Sunday Wild Card Previews
NFL WILD CARD PLAYOFF GAMES - THE SUNDAY SHOWDOWNS
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (12-4) at BALTIMORE (10-6) - 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS / Line: Baltimore - 2.5 and 42 points
Folks in/around the LA Chargers are calling this one "instant revenge" because - as we know - the Ravens went out to the left coast just two weekends ago and battered this AFC West crew 22-10 and that wound up costing the Bolts a numero uno seed in the conference playoffs. Now, the Chargers want payback against the league's top-ranked defense - Baltimore surrendered less than 300 yards per game (see 292.9 ypg) and that's saying something in this modern-day NFL. If Chargers' slinger Philip Rivers (4,308 yards passing with 32 TDs) can't get heated up here, then any/all hope for LA will come in the form of stuffing the Baltimore ground game and elusive rookie QB Lamar Jackson (695 yards rushing / 4.7 ypc). Spread Stuff - The Chargers are 7-4-1 ATS (against the spread) as underdogs under second-year boss Anthony Lynn while the Ravens enter their first post-season bash since 2014 with a wobbly 4-10 ATS mark as betting favorites since late 2017.
PHILADELPHIA (9-7) at CHICAGO (12-4) - 4:40 p.m. ET, NBC / Line: Chicago - 6.5 and 41.5 points
Gotta go all the way back to 2011 to find the last time that a defending Super Bowl champion lost its first playoff game the following year: Green Bay won it all back in 2010 and then were rubbed out at home in '11 in a 37-20 loss to the New York "Football" Giants ... so there! Now, the Philly Eagles hope to avoid that "distinction" and yet Doug Pederson's crew is a near-TD underdog for this clash in Chitown where the Bears sport the league's best rush defense, third-best overall "D" and one of the fiercest pass rushes in the land. Did you know the Bears have 10 players with two-or-more sacks including mega-star Khalili Mack (12.5)? On the flip side, Chicago QB Mitchell Trubisky (3,223 yards passing) - who threw 12 picks this year -- needs to avoid the wrong-way throw here against an Eagles' secondary that's paper-thin these days. Spread Stuff - Chicago's rolling into these playoffs with nine covers in its last 10 games while Philadelphia has covered nine of its last 13 games when in the dog role.
Kelso went 2-0 in Saturday's Wild Cards and 3-0 with Best Bet Basketball. That's a 5-0 Day For Kelso's Playoff Package!
It’s shaping up as one of the most exciting Wildcard Weekends in years. The stars have really aligned because we have high quality Wildcards, divisional winners who could go deep if they can clear this first hurdle, and good quarterbacks rather than injury-riddled teams limping into the postseason with helpless backups.
Is there any team playing this week that has NO chance to run the table? The biggest underdog is the defending Super Bowl champion, led by a quarterback who has peaked against his toughest challenges! Anything can happen this weekend…and then next weekend as well.
Of course, the danger there is that there are no obvious “fade” teams. Everybody belongs. Everybody has at least one way to move the ball. Handicappers will have to dig deep to find edges.
*QUARTERBACK EXPERIENCE: This is probably going to matter. Early betting is already suggesting that it’s a key factor. First money in took the experienced Andrew Luck over the relatively inexperienced DeShaun Watson, and the experienced Philip Rivers over rookie Lamar Jackson. It’s also taking Nick Foles at +6 over Mitchell Trubisky, though that great Bears defense was getting respect at lower lines.
Quarterback experience could be a tie-breaker because so little separates this week’s opponents. Which offense will get that one extra third down conversion that puts points on the board rather than punting? Which offense will score touchdowns in the red zone rather than field goals? Which offense will avoid the killer turnover that sends the game careening toward their opponent? If you want to bet Houston, Baltimore, or Chicago, you’ll have to make the case that your young QB won’t be a negative influence in his playoff debut.
*RED ZONE DEFENSE: This looms large every season, and may be more important than ever after rules changes that have helped offenses. Most defenses are allowing yards in the middle of the field. The difference between winning and losing is often holding a team to 3 points in the red zone instead of allowing the full 7. Maybe just doing that ONCE will be the difference-maker. Doing it more than once will send you to the second weekend. We've telling you that DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS. We’re going to stick to that theme until reality tells us the world has changed.
*COACHING SAVVY: This is likely a tie-breaker as well. Which teams will punt when they should go-for-it. Seriously...ONE mistake in this area might decide who wins and covers an important game. The league is evolving toward smarter coaching strategies thanks to analytics. That’s why so many guys who couldn’t cut the mustard were fired earlier this week (or earlier this season). Be sure you spend some time thinking about each head coach…and the chances that he’s going to make the right call in the fourth quarter of a close game.
Weather only has a chance to be a factor in two of the four games. So, we won’t make that a separate bullet point. But, once you’re confident of the game-day conditions in Baltimore and Chicago, try to evaluate which teams are best-suited to thrive in those conditions. It’s not always obvious. Think about skill sets rather than what part of the country teams are from. It wouldn’t hurt to go back through the regular season to study how the Chargers, Ravens, Eagles, and Bears performed in similar conditions.