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