TIPS FOR PICKING WINNERS IN THE DIVISIONAL ROUND OF THE NFL
Last week, we outlined three keys to picking winners over Wildcard Weekend. Those themes turned out to be very important. They were...
*Red Zone Defense
If you watched the games, you probably spent last weekend marveling at how poorly the inexperienced quarterbacks played (we're talking about you DeShaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, and Mitchell Trubisky), and at the in-game decisions of some of the coaches. Red zone defense? Winners went 9 of 14 scoring touchdowns in the red zone, while losers went 4 of 10.
This week, the red zone is going to matter again. Though, it can be hard to determine in advance who's going to get the best of that stat when relatively even teams are squaring off. Wildcard weekend trimmed out some offenses who would have struggled this week...and surprisingly, a Bears defense that had a chance to shine.
Quarterback experience? We have a fascinating situation where the best team in the AFC is led by a first-year starter! If Patrick Mahomes is due to falter because of inexperience, his Kansas City Chiefs could lose outright to red-hot Indianapolis. You can't just assume that though. Mahomes is having an MVP-caliber season, while Watson, Jackson, and Trubisky were not. It's possible that Mahomes is on a whole different level.
And, while Nick Foles is less experienced than Drew Brees...he sure has played great in that quick window. If Foles struggles in New Orleans, it probably won't be due to inexperience. He's shown he can handle playoff pressure, and that he even thrives as an underdog. Tom Brady vs. Philip Rivers? Veteran known quantities. Dak Prescott vs. Jared Goff? Similarly young and volatile, in both good ways and bad.
The biggest challenge for you will likely be calculating the impact of bye weeks. In the past, these used to be worth a bunch of bonus points. Rested superpowers would just crush tired opponents that had gone to war the week before. Vegas oddsmakers couldn't make the lines high enough. That hasn't been the recent trend though. It's become more and more common for Wildcard teams to go deep into the brackets, and even win the Super Bowl. You probably know that underdogs are currently on a fantastic ATS run in the playoffs. That's partly because byes didn't mean much last season.
Teams this weekend most likely to be helped by being rested at home:
*New England, mostly because the Los Angeles Chargers are playing their second straight week on the East Coast. It's hard to find many comparable road challenges for past playoff teams to what LAC is dealing with this week. They're jet-lagged, AND they have to face Bill Belichick and Tom Brady! Honestly, if this were a regular season neutral site game, I would probably be on the Chargers as a dog, at pick-em, or as a small favorite. Based on their disappointing recent form, the Patriots NEED this bye more than any other contender.
*New Orleans, because Philadelphia had to go down-to-the-wire last week in Chicago, before playing on the road again. Plus, the Eagles had to sweep their last few regular season games just to get into the playoffs. If somebody's going to crash and burn (which may not happen to any of the four visitors), it's most likely the Eagles. New Orleans didn't need the by the way New England did. The Saints are most likely to turn the bye advantage into a blowout win.
*Los Angeles Rams, because Dallas had to go down-to-the-wire last week vs. Seattle, and has had troubles moving the ball on the road all season. This is more about the Cowboys road woes than the perks of rest for the Rams. But, you have to admit that being rested at home against a shaky visitor is a nice situation to be in for a playoff game.
Kansas City probably doesn't get much of a "bye" boost vs. Indianapolis. The Colts jumped ahead early and grinded out clock in Houston last weekend. Plus, you have the potential negatives of an inexperienced Mahomes, or a coach in Andy Reid who doesn't have a great playoff history vs. expectations. If the Chiefs cover, it won't be about the bye...it will be about Mahomes proving he's for real under a high-pressure spotlight.