The Divisional Round NFL Playoff’s take center stage this weekend as the top eight attempted to move one step closer to Super Bowl LIII. NFL expert John Arnette returns with his betting preview and tips for another round of hard-hitting NFL action.
Colts @ Chiefs (KC -5.5, 57)
Recommendation: Indianapolis +5.5 at 1.91
The Chiefs have been the AFC’s best team for most of the season, winning 12 games while leading the conference in point differential. If you’re just looking at the past 12 weeks, however, you can make a pretty strong argument that the best team in the AFC is actually Kansas City’s opponent this weekend, the Indianapolis Colts.
Since losing 5 of their first 6 games, the Colts have been nearly unbeatable, going 10-1 over their last 11 contests and winning six of those games by double-digits. And it hasn’t just been Andrew Luck and the resurgent offense— the Indy defense has been impressive as well, limiting 5 of the team’s past 6 opponents to 21 points or fewer and surrendering just 14.0 points per game since Week 7.
Of course, that Colts D hasn’t seen an offense like they’ll see this week— the Chiefs led the NFL in both yards per game and points scored this season, putting up 26 points or more in all 16 of their games. However, it should be noted that the KC offense slowed down just a bit once the team was forced to part ways with running back Kareem Hunt, who was a dynamic threat for them as both a runner and receiver.
The Chiefs were held below 30 points just four times all season, but three of those instances came in their final 7 games, and when the offense sputters even a little bit, this KC team has trouble pulling out wins— they’re just 3-3 over their past six games, dropping 2 of 3 to close out the regular season. There’s no sugar-coating how bad the defense has been: there Chiefs surrendered 405.5 yards per game this season, worse than every team in the NFL with the exception of Cincinnati. They allowed 26.3 points per game, and the lowlights were many: Pittsburgh got ‘em for 37, New England hung 43, the Rams put up 54, Seattle scored 38 in a Week 16 win… you get the idea.
Andrew Luck is surely licking his chops at the thought of facing the league’s 31st-ranked passing defense, but it’s not just Luck that the Chiefs have to worry about, as Indy’s Marlon Mack has been a vastly underrated piece of the Colts offense over the second half of the season and is coming off a terrific game in last week’s Wild Card win over Houston, rushing for 148 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.
The Chiefs are even worse against the run than they are against the pass— they allowed over 5 yards per rush this season, a mind-boggling figure, so Mack should be able to do some damage in this one. While it’s certainly difficult to bet against the Chiefs in Arrowhead, where they’re 7-1 on the year, this is a really tough matchup for them, as the Colts are as hot as any team in the NFL and Andrew Luck is playing at an elite level. I think Indianapolis is a pretty decent value on the moneyline here, but I’ll gladly take the 5.5 points in a game that could go either way.
Cowboys @ Rams (LA -7, 49.5)
Recommendation: Los Angeles -7 at 1.88
With 8 wins in their past 9 games, the Cowboys have been on quite a roll lately, and they’ve been doing it the old-fashioned way: by running the ball and stopping the run. It’s no secret that their offensive game plan revolves around Ezekiel Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing this season and gashed the Seattle defense for 137 yards on 26 carries last week, but the real difference in this Dallas team has been the play of their defense, particularly the front seven.
Behind rangy young linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys have stonewalled opposing rushing attacks, ranking in the top-5 in both total rushing yards allowed (94.6 ypg) and yards per carry allowed (3.8 ypc). This week they face L.A.’s Todd Gurley, an elite back who was slowed by injuries towards the end of the season— Gurley missed that Rams’ final two games and took advantage of the bye last week, and yet has still been limited at practice this week, a good indication that he’s still not fully healthy.
While backup C.J. Anderson has been effective in relief of Gurley, the Dallas defense probably likes its chances against Anderson, and the situation may unlock the Cowboys’ most realistic path to victory: make the L.A. offense one-dimensional by shutting down the running game, and let Zeke Elliott run wild against a defense that allowed an NFL-worst 5.1 yards per rush the season.
It should be noted, however, that this game would’ve been viewed as a clear mismatch throughout most of the season: the Rams put up 30 points or more 12 times this season, and 7 of their 13 wins came by double-digits. And as good as the Dallas defense has been up front, they’ve struggled in the secondary at times, so Jared Goff will have some opportunities downfield in this one.
Goff has been tremendous this season, and to me, the question of this game is whether the Rams will be able to get their offense rolling. When they’re clicking, Goff & Co. can be as effective as any unit in the league, and despite Gurley’s lingering ailments, the Rams put up 30 points or more in 6 of their final 8 games.
Head coach/play-caller Sean McVay is an absolute wizard, and with an extra week to prepare he’s surely figured out a smart way to attack a Dallas defense that surrendered 637 combined passing yards over the final two games of the regular season and was easily dissected by Russell Wilson in last week’s Wild Card game, with the pundits afterwards universally condemning the Seahawks for not throwing the ball more considering the success that Wilson was having.
Rest assured, lack of aggressiveness and/or a run-first game plan will not be an issue for the Rams this week. Though I don’t think a Cowboys win here is entirely out of the question, I think the more likely scenario involves the Rams spreading out the Dallas defense and relentlessly attacking the back end, forcing the Cowboys into a shootout that they’re ill-equipped to win, considering their limitations in the passing game. Rams -7 is my play.
Chargers @ Patriots (NE -4, 46)
Recommendation: Los Angeles +4 at 1.93
For my money, this is the best game of the weekend: two elite teams; Rivers vs. Brady; sub-freezing temps; Pro Bowlers all over the field… this is what playoff football should be. The Chargers come into this game as battle-hardened as any team in the league, with a perfect 8-0 road record across four time zones. Last week they went into Baltimore and pulled out a win against the NFL’s best defense thanks to some great defense of their own, as they held the Ravens to just 229 total yards and consistently flummoxed young Baltimore QB Lamar Jackson.
They face a very different type of challenge this week, of course— nobody in the history of the league has played the quarterback position any better than Tom Brady, and though many have pointed out that Brady’s stats declined slightly this season and that age may finally be catching up with him, you can rest assured that L.A. won’t be able to confuse him in the same way that they did Jackson last week, when they played seven defensive backs for most of the game in an effort to get as much speed on the field as possible.
Brady will be ready for whatever the Chargers throw at him, so if the L.A. defense is to have any real success in this game, it won’t come by trickery: it will come via pressure from the defensive front, particularly elite pass-rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, both of whom routinely terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
Brady will have his hands full with the Chargers defense and vice-versa, but I believe this game will be decided on the other side of the ball, when Philip Rivers and the L.A. offense goes up against the New England defense. If the Chargers hope to pull off the upset, they’re going to need a big-time performance from Rivers, who struggled against Baltimore last week and has only topped 300 yards passing once in his last seven games.
But don’t let those pedestrian numbers fool you: Rivers completed 68% of his passes this season, the 5th-best mark in the NFL, and his 8.4 yards per attempt ranked 3rd in the league, so he’s still an elite player by any measure. The Patriots defense, meanwhile, ranked 22nd in pass yards allowed, and while their yards per attempt and QB rating numbers indicate that their secondary is perhaps a bit better than it’s generally given credit for, there’s no doubt that Rivers will have opportunities down the field in this game, and in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, he’s got receivers at his disposal who are adept at winning one-on-one battles. The running game should be a factor as well, as both Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler are back in the lineup for L.A. after battling injuries over the past few weeks, and New England was extremely vulnerable against the run this season, surrendering more yards per carry than all but four teams leaguewide.
Bottom line: the Chargers were simply a better team than the Patriots this season numbers-wise. It really can’t be disputed. But the histories of both teams, the venue, the weather, and the Brady/Belichick mystique are obviously major factors here… I mean, hey, we’ve all seen this before, right? We know how it usually ends, but something tells me we could be in for a different sort of ending this time around. I think I’ll take my chances with the Chargers as a 4-point ‘dog.
Eagles @ Saints (NO -8, 50.5)
Recommendation: New Orleans -8 at 1.91
When these teams met back in Week 11, the result was an ugly, one-sided beatdown the likes of which is rarely seen in professional football. It was more like one of those college games where State U fattens up on Tumbleweed Tech: the home team put up 546 yards and 48 points, while the plucky visitors could manage just 7 points and 196 total yards. In college football, Tumbleweed Tech would actually be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of being smashed into bits in front of 80,000 bloodthirsty fans, and the players would go on to tell their grandchildren about the time they were flattened by Johnny All-American, or patted on the butt by Legendary Coach X.
In the NFL, however, there are no such perks for being on the wrong end of a bloodbath, there’s only shame, embarrassment, and frustration. And I’m sure the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles experienced all of those emotions after they absorbed a 41-point beating at the hands of these Saints two months ago, but they responded like champions, winning 5 of their final 6 regular season games to snag the NFC’s final Wild Card spot, and then going into Chicago and beating the heavily-favored Bears last week. They now have an opportunity to atone for the most disgraceful performance of the Doug Pederson era, and if they can somehow manage a 42-point reversal, they’ll be just one win away from yet another Super Bowl appearance.
It sort of has a storybook feel, doesn’t it? The team that was doubted throughout the playoffs last season— underdogs in every game— is an underdog again. Nick Foles is back under center, and the Cult of St. Nick saw their faith grow stronger after another remarkable victory last week, when Foles hit Golden Tate for the go-ahead touchdown on a 4th-and-goal play before the football gods saw fit to ruin Cody Parkey’s life (or at the very least, end his time in Chicago). Now, the Team of Destiny can find redemption at the site of its greatest disappointment, and Foles can add Drew Brees to the list of Hall of Fame quarterbacks he’s bested with everything on the line.
But wait— reality’s calling. This isn’t a fairy tale, and when the Eagles take the field in the Superdome on Sunday, they’re going to have to deal with the same matchups that made them appear so utterly helpless a few weeks back. The secondary will still have major problems with Drew Brees and the hyper-efficient Saints attack; Brees sliced them up for 363 yards on only 30 attempts the first time around, and though the Philly secondary is a little healthier now than it was then, it’s still a unit that ranked 30th in the NFL in passing defense this season and was lit up for 339 yards by Houston’s Deshaun Watson as recently as Week 16.
On the other side of the ball, the pressure will be on Foles to keep pace with Brees and the Saints, because New Orleans has the league’s second-ranked rushing defense and has made opposing offenses one-dimensional all season. Frankly, I just don’t see where the Eagles have any edge at all here— the Saints are the superior team in just about every facet, and they’re playing at the Superdome, where Brees has been incredibly tough to beat throughout his career. I doubt the result will be quite as lopsided as the first time around, but New Orleans should cruise to an easy victory here. Lay the points.
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*odds subject to change.