NFL Best Bets: Wild Card Round

For what it’s worth, I can say I finished the 2020 NFL season with a record above .500 against the spread. I can also say I made my fantasy league championship game (before getting blown out because my opponent had Alvin Kamara but that’s besides the point). Those things are fine, but what I really care about is what got me into watching and following football in the first place: The Kansas City Chiefs.

They, along with the Green Bay Packers in the NFC, will not be playing on Wild Card weekend, as they are the only two teams in the NFL who earned a BYE in the first round of the playoffs. Other than that, I’ll be picking every other game on the slate.

Last week ATS: 3-1

Overall ATS: 31-29-3

1. Indianapolis Colts (+6.5) at Buffalo Bills

I like this number better at Colts +7, but that doesn’t deter me from my overall message: Indy is a live dog and can absolutely pull off the upset in this matchup.

The Bills are receiving an avalanche of love from the media, and I won’t try to dismiss their exceptional 9-1 record over their last ten games. Their point differential in those contests is a remarkable +136 (+13.6 points per). But do I have to be the asshole to remind everyone just which teams they have so comfortably been dominating?

Week 7: Jets
Week 8: Patriots
Week 9: Seahawks
Week 10: Cardinals
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: Chargers
Week 13: 49ers
Week 14: Steelers
Week 15: Broncos
Week 16: Patriots
Week 17: Dolphins

Credit the Bills for beating the teams in front of them, but the math is pretty basic. Only 3 of these 9 wins came against teams with records above .500 (Seahawks, Steelers, Dolphins), and only two came against teams that made an expanded playoff field (Seahawks, Steelers). No one denies how good they are or how impressive their wins have been. All I’m asking is: what can they do when the lights are bright, and when the competition is strong? That’s what they have to prove over the next month, and that’s ultimately what will define their season.

The Colts got the 7-seed in the AFC, but they aren’t some upstart franchise who’s just happy to be here. They have a quarterback with experience — I think he’s like a hundred years old — and a head coach that has shown up in big games as a coordinator (in winning a Super Bowl with a backup QB with the Eagles), and whose only career loss as a head coach in the postseason came against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in 2018.

Frank Reich might be the key to this game, because I think running the ball with Jonathon Taylor and converting 3rd-and-short scenarios with Phillip Rivers is an effective enough strategy — perhaps their only decent strategy — to reduce the number of possessions and keep Josh Allen and the prolific Bills offense off the field. I like this game to go under 52 points and for the Colts to have every opportunity to win it at the end.

Score prediction: Bills 24, Colts 21

2. Los Angeles Rams (+5) at Seattle Seahawks

Two weeks ago I picked the Rams to beat the Seahawks in Seattle, and that game was stupid. The Seahawks won 20-9 and LA’s quarterback Jared Goff broke his thumb.

I don’t think this game is going to be terribly different, but the Rams know what to expect from Seattle just like Seattle knows what to expect from the Rams. These teams have already played twice in 2020 — the first a 23-16 Rams win and the second I already mentioned — but the rubber match is all that counts.

The Rams had a pretty weird season; at times they have looked like the best team in the NFC and other times they looked like they couldn’t move the ball on anyone. One thing I like about Los Angeles, though, is they seemed to play up when the games mattered the most. They went 4-1 against playoff teams in 2020, and when they absolutely needed to win in Week 17 they did so with a backup QB, and where the only touchdown they allowed came on an interception that gave the Cardinals the ball in the red zone. Sean McVay is going to have this team ready for a playoff bloodbath against a division rival.

The NFC West is the most competitive division in the NFL, and I can’t imagine a situation where the winner of this game takes it by more than a field goal. I love underdogs this time of year, especially when they just played one another a couple weeks ago, and I think the Rams have a little payback on their mind in this spot.

Score prediction: Rams 20, Seahawks 17

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-7) at Washington Football Team

Let’s face it: Washington got here because of the ineptitude of the NFC East, the Bucs expected to be here. Tampa Bay has been killing teams to end the year while the Football Team has limped to the finish line with a good defense and a quarterback who has like one and a half legs. Alex Smith was and is a great story, but it’s a big ask to rally the troops and win a football game against the best QB of all-time.

This feels like the easiest game to pick a blowout in during the Wild Card Round — so it probably won’t be — but the Bucs have the edge in talent and the Football Team can take pride in the fact they won their division in a year they had no business doing so.

Score prediction: Bucs 37, Football Team 17

4. Baltimore Ravens (-3.5) at Tennessee Titans

Recent history has not been kind to the Ravens in matchups against the Titans. Last year as the #1 seed in the playoffs the 14-2 Ravens lost, 28-12, to the 9-7 Titans (in what was the upset of the tournament), and this year Baltimore lost to Tennessee in overtime, 30-24. Both of those matchups came with the Titans as a road underdog.

I like Baltimore better with a chip on their shoulder compared to what they entered the season as — one of the two-best teams in football — and the way this playoff field is set up could create a nice little revenge tour for Lamar Jackson. If Baltimore can beat Tennessee it would very likely put them in another rematch spot against the Chiefs, a team that has defeated the Ravens three times in the last three years.

Tennessee is no slouch. Their offense is one of the best units in the NFL, and they are just big no matter where you look. Derrick Henry just capped off a 2,000 yard season at running back; A.J. Brown and Cory Davis are physical on the edges; Jonnu Smith is a big ass dude who can catch passes at tight end; and Ryan Tannehill can sling that fucking pigskin. If the Titans can duplicate what they did last year in the playoffs and jump out to a two-score lead, they are going to be difficult to beat.

The problem is, I think the Ravens are finally healthy and hitting their stride on offense, and I’m not sure if Tennessee’s defense — which has been shoddy at best all year — can do enough to keep them at bay. I might be the sucker who really liked the Ravens coming into the year, and so I’m a slave to believing in them, but I think Lamar Jackson needs this game so badly and I don’t know if lightning can strike three times for the Titans against a team who is more talented on both sides of the ball.

Score prediction: Ravens 34, Titans 27

5. Chicago Bears (+10) at New Orleans Saints

This seems like the most obvious game to tease down to Saints -4, or Saints -3.5, but do we really think all these touchdown-plus favorites are going to make it through to the Divisional Round? That’s too easy, so that can’t be how it works.

Say what you will about the Bears, but they still have an above-average defense and quarterback Mitch Trubisky went a perfect 3-0 in games played indoors in 2020. Those wins came at Detroit, at Atlanta and at Minnesota — not exactly a collection of world beaters — but Chicago averaged 30 points in those three contests. And for some reason their arsenal of playmakers might actually be better running around on artificial turf.

These two teams met back in Week 8 at Soldier Field — a 26-23 Saints win — but that was during Chicago’s 6-game losing streak when Nick Foles was playing QB. In this spot, I kind of like the fact that Trubisky is playing for his next contract, that head coach Matt Nagy could conceivably be coaching for his job. On the other side, pretty much everyone knows this is Drew Brees’s last season playing QB. New Orleans ought to be motivated to getting him back to the Super Bowl one last time, but I can’t shake the recent history of the Saints in the playoffs and I think double digits is way too many points.

Score prediction: Saints 27, Bears 24

6. Pittsburgh Steelers (-3.5) vs. Cleveland Browns

Losing 4 out of their last 5 games wasn’t the ideal finish to the Steelers season, but it does give a pretty good “buy low” spot against a team they have dominated both recently and historically. Pittsburgh crushed the Browns in their first meeting of 2020, and last week’s 24-22 Cleveland win came in a must-win spot while the Steelers opted to go with their backup quarterback.

I can’t help but feel like this game is a trap, but not for the favorite. It doesn’t take a lot of overthinking to roll with the Browns in this spot, who seemingly have more momentum over the last handful of weeks. It doesn’t much convincing to get cute and take the +3.5. Pity those poor Steelers, who backed their way out of the 1-seed into the 3, and bet on those Browns, who made the postseason for the first time since 2002.

I’ve ping-ponged back and forth on this game, but only until I realized the one big thing: we’re still talking about Pittsburgh here, and we’re still talking about Cleveland there. I don’t use this word very often, but for the Steelers to lose at home to the Browns is unacceptable. It simply cannot be. By essentially forfeiting the number-2 seed and resting starting QB Ben Roethlisberger in Week 17, the Steelers told you everything you needed to know. Their guy needed a week off.

I anticipate a game where the Browns struggle to move the ball, where Big Ben is competent in moving the chains, and where the Steelers put the Browns back in their rightful place as the little brother of the AFC North.

Score prediction: Steelers 27, Browns 16

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