The NFL playoffs are a slightly different beast when it comes to handicapping, and in my opinion, it becomes more art than science, simply because of the sheer amount of information available. If you read a lot in the week building up to playoff games you will find an angle to support both sides of the spread and total in pretty much every game.
Deciding which angle you believe or trust is where the money is made.
To give you an idea of what I mean, I’ll share with you the notes I have made on arguably the lowest profile playoff game this weekend, the Chiefs vs Titans. For starters, both defenses are ranked very poorly by DVOA (25th for Tennessee and 29th for Kansas City). So immediately I am looking for reasons to bet the over. However, both teams play at a snail’s pace, going at the 26th and 32nd-ranked pace neutral situations. So suddenly we’re back to ~ neutral on the total. But, as Evan Silva loves to point out, Kansas City has held 14 straight opponents below 20 points at home. And the Chiefs are 44-19 to the under in their past 63 at home. That’s a pretty significant sample size that suggests their defense plays above expectations at Arrowhead, probably thanks to a grass field, loud crowd and often frigid conditions.
And it will be frigid on Saturday night.
The forecast projects for sub-zero temps at kickoff, dropping throughout the night (that’s actually a superb scenario for second half unders as the ball gets harder and harder to throw).
There’s also wind forecast at 10+mph, and regular readers of this column will know I love an under when there’s wind about. It’s also worth noting that Tennessee’s offensive stats are somewhat inflated by several 75+ yards runs late in the season, so their already mediocre offensive stats (21st in weighted offensive DVOA) are somewhat overrating them. In sum, I actually love the under 44.5 (i’d also lean KC -8.5 but haven’t bet it), but you can see that the overwhelming weight of factors lean that way.
Which isn’t always the case. If we look at the Falcons/Rams game, which should probably be the highlight of the week, I could probably convince you to take both sides. For starters, the Rams match-up on very well with the Falcons. They have a big physical corner Trumaine Johnson, who will be tasked with following Julio Jones and can help limit him, with some safety help, of course. They also have Aaron Donald, the highest graded defensive player in the league, and as good as JJ Watt in his prime. He matches up against two below average guards on the Falcons offensive line, and Matt Ryan is nowhere near nimble enough to deal with pressure up the middle. On the other side of the ball, the Falcons are a very fast aggressive defense, but McVay can use that against them with the litany of fakes, misdirections and screens the Rams use. LA has been the better team all year long and should be laying at least a touchdown at home, with the added benefit of resting starters last week.
This would probably be enough to get me on the Rams but for a couple of things. First off, I’m not sure they are the better team because the analytics love the Falcons.
By adjusted net yards per play for the entire season, the Falcons are second best in the league at +1.6, behind only the Saints (we’ll get to them later).
The Rams are seventh at +1.1 in part dropped by a much softer schedule.
Pro Football Focus also rates the Falcons as the best team in the league on an individual player basis and argues the Falcons have been the victim of some bad interception luck (tipped balls going to defenders and the like). Add in a genuine edge in playoff experience – the Rams are the second youngest team in the league – and you could make a case this number should be 4.5. Indeed the market values these kinds of metrics more than on-field matchups in my experience and I’d expect the game to close lower than the current 6.5. As for my bet, I have made a small wager on the Falcons at +6.5.
A bet I like a bit more is the Saints -6.5 over the Panthers. This is a statistical mismatch, as the Saints top the adjusted net YPP charts, while the Panthers come in 22nd at -0.5. Specifically, the running game is at limping along meaning they are often behind in down and distance. If they get into third and long in this game (which they will) they are playing right into the hands of the Saints, whose pass defense ranks fifth in the league by DVOA.
I make this Saints team around 5 points better than Carolina on a neutral and if you throw in 3 points for an absolutely electric home field in NOLA the current line of -6.5 looks a gift.
Finally, I’ll call for a small wager on Jacksonville -8.5 over the Buffalo Bills. I’ve actually backed the Jags at 20/1 for the Superbowl, largely on the strength of the league’s best pass defense.
The Jags pass defense ranks 10th in DVOA out of 324 teams since 1990. Of the top-15 pass defenses since that season, seven won Super Bowls and three more lost in the Conference Championship.
They will shut down the Bills passing attack completely on Sunday, and an injury to Shady McCoy likely kills the Bills chances on the ground too.
On the other side of the ball, Blake Bortles has proven himself a good front-runner this season, and the Jags should have major success on the ground against the league’s 30th ranked rushing defense. I can see this one getting out of hand.
Brad’s Wild Card Bets:
- Under 44.5 Titans @ Chiefs
- Falcons +6.5
- Saints -6.5
- Jaguars -8.5