In the NFC Championship Game we have the Philadelphia Eagles hosting the Minnesota Vikings. As you may know by now, the Eagles have been starting their backup QB Nick Foles since Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending injury in Week 15 against the Rams. The Eagles were still able to win last week against the Falcons on the strength of their defense and some favorable weather conditions but we don't see that to be the case this time around. The Vikings looked dead and buried last week but a last second touchdown gave them a miracle finish and a chance to host the Super Bowl were they to win tonight. Both teams bring fantastic defenses to the table but the Eagles do have issues in the secondary which we believe will be exploited with the Vikings terrific complement of weapons in Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph. The Eagles have a very dangerous defensive line but Vikings QB Case Keenum showed the ability to navigate the pressure against the Saints and we believe the Vikings will stick with short and intermediate routes where the Eagles are most vulnerable. Only injury concerns are CB Mackensie Alexander, WR Adam Thielen and SS Andrew Sendejo but all reports indicate that Thielen and Sendejo are expected to start with Alexander still questionable. With good weather conditions in the forecast, Foles will be expected to make plays with his arm and as far as we are concerned, he will have to show us he can. Foles was able to get by last week as the bad weather neutralized the advantage the Falcons had in that department and we have yet to see Foles show in any game that he can be an adequate replacement for Wentz. As said before, both sides defend the run extremely well and with the clear advantage for the Vikings in the passing game, we have to go with the visitors!
In the AFC Championship Game we have the defending Super Bowl Champions New England Patriots hosting the up and coming Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags were impressive last week as they won with relative ease against a wholly unprepared and undisciplined Steelers team here the final score or 45-42 wasn't indicative of the play on the field. We don't put too much stock in the Jags defense giving up 42 points as the Steelers were playing catch up from the opening minutes of the game. A few concerning items however, were Leonard Fournette tweaking his ankle and Blake Bortles, again not looking all too effective albeit making some nice throws when needed. Fournette is expected to play but we have a suspicion that he is not fully healthy and his effectiveness may be slightly limited. There was a particularly interesting development on the Patriots side as it was reported that QB Tom Brady had injured his hand during practice and its severity is still very much in question. Officially listed as questionable to start, we have to believe that any question about his availability is nonsense and Brady will play. His effectiveness, though, may be in question somewhat as the Patriots are always apt to play games and create confusion. For the record, we don't believe the injury to be too severe if even serious at all and a few reports did indicate that he threw the ball with little signs of bother in practice. When we get down to the game itself, the Jags are a formidable team but we're of the opinion that they just aren't ready for this kind of win just yet. The Patriots are the best coached team in the league and we won't see any kind of unpreparedness as with the Steelers. We still have to remember that Blake Bortles is simply not a good quarterback and some of the numbers that he's put up this year have been the result of playing for a team with a phenomenal running game and even better defense. The Patriots defense has struggled at times this year but improved down the stretch and we're fully confident they will have the proper game plan against a more or less one-dimensional Jacksonville offense. The Jaguars defense has been stellar this year but the Patriots have too many weapons and are much less error prone with Brady than Bortles who we envision will make his share of bad decisions when the Patriots force the issue. As of the time of this writing, there is just one bookmaker with sufficient liquidity that's offering this game at Patriots -7. For the record, we want to point out that the margins are extremely thin here and we would not recommend at -7.5 (even at 2.00 such as at Pinnacle), which is the consensus line at this time. However, it is possible with the mystery surrounding Brady's hand that we see the market move down to -7 or even to -6.5 closer to game time though we have to believe any potential -6.5 would not last very long. In any case, if you can't get on with the BetCRIS family of shops, we recommend waiting or passing.
Virginia enters this game as the #2 team in the country and is a perfect 6-0 in conference play with their only loss to non-conference opponent West Virginia, another top 5 team in the country. The Cavaliers have another top defense this year and Tony Bennett's pack line system has been tough to crack. Wake Forest has struggled mightily in conference play with just 1 win against an ACC opponent but there are some things in play that we feel give the Demon Deacons a chance to make this game competitive. Wake Forest size in the middle with their 2 7 footers already give them a good rebounding edge but should give them some crucial 2nd chance opportunities on the offensive glass and this is one of the areas that the Cavaliers struggle a bit with their zone-like defense. The Demon Deacons also spread the floor and move the ball well with good shooters in the backcourt although they will of course be tested against an excellent perimeter defense. The Demon Deacons are limited on defense but the Cavaliers prefer to play very slowly and we feel this is a large number given the circumstances. Wake has clearly struggled but against a team with a somewhat similar profile in Syracuse (though of course not nearly as polished as Virginia), the Demon Deacons were able to pick up their only conference win earlier this year, downing the Orange at home 73-67. While a win might not be too realistic, we believe the Demon Deacons have some favorable matchups to keep this within single digits. All the better that this will be a nationally televised standalone game in what should be a sold out arena!
Iona nearly had a meltdown on Friday, blowing a double digit 2nd half lead but in the end, held off Monmouth for their 5th win in a row and 6th in conference play. The Gaels sit at 6-1 in conference and are tied with their opponent today, Canisius, for the lead in the MAAC. In fact, it was the Golden Griffins that dealt the Gaels their only conference loss back in late December and we can't imagine things will be too much different this time around besides the obvious home court advantage for the Gaels. Iona's defense has been lacking and we believe the visitors to be the more well rounded team. There should be no shortage of motivation as this is for the lead in the MAAC and we believe the Griffins can keep this within a single possession.
Siena is just 2-5 in conference play but the Saints have shown some encouraging signs lately, including an outright win over a very good Canisius team and nearly pulling off an upset on the road against Iona. We took a chance on Quinnipiac against Niagara and despite holding a large lead in the 2nd half, the Bobcats were atrocious down the stretch and couldn't even cover the spread at the end. As you would expect, the Bobcats don't do much of anything well and their rebounding is quite poor although when these teams met earlier in the year, the Bobcats did manage a surprising 32-21 rebound advantage. Nevertheless, we consider this an anomaly and in fact, as it ended with a Quinnipiac win, we believe this will give the Saints even more motivation to return the favor. Saints to win comfortably.
We don't see too much difference between these teams to warrant a spread larger than 3. In fact, it is the Jaspers who have done better in conference play with a 4-3 record in the MAAC and have 2 road wins at Marist and Fairfield. Saint Peter's, meanwhile, has been in terrible form, losing their last 3 games and sit at 2-5 in conference play. Both teams focus on defense and play at a slow pace and thus we have a hard time seeing either side winning by too much margin. The Jaspers actually played well against Canisius, holding the Griffins to just 68 points on 40.7% shooting but turned the ball over 19 times. We see this as more of an anomaly and the Peacocks will have to have a terrific shooting night to win this by more than 4 in our opinion!
The Spurs continue to stay afloat despite multiple injuries to key players throughout the year and it was announced earlier in the week that Kawhi Leonard would remain out indefinitely to continue rehabbing his quadriceps. Coming off an 86-83 loss at Toronto on Friday, the Spurs have a pedestrian 5-6 record in their last 11 games. The Pacers clearly have enjoyed the return of Victor Oladipo to the lineup but the supporting cast hasn't been there in the last 2 games of their road trip as they lost back to back games to Portland and LA, mustering just 86 points each time. Aside from Leonard, Rudy Gay remains out for the hosts and Manu Ginobili is questionable for tonight. Despite various injuries throughout the year and 2 key players out tonight, there is a reason the Spurs are still 3rd in the Western Conference and it is because of their depth and coaching. Greg Popovich more often than not, comes up with a game plan specific to each match up and tonight, it will be fairly simple given the Pacers are still without C Myles Turner. The Pacers have really struggled without their starting center and have been bullied the last 2 games in the post. The Spurs LaMarcus Aldridge and even Pau Gasol should create a tough match up for the Pacers Domantas Sabonis and even Oladipo, despite some nice fantasy numbers hasn't been the most efficient from the floor, something which will be even more difficult against a fantastic Spurs defense. Even shorthanded, this should be a comfortable Spurs win!
Long Beach St simply does not defend well enough for us to ever want to lay points with them. Ranked near the bottom 50 in the nation in that regard, the 49ers do have some scorers but are error prone which is compounded by the break neck pace they play at. The Titans don't mind a fast game and come into this match up in good form, winners of 4 out of their last 5 and should be able to go toe to toe with the 49ers, who may also have one of their key contributors in Bryan Alberts sidelined with an injury.
USC plays at a moderate pace to begin with and this is a bit of a deviation from the recent past where they were one of the fastest teams in the nation. But it's noticeable the last 5 games that the Trojans have slowed it down even more letting their opponents dictate the pace of play. The Trojans' scoring is still highly efficient but face an Oregon St team with an improving defense and one of the slowest teams in the country. We expect the Beavers to put forth the same formula as they did against UCLA and based on recent form, we see a tight lower scoring game with good defenive rebounding that doesn't have enough possessions barring overtime!
If this game took place early in the season, the total would be much lower than it is tonight. Of course, recent form plays heavily and both sides have been playing higher scoring games of late but the match up of Dallas's undersized guards aren't really exploited by Portland's backcourt, who while are efficient scorers in their own right, don't really create a natural height advantage that the Mavs usually face. Portland is a much improved defensive and rebounding team and neither side is apt to run in transition. We believe it will take an above average shooting effort from both sides or an unfortunate overtime to send this over!
The Clippers have been in good form, winning 6 in a row but we expect a bit of a letdown after 2 games where they were probably heavily invested emotionally given the opponent. The Jazz faltered last night against the Knicks but Gobert looked good in his return with 23 poitns and 14 rebounds and exceeded his minutes restriction by 6. Despite being on a back to back, we expect to see the big Frenchman in the lineup and to provide a much needed defensive presence in the middle. The Clippers will still be without DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers. Montrezl Harrell was fantastic in place of Jordan but we don't see this as sustainable, especially not against Gobert.
The Warriors are still the best team in the NBA but they will be facing the 2nd best team tonight and on the road, we can't make them clear favorites. Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green remain suspended for the hosts but James Harden did make his return last game against the Timberwolves. Harden showed some rust and will be on a 30 minute restriction but we expect this to be fluid given the opponent. The Rockets' home court is one of the best in the league and in a prime time spotlight game, we can't make them worse than a very slim underdog.