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.

Los Angeles Rams 27 Arizona Cardinals 20

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -4

Confidence: Low

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

Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (10-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)

I don’t normally lock games in this early in the week and this is especially risky given the NFL’s COVID protocols, but neither of these teams has any significant questionable players according to the early practice report and like the Raiders enough as 6-point underdogs that I want to take the risk and lock it in early because sharp action is likely to drop this line throughout the week (it started at 6.5 yesterday). At first glance, the Bengals might seem like an obvious choice, as they beat the Raiders by 19 in Las Vegas earlier this season and, despite their identical records, the Bengals also have a significant edge in point differential at 84 vs -65, with the Raiders going 7-2 in one-score games, including 4-0 in overtime. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

While the Bengals may have won by a score of 32-13 in the first matchup, the Raiders outgained the Bengals by 1.80 yards per play. The reason for that is the same problems the Raiders had for much of the season, as they lost the turnover battle by one and performed poorly on third down on both sides of the ball, allowing the Bengals to convert 8 of 16, while converting just 1 of 7. On the season, the Raiders have the 27th ranked turnover margin in the league at -9, while ranking 22nd in third down conversion percentage and 15th in third down conversion percentage allowed, which is in large part to blame for their 23rd ranked point differential.

Fortunately for the Raiders, turnover margin is not predictive week-to-week, nor is underperforming on third downs, which the Raiders are, as they actually rank 15th on offense and 8th on defense in schedule adjusted efficiency, a metric based on yards per play and first down rate differential, much more metric predictives week-to-week. The Bengals, meanwhile, rank just 16th on offense, 20th on defense, and 18th in mixed efficiency, behind the 9th ranked Raiders. 

This game is in Cincinnati, but homefield advantage is only worth a couple points at most now and could actually work against the Bengals for spread purposes, as home favorites are 6-16 ATS since 2002 when making their first career playoff start, which Joe Burrow is. Even if they don’t win this game outright, the Raiders should keep this game close and my calculated line has the Bengals as just 2.5-point favorites. I would still like the Raiders at +5.5, but I want to lock in 6 before I can’t anymore.

Cincinnati Bengals 24 Las Vegas Raiders 23

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas +6

Confidence: High