Sunday night, the New Orleans Saints return to Minnesota (NBC, 7:20 p.m.) to confront the heartbreak of last January’s playoff loss to the Vikings. It will be one of the most-watched prime time games of the new season. It will also be very heavily bet.
The good news if you’re a Saints fan and investor is that indicators are good for vengeance.
New Orleans would have “won stats” and the game as a 5 1/2-point underdog had it not allowed that last second 61-yard TD pass from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs. Here’s what the final box score would have looked like if you erase the nightmare.
Game Stats Minus Diggs Drama
Final Score: New Orleans 24, Minnesota 23
Total Yards: New Orleans 358, Minnesota 342
Yards-per-Play: New Orleans 5.3, Minnesota 4.9
Very impressive in context from an analytics perspective. That’s against a Minnesota defense which was historically great much of last season, and came despite the Saints digging a 17-0 hole in the first half.
▪ Rules changes have made it much easier for NFL offenses to drive the field and score touchdowns … and much more difficult for defenses to stop them. That means Drew Brees and the Saints offense are even more dangerous in the 2018 season than they were before. It also hurts Minnesota worse than many other teams because much of what made them a league power isn’t allowed any more.
▪ New Orleans has taken the ball and thrown with it! The Saints are averaging more than 300 net passing yards per game, with a stellar 13/0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. They rank #2 in the NFL in points scored per game.
▪ Minnesota’s defense was hit even harder than expected. The Vikings are only No. 21 in passing yards allowed per game, and No. 11 in total defense. It’s not just that the Vikings dropped back in unison with all other defenses … they’ve been LESS able to adjust to the new rules. (Note that those disappointing rankings could be WORSE if Minnesota hadn’t faced rookie quarterbacks Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and Sam Darnold.)
Betting markets have taken some notice. Gamblers have already seen a move of 4-5 points from the playoffs. Through the week, Sunday night’s game has been pick-em or Minnesota -1 depending on the time and store.
As we’ve discussed in past “market” Power Rating presentations, New Orleans is being priced like a serious Super Bowl contender this season. Minnesota being that close to pick-em AT HOME against the Saints means the Vikings are only seen as “playoff caliber,” rather than “championship caliber.” The Saints currently rate at 2-3 points better on a neutral field. They might be laying as many as 5-6 points were this game scheduled for the Superdome.
Are current market adjustments enough to reflect the real-world impact of those rules changes? That’s the decision bettors must make. Worth remembering that New Orleans has been in fine form since getting caught napping defensively in its season opener vs. Tampa Bay. A perfect 5-0 afterward. Minnesota is 2-1-1 when not facing rookie QBs, beating San Francisco, tying Green Bay and a hobbled Aaron Rodgers, losing at the LA Rams, and needing a pick-six to squeak past fading Philadelphia.
▪ A consensus of global outlets shows the Saints at around 4/1 (plus 400) to win the NFC (trailing only the LA Rams at a consensus around 6/4 or plus 150). Minnesota centers around 13/2 (plus 650). For odds to win the Super Bowl, the Saints are around 8/1, the Vikings 12/1 (the Rams 3/1). Prices will vary at brick and mortar sports books based on the betting tendencies of their clientele.
▪ All four NFC South teams won their games last week, but only one of the other three entries covered its point spread. Carolina (+5) rallied to upset Philadelphia 21-17, Tampa Bay (-3.5) had to go overtime to survive Cleveland 26-23, and Atlanta (-4) held off the NY Giants 23-20.
▪ Heading into the new week, the Saints (5-1) are one game ahead of Carolina (4-2), and at least two clear of Tampa Bay (3-3) and Atlanta (3-4). The Falcons finally get their bye this week. Carolina is a 2-point home underdog to Baltimore. Tampa Bay is +4.5 at Cincinnati. A win for New Orleans in Minnesota could have a big impact in the divisional race if Carolina and Tampa Bay can’t win as underdogs.
▪ The largest NFL point spread so far in 2018 is on the board this weekend with New England -14 at Buffalo Monday Night (ESPN, 7:15 p.m.). That would suggest New England would be about -17 on a neutral field, and as high as -20 at home against the Bills with either Derek Anderson or Nathan Peterman at quarterback. Buffalo is getting 3-4 more points of market respect when Josh Allen starts. That gives you a sense of the full league scale … about 17 points from “championship caliber” to “expansion caliber” on a neutral field.