NFL Playoff Picks – Wildcard Round

By Zach Zaffos (Twitter: @zachzaffos)

Season To Date Against the Spread (ATS):

Best Bets: 12-5 (71%)

Units: 37.5-24.5-1 (60%)

All Bets: 25-19-1 (57%)

Week 17 Recap:

1.5 units (Best Bet): BUFFALO (-3.5) OVER Miami

In last week’s column, we emphasized the importance of handicapping the ‘motivation’ factor, and the premise of our ‘Best Bet’ was our perception that Buffalo wanted the game more. We hit the nail on the head, as Miami looked like it couldn’t wait for its season to end, while Buffalo rallied behind its exciting first-year QB. Additionally, Miami had been substantially outperforming its statistics entering Week 17, which we felt was bound to regress to the mean.

1.5 units: GREEN BAY (-8) OVER Detroit

Though Aaron Rodgers left this one in the first quarter due to injury, we clearly misread the motivation factor here. In last week’s post, we noted that Rodgers had shown new life since the McCarthy firing, even though each game played during that timeframe was meaningless (i.e. the Pack had been essentially eliminated from playoff contention in McCarthy’s last game). Obviously, that did not turn out to be the case, as the Lions obliterated Green Bay 31-0.

Looking back, we probably underestimated the likelihood that Green Bay would bring its C-effort game, which is a similar concept to what we saw in other Week 17 games. Given the uncertainty about motivation in many spots, I’ve come away with one key takeaway moving forward:

  • Week 17 of the NFL is analogous to College Football Bowl Season, as there is a wider range of results against the spread (i.e., games are more likely to end 20 points away from the line). For that reason, we should likely avoid Week 17 teasers in the future, and consider taking some money lines when we like the underdog.

Unlike our Week 17 theme, motivation will no longer be our number-one factor now that we’ve reached the greatest time of the year – the NFL postseason! Instead, we will revert to our main concepts utilized throughout the season, such as:

  • Recognizing When Statistics Don’t Align with Results
  • Fading the Public Overreactions/Inflated Spreads
  • Finding Hidden Value on Road/Home Splits

Before we get into the picks, I’d like to introduce a new structure for the column that we’ll use for the playoffs.

(Here comes the good news).

We will provide our thoughts on every NFL Playoff game!

However, given that there are only four games to choose from, we won’t necessarily recommend our standard 2-3 bets each week. Ultimately, we can make money only by finding incorrect spreads.

After our research this week, we’ve identified one strong bet for you all. For all other 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!

BEST BET

DALLAS (-1.5) OVER Seattle – 1 unit

The more we looked into this game, the more we absolutely love Dallas here.

First, let’s get into the numbers. Dallas is favored by one at home, which means Vegas believes Seattle is two points better than the Cowboys on a neutral field.

While that may not sound like a ton, two points is typically the difference between a fringe top-five NFL team and a team rated in the 11-13 range.

And there are reasons to believe Dallas is equal, if not better, than Seattle:

  1. The Defenses

Everyone sees 10-6 Seattle, and automatically assumes it possesses a rock-solid defense. After all, that has been the Seahawks’ identity for years. However, it’s important to realize the facts:

Seattle is a below-average defense. In fact, the Seahawks rank 25th in the NFL in yards-per-play allowed this season. By contrast, Seattle had ranked in the top 5 in this category in each of the prior five seasons (1, 1, 2, 5, 5).

Moreover, Dallas, which hasn’t been a great defense over the previous five years (31, 27, 19, 16, 8), ranked 8th in yards-per-play allowed for the second consecutive year in 2018. In fact, Dallas ranks 5th in the NFL against the run at 3.8-yards-per-rush allowed, while Seattle ranks 30th in the same category (4.9-yards-per-rush allowed).

Given that each of these teams’ strengths has been the run game this year, this bodes well for a rested Zeke and for the Cowboys offense that is designed to control the clock.

  • Turnover Differential

You’ve heard this one before, but it doesn’t make it any less true: Seattle is number one in the NFL in turnover differential this season, despite its subpar defensive numbers in terms of yardage.

The Seahawks have forced 26 turnovers, while only giving away a league-low 4 fumbles on offense!

Turnovers are a huge part of the game and are largely unsustainable. Seattle has been winning games this season due to these unsustainable turnovers, and our line here doesn’t discount Seattle accordingly. That screams value.

(Note: Dallas is a middle-of-the pack 12th in turnover differential).

  • Home/Road Splits

It may sound simplistic, but if a team is 7-1 at home, and another team is 3-4 on the road (one of Seattle’s “road” games was in London), wouldn’t you say the 7-1 home team should be favored by more than one point?

  • Rest/Injuries

Based on the above, it’s obvious that the Cowboys running game versus the Seahawks run defense is going to be the matchup to watch. Luckily for Dallas, star running back Ezekiel Elliot, as well as the Cowboys two starting offensive lineman – Tyron Smith and Zack Martin – are expected to play after missing Week 17. In what is expected to be a physical game, these two key Cowboys are coming in healthy and well rested.

Clearly, we love the Cowboys here. In a matchup between two even teams, we’ll always take the home field if we only have to swallow one-and-a-half points.

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.

HOUSTON (-1.5) versus Indianapolis (Saturday 4:35 p.m. EST)

Why Indianapolis: Houston has been a lucky team all season, winning close game after close game. In fact, the Texans rank 2nd in turnover differential, while the Colts rank 13th. Additionally, Indy is 9th in net yards per play (yards per play on offense minus yards per play on defense), while Houston ranks 12th. All signs point to Indy being the better team.

Why Houston: The spread is low! Home teams receive an automatic three points, so the line here is inherently says that Indy is a better football team. There is a lot of public love for the Colts, and it could potentially be overpriced in the line here.

Final Thoughts: We would lean with Houston if we had to choose, but certainly don’t feel strongly about it. This would be the last of the four games we would select to bet.

BALTIMORE (-2.5) versus Los Angeles Chargers (Sunday 1:05 p.m. EST)

Why Los Angeles Chargers: If any team is built to win a playoff game away from home, it’s the Chargers, who rank first in the NFL with a +6.8 margin against the spread on the road this season. The Chargers are 7-1 on the road in those games. The reasoning for this is simple: Los Angeles plays in a 20,000-seat soccer arena, so it does not possess much of a home-field advantage. Thus, the Chargers overall perceived value is slightly deflated, as it does not have the opportunity to lay the smack down in its home games. Additionally, Los Angeles is facing a rookie quarterback in his first playoff game.

Why Baltimore: Though the Chargers are a great road team, Baltimore is an equally great home team. The Ravens rank seventh in the NFL in home against the spread margin at +3.4 points (which already accounts for Baltimore’s strong home-field advantage, as is). Additionally, many will get caught up in Los Angeles’ gaudy 12-4 record – but the team won two games via two-point conversions in the final seconds (LAC made 2-point conversion vs. Kansas City; TEN missed 2-point conversion vs. LAC). The team’s record could easily be 10-6. The Chargers are considered the better team based on the spread here, but Baltimore actually has the better point differential on the season at +102 to +99.

Final Thoughts: This one was closest to a ‘like’ on our column, but the Chargers’ road prowess ultimately swayed us against taking Baltimore. We love the way the Ravens defense and running game has played of late, though, and would certainly lean to Baltimore.

CHICAGO (-5.5) versus Philadelphia (Sunday 4:40 p.m. EST)

Why Philadelphia: Nick Foles seems to have hit his stride. More importantly, the rest of the Eagles’ roster is behind Foles, and genuinely believe he will lead them to another Super Bowl. I’d expect the rest of the roster to prepare with that much more focus, which means that some of the season-long statistics may not be valid when comparing these two teams.

Why Chicago: Time and time again, this team has outperformed 2018 expectations, and it starts with first-year head coach Matt Nagy. Nagy has done a tremendous job of preparing limited QB Mitchell Trubisky, and we would expect him to pull out his most creative playcalling in the playoffs. Additionally, the Bears defense has been stellar throughout the year, and the team ranks first in the league with a +5.5 margin against the spread. With a spread of 5.5 here, Vegas is inherently saying that Chicago is only 2.5 points better than Philadelphia. Are the Bears still being undervalued?

Final Thoughts: No one can be absolutely positive that Nick Foles will play at the level he’s hit the past two weeks based on his career output, and with a spread of 5.5, I’d certainly lean toward the Bears. However, it’s hard to trust Trubisky laying this high of a number versus a confident Eagles bunch.

And there we have it. We hope you enjoyed our playoff breakdowns. Be sure to follow Zach’s Twitter handle (@zachzaffos) for insights later in the week. Good luck, everyone!

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