As much as it hurts to see the NFL regular season come to an end (especially after going 3-1 with my NFL predictions last week to continue a red-hot finish to the campaign), we’ve got a lot to look forward to this weekend as the playoffs kick off with 4 wild card contests.
If I can channel my inner Forrest Gump for a minute, playoff pigskin is like pizza – when it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. As meaningful as every game is during a 16-game season, the stakes are even higher when it’s win-or-go-home time, adding desperation and drama to every snap. And if that’s not enough good news for you, just look at the playoff picture in the NFL this winter.
There’s 1 more thing that excites me about these playoffs: the betting opportunities. Since motivation and fatigue aren’t factors in the wild card round, it can be hard to find edges to bet the opening round of the playoffs, but I do feel like I’ve identified some great angles to wager on in 3 of the 4 games this weekend. Let’s hope that our strong finish to the regular season carries into the playoffs with this trio of NFL predictions for wild card weekend!
All odds that are referenced in this article were taken from BetOnline.ag at 9:50 p.m. eastern on January 4, 2018. These odds may have changed since the time of this writing.
1. Indianapolis Colts/Houston Texans Over 48 (-115) (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. eastern)
Well, I guess I got what I deserved last week for stepping in front of the train otherwise known as the Indianapolis Colts. Even though I fully agreed that the Colts were a better team than Tennessee, I took the bait of getting +3.5 points with the Titans at home and was handed my only loss of a 3-1 week. I guess the bookies knew what they were doing when they made Indy a road favorite in that win-or-go-home spot, even if Tennessee had the exact same record as the Colts going into the game and had been great all year at home.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me, which is why I’m not interested in grabbing the Texans at the short price of -1 this week at home. Just like last week, I think the Colts are the superior team in this matchup, but I don’t see a lot of value in taking Indianapolis on the road here. This looks like a 50/50 toss-up, so I don’t see how taking even money on the Colts moneyline or +1 on the point spread would be a plus-EV (expected value) wager.
If Indianapolis is going to score points and this game is priced as a 1-point margin, it only makes sense to expect the Texans to put up some points of their own as well. That hardly seems like a stretch when you consider the way Houston’s offense has been playing of late, scoring 29+ in 4 of 5 games before a meaningless 20-3 win over Jacksonville in the regular-season finale. Deshaun Watson has been sensational since returning to full health after a chest injury earlier this year (remember how he had to literally take a bus to Jacksonville for a road game against the Jags in late October?) and all of his weapons are healthy — including stud wideout Deandre Hopkins, whose 147-yard outing last week should put to rest any concerns about a lingering ankle injury.
In recent years, we’ve seen some real clunkers when it comes to the first game of Wild Card Weekend. This isn’t going to be one of them. Each of these teams scores 23+ points as if it were a bodily function, and if they both do that here, we’re almost assured of a winning ticket. I recommend betting the Over, then sitting back and enjoying what should be a high-scoring, competitive and extremely entertaining affair.
2. Seattle Seahawks +2.5 (-116) over Dallas Cowboys (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. eastern)
If we were to judge these teams’ chances based on last week’s performance, the Cowboys would look like an absolute steal at this price. Despite sitting Ezekiel Elliott last week to protect him from injury, Dallas went into the Meadowlands and beat a motivated Giants squad that was playing all of its starters, rallying from behind in the fourth quarter to win on a sensational TD catch by Cole Beasley (on 4th and 15th, no less). Meanwhile, the Seahawks had all sorts of trouble separating themselves from the woeful Arizona Cardinals, needing a late field goal to edge the Cards 27-24.
While Dallas probably doesn’t feel like it has much to work on this week in practice, the Seahawks likely feel like there’s a lot they need to improve. “We know the product we’re used to putting out on the field and today wasn’t it,” left tackle Duane Brown said after last week’s narrow victory over Arizona, a win Seattle needed to claim the fifth seed and earn a trip to Dallas instead of having to travel to Chicago. The Seahawks struggled in pass protection, made several big mistakes on special teams and went 3-and-out on 5 consecutive possessions at one point in the game. I’m expecting a lot of intensity and urgency in Seahawks practice this week as they know repeating even one of those things in the playoffs might be enough to send them packing.
Although these teams have identical 10-6 records, I’m convinced Seattle is the better of these squads. The Seahawks certainly appeared to be better than Dallas when these 2 teams met earlier this year in Seattle, when the Hawks beat the Cowboys 24-13 (Seattle led 24-6 midway through the fourth quarter) for their third straight win over Dallas. The Seahawks also own the league’s best running game (a recipe for success in the playoffs, especially on the road to take the opposing fans out of the game) and I trust Russell Wilson to make the big play more consistently than I do Dak Prescott. There’s a reason the bookies are offering Seattle +2.5 here instead of giving a full field goal, and I’m ready to take advantage.
3. Los Angeles Chargers +3 (-116) over Baltimore Ravens (Sunday, 1 p.m. eastern)
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Ravens went into LA on a Saturday night and pulled off a 22-10 upset of the Chargers as 4.5-point underdogs. Baltimore held the Chargers to just 14 first downs, limited LA’s ground game to 51 yards, picked off Philip Rivers twice and allowed just 147 yards through the air. When you completely dominate a quality offense on the road and beat the spread by 16 points (winning by 12 as a 4.5-point dog), oddsmakers and betting markets tend to pay attention, which is why I think we’re seeing the Ravens laying a full field goal in this spot. (BetOnline was charging -116 juice on LA +3 at the time of writing, but I have seen some books offering standard -110 pricing on both sides of a 3-point spread.)
Line value and the change to avenge a loss from 2 weeks ago aren’t the only reasons I’m on the Chargers here, though. One other thing I think isn’t being factored into this matchup properly is that LA is getting its second look at Lamar Jackson and this unconventional run-heavy Ravens attack in a 3-week span. Just like teams in college football can struggle to shut down the option offense when they don’t see it that often, NFL teams often have a difficult time beating offenses that they aren’t used to seeing. Even though LA had little trouble stopping the Ravens’ attack 2 weeks ago, I think the Chargers do an even more effective job of forcing Jackson to beat them through the air consistently and snuffing out the Baltimore rushing attack, perhaps leading to a turnover or two of their own.
I know Baltimore has won 6 of its last 7 games to steal the AFC North title, but the Ravens haven’t exactly taken on the class of the NFL during that span. Their other wins came over the Bengals, Raiders, Falcons, Bucs and Browns. In fact, 9 of Baltimore’s 10 wins this year came against teams that missed the playoffs, while the Ravens lost their 2 other games against teams that qualified for postseason play (excluding the aforementioned win over the Chargers). On the other hand, the Chargers have beaten Kansas City and Seattle, and both of those wins came on the road. That makes LA the more battle-tested squad in my opinion and a team I’m certainly comfortable catching a field goal with in this spot against a Baltimore team that seems a tad overrated based on what it’s accomplished this year. I’ll take the +3 that bookies are offering as a safety net, but I’m expecting the outright upset (making the +130 moneyline worth a look as well.)