Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 NFC Championship Pick

Green Bay Packers (14-3) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3)

Like the Chiefs/Titans matchup in the AFC Championship, this NFC Championship matchup between the 49ers and the Packers is a rematch of a regular season game. Unlike the first Chiefs/Titans matchup, which few would have predicted would be an AFC Championship preview, the first 49ers/Packers matchup was an obvious potential NFC Championship preview, with the 49ers entering at 9-1 and the Packers entering at 8-2 in a game that wound up deciding the #1 seed in the NFC. 

Despite both teams having strong records, the first matchup was not close at all, with the 49ers winning at home by a final score of 37-8 in a game in which they won the first down rate battle by 15.87%. Favored by just a field goal the first time around, the 49ers are now 7.5-point home favorites in the rematch, as bettors remember the week 12 blowout well. History suggests that these rematches don’t always go the same way, however, and in fact in non-divisional same-site post-season rematches, the team that lost the first time is actually 33-20 ATS over the past 30 seasons. 

That being said, I think there is good reason to expect that the 49ers should win fairly easily again. Even though these teams have the same record, the 49ers had a much stronger season, holding the edge in the regular season in first down rate differential at +5.29% to +1.15% and in point differential at +169 to +63. The Packers’ point differential was the worst ever by a team that finished with 13 wins or more and ranked just 9th in the NFL, compared to 3rd for the 49ers. In first down rate differential, the difference was even more pronounced, with the 49ers ranking 2nd and the Packers ranking 14th. While the Packers are 9-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, the 49ers are just 5-3 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, winning 9 of their 14 games by more than 8 points, as opposed to just 5 for the Packers. 

That’s despite the fact that the 49ers were missing their top edge rusher Dee Ford and their top linebacker Kwon Alexander for most of the second half of the season. Alexander went down in the 49ers 8th game of the season in week 9 and missed the rest of the regular season, while Ford played just 73 snaps after week 9 and was inactive for the Packers game. Neither one is at 100% this week, but having both back in the lineup is significant. The 49ers allowed just a 24.67% first down rate in their first 7 games of the season with Alexander and Ford healthy, which would have been easily the best in the NFL if they kept it up all season. 

The 49ers had a relatively easy schedule over that stretch, but their strength of schedule suggested they should have allowed a 34.56% first down rate over those 7 games, so they performed significantly better than average. Last week, with Ford and Alexander back, the 49ers held a Vikings offense that finished 11th in the NFL in first down rate (higher than the Packers who finished 16th) to just 7 first downs and a 17.78% first down rate. This is the healthiest the 49ers have been since their dominant start and they are playing like it. 

The Packers are basically at full strength as well, but that’s been the case for most of the season. Meanwhile, in addition to the 49ers having Ford and Alexander back, the 49ers will also have tight end George Kittle and wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel at full strength, which they didn’t have in the first matchup and, while they’re missing center Weston Richburg, they will have left tackle Joe Staley this time around, which is more important, especially since backup center Ben Garland has filled in well for Richburg. I’m hoping this line will fall to a touchdown before gametime, but I like the 49ers for a smaller bet even if it stays at 7.5.

San Francisco 49ers 27 Green Bay Packers 16

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -7.5

Confidence: Medium

Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers: 2019 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Seattle Seahawks (12-5) at Green Bay Packers (13-3)

The Packers won 13 games and got a first round bye in the NFC, but they didn’t play as well as their record suggests, barely pulling out some close victories. They went 8-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer and 4-0 in games decided by 5 points or fewer and ranked just 9th in the NFL in point differential at +63, the worst ever point differential by a team with 13 or more wins. Fortunately for the Packers, they open the post-season at home, where they are 43-22 ATS since 2011 in games that Aaron Rodgers starts and finishes, and they play a Seattle team that is also not as good as their record.

The Seahawks won 11 games, but just one by more than a touchdown and had a +6 point differential that is 14th in the NFL and 3rd worst ever by a team with 11 or more wins. While the Packers are around a 10 or 11 win caliber team that won 13 games because of close wins, the Seahawks are around an 8 or 9 win caliber team that won 11 games because of close wins. Two of the Seahawks’ wins came because the other team shanked makeable field goals that would have ended the game. If not for those two misses, the Seahawks easily could have missed the post-season entirely. They won their opening round playoff game in Philadelphia, but likely would have lost had Carson Wentz not gotten hurt in the first quarter, as the Josh McCown led Eagles got inside the Seahawks’ 30-yard line five times, but managed just three field goals and two failed 4th downs in a 17-9 loss. 

The Seahawks also are in much worse injury shape than the Packers. While the Packers are as healthy as any team left in the playoffs, the Seahawks are without linebacker Mychal Kendricks, running backs Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, left guard Mike Iupati, and possibly defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, left tackle Duane Brown, and backup left tackle George Fant. Despite their injury situation and the Packers’ significant edge in point differential and first down rate differential (+1.15% vs. -1.17%), the Seahawks are only 4-point underdogs in this game in Lambeau, where the Packers are very tough to beat with Aaron Rodgers under center. I have this line calculated at Green Bay -7.5, so we’re getting great line value with the Packers at -4. This is my biggest play this week.

Green Bay Packers 31 Seattle Seahawks 23

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -4

Confidence: High

Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Houston Texans (11-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

These two teams met back in week 6, with the Texans pulling off the upset in Kansas City by score of 31-24. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Texans will pull the upset again this week though, or even keep this game close. Teams are 32-20 ATS over the past 30 years in the playoffs in a same-site rematch against a team that beat them in the regular season. Of those teams, 10 were favorites in the rematch and they outscored their opponents by 7.5 points as an average of 5-point favorites, covering 6 out of 10 times. 

That alone isn’t enough reason to pick the Chiefs, but the Chiefs are also in a completely different injury situation than they were in the first game. On offense, quarterback Pat Mahomes was playing at far less than 100% through injury and had his worst game of the season according to Pro Football Focus, top wide receiver Tyreek Hill played just half of the snaps in his return from injury, fellow wide receiver Sammy Watkins was out, and the side left of the offensive line, Eric Fisher and Andrew Wylie, was out as well. 

On defense, cornerback Kendall Fuller was playing through a broken thumb, defensive end Frank Clark was playing through a neck injury and, while the Chiefs did have safety Juan Thornhill and defensive ends Alex Okafor and Emmanuel Ogbah healthy back then, they did not have late-season addition defensive end Terrell Suggs, nor did they have injured defensive tackles Xavier Williams and Chris Jones, the latter of whom is one of the best players in the league at his position. Jones tweaked a calf injury at practice this week, but is still expected to play and even if he’s at less than 100% he could easily have a huge impact on the rematch.

Of course, having Mahomes healthy is also a pretty big deal. Mahomes was limping through an ankle injury back in week 6 and eventually ended up missing two games with a knee injury that he suffered the following week in Denver, but he returned in week 10 and has led the Chiefs to a 40.00% first down rate in 7 games since, 4th among playoff qualifiers over that stretch, and should be as close to 100% as he’s been all season after the first round bye. 

Mahomes’ injury might have actually ended up being a blessing in disguise for the Chiefs, as the Chiefs started playing much better defensively around the time he got hurt. It’s possible the Chiefs’ defense would have started to click around then even if Mahomes hadn’t gotten hurt and certainly the Chiefs’ improved health on defense is part of the reason for their improvement, but whatever the reason, the improvement has been very noticeable. Since week 7, they rank 3rd among playoff qualifiers in first down rate allowed at 33.28%, after ranking 29th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 40.91% through the first 6 games of the season. This is a much more complete Chiefs team than they were in the post-season last year, when they finished dead last in first down rate allowed at 42.20%.

Meanwhile, the Texans are going in the opposite direction injury wise, as right tackle Tytus Howard is out for the season, JJ Watt is playing at far less than 100% and coming off of an underwhelming performance in the playoff opener, and wide receiver Will Fuller is highly questionable and would be at risk of limited snaps or an in-game setback after missing much of the past couple months, including last week, and not getting in a full practice all this week. Since their week 10 bye, the Texans have a first down rate differential of just -3.50% (excluding the week 17 game in which they rested starters). 

Their struggles are in large part due to key players being injured or playing at less than 100%. Even at full strength though, the Texans weren’t a great team and they are the only playoff qualifier with a negative point differential at -7. They barely beat the Bills, arguably the worst playoff qualifier, in Houston last week. They might not be able to even keep it close this week in Kansas City. This line is high at -9.5, so there’s not enough here to bet on the Chiefs, but they should be the right side. If Jones ends up being out for the Chiefs, I will revisit this pick.

Update: Jones is surprisingly out for this game, unable to get the green light after his pre-game workout. That makes a huge impact on a Chiefs defense that is also missing talented rookie safety Thornhill. Despite that, this line has moved up to 10 in all places. This is a no confidence pick, but this should be a closer game with the Chiefs at less than 100% injury wise.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Houston Texans 23

Pick against the spread: Houston +10

Confidence: None

Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Tennessee Titans (10-7) at Baltimore Ravens (14-2)

The Titans looked in the middle of a lost season when they started 2-4, bottoming out with a shutout loss in Denver week 6. That loss ended up being a blessing in disguise, however, as that was the performance they needed to pull the trigger on the switch from former #2 overall pick Marcus Mariota to veteran off-season acquisition Ryan Tannehill under center. Since making that move, the Titans rank 4th among playoff qualifiers with a +4.47% first down rate differential.

Tannehill hasn’t just been game-managing this team either, as their defense has actually fallen off significantly since Tannehill took off, allowing a 37.43% first down rate over Tannehill’s 11 starts, as opposed to a 30.93% first down rate in the first 6 games of the season, in large part due to injuries to key players like defensive linemen Jurrell Casey (2 games) and Jeffery Simmons (7 games), linebacker Jayon Brown (2 games), edge rusher Cameron Wake (7 games), and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (7 games) and Adoree Jackson (5 games). Tannehill and the offense have carried this team, picking up first downs at a 41.90% rate in Tannehill’s 11 starts, only behind the Ravens over that stretch, as opposed to 32.69% in the first 6 games of the season. Tannehill also finished the regular season as the league leader in QB rating. 

The switch to Tannehill took this team from seemingly dead in the water at 2-4 to not only qualifying for the post-season at 9-7, after winning 7 of their final 10 regular season games, but also winning a playoff game last week in New England against the Patriots. Tannehill didn’t do much in a game in which the Titans called 40 run plays to 17 pass plays to attack a Patriots defense that is significantly better against air attacks than ground attacks, but this offense is much more than just Tannehill, as they have a strong offensive line, a great feature back in Derrick Henry, and a downfield #1 receiver in AJ Brown. They’re multi-dimensional and can have offensive success in different ways.

This should be where the Titans’ season ends though and they could really struggle in this game in Baltimore, for several reasons. For one, Tannehill probably won’t be quite as good as he’s been going forward, as it’s unlikely he’s suddenly become an elite quarterback in his 8th season in the league. Tannehill won’t necessarily struggle going forward, but if he’s not the quarterback that led the NFL in QB rating going forward, that will have a noticeable effect on a team that has been so reliant on their offense in recent weeks with their defense struggling.

Speaking of that defense, the Titans still have a lot of injury concerns on that side of the ball. Even with starting cornerback Malcolm Butler and key edge rusher Cameron Wake out for the season, things appeared to be looking up last week when they got top cornerback Adoree Jackson back from a 5-game absence, but they lost top linebacker Jayon Brown with an injury in the first minute of their win in New England, which is a huge absence, as Brown was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked off linebacker during the regular season.

The Patriots, who have been stagnant on offense for months and couldn’t take it to another level in the post-season, were unable to exploit Brown’s absence in any significant way, but the Ravens should have a much easier time. In fact, given the way the Ravens run their offense, Brown is probably the worst possible player the Titans could be missing on defense for this matchup. Brown not only is the one Titans linebacker with the speed to contain Lamar Jackson in the open field, but he’s also easily their best coverage linebacker, a big absence against a team that relies heavily on tight ends in the passing game.

Even if Brown was playing, the Titans would have a tough time slowing down a Ravens offense that not only lead the league with a 41.73% first down rate, but that has actually been even better than that over the past few months, as Jackson and company have gotten more comfortable in the scheme. Over their past 10 games since week 7, the Ravens have a 42.47% first down rate, despite resting their key players in a meaningless week 17 game against the Steelers. The Ravens have won 12 straight games overall, but have been especially dominant over their past 10 games, covering in all but one game and winning by an average of 20.5 points per game, including an 18-point week 17 win with backups against a capable Steelers team.

That impressive stretch isn’t just because of the offense either, as their defense has allowed just a 30.00% first down rate over those 10 games and ranks 1st among playoff qualifiers in first down rate allowed over that stretch. That’s in comparison to a 37.95% first down rate that ranked 24th in the NFL over the first 6 games of the season. It’s easy to point to the acquisition of cornerback Marcus Peters between week 6 and week 7 as the reason for their drastic improvement and certainly he has been a big part of the reason, but the Ravens also added key linebacker Josh Bynes between week 4 and week 5 and have gotten significantly better play at safety since Tony Jefferson got hurt and was replaced with breakout player Chuck Clark. With an elite offense and defense, the Ravens are obvious Super Bowl favorites and I don’t expect this game to be close. There’s not quite enough here to bet the Ravens with confidence as 9.5-point favorites, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Baltimore Ravens 31 Tennessee Titans 20

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -9.5

Confidence: Low

Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Minnesota Vikings (11-6) at San Francisco 49ers (13-3)

The 49ers got a bye in the first round of the playoffs and it came at a perfect time, as the 49ers had several key players dealing with injuries at the end of the season. They’re not at full strength, but no one is at this point in the season and a trio of key 49ers are expected to return this week, defensive end Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander, and safety Jacquiski Tartt. Alexander has been out since week 8, Ford has played just 4 snaps since week 11, and Tartt has missed the past 4 games, so the 49ers are healthier now than they were at any point in the second half of the season, even with players like Ronald Blair and Weston Richburg out for the season. 

What works against the 49ers, however, is the lack of post-season experience from quarterback Jimmy Garroppolo, who is making his first career playoff start this week. The track record of quarterbacks making their first career post-season start against a more playoff experienced quarterback isn’t good, as they are 15-34-1 ATS since 2002, including 5-16 ATS and just 8-13 straight up as home favorites. Last week, first time starting quarterbacks went 1-2 ATS, with the only win being Ryan Tannehill, who barely had to do anything because of a run heavy game plan. The 49ers are a good running team, but will need a balanced attack to cover this 7-point spread against a solid Vikings team. In fact, even with the 49ers being healthier than they’ve been in months, I have this line calculated at just San Francisco -5.5, so we’re getting a little bit of line value with the Vikings as well.

That being said, I wouldn’t recommend betting on the Vikings. The common narrative is that Kirk Cousins destroyed the old common narrative that he couldn’t win against tough opponents by getting his first career post-season victory last week, but I think the old common narrative is still closer to the truth. It was never that Cousins couldn’t win against tough opponents, as last week’s win was his 8th victory over a team that entered with a winning record since 2015, but that’s compared to 21 losses, including a 4-10 record (4-9-1 ATS) since joining the Vikings before last season. 

One win shouldn’t change the narrative much when you look at years of data, especially since Cousins overall had a pretty average game last week and the Vikings offense was not the primary reason why they won, picking up first downs at a below average 33.78% rate. In fact, if the Saints had won the coin toss in overtime, the Vikings easily could have lost, in which case we’d still be hearing about how Cousins can’t win big games. The Vikings could definitely keep this game close, but it would surprise me if they were able to pull the upset for the second straight week.

San Francisco 49ers 24 Minnesota Vikings 19

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +7

Confidence: Low

Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles: 2019 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)

These two teams met in Philadelphia back in week 12, with the Seahawks winning a game that was 17-3 before a late Eagles touchdown cut it to a one score game. The conventional thinking is that the Seahawks shouldn’t have much trouble winning again in Philadelphia, but that historically has not been the case, as teams are 32-19 ATS over the past 30 years in same-site rematches against non-divisional opponents, including 15-5 ATS when the previous matchup was week 11 or later. 

The Eagles also played better than the final score suggested in that game, with the game largely swinging on the turnover margin, which the Seahawks won by 3. Outside of 3 snaps, the Eagles played the Seahawks evenly and might have actually outplayed them, winning the first down rate battle by 5.73%. Turnover margin is highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so the Eagles won’t necessarily lose the turnover battle this week just because they did in the previous matchup. In fact, teams have an average turnover margin of -0.1 in a same-season rematch against a team who won the turnover battle by 3 or more in the previous meeting.

The Eagles didn’t just win the first down rate battle in the first matchup either, as the Eagles finished with a higher first down rate differential at +1.97% on the season, as compared to -1.17% for the Seahawks. The Seahawks won two more games than the Eagles, but of the Seahawks’ 11 wins, all but one came by one score or fewer, including two wins because of last second missed makeable field goals. The Seahawks actually finished just 1-3 in games decided by more than one score. Close wins got them into the playoffs, but blowout wins tend to be much more predictive of future success than close wins. The Eagles had 3 wins by 17 points or more and finished with a higher point differential at +31 vs. +7.

The Eagles have some key injury absences, but that was the case in the first matchup as well. In fact, if both tight end Zach Ertz and right tackle Lane Johnson can play through their questionable labels, the Eagles might actually be in better injury shape in this game than in the previous matchup, as Johnson didn’t play in the first game, along with a number of other key players. The Seahawks, meanwhile, are missing left tackle Duane Brown, left guard Mike Iupati, running backs Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, and linebacker Mychal Kendricks from the first matchup. 

I’m somewhat concerned that this is Carson Wentz’s first career playoff start and teams are 14-32-1 ATS with a first time starter at quarterback, but the Eagles have plenty of playoff experience around Wentz on the roster and on the coaching staff, so they might end up being an exception to the rule like Pat Mahomes and Kansas City were last year. Even with Johnson and Ertz out, I have these two teams about even in my roster rankings, so I like the Eagles enough as 2.5-point home underdogs to bet them even if Ertz and Johnson can’t play, but if Ertz and/or Johnson are able to go, this will be a larger bet.

Update: Ertz is playing, but Lane Johnson is not. Johnson is the more important player so I am keeping this as a medium confidence pick.

Philadelphia Eagles 20 Seattle Seahawks 17 Upset Pick +115

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +2.5

Confidence: Medium

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints: 2019 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

The Vikings qualified for the post-season, but they finished the season just 1-4 against fellow playoff qualifiers, tied with the Bills for worst among playoff qualifiers. Their one win came against an Eagles team that only qualified because they play in the NFC East, while their losses came against the Packers twice, the Seahawks, and even the Matt Moore led Chiefs, back when Mahomes was sidelined with a knee injury. Making this even more concerning is Kirk Cousins’ well-documented struggles in big games. Cousins’ 7-15 record in primetime games (6-15-1 ATS) is well known, but his record in all games against teams with a winning record is even worse. 

Dating back to his first year as a starter in 2015, in games against teams entering with a winning record, excluding any games in week 3 or earlier when a team’s record might not mean much, Cousins’ teams are just 7-21, including just 3-10 since joining the Vikings. His ATS record of 10-17-1 ATS isn’t horrendous, but he’s just 3-9-1 ATS since joining the Vikings. There isn’t much to go off in terms of Cousins’ post-season history, as this is just his 2nd career playoff start, but it’s not a stretch to say his struggles against tough opponents will probably extend into the post-season and his lack of post-season experience could also work against him, facing a quarterback/head coach duo with 14 career playoff starts together in Drew Brees and Sean Payton.

In addition to having significant post-season experience, the Saints are also playing about as well as any team in the league right now. Since Drew Brees’ return from injury in week 8, the Saints rank 3rd in first down rate at 42.03% and 2nd in first down rate differential at +6.61. Their offense has been even better in recent weeks, with a 44.62% first down rate in their past 6 games and a 46.59% first down rate in their past 4 games, both best in the NFL over that stretch. 

It might seem improbable that the Saints can continue that rate going forward, but the Saints had a 43.48% first down rate last season in Brees’ 15 starts and at one point had a 45.69% first down rate through 11 games before slowing down late in the season, possibly due to an aging Drew Brees getting tired at the end of a 16-game season. This season, Brees’ injury may have been a blessing in disguise, as the missed time seems to have him fresher at the end of the season. Now fully past the injury, Brees seems to be heating up just in time for the playoffs. 

The Saints’ defense finished just 15th in first down rate allowed at 35.04% and they lost Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins, pair of key defensive linemen, with injury late in the season, but the Saints have more than enough on offense to compensate and they still have plenty of talent on defense. This line is pretty high at New Orleans -7.5, so there isn’t quite enough here to confidently bet on the Saints, especially since a Kirk Cousins backdoor cover seems somewhat likely, but New Orleans should be the right side.

New Orleans Saints 34 Minnesota Vikings 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7.5

Confidence: Low