It's the Friday before the best NFL weekend of the year. While I enjoy the Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs, the fact is that with expansion, we get some mediocre teams reaching the postseason. In theory, those also-rans are filtered out in the first round, meaning we've got the cream of the crop remaining for the Divisional Round.
For the most part, that's true this weekend. If you look at the records of the eight teams remaining, six of them won at least 12 games during the regular season. Then there are the Jaguars and Giants, so I guess you can't have everything. Still, at least the Jaguars won their division and have underlying metrics that suggest they're better than their 9-8 record indicates. As for the Giants, well, I'll have more on them when we get to the picks.
First, let's catch up on today's reading.
- Only the boldest of predictions for the Divisional Round will do!
- These five NBA teams hold a lot of power ahead of the trade deadline.
- Speaking of NBA trades, the Bucks are looking for a new home for Serge Ibaka.
- LeBron James' son is down to three schools.
We'll get to our NFL picks shortly, but first let's take a look at Friday night's action.
All times Eastern, and all odds via Caesars Sportsbook
🔥 The Hot Ticket
Grizzlies at Lakers, 10 p.m. | TV: ESPN
- Key Trend: The under is 12-3 in the last 15 meetings
- The Pick: Under 243 (-110)
The total in this game feels like wishful thinking. Like, it's a Friday night game on national television between LeBron James and the Lakers against one of the brightest young stars in the game today in Ja Morant and a Memphis Grizzlies team with one of the best records in the league. You want it to be fun, and you want it to be exciting.
Who wouldn't love seeing a battle between Morant and LeBron, with the two trading buckets all night?
Unfortunately, this line seems to forget that LeBron is 38, and the Lakers have an average offense. One that is a lot better when Anthony Davis is playing, which he will not be doing tonight, or any time soon. The other thing that isn't considered is that while Memphis ranks sixth in the NBA in offensive efficiency, the true key to its success is on the defensive end. That's where the Grizzlies rank first in the league.
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Furthermore, while Memphis' defensive efficiency slips a bit on the road, it doesn't slip as severely as its offense does. The good news is this total is so high that we can all still watch a fun and exciting game and never have to worry much about it going past the total.
Here's what SportsLine is saying about the game: While it's not handing out an A-grade, the Projection Model and I are seeing eye-to-eye on the total here.
🏀 College Basketball
Villanova at St. Johns, 7 p.m | TV: FS1
The Pick: St. Johns -4 (-110) -- While I'm not surprised Villanova has taken a step back this season without Jay Wright, I'm still caught off guard by how big the step back has been. The Wildcats, who reached the Final Four last season, are only 9-10 and 3-5 in the Big East. While they're coming off a home win against Georgetown, they lost a road game to DePaul last week and have struggled on the road overall. Nova has played 11 road or neutral site games this season and lost eight of them. The wins have come against some particularly bad teams in Boston College, St. Joseph's and Georgetown.
St. John's is not a bad team. While the Red Storm are only 3-5 in the Big East themselves, they're coming off a win over UConn and have lost at home only twice this season against Marquette and Xavier -- teams that are much better than Villanova. Nova's defense has been the biggest reason behind their drop-off, and I think the Wildcats will have a hard time handling the pace of St. John's tonight.
🏈 NFL Playoffs
Giants at Eagles, Saturday, 8:15 p.m | TV: Fox
The Pick: Eagles -7.5 (-110) -- Last week I faced a conundrum. I spent the second half of the regular season waiting for the chance to bet against the Vikings in their first playoff game because they were the biggest frauds in the NFL. Minnesota won 13 games despite allowing more points than it scored. But there was a problem. The Vikings drew the Giants, who may not have been as fraudulent as Minnesota, but were pretty fraudulent themselves, as they also allowed more points than they scored.
So we had a situation where two frauds entered, and only one would leave. The Giants beat the purple frauds, but that doesn't mean they're no longer frauds themselves. They are, and they're facing the best team in the NFC this weekend. Yes, I have some concerns about Jalen Hurts' health, but those concerns are alleviated a bit by the Eagles outscoring the Giants 70-38 in their two meetings this season.
Cowboys at 49ers, Sunday, 6:30 p.m | TV: Fox
The Pick: Cowboys +4 (-110) -- Listen, I love the 49ers. I love Kyle Shanahan's offense. I love how this 49ers offense figures out 15 different ways to run the same play and keeps the defense confused the entire time. When it comes to pure football nerdery, there's no team in the league I enjoy watching more. But this spread is too large. Dallas is too good to be this large of an underdog in a playoff game where Brock Purdy is the starting quarterback for the 49ers team I love.
I'm not trying to rain on the Brock Purdy parade because Kyle Shanahan can turn any QB with above-average intelligence and accuracy into a competent NFL QB. But Purdy has benefitted from playing against some weak defenses since becoming the starter, and he hasn't faced a team with the kind of pass rush Dallas has. I saw a lot of Purdy in his college days at Iowa State, and I saw how he can sometimes panic and do really dumb things under pressure. I see that happening this weekend. Maybe not enough to cost the 49ers a win -- their defense is pretty good too! -- but enough to keep this one tight. You know, as long as Brett Maher doesn't miss another four extra points like he did Monday night when he cost us the over. Yes, I am still angry about it!
Hellas Verona vs. Lecce, Saturday, 9 a.m | TV: Paramount+
The Pick: Hellas Verona (+140) -- Things don't look good for Verona. It is in 18th place with only nine points through 18 matches and is seven points behind Sassuolo, meaning it's in danger of being relegated. In fact, I'm very confident it won't survive, but of the three teams at the bottom of the league, I'd give Verona the best chance simply because it's not nearly as bad as its record suggests. Using expected goals (xG), Verona has an xG differential of -4.9 on the season. That ranks 14th in the league. Verona has allowed 31 goals on an xG of 23.8. Some of that's bad luck, some of it is bad goalkeeping, and some of it is waning confidence.
Meanwhile, Lecce is in 14th place despite having a worse xG differential (-6.7) than Verona. Lecce has been better defensively, which has made a huge difference. Still, the results are having far too significant an impact on the line in this game. Particularly when you consider how much worse Lecce has been defensively on the road this season. They're all must-wins at this point for Verona, but this one feels even more critical as it's the first match of an easier stretch to the schedule. If Verona loses this one, it might be a wrap.
Arsenal vs. Manchester United, Sunday, 11:30 a.m | TV: NBC
The Pick: Arsenal (-121) -- Manchester United has been so much more enjoyable to watch this season, especially without Ronaldo lurking around killing the vibes. One of the biggest reasons for this shift has been the addition of Casemiro, who was always a favorite at Real Madrid and has brought his particular brand of brilliance to England. Manchester United described Casemiro's role with the team as the "cement between the stones," which was a beautiful and accurate way of describing his role in the team. He holds the whole thing together and allows everybody else to flourish in their roles.
Unfortunately for United, Casemiro picked up a dumb yellow card toward the end of their draw with Crystal Palace earlier this week, and he's now suspended for this match. That's a massive blow to United against the league leaders. I know United beat Arsenal 3-1 at Old Trafford earlier this season, but that was a different team, and United were a bit lucky to win that one so comfortably. Without Casemiro, I expect Arsenal will dominate the ball and the scoreline back home.
🔒 SportsLine Pick of the Day: SportsLine's Larry Hartstein has been crushing it in the NFL this season and has released his three favorite plays for the Divisional Round.