How to Handicap Big NFL Games
The NFL Playoffs don't begin until January. But we have a few matchups this weekend that are definitely going to feel like playoff games because so much is at stake.
Saturday: LA Chargers at Kansas City
These two teams are tied for first place in the AFC South. The winner will be in the driver's seat to earn home field advantage on Wildcard Weekend. The loser will have to battle just to get into the playoffs as a Wildcard because they'll be 7-7 with two games to go.
Sunday: Green Bay at Carolina
Aaron Rodgers is back in the lineup for the Packers, who have a chance to win out and finish 10-6. That, by itself, wouldn't be enough to get in unless some teams above them also lose. But, it's certainly now or never for the 2017 Packers. Carolina is sitting pretty at 9-4, but also needs to keep winning because the NFC Wildcard race is so tight.
Sunday: LA Rams at Seattle
First place in the NFC West is at stake here. The loser is in very real danger of missing the playoffs entirely. That may seem impossible for the Rams, given how well they've played this season. But, a loss would make them 9-5 at a time when two teams in the NFC South could also be that good or better. Seattle would probably be toast for the postseason if they fall to 8-6.
Sunday: New England at Pittsburgh
The two best teams in the AFC battle for the #1 seed, which would give the winner home field in what's expected to be an eventual playoff rematch for a Super Bowl berth. Sure, Jacksonville or some other spoiler could mess up those plans. But, these two teams know they're the best...and they know what's at stake. Given the talent of these Hall of Fame quarterbacks, this might be the best regular season game of the whole year.
I could have added Miami/Buffalo. But, that would be a really BAD playoff game given how shaky those teams have been this season. Both the Dolphins and Bills do have a shot at earning the second Wildcard though. I expect both teams will bring playoff intensity though they don't have playoff talent.
How should you handicap games like this when THE MOTIVATION FACTOR cancels out because so much is at stake...and when the number of PLAYMAKERS and GAMEBREAKERS is likely a dead heat as well because the teams are so evenly matched? Here's some advice for students of my Advanced College of Sports Betting.
*Focus on COACHES
Knowing how to win big games REALLY matters in big games! I suggest all of you review recent coaching histories for the head coaches of the teams mentioned above. For veterans, you already know that Bill Belichick knows how to win when it matters. Which of the coaches have established that they DON'T? Which new relatively new head coaches (a couple of those in the mix) may be in over their heads because you have to lose some big games before you know how to win them? I've believed for decades that the betting markets do a poor job of properly evaluating head coaching impact on straight up and point spread performance. That really matters in playoff-style football.
*Focus on TURNOVERS
You may believe that turnovers are mostly random in important football games matching good teams. There's certainly some randomness involved. But, some quarterbacks are more turnover prone than others. Some play it so safe that they're just not going to give away any free points to the other team. Also, on defense, certain styles do a much better job of "forcing" turnovers than others. Study the career characteristics of these quarterbacks in terms of interceptions and fumbles in the pocket. Study this year's "takeaway" tendencies of the defenses. See if you can find a potential advantage the market has missed.
*Focus on GAME CONDITIONS
If it turns out to be rainy in Seattle, which of the Rams and Seahawks is better suited to deal with that? Can a rusty Aaron Rodgers perform on the road against a good defense in conditions that might not be friendly to quarterbacks? Some teams have to battle the elements. Others are helped by them. Study the forecasts and think through the process so you're sailing with the wind at your back rather than hoping your team has to overcome an additional hurdle.
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The Dean of Sports Handicapping greatly appreciates your continuing attendance and hard work. I trust that you'll get right to the homework when you finish reading...and that you've already completed last week's homework designed to get you ready for the college football bowls. A prepared handicapper is a winning handicapper. A winning handicapper earns his money at the expense of casual fans who bet ill-informed hunches. See you again next week.