NFL Best Bets: Divisional Round

Last week ATS: 4-2

Overall ATS: 35-31-3

1. Los Angeles Rams (+6.5) at Green Bay Packers

For the Rams, winning in the playoffs as a road underdog — with little to no help from their quarterback — is fucking solid. The only way that’s possible is by having a defense that’s damn good and a running game that makes you respect play action.

That’s why I like this Los Angeles team so much — and why I predicted they would go to the Super Bowl about six weeks ago (when they beat the Buccaneers on MNF) — because they have a genuinely fool-proof plan of winning football games. What is that plan? Offensively, it’s as simple as not screwing things up. Defensively, it’s betting that star cornerback Jalen Ramsey will shut down the opponents’ top receiver, and that Aaron Donald and the defensive line will create enough pressure to make everyone else’s job in the secondary that much easier.

The Packers know this is what the Rams have got. They know there’s a good chance Ramsey is going to spend a lot of the day matched up against Green Bay’s top receiving weapon, Davante Adams, which would logically indicate that for QB Aaron Rodgers to win he will either (a) have to spread the ball around to everyone other than Adams or (b) hope that running back Aaron Jones pops off and has a big day.

I’m skeptical that either of those scenarios comes to fruition, but it’s strictly due to how much I believe in the Rams defense as a whole. I will grant that Green Bay has a massive edge at QB, but I think this game is going to be won in the trenches. I’m not sold that the Packers defense is markedly different from the unit that allowed the 49ers to run all over them in last year’s NFC Championship, and I see long stretches of this game where Rodgers is on the bench and the Rams rushing attack is living in Packers territory.

Score prediction: Rams 19, Packers 17

2. Baltimore Ravens (+1) at Buffalo Bills

One of the reasons I liked the Colts +6.5 against the Bills last week is because of the running game. It is the fatal flaw of the Bills on-again-off-again defense. It’s a team built to take leads, thus challenging the opponent to throw the ball against what is an above-average secondary. I’m confident that if the Bills take a 10- or 14-point lead in this matchup they will ultimately win the game.

Against this Bills’ defense in the Super Wild Card Round, however, the Colts rushed the ball 30 times at 5.4 yards per clip. That average was inflated by Nyheim Hines netting 75 yards on just 6 carries, but it doesn’t dismiss the fact that Indianapolis was able to move the ball on the ground and dominate the time of possession in the first half. Now Buffalo is being asked to hold down an offense built around running the rock — behind shifty rookie J.K. Dobbins and the power of Gus Edwards — and buoyed by Lamar Jackson, the best rushing quarterback in the history of football.

The cornerstone of this game, what everything else relies on, is expectations. Where did each of these teams expect to be before the season started? The Bills have been on helium watch for the second half of the 2020 schedule thanks to the emergence of QB Josh Allen; he reached his realistic 2020 ceiling and even exceeded it in many ways. There has been a lot of chatter over the last month and a half that the Bills are either the biggest threat to knock down the defending champion Chiefs, or the favorite altogether.

The Ravens on the other hand planned on and were projected to be here. They were the #1 seed in the AFC last season, and part of them has to feel like their early exit in 2019 was the driving force that paved the way for Kansas City to win the Super Bowl. Lamar Jackson already has his Madden cover. The Ravens already have the coach and defense and playmakers to win the AFC title. Playing the Bills in the Divisional Round might feel new to them, but it wasn’t (and isn’t) their goal this season.

By making this point spread Bills -1, betting markets are just begging you to drop some money on Buffalo. But what it really suggests is that these teams are fairly even. A strong case can be made that these are the second- and third-best teams in football.

At the same time Baltimore has to feel some level of disrespect by being made an underdog. Not in the sense that the Bills aren’t worthy of being a home favorite, but more so the idea that the Ravens should feel disrespected by being an underdog against anyone. The best teams use much less than that as motivation, and although I can’t quite put my finger on it I have a weird feeling like Baltimore is on a mission to play the Chiefs again in the AFC Championship.

Score prediction: Ravens 29, Bills 21

3. Kansas City Chiefs (-10) vs. Cleveland Browns

To me this game comes down to One Big Thing: Are the Chiefs really the best team in football, or are they not?

Given the givens — that being playoff motivation, home field advantage, a bye week, et. al — if the answer to the above question is yes then Kansas City can (and should) cover this 10-point spread. If the answer is no then betting on the Browns +10 is probably around a 60% proposition, and Cleveland has a real shot of pulling off the outright upset.

All biases included, I think the Chiefs are the best team in the NFL. I think Patrick Mahomes is clearly the best quarterback in the NFL. And I think the Kansas City defense, which receives minimal attention and has underperformed in the front seven for large stretches of the season, has been saving its best for a playoff run. These opinions are not data-driven. They are just how I feel.

I also kind of like the fact that the Browns just won their Super Bowl. Their 48-37 dismantling of the Pittsburgh Steelers was their statement not just for 2020, but for what they as an organization have been building ever since they drafted Baker Mayfield with the #1 pick in 2018. It’s a really large ask to come off of celebrating making the playoffs after Week 17, to crushing the Steelers in the Super Wild Card Round, to then going to Kansas City and beating the odds-on favorite to win it all.

I’ve written a ton about the Chiefs sleepwalking through the second half of the season and seemingly given no fucks along the way, but don’t get it twisted like the talking heads have: They won all their second half games, sans a 38-21 loss in Week 17 when KC rested their key guys, and they did it against some of the best teams in the NFL. If covering spreads are what you care about then the Chiefs might not be your squad. If winning football games is the goal, then I don’t think any team is better.

Score prediction: Chiefs 38, Browns 24

4. New Orleans Saints (-3) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This is the only game I’ve flipped back and forth on, because it’s become apparent that the narrative all week is How Could Tom Brady Possibly Lose To The Same Team Three Times In One Season? Lazily, that was my first impression when I realized these two teams were playing. And if that’s the low-hanging fruit that I and everyone else knows about, it can’t be the deciding factor in liking the Bucs in this spot.

I’m not a Drew Brees guy and never have been, but with all the talk about how this is probably going to be his final season and how he has a noodle arm, doesn’t this matchup mean more to his legacy than it does Tom Brady’s? Brady already has 6 Super Bowl rings. He’s already taken a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in forever into the second round. Brady doesn’t want to lose this game, but he can and it won’t mean very much. Tampa was supposed to be better in Year 2 than Year 1, anyway.

For Brees, though, it means everything. His lone Super Bowl win (and appearance) came over a decade ago, and since then his postseason career has been a graveyard of heartbreaking defeats. The Saints and head coach Sean Payton have no interest in being known as a Good Regular Season Team; they want to be on the top shelf with elites like Bill Belichick and the Patriots, or Andy Reid and the Mahomes-led Chiefs.

As I mentioned above the Saints have taken each of the first two matchups with the Bucs this year, 34-23 in Week 1 and 38-3 in Week 9, and I like this playoff tilt to end up somewhere in the middle.

Score prediction: Saints 27, Bucs 20

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