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Divisional Round - Vegas Lines, Over/Under Picks & Predictions


There is no such thing as a bad weekend of football, but the Wild Card round felt like it featured a handful of teams that were either afraid to lose or just wanted the clock to strike zero. The Dallas Cowboys versus Seattle Seahawks highlighted two organizations that flat out did not want to make a mistake. The Cowboys outgained the Seahawks in yards 380-299, but if it weren't for a 16-yard scamper by Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott on 3rd and 14 from the Seattle 17-yard line, the Seahawks would have had a chance to steal the game with about two minutes left. That is to take nothing away from a Dallas run scheme that dominated Seattle all evening, but a lack of aggressiveness in the vertical passing game almost cost the Cowboys a chance at the Los Angeles Rams this weekend. The Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers fell into the latter of the two mistakes mentioned. Both teams took their foot off the gas midway through their respective games, which forced each to survive late. The Colts didn't have to endure quite the same scare as the Chargers did, but neither team will be able to cruise to the finish line during the Divisional Round if they want to make the AFC Championship game.

And the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears fell into their own category. Neither quarterback was great in the contest, but both made the throws when they needed them most. Nick Foles finished 25-for-40, throwing for 266 yards, two interceptions, and two touchdowns. The numbers are respectable against a staunch Bears defense, but it was his touchdown throw with 56 seconds left on 4th and goal from the Chicago two-yard line that ended up being the winning score. An incredible kickoff return from Tarik Cohen placed the Bears on their own 42-yard line, and they proceeded to advance to the Philadelphia 25 yard-line with 15 seconds left after two Mitchell Trubisky passes to Allen Robinson were successful. Unfortunately, however, Chicago kicker Cody Parkey struck the uprights for the fifth time this season, missing what would have been the game-winning kick. In a story that hasn't been reported much by the media at the time of writing this, Eagles defensive tackle Treyvon Hester tipped the kick and changed its direction. It won't make Parkey feel any better or save his job, but other factors did come into play on the missed attempt.

There are a lot of moving pieces to begin any NFL week, so I will update this article as pertinent information comes to light. Without further ado, let's jump right into the NFL Divisional round.

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Indianapolis Colts vs. Kansas City Chiefs (-4.5): O/U 53.5

After passing the test against a stingy Houston defense, the Indianapolis Colts head back on the road to take on the explosive Kansas City Chiefs offense. The spread opened between -4 and -4.5 at the majority of books but has already risen around a point, currently settling in between -5 or -5.5 at the time of writing this article. The sixth-seeded Colts are (11-6) straight up on the year and (9-7-1) against the spread. However, they are (10-1) straight up in their last 11 games and (7-3-1) against the number. On the other hand, the Chiefs finished the regular season with a (12-4) record, going (9-6-1) against the spread.

Early bet splits have told two completely different stories on this game. While the number continues to rise on the Chiefs, most books haven't taken much money on the home team yet. A lot of the liability is on the Colts for the casinos, so why have we seen this number continue to climb? And where can we expect this to go by kickoff? I think there is a possibility that public money can keep this number steady, but I would be shocked if we don't see this get to around -6.5 or -7.0 by the time Saturday rolls around. Sharp money will eventually flood the market, and that should slightly outweigh what the public is doing.

Indianapolis faces a tall task of being asked to go on the road three weeks in a row to advance to the AFC Championship. Their Week 17 game in Tennessee can be considered a virtual playoff game since it was a win or go home situation for both themselves and the Titans, and it takes a lot of energy, both mentally and physically, to get ramped up for three huge contests.

Most people that are backing the Colts see a team that won nine of their last 10 regular season games after beginning the year 1-5. And while there is no doubt that the Colts are improved and healthy, there is an underlying story worth mentioning. If you exclude the first six weeks of the season for Indianapolis, they have faced the easiest schedule of opposing offenses and the leagues easiest schedule in passing attacks. In those games, the Colts ranked 19th in success rate against the pass.

Indianapolis plays zone on defense about 75 percent of the time, and there are a few things that can break apart that style. A speedy wide receiver to stretch the field would be one. Tyreek Hill is most likely the fastest player in the NFL, so the Chiefs have that handled easily. The second thing would be a versatile tight end. Athletic tight ends that can cause mismatches are a killer to the zone. Travis Kelce is arguably the most diverse and skillful player at the position. And last, but not least, a quarterback comfortable in play-action situations. Patrick Mahomes operates out of play-action 27 percent of the time, averaging 8.6 yards per play. Both of those two statistics equate to top-five in the league.

The Colts do have an outside chance in the game if they can control the tempo with the run and take the lead early, but I think the spread and over/under bets somewhat coincide with each other this week. It doesn't mean that both necessarily come in together, but if you like the Colts, it does seem more likely that the game would land under the total. It is a little more tricky when it comes to the over, but I have a hard time imagining that the Colts will be able to stop the Chiefs at all during the game.

Prediction: Chiefs 38 – Colts 24 

Recommended Picks: Chiefs (-4.5), Over 53.5

I placed a wager on the Chiefs at -4.5 when this number first opened. I think the over/under should continue to rise throughout the week but could see the spread bouncing around for a few days. Eventually, sharp money should get this pushed up to about -6.5 and 58.5 by the time Saturday rolls around. I would be willing to take the Chiefs at anything under -7.0, but I think some expected value does get sucked out of the bet once we cross into the key number of a touchdown.

*** Update to the original spread and total. Four to six inches of snow is expected in the forecast for the game. Most major NFL publications are building up this weather narrative. The spread and total are dropping because of this information. Wind is still only expected to be around 10 MPH, and I don't think the weather has as big of an impact as it is being made out to be. If anything, we might be in a spot where can get even more value than we had before on the wagers.

 

Dallas Cowboys vs. Los Angeles Rams (-7.0): O/U 49.5

It took just about everything that the Dallas Cowboys had to survive the Seattle Seahawks during the Wild Card round, which could help explain what appears to be a rather large spread of seven points for the Divisional Round on Saturday. Dallas, the NFC's No. 4 seed, has won eight of its last nine games straight up and are (6-3) against the spread during that period. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams got a stress-free weekend during the opening round of the Playoffs after capturing the No. 2 seed, finishing (13-3) on the year but just (7-8-1) against the spread.

Early numbers have held somewhat steady on this game so far, despite the public taking the Cowboys to begin the week. It seems likely that the casinos will hold off as long as they can when it comes to moving this number from +7 to +6.5, but if they do decide they want some buyback from sharp bettors, there is a possibility that we see this price drop a half point later in the week. However, I'd anticipate a quick recovery to seven if it does indeed fall.

Similar to the Kansas City and Indianapolis game, there is a stylistic approach that both teams will need to take to be successful. The Rams enter the week as the second-ranked offense in efficiency and feature a top-five passing and rushing unit. Defensively, they grade out 15th in efficiency, even though they are only ranked 28th against the run. As for the Cowboys, they enter the week 23rd in offensive efficiency but grade out 13th in offensive success rate rushing and third in power success on the ground. Their defense isn't quite as stout as they are made out to be, but they do feature the NFL's fifth most efficient rushing defense.

It is somewhat surprising that the Cowboys haven't graded out better than they have this season running the football with their husky offensive line and top-five running back Ezekiel Elliott, but if Dallas wants to have any chance in this game, they will need to keep it competitive early. That would allow them to control the tempo of the contest and keep the Rams offense off the field.

I talked about how the Cowboys passing offense has been rejuvenated since the acquisition of Amari Cooper during last week's article, and while that remains true, they still only rank 26th on the year in passing efficiency and 18th in offensive success rate passing. As mentioned above, the Rams struggle against the run but have been a top-10 defense this season in both success rate and efficiency against the pass.

Seven is a tricky number, but it seems like one of those situations that if the Cowboys can't keep this competitive early, this game has blowout potential written all over it. Dallas allows 49 percent of passes to grade out successfully, ranking them 27th in the league and could be in for a long day on both sides of the ball if they fall behind in the first quarter. I think there is some value on the under from where the number currently stands, but it is very minimal. Todd Gurley's health should be monitored, but it appears likely that he will be ready to go.

Prediction: Rams 27 – Cowboys 17

Recommended Picks: Rams (-7.0), Under 49.5

I am in a spot that requires me to select the game based on where the number currently is located, but I would wait for the chance that we could grab -6.5. The line is much more likely to go down than go up in the next few days, and jumping into the market and grabbing seven doesn't make any sense at this moment. If you felt inclined to get involved at this very second, I do think there is some value in the Rams being included in a two-team six-point teaser.

 

Los Angeles Chargers vs. New England Patriots (-4.0): O/U 47

The Los Angeles Chargers held a 23-3 lead with nine minutes left in the Wild Card round against the Baltimore Ravens but were forced to survive late due to some conservative play-calling. Including the playoffs, the Chargers are (13-4) straight up on the year and (10-7) against the spread. New England, as usual, had a first-round bye to begin the playoffs and enter the Divisional Round with an (11-5) record on the season to go along with a (9-7) mark against the spread.

The game opened at five points around the industry but has fallen to four at the time of writing this article. Early bets show a 64/36 split in favor of the Chargers, and that could help to explain the one-point movement we have seen early in the week. The over/under has dropped a half point itself, even though bet splits are about 50/50 on the game. It is difficult to anticipate where this line will go since both teams are rather public this year, but it does seem to be slowly decreasing for now. I'd assume Patriots money will hit the market at some point, and it will be interesting to see what happens once it does.

In my opinion, this is one of the most challenging games to handicap. The math will point to the Chargers being the right side, but the personnel advantages, experience and home-field advantage should favor the Patriots. I think these two units are more similar than they are different on the playing field, so these advantages that the Patriots have could loom a little larger than usual.

The two teams rank inside the top-13 when it comes to defensive efficiency and inside the top-4 in offensive effectiveness. Each struggles to defend the run, grading out 22nd and 24th in success rate against the rush. And both teams allow only 45 percent of passes to grade out successfully, placing them seventh and eighth best in the league.

Home-field advantage is a difficult metric to value in the playoffs because each situation is different, but the Patriots at home could very well be worth an additional four points, and if you assume the two teams are dead even on a neutral field, the current line of four points would be spot on in value. If you begin to decrease some of the weight attached to New England playing at home, you see where the math starts to favor the Chargers as being the right side, even if just be a slight margin.

I think you are looking at around a one-score game for the majority of the contest, but Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn is in way over his head against Bill Belichick and could find his conservative play-calling to be the teams undoing. Los Angeles running back Melvin Gordon is dealing with two sprained knees after injuring his left knee early in the Ravens game. His right knee cost him time during the latter part of the season, and it is going to be a difficult task for him to be effective with all his ailments. The Chargers most logical path to victory would probably constitute them setting the tempo with their running game and controlling the clock. The issue is that with Gordon at much less than 100 percent, the Chargers will most likely still try to implement that same game-plan, creating a stagnant and negative game flow if they can't progress the football.

Prediction: Patriots 27– Chargers 20

Recommended Picks: Patriots (-3.5 or -4.0), Over/Under Spot-on

I lean towards the under still being the right side but would prefer to grab a number higher than 47 if I was placing a wager. It is an extremely difficult game to handicap all together and might be one that I avoid entirely. Still, though, I think the Patriots will find a way to win and cover, most likely due to egregious coaching mistakes from Anthony Lynn.

*** Some -3.5's have entered the fray. It is possible that Patriots money does begin to trickle into the market now. It is hard to imagine that New England would drop to -3, so this could be the best Patriots number that we see all week.

 

Philadelphia Eagles vs. New Orleans Saints (-8.0): O/U 51.0

The Philadelphia Eagles kept their magical run alive on Sunday against the Chicago Bears, winning 16-15 after a last-second field goal attempt by Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey bounced off both the upright and the crossbar. With the victory, the Eagles increased their straight-up record to (10-7) on the year but are only (8-9) against the spread. New Orleans put together the NFL's best regular-season record at (13-3), earning the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye in the NFC. The Saints managed to come through for bettors almost all season, going (10-6) against the number.

The spread has pinballed around this week, but it is currently residing at eight points at the majority of sportsbooks. Most of the initial action has come in on the Eagles, which is why we see this price currently trending towards the lower end of the spectrum, but it is hard for me to imagine that we don't see this begin to trickle back up again. As Saints money starts to hit the market, we should notice this quickly moved up to -9 or -9.5. The reason for that perceived movement would have a lot to do with the prevention of people playing teasers on the Saints. I would think most places would want to limit the amount of action they take on New Orleans getting teased below a field goal, and -9 or -9.5 takes away all those six-point teasers from going below three points.

During the last three starts of the regular season, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles transformed the offense away from their run-first mentality and into one of the more efficient passing attacks. They held a 48 percent passing success rate from Weeks 15-17, good for 11th best in the league and increased their explosive passing by over one percent, rising from 21st overall to 10th.

The issue when breaking down statistics from a short duration of time is that some incongruities can start forming. Foles beat a Washington Redskins team in Week 17 that had nothing to play for and a Texans team that was trending towards being the worst passing defense in the NFL between Week's 14-17. The Rams performance does deserve some credit, but all three scores were from running the football, and as we described earlier, the Rams are ranked just 28th in efficiency against the run.

The Saints are a little leaky at times with their secondary, but they as the third-ranked rushing defense in efficiency and allow only 45 percent of runs to grade out successfully, good for eighth best in the league. They are middle of the pack in forcing turnovers, creating 24 on the year, but they are opportunistic and seem to be more aggressive at home. The Saints have forced 57.8 percent of their fumbles and 58.3 percent of their interceptions inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

However, aside from all the givens of where Philadelphia could or should struggle, the most significant liability remains their pass defense. Their winning streak has masked the fact that they are grading out 30th in the league from Week's 11-17 in success rate against the pass, allowing 7.6 yards per attempt. The Superdome is a quick building to play inside, and the already suspect secondary should get lit up by Drew Brees and company. I don't like pinpointing the game in Week 11 that saw the Saints beat the Eagles 48-7 at home, but I do not see there being some massive difference with Nick Foles under center instead of Carson Wentz. I doubt we are looking at a 41-point encore, but this has the chance to get ugly again.

Prediction: Saints 34– Eagles 17

Recommended Picks: Saints (-8.0), Spot-on

The total appears to be pretty well set at 51 and will be a tough market to enter, regardless of which side you like. 51 is a key number, and I would monitor where the market moves in the next few days. I think the Saints make a compelling case to be added to a two-team six-point teaser, assuming this number is below -9.0 at the time of placing the wager. In general, I might do one or two teasers a year, but this is a nice card to attack in that fashion. I'd most likely add the Rams -7 or the Chiefs -5 as my second leg of that bet.

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