Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers: 2020 NFC Championship Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-5) at Green Bay Packers (14-3)

The Packers led the NFL in points per game this season, but in terms of first down rate over expected, the Packers ranked “just” 4th at +2.48%. The reason I prefer first down rate as a stat is because it treats all snaps the same and minimizes the impact of outlier plays and of teams being good in unsustainable ways. With the Packers, the difference is their ridiculous 78.46% red zone conversion percentage, which not only led the league, but set a record. 

The Packers are always going to be good in the red zone with Aaron Rodgers under center, but the Packers were 10%+ better in the red zone this season than any season in the Aaron Rodgers era and teams that overperform in the red zone tend not to keep that up long-term. Even with their ridiculous red zone conversion percentage, the Packers still scored just 8 more points than the Buffalo Bills, even though the Bills ranked just 12th with a 62.50% red zone conversion percentage, so it’s not as if this was some all-time great offense overall.

The Packers still have a better offense than the Buccaneers, who rank 6th in first down rate over expected at +1.90% and are missing talented wide receiver Antonio Brown with injury, but the Buccaneers have the edge on defense, where they rank 6th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.48% and, with stud defensive lineman Vita Vea back from injury for the first time since week 5, the Buccaneers’ defense is healthier than it’s been since the beginning of the season, when they were a dominant unit. 

The Packers aren’t bad on defense and are overall the most complete and talented team left in the playoffs, but there isn’t much separating the final four teams this season and the Buccaneers are my second ranked remaining team, so we’re getting good line value with the Buccaneers as 3.5 point underdogs in Green Bay. The Packers will have the benefit of some fans in the stands in this game at home and, in a playoff atmosphere, the Packers could have something resembling normal home field advantage, but they still shouldn’t be any higher than field goal favorites over the Buccaneers in this game. The difference between 3 and 3.5 might not seem like much, but 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, so it’s a very significant half point.

This is also the kind of spot where Tom Brady has done well historically. Not only is Brady 32-11 in the post-season (as opposed to 11-8 for Aaron Rodgers), but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win. Overall in his career, Brady is 55-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 43-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 41-13 straight up record in those games. As an underdog, Brady is 27-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 20 of 29 games. 

Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers went 3-1 ATS as underdogs and against teams with a better record than theirs this season, including last week’s win in New Orleans and the Buccaneers’ blowout win over the Packers earlier this season. That lopsided result is an outlier and, like the Buccaneers’ blowout loss to the Saints earlier this season, it’s not a guarantee that the Buccaneers will win this game again, but they should at least keep this game close, so I love getting more than a field goal with them. 

I was hesitant to bet the Buccaneers last week in a similar situation in New Orleans last week, but that was primarily because of the Buccaneers’ struggles against the Saints in two games this season and, even still, I would have bet the Buccaneers had they been 3.5-point underdogs like they are this week, rather than the 3-point underdogs they were last season. At +3.5 in Green Bay, I am much more confident in the Buccaneers this week.

Green Bay Packers 24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3.5

Confidence: High

Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 AFC Championship Pick

Buffalo Bills (15-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (15-2)

The long awaited news has come that Patrick Mahomes will be able to play in this game and be 100%, despite being knocked out of last week’s win with a concussion. The betting public obviously likes that, shooting this line up to Kansas City -3.5, but Mahomes doesn’t solve all of the Chiefs’ problems and the Chiefs are still overpriced for a team that hasn’t covered a spread since week 8, despite winning their last 11 games started by Mahomes. 

Of those 11 wins, their last 8 have all come by 6 points or fewer, including a 5-point win over the Browns last week. The Chiefs were obviously doing better in that game before Mahomes got hurt, but they were up just 9 points as 10-point favorites when Mahomes left and that was despite a missed personal foul penalty that would have nullified a goal line fumble that became a touchback and a turnover rather than a likely Browns touchdown.

The Chiefs still have a great offense, but they haven’t been quite as dominant this season, particularly in the second half of the season, with key right tackle Mitchell Schwartz out due to injury from week 7 on, a big part of the reason why they have been failing to blow teams out in recent weeks. Overall, the Chiefs actually finished 2nd in first down rate expected this year, behind their opponents this week the Buffalo Bills, who also have the edge on the Chiefs in points per game. That is true even if you exclude the Chiefs’ meaningless week 17 loss. 

The Chiefs also have concerns on defense, where they rank 20th in first down rate over expected at +0.88%. The Bills haven’t fared well on that side of the ball either, ranking 22nd at +0.91%, but even with that they’re still ahead of the Chiefs in first down rate differential, ranking 4th at +3.39%, while the Chiefs rank 6th at +2.75%. The Bills also have played a lot better in recent weeks defensively, primarily due to improved health in their linebacking corps, leading to them winning their last 8 games straight by 17 points per game. In fact, excluding a week 10 loss in Arizona on a Hail Mary, the Bills have won 11 straight games and have won by fewer than 6 points just twice, a more impressive streak than the Chiefs’ recent streak because the Bills have blown out most of their opponents. 

The Chiefs will have the benefit of some fans in the stands in this game at home and, in a playoff atmosphere, the Chiefs could have something resembling normal home field advantage, but I have the Bills as the slightly better team and have them calculated as just 1.5-point underdogs, so we’re getting great line value, passing the key number of a field goal at Buffalo +3.5. Even if the Bills can’t pull off the road upset, I like their chances of keeping it close, as 1 in 4 of games are decided by 3 points or fewer (including 1 in 6 by exactly 3) and the Chiefs have won only half of their last 8 games by more than a field goal, with their other margins of victory being 4, 5, 6, and 6. This should be a close game either way, so I love getting more than a field goal with the Bills.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Buffalo Bills 33

Pick against the spread: Buffalo +3.5

Confidence: High

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5) at New Orleans Saints (13-4)

This was the toughest call of the week for me and the only one of the four games I didn’t lock in with a bet earlier this week. There is a lot of history that suggests Tom Brady and the Buccaneers should have the edge over Drew Brees and the Saints. Not only does Brady have the obvious edge in post-season success, 31-11 with 9 Super Bowl appearances vs. 9-8 with 1 appearance, but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win.

Overall in his career, Brady is 54-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 42-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 40-13 straight up record in those games. As an underdog, Brady is 22-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 19 of 28 games. Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers did go 2-1 ATS as underdogs this year.

That one loss was week 1 against the Saints in New Orleans, when the Saints won 34-23 as 3.5-point favorites, but that was the Buccaneers’ first game of the season and they actually won the first down rate battle by +6.31%, with the Saints largely winning because of a +3 turnover margin and a return touchdown, which is not predictive week-to-week. The Saints beat the Buccaneers more convincingly week 9, winning the game 38-3 and the first down rate battle by +9.96%, but that game looks like an outlier for two teams that were largely equal this season overall, with the Saints ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.59% and the Buccaneers ranking 3rd at +4.45%. 

All that being said, we’re not getting the line value needed to bet the Buccaneers confidently, especially with Tom Brady now being 43 and away from New England, facing off with a team that has played him well this season. The Buccaneers are only field goal underdogs, which is exactly where I have them calculated, with the Saints having slight homefield advantage with some fans in the stands and having a slight edge on the field as well. Even though these two teams were about even this season, the Saints did that at much less than 100% throughout due to injury. 

Brees (4 games missed), feature back Alvin Kamara (1 game), top wide receiver Michael Thomas (9 games), stud left tackle Terron Armstead (2 games), talented defensive linemen Marcus Davenport (5 games), Trey Hendrickson (1 game), and David Onyemata (1 game), stud safety Marcus Williams (2 games), and starting cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins (3 games) and Marshon Lattimore (2 games), among other minor players, all missed time with injury this season and are expected to play this week. 

The Saints entered the season atop my roster rankings and are only slightly behind the Packers right now, ahead about 1.5 points ahead of the Buccaneers. I’m taking the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes purely because of Brady’s history in these kinds of games, but I wouldn’t bet them at this number. If the line moves off of 3, I would reconsider, as a field goal Saints win is probably the most likely outcome of this game, but this is a low confidence pick for now.

New Orleans Saints 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Cleveland Browns (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)

After the Browns’ upset victory in Pittsburgh last weekend, I was expecting them to open as 7 or 7.5-point underdogs in Kansas City this week. When they opened as 10-point underdogs, I was surprised, leading to me locking this line in early, and I am even more surprised it hasn’t moved off that number since. I knew the Chiefs were a team the books could inflate the line on, but this is more than I was expecting. 

The Chiefs are defending Super Bowl Champions and only lost one meaningful game all season, but they weren’t the dominant team their record suggests they were in the regular season, especially down the stretch, when their last seven wins all came by one score or loss, with the Chiefs failing to cover the spread in any of those games. Some of that was due to garbage time, but, considering this line is as high as it is, garbage time, and the possibility of a backdoor cover even if this game isn’t close throughout, is very relevant to this pick.

Even dating back to earlier this season, the Chiefs have just five double digit wins all year, with three of them coming against teams that finished 5-11 or worse and one of them coming against a Patriots team that was starting a backup quarterback. Their week 3 win over the Ravens was their only double digit win over a capable opponent this season, so I don’t know why the Chiefs would be expected to blow out the Browns, especially since the Chiefs have not played as well since that early season matchup with the Ravens. The main reason for that is the absence of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, a massive blow to this offense that hasn’t gotten enough discussion.

The general narrative is that Patrick Mahomes and the skill position players on this offense are so good that the Chiefs’ offense is invincible, but the Chiefs actually finished the season 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate behind the Buffalo Bills, who were ahead of them by a pretty decent margin (+4.71 vs. +3.65%), and the Chiefs were noticeably worse after Schwartz went down in week 6, leading to many of their close late season contests. All of this is true even if you ignore the Chiefs’ week 17 performance when they rested their stars in a meaningless game. 

The Chiefs’ defense has always been somewhat shaky and finished this season 22nd in first down rate allowed over expected at -0.88%, and, as good as Mahomes and his skill position players are, the Chiefs’ concerns on the offensive line and on defense can’t be ignored as they head into the post-season. They’re obvious a top Super Bowl contender, but they’re far from a lock to even make it back to the big game. Their 6th ranked finish in schedule adjusted first down rate differential also shows them to be an obvious contender, but not the juggernaut the general public seems to think they are and the oddsmakers have priced them as.

Let’s take advantage of that with the 10-point underdog Browns. The Browns may not cover this spread if they play like they did last week, when they won by 11, but were largely gifted the game by the Steelers committing 5 turnovers (the Chiefs had 16 giveaways all season) and lost the first down rate battle by 9.71%. However, the Browns are getting reinforcements, with stud left guard Joel Bitonio and top cornerback Denzel Ward returning to give the Browns a boost on both sides of the ball. The Browns aren’t quite at 100% right now with right tackle Jack Conklin questionable and likely to play at less than full strength with a hamstring injury and key defensive end Olivier Vernon out for the season, but compared to earlier this season, the Browns are much healthier. 

Stud running back Nick Chubb (4 games missed), key right guard Wyatt Teller (5 games), #1 wide receiver Jarvis Landry (1 game), starting left tackle Jedrick Wills (1 game), dominant left guard Joel Bitonio (1 game), starting tight end Austin Hooper (3 games), edge defender Myles Garrett (2 games), top cornerback Denzel Ward (5 games), starting cornerback Kevin Johnson (4 games), and safety Ronnie Harrison (5 games) have all missed time with injury and are all expected to play this week, for the first time together since early this season. That also doesn’t include a rib injury to quarterback Baker Mayfield that slowed him significantly earlier this season that he is well past at this point.

The Browns rank just 25th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential on the season at -1.53%, but they’re noticeably better on offense, ranking 11th in first down rate over expected at 1.17%, which is the significantly more predictive side of the ball, and a lot of their bad performances were earlier this season when they were not as healthy as they are now. My calculated line has the Chiefs favored by just 5 points, so I love the Browns at +10. Even if this isn’t a close game throughout, they have a great shot at a backdoor cover in garbage time, but I expect this game to be as competitive as the Chiefs’ recent games have been.

Kansas City Chiefs 38 Cleveland Browns 34

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +10

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers: 2020 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Los Angeles Rams (11-6) at Green Bay Packers (13-3)

The Rams have injury concerns on their offense heading into this game, but that has been the case for most of the second half of the season. After a mostly healthy first half of the season, stud left tackle Andrew Whitworth’s knee injury in week 10 started off a stretch where the Rams not only were without their top offensive lineman for 7 games, but they also were without their starting quarterback Jared Goff, his top receiver Cooper Kupp, and their feature running back Cam Akers for stretches and both Goff and Akers were limited for stretches as well. 

This week, Goff and Kupp are likely to play at less than 100%, but only left guard David Edwards is legitimately questionable for this game among key Rams players, meaning this could actually be the first time the Rams have had their normal starting lineup on the field on offense at the same time since before Whitworth got hurt in week 10. Even if some players are less than 100%, that’s at least an improvement over what they’ve had in recent weeks, especially Whitworth’s re-addition, which had a massive impact in the Rams’ first round upset of the Seahawks.

The Rams aren’t an overly impressive offense, but they haven’t been all season and they still lead the league in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.64%. Their offense ranks just 22nd in first down rate over expected at -0.95%, but their dominant defense has carried them, not just leading the league in first down rate allowed over expected at -5.59%, but by a wide margin over the 2nd ranked Steelers (-4.39%). 

Defensive performance is not as consistent week-to-week as offensive performance and the Packers have the obvious edge on that side of the ball, as well as a complementary defense, but the Rams’ defense is too good for them to be underdogs of this many points in Green Bay. My calculated line has the Rams at +4, so I liked the line value we were getting with them as touchdown underdogs earlier this week when I locked them in. I’m not sure I would bet them at +6.5 against a Packers team that is legitimately one of the top-3 Super Bowl contenders and that will have the benefit of at least some fans in this game, but they should still be the right side for pick ‘em purposes at that number.

Update: This line is back to a touchdown but that’s because the Rams will surprisingly be without both Kupp and David Edwards, which is a hit for this offense. I have already locked this in, but I wouldn’t be as confident in the Rams at that number without Kupp and Edwards in the lineup. They’re still the pick for pick ’em purposes though, because of the dominance of their defense. My calculated line is now Green Bay -5.

Green Bay Packers 24 Los Angeles Rams 20

Pick against the spread: LA Rams +7

Confidence: Medium

Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills: 2020 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Baltimore Ravens (12-5) at Buffalo Bills (14-3)

This line favors the Bills by just 1.5 points in Buffalo, where the Bills will have the benefit of at least having some fans in the stands, suggesting that the odds makers and the public view these two teams about even, perhaps even favoring the lower seeded Ravens slightly. I think this line is mispriced. The Ravens have been great on 3rd and 4th down on both sides of the ball, allowing the 2nd lowest 3rd/4th down conversion rate in the NFL while converting 3rd/4th downs at the league’s 3rd highest rate, which has powered them to a 11-5 record and a second round playoff appearance.

However, the Bills’ offense has been better on both 1st/2nd and 3rd/4th downs, particularly on 1st/2nd down when the Bills rank 2nd in conversion rate and the Ravens rank all the way down at 27th, but the Bills are also better on 3rd/4th down when they rank 1st. Even on defense, which is by far the Bills’ weaker side of the ball, the Bills have the edge on 1st/2nd down, ranking 24th while the Ravens rank just 28th, though the Ravens have obviously been significantly better on 3rd/4th down defensively, ranking 2nd while the Bills rank 12th.

That’s all important to mention because offensive performance is much more predictive than defensive performance and because performance on 1st/2nd down is much more predictive than performance on 3rd/4th down. The Bills’ offense has had the obvious edge on early downs and they have the overall edge in my roster rankings as well, as their defense has gotten significantly better down the stretch due to better health, particularly with linebacker Matt Milano returning to the lineup in week 13. The Bills should be favored by at least 4.5 points, if not more, in this one, so we’re getting great value with them as mere 1.5-point favorites. This is one of three games I locked in earlier this week, and though the line hasn’t really moved, I’m still happy I locked this in because I like the Bills a lot this week. 

Buffalo Bills 27 Baltimore Ravens 20

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -1.5

Confidence: High