2020-21 NFL Wildcard Round Game-By-Game Model Projections

It is finally here!

The playoffs are upon us! Week 17 didn’t possess the same type of “pizazz” it normally does, as there weren’t any major shakeups in the playoff picture, but there were plenty of storylines to follow, and it was our last chance to watch the 18 teams who did not qualify for the playoffs.

With that, let us examine my model’s projections for every game in the wildcard round slate. My model is able to calculate a team’s chances of winning by using Pro Football Focus grades and coaching adjustments, and from there, calculating the gap between the two teams before covering it into a win probability. In the past, that win probability was used to project a spread, and from there, it served as more a model to pick against the spread.

However, this was never my goal with the model. Rather, I want it to be able to project the estimated margin of victory by each team. Luckily, I have now transformed my model to calculate how much better a team is than average on a neutral field, and from there, those totals can be used to project how much one team will beat another by. Now, I can provide reasonable expectations for you all on how a game should turn out.

If you had been interested in the betting aspect of this model, however, fret not! You can still utilize the difference in margin of victory and spread to find the best values from a spread perspective, while my model now projects recommended money lines and over/under totals. After we go through all the games, I will go over the model’s top bets of the week, so you will want to stick around until the end!

Also, home-field advantage has been non-existent this season in terms of point differential, so for more accurate projections to made, there won’t be any points added to help home teams.

With that addressed, let us get to the wildcard round! It all starts with two of the best-ran teams in the NFL, includes two divisional matchups, an intriguing rematch, Tom Brady trying to avoid a letdown against a 7-9 team, as well as a redemption opportunity for the Ravens. This is going to be an incredibly fun slate of games!

NOTE: Model will be updated with injury updates, power ratings calculated with injuries in mind

*Odds via Vegas Insider

SATURDAY

Indianapolis Colts (11-5, 7th) at Buffalo Bills (13-3, 3rd)

Photo Cred: Bills Wire-USAToday.com

Colts Win Probability: 44.49840679%

There is no better way to describe the Colts than as an incredibly functional, well-rounded team. They rank 12th in Pro Football Focus opponent-adjusted offense grades and 8th in opponent-adjusted defense grades, and they’ve been remarkably consistent week-to-week. Their defensive scheme, which is built to limit big plays, could give Josh Allen some fits; if they force him to settle for underneath passes, perhaps they can coax a few turnovers. I have a lot of faith in head coach Frank Reich and this coaching staff, and against a talented team, their lack of a clear flaw may be their greatest strength.

Bills Win Probability: 55.50159321%

The Colts are aggressive and are coached tremendously, but so are the Bills. What Buffalo has that Indianapolis doesn’t is an elite receiving corps and one of the top-performing quarterbacks in the NFL. Thus, they have much more explosiveness, which gives them a distinct edge in this game. Phillip Rivers in the cold against a strong secondary seems like a disaster waiting to happen for Indianapolis.

Projected Winner: BUF by 4.38

Spread: BUF (-6.5)

Projected Spread: BUF (1.82)

Moneyline Value: IND

Over/Under Total Projection: 54.38 (Real O/U= 51.5)

This is a very interesting game. The Colts theoretically have the favorable matchups here, given their defensive scheme and the likelihood they may be able to generate positive expected points added (EPA) running the ball against a porous run defense.

When it comes to passing the ball, however, the Bills have a clear advantage. Should this be a close game, you can count on them for a big play through the air, and I don’t see that being the case with the Colts. Both teams have a lot of roster depth, which means starpower will make the difference, and Buffalo has more of that than Indianapolis.

I do think this is a closer game, and that the Colts aren’t being given a fair enough chance here. I also see it being more high-scoring, particularly in the first half, as both offenses are very strong when it comes to scripted offense. It’s a shame for Indianapolis that they’re being matched up with a team just as aggressive and well-coached as them, and this may be a symbolic game for both quarterbacks: Allen taking off while Rivers potentially plays in his final game, at least in the postseason.

Los Angeles Rams (10-6, 12th) at Seattle Seahawks (12-4, 8th)

Photo Cred: Pro Football Network

Rams Win Probability: 45.27128173%

Although they don’t have Jared Goff, the Rams are still a solid football team. Goff has severe limitations, and a lot of his production is from head coach Sean McVay’s scheme. Even with John Wolford under center, they can generate yardage after the catch with Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, while Wolford is also more mobile than Goff. Obviously, Goff is better, but it’s not like they’re incompetent without him. McVay has had a lot of success against the Seahawks defense in the past, and I could see him crafting up a surprisingly productive offense against a defense that may be overvalued based on recent success against poor offenses.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ defense is exceptional, and moves the needle as much a defense can. They’re also a perfect fit to slow down the Seahawks. They have a lot of depth in the secondary, an interior pass rush to exploit Seattle’s issues on the offensive line, and also have a defensive coordinator that actually understands that in 2020, the goal is to limit explosive passes. Maybe that’s why they allowed only 36 points to Seattle this season.

Seahawks Win Probability: 54.72871827%

Matchups are fun, but at the end of the day, this is Russell Wilson against John Wolford. Who do you want to trust in a playoff game? The Rams passing attack is generating far less EPA/pass attempt (0.12) than Seattle, and isn’t exactly something the Seahawks should be scared to face. A play-caller can only do so much, and since McVay relies too much on an inefficient rushing attack, which is going to something he can’t do against the league’s top-graded run defense from PFF, his conservativeness may counteract with Seattle’s conservativeness. Thus, the Seahawks’ inability to win within the margins may not come back to bite them in this game.

Projected Winner: SEA by 2.95

Spread: SEA (-3.5)

Projected Spread: SEA (-1.56)

Moneyline Value: LAR

Over/Under Total Projection: 46.31 (Real O/U= 42.5)

Divisional matchups in the playoffs are incredibly fascinating. We’ve already seen them adjust to each other after the first matchup, but now, we get to see it again.

The Seahawks come in the postseason on a sour note. In their last five games, they have lost to the Colt McCoy-led Giants, almost lost to Dwayne Haskins and CJ Beathard, and barely beat the Rams when Jared Goff was playing with a broken thumb. A major reason why has been their return to a run-oriented offenses, which places a lot of pressure on Wilson. Against the league’s best defense, with a lethal interior pass rusher in Aaron Donald and a loaded secondary, that could mean another inefficient game from the offense. Yet, when you have such a severe quarterback advantage, nothing else truly matters.

This may seem surprising, but my model sees value on the over here. These two teams didn’t eclipse the current total in either of the first two matchups, and the defenses appear to have the edge here. Yet, there’s always the opportunity of a dominant performance by Wilson, while McVay has carved up the Seahawks’ defense repeatedly in the past.

The Rams are probably the better team with Goff healthy, but right now, it’s hard to not side with Wilson. I wouldn’t be surprised if Los Angeles pulls off the upset, yet this figures to be a game where Seattle’s star quarterback hides all of their other clear flaws, many of which they have created by their own poor strategy.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5, 4th) at Washington (7-9, 15th)

Photo Cred: DraftKings Nation

Bucs Win Probability: 64.74082439%

Few teams are hotter than the Bucs right now. In their last ten quarters, they have scored a total of 122 points, while Tom Brady has earned a PFF passing grade over 85 in each of their last three games. Unfortunately for every other team, this appears to represent who they truly are. During this hot stretch, head coach Bruce Arians has shifted to a much more pass-heavy offense on early downs, which has maximized a loaded passing attack with Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and Mike Evans (if healthy) all lethal weapons. There’s no stopping this offense when they don’t get out of their own way, and it doesn’t hurt that they also my model’s fourth-ranked defense as well!

Washington Win Probability: 35.25917561%

For what it is worth, Washington is 5-1 in games that Alex Smith has started this season. Plus, the Bucs’ offensive success has come against the Falcons and Lions, so facing one of the elite defenses in the NFL at least provides a greater test. The real chance for Washington here is Tampa Bay getting in their own way, which could happen. They’ve done so in the past against tougher defenses, and there is a chance, albeit a small one, that they do so here as well.

Projected Winner: TB by 9.67

Spread: TB (-8.5)

Projected Spread: TB (-4.87)

Moneyline Value: WSH

Over/Under Total Projection: 45.27 (Real O/U= 45)

The Bucs are on fire right now, which is something many anticipated would happen as they meshed better with one another.

At the same time, they haven’t exactly been tested, and their experiences facing high-end defenses haven’t gone well. It is possible they get in their own way, which means there is value for Washington’s money line here as a longshot play.

Yet, we’re not even sure if Smith is playing in this game, and the blowout potential here is huge. Thus, I’m not confident backing Washington as an underdog here; they’re extremely injured and I’m never going to go with the defensive-minded team versus the team with Tom Brady. There is a lot we can learn from this game from the Bucs’ perspective as they make a Super Bowl run, but barring a miracle, I can’t see Washington scoring enough points to not go one and done as a 7-9 division winner.

SUNDAY

Baltimore Ravens (11-5, 5th) at Tennessee Titans (11-5, 6th)

Photo Cred: Russell Street Report

Ravens Win Probability: 50.59410449%

Sticking with the team of hot #5 seeds that no one wants to face, the Ravens qualify. They have scored 27+ points in each of their past five games, including three games with 38+ points, and quietly have the league’s best point differential. Lamar Jackson is playing like his 2019 MVP-self as of late, and he’s also been much more willing to utilize his abilities as a scrambler. Overall, their rushing attack is back to being so explosive that it generates positive EPA/attempt, and I wouldn’t want to discount the strides they’ve made as a passing offense as well.

Titans Win Probability: 49.40589551%

Nevertheless, the Titans have the better offense; they rank 3rd in PFF opponent-adjusted grades and 4th in my model. Stopping AJ Brown, Corey Davis, and Ryan Tannehill is something that teams simply haven’t been able to do this season, and the better passing offense generally prevails. In fact, they are generating 0.21 more EPA/pass attempt than Baltimore, and are generating nearly the same EPA/rush attempt as them as well. The Ravens have struggled with tackling all year, something that isn’t ideal facing a team loaded with such dynamic weapons, nor do their offensive strengths line up with Tennessee’s defensive deficiencies: the Titans are vulnerable in the deep passing game with no pass rush, something Baltimore doesn’t have the personnel to exploit.

Projected Winner: BAL by 0.44

Spread: BAL (-3)

Projected Spread: BAL (-0.2)

Moneyline Value: TEN

Over/Under Total Projection: 52.57 (Real O/U= 55)

If you like to watch old-school rushing attacks, this is the game for you. Both of these teams rank in the top-3 in rushing play rate, and are probably the two best rushing offenses in the NFL.

Yet, it is who passes the ball better that will determine this game. Tennessee’s passing attack is far more efficient than their rushing attack, so if they open up the offense, they definitely should win this game. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that will be the case, which turns the tide in the favor of the blazing-hot Ravens. Their blitz-happy defense could cause trouble to Tannehill if he is forced into obvious passing situations, and overall, they probably are the more well-rounded team.

I don’t believe this game should be anything other than a pick-em. Thus, siding with Tennessee is the only viable option. Game script ultimately will decide this, as neither team is built to play from behind, although the Titans did stage a comeback against them when they faced off in the regular season. All in all, I have no idea how this game will go, but that makes it certainly the most exciting matchup of the weekend slate!

Chicago Bears (8-8, 18th) at New Orleans Saints (12-4, 9th)

Photo Cred: Chicago Tribune

Bears Win Probability: 40.034841546%

By winning three of their last four, the Bears were able to sneak into the playoffs. Their offense has been trending upward, with 25+ points scored in five of their past six games. Mainly, head coach Matt Nagy is helping Mitch Trubsiky out tremendously with play-action passes and generating yardage after the catch, and they have enough playmakers to make it work. Meanwhile, with a 4.56% turnover-worthy play rate, per PFF, Drew Brees has not been his usual self this season, nor have the Saints been particularly invincible this season.

Saints Win Probability: 59.996158454%

At the same time, New Orleans has the better offense and defense in this matchup. Chicago’s defense also has some leaks they may be able to exploit. For instance, they lack cornerback depth, which is an issue with Michael Thomas expected to return, while they have struggled to defend the middle of the field. Since the Saints rely so much on receiving production from non-wide receivers, it is safe to say the matchups favor them here, especially if they get positive field position by a few Mitch Trubsiky mistakes; their pass rush could cause damage against a very weak offensive line and a quarterback prone to take sacks.

Projected Winner: NO by 5.12

Spread: NO (-9.5)

Projected Spread: NO (-3.29)

Moneyline Value: CHI

Over/Under Total Projection: 46.62 (Real O/U= 47)

My model has been low on the Saints all season long, and it continues to fade them as they enter the playoffs. In what could be Drew Brees’ last ride, he isn’t playing well right now, and although they have been productive offensively, they have relied a lot on one of the league’s most productive rushing offenses. They’re far more talented than Chicago, but their inability to create big plays through the air prevents them from separating from teams.

Thus, Chicago as a massive underdog is the easiest pick of the week, while their money line holds value as well. Even if they shouldn’t be expected to pull of an upset, the Saints are the type of team prone to a letdown in any week given their reliance on perfection (no explosiveness). After all, this wouldn’t be their first postseason collapse.

I think this is a more fascinating game than many others believe it to be. If this is really Brees’ last chance, he’ll need help from a franchise that he has elevated for such a long time, and at some point, when you get in the postseason enough, your luck should be better. Will that be the case for the Saints this time around? All we can do is sit back and enjoy the show!

Cleveland Browns (11-5, 14th) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, 10th)

Photo Cred: Daily American

Browns Win Probability: 46.0595237%

Are the Browns a better team than the Steelers? They’ve earned the higher grade from PFF this season, as also have a much better offense. They’ll be without head coach Kevin Stefanski, but Baker Mayfield has done his part this season, with a 81.6 PFF grade and 5.47% big-time throw rate. The Steelers defense has dealt with injuries, and have regressed throughout the season, so Cleveland’s big-play ability should play a role in this game. Also, it’s not as though their issues defensively will be exploited if Ben Roethlisberger continues to be conservative.

Steelers Win Probability: 53.9404763%

When you’re not going to have the services of your head coach, who is one of the best play-callers in the NFL, you would prefer if wasn’t a playoff game against the Steelers, who are still arguably the best defense. Their ability to generate pressure could give Baker Mayfield, who is notoriously bad when pressured, some major problems, as should the overall confusion without Stefanski. Additionally, Roethlisberger did display the ability to throw the ball down the field in their Week 16 win against the Colts, and with a talented group of deep threats, there will be plenty of chances for him to build off of that.

Projected Winner: PIT by 2.15

Spread: PIT (-6)

Projected Spread: PIT (-1.3)

Moneyline Value: CLE

Over/Under Total Projection: 46.47 (Real O/U= 47.5)

Some games are just different. When you are in the playoffs for the first time in a decade, that would qualify.

The Browns enter this game with several players on the COVID-19 list, as well as their head coach. That is a lot of adversity to overcome against an experienced, well-run team. If Pittsburgh doesn’t win this game, that would be quite the letdown.

Yet, should it be that unexpected if Cleveland somehow does win? They have the far superior offense, even without Stefanski, and although against a lot of backups, Mayfield held up much better against their blitz-happy offense in Week 17. When you have the better quarterback, you cannot be counted out, and although my gut says the Steelers win here, the Browns as a six-point underdog is a very tempting pick that my model just sees as not holding substantial enough value to be a pick.

Better offense versus the more experienced team without so many players and coaches on the COVID-19 list. We’ll see what truly holds more value in this game. Either way, the Browns being back in the playoffs is extremely fun, and nothing is better than a classic AFC North showdown on Sunday Night Football!

Best Model Picks

Although my model is more of a projection model than a betting model, we can still use it to identify the best value picks. To do so, I calculated the average difference from Vegas’ lines and the model’s projections, as well as the standard deviation. Thus, all of these picks are listed because they are one deviation over from the average difference.

SPREAD

  1. CHI (+9.5) at NO

MONEYLINE

  1. CHI (+380) at NO
  2. WSH (+350) vs TB

OVER/UNDER

  1. LAR at SEA (Over 42.5)

All odds are updated from Vegas Insider as of Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. Additionally, all advanced metrics are courtesy of Pro Football Focus. Remember, these are based on blind projections, so when it comes to betting on games, please bet responsibily and realize that as a small-sample size sport, anything can happen within one game of football! Hey, that’s the fun of it all; enjoy a great weekend of playoff football!

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