Betting on the Wild Card Round

The 2017-’18 NFL season was the strangest in my lifetime. The way history will remember it is The Year Of The Protest, even though the exact meaning of the protests got perverted as the season progressed. The way I will remember it is the year my favorite team, the Chiefs, started 5-0, somehow lost 6 of their next 7, and finished 10-6.

Kansas City’s ups and downs are merely a footnote in the year. They somehow managed to beat the top seed in each respective conference — the Patriots (in New England) and the Eagles (when they had a healthy Carson Wentz) — and also somehow managed to lose to the Raiders, Giants, and Jets by a combined 11 points. Had a few plays gone the other direction, the Chiefs could have easily finished the year with 13 wins.

It’s not my style to dwell on what-ifs with my sports teams, mainly because the reality is just as interesting. I can scratch my head at the confounding losses, but it’s just as easy to do the same with some of the games Kansas City were fortunate to win. The Chiefs are a franchise that juxtaposes a fairly rich football history with being known almost exclusively as an underachiever. This season, particularly, highlights both ends of that spectrum.

With that said, there’s a lot of upside to being an underdog. The Chiefs roster might be the most talented top-to-bottom in their last 20 years (since I’ve followed) — especially on offense — and yet every major media personality I pay attention to more or less believes it’s the same story as always: Maybe (or probably) Kansas City gets by the Titans in the Wild Card Round. But in no way will they win on the road in Pittsburgh or New England in Round Two.

Here is what I think is the immediate best-case scenario for the Chiefs:

  1. Defeat Tennessee (9-7) on Saturday.
  2. Root for the Bills (9-7) to beat the Jaguars (10-6) in the 3 vs. 6 game on Sunday.
  3. Play at 2-seed Pittsburgh (13-3) next week instead of at 1-seed New England (13-3).

How likely is this scenario? Not very. To pick this exact outcome in a two-team parlay, with the Chiefs (-420) and Bills (+310) both winning, a $100 bet would net you $406.50. That’s about 4:1, the equivalent of flipping a coin and having it land specifically on heads twice in a row. Not impossible by any stretch, but also not likely.

My philosophy during the NFL playoffs is pretty basic: I will take the team with the better quarterback 9 times out of 10, and in situations where the quarterback play is roughly equal — i.e. the likely matchup between the Patriots and Steelers in the AFC Championship — I will roll with whoever has the better head coach. So it makes sense why I like the Patriots to go to the Super Bowl every year.

This weekend there are four playoff games — the 4 vs. 5 and 3 vs. 6 matchups — and below are how I see them playing out from a gambling perspective:

Saturday

[4] Kansas City Chiefs (-9) over [5] Tennessee Titans

Titans quarterback Marcus Marriota seems like the only thing that should matter here, right? If Marriota has a Superman game then the Titans could very easily upset the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium. Unfortunately, that’s not the question. I’m not asking whether or not Marcus Marriota is capable of having a Superman game; I’m asking if it’s more likely that happens than not.

If Vegas is any barometer to this equation, it would be reflected in the moneyline (the straight-up winner). Right now they have the Titans at +310 to win the game outright, which is a dime better than 3-to-1 odds. Simply, Las Vegas believes a Marcus Marriota Superman game happens about 33% of the time. Since I like math so much, I’m going to rely on the comforts of statistical probability with this one, even though as a Chiefs fan I’m conditioned to prepare myself for some catastrophic letdown.

Score prediction: Chiefs 36, Titans 17

(5) Atlanta Falcons (+6) over [4] Los Angeles Rams

I’m really conflicted with the Rams. It doesn’t have anything to do with their football team, because I think the football team is really fucking good. It’s just, I’m not supposed to like any of my local teams. I’ve never really been into any of the major Southern California sports franchises, except maybe the Dodgers. (How can you root against the Dodgers?) This list goes on: The Angels, Padres, Chargers. None of those teams have ever done a damn thing for me.

But then there’s the Rams, who have a cool young coach. They have Todd Gurley, who is awesome. They have a second-year quarterback who hasn’t done anything I can truly knock him for. Their defense is talented and fast. Oh my god. I think I love the Rams. 

But to pick the Rams over the Falcons would go against my playoff philosophy, which I already told you is basic. You can cut out the fact that the Rams had the better season; you can dismiss that Los Angeles is playing at home. Alas, it all comes down to quarterback play. And you are giving me Matt Ryan — who had a pretty average season, but has played in two NFC Championships and a Super Bowl — against Jared Goff — who has never participated in an NFL playoff game — and the needle seems to tilt ever slightly in the direction that Atlanta can cover a six-point spread.

I think the Rams will win, but it’s more of an emotional pick. If I’m betting my precious, hard-earned greenbacks, I like the Falcons and the six points.

Score Prediction: Rams 26, Falcons 24

Sunday

[3] Jacksonville Jaguars (-9) over [6] Buffalo Bills

Games like this are where my playoff philosophy goes to die. I told you what I do when there’s a good quarterback vs. a lesser quarterback, and I also told you what I do when there’s a good quarterback vs. another good quarterback. But what about the situation where both quarterbacks kind of stink? Enter: Jaguars and Bills.

Buffalo QB Tyrod Taylor will always be one of my favorites. He was a sophomore at Virginia Tech when I was a freshman, and he’s responsible for many happy football memories, including this beauty in the final minute against Nebraska in 2009:

The thing is, the Bills just aren’t a good football team. And Tyrod Taylor doesn’t have the talent at wide receiver or running back (since LeSean McCoy is injured) to do much damage against Jacksonville — who boast the league’s number one-ranked defense according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

It’s kind of amazing that the Jaguars are 9-point favorites in this matchup, because it’s not like their offense is anything spectacular. I thought it’d be a given that I would pick against Blake Bortles — the embattled Jaguars quarterback — during the Wild Card Round. But here we are, and Bortles is up against Buffalo: perhaps the only Wild Card contender he would be expected to beat.

Score prediction: Jaguars 24, Bills 13

[6] Carolina Panthers (+7) over [3] New Orleans Saints

The Saints beat the Panthers twice this year. On September 24th Carolina was a 5.5-point favorite and ended up losing in blowout fashion, 34-13. On December 3rd, the Panthers were a 6-point underdog on the road, and ended up losing 31-21. Common logic dictates that the Saints are clearly the better team. They have the more polished quarterback (Drew Brees) and are playing on their home field.

And still, I like the Panthers to cover this spread — if not win the game outright. My reasoning is simple: It’s supposed to be difficult psychologically to beat the same team three times in one season. It’s supposed to be, but it isn’t, necessarily. According to Elias, “Thirteen out of 20 times since the league merger in 1970 the team that won two regular-season games went on to win the playoff game.” In other words, 13-7. Sixty-five percent.

That has more to do with the moneyline than how I am picking it, against the spread. To win this bet I don’t need the Panthers to win; I just need them to lose by less than 7 points.

Carolina is probably the NFC equivalent of the Kansas City Chiefs. They won some games against teams clearly better than them, like the Patriots and Vikings, and appeared disinterested half the time. In the playoffs, though, it really matters. And if the Panthers play to their abilities, I could actually see them winning this game. Assuming they have some payback on their mind, I bank on this to be a one-possession game throughout, which is why I like Carolina plus the seven points.

Score prediction: Saints 23, Panthers 20

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