NFL Divisional Playoffs Sunday betting preview

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Well that was disappointing. Super Wild Card Weekend turned out to be a bit of a bust, with most of the football being pretty uncompetitive. The Bills, Ravens, and Browns advanced for the AFC, while the Rams, Buccaneers, and Saints prevailed in the NFC.

It was also a very disappointing week for me from a betting perspective. Many of my favorite playoff trends failed to deliver, and it culminated with the Steelers’ self-destruction vs. the Browns. Cleveland was gifted four turnovers in the first half, and the Steelers dug themselves a hole that they ultimately couldn’t climb out of. Mike Tomlin also delivered one of the worst coaching performances I’ve ever seen:

With that out of the way, let’s turn the page and start fresh this weekend. We’ve got four games between Saturday and Sunday, and there should be some good ones. This piece will focus on the two Sunday games, while the smart and talented Geoff Ulrich will break down the Saturday contests.

Let’s dive right in.

Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs (-10) — 57.5 total

Moneyline Odds: Browns +400/Chiefs -500

The first thing that jumps off the page here is the total. It opened at 55.0 points, and it’s already been bet up to 57.5. A whopping 80% of the bets on the total have sided with the over, so it’s clear that the public expects plenty of points in this contest.

It’s easy to see why. The Chiefs have been dominant on the offensive side of the ball this season. They rank first in yards per game, second in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, and sixth in points per game. The combination of Patrick Mahomes and Andy Ried spearheads the offense, which might be the most dominant QB-head coach combination in league history from a purely offensive standpoint. Ried is nothing short of a genius at designing gameplans, and Mahomes is capable of making throws that other quarterbacks can only dream of.

This combination has been lethal when given additional time to prepare. Between the regular season and playoffs, Mahomes and Ried have been a juggernaut with at least 13 days between games:

  • 11/22/20 @ Raiders — 35 points
  • 2/2/20 vs. 49ers (neutral field) — 31 points
  • 1/12/20 vs. Texans — 51 points
  • 12/1/19 vs. Raiders — 40 points
  • 1/12/19 vs. Colts — 31 points
  • 12/2/18 @ Raiders — 40 points

Those numbers are truly mindboggling. They’ve scored at least 31 points in all three games, and they’ve averaged a ridiculous 38.0 points overall. The Browns rank just 25th in pass defense DVOA, so they don’t have a shot at stopping this unit.

On the other side, the Browns offense has also held its own recently. Baker Mayfield has emerged after nearly a year-long hibernation. He averaged 8.54 adjusted yards per attempt over his final six regular-season games, and he followed that up with 9.50 adjusted yards per attempt last week vs. the Steelers. He’s also tossed 14 touchdowns compared to just one interception over that time frame.

That said, the Browns offense is built on the back of their dominant running game. The combination of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is arguably the best 1-2 punch in football, and those two players combined to give the Browns the No. 3 rushing attack in the league in terms of yards per game. Those two players combined for 124 rushing yards vs. an excellent Steelers’ defense last week, and they also added in five catches for 82 yards through the air.

The Browns should have no problem moving the ball on the ground vs. the Chiefs. Kansas City ranks just 31st in rush defense DVOA, so expect another big game from the combination of Chubb and Hunt.

With that in mind, it’s pretty easy to get behind the over in this contest. Still, I’m going to exercise some caution. Even though the vast majority of the tickets have come in on the over, 57% of the money has landed on the under. This game will be played outdoors in Kansas City, and it is expected to be a chilly day. Taking the under on outdoor playoff games has historically been a profitable endeavor, rewarding bettors with an 82-64-4 record since 2004. That trend went just 1-4 last week, but it’s still proven to be a winning long term system. I’m not bold enough to actually take the under, but it’s enough to scare me off the over.

I think the best betting value in this contest is simply taking the Chiefs to cover the spread. Mahomes is historically 4-2 with additional time to prepare, including a perfect 3-0 during the postseason.

I also think the Browns are still a fraudulent playoff team. It gets harder and harder to make that statement each week, but last week’s performance was more about the Steelers shooting themselves in the foot than anything else. Maurkice Pouncey gave the Browns seven points on the first play of the game by directly snapping the ball over Ben Roethlisberger’s head, and Roethlisberger gave them an additional 14 first-quarter points via two interceptions. The Chiefs are not going to make those types of mistakes.

The Browns’ ability to run the football could also become a non-factor if the Chiefs jump out to an early lead. Kansas City was arguably worse against the run last season than they are this year, but they still cruised to a Super Bowl victory. Their offense can put points on the board in a hurry, which often forces teams to abandon their run game since they’re playing from behind.

The Pick: Chiefs -10

Line Movement’s Bets Against The Spread Show

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New Orleans Saints (-3) — 52.0 total

Moneyline Odds: Buccaneers +145/Saints -165

“It’s hard to beat a team three times in the same season”.

That’s a narrative that you’re going to hear a lot heading into this contest. That said, the data doesn’t back that up. There have been seven playoff games between divisional opponents where one team has won the first two head-to-head meetings since 2002, and those teams have gone 5-2 straight up in those contests. They haven’t been as dominant against they spread — they’re just 3-4 — but apparently it isn’t that hard to beat the same team three times in a season.

The Saints didn’t just win their first to head-to-head matchups either; they thoroughly dominated. They won both games by a combined score of 72-26, including a 38-3 drubbing when these two teams met in the Superdome.

The Saints offense has been solid this season — they rank seventh in offensive DVOA — but they have blossomed into arguably the best defensive team in the league. They rank in the top three in both rush and pass defense DVOA, and they’ve allowed the third-fewest points per game this season.

They were fantastic last week vs. the Bears. They limited them to just nine points, and six of those came on a meaningless touchdown pass as time expired. The Bears managed only 239 yards of total offense after averaging 388.6 yards over the previous five weeks.

The Saints’ defense has also made life a living hell for Tom Brady during the regular season. He finished with just two touchdown passes compared to five interceptions, and he was also sacked six times. The result was an average of 3.55 adjusted yards per attempt between the two contests.

One big thing to monitor heading into this contest is the health of Trey Hendrickson. He led the Saints with 13.5 sacks during the regular season, and he graded out as the 15th best edge pass rusher according to Pro Football Focus. They survived without Hendrickson last week vs. the Bears, but they need them back in the lineup vs. the Buccaneers. The key to beating Brady is pressuring him with your front four, and Hendrickson recorded three sacks in the first two matchups between these teams this season.

Luckily, Hendrickson returned to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday, which puts him on track to make his return to the lineup on Sunday.

The big X-factor in this contest is Antonio Brown. He made his debut with the Bucs in their second meeting with the Saints this season, so he wasn’t entirely up to speed with their offense yet. He did play on 78% of the offensive snaps — which was his second-highest mark of the season — but he finished with just five targets and three catches.

He’ll be important in this matchup because Mike Evans tends to struggle against Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore has had a down year by his standards — he owns a Pro Football Focus grade of just 57.5 — but he’s been able to shut down Evans in their two meetings this season. Evans has finished with only five catches for 66 yards in his two games vs. the Saints this season, so Lattimore appears to have his number. The fact that Evans is currently dealing with a knee injury casts further doubt about his ability to perform in this matchup.

That means Brown and Chris Godwin will likely have to pick up the slack. Both players have exploitable matchups according to Pro Football Focus — Brown has a 46% edge, Godwin has a 51% edge — but that will only matter if Brady can get the ball out of his hands quickly.

Ultimately, I don’t see a ton of betting value in this contest. The Bucs might have been appealing at +3.5, but that line is no longer available. The Bucs have received 56% of the spread bets and 63% of the spread dollars, which caused the books to move the line to 3.0.

The most appealing wager might be the under. Divisional unders in playoff contests have historically provided some value, owning a record of 11-9-1 since 2004. That said, this trend did go 0-2 last week, with Seahawks-Rams and Steelers-Browns both cruising over the total.

Still, both of these teams are built more around their defense than their offense, even though they employ arguably the two greatest quarterbacks in league history. The Saints have already shown the ability to shut down Brady twice this season, and the Saints’ offense hasn’t been particularly explosive since Brees returned to the lineup Week 15 vs. the Chiefs.

The under also gives us the added benefit of betting against the public. The over has received 79% of the bets on the total, but the under has garnered 69% of the dollars.

The Pick: Under 52.0

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