Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots: 2017 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Tennessee Titans (10-7) at New England Patriots (13-3)

The Titans pulled off a stunning upset in Kansas City last week, not only winning straight up as 8-point road underdogs, but coming back from down 21-3 at the half. I wasn’t that impressed with their performance though. I’ve thought for a while that the Chiefs were an overrated team and, even still, the Titans likely would not have had a real chance to come back if the Chiefs didn’t lose tight end Travis Kelce with an injury late in the first half. Losing him completely shut down their offense and even one good drive in the second half probably would have been enough to ice the game, given that the game was only decided by a point. Even without Kelce, you could argue the Chiefs deserved to win because of a few questionable calls by the officials that did not go their way.

On paper, the Titans have a solid roster, but they are poorly coached, especially on offense, where offensive minded head coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie have been unable to design an offense that suits quarterback Marcus Mariota’s skill set. They went 9-7 in the regular season, but were tied with the Jaguars for the easiest schedule in the NFL and still finished with a -22 point differential, by far the worst among remaining playoff teams (the Patriots finished first at +162). This line is substantial at -13 and the Titans are still a talented team on paper, so I am not that confident in the Patriots, but this should still be a relatively easy playoff win for New England.

New England Patriots 34 Tennessee Titans 20

Pick against the spread: New England -13

Confidence: Low

Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles: 2017 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Atlanta Falcons (11-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)

I’ve gone back and forth on this one all week and I have good arguments for both sides. On one hand, while the Eagles are obviously not the same team without Carson Wentz, they still have a strong supporting cast, including a top level defense, and they are at home, where they’ve had a ton of success this season, especially defensively (13.4 points per game allowed at home). Because of their supporting cast, I picked the Eagles to get a first round bye before the season started and I wasn’t even completely sold on Wentz at the time.

They have a ton of talent on this roster and are above average at every position except quarterback. Casual bettors and fans get fixated on the quarterback position and don’t think Foles has a shot to win a playoff game, betting the Falcons heavily as 3-point road favorites, but even worse quarterbacks like Tim Tebow and TJ Yates have won home playoff games in recent years and they did so with less of a supporting cast than Foles has.

The Eagles also get a fairly easy matchup in this playoff game, as the Falcons finished the regular season 11th in point differential at +38 and 11th in first down rate differential at +1.28%, both of which are 7th among the 8 remaining playoff teams, only ahead of the Titans. The Falcons actually have just 3 road wins by more than a field goal this season, beating the Bears, Lions, and Jets by 6 points, 4 points, and 5 points respectively and in all 3 games the opposing team had the ball with an opportunity to win on their final drive, including drives that went down to the goal line against the Bears and Lions. About 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, so the Eagles have a decent chance to cover or push even if they can’t win outright.

On the other hand, the Falcons are significantly more talented than they’ve played this season. They’ve underperformed and they are not nearly as well coached as they were last season with Kyle Shanahan as their offensive coordinator, but they still have the same core as last season’s Super Bowl team and they may have turned a corner following their 26-13 win in Los Angeles over the Rams last week, even if the Falcons did get some help from fluky special teams fumbles.

The Eagles had a relatively easy regular season schedule and didn’t play a single game against any of the remaining other 7 playoff teams, so, if the Falcons can play like they can, it shouldn’t be too hard for them to win by at least a field goal in this one, but that’s far from a sure thing. I’m actually taking the Eagles, mostly to be contrarian and fade the public, but this is a no confidence pick. In fact, I think this one has a very good chance to be a push.

Atlanta Falcons 23 Philadelphia Eagles 20

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +3

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings: 2017 NFC Divisional Round Pick

New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Minnesota Vikings (13-3)

These two teams met way back in week 1, with Minnesota winning 29-19 at home, but so much has changed since then. At the time, that game was seen as a breakout game for both Minnesota quarterback Sam Bradford (346 passing yards, 3 TDs) and Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook (137 yards from scrimmage) and yet another example of the Saints struggling defensively, as they had for years. Bradford and Cook combined to play just 4 games the rest of the way due to knee injuries, while the Saints’ defense finished in the middle of the pack statistically this season thanks to breakout performances by rookie defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, who both got better as the season went on.

The Vikings’ offense obviously managed pretty well without Bradford and Cook, but they too finished middle of the pack, despite looking like potentially a top offense back in week 1. The Vikings would go on to win 13 games with Case Keenum under center and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray as their backs, but their defense was the primary reason they were winning games, as they finished 2nd in first down rate allowed, only behind the Jaguars.

On top of that, the Saints’ leading rusher week 1 was Adrian Peterson with 18 rushing yards and he is no longer on the team, getting traded to the Cardinals back in week 6, which cleared the way for Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (who combined for just 35 rushing yards on 13 carries back in week 1) to become the first running back duo ever to both compile 1,500 yards from scrimmage. After losing their first 2 games of the season to teams that would finish 13-3 (Minnesota and New England), the Saints ripped off 8 straight wins and finished as 11-5 champions of the NFC South, despite having the toughest schedule in the league by opponents’ record.

After all that’s changed with these teams, these two teams are the best in the NFC and very evenly matched on paper. The Vikings have a dominant defense and a capable offense, while the Saints have a dominant offense and a capable defense. It’s a shame that these two teams had to meet before the NFC Championship and I think the winner of this game will be playing in the Super Bowl in 3 weeks. I said last week that I think the Saints are the most complete team in the NFC and I stand by that, but the Vikings are very close.

I give the edge to the Saints because of experience. Case Keenum is starting his first ever playoff game and quarterbacks do not have a good track record in their first playoff start, while the Saints are easily the most experienced team in the NFC, with the duo of Drew Brees and Sean Payton together for 11 playoff games since they united in 2006. The Vikings obviously have homefield advantage, which could end up being the deciding factor in this game, but the Saints have a good chance to cover this 4-point spread even if they can’t quite pull the upset, as about 30% of games are decided by 4 points. The money line is also worth a bet because this game is close to a toss up.

New Orleans Saints 24 Minnesota Vikings 23 Upset Pick +170

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +4

Confidence: High

Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2017 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (11-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)

The Steelers finished the regular season 13-3, but are more vulnerable heading into the post-season than that suggests. They finished the regular season with a +91 point differential, 6th out of the 8 remaining playoff teams, as 8 of their 13 wins came by 7 points or fewer, including 5 wins by 3 points or fewer. In their final 9 games of the regular season, they won by more than a touchdown just twice, once against the TJ Yates led Texans and once at home on a short week against the Titans in a game that was still close in the 3rd quarter. Their defense has also been significantly worse since losing Ryan Shazier.

Their lack of blowout wins is especially relevant considering this line is 7.5. That’s way too high, as the Jaguars are more than a capable opponent. They finished the regular season 3rd in point differential at +149 and 2nd in first down rate at +5.95%, both higher than the Steelers. They benefited from a slightly easier schedule than the Steelers, but they blew out most of the teams they beat (average margin of victory of 20.20 points per game in the regular season), while the Steelers had trouble with teams like the Browns, Bears, Colts, and Bengals (one win by more than a touchdown in 6 games against those teams).

The Jaguars also beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh this season. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Jaguars will win again, as the team that previously won only wins at a 63.1% rate in non-divisional playoff rematches (48.3% rate as underdogs), but the Jaguars don’t have to win straight up to cover this spread, given how much cushion we are getting. I have this line at Pittsburgh -4, so we are getting significant value with the visitors at 7.5. This is a high confidence pick.

Pittsburgh Steelers 20 Jacksonville Jaguars 16

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +7.5

Confidence: High

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams: 2017 NFL Wild Card Round

Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at Los Angeles Rams (11-5)

This would be a tough game to pick against the spread in the regular season. This line has the Rams favored by 6 points and I have this line calculated at 5.5, so we aren’t getting much line value with the Falcons at all. However, in the post-season, the Falcons make more sense for pick ‘em purposes because of how much more experienced they are than the Rams. The Rams not only have one of the youngest rosters in the post-season, but their quarterback Jared Goff has never started a post-season game, while head coach Sean McVay has coached in just 2 post-season games, first as a tight ends coach and then as an offensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins in 2012 and 2015.

The Falcons, meanwhile, have a quarterback with 8 post-season games under his belt in Matt Ryan and a head coach in Dan Quinn that has been on the sidelines for 14 post-season games, including 3 as the Falcons’ head coach in 2016 and 6 as the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks in 2013 and 2014. That alone isn’t enough to bet on the Falcons, but, between that and the minimal line value we are getting with them, they should be the right choice for in pick ‘em pools. This should be a close game.

Los Angeles Rams 24 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +6

Confidence: Low

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: 2017 NFL Wild Card Round Pick

Carolina Panthers (11-5) at New Orleans Saints (11-5)

The Saints are my pick to come out of the NFC. With the Eagles losing Carson Wentz for the season, the Saints are now the most complete team in the NFC, with the Rams and Vikings following close behind. I give the edge to the Saints because quarterback Drew Brees is better and more experienced than either Jared Goff or Case Keenum. The Saints also get to open their post-season at home against a Carolina team that they’ve beaten twice so far this season. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Saints are definitely going to win a 3rd time, as teams are just 4-2 in the post-season against a team they defeated twice in the regular season, but the Saints have had a significant edge over the Panthers in their first 2 matchups, winning both by double digits.

The Panthers also finished the season significantly behind the Saints in point differential and first down rate differential. The Saints had a point differential of +122 and a first down rate differential of +3.73%, while the Panthers were +36 and +1.85% in those two metrics. Both teams finished at 11-5, but the Panthers got to 11-5 on the strength of a 8-1 record in games decided by 8 points or less, so they easily could have finished 9-7 and out of the post-season if a few things had gone differently. Their point differential is 3rd worst among playoff teams and worse than two non-playoff qualifiers, the Chargers and the Ravens. We aren’t getting enough line value with the Saints to bet on them this week, but they should be the right pick for pick ‘em purposes.

New Orleans Saints 27 Carolina Panthers 19

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -6.5

Confidence: Low

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2017 NFL Wild Card Round Pick

Tennessee Titans (9-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)

The Chiefs won the AFC West at 10-6, but I think they are one of the weaker qualifiers, given how reliant they were on winning the turnover battle this season. Despite having the 2nd best turnover margin in the league at +15, they finished just 10th in point differential at +76. Turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so the Chiefs won’t be able to rely on that going forward. For example, teams that finish the regular season with a turnover margin of +15 or better, on average, have a turnover margin of -0.3 per game in the postseason and are just 28-41 ATS as a result. The Chiefs’ turnover margin was driven in large part by a 63.64% rate of recovering fumbles, 3rd in the NFL, which more luck than anything.

The Titans, on the other hand, have had terrible fumble luck, as they rank dead last in the NFL with a 33.33% rate of recovering fumbles. As a result, they had a turnover margin of -4 in the regular season, so, unlike the Chiefs, they were not overly reliant on winning the turnover battle this season. They did have a very easy schedule, but they went 4-2 against teams with a winning record, so they’ve been competitive with tough teams. They also have just 3 losses by more than a touchdown all season. Kansas City’s defense has a lot of problems getting off the field if they can’t force takeaways, so the Titans should be able to keep this one close and possibly pull the upset.

Kansas City Chiefs 23 Tennessee Titans 20

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +8

Confidence: High