Wild Card Edition
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*Note – DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average: It’s Football Outsiders’ primary efficiency statistic and I believe it to be the best and most predictive measure of assessing the strength of NFL teams
**Note – All betting odds courtesy of Vegas Insider
***Note – Public betting refers to the amount of wagers taken on the spread
Records Entering Wild Card Weekend
Straight Up: 177-79 (.691) Last Week: 11-5 (.688) Total: 341-180-2 (.654)
Spread: 147-99-11 (.593) Last Week: 11-5 (.688) Total: 297-207-19 (.586)
Over/Under: 143-107-6 (.570) Last Week: 11-5 (.688) Total: 285-232-6 (.550)
Locks: 24-4 (.857) Last Week: 2-0 (1.000) Total: 56-10 (.848)
Best Bets: 67-43 (.609) Last Week: 4-3 (.571) Total: 196-143-1 (.578)
*Note: Total records date back to 2016 season.
CAPITAL Letters indicate pick with spread
*Aster-risk denotes LOCK
#5 Tennessee Titans vs #4 Kansas City Chiefs
Spread: KC -9 Over/Under: 44.5
DVOA: TEN (19) < KC (16)
Public Betting: KC 58%
There are two teams that don’t deserve to be in this year’s postseason: one is Buffalo and the other is Tennessee. The Titans mustered only nine wins despite playing the league’s 3rd-easiest schedule and they finished just 19th in Football Outsiders’ (FO) Weighted DVOA metric, which measures team efficiency relative to opponent strength with more importance placed on recent performances. Tennessee doesn’t do anything particularly well, either. According to FO, it ranks just 18th in offense, 21st in defense, and 13th in special teams.
So the Chiefs, winners of four in a row after a mid-season slide, should walk all over the Titans, right? Wrong. I actually think this is a trap game for Kansas City. For starters, the Chiefs quietly have one of the weaker defenses in the NFL. Not only did they finish in the bottom five of yards allowed, but they struggle mightily at stopping the run: according to FO, they actually have the worst rush defense in football. Moreover, aside from Justin Houston (9 sacks), Kansas City doesn’t disrupt the quarterback much at all, as it only has the league’s 20th-ranked pressure rate (30.0%). This inability to provide much resistance could spell trouble against a Titans team with a solid rushing attack made even more formidable by Marcus Mariota’s ability to make plays outside of the pocket.
However, the good news for Kansas City’s above-average offense is that Tennessee’s defense also isn’t very formidable. The Titans are especially vulnerable against quality tight ends, as they allowed the 6th most yards per game to tight ends during the regular season. Look for Travis Kelce to help the Chiefs overcome a Titans team that will make the game interesting.
Kansas City 24, TENNESSEE 20
#6 Atlanta Falcons vs #3 Los Angeles Rams
Spread: LA -5.5 Over/Under: 48.5
DVOA: ATL (14) < LA (3)
Public Betting: ATL 51%
This primetime matchup between the defending NFC champs and the conference’s emerging powerhouse is undoubtedly the most compelling game of the weekend. With a win, Atlanta will earn a trip to Philadelphia, which undoubtedly leaves it in good position to reach the NFC championship. But the Rams certainly aren’t pushovers, despite their inexperience. LA finished the year ranked in the top ten in offense, defense, and special teams efficiency.
For that reason, the numbers point to the Rams as the best bet to win this game. The league’s highest scoring offense has scored at least 26 points in twelve of its fifteen games (excluding Week 17). Atlanta’s defense, on paper, doesn’t project to offer much resistance, either. And on the other side of the ball, Los Angeles is well-positioned to contain Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ passing offense having finished the regular season ranked 3rd against the pass.
With that said…my gut is telling me to take Atlanta. Dan Quinn’s squad is certainly more battle tested, for starters, and I don’t think the fact that this game is in LA makes much of a difference — in fact, I would be surprised if this game sold out. But, more importantly, there are a few specific matchups that might point the Falcons’ way. Linebacker Deion Jones could be the man to contain Todd Gurley out of the backfield, for instance, as the second-year OLB has the NFL’s best coverage grade among linebackers according to Pro Football Focus. Plus, I think Pro Bowl center Alex Mack can contain LA’s other star, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and it remains to be seen how the Rams will fare in its first true test without starting cornerback Kayvon Webster, who tore his achilles in mid-December.
Another underrated factor in this game that Los Angeles must contend with: no Greg Zuerlein. The first-team All Pro kicker was placed on IR a couple of weeks ago with a back injury and his replacement, Sam Ficken, has been lousy: he has two missed kicks, including an extra point, and has not attempted a kick over 40 yards, albeit in limited action since Zuerlein went down. In short, too many elements are pointing toward an Atlanta upset.
ATLANTA 27, Los Angeles 24
#6 Buffalo Bills vs #3 Jacksonville Jaguars
Spread: JAC -8.5 Over/Under: 39.5
DVOA: BUF (28) < JAC (10)
Public Betting: JAC 51%
I mentioned earlier that the Bills were one of two teams that clearly did not deserve a playoff berth. Just look at their point differential: Buffalo’s -57 mark was the 11th worst in football. Teams like the 5-11 Chicago Bears and the 6-10 San Francisco 49ers posted better scoring margins, let alone playoff-caliber squads like the Los Angeles Chargers and Baltimore Ravens.
Nonetheless, Buffalo took advantage of its opportunities and managed to snap a seventeen year postseason drought. It will probably be short-lived, though, for two reasons. First, the Bills’ best player, running back LeSean McCoy, was carted off the field with an ankle injury during their game last week at Miami. McCoy reportedly will play on Sunday, but who knows how effective he will be. Regardless, at least his presence could give Buffalo a chance against Jacksonville, particularly since the Jaguars’ weakness is their run defense (26th in the NFL).
But the fact is this: the Bills’ offense is anemic. Buffalo averaged just 4.8 yards per play this season, ranking just 29th in the NFL in this category. No surprise, therefore, that Tyrod Taylor and company also struggled against elite defenses, as they averaged just 13 points per game in their three matchups against top 10 units according to defensive DVOA (Carolina, New Orleans, Denver). And speaking of elite defenses, the Jaguars have the AFC’s best: they finished tied with Minnesota in opponent yards per play and second in the NFL in red zone scoring defense.
Points will be hard to come by for Buffalo. Unless Blake Bortles screws up, Jacksonville should win easily.
JACKSONVILLE 27, Buffalo 10
#5 Carolina Panthers vs #4 New Orleans Saints
Spread: NO -7 Over/Under: 47.5
DVOA: CAR (9) < NO (2)
Public Betting: NO 54%
The familiar phrase, “it’s difficult to beat a team three times in one year” applies here. The Saints had no trouble with the Panthers in the regular season, as New Orleans swept the season series and put up over 30 points in each contest.
Yet I think the key for Sean Payton’s squad in each of those games was neutralizing Carolina’s rushing attack. Despite finishing 4th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, the Panthers weren’t able to have much success on the ground against the Saints. This was especially true in the most recent matchup: Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey were held to just 61 yards on 17 carries combined.
If Carolina wants to pull an upset, it will need a better performance from its two running backs because that should open things up for Cam Newton, who has struggled mightily over the last two weeks (1 TD/4 INT; 170 passing yards per game). Newton is well-known for being one of the most erratic quarterbacks in the NFL, though, so his struggles won’t necessarily continue. Plus, the Panthers’ offense has had success even without Newton on his A-game. For instance, they recently put up 31 points in a December victory over Minnesota, the league’s top-ranked defense, even though Newton threw for just 137 yards.
Regardless, New Orleans’ 5th-ranked pass defense is good enough to ensure that Newton remains in check, at least through the air. It’s also unlikely that the Panthers’ secondary, which allows 6.7 yards per pass (19th in the NFL), will keep Drew Brees and company contained. Combined with the fact that this game will take place in what should be a raucous environment, the Saints should hold serve at the Superdome, albeit in an encounter that should be more difficult than their previous two regular season meetings with Carolina.
New Orleans 27, CAROLINA 21
And lastly, here are my Best Bets for Wild Card Weekend…
- ATLANTA (+5.5) over Los Angeles
- Atlanta vs Los Angeles OVER 48.5
- JACKSONVILLE (-8.5) over Buffalo
- TEASER: CAROLINA (+14) over New Orleans & Buffalo vs Jacksonville UNDER 46.5