NFL Best Bets: Wild Card Round

Last week against the spread: 1-3

2021 overall ATS: 34-37-1

1. Las Vegas Raiders (+5) at Cincinnati Bengals

The Raiders should be commended for how they refused to fold after both their head coach resigned and stud second-year wide receiver Henry Ruggs III got arrested and released following a DUI manslaughter that killed someone. Most teams, in most years, choose to forget about the season. After all, the excuses are all there.

This matchup against the Bengals is one that shouldn’t exist, for both teams, yet here we are. Las Vegas’s strength is on the defensive line with Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue rushing the passer, and Cincinnati’s weakness is that their offensive line is trash. The Bengals have an obvious advantage both at quarterback and skill position players across the board, but sometimes football is more simple than that.

In the playoffs, games are won in the trenches. I mean it’s like that all the time, but the postseason is where these strengths and weaknesses tend to be more pronounced. The Raiders have some serious Team Of Destiny vibes that, while they won’t end in a Super Bowl appearance, can absolutely shine in a Wild Card matchup against a team with a head coach and QB who have never been there before.

Score prediction: Raiders 27, Bengals 23

2. Buffalo Bills (-4) vs. New England Patriots

The Bills are the superior team. They have the superior quarterback, they have the superior offense, and they are playing at home. When the Patriots won there earlier in the year it was like 20-something degrees and the wind was blowing like fucking crazy. New England QB Mac Jones only had to throw the ball three times for them to win.

The second matchup — where the Bills won 33-21 — is more in line to what I believe this game has in store. Granted, Buffalo QB Josh Allen played the game of his life. That is hardly something worthy of being duplicated. But it was a contest where the stars played like stars, and that’s what it takes to beat Bill Belichick at this time of year.

I never count out New England, and in fact I’ll be cheering for them to win this game. But the Bills are arguably the team with the highest ceiling in the NFL, and whatever they’ve been saving for this season is going to come out against a division rival. I expect it to be close, but I think Josh Allen has enough juice to take care of business in the end.

Score prediction: Bills 26, Patriots 17

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-8.5) vs. Philadelphia Eagles

I don’t have a great feel for either side of this game, but in general I’m going to lean towards Tom Brady whenever there’s indecision. The weather in this game is supposed to be miserable, with winds gusting upwards of 25 miles per hour and rain in the forecast. On the surface that would seem to be an advantage for the Eagles — who like to run the ball… a lot — and a disadvantage for the Bucs, who can be overly pass-happy.

But it’s for that reason that I choose to go the other way, because who is Tom Brady if not a bad weather quarterback? The guy proved it for like two decades playing in New England, and I’m doubting that some 70-degree temperature with some wind and rain is going to phase him all that much. Eagles QB Jalen Hurts, meanwhile, hasn’t proved it. And in fact he hasn’t proven he can beat a reputable quarterback at all. Below are all the teams Philly has beat during the 2021 football season:

  • Falcons (7-10)
  • Panthers (5-12)
  • Lions (3-13-1)
  • Broncos (7-10)
  • Saints (9-8)
  • Jets (4-13)
  • Football Team (6-11)
  • Giants (4-13)
  • Football Team (6-11)

While I hate to shit on a team for exceeding expectations and earning a playoff berth, the defending Super Bowl champs are just in an entirely different weight class as the Eagles are. I understand that Brady is without Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, but my feeling is that it won’t come back to really hurt them until the later rounds. For this matchup I expect Tampa Bay to get out to some sort of lead, and I simply refuse to believe that Hurts will be capable of throwing the Eagles back into it.

Score prediction: Bucs 31, Eagles 13

4. San Francisco 49ers (+3) at Dallas Cowboys

Jay-Z said on “Meet the Parents” that First they love me then they hate me then they love me again. It was real shit when then, and it’s real shit now. It’s how I feel about 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo. You love him when he takes you to the Super Bowl in 2019, then you hate him when he has to go up against a guy like Patrick Mahomes, then you love him again in 2021 when your season in on the line and you have to win on the road against one of the best teams in the NFL.

We can all debate whether he’s a Guy, or just another guy, but if he’s the latter then he is an extremely capable caretaker for a winning franchise. San Francisco have all the pieces around him — from a strong offensive line, to a unique set of playmakers, to a defense that on most days is good enough — to win when all the chips are down.

The Cowboys are a worthy foe, and favored to win this game, but they just went through a season without a very strong collection of wins. They regularly dismantled inferior competition in the NFC East, and netted just a 3-3 record against teams currently in the playoffs. Two of those wins came against intra-division rival Philadelphia, with the first coming before the Eagles had an identity, and the second coming against all of Philly’s backups in Week 18. The signature win of the Cowboys year came on the road against the Patriots in overtime.

It’s just a gigantic mismatch in terms of being battle-tested. The 49ers had to slug it out in arguably the best division in football while the Cowboys coasted in one of the worst. If Dallas is to win this game I feel like it has to be in a particular sort of game, whereas I think the Niners have enough tools in their shed to win multiple ways.

Score prediction: 49ers 27, Cowboys 23

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (+12.5) at Kansas City Chiefs

This is really turning into the perfect storm for a very weird game. Everyone who knows me says I — as a Chiefs fan — have absolutely nothing to worry about. Big Ben is washed and Kansas City is going to roll, and on and on it goes.

However, the whole No One Believes In Us mantra is an incredibly powerful one. A few weeks ago Kansas City mopped the fucking floor with the Steelers, 36-10, in a game that was not as close as the final score indicated. In a sense it’s a payback game for Pittsburgh. It’s potentially Ben Roethlisberger’s last game. And it seems fairly clear that the two most important weapons on the Chiefs — Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce — are not playing at 100 percent.

I like to think Kansas City can get away with one the same way they did the last time these two teams played. Simply running the ball and throwing to secondary options like Byron Pringle and Mecole Hardman. But the playoffs are a weird thing. All it takes are a couple timely sacks, a couple critical pass interference calls, and the Steelers could be right in this.

I do think the Chiefs win, but if I’ve learned anything over these last couple of postseasons, it’s that it never comes easy. In Kansas City’s first game the last two years (in the Divisional Round rather than on Wild Card Weekend), they have gone down 24-0 to the Texans (in a game they ultimately won 51-31) and Mahomes got knocked out against the Browns (in a game the Chiefs ended up winning 22-17).

Score prediction: Chiefs 24, Steelers 17

6. Los Angeles Rams (-4) vs. Arizona Cardinals

If there was a way I could pick against both of these teams, I would. I don’t like either, and I think whoever wins will be eliminated in the Divisional Round regardless of who they end up playing. In this one, I just don’t care for Kyler Murray very much if he’s not fully healthy, and I don’t much like the idea that Kliff Kingbury is coaching in his first playoff game.

So I’m rolling with the experience. I’m taking a head coach who somehow made his way to a Super Bowl appearance, and I’m taking a quarterback whose legacy is on the line if he is unable to get out of the Wild Card Round. Of course you could talk me into anything here. I just go with my gut when I force myself to make decisions that I have no idea about.

Score prediction: Rams 30, Cardinals 24

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