NFL Playoffs by the odds: Vegas picks and preview of the wild-card round

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Lynne Sladky / AP

Buffalo Bills free safety Jordan Poyer (21) shows the ball after he intercepted a pass late in the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Bills defeated the Dolphins 22-16.

Thu, Jan 4, 2018 (2 a.m.)

Wild-Card Round: Falcons at Rams

Which side would you take in Atlanta at Los Angeles? (Poll consensus year to date: 8-8-1)

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Half of the field in the NFL Playoffs is a surprise based on preseason expectations. A quarter of the field is borderline miraculous.

The Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars were among the longest shots in the league to reach the postseason by the odds at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook over the summer. The Bills were plus-700 (risking $1 to win $7) to reach the postseason for the first time in 18 years, with the Rams at plus-600 and the Jaguars at plus-350.

The other three teams that defied the odds were the Philadelphia Eagles (plus-130), Minnesota Vikings (plus-145) and New Orleans Saints (plus-220).

The most disappointing playoff absentees are the Seattle Seahawks, which were minus-450 (risking $4.50 to win $1) to make it for the sixth straight year, and Green Bay Packers, minus-350.

The presence of all the interlopers means that this NFL season was driven by more parity than the past couple of years. Will that continue in the playoffs?

There are certainly some opportunities for upheaval in the wild-card round, where every spread is right around a touchdown.

Read below to find Talking Points’ picks and preview of the wild card round. The blog finished the regular season with a 141-107-7 against the spread record picking every game, including 34-16 on “plays”, 42-38-5 on “leans” and 65-53-2 on “guesses”. The picks below are labeled with the same confidence categories.

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs, 1:20 p.m. Saturday on ESPN

The line: Chiefs minus-9 The Titans broke through to achieve the goal they’ve chased the last two years in making the playoffs, and to show for it, they’re the biggest underdog they’ve been during the span. Tennessee hasn’t come into a game getting more than a touchdown on the betting line since a week 15 matchup with New England in 2015. The number wasn’t always this high. The Chiefs opened as low as a 7-point favorite locally, at CG Technologies, before immediately getting bet up. They’ve been the most popular side out of all four wild-card round games early in the week.

The matchup: This all would have played out much differently a month ago. That’s when Kansas City was on a four-game shined, and at danger of slipping out of a playoff picture it appeared to etch itself in with a 5-0 straight-up and against the spread start to the season. They were only laying 4 points at home to the Raiders back then, with scant possibility that they’d shortly be giving double that number in a playoff game. Kansas City, of course, stabilized to win and cover their last four starting with the aforementioned Oakland game behind rookie Kareem Hunt reasserting himself en route to the NFL rushing title.

Tennessee can stop the run, though. It’s fourth in the NFL in giving up 3.6 yards per play behind Pro Bowl-caliber seasons from veterans Jurrell Casey and Wesley Woodyard. They haven’t exactly been gangbusters in most other areas. Unlike the Chiefs, the Titans sputtered to the end of the season. Although they’re 3-1 against the spread in their last four games, they went only 1-3 straight-up. The lone win was a 15-10 escape against the Jaguars, which had nothing to play for, last week as 2.5-point favorites. Tennessee had its moments this season, including blowing out those same Jaguars week 3. The problem with both of these teams then is consistency. Kansas City and Tennessee rank 21st and 23rd, respectively, in variance by Football Outsiders’ metric. Only one of them is being asked to lay close to double digits.

The pick: Titans plus-9 (play)

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams, 5:15 p.m. Saturday on NBC

The line: Rams minus-6 Here’s another testament to how much things change throughout the year. Coming into the season, only six teams had lower future odds to win the Super Bowl than the Falcons, which were offered at 14-to-1 at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook. Only five teams were higher than the Rams, which were listed at 100-to-1. No one would have envisioned a scenario where Los Angeles was laying points to Atlanta in January. Let alone laying points and drawing the action. The early move has gone in the Rams’ direction, as they opened as low as minus-5 and now sit as high as minus-6.5.

The matchup: It’s no great mystery as to why bettors are loading up on the Rams: They’re a whole heck of a lot better. And not just better than the Falcons; the Rams are power-rated as the top team in the NFC. They would lay points at top-seed Philadelphia right now, though that matchup can't happen until the NFC Championship Game. They wouldn’t be favored in a potential divisional-round game at Minnesota, but Los Angeles was only a 1-point underdog there earlier this season — two points below the standard adjustment for home-field advantage. Atlanta’s not going to be favored in any game during these playoffs. That doesn’t mean it can’t win. Although the Falcons’ offense took a significant step back this season — from 6.7 yards per play a year ago to 5.9 currently — they’re still explosive enough to threaten any team.

Receiver Julio Jones is of particular concern, especially when it comes to the Rams. Although much of the Rams’ resurgence has come behind defensive stars like Aaron Donald and Alec Ogeltree, they have no true standout in the secondary. Jones won’t be paired with a shutdown corner Saturday night at the Coliseum. He’s still likely to see double teams and other wrinkles — perhaps unexpected ones with likely defense coordinator of the year Wade Phillips at the helm for Los Angeles — that have been sufficient for other opponents this season. Jones is having a modest season by his standards, with 1,444 yards and three touchdowns. He’s also banged up with multiple injuries and hasn’t practiced this week. Jones will play, but likely not at his best. The Falcons as a team have rarely played at their best this season, which includes double-digit losses and non-covers in both previous times they were underdogs.

The pick: Rams minus-6 (lean)

Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars, 10:05 a.m. Sunday on CBS

The line: Jaguars minus-8 There have been as many gamblers congregated to bet on the Jaguars than there were Bills fans gathered to welcome the team home last Sunday after they clinched a playoff berth for the first time in 18 years. Jacksonville is reportedly drawing three-fourths of the tickets so far, making the spread climb as much as 1.5 points from its opening number of 7.5. The last time the Jaguars were favored by this many points in the playoffs was the same year of the Bills’ last appearance. They were 8.5-point favorites ahead of unceremoniously destroying the Dolphins 62-7 in Dan Marino’s final game. This game is only the third time out of 12 franchise playoff games that oddsmakers have favored the Jaguars.

The matchup: Bettors obviously aren’t going to be able to use the teams’ playoff histories as handicapping fodder for this game, which is probably all for the better. Past playoff performance is not typically indicative of future success, particularly from a betting standpoint. Focusing on this season alone, the Bills seem to be in trouble. Because of the Jaguars’ struggles in recent seasons, they appeared to be unfairly dismissed and undervalued for the majority of the season. Truth is, they’re one of the best teams in the league. The Jaguars were tied for the NFL’s third best point different — behind only the Patriots and Eagles. The Bills, meanwhile, join the Titans as the only teams with a negative point differential to reach the postseason. Buffalo’s minus-57 scoring margin on the season is the worst for a team advancing to the playoffs since the 2010 Seattle Seahawks.

And, the worst part is, the Bills regressed as the season went on. They were near the top of the league in yards per play allowed while starting the year 5-2 straight-up and 4-1-1 against the spread before injuries piled up and they eventually traded Marcell Dareus to the Jaguars. Dareus finds it, “ironic as hell”, that he’ll now face the Bills. He’s certainly bolstered Jacksonville, as it finished the season with the top-rated defense in the league by Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings. The Jaguars were solid on offense too behind an unexpectedly decent season from quarterback Blake Bortles, who’s right around league average in most efficiency statistics. The Bills have their own underrated signal caller in Tyrod Taylor, though perhaps he’s more properly appreciated after the Nathan Peterman debacle. Either quarterback is capable of breaking what seems to be a curse for their franchise. The one playing at home just has a lot more around him.

The pick: Jaguars minus-8 (guess)

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints, 1:40 p.m. Sunday on Fox

The line: Saints minus-7 The wild-card round finale has been the same as the other three games at sports books. The point spread is rising, not falling. Although bettors haven’t backed the Saints quite to the extent of the Chiefs or Jaguars, they’ve still gone from a 6- to a 7-point favorite over the last four days. That’s nothing new for the Saints, which regained their standing as one of the most popularly-bet teams this year after a hiatus that lasted a few seasons.

The matchup: The wild-card finale is much different than the weekend’s other three games in one key handicapping aspect: There are prior matchups between these two teams to consider. None of the other first-round opponents even played once this year whereas the Saints and Panthers, as NFC South rivals, have faced off twice. And it’s gone well for neither the Panthers nor those who bet on them. New Orleans outscored Carolina by a combined 31 points, and were pretty much covering throughout the entirety of each game. The Panthers had a chance at a backdoor cover a month ago in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome but the Saints held on for a 31-21 win as 5.5-point favorites. In Charlotte, the Panthers went up 3-0 before getting blown out the rest of the way to lose 34-13 as 5.5-point favorites in week 3.

Take away those games, and the two teams look pretty even, at least on the surface. They’re both 11-5 straight-up, 9-7 against the spread. They both are among the best in the league on one side of the ball — offense for New Orleans, defense for Carolina — and average to mediocre on the other. But the Panthers haven’t been great against the pass, and Saints quarterback Drew Brees has repeatedly taken advantage. The Saints have covered six straight in the series, dating back to the Panthers’ 15-1 straight-up year that culminated in a Super Bowl appearance. But they’ve never been this big of a favorite against the Panthers during the span, and in fact, hadn’t been favored at all until the aforementioned December game. Led by edge rushers Mario Addison and Julius Peppers, Carolina rates third in the NFL in sack rate. The Panthers haven’t replicated that pressure against Brees this year, but that could be as much an anomaly than a reflection on the matchup with the Saints’ solid offensive line.

The pick: Panthers plus-7 (guess)

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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