During the regular season, many bettors begin their handicapping by looking at any situational and motivational factors that may affect the matchup. From that, the handicap goes one of many different directions. In the playoffs, all of those are removed. Every game is win or go home, each team has equal rest (except for the bye), and there are no longer sandwich or travel spots to note. NFL playoff handicapping comes down to two things. On field performance vs price.
Eagles To Bear Down In Chicago
The Eagles vs Bears matchup on Sunday night is a perfect example of both colliding to present opportunity.
I think it is valuable to reset both of these teams.
The Chicago Bears run the ball on 46% of plays. That is the fourth highest rate in the NFL ahead of only Seattle, Tennessee and Baltimore. The single down and distance where the Chicago Bears rushed the ball at a lower rate than 46% during the regular season were on any down with 11+ yards to go, 2nd down and 8-10 yards to go, and 3rd down with 4-10 yards to go. Being such a run orientated team, it is surprising that the Bears run play action on just 21% of pass plays (23rd in the NFL).
When they do run play action, it is very ineffective, gaining only 5.7 yards per play (31st in the NFL) compared to 7.2 yards per play (6th in the NFL) on standard dropbacks.
Mitchell Trubisky ranks 14th in the NFL averaging 7.0 yards per pass attempt, and more than half of his passes are within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. His passer rating drops from 99.7 on throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage to 77.5 to throws deeper than 10 yards downfield. Trubisky is the 18th ranked deep passer in the NFL on throws of 15 yards or more. His completion percentage on deep throws is just 37%. The only QB’s in league with a worse rate that attempted more than 40 deep throws were Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Joe Flacco.
Philadelphia is a bit of a different handicap.
This team is very different with and without Nick Foles at quarterback.
While much of the market is going to bet on the Eagles using the full season metrics, I think it is important to parse out all but Week 15-17 to get an accurate look of what this Eagles team will be on Sunday.
Since there was no coaching change, the playbook remained the same. With Wentz in Week 3-14, Philadelphia passed the ball on 62% of plays. With Foles in Week 1,2 and 15-17, Philadelphia passed the ball on 61% of plays. The difference shows up in efficiency. The Eagles with Wentz ranked 16th in passing success rate but jumped all the way up to 4th with Foles.
Their rushing success rate dropped from 18th with Wentz to 30th with Foles. However, Foles is a different type of passer than Wentz. Just 23% of Foles passes were thrown 10 yards or further downfield in comparison to 34% of Wentz passes.
This game for me comes down to the matchup in the trenches. I can’t knock the Bears defense on any aspect. Regarding success rate, they rank 5th against the pass and 3rd against the rush. Maybe surprising to many is the fact that their defensive line ranks 9th in adjusted line yards and 12th in adjusted sack rate.
Vic Fangio has done a tremendous job all season; however, I think the Eagles can have success moving the football through the air.
The Bears often play a hybrid defense of sorts that starts off as zone and turns into man coverage deep.
The Eagles offense with size is extremely good at beating zone coverage, and Foles is very good at making those throws. The Eagles QB is also very good at making one extra step up in the pocket to extend the play just enough to get a receiver open and create enough time. Philadelphia also has the most skilled and athletic right tackle in the league – Lane Johnson – who can match up one on one with Khalil Mack. Success passing on Sunday will come down to Foles making the correct pre-snap reads, something he excels at doing.
On the other side of the ball, the Eagles weakness is entirely in their secondary. Philadelphia is 29th in passing success rate defense and allowed 7.6 yards per attempt in the final five weeks of the season.
Stylistically, I am not sure the Bears can exploit the weakness. As mentioned above, Trubisky is one of the worst deep ball passers in the NFL. The Bears QB is also extremely quick to scramble out of the pocket and is well below average when the pocket is not kept clean.
The Eagles do not get a lot of sacks (26th in adjusted sack rate), but, they get a lot of pressure, and they smother the rush. The defensive line of the Eagles ranks 6th in adjusted line yards, and 2nd in stopping rushing plays at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield (26% of runs). The Eagles typically play zone in the early downs tight to the line of scrimmage with only one safety deep. But, against the Rams, they protected against their weakness and played much of the game with two safeties very deep. They gave up just two deep completions all game and held one of the best deep passing offenses in their own stadium.
I believe the Eagles can stay disciplined and force the Bears into longer down and distances where they become a predictable passing offense.
A few little intangibles are working in the Eagles favour too.
Obviously, much of this team is fresh off the Super Bowl win a year ago and has the playoff experience. Trubisky is starting his first playoff game, Matt Nagy who is notorious for scripting the first half and failing to adjust at halftime is in his first playoff game as a head coach and Vic Fangio has already received three interview requests this week from other teams wanting to give him a big paycheck and a head coaching job.
At the price point of 6.5, this number is just too high.
I have so many doubts about Chicago.
The first of which is the fact that they have not played a top 10 rushing defense this entire season. The best rushing defense the Bears played was San Francisco (12th), and they scored just 14 points. Chicago also has the worst ranked offensive line of any team in the postseason (28th).
Concerning success rate metrics, the Bears are 12th and 14th on offense (pass/rush) and 5th and 3rd on defense (pass/rush). Those numbers seem strong, but, the Bears played the easiest schedule of opposing defenses and an average schedule of opposing offences. In terms of an effort standpoint, the Bears gained just 101% of their opponents’ average allowance per play on offense – that is 26th in the NFL.
I can’t justify the price point for Chicago and think if the Eagles can get a big game from their offensive line, we may see an upset. Take the 6.5 points.
Time To Fade The Hawks
The Seahawks vs Cowboys matchup on Saturday afternoon is a little bit different.
I will start with a quick reset of both teams.
Seattle is the most run-heavy offense in the entire NFL.
They rush the ball on 53% of plays which makes them the only team that rushes more than they pass. Their play calling can be extremely predictable. Seattle runs the ball more than 50% of the time on every down and distance except for 3rd down and more than 4 where they pass 88% of the time. Considering the high frequency of rushes, it is not a surprise that Seattle runs play action at a 32% rate, which is the second highest in the NFL. Russell Wilson averages 8.1 yards per attempt off play action compared to just 6.1 yards per attempt on standard dropbacks. The two-yard difference is the 5th most significant difference in the NFL.
Defensively Seattle has an elite linebacker in Bobby Wagner but does not have another single stand out player anywhere on the field.
Dallas is a little more unbalanced the other way.
The Cowboys threw the ball on 57% of plays in the regular season which is 22nd in the NFL. Dallas is a little more pass heavy than many bettors think, mainly due to the Zeke factor which implies consistent running plays. The only down and distances where Dallas runs the ball more than they pass are 1st and 10, 2nd and less than 3 and 3rd and less than 3. Dallas runs play action on 22% of snaps which is 18th in the NFL, and despite having Elliot in the backfield and a mobile QB under centre, their difference of 1.2 yards between play action passes and standard dropbacks is 15th in the NFL. The Cowboys have an extremely formidable defensive line and arguably the best linebacker duo in league with Vander Esch and Smith.
Much like the Eagles vs Bears game, this game will be decided in the trenches.
Before the season started, it was a unanimous vote that the Seattle Seahawks had one of the worst offensive lines in football. That narrative held true for September. In October, Seattle found their run game and sold out on it. The combination of backs combined with Russell Wilson and his ability to scramble took the ease off the offensive line long enough that opponents continuously got caught guessing. After the dramatic improvement, Seattle finished the season 12th in adjusted line yards but 30th in adjusted sack rate.
Here is where I start to have issues with Seattle.
Down the stretch when they finished 8-3 and earned a ton of support, the best defensive line they faced in terms of adjusted line yards was Carolina – this was their worst rushing performance of the season (leading rusher of 55 yards). The other wins for Seattle came against Oakland (25th), Detroit (20th), Green Bay (27th), San Francisco (19th), Minnesota (24th), Kansas City (32nd) and Arizona (15th).
All of their wins have come against defensive units which are average or below at stopping the rush, which is precisely where Seattle excels. Dallas enters the game on Saturday ranked as the 3rd best defensive line in terms of adjusted line yards and rank 5th in stops at the line of scrimmage or behind. Both season highs for the Seahawks offense this season. Dallas also excels at stopping the rush on the left of the offensive line (6th), which is where Seattle is most robust behind Duane Brown.
My concerns for Seattle don’t stop there. At a big-picture level, their metrics across the board are extremely poor. They rank 24th in passing success rate, and despite rushing the ball more than any team in the league, they rank just 12th in rushing success rate. Defensively, they have been extremely poor too. Despite facing an easier than average schedule of opposing offenses, Seattle ranks 22nd and 19th in defensive passing and rushing success rate. Seattle finished the regular season -0.3 in net yards per play, which is the worst of any playoff team and they were out-gained in 5 of their 10 victories.
Many reading this will point to the Week 3 matchup between these two teams where Seattle won 24-13. I am not ignoring that -, but I don’t see it as a positive for Seattle.
Digging into that box score, the handicap I am painting above played out. The Seahawks gained just 4.4 yards per play, almost a full yard less than the Cowboys, and had a season-low 2.9 yards per rush. Dallas had two empty red zone drives, and two picks by Prescott and a Zeke fumble loomed large in an 11 point defeat.
The Cowboys are a very different team on offense from the team that played that game four months ago. No longer is Geoff Swaim, the number one target for Prescott and the play calling, has improved dramatically. Since acquiring Amari Cooper, the Cowboys rank 9th in passing success rate – a massive improvement from the 28th rank they were without him.
This price opened at Seattle +2.5, which, assuming Dallas is being credited with the standard 3 points for home field suggests that the market is saying the Seahawks are ranked higher on a neutral than Dallas. From a numbers perspective, there is no meaningful predictive metric that Seattle outranks Dallas.
From an on-field perspective, the Dallas defense matches up against the Seattle weakness (offensive line) and also against the strength (rush) – the Cowboys are 6th in rushing success rate defense. Dallas is also one of the best explosive play defenses both against the pass and the rush, which is where Seattle excels on offense. Offensively, Seattle does not have a corner to match up consistently with Cooper and Elliott is going to get 140+ scrimmage yards against a below average defense as he did earlier in the season.
Seattle has covered 9 of their last 12, and the constant narrative about Russell Wilson being a top three QB in the league has fuelled the compounding perception of bettors in the market and presented Dallas with rare value in a playoff game.
I like Dallas -2.5 and disagree entirely with the line move.
I think this should be Cowboys -3.5 and up. Bet the Cowboys.
- Dallas Cowboys -2.5 (2.00). Risking 1.00x
- Philadelphia Eagles +6.5 (1.87). Risking 1.15x.
On this week’s NFL Podcast Nat Coombs is joined by CBS Sports Nick Kostos, The Guardian’s Paolo Bandini and Matchbook’s Sully to talk all things NFL Wildcard Weekend.