“And…here…we…go.” (Joker, The Dark Knight)
Yes, the weather sucks (at least where I live), but this is the best time of the year for NFL fans. The Playoffs! Where every game means everything. Win or go home! Survive and advance! The season is over for 18 teams, and the remaining 14 still harbor visions of grandeur. Let’s take a 30,000-foot look at the 14 teams that accomplished their pre-season goal of making the playoffs.
This year, seven of the 14 teams that made the playoffs also made it last year: Tennessee, Buffalo, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, and Los Angeles. Of those, four (Buffalo, KC, Tennessee, and Green Bay) have been in the playoffs for three years running. This year marks their seventh straight postseason appearance; KC is the only team with a streak longer than three years.
Cincinnati and Arizona tied for the longest playoff droughts snapped, neither has made it since the 2015 season. All seven teams that have made the playoffs the last two seasons have the same head coach. Philadelphia and Las Vegas are the only two teams to change head coaches since the end of last year and make the field this year. So if your favorite team just relieved the HC of his duties, you may have to wait a bit until they get in on the fun.
Looking at the teams playing this week, five of the six games are rematches of regular-season meetings. Of those five, this weekend’s home teams all won at least one of the games against their visiting opponents. New England/Buffalo and Arizona/Los Angeles are divisional rematches that were split in the regular season. Knowing that it may be tempting to see all the home teams being solid favorites this weekend and expect them all to win, that would be flying in the face of recent history.
Last year, the first with the current 14 team playoff format, only two of the six home teams won their Wild Card round game. You have to go all the way back to 2016 to find the last time home teams won not only all their first-round games but also the last time they won more than they lost.
With that, let’s get to the good stuff, picking the games. As a special playoff bonus, I’m not only going to pick the point spread winners; I’m going to pick the games straight up, as well. Playoff level fun! Playoff betting is about structural advantages. The big ones are coaching, quarterback, home field, and experience. Look for weak links that can be exploited and never take the points if you don’t think the dog can win outright. Everybody goes all out for 60 minutes, so you usually don’t have the option for a backdoor cover if things get out of hand early.
(Standard disclaimer – NFL Wild Card Weekend Betting Lines – All opinions are my own and may or may not reflect those of this website. “Analytic Lines” are ELO point spreads from fivethirtyeight.com, and “Vegas Lines” are courtesy of thelines.com, current as of the writing of this article. Predicted Line (“PL”) is my early week estimate of where the Vegas line would be set. Chosen games are those with a multiple point variance between the Vegas and Analytic Lines for the NFL Wild Card Weekend Betting Lines.)
Last Week Accountability
The final week of the regular season turned out to be my best of the year, going 4 – 1 to finish the year (since Week Two, when this column started up) at exactly .500. ELO had a solid week as well, going 3 – 1 – 1.
Game of the Week – San Francisco at Los Angeles Rams – This one looked dicey at 17 – 0, but when you have no discernable home-field advantage, and your QB is Matt Stafford, ships have a way of righting themselves.
New Orleans at Atlanta – This one could have gone sideways on us when Taysom Hill left the game hurt, but, yeah, Atlanta.
Indianapolis at Jacksonville – Other than the “I don’t think there’s any way Jacksonville wins here” thing, this game played out exactly like I thought it would. I put it over the top because Carson Wentz is even worse than I expected (which is saying a lot).
Pittsburgh at Baltimore – The only game I got wrong this week, and I’m pretty cheesed at myself about it. These two always play tight games; five was too much to lay. Plus, when Carson Wentz went over the top Carson Wentz, and it became obvious Indy would lose, it switched this game from meaningless to important and put me on the wrong side of the coaching matchup.
Upset of the Week – Los Angeles Chargers at Las Vegas – Every anti-analytics football announcer is going to use Brandon Staley coaching decisions as evidence of “Analytics bad, old school football good” for the rest of time. It’s not right or fair. It’s just factual.
Last week: My picks, 4 – 1; Analytics, 1 – 1 – 1
Season: My picks, 71 – 71 – 1; Analytics, 69 – 71 – 3
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NFL Wild Card Weekend Betting Lines
Game of the Week
San Francisco at Dallas – Analytic Line: DAL (-5.5), Vegas Line: DAL (-3), PL: DAL (-3.5)
Let’s call the only non-rematch game the Game of the Week. LA blowing the lead and letting San Fran into the playoffs is bad news for Dallas. Moving up from the four seed robs them of a matchup with Arizona, which would have been the only possible matchup where Mike McCarthy was the clearly better head coach. Instead, they get matched up with the proverbial “Team Nobody Wants to See in the Playoffs.” That’s a bad trade.
Dallas doesn’t have any structural advantages here. Their home-field advantage is negligible, Kyle Shanahan can coach circles around McCarthy, their coordinators are up for pretty much every HC opening, and Jimmy G won’t have to worry about weather affecting his ailing thumb in the dome. Dak, Amari, and CeeDee are certainly formidable weaponry and give the Pokes a puncher’s chance, but I’ll take the points with the Niners and like them to win straight up.
Make It A Parlay
Philadelphia at Tampa Bay – Analytic Line: TB (-10), Vegas Line: TB (-9), PL: TB (-10.5)
The Thursday Night game in Philly between these two wasn’t as close as the score would indicate. Tampa was up 28 – 7 in the third quarter and took their foot off the gas. Tampa took their AB-induced frustrations out on Carolina last week, and they’ll be focused.
The bottom line, this is a first-time playoff HC and QB combo against the pair that won the Super Bowl last year, one of which just happens to be the GOAT. This one’s over early and over ugly. Better jump on the Tampa side of the spread now before it inevitably heads north of 10.
Arizona at Los Angeles Rams – Analytic Line: LAR (-6), Vegas Line: LAR (-4), PL: LAR (-4.5)
It is super unfair that I can’t bet against both Kliff Kingsbury and Matt Stafford in the first round. Just heartbreaking. This game is a tough one to call. LA has no real fanbase, thus no actual home-field advantage.
Kyler Murray is a playoff virgin, but Stafford’s made three playoff starts in 13 years and lost them all, so we’ll call that a push. The only real advantage to be had is McVay >>> Kingsbury, so I’ll grab the points, pick the Rams to win, and dream about betting against Stafford when he’s matched up against Brady or Rodgers next week.
New England at Buffalo – Analytic Line: BUF (-6), Vegas Line: BUF (-4.5), PL: BUF (-3)
Like Arizona and the Rams, another divisional rematch that’s tough to call. Home field will be an edge for Buffalo, and playoff virgin Mac Jones doesn’t seem like the type of QB that can carry a team on his back.
On the other hand, Belichick built this team to beat Buffalo, has a considerable edge on McDermott, who’s good for a blunder or two in a big game, and I like New England’s chances of mucking up the game enough that I’d rather have the points. Buffalo wins by a field goal.
Pittsburgh at Kansas City – Analytic Line: KC (-12.5), Vegas Line: KC (-12.5), PL: KC (-13.5)
Really, NFL? This is the best you’ve got for the Sunday Night game? NBC must be thrilled. Since the NFL expanded the playoffs by one team per conference last year, the teams that got into the dance as seventh seeds are Philip Rivers-led Indianapolis, Mitchell Trubisky-led Chicago, Philly, and Pittsburgh.
I like only one team getting a bye, but this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of letting additional teams in. KC just schooled Pittsburgh by 26 three weeks ago in a game the Steelers were lucky not to get shut out. I don’t think they could score 20 points against their scout team defense. At least I’ll be able to go to bed at a decent hour. This one should be over by halftime.
Upset of the Week
Las Vegas at Cincinnati – Analytic Line: CIN (-7.5), Vegas Line: CIN (-5.5), PL: CIN (-6.5)
The playoff opener is our upset special. Dueling first-time playoff head coaches, dueling first-time playoff QB’s. I’ll take the points in that case. These two met back in Week 11 when the Raiders were still in their post-bye, Henry Ruggs-induced tailspin. I like them to get their revenge this week. They’re riding high after beating the Chargers on Sunday Night; look for that to carry over into Saturday.
Next week, the Divisional Round. Where the big boys play!
Keep an eye on our Club Dyntasy Page all offseason long for new content while the NFL is away!