NFL Wild Card Week Betting Breakdown
02 January 2020
We have made out way through yet another season of NFL football, and have made it to the glorious playoffs. Playoff football is the best postseason out there and my personal most intriguing sporting time of the entire year. We now have seeding for both conferences and they are as follows, with their current championship odds.
The obvious shake up in the seeding comes from the Patriots shocking week 17 loss at home to the Dolphins, costing them a first round bye week and the 2 seed. This occurrence makes their road to the Super Bowl the most difficult out there as they draw the Titans in the first round, whose offense leads the league in all three of yards per play, yards per rush and yards per pass since Ryan Tannehill took over as the starter. Should they get pas the Titans, they would then have to travel to Kansas City, which is an unattractive matchup in any venue, particularly Arrowhead and lastly would have to win in Baltimore, and that would be simply to *make* the Super Bowl. Essentially the Patriots sealed their own fate by losing that week 17 game. The value on the AFC side for Super Bowl winning bets is very much in the two bye week teams in the Ravens and Chiefs. The Chiefs are very much overlooked and are the best value and have a win on their record over the Ravens this season.
The NFC feels extremely easy to project this season as I would label at least half of the conference’s playoff teams as fraudulent. Working our way down on the fraudulence, the Packers are arguably the worst bye week team in history. For a point of reference, the Packers won 13 games with a point differential of +63. The other five teams that won 12 or more games averaged a point differential of +174.6. Despite the guaranteed home game in the divisional round, the Packers will almost certainly draw the Saints, and they would assuredly be underdogs in that matchup. Next up in fraudulence: both the Eagles and Seahawks are the walking wounded in that matchup, and the game is a contest for the right to lose to San Francisco in the divisional round. The Vikings are a team that preyed on the weak this season, winning 10 games despite a 1-4 record against other playoff teams. That sole win was against the nine win Eagles. With the 49ers and Saints being the class of the NFC, it seems imprudent to wager on an NFC team for a Super Bowl win, as the Chiefs and Ravens are the class of the league at the moment.
Let’s move on to the free NFL picks against the spread for this week.
5 Buffalo Bills at 4 Houston Texans
4:30 PM EST
Opening Line: Texans -3 and 39.5
Current Line: Texans -3 and 42.5
This is a very tight matchup, evidenced by the point spread. The total, at opening, reflected a game played at the Bills pace as they are a team that generally plays in lower scoring games by design. They played just two games that went over 42 points throughout the entirety of the season. The low scoring, tight game design played into their favor away from home this season, as their 6-2 road mark was better than their 4-4 home record and was third best in the AFC behind only the Ravens and Chiefs. The matchup with the Houston defense may seem like a walk in the park after the schedule they played down the stretch. While they rested starters with nothing to play for in week 17, the three matchups leading up to that one were with the Ravens, Steelers and Patriots. That is as tough of a three game stretch as any team can draw from a strength of opposing defense perspective. On the individual matchup side of things, both top wide receivers for Buffalo are in spots that they could be true difference makers in this game. Cole Beasley will run the majority of his routes in the slot, against Buccaneers cast off Vernon Hargreaves and this is as beatable as individual matchups get. John Brown is also quite capable of splash plays while lined up against Jonathan Joseph, but Beasley is the player that could steadily win that matchup and keep drives alive. The Texans are stout enough against the run (although backs have had success catching the ball against them) and very very good against tight ends, so it is the receivers that are the path of least resistance for Josh Allen and company in this one. The odd thought for the Bills in this one is that a trailing game script could actually work to their advantage. They prefer to have balance on offense but a pass happy game plan for this matchup might not tilt towards the pass at an ideal level if they are in a favorable or neutral game script. Also working in favor of the Bills is the scrambling ability of quarterback Josh Allen on passing plays. While he will have designed runs as well, he can certainly make unscripted big plays with his legs.
On the Texans side, they face a stout front to back defense in the Bills without any real holes. Their high end secondary is headlined by the league’s best cornerback Tre’davious White, and this is a matchup boon for the Bills as the strength of the Texans offense is in their wide receivers. The Texans, for the most part, have had just one variable on their offense this season, and that is the health of wide receiver Will Fuller. There was truly a massive shift with him on the field, and he is expected to play on Saturday. Fuller missed five games this season and the Texans scored 19.6 points per game in those contests. In the 11 games that he did play, the Texans scored 25.5 points per. As far as the running game goes, the majority of the carries go to pedestrian talent Carlos Hyde and it is highly unlikely he is able to be a difference maker in this matchup. The Texans ability to win this game likely hinges on Deshaun Watson being able to set up the wide receivers for big plays in what is a minus matchup.
The Texans had identical 5-3 records at home and on the road, but there is a telling statistic for their overall body of work. Despite finishing the season 10-6, they had an overall point differential of -7. Five of their wins were by three points or fewer and they were not a team that showed a killer instinct to put their opponents away. Going a step further, they only had two wins that were more than a one possession differential and both of those games were against sub .500 teams.
This is a dog or pass spot and I do gravitate towards the underdog Bills. They have the most exploitable individual matchups against an opponent that keeps games very tight, even in wins. This sets up for a Bills win but we could easily get a cover in a loss as well and they are a value play.
Betting Pick: Bills +3
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6 Tennessee Titans at 3 New England Patriots
8:15 PM EST
Opening Line: Patriots -5.5 and 41.5
Current Line: Patriots -4.5 and 43.5
In the intro we touched on the Patriots loss to the Dolphins last week, and what that means for their Super Bowl chances. They went from having a bye week and having a worst case scenario of playing the Chiefs at home and Ravens on the road to having their path to the Super Bowl being this home game against Tennessee, at Kansas City and at Baltimore. Needless to say, that’s as bleak of a path as a team could envision, and it is the furthest thing from a given that they even get past this wild card round matchup.
I’ve covered the state of the Titans offense in previous weeks, but want to make certain I’m driving home just how impressive they have been since making the quarterback change to Ryan Tannehill in week 7. In 11 Tannehill starts, the smallest offensive output from the Titans is 20 points. Their average in those 10 starts is 30.4 points per game and their average in the most recent seven games is 33.4 points per game. On a per snap basis in these 10 games, the Titans average the highest in the league in yards per rush, yards per passing attempt and yards per play. From a record perspective, the Titans are 7-3 with Tannehill and 3-1 away from home. Running back Derrick Henry wasn’t exactly struggling before the insertion of Tannehill, but he was not putting up the massive numbers he closed 2018 with. In the six games without Tannehill, Henry had just one 100 yard rushing game and scored five touchdowns. Missing one game due to injury, in the nine games since, Henry has five 100 yard rushing games and has scored 13 total touchdowns, including a 211 yard three touchdown performance just last week. Unlike previous seasons, it could be the Patriots needing to keep pace.
For the Patriots, they have seemed labored on offense for much of this season. They do not rely on their passing game as much as years past, and they very much rely on their defense. Their defense successfully carried them to start the season, surging to an 8-0 start, but the season is a tale of two halves for the Patriots. They are just 4-4 since that start, including a 1-3 mark against other AFC playoff teams and the lone win, against the Bills, was one in which they were able to just barely hang on. Back to the start of the season, they allowed an insanely low 7.6 points per game in those first eight, but that unsustainable low figure spiked in the second half of the season. The second half figure of 20.5 points per game allowed is nearly triple the first half, and it is the reason they have been just a .500 team when the offense is often incapable of carrying them. In this particular matchup, it is difficult to beat the Titans on the ground, and it could put a real damper on the usual run heavy game plan of the Pats. Teams find more success throwing, and the wide receivers ability to beat the Titan secondary is likely the key to this game. Julian Edelman has been far from a picture of health and not his normal self down the stretch, and they may need him to step up in a huge way. The remainder of the receiving corps have offered just complementary output and the Pats could be in for a long afternoon without a big game from Edelman.
As you might have guessed, I believe this line should be a pickem or even tilt the Titans way, and I believe it is the most exploitable line of the weekend. The Titans should be considered the best play of the week.
Betting Pick: Titans +4.5
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6 Minnesota Vikings at 3 New Orleans Saints
Opening Line: Saints -8 and 46
Current Line: Saints -8 and 48.5
The widest line of the week rightfully belongs to the widest matchup of the week. The Saints have the utter misfortune of being a 13 win team being forced to play on wild card weekend, sans a bye week. The Saints are the only team in the last decade to not get a bye with a 13-3 record, and 11 of 19 instances resulted in that record being good enough for a 1 seed.
The Vikings on the other hand, are a team with a record indicative of playoff caliber ability, but they are a team that wholly preyed on the weak throughout the regular season. They were just 1-4 in the regular season against other playoff teams with the lone win being an early season home win against the Eagles. Included in those losses was one to the Chiefs in one of the games Mahomes missed, notching a loss against journeyman quarterback Matt Moore. The Vikings had nothing to play for in week 17 so they surrendered a loss while resting their starters. However the reason they had nothing to play for is because they were smoked at home by the apparently less fraudulent Packers in week 16 while there was still plenty to play for. The Vikings were 4-4 overall on the road this season, but it should be noted they were 0-3 against teams with a winning record. Their running game carried them to the majority of their wins against subpar opponents, and they simply lack the firepower in the passing game to keep pace with the better teams. On defense, they have been a sieve to opposing wide receivers as “top” cornerback Xavier Rhodes has been more of a liability than anything else. This is especially daunting considering the upcoming matchup with Michael Thomas, who set the NFL receptions record in 2019.
The Saints offense has been a steam roller over the last seven weeks of the season. The team went 6-1 to close the year, and it’s mostly the offense to thank for that. They averaged and insane 36.2 points per game over that stretch and were only tested by teams that could keep scoring pace and they blew out every team that couldn’t push the 30 point mark. Also notable is the lone loss was in a 48-46 thriller with 1 seed San Francisco in a game where the difference was the now iconic catch and run by George Kittle to ice the game. The Saints defense is certainly better against the run than the pass, and this is a strength vs strength matchup with the Vikings. The net result of that is the pressure being on the shoulders of Kirk Cousins and a passing game that has been inconsistent at best. The Vikings are a team that will have problems coming form behind and best suited to protect a lead, and it’s quite unlikely they ever have one a lead in the Superdome.
It’s never a fun experience to lay more than a possession in a playoff game, but this is a spot that absolutely warrants it. The Vikings will be unable to slow the Saints scoring pace, and with this being the case, the over should get home fairly easily as well.
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5 Seattle Seahawks at 4 Philadelphia Eagles
4:35 PM EST
Opening Line: Eagles -1 and 45.5
Current Line: Seahawks -2 and 45.5
We may have to bring in some rocket scientists and a wall full of charts to track the injuries affecting this matchup. Both of these teams, particularly in their current state. are not at all near the top of the list of for teams expected to make a playoff run. Let’s cover some of the key injuries before anything else.
On the Seahawks side, they lost their top three running backs in the last three weeks of the regular season. Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny and CJ Prosise are done for the season and the Seahawks are now rolling out rookie Travis Homer and Marshawn Lynch in their backfield. On the defensive side of the ball, they lost strong side linebacker Mychal Kendricks to a torn ACL last week, and this loss could be key as the Eagles run a good deal of 12 personnel, or one running back and two tight ends. He will be replaced by third round rookie Cody Barton. On some potential good news for the Seahawks, they may be getting safety Quandre Diggs back after a two game absence, and this would be a boost to the current replacement level safety play. Perhaps the biggest missing piece for the Seahawks Sunday will be that of left tackle Duane Brown. He is the best player on the offensive line and his absence will be a tough one to fill against the Eagles pass rush.
On the Eagles side, the most key news to watch is on the availability of tight end Zach Ertz. I would deem Ertz doubtful two weeks removed from fractured ribs and rumors of a kidney laceration, but he is not ruled out and does have a chance to play. Ertz is the Eagles top pass catcher overall and they have had some truly horrific luck at the wide receiver position. All of their week 1 starters (Alshon Jeffery, Desean Jackson, Nelson Agholor) have been injured and out for the majority of the season, and it took until the final quarter of the season for quarterback Carson Wentz to adjust. The new normal at wide receiver is replacement level journeyman Greg Ward playing slot and leading the positional group in volume with raw rookie JJ Arcega-Whiteside being the top outside threat. The fortunate thing for the Eagles in the Ertz situation is they have a second high end tight end on the roster in Dallas Goedert and don’t have to change the offense much when he’s out. With Ertz out last week, Goedert was elevated into his role and Joshua Perkins ascended into the Goedert role and played well. On the offensive line, the Eagles should be getting right tackle Lane Johnson back this week, but that is a wash of sorts as they lost right guard Brandon Brooks for the season this past Sunday. The Eagles hole on their defense is their cornerback grouping but should have Avonte Maddox back to covert Tyler Lockett this week. This however does not help them with the matchup of Rasul Douglas attempting to cover DK Metcalf in relief of Ronald Darby.
Now that the plethora of injuries are mostly covered, we can dive into the game. This is a rematch from week 12 and that game was also played in Philly. The Seahawks won the first game 17-9, in spite of their foolish offensive philosophy, something I’ve lamented all season long. The Seahawks *want* to play close games. They want to run the ball and attempt to run the ball heavily even in matchups where everyone but them knows that success is unlikely. Ironically enough, in the first matchup, allowing their most talented but usually moth balled running back Rashaad Penny to lead the way was their only source of offense. Penny had a 129 yard rushing performance but no other player topped 51 yards and the Seahawks poor game plan was rewarded only because of the offensive dud laid by the Eagles. Drawing up a run heavy game plan against the Eagles and setting up only 13 completions for Russell Wilson is a recipe for disaster and not one I would deem having much chance to work twice. Now fast forward to this week and the backfield for Seattle features replacement level rookie Travis Homer and Marshawn Lynch who was signed off the street last week. At this point, Lynch is a short yardage specialist and shouldn’t be considered as anything more. The path of least resistance for the Seahawks, and by a wide margin, is throwing often to the wide receivers, particularly DK Metcalf. This is truly more fact than opinion but we can be fairly certain the offensive brain trust of Pete Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer will not go to this well early nor often enough and create a spot where they are trailing and *irony bomb* have to turn to this philosophy.
The Seahawks ended the season ice cold, losing three of their last four games and only mustering a six point win against a Carolina team just going through the motions to close the year. They scored 21 points or fewer in all three losses and had an average point differential of -11.7. This remains a team that is held down by their offensive philosophy and now is not getting the bail outs as the level of talent is mitigated due to injuries and well, Russell Wilson is not playing the best football of his career at the moment.
The Eagles on the other hand have been facing playoff elimination since week 14 and rattled off four straight wins to secure their postseason slot and adapted to the new normal of their skill position limitations. What has been a boon for them is the elevation of rookie running back Miles Sanders and the emergence of scat back Boston Scott in relief and on passing downs. They have found balance on offense and this has done well to hide the problems in their secondary as they have been able to control the football.
This is a fairly tight matchup but the Eagles are the hotter team at the moment and the Seahawks bring the epitome of a coaching staff that cannot be trusted. Admittedly this game is the least confident play for this week, but with the Eagles shifting to being a home dog, they are the play.
Betting Pick: Eagles +2
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TJ Calkins – Expert
TJ Calkins was raised in a gambling loving household. He knew how to handicap horse races and follow line movements well before his tenth birthday. Follow@tjcalkins