Davis Mattek’s NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Picks Against The Spread
Last week was a bit of a damp squib for the NFL Playoffs. The only truly exciting game was the Philadelphia Eagles’ upset of the Chicago Bears. The Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks treated us to a fiesta of runs, the Houston Texans never got off the plane against the Philadelphia Eagles and the Baltimore Ravens were not competitive for three quarters against the Los Angeles Chargers.
This round of games promises to be much better with three totals north of 50 and the best offenses in the NFL all playing. The Rams, Chiefs and Saints were the most entertaining NFL teams in 2018 and they will be on full display this weekend.
The Chiefs offense finished the 2018 NFL season as the number one rated unit in Football Outsiders DVOA. Patrick Mahomes was only the second quarterback in NFL history to record more than 5,000 passing yards with 50 touchdown passes. The Colts defense did well against a bad Texans offense and ran the table in the weaker conference. They made the playoffs by beating none other than Blaine Gabbert. The Chiefs play this game at home in what projects to be sub-optimal weather, yet the total has not seen significant downward movement.
In general, when betting on spreads that are greater than three points, I try to account more for offensive output than defensive control of a game. The Chiefs, despite ranking 26th in team defense DVOA, were the number one ranked team in total DVOA. Having a really good special teams unit does help that number, but I think it is illustrative of an important point in the modern game: defense matters far less than offense does. This is my top selection for the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs.
The general public loves to pick upsets in the NFL Playoffs and if there is one team that can pull it off, it is the Dallas Cowboys playing at the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams played some of their worst football down the stretch, losing to the Nick Foles-led Philadelphia Eagles and the Chicago Bears. The sort of games that we expect a team like the Rams to excel in are high-octane offensive affairs, and Dallas tends to bog other teams down. Opposing teams ran only 981 plays against Dallas this season, which is lower than the league average. Dallas also allowed only 5.4 yards per play to opposing offenses.
While I do think that there is a fairly decent chance that the Rams win this game outright, a closer result on the scoreboard than seven points does seem fairly likely. Dallas allowed more than 24 points scored against them only twice this year and one of those games was in a Week 17 contest where they were rotating backups in. The Rams definitely do have the coaching advantage and the better offense, so I would not invest in the Dallas money line, but this line seems one or two points too high. Therefore, we will be taking the Cowboys against the Las Vegas spread this week.
The public has decided that the Los Angeles Chargers are going to come into Foxboro this week and finally slay their demons. Well, the only time Philip Rivers has ever made it to the AFC Championship game was in 2007 when Tom Brady missed the entire season with a torn ACL. Rivers lost to the Patriots in 2006 and have never gone far enough into the playoffs to meet up with them again. The Chargers are also likely to be dealing with cold weather and the element of traveling East from West, and that does have an impact on winning percentages and also influences the Las Vegas spreads.
There is also an element of the public being ready to write the ending to the Brady/Belichick era. There are some signs that the team is slowing down compared to years past. They didn’t finish as the number one seed and were only the seventh ranked team in total team DVOA in the regular season; they finished first in that category in 2017. Rob Gronkowski is four steps slower than his prime and Brady averaged only 7.8 Yards Per Adjusted Attempt, which is a middling year for him. However, with a spread this close, it is most prudent to select the team you expect to win, and the Patriots should take care of business at home against an opponent that they have historically dominated. One potential factor that could bite the Patriots is that they really don’t have a deep threat on offense after Josh Gordon left the team, and if this contest turns into a shootout, they are at a disadvantage.
The New Orleans Saints are the second-best team in football right behind the Kansas City Chiefs. They gained the seventh most yards per play on offense but were actually second in Expected Points Added, which is a better indicator of how powerful they were. Drew Brees completed 74% of his passes, which is an NFL record. They have the three best offensive players in this game with Brees, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. In the regular season contest against the Eagles, they won 48-7 and the Eagles completely no-showed that week. There is a really interesting hype machine going on around Nick Foles. To his credit, has played incredible football in the playoffs in years past and has looked good this year.
However, Foles needed a lucky deflection on a field goal to win a game against the Bears while scoring only 16 points, and for his career averages seven Adjusted Yards Per Attempt. A great thing when betting on the Saints is that they tend to not let up when the game is even within sniffing distance. They hung 48 points on the Eagles, 51 points on the hapless Bengals, 45 on the Rams, 43 on the Falcons in overtime, and 33 points on the Giants outdoors, which is not easy for Brees to do. After the Chiefs, this is my favorite selection of the week, as it seems clear to me that the Saints should be double-digit point favorites but are not due to the hype surrounding Nick Foles.