For the first time ever, we had six games in the wildcard round, and we were not disappointed!
It all started with a down-to-the-wire matchup between the Colts and Bills. Then, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks suffered a massive letdown, which led right into a Tom Brady-Taylor Heinicke shootout! On Sunday, the Ravens got their revenge on the Titans and the Saints kept their hopes of winning another Super Bowl for Drew Brees alive. If that wasn’t enough, the Browns, yes the Browns, won a postseason game in Pittsburgh in which they didn’t have their head coach! This season truly has been remarkable.
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 the best defense facing the best offense, which leads right into a primetime matchup featuring two of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the NFL. From there, we also get to see another Baker Mayfield-Patrick Mahomes rematch from their big-12 days, and then have the luxury of watching one last Tom Brady-Drew Brees showdown!
NOTE: Model will be updated with injury updates, power ratings calculated with injuries in mind
*Odds via Vegas Insider
Los Angeles Rams (11-6, 6th) at Green Bay Packers (13-3, 1st)
Rams Win Probability: 43.44000254%
They say that defense doesn’t matter, but the Rams are putting that notion to the test! They are allowing nearly half the expected points added/play as the #2 defense (Steelers) in the league, and have built a bullet-proof unit. Defensive coordinator Brandon Staley runs his defense through his secondary by playing a lot of two-high coverages and focusing on stopping explosive passes, and honestly, he’s leading the next wave of defenses. Meanwhile, despite who is at quarterback, head coach Sean McVay is able to still run a competent offense based on his ability to create yardage for his receivers after the catch, which could work well against a Packers defense that has struggled with tackling and against horizontal offenses in the past.
Packers Win Probability: 56.55999746%
With all due respect to the Rams defense, I don’t think anyone can come close to stopping the Packers offense. They are generating 0.36 EPA/pass attempt, and rank as Pro Football Focus’ #1 unit in opponent-adjusted grades; they have the highest-graded quarterback and receiver, per PFF, which is quite the combination. In these types of “strength vs strength” matchups, the better offense almost always exploits the better defense, and there is no reason to believe that Aaron Rodgers will be spooked by Staley’s unique coverage looks the way the Seahawks were. Oh, and Jared Goff is playing with a broken thumb and the Rams averaged -0.383 EPA/pass attempt last week.
Projected Winner: GB by 5.69
Spread: GB (-6.5)
Projected Spread: GB (-2.17)
Moneyline Value: LAR
Over/Under Total Projection: 51.9 (Real O/U= 45.5)
If the Rams had a healthy quarterback, then I think this would be an extremely close game. Unfortunately, they don’t, meaning that they likely won’t be able to keep up with the Packers. Good offenses beat good defenses, and that will likely be the case here. Nevertheless, given Sean McVay’s play-calling abilities and Green Bay’s issues defending his style of offense, in addition to the Rams’ overall star power, I think that the Rams are certainly being somewhat undervalued right now.
The best value in this game is with the total. This total is too low because of the Rams, as they have struggled on offense and have a great defense. However, even against Los Angeles, the Packers are going to score points, lessening the pressure on the Rams to score in order to meet the total. 45 points for any game featuring Aaron Rodgers and Sean McVay is too low, though the weather will need to be monitored.
Baltimore Ravens (12-5, 5th) at Buffalo Bills (14-3, 2nd)
Ravens Win Probability: 45.3075599%
Here come the Ravens! Baltimore has yet to lose a game since Lamar Jackson was activated from the COVID-19 list, and finished the regular season with the best point differential. Jackson’s dual-threat ability is once again being maximized, as since he came back, they are easily the most efficient rushing attack (.243 EPA/attempt) in the NFL. They are facing the worst run defense in the NFL, which plays right into their strengths, and thus, they ought to be able to continue to look like their 2019 selves. The matchups are very favorable for them here, especially since the Bills are allowing the second-most yards to tight ends this season; this could be a huge game for tight end Mark Andrews.
Bills Win Probability: 54.46924401%
Believe it or not, but the Bills are the top-rated team in the AFC, according to my model. They rank 2nd in EPA/play on drop backs this season, which speaks to how productive Josh Allen has been this year. Per PFF, he has a 5.76% big time-throw rate and 91.6 overall grade, and is passing the ball better than Jackson. It also helps that he has the second-highest graded receiving corps, a brilliant play caller in Brian Daboll, and the seventh-highest graded pass-blocking offensive line. The Ravens run a lot of man coverage and single-safety sets, which opens up a lot of opportunities for Allen to continue to push the ball down the field for explosive passes. In a close game, the better passing offense is generally the side you want to be on.
Projected Winner: BUF by 4.04
Spread: BUF (-2.5)
Projected Spread: BUF (-1.55)
Moneyline Value: None
Over/Under Total Projection: 53.62 (Real O/U= 50)
This game is going to be absolutely incredible.
The matchups highly favor both offenses. The Ravens should be able to rush the ball as efficiently as one can, while Allen has performed well against the blitz and single-safety coverages this season. For that reason, the best value has to be with the total projection; points will be scored, and it is very tough to get a read on who will win.
Both of these teams are incredibly progress and will leverage any small win-probability advantage possible. If forced to pick a side, though, I would lean with the Bills, who haven’t missed a beat for the entire second half of the season and are the far more diverse passing offense. Their ability to change the game with one play given their star power at the receiver position should give them the same edge they had against the Colts this week. To be honest, I don’t think I have been more excited for a game this year!
Cleveland Browns (13-5, 13th) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-2, 3rd)
Browns Win Probability: 37.36312396%
Ever since their embarrassing Week 6 loss to the Steelers, the Browns have quietly been one of the top offenses in the NFL. They rank 6th in EPA/play since then, while Baker Mayfield is 4th in EPA/dropback. That’s right; contrary to public belief, this team runs through Mayfield and the passing offense. His 5.12% big-time throw rate (per PFF) is tremendous, and their offense currently is rated higher by PFF’s opponent-adjusted grades than the Chiefs! Oh, and it should help that they will have their head coach, as well as their key defensive backs and offensive lineman back this week!
Chiefs Win Probability: 62.63687604%
Then again, there is a reason the Chiefs won 14 games in the regular season. They still have my model’s top-ranked offense, and as long as Patrick Mahomes is healthy, that won’t change. The Browns benefitted a lot from turnovers and mistakes by the Steelers offense, and if you think they’ll be able to have the same luck against a team coached by Andy Reid off of a bye, you are surely mistaken. For as well as Mayfield has played, he hasn’t had to come back from behind in many games, and even if they get a lead, Kansas City simply has much more explosiveness and perimeter talent.
Projected Winner: KC by 9.36
Spread: KC (-10)
Projected Spread: KC (-4.17)
Moneyline Value: CLE
Over/Under Total Projection: 58.04 (Real O/U= 57)
Despite the point spread, this should be a very fun game to watch!
In fact, it contains my model’s highest total projection of the season. These two offenses are tremendously productive, and since neither defense is anything to write home about, points will not be at a premium.
The Chiefs haven’t been extremely impressive in their wins this season, as they have been awful when it comes to covering the spread. However, it is likely that they’ll turn it up come playoff time, and if that is the case, then they’ll win this game with ease; they’re on another level from Cleveland.
At the same time, what if their inability to pull away from teams isn’t a fluke? The Browns will go for it on ever fourth-down possible and will score points, which are the two best ways to beat the Chiefs. Thus, their moneyline is great value as a long shot bet, particularly since the Browns have generally been one of the more undervalued teams.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5, 4th) at New Orleans Saints (13-4, 10th)
Bucs Win Probability: 57.58446491%
The Bucs may have lost to the Saints twice in the regular season, but they are now the substantially better team. They have scored 153 points in the past 14 quarters played, and that includes a dominant performance against a well-regarded Washington defense. The quarterback mismatch here is notable, to say the least:
- Tom Brady: 93.3 PFF Grade, 6.66% big-time throw rate, 1.66% turnover-worthy play rate
- Drew Brees: 74 PFF Grade, 3.48% big-time throw rate, 4.13% turnover-worthy play rate
Now that they have had more time to mesh together and are passing the ball on early downs, Tampa Bay is unstoppable. Brady has been the most-valuable quarterback outside of Aaron Rodgers, in my opinion, and the Bucs are the top offense in EPA/play from Week 15 on. It also doesn’t hurt that they have a very talented defense with two tremendous cornerbacks and a run defense that will slow down one of the more run-heavy offenses in the NFL.
Saints Win Probability: 42.41553509%
There has to be a reason the Saints had so much success against Tampa Bay in the regular season, right? For starters, Brees is built to pick apart their defense. The Bucs blitz often, which doesn’t faze him, and also opens up one-on-one matchups to exploit: Alvin Kamara vs Devin White, Jared Cook vs their safeties, whoever plays in the slot against Sean Murphy-Bunting. Especially after the first two matchups, I would say New Orleans has the coaching advantage here, while they also have more to play for given that this is Brees’ last stand. I wouldn’t be shocked if Sean Payton has some wrinkles up his sleeve in this one.
Projected Winner: TB by 5.79
Spread: NO (-3)
Projected Spread: TB (-2.5)
Moneyline Value: TB
Over/Under Total Projection: 51.6 (Real O/U= 52)
Brees vs Brady one last time, let’s do it!
This happens to be my model’s top bet of the season. In what world should the Saints be favored against the Bucs? A lot has changed since they last played, and by now, I think it is more than safe to say Tampa Bay is the better team. Considering they are the only who can push the ball down the field, it’s hard to see them not winning this game.
In the battle between old quarterbacks, one has regressed while the other is only getting better. Per yards/play, this is the worst offense Sean Payton ever has had, and the Saints are very reliant on third downs (sixth-most third downs). Against a very strong defense, their run-heavy tendencies and conservativeness will come back to bite them, particularly with Brady and co. likely to continue to score as many points as imaginable. Anything can happen in the playoffs, but Tampa Bay’s moneyline, as well as them with the spread, feels like as close to easy money as possible in a sport with a lot of random variation.
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.
- TB (+3) at NO
- TB (+150) at NO
- CLE (+400) at KC
- LAR at GB (Over 45.5)
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!