Divisional Locks of the Week
Last week’s Wild Card round may have been one of the craziest weekends of sports in recent memory. There was heartbreak, drama, and most importantly, Taysom Hill. Unfortunately, with the Saints defeat at the hands of the Vikings, we will all be deprived of the Taysom Hill Super Bowl prop bets. It is truly tragic.
The lesson learned from last week is that no matter how much you study the statistics and analyze the data; sometimes wild things just happen out of your control. In the Bills-Texans alone, several things happened that not even professional oddsmakers could predict: The Bills blew a 16 point lead, a touchdown was overturned due to “common sense,” Josh Allen took a 20-yard sack on 4th and 27, a QB threw a blind lateral, and a professional football announcer suggested that the Bills spike the ball on 4th down. That all happened, just in regulation!
Unfortunately, I have to take these losses on the chin. I went 1-3 last week, as the Bills and Patriots each lost a lead that would have allowed me to cover. The Saints didn’t even stand a chance, as they were outplayed by Minnesota. While the record is unfortunate, it should provide a learning moment for all bettors. In the playoffs, anything can happen. The regular season is cut and dry, but nearly every year there is craziness in the NFL playoffs. Whether it be a team blowing a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl or a backup QB outdueling Tom Brady, you truly never know what is going to happen.
Yet, I still stand by the process and believe positive regression is on the horizon. Abiding by historical data and predictive analytics is the only sound method for selecting games. Or you can just pick which team has the better mascot. That works too.
Nonetheless, here are my Divisional Locks of the Week (odds courtesy of Footballocks.com)
Regular Season: 27-23-1 (54%)
Post Season: 1-3
Minnesota +7 at San Francisco
This is a difficult pick for me because you know how I feel about Kirk Cousins. I believe he’s a mediocre quarterback that shrinks when the lights are at their brightest. Yet, it seems as though the Vikings have found a formula to win with him at the helm. They are going to run the ball 25 times with Dalvin Cook, allow Cousins to take a few deep shots to Diggs and Theilen, and keep the opposing offense off of the field. If the Vikings don’t fall behind early, they can succeed with this formula.
I believe I underestimated the impact of Dalvin Cook in my previous analysis of the Vikings. Cook, on a per game basis, has averaged 4.5 YPC and 81.1 RYPG. He is 4th in the league in rushing TDs and top-10 in breakaway runs (runs that go for 20+ and 40+ yards). The 49ers defense may be one of the best in the league, but they are still susceptible to the run. They are in the bottom half of the league in terms of rushing yards allowed per attempt and rushing yards allowed per game. They also allow the 5th most rushing conversions for first downs.
I am not saying the 49ers defense will get ran over, but the Vikings game plan will involve a heavy commitment to the run from Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison. With both teams manning run-oriented offenses, the clock will continue to run, and the score will be lower due to each team having fewer possessions. In this instance, I would rather take the points than trust the 49ers to win by multiple scores.
Another point favoring the underdog is that San Francisco has not won by a large margin in over a month. The 49ers’ last five games were all decided by 7 points or less, with all five coming down to the final seconds. Against teams with winning records, the 49ers have only won by more than five points twice. The Vikings, on the other hand, have only lost by more than one possession twice this year.
On the defensive side, Minnesota has been great since the beginning of December. In their last five games, Minnesota is allowing 16.2 PPG and have only allowed one opposing quarterback to surpass 220 passing yards. Their main weakness is the 49ers’ strength, which is allowing big games on the ground to elite backs. Yet, it looks like they have shored up their run game in the postseason, as they held both Saints running backs to under 22 yards rushing.
I still believe the 49ers will emerge victorious, as they have the better coach, offensive system, and defense. Nick Bosa is potentially the defensive player of the year and the 49ers defense has shut down every non-running QB this season except for Drew Brees. However, I think as first-time playoff contenders, the 49ers come out of the gate rusty and allow the Vikings to stay in the game.
I am playing the number here more than anything, and I believe 7 points in too much to give a team that hasn’t blown out a good opponent in a long time. Give me the 49ers to win, but Vikings to cover.
49ers 23 Vikings 17
Baltimore -9.5 vs Tennessee
I find it difficult to bet against Baltimore in this matchup. The Titans have been a great story up to this point, but I see them being outmatched in this game.
The Baltimore offense is second in total yards per game, first in points per game, and second in third down conversion percentage. No defense has found a formula to stop Lamar Jackson, who has the most passing TDs and 8th most rushing yards in the league. Lamar Jackson has single-handedly rushed for more yards than a quarter of NFL franchises. Even though Tennessee was able to hold a 42-year old Tom Brady to 13 points, they face an entirely different challenge in Jackson.
In order to defeat the Baltimore offense, the defense needs to be nearly perfect. Unfortunately, the Titans’ defense is far from it. They are ranked 21st in total yards allowed and field the second most penalized unit in the league. They’ve had some impressive showings throughout the year, but they have only faced two top-12 offenses during the regular season. In those games, they gave up an average of 30.5 PPG, 300 passing yards per game, and 104 rushing yards per game. Like most teams, they won’t have the solution to stop Greg Roman’s system.
If the Ravens are going to score a lot of points (they’ve scored 23 or more points in all but one game this year), then the Titans are going to need to play catch-up. Unfortunately, their best weapon relies on the game script being within arms’ reach. Derrick Henry, who ran for 182 yards and 1 TD in the Wild Card round, is a one-dimensional running back. He can be physical and run downhill, but he is not an adept pass catcher and could be phased out if the game gets out of hand quickly. Henry has only accumulated 19 catches in 16 games this season, which puts him in the bottom-200 of all players. If the Titans need to make a comeback, Henry will be on the sidelines.
The Ravens also have the ability to take Henry out of the game early. They allow the 5th fewest rushing yards per game and possess great cover corners in Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, and Jimmy Smith. They can easily play single-high safety with Earl Thomas and stack the box against the Titans, allowing either Humphrey or Peters to lineup one-on-one with AJ Brown.
I like Tannehill and AJ Brown, but their offensive potency can be minimized. Even though New England lost last week, they still held the Titans to only 14 offensive points. Their problem was Tom Brady couldn’t move the football. The Baltimore Ravens will be able to score on Tennessee and Tannehill won’t be able to keep up. Baltimore will move to the AFC Title game with a double-digit victory.
Ravens 35 Titans 20
Kansas City -9.5 vs Houston
This one is an easy pick for me. While I love Deshaun Watson and he deserves credit for overcoming a 16-point deficit last week, his team and coaching staff are still the same mess that got them in that hole. He may have similar talent to Mahomes, but his organization and weapons are sub-par in comparison to Kansas City.
Kansas City’s ancillary weapons will be too much for Houston to handle. Last week, Houston only needed to cover two options, deep threat John Brown and slot receiver Cole Beasley. They did a fairly good job, holding them to under 100 receiving yards combined and keeping them out of the endzone. However, they had many mental lapses on defense, like falling victim to the “Philly Special” trick play on the opening drive, allowing Josh Allen to rush for 92 yards primarily on designed QB-runs, and dropping multiple interceptions that could’ve ended the game before overtime. This unit is still the 25th ranked rushing defense and 29th ranked passing defense we saw in the regular season.
They will be unable to limit Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense, with Damien Williams, Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, and Travis Kelce all able to create mismatches due to either their speed or size. The Chiefs have scored 23 or more points in all but one game this year and are ranked 5th in both offensive points per game and passing yards per game. They have also allowed only 25 sacks on the season, which is the fourth best mark in the league. Even though JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus were able to get to Josh Allen last week, they will struggle to get to Mahomes with a four-man rush.
The Chiefs defense has played tremendously in the last month and a half. They have only allowed 10.4 PPG and 214 pass yards per game in their last five matchups. On the season, they have the 8th best turnover differential in the league. The Houston Texans, who average nearly 1.5 turnovers per game, will give the Chiefs’ defense plenty of chances to take the ball away.
From a coaching standpoint, the Texans have a decided disadvantage. Bill O’Brien has consistently made poor decisions for his team and coaches an undisciplined squad. The Houston Texans are ranked in the bottom half of the league in offensive and defensive penalty yards. Meanwhile, Andy Reid is an offensive genius and typically succeeds with extra rest. Andy Reid’s is 18-3 coming in the regular season coming off of a bye and 4-1 in the playoffs. His teams are 14-7 against the spread in those regular season contests and 3-2 in the postseason. Reid is miles ahead of O’Brien.
I know the Texans defeated the Chiefs earlier this season in Arrowhead, but these teams are entirely different than they were in Week 6. The Chiefs are coming off their 6th consecutive victory and extra rest. I like them to beat a poorly coached Texans team by about two touchdowns. Kansas City will cover and move on to the AFC title game for the second consecutive season.
Chiefs 34 Texans 21
Green Bay -4 vs Seattle
I haven’t liked the Packers through much of the season. I’ve felt that they relied too heavily on their running back Aaron Jones and that Aaron Rodgers has regressed from his former MVP-self. While the defense has improved, they are still ranked 14th against the pass and 23rd against the run. They haven’t been special, but they’ve won enough close games to secure a first-round bye. They just aren’t as explosive as some of the other teams in the playoffs.
However, they are still a better team than the Seattle Seahawks right now and should win this game. The Seahawks have been struggling to get by for most of the season, relying on Russell Wilson to carry the load in big moments and their defense to get enough takeaways to stay competitive. They’ve won 10 of 12 one-possession games this year, which is the most of any team in the league. They are the anti-Chargers.
The Seahawks are also dealing with a cluster of injuries to their running back core, offensive line, and defensive line. Four starting offensive linemen sat out of practice this week with injuries; Jadaveon Clowney and Ziggy Ansah, Seattle’s anchors along the defensive line, were limited. Rookie Travis Homer and 33-year-old Marshawn Lynch are the two running backs getting significant touches in what is supposed to be a run-centric offense. While Homer had held his own in his Week 17 start, he only managed 17 total yards on 12 touches last week.
The Packers defense, who are well-rested and healthy, should be able to take advantage of the Seahawks’ injuries and win this game. We saw what Za’darius Smith and that Packers defensive line did to a beat-up Vikings offensive front a few weeks ago, sacking the quarterback five times and holding Minnesota to under 200 total yards. They can do the same to this Seahawk offensive line.
They have talented cornerbacks that can limit DK MetCalf and Tyler Lockett along the perimeter and force Russell Wilson into mistakes. The Packers defense has 25 takeaways on the season, which is the 7th most in the NFL. While Wilson has been relatively careful this season, he has been known to do too much and may make a critical error down the stretch.
On the other side of the ball, Aaron Jones has been the focal point of the Packers’ offense. He has run for over 1,000 yards on the season and is tied with Derrick Henry for the most rushing TDs in the NFL. Given Seattle just allowed each of their last five opponents to rush for over 100 yards, they may be hard-pressed to stop the Packer rushing attack.
While Aaron Rodgers has regressed, he has still been a serviceable game-manager for most of the year. He has passed for over 4,000 yards this year with a 26:4 TD:INT ratio. If he is able to buy some extra time in the pocket due to Seattle’s injuries on the defensive line, he can certainly take advantage and find his weapons downfield.
After Seattle failed to dominate a Josh McCown-led Eagles’ squad, I don’t have much faith they can beat a rested Packers team in Lambeau. Their ability to keep games close is impressive, but I think they fall behind early to Green Bay. With the added motivation of the GB-SEA NFC Championship Game of 2014 being played on nearly every news outlet leading up to this game, the Packers will want to get out to an early lead and step on the gas from there. I like the Packers to cover in this one.
Packers 24 Seahawks 17