NFL PLAYOFFS: After a Wildcard Weekend that featured a couple of significant upsets, we’ve reached the best football weekend of the year: the Divisional Round, where the rubber truly meets the road in the NFL playoffs.
Only the top seeds and last weekend’s winners remain, and the matchups are tremendous: the upset-minded Vikings trying to spoil San Francisco’s season after ruining the party in New Orleans last week; the red-hot Titans going to Baltimore to face a Ravens team that nobody has been able to slow down; the Chiefs attempting to exact a bit of revenge on the Texans in a game featuring two of the NFL’s most dynamic young quarterbacks; and a battle of future Hall of Fame QBs in the snow at Lambeau Field. Its simply doesn’t get much better, does it?
Unfortunately our postseason got off to an inauspicious start, as we hit only one of our four bets last week. But as longtime readers know, we’ve enjoyed great success in the playoffs over the years (knock on wood..), so hopefully last week’s misadventures will be a forgettable blip on the road to profitability. Here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Minnesota Vikings @ San Francisco 49ers (SF -7, 44)
Recommendation: San Francisco -7 at 1.91
The Vikings shocked the NFL world in New Orleans last week, outplaying the Saints throughout and escaping with a 26-20 victory in a game in which they were 7.5-point underdogs. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the game was how the Minnesota defense was able to bottle up the prolific New Orleans passing attack, limiting Drew Brees to just 208 yards on 33 pass attempts. This was especially impressive because the Vikes were down their top two nickel defenders, and the injury list has now grown, as safety Jayron Kearse has been ruled out for this game, prompting the team to call up Nate Meadors from the practice squad. Having a bunch of backups in the secondary certainly isn’t ideal when you’re about to face the diverse San Francisco passing attack and the play-calling genius of Kyle Shanahan, but it’s the hand that Minnesota has been dealt, and it’s up to Shanahan to figure out how to exploit the matchups in ways that Sean Payton and Drew Brees could not.
But Shanahan and the 49ers offense is only part of the story here: it’s the defense that sets the table in San Francisco. The Niners ranked second in the league in total yards allowed this season and were the best in the NFL against the pass, surrendering just 169.2 yards per game through the air. The defense was absolutely dominant when fully healthy, and for the first time in weeks they’re expected to be (nearly) fully healthy again, as linebacker Kwon Alexander, end Dee Ford, and safety Jaquiski Tartt are all expected back after multi-week absences. The return of Alexander should really help shore up a run defense that has been leaky over the last month, while Ford is a premier pass-rusher whose mere presence affects an opposing offense and frees up his fellow d-linemen. The Minnesota offense has struggled against quality defenses this season, averaging just 10.2 ppg in five games against top-10 defenses, and Kirk Cousins has a passer rating of just 61.0 when pressured, so if the Niners pass rush can turn up the heat, things could fall apart for Cousins and Co. This is a really tough spot for the Vikes– the defense could keep them in it for awhile, but I expect San Francisco to pull away in the second half and win this one fairly comfortably.
Tennessee Titans @ Baltimore Ravens (BAL -10, 47)
Recommendation: Tennessee +10 at 1.9
Betting against Lamar Jackson and Baltimore has been a dicey proposition this season– the Ravens are 9-1 against the spread in their last 10 games, and have covered double-digit numbers three times in that span. The reason they’ve been so good, of course, is because of Jackson and an innovative run-first offense that is different from what anyone else in the league is doing. The Ravens led the NFL in rushing this season by a wide margin, averaging 206 yards per game on the ground, and they put up 33.2 points per game, also first in the league. If the Titans are to have any chance in this game, they must succeed where others have failed: they must limit the effectiveness of the called QB runs, misdirection, and power schemes, and turn the Ravens into something approximating a “normal” NFL offense. Jackson has proven that he can burn defenses with his arm, but when forced to operate as a conventional pocket passer, his game, and the Baltimore offense, is neutered somewhat.
Fortunately for the Titans, their strength on defense is up front, and they’ve been difficult to run on all season. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be ready for what Jackson and the Ravens throw at them, but they’re better-equipped for the challenge than most teams that Baltimore has faced. And the Tennessee offense should present plenty of challenges for Baltimore, as well. The Titans have been rolling ever since Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback 11 games ago, as workhorse running back Derrick Henry has blossomed into the league’s best power runner and rookie wideout A.J. Brown has emerged as an elite playmaker. Brown will have chances downfield against a Baltimore secondary that is prone to giving up big plays, and this could be a great matchup for Tannehill, as the Ravens defense blitzes on a higher percentage of snaps than any defense in the NFL (48.7%), and Tannehill excels against the blitz, ranking third in the league in yards per attempt (9.8) and throwing 7 TDs to just 1 INT when blitzed. That, to me, is what many of the “experts” are missing with their analysis of this game: yes, the Baltimore offense is a juggernaut that will be difficult for Tennessee to slow down, but the Titans offense is really good in its own right, and the Ravens defense can be exploited, especially in the secondary. An outright upset is not totally out of the question here, and I believe that 10 points is far too many in this situation.
Houston Texans @ Kansas City Chiefs (KC -9.5, 51)
Recommendation: Kansas City -9.5 at 1.98
Though the Chiefs have been rolling lately, with six straight wins all by 7 points or more, they probably remember October 13th pretty clearly. That’s when Houston came up to Arrowhead and rolled up 31 points, 472 yards, and 83 offensive plays against a helpless Kansas City defense that just couldn’t get Deshaun Watson off the field. The Texans won that game 31-24, and though the Chiefs defense has tightened up considerably over the past 10 weeks and is now playing much better than they were early in the season, they probably haven’t faced a quarterback as dynamic as Watson. As we saw with his tremendous second half against Buffalo last week, Watson is one of the rare players who can take over a game and make opposing defenses look positively helpless.
Of course, the Chiefs have a player like that as well– Patrick Mahomes wasn’t himself the first time these teams met, as he was gimping around on a bad ankle, but he’s fully healthy now, and since getting star wideout Tyreek Hill back, the Kansas City offense has returned to form, producing 23 points or more in 9 consecutive games. And as dangerous as the Texans can be on offense, their defense has been very exploitable this season, ranking 28th in total yards allowed and 32nd (aka dead last) in yards per play allowed, which many consider the most important defensive stat. Buffalo’s Josh Allen was not able to take full advantage of the holes in the Houston secondary last week, but I don’t think that will be an issue with Mahomes, who completed better than 65% of his passes this season for nearly 300 yards per game, with 26 TDs and only 5 INTs. He’s one of the premier “arm talents” in the NFL, and with a home playoff game against one of the league’s most porous defenses, he has the perfect canvas upon which to paint his masterpiece. Though I expect the Houston offense to have some success here– over 51 is a bet I’d look at closely– I simply don’t think the Texans will be able to keep pace with Mahomes and the Chiefs, who may put up 40 in this one. Gimme the home team.
Seattle Seahawks @ Green Bay Packers (GB -4.5, 46.5)
Recommendation: Under 46.5 at 1.91
With crews at Lambeau Field requesting volunteers to help them shovel snow on Sunday after what is expected to be an epic winter storm on Saturday night, we have an idea of what we can expect in this game: good old-fashioned frostbite football, when the game is won and lost in the trenches. Russell Wilson’s poor record in sub-freezing temperatures and at Lambeau Field specifically has been much-discussed this week, but what hasn’t been talked about as much is the slippage we’ve seen from Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay passing attack this season. Many are understandably hesitant to blame Rodgers, especially since he hasn’t exactly been surrounded by an all-star receiving corps, but facts are facts: in his last eight games, Rodgers has thrown for 243 yards or fewer seven times, and has failed to reach the 200-yard mark three times.
The Packers have been winning, but unlike years past, they haven’t been carried by Rodgers’ arm, but rather by the running back tandem of Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones and an underrated defense that improved tremendously over the course of the season, holding each of the team’s last five opponents to 20 points or fewer. I expect them to keep that streak going against a Seattle offense that is banged-up and not particularly explosive, averaging just 18.6 points per game in the team’s last five contests. Wilson is a terrific player, but Lambeau Field has been a house of horrors for him in his NFL career, as he’s 0-3 and has thrown 6 interceptions to just 3 touchdown passes, and this is the best defense that Green Bay has had in some time. Plus, the Seahawks have been signing running backs off the street after injuries to Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, so it would certainly be a surprise if they were able to gash the Packers defense on the ground. At the same time, Green Bay’s own struggles on offense can’t be ignored, and the Seattle defense has been particularly good on the road this season, holding five opponents to 20 points or fewer, including Philadelphia last week. All things considered– the cold, the snow, the struggles of the respective offenses, and the play of the defenses– a total like 46.5 just feels a little too big, doesn’t it? I’m on the Under.