Wild Card Round
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) at Chicago Bears (12-4)
The Bears went 12-4 this season and were arguably even better than their record suggests. Those 4 losses came by a combined 14 points, with two of them coming in overtime, and they won the first down rate battle in 3 of those 4 games. In fact, the last time they didn’t win the first down rate battle was way back in the season opener in Green Bay, a 1-point loss. On the season, they finished first in the league in first down rate differential at +6.64%.
The schedule gets a lot harder for them in the playoffs though, as they finished with the 2nd easiest schedule in terms of opponents DVOA and played just 3 eventual playoff teams all season (2-1), which is tied for fewest among playoff qualifiers. Their opponents this week, the Philadelphia Eagles, finished the season 8th in first down rate differential at 2.99%, which ranks only behind the Rams among the Bears’ 2018 opponents.
I know the Eagles lost starting quarterback Carson Wentz to injury and have other key players on injured reserve, but this team has actually been playing better since Wentz went down, winning 3 straight games after their week 14 loss. Wentz wasn’t playing at 100% even when on the field and backup Nick Foles is an experienced starter who has been in this position before. They’ve especially been better defensively, with stud linebacker Jordan Hicks back from injury and their young injury plagued secondary playing much better in recent weeks.
The Eagles also seem to play harder with their backs up against the wall with a backup quarterback in the lineup, pulling the upset victory in all 4 games in which they’ve been an underdog with Foles under center over the past 2 seasons. The Eagles might not win straight up this week, but I like the Eagles’ chances of keeping this one close as 6.5-point underdogs. Their 9-7 record is worst among playoff qualifiers, but they’ve played a lot of close games, with just 2 of those losses coming by more than 6 points (relevant considering this line is 6.5). One of those losses by more than 6 points was a 7-point loss to the Cowboys and the other came in New Orleans, against arguably the best team in the league.
The Bears are also in a tough spot with a first time starting quarterback under center. Quarterbacks tend not to cover in their first career post-season start, especially at home, where they are 6-18 ATS since 2002 unless they’re playing another first time starter, which is not the case this week with Nick Foles making his 5th career playoff start. The Eagles are worth a bet at either +6 and +6.5 and are worth a bigger play if this line happens to move up to a full touchdown before gametime (unlikely). I’ll also consider bumping this up if Bears safety Eddie Jackson ends up not returning from a 2-game absence, after being limited in practice all week. He’s currently considered a game-time decision.
Chicago Bears 23 Philadelphia Eagles 20
Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +6.5
Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) at Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
The Ravens beat the Chargers in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, but I’d be wary of extrapolating that result to this game, as that was just one game in a 16-game season. Just because a team wins a matchup in the regular season doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily win again in the post-season. Teams are 55-38 in the post-season over the past 30 seasons against non-divisional opponents who they previously beat in the regular season, but they are just 39-54 ATS. I know that Ravens/Chargers game was just a few weeks ago, but when you cut the sample size down to teams that previously won in a game week 12 or later, the numbers are even less in the Ravens’ favor, as those teams actually have a losing record at 16-18 in the playoff rematch and are just 12-22 ATS.
That isn’t evidence enough that the Chargers will win this rematch, but they were the significantly better team this season, ranking 2nd in first down rate differential at +5.86%, while the Ravens ranked 10th at +2.95%, so I like the Chargers’ chances of prevailing here. The Ravens have notably been 6-1 since making the swap from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson under center during their week 10 bye, but they actually rank just 14th in first down rate differential since week 10 at 1.31%.
The Ravens’ defense remained dominant, but their offense has actually dropped from a 36.46% first down rate with Joe Flacco to 34.48% with Jackson. Their record is impressive, but they played a relatively easy schedule (5 of 7 games against teams with a losing record), won several games by a touchdown or less, and needed return touchdowns to push the margin of victory higher in the few games that did not have a close final score. For comparison, the Chargers rank 2nd in first down rate differential since week 10, at +6.87%.
This game is in Baltimore, while the first matchup was in Los Angeles, but that barely matters to the Chargers, who have remarkably gone 12-4 despite not having any homefield advantage in Los Angeles. They’ve been a dominant team outside of LA, going 8-0 (7-1 ATS) with an average margin of victory of 9.50 points per game. That is a trend that dates back to their final few years in San Diego, when they frequently had large visiting crowds, as they are 36-19-3 ATS away from home since 2012.
The Ravens are also at a disadvantage with a first time starting quarterback. Quarterbacks tend not to cover in their first career post-season start, especially at home, where they are 6-18 ATS since 2002 unless they’re playing another first time starter, which is not the case this week with the veteran Philip Rivers going into his 10th career playoff start. I’d bet on the Chargers this week at +2.5, but +3 is available is some places and I’d much prefer to have protection against a Baltimore win by a field goal, even if I have to pay higher juice. Either way, I like the Chargers to win this game straight up.
Los Angeles Chargers 20 Baltimore Ravens 16 Upset Pick +125
Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +3
Dallas Cowboys (10-6) at Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
The Seahawks got off to a slow start this year, starting 0-2 and sitting just 4-4 at the season’s midpoint, but they once again finished the season strong, something they’ve done pretty much every year in the Russell Wilson era, going 37-18-1 ATS in the second half of the regular season since 2012. The Seahawks went 6-2 straight up and ATS over the final 8 games of the 2018 season to finish at 10-6 and they rank 9th in first down rate differential since week 10 at +3.24%, after ranking 25th at -3.39% prior to week 10. This Seahawks team is not as talented as they were earlier in the Russell Wilson era, but they’re well coached and quarterbacked and there’s no reason to believe they will suddenly revert to their early season form in the playoffs, where they are 8-4 straight up since 2012.
The Cowboys have also had a strong second half of the season record wise, going 7-1 after a 3-5 start, but they actually rank just 21st in first down rate differential at -1.54%. Somewhat remarkably, all 7 of the Cowboys wins over that time period came by 8 points or fewer, while their one loss came by 23, giving them a point differential of just +12 over that time period (as opposed to +49 for the Seahawks).
Their offense has been better since acquiring Amari Cooper, picking up first downs at a 35.73% rate since week 10, as opposed to 34.03% prior to week 10, but their defense has gone in the opposite direction, allowing a first down rate of 37.27% since week 10, after allowing a first down rate of 32.73% before week 10. Their defense overperformed early in the season, but, aside from their nationally televised game against the Saints, they’ve largely fallen back to earth in recent weeks, allowing 23.3 points per game in their other 7 games. I think they’re a little overrated right now because casual bettors think they have an elite defense as a result of that Saints game.
The Seahawks also have the talent and experience edge. Not only is Russell Wilson going into his 13th playoff game with Pete Carroll already, but Carroll has also been a head coach in 5 other playoff games without Wilson (10-7 overall). On the other side, Jason Garrett is in just his 4th playoff game (1-2) and just his 2nd with Dak Prescott, who lost his first career playoff start in 2016. At +2, we’re not getting quite enough line value to take the Seahawks against the spread (especially since I will have bets on the other 3 games this week), but I like their chances of winning this game. Games rarely are decided by 1 point exactly, so the money line is a smarter play if you want to bet this game.
Seattle Seahawks 19 Dallas Cowboys 17 Upset Pick +110
Pick against the spread: Seattle +2
Indianapolis Colts (10-6) at Houston Texans (11-5)
The Texans finished with the better record of these two teams, winning the division and securing the 3rd seed, while the Colts are seeded 6th, but the Colts were statistically the better team this season. The Colts finished the season 5th in first down rate differential at +4.56% and 8th in point differential at +89, while the Texans finished 7th in first down rate differential at +2.99% and 8th in point differential at +86. Perhaps most remarkably, the Colts finished with a league leading +19 offensive touchdown margin, while the Texans were just +2.
Making that even more impressive is the fact that the Colts had a ton of injury problems in the first half of the season. Since returning from their week 9 bye, the Colts have a league best +8.51% first down rate differential and they’ve won 9 of 10 games overall. With Ryan Kelly expected to return from a neck injury this week, the Colts are arguably the healthiest they’ve been all season. The Texans have won 11 of 13 games overall, but they haven’t been nearly as dominant, ranking 10th in first down rate differential over the past 8 weeks at +2.85%, and they aren’t at full strength, missing #2 wide receiver Demaryius Thomas with a torn achilles that he suffered two weeks ago.
The Colts also have the edge in quarterback experience, with Andrew Luck going into his 7th post-season game (3-3), while Deshaun Watson is making his first career post-season start. Quarterbacks tend not to cover in their first career post-season start, especially at home, where they are 6-18 ATS since 2002 unless they’re playing another first time starter. Unfortunately, we’re not getting much line value with the Colts at +1.5, as the public seems to realize the Colts are the better of these two teams. It wouldn’t shock me if the Texans won this game, as they’re a solid team and playing at home, so I’m keeping this a smaller play, but the Colts are worth a bet and should win this game straight up.
Indianapolis Colts 23 Houston Texans 20 Upset Pick +105
Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +1.5