We ended the season last week with a 4-1-1 record on best bets. As mentioned last week in this article, don’t ever just assume the teams in a must-win situation come out with an automatic win and cover. Houston with the cover and Jacksonville with a strong performance and a breakaway run and 2-point conversion away from a potential win.
Before we discuss the Wild Card round of the playoffs, a quick recap of the 2020 regular season. This was clearly the year of the underdog as they finished the season at 55% ats, the best performance since 2006 when dogs hit at a 57% ats clip.
The home/road ats splits ended up virtually even but from a straight-up perspective, home teams only won at a clip just under 51%. Home teams barely edged road teams in win margin which essentially tells us that there was no such thing as a home field advantage this season.
After starting the season hot with an 88-66 record, Overs ended up finishing with a 126-125-5 clip against Unders. Before the season started, in this article, I preached about how this season could mimic the 2011 strike-shortened offseason with plenty of points early in the season, with many over being hit, then markets adjusting and unders coming up strong at the end of the season. We definitely saw something similar this season as well.
In terms of the upcoming Wild Card round, I thought it would be important to hit a couple of trends that could impact, not only this weekend’s games, but potentially future playoff games as well. Beware of backing large road favorites. It’s an extremely small sample size but there have been five home underdogs of >4 points in any round of the NFL playoffs, and all five covered and three of the five won outright.
In fact, all three of the largest home underdogs (2000 New Orleans Saints over the Rams, 2010 Seattle Seahawks over the New Orleans Saints, and the 2011 Denver Broncos over the Pittsburgh Steelers) won outright.
When it comes to QBs making their first playoff starts, fading those QBs has historically been profitable. First time playoff QBs starting against another QB who is not making their first playoff start, have gone 13-32-1 ats and 15-31 straight up since 2002.
Wild Card Bets
Indianapolis Colts +7 -120 vs Buffalo Bills
This line is clearly inflated based on the Bills’ recent run of wins and covers (six straight). They’ve been excellent, but this line is interesting considering in Week 12 they were only favored by 4.5 over the Chargers, favored by six in Denver in Week 15 and favored by seven in New England just two weeks ago. So this line is either inferring that the Colts are rated close to the same as Denver and New England or, the most likely reason, that the market has been so way off with the Bills that they are making bettors pay the tax to back Buffalo.
The Bills have played five playoff teams and have gone 3-2 straight up and have a point differential of -11 points. Even if you want to excuse the KC and Titans bad losses since they were in the middle of multiple weeks of Covid issues, they still only beat the Rams by three on a last-second touchdown and were trailing 7-3 right before half before turning it on a beating a beat up Steelers team by 11.
I trust the Colts’ excellent staff and don’t mind at all backing a veteran QB like Philip Rivers in a road playoff game with limited fans. The Bills rank 17th in run defense DVOA, 19th in adjusted line yards, and 29th in explosive run plays allowed to RBs. As long as the Colts can slow down Buffalo’s early onslaught and are able to run the ball with Jonathan Taylor and a steady hand with Rivers in the passing game, I think this is a tight game.
The Colts are a really solid team and rank 10th in overall DVOA and eighth in Pythagorean wins (based on point differential). It will also certainly help that slot wizard Cole Beasley will most likely miss this game. I have this modeled at 27-23 and believe the line is 2-3 points too high.
Washington Football Team +8.5 vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa has shown all season that they are the most volatile team in the NFL. They are capable of losing this game or winning the Super Bowl. This is evidenced by their 32nd variance ranking by Football Outsiders. The obvious matchup here is with the Washington defensive line against Tom Brady. Considering the Bucs’ passing offense consists of slow-developing, deep shots, having time in the pocket is mandatory to be successful.
Washington has the No. 2 ranked DVOA defense and ranks seventh in pressure rate. Tampa has faced four teams that rank in the top 10 in DVOA defense (New Orleans 2x, Chicago, Rams) and lost all four. In those games, Brady went 96/163 (59%), five touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a poor 5.6 ypa. Brady ranks 28th in the NFL in passer rating when under pressure and 36th in adjusted completion percentage.
It’s not a mystery that most QBs struggle under pressure but the splits between pressure and clean pocket for Brady is as large as any QB in the NFL. In fact, out of 32 QBs, Brady ranks 27th, 29th, and 28th when it comes to ypa, INT% and passer rating difference between throwing under pressure versus a clean pocket. Potentially not having Mike Evans, or at least a hobbled Evans, will force Brady to be a bit more accurate.
This is not a reason to take Washington here but it does have to at least raise an eyebrow that the largest home underdogs in NFL history have not only covered but won outright. Motivation and perception can matter in a playoff game. My model has this game as Tampa -6 so plenty of value over the key number here.
Baltimore Ravens/Tennessee Titans over 54
I have pounded the over in many Tennessee games this season and won’t stop now. Titans games have gone over the closing total in all but three of their games this season. The only opponents in which the over did not hit were some of the worst offenses in the NFL (Denver, Jacksonville, Chicago with Foles). It’s not surprising considering they are the only team in the NFL that ranks in the top-five in both offensive and defensive DVOA.
The first meeting against the Ravens ended with 54 points (30-24) but needed OT to get there. Digging a bit deeper, however, and you can see that realistically there should have been closer to 60 points scored. The teams combined to score points on 11 of 18 non-kneel down drives (61% of drives ended with a TD or FG compared to NFL average of 41%) with six combined field goals. Four of these field goals occurred inside the 15-yard line. These teams scored a combined three touchdowns out of seven red zone appearances (43%) after averaging 76% and 63% on the season. Realistically, two of the four field goals inside of the 15-yard line normally would have converted into a touchdown, therefore increasing this total to closer to 60.
The Ravens’ defense has played excellent down the stretch but they have always historically dominated bad offenses. Lets not forget they allowed the Browns to score 42 points just four games ago. This is a defense that has allowed 42 to Cleveland, 30 to Tennessee, 28 to Philadelphia, 34 to KC, and 21 to Pittsburgh so they are not the same defense as last season.
New Orleans Saints -9.5 vs Chicago Bears
This handicap comes down to the Bears’ final month “hot” stretch and why it’s a total mirage. Mitchell Trubisky has played very well but that’s been against a very easy set of opponents. In fact, when you also take his first three starts of the season, he has yet to face a defense that ranks in the top 13 in DVOA. The toughest defenses that he has faced are the Falcons (14th) and the Packers twice (17th). In those three games, he has produced a very poor 5.6 ypa, five turnovers, and only 1.96 points per drive (league average is 2.26). He has consistently feasted off bad defenses but has yet to prove he can consistently play well against a defense like the Saints that rank second in DVOA defense and third-best in pass defense.
The Saints will be able to score on this Bears defense and most likely getting back both RB Alvin Kamara and WR Michael Thomas definitely helps here. The Bears defense ranks 23rd in EPA per play and 31st in EPA per dropback since Week 8. The Bears rank 21st in pressure rate and Drew Brees has feasted with a clean pocket, ranking ninth-best in passer rating.
Regular Season Best Bets Record YTD: 23-23-4 (50%)