We did it. It wasn’t always pretty, but the NFL managed to make it through the full 256 games in just 17 weeks. That means the league is right on track heading into Wild Card Weekend.
And what a glorious weekend it should be. The league expanded the playoffs this season, allowing seven teams from each conference to qualify. That means that we’ll have six games over the course of Saturday and Sunday. It’s such a good slate that the league has officially dubbed it “Super Wild Card Weekend.” Not the most clever name on the planet, but it’ll do.
The action gets underway with three games on Saturday, starting with the Buffalo Bills vs. the Indianapolis Colts at 1:05 p.m. ET. If you’re interested in checking out some betting thoughts on that slate, make sure to check out Geoff Ulrich’s preview.
This piece will focus on the three games that take place on Sunday. Let’s dive into each contest to try and identify some betting value.
Baltimore Ravens (-3.5) @ Tennessee Titans — 55.0 total
Moneylines: Ravens -177/Titans +155
This first game on Sunday’s slate should be a good one. The Ravens are listed as just moderate road favorites, while the total sits at a whopping 55.0 points. That means Vegas is expecting a high-scoring, back-and-forth affair.
Both of these teams have been fantastic on the offensive side of the ball recently. The Ravens have been rolling since Lamar Jackson was activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list back in Week 13. They’ve averaged 37.2 points per game over that time frame, and they’ve posted a perfect 5-0 record over that time frame. They’ve also averaged a stout 430.4 yards per game thanks in part to their elite run game. Jackson and J.K. Dobbins have led their ground game to an average of 267.4 yards per game over that time frame.
The Titans have an elite run game of their own. Derrick Henry became just the eighth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards this season, and the Titans rank second in the league in Football Outsiders’ rush defense DVOA. Ryan Tannehill is no slouch as a passer, either: His average of 8.66 adjusted yards per attempt ranked fourth in the league this season.
So is this game a no-brainer over? It’s possible, but I think you should exercise some caution.
For starters, this game is going to be played outdoors. That’s a big deal in the playoffs. The over has gone just 60-81-3 against the spread in outdoor playoff games since 2004, which is good for a cover rate of just 42.6%. That doesn’t mean this game can’t go over, but it should make you somewhat skeptical.
Additionally, it’s important to put the Ravens’ recent offensive dominance into perspective. It’s possible that they’ve turned things around on that side of the ball, but it’s also possible that they simply feasted on a string of weak defenses. Their past five games were against the Cowboys, Browns, Jaguars, Giants, and Bengals, which is about as easy as it gets from a defensive perspective.
The Ravens draw another excellent matchup against the Titans, but it’s not as good as it looks on paper. There’s no doubt that the Titans are a disaster defensively — they rank 29th in defensive DVOA — but they are much weaker against the pass than the run. Even with their offense clicking recently, the Ravens have not been able to get their passing attack going. Jackson has averaged just 161.8 yards per game over his past five contests.
If the Titans can limit the Ravens’ rushing attack, can Jackson pick up the slack with his arm? That remains to be seen.
It’s worth noting that these teams did play back in Week 11, and the Titans were able to secure a six-point victory in Baltimore. The Titans limited the Ravens to just 129 yards on 33 carries — good for an average of just 3.91 yards per carry — and the Ravens finished with just 306 yards of total offense. The Titans racked up 423 yards of total offense, so they were in clear control of that contest.
Ultimately, I have come full circle on this game. The Ravens were a team that I believed in earlier in the week, but after digging further, I’ve come around to the Titans as home underdogs. I also think the under could be worth a look.
The one thing I’m monitoring is the status of Rdoger Saffold. He was unable to practice on Wednesday, but he has told reporters that he’s going to play. If he’s out, the Titans offensive line could struggle with Taylor Lewan already sidelined. If he’s in the lineup, I think the Titans are the correct side.
The Pick: Titans +3.5
Chicago Bears @ New Orleans Saints (-10.0) — 47.0 total
Moneylines: Bears +385/Saints -480
This is probably my least favorite game of the weekend.
The Saints enter this game as massive favorites, and they will be healthier than they’ve been arguably all season. Drew Brees is back in the lineup, and he appears to have shaken the rust off over the past two weeks. He struggled in the first half vs. the Chiefs, but he’s averaged 8.31 adjusted yards per attempt over that time frame.
Brees should also have both of his favorite targets in the lineup for one of the first times all season. Michael Thomas returned to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday, and the goal is for him to ramp up his activity as the week progresses. That puts him on track to return to the lineup after being placed on Injured Reserve in Week 14.
Alvin Kamara is also trending in the right direction. He’s currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but he can come off on Saturday as long as he continues to test negative. Head coach Sean Payton said that Kamara could “potentially” play without practicing this week, but there is absolutely zero chance that Kamara sits if he’s ultimately cleared to return to the active roster.
The early betting activity is heavily in New Orleans’ favor. They’ve garnered 65% of the early spread bets and 92% of the spread dollars.
That said, Brees has a pretty dubious track record in the playoffs. He’s just 2-7 against the spread at home, and he’s 2-9 against the spread as a favorite. The last time Brees covered as a favorite came all the way back in 2012 against the Lions. That means he’s failed to cover in each of his past five opportunities.
Still, the gap between the Saints and Bears is absolutely massive. Chicago is arguably the worst team to qualify for the postseason given their Pythagorean win expectation of 8.1-7.9.
The Bears have looked better after switching back to Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback, winning three of their past four games. However, their three wins have come against the Texans, Vikings, and Jaguars, who are three of the worst defensive teams in the league. They finally faced a real challenge last week vs. the Packers, and Green Bay ultimately limited them to just 16 points.
Now, they have to face arguably the best defensive team in the league. The Saints rank second in rush defense DVOA, third in pass defense DVOA, and third in adjusted sack rate. To put it simply, Trubisky does not have a shot against this unit.
I’m ultimately going to pass on this contest. I think the Saints should be able to cover, but Brees’ dubious history and the fact that the Saints are going to be a massively public team have me a bit concerned.
The Pick: Pass
Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers (-6) — 47.5 total
Moneylines: Browns +215/Steelers -265
If you caught the Line Movement NFL Picks Against the Spread show earlier this week, you know that I absolutely love the Steelers in this contest. I thought they were an excellent bet when this line opened at Steelers -3.5, I loved them at -4.5, and I still think they offer value at -6. They fit a host of different trends that offer substantial betting value during the postseason.
First and foremost, the Browns are lucky to even be in the playoffs. They finished with 11 wins, but most of those wins have come against inferior competition. They played seven games against playoff teams this season, and they posted a record of 4-3 in those contests. That said, there is a major asterisk next to most of those wins. They beat the Steelers last week, but Pittsburgh played virtually all their backups. They beat the Colts in Week 5, but Indianapolis was dealing with a host of injuries. The beat the Titans in Week 13, but Tennessee was in a clear letdown spot after winning a huge divisional game the week prior.
Despite the soft schedule, the Browns still were lucky to win 11 games. They had a Pythagorean win expectation of just 7.7-8.3 this season, which makes them the luckiest team in football. They exceeded their expected win rate by nearly 20%, and fading teams like that in the playoffs has historically been very profitable. Fading teams that have exceeded their Pythagorean win expectation by at least 10% have rewarded bettors with a 50-29-1 record against the spread since 2004. That’s good for a return on investment of +23.7%.
Additionally, the big line move against the Steelers is another positive. Teams that have seen the line move by at least one point have historically posted a record of 45-32-4 against the spread during the postseason.
Finally, the track record for quarterbacks making their first career postseason start is not impressive. Those quarterbacks have posted a record of 16-33-2 against the spread in their first start, and road underdogs like Baker Mayfield are just 7-9-1 against the spread. The fact that Baker is going to have to face one of the top defenses in the league will only exacerbate those issues.
Of course, the Browns are also dealing with a host of injuries and COVID-19 related issues at the moment. Head coach Kevin Stefanski will not be on the sidelines in this contest, which means that special teams coordinator Mike Preifer will serve as the acting head coach. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will handle the play calling duties, which is something that Stefanski has done all season.
The Browns will also be without Joel Bitonio and Nick Harris on the offensive line. That leaves the team without a starting guard and his potential replacement against a team with an elite pass rush. The Steelers rank first in the league in adjusted sack rate, and they have some excellent interior pass rushers in Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu, and Stephon Tuitt. All three players own top-14 grades as interior pass rushers according to Pro Football Focus.
They’re also going to be missing one of their top pass-rushers in Olivier Vernon, who suffered a torn Achilles in Week 17. He ranked second on the team with nine sacks, and a weakened pass rush is not ideal against the Steelers. They’ve thrown the ball at one of the highest rates in football this season, and Ben Roethlisberger should be able to pick apart their weak secondary if given time.
Add it all up and this is my favorite play of the week. I’m happy that it locked it in earlier in the week, but I still think you can grab them at this current number. I would advise doing that if you haven’t done so already because this line is only going up before kick-off.
The Pick: Steelers -6