NFL Playoff Picks – Divisional Round
By Zach Zaffos (Twitter: @zachzaffos)
Season To Date Against the Spread (ATS):
Best Bets: 13-5 (72%)
Units: 38.5-24.5-1 (61%)
All Bets: 26-19-1 (58%)
Wildcard Round Recap:
1 unit (Best Bet): DALLAS (-1.5) OVER Seattle
If any game exemplifies the importance of getting the best number, this one did it, as Dallas won by two points, and the spread at kickoff was Dallas -2.5. However, despite the close call, we were clearly on the right side here with the ‘Boys up 10 with less than two minutes to play. Dallas’ decision to rest its star offensive lineman plus Zeke Elliot in Week 17 definitely paid dividends vs. Seattle.
Moving onto the divisional round, we’ve got quite the slate of games. While a team that played on Wildcard Weekend has not reached the Superbowl since 2012, many public bettors love the road teams this time around. So, where is the value?
Well, the good news for you all is that we have another ‘Best Bet’ for this weekend! Like last week, for each of the other two games, we will provide our reasoning why we would stay away from the bet, as well as which side we’d ‘lean’ to (if we had to decide). Let’s get to the Best Bet.
Dallas (+7) OVER LOS ANGELES RAMS – 1 unit
It’s no secret – the Los Angeles Rams have not been playing at peak-performance level to close the year. Dallas, conversely, comes in having won 8 of 9.
Yet, the spread here is still the second highest of the weekend.
This screams opportunity.
Let’s start with our two favorite reasons to fade Los Angeles:
1) Rams Defense – Perception v. Reality:
We all see the disruptive force that is Aaron Donald, the pass rusher. But the Rams are bottom-five in the league in yards-per-play allowed on the season, and are dead last in yards-per-rush allowed. Sound familiar? Seattle was 30th in the league in yards-per-rush allowed, and conceded 164 on the ground versus the ‘Boys last week. Expect Zeke to go nuts once again.
Given that the perception of the Rams’ D is greater than its reality, we have a little extra spread value here in the Cowboys.
2) Rams Lack of Home Field:
Just because it’s obvious, doesn’t mean it’s not true: The city of Los Angeles does not boast a great home-field advantage for football. Both the Chargers and the Rams routinely sell more tickets to the opposing fans then their own.
However, Vegas oddsmakers haven’t really caught on here, as the standard three points for home-field advantage is seemingly still being awarded to these two teams.
Let me explain with some numbers:
Since the Rams and Chargers moved to L.A. in 2017, it’s safe to say that each team has exceeded the perceived expectations. In fact, since 2017, the Rams are #3 in the NFL since with an average margin against the spread of +5.4 points. Similarly, the Chargers are #4 in the NFL at +4.7 away from sunny Los Angeles.
At home, these statistics drastically change, as the Chargers sit at #11 in the NFL with a +1.1 rating, while the Rams drop down to #22 with a -0.7 rating.
Unfortunately for the Rams, the NFL’s largest fan base is coming into town for a playoff game. We saw how Green Bay and Philadelphia took over the Coliseum during the regular season; I can only imagine what’ll happen for what is arguably Dallas’ biggest game in a decade.
Vegas may eventually catch on to this trend and decrease the home-field edge for the L.A. teams, but with a 7-point spread here, it hasn’t happened yet. Give me a Dallas team that is playing its best football at the right time over an overvalued Rams squad.
Note: While we theoretically could be concerned with the rest and preparation advantage of the Rams coming off a bye week, there are two important mitigating factors:
- Rest: In Week 17, Dallas rested Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Zeke Elliot, who are the three players most instrumental to its running game. The run game is the strength of Dallas’ team, so this was huge. Further, Dallas largely had the division locked up for the past 3-to-4 weeks of the season, so it did not have to exert the same energy as many teams.
- Preparation: I love Sean McVay as much as the next guy, but even if he did use the bye week to prepare, it was likely to prepare for the Chicago Bears, the team favored to be the Rams’ opponent. I would doubt that he spent too much extra time reading up on Dallas.
OTHER PLAYOFF BREAKDOWNS
Note: These are not endorsed picks, but rather our thoughts on each game. We’ll break out each game in order of time slot.
KANSAS CITY (-5.5) versus Indianapolis (Saturday 4:35 p.m. EST)
Why Indianapolis: After a 1-5 start, the Colts have won 10 of 11, and come in as the hottest team in the NFL. Kansas City hasn’t been quite the same since losing Kareem Hunt, so these two teams may be more even that you think. In fact, the KC Defense ranks last in most defensive metrics over the second half of the season. Luck and the Colts should be able to move the ball at will. Given how even the teams are, getting 5.5 points sounds juicy.
Why Kansas City: The public bias is all over the Colts right now, and Indy comes in playing its third road game in three weeks (all de-facto playoff games). I don’t have the exact numbers, but teams attempting to complete a sweep of three consecutive road games usually do not fare too well. Additionally, while Kansas City has fallen off a bit since losing Hunt, it can be argued that the team should be 4-1 in that stretch, as the loss to the Chargers was a bit fluky. Had KC won that coin flip game, the spread would probably be a point higher.
Final Thoughts: This one was closest to a ‘like’ on our column, but the trend of Indy looking for its third road win in three weeks ultimately kept us off the game. We have a strong lean on the Colts.
NEW ENGLAND (-4) versus Los Angeles Chargers (Sunday 1:05 p.m. EST)
Why Los Angeles Chargers: Similar to what we said last week, as well as what we discussed in the Rams’ recap above, the Chargers are as well-equipped as anyone to win a playoff game away from home. Furthermore, after losing Josh Gordon and having a shell of Rob Gronkowski this season, the Patriots offense is severely lacking in weapons. With Brady seemingly slowing down as well, can they generate enough offense to cover the spread here? This is a clear plus for the Chargers.
Why New England: Though the Chargers are a great road team, they fall under the same trend as Indianapolis, with a third-consecutive road game on tap this weekend. Just in the past three weeks, the Chargers have flown from L.A. to Denver, back to L.A., across the country to Baltimore, back to L.A., and then back across the country to New England. Additionally, the game is being played at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time, an early start for the west coast Chargers. The travel could easily catch up to them here. Situational edge: New England.
Final Thoughts: Like Indianapolis, the public is 100% going to be all over the Chargers here, but again, we cannot buck the third-consecutive-road-game trend. Furthermore, we are a bit concerned about the coaching mismatch here from the Chargers’ perspective. This would be the last game we’d choose to wager on this week, but we have the slightest lean toward Los Angeles.
NEW ORLEANS (-8) versus Philadelphia (Sunday 4:40 p.m. EST)
Why Philadelphia: Until the Eagles lose, the reason to back Philadelphia will remain constant. This team hasn’t accumulated great season-long statistics, so its numbers won’t wow you. But there’s something magical about having Nick Foles behind center, and the rest of the team truly believes he will lead them to another Super Bowl. Sometimes, belief is more than enough to elevate a team’s performance. Moreover, it’s certainly possible that Saints QB Drew Brees has hit a wall this season, as his numbers in December haven’t been close to the rest of his season. This sometimes happens with older QBs (see: Brady, Tom), and if Brees can’t be Brees: Advantage, Eagles.
Why New Orleans: This could be argued as a positive or a negative, but the Saints’ starters come in not having played football in three weeks. Ultimately, with Brees having a chance to rest any nagging injuries, coupled with the strong coaching of Sean Payton to mitigate any rust factor, I’d say it’s a net positive. Relatedly, the Saints tend to win with margin in New Orleans, so the spread may not matter much here.
Final Thoughts: Nick Foles has proven to be two things: an above average quarterback and a guy who inspires the rest of his roster. The Saints have been the best team in football with a defense playing its best ball in December. Ultimately, this one could come down to whether the two weeks off rejuvenate Brees to the level he was playing at earlier in the season. Moreover, while Philly is under the same three-straight-road games trend as Indy and the Chargers, I don’t believe it to be as detrimental, as the first game was an easy shutout victory over Washington. We lean to the Eagles, but could easily see the Saints winning this one in a route.
And there we have it – another week is in the books. Best of luck to us all, and let’s keep our strong run going!