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Total Talk - DP Sunday
Total Talk - Saturday

The two Divisional Playoff round matchups on Sunday will be rematches from this year’s regular season as Pittsburgh and New Orleans will be looking to avenge losses to Jacksonville and Minnesota respectively.

If you’re handicapping leans to experience, this will be the third trip in the last four seasons to the second round of the NFL Playoffs for the Steelers. Meanwhile, the Saints (2013), Vikings (2009) and Jaguars (2007) could be a tad nervous come Sunday.

Similar to my first three playoff pieces, I’m going to break down every game and offer up my quick handicap and prediction for all the matchups. For those keeping track, my leans went 3-3 in the Wild Card round. As always, Press, Pass or Fade but in the end – Good Luck!

Sunday, Jan. 14

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh (CBS, 1:05 p.m. ET)

This total was sent out at 41 and the number has held steady all week with just a couple shops showing 41 ½ as of Friday afternoon. The weather in Western Pennsylvania was in the high fifties on Friday but this game is expecting to be played around the thirties. No precipitation or serious wind is expected.

In Week 5, Jacksonville posted an eye-opening 30-9 win over Pittsburgh as a 7 ½-point road underdog and the ‘under’ (41 ½) was clearly the right side. The Jaguars led 7-6 at the break and actually trailed 9-7 in the third quarter before their defense took over. The unit blew the game open with a pair of interceptions for touchdowns before running back Leonard Fournette padded the margin and his stats with a 90-yard run late in the fourth quarter.

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tossed a career-high five interceptions in the loss and the Steelers couldn’t do anything on the ground, rushing for 70 yards on 20 attempts. Pittsburgh will have wide receiver Antonio Brown (calf) back in the lineup this Sunday and he did have 10 receptions for 157 yards in the first meeting against the Jaguars.

Since that result, the Steelers have scored 20-plus points in 11 of their last 12 games and have posted 30 or more points four times during that span. Having that success on Sunday certainly won’t be easy against Jacksonville, who is ranked second defensively in scoring at 15.9 points per game, total yards (284.8) and sacks (57).

That defensive production was key in its Wild Card round last Sunday as Jacksonville dropped Buffalo 10-3 at home and the ‘under’ (40) easily connected. The Jaguars have seen the ‘under’ cash in two straight games and is 9-8 on the season, largely due to the defense but lately the Jacksonville offense has been a mess.

QB Blake Bortles hasn’t looked great the past three weeks and his confidence appears to be shaken too. Earlier this week he said to reporters, "Hopefully, we can throw less." It’s safe to say the entire team feels that way knowing the Jaguars led the league in rushing (142.2 YPG) and they’ll be facing a Steelers defense without linebacker Ryan Shazier. Since he went down with the spine injury, Pittsburgh has allowed 100-plus rushing yards in three of four games.

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The Steelers watched the ‘under’ go 10-5-1 this season but the ‘over’ was 5-3 at home. The one theme with Pittsburgh over the past few seasons that I’ve noticed is how it performs in the early Sunday games (1:00 p.m. ET). Tossing out the Week 17 meaningless game versus Cleveland, the Steelers only averaged 19.8 PPG in six other games played in this slot and that includes the aforementioned meeting versus Jacksonville. Not surprisingly, the ‘under’ cashed in all those games.

Before you run to the betting counter and bang the low side, it should be noted that the Steelers have watched the ‘over’ go 8-1 in home playoff games with Big Ben at QB and the team has averaged 26.2 PPG in those games.

Fearless Prediction: When you have totals this low, bettors normally have to put in a full 60-minute session and one or two big plays can turn the result upside down. I’m going to keep it simple and go with one ticket – Jacksonville Team Total Under (17). The Jaguars OFFENSE has scored 16, 17, 16 and 3 points in four games against playoff teams this season and two of those touchdowns came on long runs by Fournette. Barring more big plays from the Jaguars, I don’t see them finding the end zone more than once on Sunday.

New Orleans at Minnesota (FOX, 4:40 p.m. ET)

The last game on the board is always the most dangerous and the bookmakers have put themselves into a tough position with the total. Scott Cooley of BookMaker.eu admitted to VegasInsider.com that his shop made a slight mistake with their opener.

He explained, “The total we'll be sweating the most is that Saints-Vikings. We opened too low, 44.5, and we just recently moved to 47. The smart guys know this is a great Vikings defense, but it is up against Drew Brees. And they also understand that this isn't your average Minnesota offense. It's creative and it can score points in bunches.”

It is a little surprising to see the total go up knowing the Vikings are the league’s best defensive team in both scoring (15.8 PPG) and yards (275.9 YPG).

Minnesota has only seen two totals listed above 47 all season and the totals went 1-1 in those games. The Vikings earned a 14-9 road win at Atlanta in Week 13 as the ‘under’ (48 ½) connected easily and the other contest took place in Week 1 against New Orleans.

The Vikings posted a 29-19 win over the Saints in the Monday Night opener and the ‘over’ (47 ½) barely got there with a late score by New Orleans but the high side was definitely the right play. The pair combined for over 800 total offensive yards and 11 scores. It was a clean game as neither team turned the ball over but the difference was three short field goals by New Orleans (24, 21, 20) and leaving those points off the board cost the Saints.

A lot has changed since that meeting, most notably New Orleans ability to run the football. The Vikings only allowed 60 rushing yards in the opener but the Saints finished the season ranked sixth (124.2 YPG) in rushing offense.

New Orleans couldn’t get anything going on the ground (41 yards) last Sunday in its Wild Card win over Carolina and you wonder if it can muster up any yards against Minnesota’s run defense (83.6 YPG), which is ranked second in the league.  Fortunately for New Orleans, QB Drew Brees had a great game (376 yards, 2 TDs) last week and the defense did enough to withstand a rally from the Panthers.

Brees and the Saints offense (25.9 PPG) haven’t been as potent on the road and that’s translated into mixed total results (4-4). Helping a few of those ‘under’ tickets was the New Orleans defense. The offense gets all the headlines in ‘The Big Easy’ but the defense only allowed 20.7 PPG this season, compared to 28.4 PPG in 2016 and that’s a ridiculous improvement. On the road, the unit has been even better when it comes to scoring defense (18.2 PPG).

I did find one seasonal trend on New Orleans that could help you handicapping the side on this matchup. The Saints went 4-0 as visitors when holding teams under 20 points but 0-4 when allowing 20 or more.

Can the Vikings put up at least 20 on Sunday?

Based on what we’ve seen this season, the answer would be ‘Yes’ but let’s be clear that Minnesota’s offense isn’t a juggernaut (23.9 PPG, No. 10). Backup QB Case Keenum has played great since taking over for the injured Sam Bradford and a lot of pundits are waiting for him to collapse but he closed the season with an 11-1 record and captured division title.

Keenum reminds me of former San Francisco 49ers QB Jeff Garcia, another solid player that got the job done consistently yet never really amazed you. Keenum is very accurate (67.6%) and has the ability to make plays with his legs, something Bradford didn’t offer. It also helps to have a pair of great receivers (Thielen, Diggs) and a big tight end (Rudolph) as well.

In seven home games, Keenum led the Vikings to 20-plus points in six of seven games but the ‘under’ went 5-2. That record was obviously helped with dominating defensive numbers (11.5 PPG) in those games.

While Keenum has never started a playoff game, Brees has played in 12 and New Orleans has watched the ‘over’ go 9-3 in those games with him under center. In true road games, the Saints are 1-4 with Brees but the defense (32.6 PPG) didn’t exactly come to play in those contests.

Minnesota has been in 10 playoff games since 2001 and the ‘under’ has gone 7-2-1. Two of those postseason contests were against New Orleans and the ‘over’ went 1-0-1, the most recent meeting taking place in the 2009-10 NFC Championship. The Vikings had a great shot to win that game but a careless Brett Favre interception late in the fourth quarter cost the team dearly as they dropped 31-28 overtime decision at the Saints, who went on to win Super Bowl XLIV against Indianapolis.

Fearless Prediction: In the three of the last four Divisional Playoff rounds, the last game has watched the 'under' cash and we saw some tight games too. I believe this game will be decided by one score and even though the indoor environment might have you thinking shootout, I'm buying both defensive units and going against the betting public and money moves. I’m leaning to the game ‘under’ (47) and playing the New Orleans Team Total Under (20 ½) and Minnesota Team Total Under (24 ½) as well.

Chris David can be reached at cdavid@vegasinsider.com

  
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