NFL Wild Card Weekend is one of the most highly anticipated and popular NFL betting weekends of the year. It’s also one of the most difficult weekends to win because the lines are pretty spot-on at this point: We’ve got 16-game samples (well, 15 in some cases) on every team and know their strengths and weaknesses well.
There’s solid two-way action so far on all games as we’ll take take a good look at (1) the lines and totals (2) the best teaser legs for each game (to combine with one more leg) and (3) explore prop bet opportunities. For an added Brady-Belichick-Kraft level of intrigue, there’s four starting quarterbacks making their first playoffs start this weekend (Blake Bortles, Tyrod Taylor, Marcus Mariota and Jared Goff) and typically those QBs don’t fare very well in those starts. Now let’s roll!
NFL Wild Card Weekend Spectacular: Picks, Projections; Superdome Showdown; The (Kareem) Hunt for New England; Doug Marrone Bowl; And Rams Ready to Rock
Saturday at 4:35 pm ET
Tennessee Titans (+8.5) at Kansas City Chiefs (o/u 44.5): The Titans limped into the playoffs but there’s no points for style, and all you need is a ticket to the dance. Unfortunately their dance will occur at Arrowhead Stadium where the Chiefs play better defense before a roaring home crowd, allowing 20 points or less per game in 14 consecutive home games. And the Titans’ offense doesn’t travel very well. They’ve scoring about a touchdown less on the road — 17.5 points per game on the road on average versus 24.3 per game at home.
And if you’ve been watching the Titans at all this season, you know that QB Marcus Mariota has regressed with some poor mechanics and decision-making. They’re a pretty one-dimensional offense that rushes the ball a lot, but fortunately that dimension is better when RB Derrick Henry is carrying the load rather than splitting time with DeMarco Murray (knee) who the Titans have ruled out for Sunday. Henry is averaging 4.2 yards per carry this season, more than half a yard better than Murray’s 3.6. On the passing front, Mariota is averaging just 190 yards in the air over his past six games with just a 78.2 passer rating and 5 TDs against 5 INTs.
If the Titans are going to win this game, they’re going to have to gash Kansas City on the ground, where KC has been most susceptible this season. They’re ranked dead last in rushing defense DVOA (Football Outsiders) and have allowed an average 118 rushing yards per game (ranked 25th). Also expect Marcus Mariota to pull the ball down and run whenever possible. He’ll be willing and ready in a win-or-gone playoffs game.
When the Chiefs have the ball, it will likely be the Kareem Hunt Show with best supporting actors in TE Travis Kelce and WR Albert Wilson (averaging 6.6 targets and 46 yards per game over past 6) with a possibility, as ever, of a 50+ yard score by speed demon Tyreek Hill. That said, Tennessee has done a very good job containing rushing attacks (ranked 7th against the run) and have limited big plays, thanks mostly to great tackling safeties in their secondary in FS Kevin Byard (First Team All-Pro) and SS Jonathan Cyprien.
But they’ve also given up a ton of receptions (99, second most in league) and 967 yards receiving (the most) to running backs, also ranking dead last in passing DVOA against RBs. So look for a ton of Hunt in the screen game (and look for him on the prop menu down below on this point). Byard and Cyprien can tackle but they’ll have their hands and shoulder pads full with Hunt, the league-leader in broken tackles with 69 (Hey, Gronk!).
Score projection: Chief 24, Titans 17
Best teaser leg: Tease under seven points up to 51.5, which means for example you’ll hit it in a 27-24 game. (Remember those figures on Titans’ road scoring and Chiefs home defense.)
Saturday at 8:15 pm ET
Atlanta Falcons (+6) at Los Angeles Rams (o/u 48.5): Sean McVay and the Rams tried their best to fall into the #4 seed (resting/benching all their key starters in Week 17) and a home date with Carolina in an effort to get to Philadelphia next week, alas they’re hosting the defending NFC Champs. At least this gives them a slightly more beatable foe for this round. So the Rams enter this game rested and ready and they’re definitely the better team.
NFL MVP candidate Todd Gurley is looking at a huge workload here of possibly 35+ touches and targets. McVay unlocked Gurley’s potential this season after the Rams escaped Jeff Fisher’s “middle school offense.” This year the 23-year-old RB averaged a league-leading 139.5 rushing and receiving yards per game — 10 better than Le’Veon Bell in second — on 18.6 carries and 4.3 receptions per game. Gurley is the key against a pretty decent Falcons rushing defense, but one that has gotten ripped by receiving-adept RBs like Gurley.
The Rams and QB Jared Goff are not without weapons elsewhere but one issue for Goff is his struggles against defenses that use single-high coverage with one safety over the top. The Falcons do a lot of this, which ought to limit Goff’s ability to find comfortable spots to hit WRs Robert Wood, Sammy Watkins and slot man Cooper Kupp. And McVay probably will want to avoid a Goff gaffe early. So, Gurley.
For the Falcons on offense, they just haven’t found 2016 form and have struggled quite a lot in the red zone: Atlanta is ranked 24th in red zone TD scoring (50%), but might fare better given the Rams’ defensive struggles down there, where they rank 25th (58.7%).
It’s just the reverse for the Rams in the red zone on offense (ranked 14th in TD scoring and 11th in points in the red zone) and for the Falcons, who have clamped down in the red zone with a 45.8% touchdown rate against (ranked 5th). Julio Jones will get his yardage but has been contained in several games this season, and the Rams are well-equipped to do that with the third-ranked passing defense in the league.
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The Rams’ main vulnerability is in the running game, so expect a lot of Devonta Freeman carries, although Freeman is still nursing a knee injury. You wouldn’t expect the Rams to struggle against the run (they did reach middle-of-the-pack there over the second half of the season) with beasts like Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers on the defensive line, but you are what your numbers say you are (to paraphrase and mash up famous Bill Parcells and Dennis Green quotes.) About Donald and Brockers: look for the Rams to ram Atlanta’s A gap on the left side, where starting LG Andy Levitre is out and backup Ben Garland is in place, while star center Alex Mack is nursing a calf injury.
Donald can single handedly destroy and offense… the script goes strip sack, short field, momentum swinging TD, game gets away. But let’s not forget the downgrade from Rams Pro Bowl kicker Greg Zuerlein (back) to inexperienced rookie Sam Ficken. That’s going to change McVay’s play calling and cost a point or three at some point, in this game or the next.
Score projection: Rams 27, Falcons 20
Best teaser leg: Under. This is really tough because I think the Rams could blow them out, but the Falcons certainly could win. Both defense have improved over the course of the season, so I like think an under tease, taking the total from 48.5 through a key number 54.5, is your best bet here.
Sunday at 1:05 pm ET
Buffalo Bills (+9) at Jacksonville Jaguars (o/u 39): Are Bills and their fans just happy to be here, making their first playoffs appearance since the 1999-2000 season? Probably a little bit. Check out Bills’ fans welcoming the team home on Sunday night after the Bengals upset the Ravens in dramatic fashion, allowing Buffalo to make it through (and click here for the Bills’ reaction in the locker room while watching the Bengals’ winning TD.)
We also get a nice twist with Buffalo’s return to January football in the Doug Marrone Bowl. I’ve referenced my die-hard Bills fan friend Matt before. Here’s a text message he sent me on Sunday: “I love that we’re playing Doug Marrone, the coward who abandoned the Bills as head coach three years ago. Lots of our players were around then. They haven’t forgotten. Poetic opportunity.”
Unfortunately, I think the Bills are the likeliest team to get blown out of the water this weekend. When the Jaguars cover, they tend to cover yuge because teams are forced to pass against the best secondary in the league. The Bills have a terrible passing offense as it is and an offense that’s garnered a whopping 33% of its yardage via LeSean McCoy. If McCoy plays at all (game time decision) after getting carted off with an ankle injury at Miami last week, he won’t be 100%, maybe not even 80%.
He probably will play but there’s only so much a cortisone shot and an A-plus tape job can do. How much of McCoy’s production can the backup RBs — the bulky Michael Tolbert and inexperienced third-year man Marcus Murphy — make up? Against a top-ranked passing defense studded by two Pro Bowl cornerbacks, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, we should see a healthy click of Tyrod Taylor running the ball (averaging 5.1 yards per carry on 84 rushes), rather than throwing into the teeth of the Jags’ defense. As it is, Taylor’s top WR Kelvin Benjamin is playing through a torn meniscus.
Now let’s discuss Blake Bortles and the Jaguars offense, starting with a comment on Tuesday by Titans DT Jurrell Casey. “As long as Bortles is back there, if the ball game is in his hands, he’s going to choke,” Casey said on 104.5 The Zone in Nashville. Later he walked it back a bit:
— Jurrell Casey (@Jurrellc) January 3, 2018
This is Bortles’ first playoffs game, so we’ll see, but undoubtedly Marrone is going to go Full Leonard Fournette against an absolutely dismal Bills rushing defense (ranked 31st) that’s crumbled since shipping DT Marcell Dareus to… yeah, Jacksonville. The Bills have allowed an average 136 rushing yards per game against over its last five.
Defenses have held the rookie rusher in check several times this season, but Fournette has also exploded for 100+ five times and huge gains. The Jaguars also get a running game boost with the return of starting rookie left tackle Cam Robinson (abdominal strain) who sat out Week 17. If or when the Jaguars do open up the offense against a solid Bills secondary, look for Bortles to throw to slot man Allen Hurns, now healthy after overcoming an ankle injury. Hurns will square off with Bills slot corner Leonard Johnson, somewhat of a liability as the the 85th-ranked cornerback out of 121 qualified, per ProFootballFocus.
Also I can’t get enough of this Twitter account:
Blake Bortles is undefeated in 2018, and has yet to throw an incomplete pass or interception. pic.twitter.com/7zWH3JyFuI
— Blake Bortles Facts (@BortlesFacts) January 1, 2018
Super Bowl Losses ⬇️
— Blake Bortles Facts (@BortlesFacts) January 2, 2018
Score projection: Jaguars 27, Bills 10
Best teaser leg: Based on the score projection, you know I think the Jags cover and it goes under, even a miniature 39-point total. The scary thing is the decent probability of a Bills and/or Jaguars turnover and a short field that could spike the number, or a defensive score. But it’s a safer bet in a teaser if you go with six points, putting the number through 44, up to 45. I also think taking the Jags to -3 in a six-point tease isn’t a bad idea (despite the teaser-protected line), but maybe just go with Jaguars -8 or -8.5 straight if it’s there.
Sunday at 4:40 pm ET:
Carolina Panthers (+6.5) at New Orleans Saints (over/under 48): The well-traveled idea that it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season has no merit it all, in fact as noted by Aaron Shatz of Football Outsiders, in 14 out the last 20 such instances (70%), the team that won the first two won the playoffs game.
I’m pretty damn confident the Saints are going to win this game, then beat the Eagles in Philadelphia (assuming a Rams win over the Falcons) and make it to the NFC Championship game. As he was last week at Atlanta in a game in which the Panthers could have locked up the NFC South and secured a home game this weekend, Cam Newton had an absolutely brutal game, completing just 14 of 34 passes (season low 41% completion rate) with three picks and two fumbles (neither lost).
In two games against the Saints this season, Newton averaged just 175 passing yards against a stout Saints secondary. His receiving options aren’t very good and his top wideout Devin Funchess has a date with breakout rookie CB Marshon Lattimore. At least the Panthers rushing has attack has greatly improved in recent weeks. I think we’re going to see a big time rushing effort out of Newton, who’s carried 13 times per game over the past three for 58, 52 and 59 yards.
The Saints offense is balanced and just about uncontainable; the Panthers allowed 31 and 34 points to New Orleans in their losses this season. We know all about the two-headed Saints running game monster at this point with Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are solid in pass coverage, but they’re dealing with a dynamic Kamara, whose 7.7 yards per offensive touch is the best in NFL history of a player with 200+ touches in a season, per Elias Sports Bureau research.
Also, Drew Brees. He’s super accurate, top WR Michael Thomas is now healthy and can abuse a slumping Panthers secondary which he beat for 12 catches and 157 yards and two scores this season. The Saints also welcome back star left tackle Terron Armstead, which will help a lot against a Panthers front that brings a lot of pressure (fifth in pressure rate).
At a super loud, jacked up Superdome, I still think the Panthers can compete especially if we see Cam breaking the defense’s back by converting on third down on scrambles. But, this game is most likely going to the Saints. If you do like New Orleans, make sure you’re getting -6.5.
Score projection: Saints 28, Panthers 20 (pinned exactly at the total because it’s on point, and I have no idea which way it goes!)
Best teaser leg: This one is tough and I’ll be laying off. I could see the Saints winning a blowout. If I had to pick one, I’d once again go with an under tease, once again, taking 48 to key number 54.
Best prop bet options!:
Prop bets are fun and there’s some tasty options if you can find them. William Hill US is offering a bunch, below, and then let’s also discuss some other good-looking spots that you can find elsewhere, if you know what I mean.
From William Hill, I’d look at:
– Todd Gurley rushing yards under 90.5, despite the volume he might get. He averages 87.0 rushing yards per game and may be more active in the passing game than usual. Also the Falcons have limited explosive running plays: Just six rushes of 20+ allowed all season (ranked T-2 with four teams) and just one run of 40+.
– Leonard Fournette rushing yards over 79.5. He might get 25+ carries here against a bad rushing D.
Elsewhere, if you can find the player props, I’d look for:
– Julio Jones yardage under if it’s around the high 80- or 90-yard range
– Derrick Henry rushing yards over if it’s in the low 70’s range or better
– Rishard Mathews receptions over if it’s about 3.5 (he’ll see a lot of the washed up Darrelle Revis)
– Kareem Hunt receiving yards over if it’s around the mid-to-low 30s or lower
– Allen Hurns receptions over at around 3.5 or 4
– Kelvin Benjamin under receiving yards or receptions, but if these are ridiculously super low numbers, never mind
– Cam Newton rushing yards over if it’s around 57 or lower
– Marcus Mariota rushing yards over at around 30 or lower, or over on attempts at 6.5 or lower
That’s it and that’s all folks! Get excited. Should be an exciting and hopefully profitable weekend.
Happy Wild Card Weekend! Before you place any wagers, check the weather and check for any key injuries/inactives on Sunday. Also, check your bias. Hit me up on Twitter with any thoughts, comments, concerns, questions, compliments or dad jokes.