice bargain last year by trading a sixth-round pick in exchange for Kenyan Drake. He was nothing short of spectacular in his eight appearances in the desert by racking up 643 rushing yards over eight games. He also scored eight touchdowns during that short period. During the offseason, the Cards re-signed him to a one-year, $8.5 million contract. The team also traded David Johnson to Houston, which clearly puts Drake as the starter. Chase Edmonds will be the main backup runner. He showed some flashes with a nice 5.1 yards per rush average. The third-year pro is good insurance in case Drake gets hurt. 3.3 Wide Receivers (WRs) Kyler Murray probably popped a bottle of champagne when he heard about the acquisition of stud wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from the Texans. Losing David Johnson in the trade isn’t that big of a deal for the Cards, who already had good depth at the running back position. However, acquiring a big-time WR like Hopkins is HUGE! Hopkins has played either 15 or 16 games in each of his first seven years in the NFL. He has averaged 1,229 receiving yards and 7.7 TDs during that time span. He consistently ranks among the top receivers year in and year out. In 2019, he finished with an 87.8 grade from PFF, which had him ranked as the 5th best WR. Unbelievable: Larry Fitzgerald is coming back for a 17th season! He did better than expected last season by catching 75 passes and finishing 53rd out of 122 qualified wide receivers in the league based on PFF. Fitzgerald claimed he loved the culture under new head coach Kliff Kingsbury and he wants to help the team both as a player and as a mentor for the younger guys. Christian Kirk, a former second-round pick in the 2018 draft, had an okay year. His 62.5 grade by PFF had him ranked as the #91 WR (out of 122). With Hopkins drawing a lot of attention from opposing defenses, Kirk must make a leap in 2020. It remains to be seen if he can do it or not. Arizona lost some depth at the position after seeing Damiere Byrd leave for New England, while Pharoh Cooper signed with Carolina. It’s not a huge blow to the team, but worth mentioning. 3.4 Tight Ends (TEs) A young QB like Kyler Murray would certainly welcome some help at the tight end position, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. The top target last year was Charles Clay. He only caught 18 passes and is now a free agent. All signs point toward Maxx Williams assuming the number one role. You’ll be surprised to hear he ranked as the 7th best tight end in the league according to PFF. His nice 79.1 grade was obtained via outstanding run and pass blocking. In summary, the team is pretty thin at this position. 3.5 Offensive Line (OL) One of the team’s biggest weaknesses in 2019 was certainly its offensive line. They allowed the 5th highest number of sacks a year ago, despite Murray being a mobile quarterback. The only guy who finished above average based on PFF rankings was Justin Pugh (22nd out of 81 among guards). The other four starters were either average or quite bad. The bad news? The team has not addressed the position in free agency. They did select Josh Jones in the third round of this year’s draft, though. He has a high chance of becoming the team’s starting right guard right away, despite many experts calling him a developmental project who needs work. I can’t believe D.J. Humphries is going to be the third-highest paid left tackle in the league after signing a hefty contract this offseason. His paycheck is clearly not in line with his production on the field. In five years, he has played 43 games and missed 37 due to numerous injuries. He finally played through a full 16-game season last year, but he PFF gave him the 47th-best grade out of 81 tackles. 2020 VS 2019 OFFENSE Overall, I expect a nice progression from this unit. Kyler Murray is clearly more likely to improve than to regress based on his young age. The running back position is set. The receiving corps got a gigantic boost with the addition of DeAndre Hopkins. The tight end and offensive line positions remain problematic. However, if you compare with last year, it can’t get much worse. Building the line should be one of the top priorities for Arizona in the upcoming years. Final call (2020 vs 2019): Moderate upgrade 4. Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown 4.1 Defensive Linemen (DLs) This was not a position of strength for Arizona last year. Out of 114 DLs, here’s the final PFF ranking of the four guys who got the most playing time: Corey Peters 65th, Rodney Gunter 61st, Zach Kerr 42nd and Jonathan Bullard 94th. Ouch. Now, Gunter and Kerr are both gone. Meanwhile, the team acquired Jordan Phillips from the Bills. He probably won’t be a savior as he finished in 104th place. 4.2 Defensive Ends (DEs) / Edge Rushers (ED) Chandler Jones had an exceptional years with 19 sacks! Only Shaquil Barrett from the Bucs recorded more sacks. Outside of Jones, Terrell Suggs played 13 games before being released by the Cards. He still managed to record 5.5 sacks. Cassius Marsh played 38% of the defensive snaps and finished 70th out of 107 edge defenders. He signed with the Jaguars during the offseason. In order to compensate for those losses, Arizona signed Devon Kennard, formerly of the Detroit Lions. He played 82% of the snaps in Detroit and finished 44th (out of 107) at the position. He obtained 7 sacks last year (7 more the year before). 4.3 Linebackers (LBs) Jordan Hicks was a tackling machine with 150; only Bobby Wagner (Seattle) and Blake Martinez (Green Bay) had more in 2019. However, Hicks didn’t grade particularly well. He finished 43rd out of 89 linebackers. Haason Reddick and Joe Walker both finished in the bottom: 86th and 79th. Walker left for San Francisco, which is not a big loss. Arizona signed De’Vondre Campbell who played 89% of the snaps with the Falcons. Can he improve the linebacker play in 2020? I doubt it. His poor 50.1 grade gave him the 70th rank. Here are his grades the previous three seasons: 57.4, 69.1 and 55.7. He is a durable guy, but far from a great player. DC Vance Joseph declared #8 overall pick Isaiah Simmons would primarily play at linebacker. Simmons was super versatile in college, playing many positions. He will provide good coverage against TEs and pass-catching RBs, while also defending the run efficiently. He clearly has Pro Bowl talent. 4.4 Cornerbacks (CBs) Patrick Peterson is clearly the leader of this group. He was having a decent season, and was brilliant in the final few games. He finished as the number 39 cornerback out of 112 guys. He missed the first six games of the season because of a suspension. There is not much depth behind Peterson, though. Byron Murphy played 98% of the snaps, but finished with an awful 48.8 grade. The 2019 second-round pick will need to elevate his game A LOT this season. 4.5 Safeties (S) Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson provide an adequate duo of safeties. These two guys are still young and we can expect some improvement in 2020. They finished last year as #28 and #57 out of 87 qualified safeties. Baker accumulated 147 tackles, 4th in the NFL. 2020 VS 2019 DEFENSE No major changes for this unit. Given they’ve allowed the 5th highest number of points last year, that’s not good news. The lone position where the Cards have improved this offseason is linebacker because of the acquisition of Isaiah Simmons via the draft and De’Vondre Campbell as a free agent from Atlanta. Or perhaps the couple of young safeties can take a leap? Maybe, maybe not. It may be wishful thinking. To summarize, the team added Jordan Phillips, Devon Kennard, Isaiah Simmons and De’Vondre Campbell. They lost Rodney Gunter, Zach Kerr, Terrell Suggs, Cassius Marsh and Joe Walker. To me, those changes offset. Perhaps it will turn out to be a small upgrade. Final call (2020 vs 2019): Stable Thanks for reading! Professor MJ
Written January 9rd, 2020 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time (spreads/odds may have changed) The picks went 3-1 last week. Let's stay on the winning track! Minnesota Vikings +7 or San Francisco 49ers -7 ? The 49ers got a much-needed bye week, thanks to a goal-line stand in the final moments of last regular season game against the Seahawks. The additional rest will allow San Francisco’s defense to get a boost, with the return of Kwon Alexander, Dee Ford and Jaquiski Tartt. Let’s face the reality: the Niners defense did not dominate nearly as much in the second half of the season. In the first seven games, San Francisco’s defense allowed an average of 11 points per game. That number exploded to 26 points per game during the final nine contests. Part of this steep raise can be attributed to the strength of opposition, but we’re still talking about a huge spike! The weakest link on the Niners defense is when it comes to stopping the run. They finished 17th in the NFL in terms of rushing yards allowed per game. The bad news is Minnesota excels at running the ball. Dalvin Cook looked fast and fresh last week in New Orleans after sitting out the last two regular season games. Both quarterbacks finished with similar passing completion rates, passing yards and TD passes. The one difference lied in the number of interceptions thrown: 13 for Garoppolo versus just 6 for Cousins. I was impressed with Minnesota’s defensive line last week. They pressured Drew Brees all game long, and pretty much shut down the running game (except some unconventional runs by Taysom Hill, which is unlikely to happen against the Niners). Both teams have a well-balanced attack and a stout defense. I expect a hard-fought game, where the Niners will come on top by a close margin. For this reason, I’m taking the Vikings +7 points in San Francisco. Tennessee Titans +9.5 or Baltimore Ravens -9.5 ? The Titans defeated the defending Super Bowl champions last week by beating the Patriots 20-to-13. The line for this game opened at 10, but dropped to 9.5 since then. Let me tell you right away that I’m going with the Ravens laying 9.5 points. It’s easy to get excited over the great win by Tennessee last week, and the amazing performance by running back Derrick Henry. However, don’t forget the Titans got a 9-7 record this year, compared to 14-2 for Baltimore. Tennessee lost games against the Jaguars, the Broncos and the Panthers this season. They can be great at time, and bad at others. I’m betting it will be an off day for the Titans this weekend against a Baltimore team that is riding a 12-game winning streak. Did you know Ryan Tannehill led the league in passer rating? Still, for some reason I don’t trust him too much. Against a stingy pass defense last week, he struggled quite a bit. He completed just 8 passes out of 15 for a total of 72 yards. That’s not reassuring. The Ravens will focus on stopping the run, and dare Tannehill to beat them. I don’t think it’s going to end well for the Titans. These two teams met in Tennessee last season. I know the rosters were fairly different, but the Ravens won 21-0, a game in which Derrick Henry rushed for just 21 yards on seven carries. The Ravens finished the season with more than 200 rushing yards per game on average, a feat that had never been accomplished before. Lamar Jackson showed he can throw too; over his last eight games, he threw 25 touchdown passes versus a single pick. That’s impressive! One final telling statistic for you: the Ravens beat their opponents by at least 10 points in eight of their final 10 games. That included meetings with some very strong teams. I’m betting Baltimore -9.5 points. Houston Texans +9.5 or Kansas City Chiefs -9.5 ? The Chiefs seem to be peaking at the right time. After starting the season with a 6-4 record, they concluded with six straight victories. All of them occurred with a margin of at least 7 points! Meanwhile, it seems difficult to trust this Texans’ team. They are very inconsistent, as shown by their playoff win against Buffalo last week. They started slow by trailing 16-to-0 and rallied to win in overtime. Also, their negative point differential of -7 during the regular season is a shame for a division champion! The revenge factor goes in favor of K.C. since Houston pulled off the upset at Arrowhead back in Week #6. The Chiefs led 17-to-3 after one quarter in this game; they won’t let them off the hook this time around. Both QBs threw for exactly 26 TD passes. However, Watson was the victim of 12 interceptions versus just 5 for Patrick Mahomes. Another key argument is the defensive side of the ball. Houston’s defense was not very good; they finished 28th in terms of total yards allowed per game. As a comparison, the Chiefs defense finished 17th in that category, but they improved dramatically over the second half of the season. Indeed, they allowed just 11.5 points per game during their last six games. Therefore, I’m going with the Chiefs -9.5 points. Seattle Seahawks +4.5 or Green Bay Packers -4.5 ? The final meeting of the weekend involves two fierce competitors at quarterback: Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. Based on the point spread, it should be the closest game of the weekend. The Seahawks have been plagued with injuries at the running back position, and also on the offensive line. However, they might get a couple of guys back: Duane Brown and Mike Iupati. With “Beast Mode” getting accustomed to being back on the field, Seattle will try to mimic what the Lions did to the Packers a couple of weeks ago, a game in which they racked up 171 rushing yards. I’m going to take the Seahawks and the points in this game, even though Seattle is 0-5-1 in their last six meetings at Lambeau Field. To me, the Packers passing offense relies too much on Davante Adams. Seattle seems to have more weapons with Tyler Lockett, Jacob Hollister and the emergence of rookie D.K. Metcalf, who looked like a beast in Philly last week! On Green Bay’s side, Lazard, Valdes-Scantling and Jimmy Graham are too inconsistent. The Packers have the better defense, though, especially with the Smiths (Preston and Za’Darius). Still, we’re talking about evenly matched teams. I can see this game ending on the final drive with either team moving on to the NFC Championship game. Under this setting, I’m taking the underdogs: Seattle +4.5.