The NFL playoffs are upon us, and with the exception of one first-round game, the oddsmakers foresee a weekend of close games — or, at least, they think that we betting squares see it that way.
That’s an important distinction to keep in mind when wagering. The oddsmakers don’t necessarily set lines based on their analysis of how games will play out on the field; they set lines based on how they think the public at large will bet.
Our goal — at least mine, anyway — is to bet where we think there’s a discrepancy.
As for my exact process in making picks, well, that’s tricky. I wrote up and tracked my picks over at my blog this season, going 28-22-2 for the year, but I’d be lying if I said that I have a tried-and-true formula that could guarantee consistent winners.
Objectivity is always the gold standard, but that is an incredibly difficult undertaking for a couple reasons. First, it’s nearly impossible to achieve, and even if one could, we all know anything can happen on any given Sunday.
That aside, for the good, hard-boiled stats, I usually refer to Football Outsiders — the folks over there eschew the frequently misleading, fluffy numbers in favor of some pretty advanced, weighted metrics.
There, I can see how my perception of a team aligns with the statistical reality, and I also like to investigate whether a team is particularly strong or weak in any phase of the game and how those strengths and weaknesses portend for that week’s foe.
Finally, I tack on all the contextual, subjective stuff that is worth considering but hard to quantify — injuries, home or away, coaching, etc.
On with the the picks …
(Notes: Betting lines retrieved from bookmaker.com on Tuesday at 1 p.m. ET. My picks are in bold) …
Saints (-10.5) at Seahawks
In this, the year of parity in the NFL, it stands to reason that there’s only one obvious mismatch on Wild Card weekend. With the exception of special teams, the Seahawks don’t do anything well, but it’s hard to imagine that lone advantage keeping them in this game.
Seattle is literally one of the worst teams to ever make the playoffs, and although the Saints aren’t as good as they were last year, when they won the Super Bowl, they’re not far off. Expect Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense to shred the Seahawks’ porous secondary.
Jets (+2.5) at Colts
This is the toughest game to handicap of the weekend’s slate. A lot of folks chide the Jets’ penchant for eking out close wins against so-so teams, but the fact is that they finished with 11 wins against one of the five-toughest schedules in the NFL (per Football Outsiders).
Lost in the Rex Ryan foot-fetish fiasco the past couple weeks was the markedly improved play of one Mark Sanchez, who arguably had his best performances of the season against two of the stronger defenses he faced in Pittsburgh and Chicago. Indy’s defense ain’t up to snuff with either of those.
Of course, the Colts have a guy named Peyton Manning dishing the rock on the other side — you might have heard of him. He’ll get his against Gang Green’s defense, which is an especially scary proposition because it’s spotty in the secondary.
But if the D can limit the damage, this one is for the taking. I like the Jets to control the clock by pounding the ball and making high-percentage passes with Sanchez, and don’t be surprised if they break a big play on special teams — they’re among the best in the league in that department, while Indy may literally be the worst.
There are better plays to be had out there, but if you have to make a pick, always take the points when one is as tough to call as this.
Ravens (-3) at Chiefs
The trendy contrarians are siding with the Chiefs here, thinking it prudent to take the three-point home underdog. The majority of time, I follow suit with that sort of logic, but there are some strong bits of context to consider here.
What was the Chiefs’ strongest win this year? I suppose it came in Week 1 against the horrifically coached Chargers and rain-phobic Philip Rivers. After that? Was it the 49ers, Browns, Rams or Titans? Either way, you get the point: Kansas City played an extremely easy schedule.
Also consider that the Chiefs’ defense finished up at No. 28 (of 32 teams) in Football Outsiders’ weighted rankings, and we’re beginning to see a picture of a team that’s pretty vulnerable — never mind that they lost to the Raiders twice.
So, what was their saving grace? Well, the easy schedule certainly didn’t hurt, but Matt Cassel was also exceedingly efficient, and running back Jamaal Charles (6.7 yards per carry) was spectacular. The trouble is, Charles is the victim of Todd Haley’s dubious coaching, carrying the ball 15 fewer times than — shall we call him industrious(?) — Thomas Jones (3.7 ypc).
Baltimore, meanwhile, hummed along pretty quietly despite collecting 12 wins. NFL games frequently are decided by a play or two, so there’s no mulligans here, but the Ravens lost their four games (three to playoff teams) by a combined 16 points. As for rush defense, Football Outsiders ranks them at No. 5 in the league. If they can stop Charles, Kansas City has no chance.
Three is a relatively small number for a really good team to concede, if even on the road.
Packers (+3) at Eagles
Ah, my favorite pick of the weekend. Allow me to extol the virtues of the Pack. They are, in my estimation, as good as any NFC team in the playoffs (again, there’s that whole parity thing again).
The Packers’ 10-6 record is misleading. They gave away their Week 3 loss to the Bears with turnovers and penalties. They lost two games in which quarterback Aaron Rodgers was concussed (to the Redskins and Lions). They narrowly lost to the Patriots with backup QB Matt Flynn subbing for the injured Rodgers, and they fell to the Falcons on a last-second field goal. Not shabby.
Along the way, Green Bay beat three playoff teams, including — you guessed it — these Eagles in Week 1. Philly, of course, was a different team then — Kevin Kolb was the starting quarterback, not Michael Vick.
The threat of the Eagles pounding the Packers’ smallish defensive front into oblivion does worry me, but I’m compelled to side with Rodgers and the better all-around defense.