It's a new year and that means it's playoff time in the NFL, but it might not feel like it this weekend. Less-than-inspiring play can happen when we have two playoff novices as substantial favorites under a new level of pressure in the Rams and Jaguars, plus two of the worst playoff teams in recent memory in the Titans and Bills. (If you could get a candid answer from Doug Marrone and Andy Reid, how relieved would they admit to feeling by not having to worry about the Chargers or Ravens?)
We're left with a Wild Card Weekend board full of wild cards indeed, but where there's vagueness in the marketplace, there's opportunity for the astute bettor.
Atlanta +6 at Rams
At face value, the stats seem to point to the Rams. According to DVOA they're the superior team in all three phases: #6 vs. #22 on defense, #6 vs. #9 on offense, and #2 vs. #19 on special teams.
Those offensive ranks represent a staggering swing from just last season, when the Falcons ranked first and the Rams dead last. But with Sean McVay and Steve Sarkisian replacing Jeff Fisher and Kyle Shanahan, respectively, the Rams have already leapfrogged last year's top dog. The special teams gap isn't quite as wide as it looks, however, with the Rams' kicking game in disarray in the absence of Pro Bowl place kicker Greg Zeurlein. And moving beyond the season-long analytics, other factors suggest the gap between these teams isn't as wide as the 6-point spread makes it out to be.
For starters, the setting calls for a close game. In 35 games over the past two seasons the Falcons have only lost one game by more than 10 points, and that came in New England. Atlanta has failed to maximize its scoreboard output under Sarkisian this season, but still managed to finish second in the league in yards per possession, qualifying the Falcons as a tough team to beat by a big margin due to their talent and ability to extend drives. And even the vastly improved version of the Rams rarely managed to get a big margin at home in 2017, with their only two home wins by more than 6 points coming over teams quarterbacked by Scott Tolzein and Tom Savage.
The teams' pedigrees could also contribute to a close call at the Coliseum Saturday night. Dan Quinn is 7-2 straight up as a head coach or defensive coordinator in the playoffs, with both losses coming by the slimmest of possible margins to the Patriots; it's fair to figure the Falcons still have a chip on their shoulder after getting to the brink of winning the Super Bowl last season, and with veteran leadership from Matt Ryan down, it's no surprise if they channel that experience in a positive way. For the Rams there's no such big-game experience to channel, their last playoff appearance coming in the first George W. Bush administration back in the 2004 season.
So the Rams are the better team, but in this setting, they might not be that much better. And while they'll benefit from a home-field advantage, that should also be a mitigated factor. The Coliseum is cavernous and L.A. fans aren't the most raucous, which will keep crowd noise in check, and a forecast of temperatures in the 60s in dry conditions with minimal wind is about as good as it gets for a dome team playing no the road.
A Thursday afternoon feeding frenzy on the Falcons by the betting market scooped up all the +6.5 that had been available earlier in the week, but the remaining +6s still offer enough value to dig in.
Carolina/New Orleans 1st Half Under 24
With fewer games on the board come playoff time the derivative bets often warrant more consideration, and this is one of them.
For as much improvement as the Saints' defense showed this season, having lost a key contributor at every level of the unit (DE Alex Okafor, LB A.J. Klein and S Kenny Vaccaro) may prove to be their undoing in the playoffs. But it won't necessarily be their undoing this weekend, with the Panthers' offense facing an uphill battle to take advantage of any NFL defense. Last week's losing ticket on Carolina at Atlanta reinforced just how difficult it can be for a one-dimensional offense to succeed against a familiar opponent - in three division rematches this season the Panthers averaged less than 18 points and 261 yards per game. With this marking the third look for the Saints' defense, even as a shorthanded unit they should be prepared to take care of business.
When the Saints have the ball there are no such offensive concerns, with the two-headed RB monster of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara gouging defenses both on the ground (combining for more than 1,900 yards at 5.4 yards per carry) and through the air (combining for 139 receptions for more than 1,000 yards). That made life easy enough for Drew Brees to set a new NFL record by completing 72 percent of his passes despite the physical limitations of being a 38-year-old QB in his 17th season. But the Panthers' defense also benefits from a third look at the offense it'll face on Sunday, and the league's 7th-best defense according to DVOA should be up for the challenge in the early going.
The reason behind limiting this wager to the first half is that the less time Carolina's offense can stay on the field - and it's a distinct possibility Panther possessions won't last long - the more likely it becomes that the Panthers' defense wears down in the later stages, opening the door to explosive plays by Brees, Ingram, Kamara & Co.
We could see plenty of discord coming from the Panthers' sideline at the Superdome, and the profitability of a low-scoring first half would make it even more entertaining to observe.
Pick of the Week: Teaser - Kansas City -2.5 vs. Tennessee, Jacksonville -2.5 vs. Buffalo
Despite their winning record, the Titans might be the worst playoff team in recent memory. DVOA pegs them well below average on defense, a tick below average on offense, and just a bit above average on special teams. When you don't do anything special in any phase of the game, Kansas City is one of the last places you want to go.
The head coach-QB tandem of Andy Reid and Alex Smith is about as low-variance as it gets, and while that means the Chiefs might not win by enough to cover the point spread, they're heavy favorites to do what they do best and avoid making key mistakes that could cost them the game. Teasing them down through 7 and 3 takes advantage of their conservative nature.
The Titans' 8th-ranked rush offense according to DVOA would appear to bring some temptation against a Chiefs defense that ranked 30th overall and dead last against the run, but over the final four weeks of the season we saw defenses stop the Tennessee ground game because they stopped respecting the pass. At a stage when Marcus Mariota should be progressing, his passing numbers show a startling decline in 2017 compared to 2016: down half a yard per pass, TDs cut in half, INTs up by two-thirds, and passer rating down more than 15 points. This represents an indictment not only on Mariota, but also on Mike Mularkey and his staff for failing to develop the team's young QB.
It's fair enough to think the Titans could keep the game within a possession against a porous Chiefs defense, but it's more than reasonable to bank on little more than an outright win by the heavy home favorite.
In the second leg, the Bills give the Titans a run for their money as the worst playoff team in recent memory. Simply put, the Jaguars are the clearly better team on both sides of the ball compared to Buffalo. DVOA has the Jacksonville defense #1 by a mile, and while the Bills' defense ranks respectably in the middle of the pack at #15, it's next-to-last at stopping the run. That's been a particular problem since trading Marcell Dareus in late October (to the Jaguars of all teams). The Jaguars' offense comes in a pedestrian 16th, but above average with the 12th-ranked rush attack. The Jacksonville rush offense vs. the Buffalo rush defense could be the key to the game, as it would be wise to limit Blake Bortles's ability to lose the game by keeping the ball out of his hands and exploiting the Bills' weakness against the run. And any Jacksonville lead could prove insurmountable for a 26th-ranked Buffalo offense that's below average both passing and rushing even with a healthy LeSean McCoy on hand for most of the season. Uncertainty around McCoy's status looms large heading into this one and it's difficult to imagine him near full strength after getting carted off the field just last Sunday with an ankle injury.
On top of getting the superior team, Jaguars backers also get a rarity in a tangible home-field advantage. The team had tarps removed to sell 3,500 extra tickets for its home playoff game, showing that finally having a winner in town means both the Jacksonville players and fans are ready for something worth celebrating.
Last week: 1-2
Picks of the Week: 12-4-1