Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Indianapolis Colts (11-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

The Chiefs finished with the best record in the AFC, while the Colts snuck into the playoffs as the 6th seed on the NFL’s final weekend, but statistically the Colts have been the better of these two teams this season, ranking 5th in first down rate at +4.56%, while the Chiefs rank 9th at +2.98%. Not only do they have a significant edge in first downs (+56 on the year, as opposed to -35 for the Chiefs), but they also have a league leading +19 offensive touchdown margin, even better than Kansas City’s +17 offensive touchdown margin.

That’s even more impressive considering how slow the Colts started. After week 6, they sat at 1-5 and ranked just 18th in first down rate differential at -1.47%, but since then they lead the NFL in first down rate differential at +9.02% and they’ve won 10 of 11 games, including last week’s first round victory over the Texans. They have several young players who have gotten better as the season has gone on and their injury situation has improved significantly as well, as they are close to full strength right now, after they were arguably the best injury plagued team in the league to start the season. Andrew Luck has also gotten better as the year has gone along in his first year back from shoulder surgery, with arguably the best team he’s ever had around him.

The Chiefs, meanwhile, have gone in the opposite direction a little bit, starting out hot and then declining in recent weeks. The offense has remained strong, leading the league with a first down rate of 43.34% since week 10, but that’s down from an otherworldly 46.65% prior to week 10 and their defense has not gotten any better, allowing a first down rate of 42.21% since week 10 and a first down rate of 42.19% prior to week 10. They were expecting to get safety Eric Berry back from injury at some point, but he only played limited snaps in a few games down the stretch and seems to be shut down again, missing week 17 and barely practicing this week after the bye.

They may get a boost on offense with wide receiver Sammy Watkins possibly returning after missing all but a few snaps over the past 7 games, but he didn’t get in a full practice this week and would likely be less than 100% and at risk of an in-game setback even if he plays through his recurring foot problems. The loss of Watkins and running back Kareem Hunt (released for off-the-field issues with 5 games left in the season) are part of the reason why the offense slowed down a little down the stretch.

Without those two, even as talented as Pat Mahomes is, he’s had issues keeping pace with what his defense is allowing. They played 3 of their final 7 games against the Cardinals or Raiders, two of the worst teams in the league, and in their other 4 games they either lost or went to overtime. Granted, those four games were against the Seahawks, Chargers, Ravens, and Rams and the Chiefs were competitive in all 4 games, but the Colts are a tough test too and the you’d have to go back to the Chiefs’ 10-point week 1 victory over the Chargers to find a game the Chiefs have played against a top tier team like the Colts in which they would have covered this 5.5-point spread.

At the very least, these two teams are even right now, in which case the Chiefs should be favored by just 3 points at home, but there’s an argument to be made that the Colts are the better of these two teams at the moment, despite what their records say. The Colts also have the edge in quarterback experience, with Luck making his 8th career playoff start and Mahomes in his first. First time playoff starting quarterbacks are just 6-21 ATS at home since 2002, unless they’re facing another first time playoff starter.

We’ve already seen Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, and Mitch Trubisky lose straight up as home favorites in their first career playoff start. Mahomes is on another level talent wise and it helps that he has an experienced coach in Andy Reid (even if Reid is just 11-13 with one Super Bowl appearance in 13 playoff trips), but the other three quarterbacks also had much stronger defenses supporting them and, even if Mahomes does pull out the win, he won’t necessarily cover this 5.5-point spread. I love the Colts’ chances of covering and I think they have a decent shot at pulling off the straight up upset as well.

Indianapolis Colts 31 Kansas City Chiefs 30 Upset Pick +195

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +5.5

Confidence: High

Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans: 2018 AFC Wild Card Pick

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

Confidence: Medium

Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (9-6) at Tennessee Titans (9-6)

The Colts got off to a 1-5 start, but have won 8 of their last 9 games, including 4 wins by at least 14 points. Injuries were an issue for them early in the season, but they’ve been one of the better teams in the entire league over the second half of the year. They rank 6th in first down rate differential at +4.21% and 9th in point differential at +73 on the season, but since week 9 they rank 2nd in first down rate differential at +8.26%.

The Titans have been close to just as good over that time period though, ranking 3rd in first down rate differential at +6.58% since week 9. Going into their week 8 bye, the Titans had one of the worst offenses in the league, ranking 29th in first down rate differential at 30.17%, but they’ve been much better in the second half of the season, with quarterback Marcus Mariota playing at a much higher level and the running game producing much more with Derrick Henry as the lead back rather than Dion Lewis. Their defense, meanwhile, has remained dominant and ranks 2nd in the NFL on the season at 32.29%.

The Titans have had the easiest schedule in the league for the past 4 weeks, beating the Jets, Jaguars, Giants, and Redskins, but they’ve also beaten the Cowboys and Patriots convincingly in the second half of the season and the Colts haven’t had the toughest schedule either. The Titans lost convincingly against the Colts in Indianapolis a few weeks back, but they also beat the Jaguars and Giants with ease, while the Colts lost to the Jaguars and nearly lost to the Giants.

Unfortunately for the Titans, they are going into this huge win or go home game with injury uncertainty at quarterback, as Marcus Mariota was once again knocked out of the game with a stinger in last week’s win over the Redskins. Mariota is expected to start this pivotal game and has looked fine throwing the ball at practice this week, but he’s already been knocked out of the game with a stringer twice in the past few weeks, so he’s no guarantee to make it through this game.

Despite that, I think we’re getting enough line value with the Titans as 3.5-point home underdogs for them to be worth a small bet. Assuming Mariota makes it through the game and plays reasonably well, I have this line calculated at Tennessee -1.5, so even with uncertainty priced in, Tennessee +3.5 is a good line to get with them. The Titans are also going to be without stud defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, but the Colts aren’t at 100% either with talented center Ryan Kelly once again on the sidelines with an injury. This isn’t a huge play because of Mariota’s uncertainty, but the Titans have a good chance to pull the upset if he plays the whole game and I like getting more than a field goal of protection.

Sunday Update: Despite practicing all week, Marcus Mariota is reportedly not going to play this week because of fears that he could make his injury worse long-term. That hasn’t been confirmed and we won’t know for sure until later tonight, but I can’t recommend betting the Titans without Mariota, even though the line has jumped to 5. I unfortunately locked this in at +3.5, but that was with the expectation that Mariota would play in a must win game after practicing all week.

Indianapolis Colts 20 Tennessee Titans 17

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +3.5

Confidence: Medium

New York Giants at Indianapolis Colts: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

New York Giants (5-9) at Indianapolis Colts (8-6)

The Colts are a solid 8-6, but they’re even better than their record suggests. They had major injury problems earlier in the year, leading to a 1-5 start, but they’ve won 7 of 8 games since then, with 4 wins by at least two touchdowns. On the season, they rank 7th in point differential at +72 and 5th in first down rate differential at +3.95%. They’ve faced one of the easier schedules in the league, but they’re arguably even better than those numbers suggest, given how well they’ve played when healthy. With talented center Ryan Kelly returning last week, the Colts are as healthy as they’ve been all season, which should be a scary proposition for the rest of the AFC, with the Colts in the running for the final wild card spot.

The Giants also improved as the season went on, but they have a serious injury on both sides of the ball now, with #1 wide receiver Odell Beckham and Pro-Bowl safety Landon Collins on the sidelines. They blew out the Redskins without them, but I think that was more about the Redskins not giving effort with a hapless street free agent quarterback under center than anything to do with the Giants and the Giants followed that game up by getting shut out at home by the Titans in a 17-0 loss. I expect their struggles to continue this week and for the Colts to take care of business and win this easily. This line shifted from Indianapolis -6 to Indianapolis -9 in the past week, but I have this line calculated at Indianapolis -13, so we’re still getting significant line value with the Colts.

Indianapolis Colts 27 New York Giants 13

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -9

Confidence: High

Dallas Cowboys at Indianapolis Colts: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (8-5) at Indianapolis Colts (7-6)

The Cowboys are obviously better offensively since acquiring wide receiver Amari Cooper, who has revitalized his career in Dallas, helping the Cowboys win 5 straight games and take control of the NFC East. I expect that streak to end this week though. Coming off of a huge upset win over the Saints and an overtime win over the Eagles that essentially clinched the division, the Cowboys probably won’t bring the same effort this week, especially since they’re basically locked into the #4 seed in the NFC, needing the Bears to lose twice in three games to have a chance to jump them.

Their seeding might be part of the reason why the Cowboys are resting right guard Zach Martin this week, as the All-Pro has dealt with injuries to both knees this season. That’s a huge loss, especially for an offensive line that could also sit left tackle Tyron Smith, who is also dealing with multiple injuries and did not practice in full this week. On defense, the Cowboys could hold out linebacker Sean Lee again, after he was limited all week in practice as well, and even if he does he play he’d likely have a limited role. They’ll also be without edge rush specialist Randy Gregory for personal reasons, also a big loss the way he’s been playing.

The Colts have injury issues as well, with left tackle Mark Glowinski and possibly safety Clayton Geathers and wide receiver TY Hilton out this week with injuries. They’ve had injury issues all season though and, if Hilton can play as a gametime decision, they’ll actually be much healthier this week than they have been for much of the season. Center Ryan Kelly is the most recent player to return to the lineup and he’ll be a big re-addition after a 3-game absence.

Despite injuries, the Colts have been better than their 7-6 record this season, as they rank 11th in point differential at +49 and 7th in first down rate differential at 3.39%. Injuries were part of the reason why they started 1-5, but they’ve since won 6 of 7 games. They are +12 in offensive touchdowns, as opposed to +2 for Dallas, and have 4 wins by more than a touchdown, as opposed to just 1 for Dallas.

The Colts haven’t faced the toughest schedule, but they’re still the 2nd toughest team the Cowboys have faced on their winning streak, outside of the Saints, who it took an incredible effort to beat in Dallas. In a much less meaningful game, out of conference, at much less than 100%, I don’t expect that same effort this week from the Cowboys. This is a medium confidence pick for now, but if Hilton plays and the line stays at -3, I’ll bump this up to high confidence.

Sunday Update: As promised, I’m bumping this up to high confidence with TY Hilton active and the line remaining at 3. The Cowboys got good news Sunday morning as well, with Tyron Smith, Sean Lee, and Randy Gregory active, but the Colts also have Clayton Geathers active and are as healthy as they’ve been all season with Hilton, Geathers, and Ryan Kelly active. The Cowboys, meanwhile, will be without stud right guard Zack Martin in a game that doesn’t mean as much for them as it does for the Colts.

Indianapolis Colts 24 Dallas Cowboys 17

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -3

Confidence: High

Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans: 2018 Week 14 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (6-6) at Houston Texans (9-3)

Injuries have been the story this season for the Colts. They started out the season as arguably the most injury plagued team in the league and went 1-5 as a result, but then they ripped off 5 straight wins, before injuries started to pile up again. That winning streak ended in Jacksonville last week in a 6-0 loss and, though the Colts did win the first down rate battle by 6.39% in that one, the Colts injury situation gets even worse this week, just in time for a key matchup against the division leading Texans. Center Ryan Kelly and tight end Jack Doyle remain out and defensive tackles Margus Hunt and Denico Autry and top receiver TY Hilton are all highly questionable, after barely practicing this week.

It’s a shame because if they were healthy I’d be all over the Colts as 4.5-point road underdogs here in Houston. The Texans beat the Colts in Indianapolis earlier this season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to cover or even win this week. In fact, divisional home favorites are just 41-68 ATS since 2002 against teams they’ve previously beaten that season as divisional road underdogs and they only have a 55% winning percentage, despite being favored by 5.1 points on average.

The Texans are 9-3, but they haven’t really been blowing teams out, with an average margin of victory of 9.11 points per game and 4 wins by 3 points or fewer. The Colts are only 6-6, but their average margin of victory is 15.33 points per game and they’re only slightly behind the Texans in point differential (+67 vs. +46), despite being 3 games behind them in the standings. In terms of first down rate differential, the Colts are actually ahead of the Texans, ranking 7th at +3.73%, while the Texans are 12th at +2.23%. The Texans have a slight edge in strength of schedule, as the Colts have played one of the easiest schedules in the league, but if the Colts were healthy I’d have this line calculated at Houston -3 at the most. At less than 100%, we’re not getting the same line value, but they still seem like the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Final Update: TY Hilton, Margus Hunt, and Denico Autry are all active, but the line is still Indianapolis +4. Ryan Kelly is still a big loss upfront for the Colts, but they have a +13 offensive touchdown margin on the season (as opposed to +1 for the Texans), despite being banged up for much of the year. Even without Kelly, they are still healthier than they’ve been for most of the season. I like getting more than a field goal with them in a divisional revenge game.

Houston Texans 24 Indianapolis Colts 23

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +4

Confidence: Medium

Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (6-5) at Jacksonville Jaguars (3-8)

This is a tough one. On one hand, we’ve lost a lot of line value with the Colts. The Jaguars were just 2.5-point home underdogs against the Colts on the early line last week and -2.5 road underdogs in Indianapolis a few weeks ago (in a game they ended up only losing by 3), but now they are -4.5 point home underdogs. The Jaguars have had a disappointing season, but they’re better than their 3-8 record suggests, as their defense is still one of the best in the league, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed at 33.58%.

It’s not quite as dominant as it was last year and it certainly hasn’t played well enough to compensate for their offense, but they still rank a respectable 19th in first down rate differential at -1.49%. Their record looks worse than they’ve played because they are just 1-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less and because they have one of the worst turnover margins in the league at -11. Both of those metrics tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and year-to-year basis though, especially turnover margin.

Case in point, these Jaguars had a -16 turnover margin in 2016 and then a +10 turnover margin in 2017 before this season’s struggles in that department. The Jaguars have also played a much tougher schedule than the Colts. Their opponents are a combined 52% on the season, as opposed to 45% for the Colts. The Jaguars obviously lost in Buffalo last week, but they were in a tough spot, sandwiched between a home game against the Steelers and this home game against the Colts. Now against a hated divisional foe, they’ll probably bring more effort and they kept it close against the Steelers the last time they did that.

On the other hand, the Jaguars have lost so much on offense this year and are starting mediocre backup quarterback Cody Kessler under center, having seen enough of Blake Bortles’ turnover proneness. Kessler is less turnover prone, but he really struggles to make plays downfield because of his lack of arm strength and he’s shown himself to be very injury prone thus far in his career.

Kessler’s supporting cast is also as bad as it gets, as the Jaguars are without running back Leonard Fournette with a suspension and added talented left guard Andrew Norwell to injured reserve this week, joining their top-3 offensive tackles, their top-3 tight ends, talented center Brandon Linder, and #1 receiver Marqise Lee on the sidelines. I can’t take the Colts with any confidence because we’re not getting a good line, but it’s the Colts or nothing this week, as the Jaguars are currently one of the worst teams in the NFL.

Indianapolis Colts 23 Jacksonville Jaguars 17

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -4.5

Confidence: None