NFL Playoffs: Handicapping the Wild Cards

NFC Strength Looks Promising as NFL Playoffs Begin

Despite every favorite laying at least 6 points in the Wild Card round, there are no layups or tap-ins at this time of year in the NFL playoffs. Arguments could be made that the Titans and Bills are weaker entrants, and I can’t make a case for either of those teams with sub-par QBs making their initial playoff starts on the road. But you’re paying a price laying the favorites knowing too that last year’s wild card round favorites went 4-0 SU/ATS. Teaser players will look to take both Kansas City and Jacksonville down from -8.5 down to -2.5 as each favorite may certainly reach -9 by kickoff. And Totals players should consider ‘under’ in the Chiefs / Titans contest knowing the matchups and running game strengths suggest more clock ticking although both pass defenses are sub-par. Know too that the Chiefs have played 14 straight home games in which they have allowed 20 points or less that includes last year’s stinging playoff loss to the Steelers 18-16.

The NFC is loaded considering that the #5-seed Panthers won 11 games this season and have a recent league MVP and conference champion taking 7-points against a familiar foe at New Orleans. In the other NFC match-up we have the surprising but very legit LA Rams with one of the youngest rosters in the league and youngest coach laying a touchdown against the veteran #6 seed Atlanta Falcons, who cruised through the NFC playoffs last year as the #1 seed and were doing the same in the Super Bowl 28-3 before one of the all-time Super Bowl collapses. The Patriots prevailed 34-28 in the first-ever overtime in Super Bowl history.

Atlanta Falcons +6

LA Rams -6

Total 48.5

During our opening six week regular season trial run picking underdogs, we went 16-8 ATS with 11 outright winners. The playoffs are a tougher challenge and the lines are even sharper at the leading offshore sportsbooks, but we’ll take a small swing with the Falcons in a game we project more scoring to send it over the total.

The Falcons offense (5.9 YPPL) was not as explosive as last year’s edition (6.7 YPPL), but the personnel is still the same with QB Ryan pulling the trigger to explosive receiver Jones and Sanu. The Rams don’t have a standout in the secondary, and even a less than full health Julio Jones will make it tough for the Rams to cover the tandem with an experienced and league-MVP quarterback from last year delivering the ball. Running back Freeman missed some games but is ready to go and a threat running or receiving along with Coleman. The difference is that Steve Sarkisian is calling plays this season as offensive coordinator, but the Falcons still averaged 5.9 yards per play to rank #3 in the league while facing a top-5 schedule. That was just ahead of the Rams 5.8 yards per play offense. The Falcons went 5-5 SU/ATS this season vs opponents with a winning record and outgained them by 31 yards per game. The Rams went 5-3 SU and 4-4 ATS vs. winning opponents but were outgained by 23 yards per game.

The Rams schedule strength was just outside the top-10, but LA led the league in scoring (30 PPG) thanks to an MVP-type season from super stud RB Gurley and the emergence of QB Goff delivering behind a solid offensive line. But history has shown that virgin quarterbacks playing in their first playoff game have been a poor ATS play for decades (< 35%). Look no further than last year’s No. 1 seed in the NFC when Dallas and rookie QB Prescott were taken out by Green Bay and their top QB Rodgers in a high-scoring game. History has also produced plenty of playoff surprises, but a Falcons win would hardly be a big surprise. The Rams had elite special teams units and a more aggressive defense under veteran coordinator Wade Phillips (+5 turnover margin vs -11 last year). Donald is a defensive dominator along the line, and the Rams finished #2 in the NFC in sacks with 48. Los Angeles is the stronger team statistically on offense and defense using adjusted value numbers, but that doesn’t mean they just roll to another win. The Rams were 4-4 at home this season with a throw away game in week 17, and now have to be at their best against the NFC’s best last year.

The Falcons played pressure packed games in December and had to win 3-of-4 against division rivals to make the playoff party. That’s a little concern with the fatigue factor. But despite playing far from their best most the season, and struggling too often in the red zone, Atlanta was still able to win 10 games playing in the leagues toughest division. And they are the only NFC team to return to the playoffs from last year. The Falcons as defending NFC champions should be a tough out in this year’s Wild Card round.

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Author: FairwayJay

FairwayJay is a leading national sports analyst and is recognized as one of the sports industry's most insightful handicappers and professionals. Follow him on Twitter: @FairwayJay