The 2019 NFL playoffs are here, and we kick off Wild Card Weekend with four great games. While the home team is favored in every game, they’re just a 2.5-point favorite in three of them. Vegas typically gives three points for home field, so that implies the road team is better in three of the four games. That’s interesting, and it should make for some very good football.
After a topsy-turvy December, we ended up with the same top four we expected all season: the Saints, Rams, Chiefs, and Patriots. The Steelers and Vikings are sitting at home watching. Instead we got a surprising pair of AFC South teams, a Seahawks team that won’t say die, a really good Chargers squad, and somehow two teams from the terrible NFC East.
I finished the year strong, going 18–7–2 the last two weeks with 6–1 best bets, and we’re a perfect 6–0 on best bets for the year. Let’s keep the momentum going and decipher Wild Card Weekend with four winning picks.
Indianapolis +2.5 at Houston
The Texans turned around an 0–3 start, winning their next nine games and coasting to a division title. The Colts were in an even bigger hole at 1–5 but won nine of ten since, grabbing the final playoff spot against the Titans. We don’t necessarily know if either of these teams is particularly good. Houston beat Indy and Dallas early in the season before either was very good. The Texans’ best win may have been a month ago against the Browns. The Colts went to Houston and won a month ago, then shut out the Cowboys 23–0. So if you’re counting at home, these teams’ best wins have come against the Cowboys and each other. Still, both teams have led or been close in every game this season outside of the annual Colts blowout to the Patriots.
The Texans had the league’s best run defense, one of the top-10 run defenses of all time. The Colts had a surprisingly balanced attack this year featuring Marlon Mack and a pair of rookie RBs, but none of the three ran for more than 33 yards combined in two games against the Texans. The Colts had a top-five run defense too. Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue ran 47 times against Indy for 134 yards, a paltry 2.9 yards per carry. Don’t expect much on the ground.
This game comes down to passing, and that’s advantage Indy. The Colts were finished with a top-ten defense. Houston’s secondary is in shambles. They allowed 1627 passing yards over the final five weeks, worst in the NFL. Compare that to the median of 1172 or the 484 yards the Colts allowed to wide receivers those same five weeks. Both teams are among the league’s worst against tight ends, so Eric Ebron could be a key threat for the Colts. T.Y. Hilton had 314 yards in two games against the Texans this year and averages over 100 yards in 14 career games against Houston with eight TDs. Houston’s big target DeAndre Hopkins caught 10 balls for 169 yards in one game against the Colts, then just 4 for 36 late in the year as Indianapolis adjusted. He’ll be the guy the Colts build their defense around stopping.
Don’t forget about the offensive lines. Houston allowed a league-worst 62 sacks, 12 to the Colts and an average of five per game over the final six weeks. Negative plays like that can kill drives. The biggest Colts turnaround has come on the line, where they allowed a league-fewest 18 sacks all year. Houston’s offense has been surprisingly meh all year, relying on big plays and jump balls to Hopkins to bail them out.
This is Deshaun Watson’s first NFL playoff game, but you might recall him playing two national championship games against Alabama. He threw for 400+ yards and scored four TDs in each game, so don’t expect him to be overwhelmed by the moment. Luck has played six playoff games and averages 300+ yards a game, but he’s also thrown 12 interceptions to just 9 TDs and has only really one great playoff game. The Texans have been Luck’s toughest non-Patriots opponent, though he’s still 6–4 against them with 23 TDs, his most against any team, and he lit this secondary up for 863 yards and six TDs this season. He could have another monster game.
Houston was the league’s most consistent team this season, while the Colts are the least consistent of any playoff team. Indianapolis blew a few games early when they were in it late but made a key costly mistake that swung the game. Last week, that nearly cost them against Tennessee in a game they dominated outside of a few big dumb plays.
If the Colts can eliminate the big mistakes, Luck should pick apart this Houston secondary and allow the Colts to control the game. The Colts are a really good all around team and finished as the #4 team in weighted DVOA behind only the Chiefs, Saints, and Chargers. Still, it feels like this one will be close late, which means we’ll get to see one or both of these quarterbacks driving with the season on the line. And that’s a win for everyone, really.
Prediction: Indianapolis 28, Houston 24
Seattle +2.5 at Dallas
These teams met early in the season in Seattle and the Seahawks dominated. They led 24–6 late before a garbage-time Cowboys TD gave the final score. That was Seattle’s first win of the year, but it was before Dallas traded for Amari Cooper and turned their season around.
But is that actually true? It’s the popular narrative. You look at Dallas and think of that dominant Thursday game against the Saints and a handful of close wins. Dallas won 10, and all but one of those wins came by one score. They were constantly in close battles but seemed to catch every break. That luck has a tendency of evening out. By point differential, Dallas should’ve won 8.4 games. Using estimated wins instead (taking into account situational and red zone opportunities, fumble luck, etc) the Cowboys should have won 7.0 games. That ranks them between the Bengals and Bills and makes them the league’s biggest overachiever. By most advanced metrics, Dallas was the third best team in a weak NFC East, the worst team in the playoffs with a profile similar to the Tennessee Titans. They’re a good-not-great defense we overrate because of the Saints game, coupled with a below average offense.
Dallas allowed 56 sacks, second most of any team behind only Houston. Seattle allowed 51, so they’re not much better. Look for both teams to try to get pressure on the opponent in what should be a low-scoring game.
You may think this is a matchup between two running QBs, but neither is running much these days. Dak Prescott is averaging just seven yards a game the second half of the season and he’s never really figured out Seattle. The Seahawks are the only team Dak has faced more than once with a losing record. He has four interceptions in two games against Seattle versus 21 in his other 46 games. Russell Wilson is 8–4 in the playoffs and has never gone one-and-done. He’s had 22 TDs and 11 picks, though it’s fair to point out that he had a dominant defense and played most of those games at home, going just 2–3 on the road. Still, Dallas’s pass defense has been surprisingly leaky since that Saints game, and Wilson should be able to hurt them with the deep ball. He had a perfect passer rating throwing to Tyler Lockett this season.
In the end, I expect one team to play tough defense and control the clock with a workhorse RB and a quarterback that makes timely plays to win the game — it’s just not the team you’d assume. Chris Carson ran 32 times for 102 yards against Dallas in September and should wear them down again, and Russell Wilson will pick his spots. Dallas is 2–8 in the last two decades of playoff failure. A ninth loss could be on the way.
Prediction: Seattle 19, Dallas 13
Los Angeles Chargers +2.5 at Baltimore
This is the best game on the slate, featuring two teams who could make a serious run to the Super Bowl. This could have been the AFC Championship. The Ravens are unlike any other NFL team, featuring a shutdown defense and a turn-back-the-clock run attack that averages 39 minutes of possession under Lamar Jackson. The Chargers are just good. They’re the second best team in the AFC by a sizable margin, with a top-three offense and a top-ten defense that’s gotten even better with the return of Joey Bosa.
Expect a lot of defense. Both defenses are great against receivers. The Chargers haven’t allowed more than 41 rushing yards to a QB this year, allowing Lamar Jackson to run 13 times for 39 yards two weeks ago, so they should keep Jackson in check. The Ravens came to L.A. and won that game 22–10 in a game full of defense and fluky scores. Baltimore returned a fumble for a TD and saw a long passing TD when the defender fell down, and L.A.’s TD came after a costly Jackson fumble deep in his own territory.
That loss cost the Chargers their shot at the 1-seed and it’s the reason they’re playing this one. You’d think when the teams played just two weeks ago and the Ravens won on the road by 12, it should be easy to take them at home here, but the Chargers may be weirdly encouraged by that loss. They played an awful game. Philip Rivers threw an interception on the first play, and the Chargers had eight drives under 20 yards plus three turnovers. Despite all that, were still driving for the win with three minutes left before the fumble return TD (which should really be called a frick-six).
Los Angeles played Baltimore almost even on time of possession and seemed to figure out the Ravens attack late, ending the game on four straight three-and-out stops. Then again, Baltimore drove into scoring position on seven of their first eight drives. If not for a fumble, two missed field goals, and a turnover on downs, the Chargers may never have even had a chance late.
So which narrative is it? Probably a little bit of both. The Ravens have really simplified their offense under Lamar Jackson, using his running ability to open up the run game. That throws opponents off, but will it work against a team that just saw the entire playbook two weeks ago? Simplified attacks tend to struggle in a second matchup, especially against a good D. What happens if the Ravens fall behind and have to play catch-up? We haven’t seen that from Lamar Jackson in the NFL.
John Harbaugh is an incredible 10–5 in the playoffs with the Ravens and has never gone one-and-done, all the more impressive when you consider just two of those games were at home. Harbaugh teams are known for outstanding special teams play. The 2018 Ravens finished as a top-six special teams for the sixth straight year. Special teams has forever been a Chargers bugaboo, and in a tight, low-scoring game, you can’t give away points or field position. Look for a couple key special teams plays that could turn this game.
This game may come down to Philip Rivers. Rivers played MVP-caliber ball this year and it’s become en vogue to talk about him as a future Hall of Famer, but can you recall Rivers ever having a big playoff game? He’s just 4–5 in his career with at least one interception in all but two games, and he’s played three above average playoff games but yet to have that one great one. If you don’t even have a single vintage playoff performance as a quarterback in the 2000s, are you really a Hall of Fame QB? Your move, Rivers.
These teams are both strong. The Ravens finished top-seven in actual and weighted DVOA, and the Chargers were top-three in both. Whoever wins this game is a serious threat, not just next week but to win the whole thing. If you have a good read on this game and are looking for a Super Bowl long shot, one of these two teams is your pick. They can absolutely win in New England or Kansas City or both.
Look for a tight, low scoring game, and take the under-42. A couple key plays should swing this one — a fourth down stop, a missed field goal, a fumble that bounces the wrong way. And that’s why, even though I think the Chargers are the better team, I’m picking the Ravens to win. Aren’t the Chargers the team that loses the fumble or misses the big kick? Isn’t Baltimore’s defense the one that makes the big stop? Prove me wrong, Chargers.
Prediction: Baltimore 17, Los Angeles 16
Chicago -5.5 vs Philadelphia
The first three playoff games feature near coin-flip matchups with 2.5-point lines. I’m pretty confident I know which team is better, but better is relative. If the Colts and Texans played 25 times, I’m confident the Colts would win 15+ times. But that doesn’t mean this weekend can’t be one of the other ten.
This is the one game I feel differently about. I really think Chicago is going to crush the Eagles. Like, absolute domination, end-all-the-silly-Nick-Foles-is-the-right-QB-for-the-Eagles-talk get-everyone-in-Chicago-buzzing-about-a-real-Super-Bowl sort of domination.
The Eagles are remarkably average. They rank #16 on offense, #15 on defense, and #15 on special teams. That’s as average as it gets. The team has been crushed by injuries all year — to Carson Wentz, sure, but especially to the secondary and the offensive line. Injuries at those two positions can derail an entire season, and credit to Doug Pederson for getting this team to the playoffs anyway. But what are the Eagles actually good at? I’ll wait.
The Bears are good at defense. They are great at defense. They’re the league’s #1 defense by a wide margin, and they’re even better at home. They’ll get after this poor Philly line and have Nick Foles on his back all game. That’s a problem for a quarterback with bruised ribs that hasn’t been great against pressure. The Eagles are one big hit to the freezing Chicago tundra away from Nate Sudfeld at quarterback. Not good. Nick Foles looked great against a terrible Houston secondary two weeks ago, but what will he do against the league’s pass pass rush and a physical secondary? Philly doesn’t have individual threats that can take over a game. If Chicago keeps everything in front of them, I just don’t see the Eagles moving the ball.
And the Bears may move the ball more easily than you think. The Eagles averaged 312 passing yards allowed against non-Washington QBs this year. Mitchell Trubisky is not good — I’m sorry you had to find out this way — but Matt Nagy has set his QB up to succeed. He’ll attack Philly’s barely-off-the-street cornerbacks and put Trubisky in a good spot. The Eagles allowed the second most RB catches this season, so expect a lot of Tarik Cohen. Every matchup in this game favors the Bears. This has all the makings of one of those games where the Bears roll against a mediocre team in their one home game, then get everyone overconfident heading into next week.
The Bears were a league-best 12–4 against the spread this season. They’re the best bet of Wild Card Weekend. As long as Mitch Trubisky doesn’t throw away his shot, Chicago’s defense and home field advantage should roll against a very average Eagles team.