Are NFL Defenses Back in Control

Early in the 2018 NFL season, it looked like offenses were going to dominate the league. Offseason changes had made it very difficult to slow down passing attacks. If you breathed on a receiver you got called for pass interference or holding. If you looked funny at the quarterback you got called for roughing the passer.

Luckily, the refs started swallowing their whistles more later in the year. That allowed the best defenses to impose their will on proceedings a bit more. We were watching REAL football again, rather than an outdoor Arena League. To my eye, NFL action over the past two months was some of the most exciting I've ever seen. The right balance for fans and bettors, because it wasn't just about picking all the best quarterbacks to light up the scoreboard.

You can see this impact of quality defense in this weekend's Wildcard matchups. All eight teams rank in the top dozen in fewest points allowed. Here are the matchups, with those rankings in parenthesis.

Indianapolis (#10) at Houston (#5)
Seattle (#11) at Dallas (#6)
LA Chargers (#8) at Baltimore (#2)
Philadelphia (#12) at Chicago (#1)

Chicago's defense is so great that nobody wants to run into them this month. You know the LA Rams and New Orleans Saints will be rooting hard for Philadelphia Sunday. But, any of these weekend's winners will be able to put a scare into Divisional round foes. In fact, three of the four winners are guaranteed to have better defensive rankings than their rested opponents, and all four will if Houston beats Indy.

Scoring Defense Rankings of bye teams: New England #7, New Orleans #14, LA Rams #20, Kansas City #24.

Maybe we're still destined for a Kansas City/New Orleans Super Bowl because of the power of home field advantage. But it's much less of a foregone conclusion than it seemed six-to-eight weeks ago.

Some of you may be wondering why I'm using points-per-game defense rather than the more popular yards-per-play or yards-per-game. I've been handicapping this sport a long time. It's very clear to me that teams have gone back to focusing on keeping people out of the end zone rather than worrying about yards in the middle of the field.

If the opposing offense moves the chains into the red zone, but then settles for a field goal...that's no big deal in the big picture. But, if you get over-aggressive in the middle of the field and allow a big play touchdown, that IS a big deal. New England has been leading the way with this approach for a few years now. Patriots' defenses are always better than the "yardage pundits" would have you believe. Philadelphia won a Super Bowl last year (over the Pats), which has caused much of the league to copy this approach.

For this postseason, I believe the most important defensive stats will involve points allowed per game, keyed by RED ZONE performances. So, you're homework today to get you ready for Wildcard Weekend is the following.

*Study red zone DEFENSE rankings for all playoff teams
*Study red zone OFFENSE rankings for all playoff teams
*Evaluate offenses for the DEPTH of their potential red zone targets

You can do a web search to find those stats. Teamrankings.com is a great source of red zone data. You can even go back to prior years to see if there's any correlation to playoff success if you wish.

While I still value the general overall impact of PLAYMAKERS and GAMEBREAKERS, most NFL defenses are now designed to lessen the impact of any big play in the middle of the field. Handicappers should focus on RED ZONE PLAYMAKERS above all others in the playoffs. Which running backs can find pay dirt? Which quarterbacks can thread the needle in close? Which offenses have a variety of receivers who can catch passes in tight quarters?

Three of this weekend's games are close to pick-em, and all four point spreads are below a touchdown. We'll see some taller lines next week with rested powers...but not so high that today's homework won't matter. This year's batch of Wildcard Weekend entries is so strong that whoever wins will be capable of giving the bye teams mall they can handle next week.

You regular students here in my College of Advanced Sports Betting and Handicapping know that I can't post my official selections here in the coursework. That wouldn't be fair to paying customers. I believe today's homework will point you in the right direction. If you'd like additional help, KELSO STURGEON'S top plays can always be purchased at this website by credit card. Questions about extended service and combination packages can be answered in the office by calling my office at 1-800-755-2255 during normal business hours.

Now that football is winding down, your focus will switch to basketball. There are only 11 pro football games left on the calendar, and just the one college football championship game Monday night (which we'll discuss in Monday's coursework). I won't jump into baskets here for another couple of weeks because football is king (especially playoff football!). I will have daily picks available for clients.

The Dean of Sports Handicapping greatly appreciates your attendance and hard work. I will see you again midday Monday to talk about Alabama/Clemson. It's the game we've been waiting all year for! See you then.