Los Angeles Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2021 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Los Angeles Rams (12-5) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)

These two teams met in Los Angeles back in week 3, with the Rams pulling the home upset as 1.5-point underdogs, but this game is in Tampa Bay and the Rams regular season win actually works against their chances of covering this spread. In total, teams are 46-59 ATS in a rematch in the post-season against a non-divisional opponent who they beat in the regular season, including 5-12 ATS as underdogs after previously winning as underdogs.

These teams are not the same as they were in week 3, as the Buccaneers lost starting wide receivers Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin, starting running back Leonard Fournette is legitimately questionable, and starting offensive linemen Tristan Wirfs and Ryan Jensen figure to be limited, while the Rams added talented edge defender Von Miller and wide receiver Odell Beckham, but lost key wide receiver Robert Woods, stud left tackle Andrew Whitworth, and starting safeties Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp. All of that more or less evens out, with the Buccaneers holding a 2-point edge in my roster rankings and being favored by 4 points on my calculated line, after being the slightly better of these two teams in the regular season.

Given that, we are getting some line value with the Buccaneers as just 2.5-point home favorites, as the public seems to be paying more attention to Tampa Bay’s injuries and not as much to the Rams’ injuries, while putting too much stock into the result of the week 3 matchup between these two teams. Tom Brady has also been close to automatic in his career in tough games like this where all he has to do to cover is win, going 57-27 ATS in his career as an underdogs or favorite of less than three points, including 10-3 ATS in the post-season. I wouldn’t like the Buccaneers as much at 3, but they’re bettable at 2.5.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 Los Angeles Rams 24

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -2.5

Confidence: Medium

Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs: 2021 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Buffalo Bills (12-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)

These two teams met in Kansas City back in week 5, with the Bills pulling the upset on the road by a final score of 38-20, but that’s hardly a guarantee they will do so again. In fact, teams are just 46-59 ATS in the playoffs in a rematch of a regular season game against a non-divisional opponent, including just 1-6 ATS as road underdogs after winning as road underdogs in the first matchup. This is also a different Chiefs team than the first matchup, as the early season Chiefs were in the middle of a 3-4 start, but have since won 10 of 11 games, including a 5-1 record against playoff qualifiers.

The Chiefs’ turnaround has been driven by two things, a drastically improved turnover margin and a drastically improved defense. Through their first seven games of the season, the Chiefs had a turnover margin of -10, but turnover margin is not a very predictive metric so I would predict that any team that had that bad of a turnover margin stretch would soon seen improvement in that metric, especially a team like the Chiefs who have an elite quarterback, which is the only way to consistently win the turnover margin. Unsurprisingly, the Chiefs have a +14 turnover margin in the final ten games of the regular season, giving them a turnover margin of +4 on the season, after a +23 turnover margin across the first three seasons of Patrick Mahomes career as a starter.

Schedule adjusted efficiency is a metric based on yards per play and first down rate, which intentionally minimizes the impact of turnover margin, and, as a result, is more predictive than point differential. The Chiefs rank 3rd in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency on the season, led by a 1st ranked offense and a 3rd ranked special teams, and they are probably even better than that suggests, as they are still dragged down by a defense that ranks 28th, getting off to a horrible start before improving drastically in recent weeks.

The biggest reason for the Chiefs’ defensive turnaround is they have gotten much healthier since the beginning of the season, when key players like safety Tyrann Mathieu, edge defender Frank Clark, cornerback Charvarius Ward, and interior defender Chris Jones all missed time with injury, with the latter two missing the first matchup with the Bills. Even without Jones and Ward, that first matchup was closer than it seemed, as the game largely swung on the turnover margin, with the Bills winning by four and getting a return touchdown to make the margin of victory bigger than it would have been.

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, despite all that I mentioned, this will still be a very tough matchup for the Chiefs, as the Bills led the NFL in point differential at +195, going 11-6 despite a 0-5 record in one score games, and then they destroyed the Patriots by 30 last week, en route to ranking first in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency by a wide margin, giving them about a 4.5-point edge over the Chiefs. 

The Bills aren’t fully healthy right now without top cornerback Tre’Davious White, and, if healthy, the Chiefs are the better team, but that may not be the case, as their best cornerback Rashad Fenton is questionable after not practicing all week, which would be a huge absence. If he plays, the Chiefs could be worth betting in this game, as overreaction to the Bills win last week and the public putting too much stock into the first matchup between these two teams has dropped this line to just 1.5, but they’re not bettable without Fenton and he seems more likely to be out than to play. This is a low confidence pick for now, but that could change.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Buffalo Bills 31

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -1.5

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans: 2021 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (11-7) at Tennessee Titans (12-5)

The Titans finished with tied for the best record in the AFC and won the AFC’s #1 seed on tiebreakers, but they overall did not have as impressive of a season as some other teams in the AFC. Their 12-5 record is supported by a 6-2 record in one-score games and their +65 point differential ranks just 11th in the NFL, despite the fact that they have a +4 margin in return touchdowns, giving them an extra 28 points. Return touchdown margin is not predictive week-to-week, especially since the Titans finished with a -3 turnover margin, and, if not for those four return touchdowns, the Titans would rank just 13th in point differential at +37. 

The Bengals, meanwhile, rank 8th with a +84 point differential, despite having a worse record than the Titans. If you include their playoff victory over the Raiders and exclude their week 18 loss to the Browns where they rested their starters, that point differential becomes +96. Despite that, the Bengals are underdogs of 3.5 points here in Tennessee, which is more significant than you might think, with about 1 in 4 games decided by 3 points or fewer. 

That line expects the Titans to be significantly better than they have been in the regular season, as a result of their improved health on offense. The Titans’ offense had significant injury issues in the second half of the season, but wide receivers AJ Brown (three games missed) and Julio Jones (four games missed) and offensive linemen Rodger Saffold (two games), Taylor Lewan (two games), and Nate Davis (three games) have all returned after missing time, while feature back Derrick Henry (ten games) is expected to rejoin the lineup this week to complete this offense.

However, even at full health, I don’t have the Titans worth being favored by this many points over the Bengals, as they had just a +32 point differential through eight games before Henry and company went down. On top of that, there is no guarantee that Henry is at full strength in his first game back. We’re not getting a lot of line value with the Bengals, but my calculated line has the Titans favored by just 2 points, so the Bengals definitely have a good chance to cover this spread. There isn’t quite enough here for the Titans to be worth betting, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Update: It looks like Henry will split carries with Dont’a Foreman if he plays, which drops my calculated line a little to 1.5, while simultaneously this line has moved up to 4. I think there is enough here for a bet on Cincinnati, who were the better team in the regular season in all of the more predictive metrics, including schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, in which they held a 2.5-point edge. Even if the Titans are healthier, it’s hard to get this line all the way up to 4, especially since the Bengals still hold the edge in my roster rankings even with the Titans’ offense close to full strength, as Joe Burrow has shown significant improvement as the season has gone on and, now with his knee injury clearly in the rear review, has broken out as a legitimate top level quarterback.

Tennessee Titans 24 Cincinnati Bengals 23

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +4

Confidence: Medium

San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers: 2021 NFC Divisional Round Pick

San Francisco 49ers (11-7) at Green Bay Packers (13-4)

The Packers finished tied for the best record in the NFL and earned the NFC’s #1 seed on tiebreakers, giving them a first round bye and homefield advantage through to the Super Bowl, but they were not necessarily the most impressive team in the league week-to-week, with many of their wins coming in close fashion. In fact, their +79 point differential ranks just 10th in the NFL and is barely ahead of their opponents this week, as the 49ers are at +62 on the season (+68 if you include the first round of the post-season).

The Packers did not have Aaron Rodgers for a game and a half, while another half Rodgers did play was a meaningless game against the Lions, so it’s probably not fair to hold that against their point differential and you could make the argument that their week one blowout loss in New Orleans was a complete fluke that should be disregarded as well, but even if you do that, they still only have the 5th best point differential in the NFL at +127. That’s a more significant edge over the 49ers’ point differential, but the 49ers are better in efficiency metrics, which are based on yards per play and first down rate, more predictive metrics than point differential. In terms of overall schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, the 49ers rank 7th, about 4.5 points ahead of the 14th ranked Packers.

Schedule adjusted mixed efficiency intentionally minimizes the impact of turnover margin, which is typically not predictive week-to-week, and that may not be appropriate for a team like Green Bay, who has one of the least turnover prone quarterbacks of all time and more consistently wins the turnover battle than other teams as a result (+13 this season). However, it is appropriate for the 49ers, who were able to have the point differential that they had this season despite a -4 turnover margin and are clearly closer to the Packers than these two teams’ records show. 

Despite these two teams being closer than their records show in the regular season, the Packers are 6-point home favorites in this game. There are two reasons for that, but I’m not sure if either reason is legitimate enough to justify the line being this high. For one, the Packers are a dominant home team with Aaron Rodgers under center, going 50-23 ATS at home in games Rodgers starts and finishes in front of crowds with fans, with Rodgers recording a QB rating that is about 10 points higher at home than on the road and in his career. That was especially true this season, as the Packers won all eight games they won at home with six multi-score wins, while losing four of their nine road games and winning just once by multiple scores.

However, if we look at just the post-season, the Packers’ record drops to 4-4 ATS at home with just two wins by 6 or more points in eight games and, beyond the wild card round, that drops even further to 2-3 ATS with one win by more than 6 points in 5 tries, so I am not as worried about going against the Packers in Green Bay as I would be in the regular season, especially with a 6-point cushion and a high level opponent coming to town (just one of the Packers’ home games this season came against a team with double digit wins).

The other reason the Packers are favored by this many is that they are getting several key players back who have been missing for all or most of the season, with left tackle David Bakhtiari only making his season debut in last week’s meaningless game against the Lions after missing all of the season, cornerback Jaire Alexander expected to play for the first time since week 3, and edge defender Za’Darius Smith expected to play for the first time all season. 

All three of those players were among the best in the league at their respective positions in 2020, and, with them back in the lineup, the Packers much more closely resemble last year’s team, which ranked 3rd in the NFL in point differential, so their return is definitely a boost to this team, but all three have been out of real action for so long and were limited in practice this week, so it’s fair to question if any of the three will be at their top form. If they are not, it’s really hard to justify this line being this high.

The 49ers, meanwhile, have been healthier for weeks and it’s shown in their play on the field, as they have won 8 of their last 10 games since a 3-5 start when they were more injury plagued. Over that 10-game stretch, the 49ers have gone 4-1 against playoff qualifiers, including last week’s win in Dallas, and have only lost by margins of 3 points and 7 points, in games in which the 49ers won the yards per play and first down rate battles. They have a very good chance of keeping this game close in Green Bay and even of pulling the straight-up upset, so I am very confident getting 6 points with them. I would still take the 49ers at +5.5, but I would strongly prefer 6 because of the overtime rules.

Green Bay Packers 26 San Francisco 49ers 24

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +6

Confidence: High

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams: 2021 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Arizona Cardinals (11-6) at Los Angeles Rams (12-5)

Last week, I bet on the Rams as 4-point home favorites against the 49ers. The Rams led 17-0 at one point in the first half, but blew the second half lead and lost in overtime, the first ever blown halftime lead by Sean McVay’s Rams in five seasons. This was in large part due to the absence in the second half of both of the Rams’ starting safeties Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp, who were both out with injury. 

Unfortunately for the Rams, Fuller and Rapp remain out this week, as they are once again 4-point home favorites, this time against the Cardinals. Fortunately for the Rams, the Cardinals should present less of a challenge for the 49ers, who are legitimately playing at a high level in the second half of the season. The Cardinals started the season 7-0 and 10-2, but they also ranked 2nd in the turnover with a +12 turnover margin during that 10-2 start, which was never likely to continue, even if the Cardinals had stayed healthy, which they did not. 

Absences further hurt the Cardinals chances down the stretch, leading to a 1-4 finish by the Cardinals in their final five games, a stretch in which they had an even turnover margin. Even at 11-6, you could still argue the Cardinals are not as good as their record, ranking 13th, 19th, 20th, and 15th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, which are based on first down rate and yards per play and are much more predictive than the Cardinals 4th ranked turnover margin. 

The Cardinals are especially not as good as their record if they don’t get key players back with injury and for right now it seems like stud interior defender JJ Watt, talented running back James Conner, starting left guard Justin Pugh, starting slot cornerback Marco Wilson, and rotational wide receiver Rondale Moore are all legitimately gametime decisions, while top wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and top cornerback Robert Alford both remain out.

The Rams are not fully healthy either without their starting safeties, but they are otherwise in pretty good shape injury wise and they fared much better on the season in efficiency metrics, ranking 9th, 9th, 4th, and 6th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, en route to overtaking the Cardinals for the division lead late in the season, winning 4 of their last 5 while the Cardinals lost 4 of 5, including a week 14 Rams victory over the Cardinals in Arizona, setting up a third matchup in Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs.

The Cardinals beat the Rams in Los Angeles back in week 4, but the Cardinals were much healthier back then and the Rams still won the first down and yards per play battle, as they did in their week 14 victory as well. Given all the injury uncertainty the Cardinals have, it’s hard to bet the Rams with confidence right now, as the Cardinals could make this a close game if most of their questionable players play, particularly JJ Watt, but if they don’t, the Rams could be a good bet as 4-point favorites. Additionally, this line could drop if Watt and others are able to play, which could also give us enough line value with the Rams for them to be worth betting. For now, this is a low confidence pick at -4, but I may update this before gametime.

Update: All of the Cardinals’ questionable players will play, but Watt probably won’t be 100% and this line has dropped to three in some places. I would take the Rams at that number.

Los Angeles Rams 27 Arizona Cardinals 20

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -3

Confidence: Medium

San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys: 2021 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

San Francisco 49ers (10-7) at Dallas Cowboys (12-5)

The Cowboys enter the post-season in great shape, ranking 2nd in point differential on the season at +188, while ranking 4th, 12th, 6th, and 4th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, despite having several key players miss time on both sides of the ball. Left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin, right tackle La’El Collins, edge defenders DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, linebacker Micah Parsons, wide receivers Amari Cooper, Ceedee Lamb, and Michael Gallup, and quarterback Dak Prescott all missed at least some time with injury this season and never made it through a full game together and won’t, with Gallup now on injured reserve with a torn ACL, but, aside from Gallup, the Cowboys will have ten of those aforementioned eleven players available for this game, which is better shape than they’ve been in for most of the season.

The Cowboys do draw a tough matchup though, as the 49ers also enter the post-season in good shape. They’re just 10-7 and have to go on the road as a wild card, but they were much better than their record suggested this season, as they faced a tough schedule and finished with a -5 turnover metric, which is not a predictive metric, while ranking 8th, 6th, 26th, and 7th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency which are much more predictive metrics based on yards per play and first down rate. The 49ers have also been a lot better in the second half of the season than the first, propelling them into the post-season with a 7-2 stretch after a 3-5 start, with their only two losses during that stretch coming by just one score in games in which they won the first down rate and yards per play battle.

The biggest reason for the 49ers’ second half improvement is that they have been healthier in the second half of the season than the first. The 49ers are still not 100% and have several key players who won’t return, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running back Elijah Mitchell, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle, left tackle Trent Williams, linebacker Fred Warner, safety Jimmie Ward, cornerback Emmanuel Mosley, linebacker Dre Greenlaw, defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, cornerback K’Waun Williams, and safety Jaquiski Tartt all missed at least some action this season and have since returned, like the Cowboys, so the 49ers are also in better shape than they have been in for most of the season right now.

The public seems to understand the 49ers are healthier and better than their record though, while the Cowboys could actually be a little underrated, only favored by a field goal at home, suggesting they are better than the 49ers, but not my much, even though the Cowboys are arguably one of the best teams in the league, given their balance in all three phases. My calculated line has the gap between these two teams a little bigger and favors the Cowboys by 5 points. There isn’t enough here for the Cowboys to be worth betting, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Dallas Cowboys 31 San Francisco 49ers 26

Pick against the spread: Dallas -3

Confidence: Low

Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2021 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (9-8) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)

The Eagles were blown out last week at home against the Cowboys, but they barely tried in a game which meant very little to them, resting several key players ahead of the post-season. Even with that big loss factored in though, the Eagles still rank significantly better in schedule adjusted efficiency than you would expect based on their record, as they rank 10th, 15th, 15th, and 8th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency.

They have mostly beaten up on bad teams, going 9-1 against sub .500 opponents, with seven wins by double digits, but no wins against teams with a record better than .500 in seven tries, including a 0-6 record against playoff qualifiers. However, a closer look at those losses paints somewhat of a brighter picture for their chances of covering against the spread this week though, as one of the losses was last week when they didn’t try, while two of the losses came early in the season when their offensive line was not healthy, and, in their other three losses, just one came by more than one score, very relevant with this line at 8.5.

One of those one score losses was against these Buccaneers, a 6-point loss in Philadelphia. That game actually works against the argument for the Eagles covering this game though, as the Buccaneers won the first down rate (4.00%) and yards per play battle (0.93) by significant margins in a game in Philadelphia. One matchup between two teams doesn’t necessarily predict every matchup between those two teams, even with similar personnel, and my calculated line based on season long play is Tampa Bay -7, which gives us some line value with the Eagles, but with the Eagles’ poor track record against good teams this season and the fact that blowouts also tend to be more common in the first round of the blowout (about 4% more games are decided by double digits than the regular season), it’s hard to be confident in Philadelphia at all. 

On top of that, both teams have significant players who are legitimately questionable, linebacker Lavonte David and running back Leonard Fournette for the Buccaneers and edge defender Josh Sweat and right guard Josh Herbig for the Eagles and, depending on which of those players are active, the Buccaneers could easily become the right side. Either way, I don’t see myself betting on either side and, for now, this is a no confidence pick on the Eagles.

Update: Fournette is out for the Buccaneers, but more importantly, David is in, while Herbig and Sweat are out for the Eagles. Despite that, this line has dropped all the way to seven for some reason. I am flipping my pick to the Buccaneers, albeit still for a no confidence pick.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Philadelphia Eagles 23

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -7

Confidence: None

Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2021 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)

In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, a predictive metric based on yards per play, first down rate, and strength of schedule, the Steelers are by far the worst team in the league to qualify for the post-season, finishing 30th, 16th, 17th, and 29th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency respectively. Given that, it’s unsurprising that they needed an 8-2-1 record in one score games to qualify for the final post-season spot in the AFC. 

They go to Kansas CIty as 12.5 point underdogs, which might seem like a lot, but it’s probably not high enough, as the Chiefs are arguably the best team in the league, with an offense that ranks 1st in schedule adjusted efficiency, a special teams that ranks 3rd, a defense that has much better than their 28th ranked schedule adjusted efficiency since getting healthy after a terrible start to a season, and a mixed efficiency that ranks 5th even with their underwhelming defensive rank. Given how far below average the Steelers were this season, my calculated line actually has the Chiefs favored by 17 points.

Big favorites tend to cover in the first round of the post-season anyway, as there tends to be a good reason why they are favored by that many points, with double digit favorites going 9-2 ATS over the past 30 seasons. Simply put, teams like the Steelers that many feel are not playoff caliber, usually tend not to be and get exposed very quickly. On top of that, there also tends to be more blowouts in general in the post-season, especially in the first round. 

While the percentage of games decided by 7 points or more in the first round of the playoffs (61.68%) is steady with the regular season percentage (62.34%), the percentage of games decided by 10 points or more jumps significantly in the first round of the post-season (52.34% vs. 48.52%) and the same is true of games decided by 14 points or more (39.25% vs. 35.33%). That is surprising when you consider that these are all games between playoff qualifiers, who should be more evenly matched than the league as a whole. 

This is likely because teams get desperate and start going for it on long 4th downs earlier in the game in the post-season in an attempt to save their season, leading to more games getting out of hand. Also better team tends to play their best football at the right time. That’s what I expect to happen here, so even at 12.5 I am confident in the Chiefs covering this spread. I wouldn’t make this a big play, but this one seems like an obvious blowout that, based on history, should not be overthought.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Pittsburgh Steelers 17

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -12.5

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills: 2021 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

New England Patriots (10-7) at Buffalo Bills (11-6)

These two teams are pretty similar, as they have solid records, but even more impressive point differentials, with the Bills ranking 1st at +194 and the Patriots ranking 3rd at +159. That carries over to efficiency rating, which is more predictive week-to-week, as the Bills rank 7th in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency and 1st in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, while the Patriots rank 5th in both metrics, having played a slightly tougher schedule with a better winning percentage against playoff qualifiers. Neither team has fared well against playoff qualifiers though, mostly accumulating their impressive point differentials against sub .500 teams.

One of the wins against playoff qualifiers that each team has came at the expense of the other, with these two teams splitting the season series and each winning on the opposing team’s homefield. There is more of a tendency to discount the Patriots’ win in Buffalo because it came in tough conditions in a game in which the Patriots kept the ball on the ground almost every play and relied on their defense to stop a more traditional Bills offense, but the season long stats suggest these two teams are even enough that a season series split would make sense and, though the Bills’ win came by more points, they only outgained the Patriots by about a tenth of a yard per play across the two matchups.

Despite the Bills only being slightly better than the Patriots at best, this line, favoring them by 4 points at home, suggests they are a noticeably better team, with homefield advantage only counting for about 1.5 points in recent years and about 30% of games being decided by 4 points or fewer historically. My calculated line has the Bills favored by 2, so we’re getting significant line value with the Patriots, crossing the key number of three, which decides about 1 in 6 games. 

Three is the amount the Bills were favored by in the matchup between these two teams in Buffalo earlier this season, which I thought was too high at the time, and now I think it’s an overreaction to the Patriots’ slow finish to the season that this line has shifted even higher to four, as the Patriots won the yards per play and first down rate battle in two of their three losses to end the season, with the exception being their home loss to the Bills. The Patriots are worth a bet at +4 and I am hoping for +4.5 before gametime for potentially a bigger bet.

Update: This line has moved up to 4.5. The Patriots will be without left tackle Isaiah Wynn, but I wasn’t expecting him to play and his absence isn’t that big of a deal because they can move Trent Brown to left tackle and insert Michael Onwenu at right tackle, where he has had a lot of success when called upon over the past two seasons. Cornerback Jalen Mills being out might be a bigger deal because they are thinner at that position, but I was also expecting him to be out and the Bills have questionable cornerback depth as well, since losing top cornerback Tre’Davious White a few weeks ago. I am going to increase this bet.

Buffalo Bills 24 New England Patriots 23

Pick against the spread: New England +4.5

Confidence: High