The NFL Handbook – Wild Card

When I’m gone, don’t mourn. Just keep gettin’ it on. Say word is bond…” – NFL regular season (probably)/Jay-Z – If I Should Die (really)

Here today, gone tomorrow – the NFL season is the fastest four months of the year. But, it’s not over ’til it’s over, and as long as there a football games to be played, there is balderdash to be written.

You’re welcome.

I’ve broken down each of the games on tap – for what figures to be a very entertaining Wild Card weekend – and provided some statistical “analysis”, fantasy predictions, and betting picks.

For the fantasy portion, I’ve broken each team’s fantasy relevant players into four categories:

  1. Ballers –  Either the guys you just aren’t benching, or the ones with favorable match-ups. Either way, they should be in your lineups.
  2. Under the Radar – Guys who you may not start regularly, or have what appear to be tough matchups, but have a good opportunity to produce. Good for dfs (DraftKings, Fanduel, etc.) as they should have low(er) ownership.
  3. Temper Expectations – Proceed with caution. May be players you’d normally start, or guys who’ve been playing well in recent weeks/have a plus matchup, but might not put up the numbers needed to justify a start this week.
  4. Bums – It’s a good idea to just avoid these guys in your lineups.

For the betting side, I used the opening spread and over/under totals from sportsinsights.com. The lines have moved in reaction to the money, injury updates, etc., but picking and choosing which current odds to use felt a bit too arbitrary.

Tennessee Titans (9-7, 8-7-1 ATS) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-6, 10-6 ATS)

Spread: KC -7

O/U: 44.5

FANTASY POINTS ALLOWED BY POSITION
QB RB WR TE DST K
TEN 16.06 (17th) 16.73 (7th) 20.69 (19th) 7.08 (18th) 7.50 (20th) 10.25 (32nd)
KC 17.00 (25th) 17.55 (12th) 23.61 (30th) 6.19 (9th) 2.63 (3rd) 6.00 (3rd)

Ever heard the old adage “history repeats itself”?

Well drink an ice cold slush too fast, get a painful brain freeze, and watch what happens the next time you go to drink an ice cold slush. Forget your significant other’s birthday, get yelled at, and bet money you don’t forget again.

Sure, there are plenty of scenarios which support the idea of historic recurrence, but we as humans also have the ability to learn and adapt. There are also external forces which can take precedence, changing future outcomes without any human influence.

This game may just be an example of the latter.

So what the hell are we talking about here?

Kansas City, and their five-straight home playoff losses, of course. Now next to none of the players or coaches were around for any of those five Ls (they’ve played just one home playoff game since 2010), and the ones who were surely learned and will adapt. But, there’s an external factor which will likely take precedence over any strategic enlightenment…

Their opponent.

You see, the Titans have gone 3-5 away from Nashville this season, and those eight opponents combined to put up a 51-77 record. Not exactly a foolproof barometer, but their three road wins came at the hands of Jacksonville, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. Literally everyone beat Cleveland, and the Colts were a four-win team.

Anyone impressed?

Not only did Tennessee face a relatively cinchy road schedule, quite frankly, they faced one of the weakest schedules overall. Oh, and they’ll again be without DeMarco Murray, and Marcus Mariota is in the midst of the worst season of his three-year career.

History’s forces will need to be rather strong to repeat another home playoff loss for KC, but there is one thing working in Tennessee’s favor.

Derrick Henry.

Henry happens to be a rather large man who has the innate ability to run remarkably fast while carrying a football and avoiding other people as they try to prevent him from running remarkably fast while carrying a football. Thing is, the Chiefs haven’t done a very good job of preventing opposing running backs from running fast while carrying footballs.

On the season, KC has allowed backs to pick up 4.15 yards per carry (10th highest), 99.3 rushing yards per game (8th most), and just four times did they face a back who received at least 20 carries…

They lost all four of those games, and those backs averaged 98.8 rushing yards.

Henry saw 28 carries last week – in the first game without Murray this season – and the Titans backs have combined to average just over 22 carries per game. So odds are Henry will be the 5th back to see 20+ carries against this Chiefs D, but the question is, will history repeat itself making the Titans the 5th team to win in such case?

Possibly.

While we’re on running backs, Kareem Hunt ranked 4th in the regular season at 82.9 rushing yards per game, and his eight rushing TDs were tied for 6th. In the Chiefs six losses this season, Hunt averaged just 45.8 rushing yards and scored a total of zero TDs (rushing or receiving).

Tennessee has held opposing backs to just 74.4 rushing yards per game (5th fewest), and the four rushing TDs they allowed backs were the fewest in the league. In fact, Todd Gurley was the only back to top 100 rushing yards against them, and outside of his 118 yard day, only two backs went over 75 (Marshawn Lynch – 76, and Jay Ajayi – 77).

Now again, the Titans faced a very favorable schedule this season, but they also faced ten Top-20 RBs (including Leonard Fournette and Frank Gore twice)… Their numbers against the run are slightly impressive to say the least.

So again, there’s a chance.

Problem is, no team has allowed more receiving yards to RBs than the Titans – who also managed to give up more receiving yards to the TE position than all but nine teams (Hunt’s 455 receiving yards rank 8th among RBs, and TE Travis Kelce‘s 1,035 trail only Rob Gronkowski).

So yeah, the Titans have a good chance to slow down this Chiefs offense, but with Henry being their only real threat offensively, I’m not sure how they score enough to win.

Oh, and the aforementioned Marcus Mariota has 15 interceptions this season – behind only DeShone Kizer and Cam Newton – and KC has seven INTs over their last four games. Unfortunately, points aren’t awarded for throwing the ball to the opposition.

… History won’t repeat itself.

Titans 20 – Chiefs 27

TEN +7

OVER 44.5

Ballers: Derrick Henry, Alex Smith, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce

Under the Radar: Charcandrick West

Temper Expectations: Marcus Mariota, Rishard Matthews, Eric Decker, Delanie Walker, Kareem Hunt, Albert Wilson

Bums: Corey Davis, Demetrius Harris

Atlanta Falcons (10-6, 7-9 ATS) at Los Angeles Rams (11-5, 9-7 ATS)

Spread: LAR -4.5

O/U: 49.5

FANTASY POINTS ALLOWED BY POSITION
QB RB WR TE DST K
ATL 16.67 (20th) 16.04 (5th) 18.89 (11th) 6.45 (13th) 4.25 (9th) 8.06 (19th)
LAR 13.77 (8th) 20.99 (31st) 17.33 (6th) 7.85 (21st) 3.69 (7th) 6.44 (3rd)

A peanut is not a nut – it’s a legume. A bald eagle isn’t actually bald – it just has white hair on its head. The Falcons are not the same team that represented the NFC in the Super Bowl almost a year ago – they just went 10-6 and made the playoffs for the second-straight season.

Things aren’t always what they seem.

Same can be said for these Rams who finished last season 4-12 and will be playing in the postseason for the 1st time since 2004.

True, one could argue that the Falcons possess experience that the young Rams don’t. One could also argue that the Rams are playing with house money while the Falcons have dealt with lofty expectations all season. Whichever your side, I won’t present an argument. But, I will keep the axioms going…

Ignorance is bliss (it also doesn’t hurt to be at home with a Top-12 scoring defense).

Speaking of, remember that wild, 41-39 Week 3 Thursday Night Football shootout between the Rams and 49ers? Well, at the time it offered little significance. But now that the regular season has concluded, that game wound up giving us the only QB to throw for 300 yards against this Rams D.

No, not Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, Case Keenum, Drew Brees, Carson Wentz, or even wonder boy Jimmy Garoppolo put up 300 against LA… Brian Hoyer was the only man to do so this season. That would be the same Brian Hoyer who later lost his job to C.J. Beathard before being released from the team altogether.

But, wait! There’s more!

LA allowed one or fewer passing TD in 11 of their 16 games this season, and the 21 passing TDs they allowed QBs were good for the 10th fewest. Coincidentally, Matt Ryan threw one or fewer passing TD in 11 of his 16 games this season, and his 20 passing TDs rank 17th – behind guys like Blake Bortles and Andy Dalton.

Luckily for Atlanta, the Rams also allowed backs to pick up 106.6 yards per game (5th most), 4.7 yards per carry (3rd highest), and 14 rushing TDs (4th most). Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are pretty good, and they’ll play a major role in the success of this Falcons offense Saturday.

… Hopefully – for the sake of the Falcons, their fans, and the city of Atlanta.

Thing is, I use “success” and “offense” loosely as I have a feeling that this game will be slightly less offensive than the opening Vegas point total of 49.5 suggests. After all, there’s a reason the Falcons went 10-6 despite possessing an offense which has been average at best.

They too have held all but one QB under 300 yards passing – the one QB was Aaron Rodgers, and he’s pretty damn good. But surprisingly, the Falcons have also been one of the stingiest defenses against the run after being one of the league’s worst a season ago. So while the Rams D gets all of the hoopla, the Falcons actually possess the better unit overall.

And, defense travels.

They haven’t seen Todd Gurley yet, though. Yeah, the Falcons held backs to just 78.2 yards per game this season and the 3rd fewest rushing TDs (6). Gurley played in seven games against teams who rank in the Top-10 in yards per carry allowed to backs, he averaged 96.4 yards on the ground finding the endzone seven times against these “top” rushing defenses. Then there’s Gurley’s 788 receiving yards which rank 2nd among RBs – only eight teams allowed more receiving yards to the RB position than Atlanta.

Bet against Gurley if you’d like, but I won’t be joining you. Bet the over if you’d like, but I won’t be joining you there either.

You see, a shootout isn’t actually a high-scoring affair – it’s a RB dominated, defensive battle. And while the Falcons have the better defense overall, their offensive inefficiencies will be their downfall.

Funny how that works.

Falcons 17 – Rams 23

LAR -4.5

UNDER 49.5

Ballers: Devonta Freeman, Julio Jones, Todd Gurley, Robert Woods

Under the Radar: Tevin Coleman, Cooper Kupp

Temper Expectations: Matt Ryan, Mohamed Sanu, Jared Goff, Sammy Watkins

Bums: Justin Hardy, Taylor Gabriel, Austin Hooper, Gerald Everett, Tyler Higbee

Buffalo Bills (9-7, 9-6-1 ATS) at Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6, 9-7 ATS)

Spread: JAX -7

O/U: 40

FANTASY POINTS ALLOWED BY POSITION
QB RB WR TE DST K
BUF 12.90 (5th) 22.36 (32nd) 17.43 (7th) 6.98 (17th) 7.38 (19th) 8.81 (25th)
JAX 10.78 (1st) 17.87 (14th) 14.61 (1st) 6.29 (11th) 4.44 (10th) 6.38 (6th)

Over the course of the regular season, the Bills and Jaguars ranked 4th and 1st in rushing attempts. It should then come as no surprise for me to tell you that both of these offenses finished the regular season among the Top-10 in rushing yards. But, while the Bills ranked 31st in passing attempts, Jacksonville was tied for 21st.

Now yes, Jacksonville still ranked among the league’s most aerial averse, but Blake Bortles attempted more than 30 passes ten times this season (so too did Drew Brees). Jacksonville had just six losses on the season – each of which came in a game where Bortles attempted more than 30 passes.

The Jags were a perfect 6-0 when he attempted 30 or fewer.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. A jack of all trades is a master of none. Better the devil you know…

Run the damn ball more Jacksonville, and you’ll increase your odds of winning Sunday.

As a matter of fact, 50% of the Jags plays from scrimmage this season were runs, and if that number isn’t greater than 55% against this Bills D which has allowed backs 4.5 yards per carry, the most rushing yards per game (112.4), and most rushing TDs (18), the entire coaching staff, grounds crew, training staff, and anyone else affiliated with the organization should be suspended indefinitely.

There is absolutely no reason for Jacksonville to run the ball fewer than 35 times on Sunday. None that would make any sense at least.

On the flip, LeSean McCoy got in some work during Friday’s practice, and he’s listed as questionable for this one due to the ankle injury he suffered last week. You have to figure he’ll at least give it a go, but without him at full-strength, the Bills slim-to-none chance at their 1st playoff win since 1995 become simply none. I mean, they did manage to score a whopping nine 2nd half points with McCoy sidelined against the Dolphins D in Week 17.

The Jaguars are not the Dolphins.

Bills 13 – Jaguars 24

JAX -7

UNDER 40

Ballers: Charles Clay, Leonard Fournette

Under the Radar: Marcus Murphy, Zay Jones, Keelan Cole

Temper Expectations: Tyrod Taylor, Blake Bortles, Allen Hurns

Bums: Kelvin Benjamin, Deonte Thompson, Nick O’Leary, Dede Westbrook, Marcedes Lewis, James O’Shaughnessy

Carolina Panthers (11-5, 9-7 ATS) at New Orleans Saints (11-5, 9-7 ATS)

Spread: NO -6

O/U: 48.5

FANTASY POINTS ALLOWED BY POSITION
QB RB WR TE DST K
CAR 15.29 (14th) 14.85 (3rd) 22.99 (28th) 6.31 (12th) 6.69 (14th) 8.19 (20th)
NO 15.67 (16th) 17.94 (16th) 20.76 (20th) 5.39 (3rd) 2.19 (2nd) 7.38 (12th)

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That would make three tries, and they say the third time’s the charm. They also say history repeats itself – the Saints have defeated the their division foes in both of their matchups this season.

… By an average of 15.5 points.

Now believe it or not, bringing these aphorisms full circle wasn’t planned. At all. But hey, don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg – that’s just the way the ball bounces.

In any case, while the Chiefs are hoping to reverse history (they’ve lost five-straight home playoffs games for those of you who joined us late) the Saints are hoping for some of that historic recurrence, as they’ve been on the opposite end of that five-game streak (NO has won five-straight home playoff games since 2000).

They’re also hoping that Cam Newton – who has been up and down all season – remains down, as he comes into this game on the heels of two of his more forgettable games this season in which he completed just 30 of 59 attempts (51%) for 340 yards, just one passing TD, and four INTs. But Cam’s never been an overly prolific passer – at least not on a consistent basis – and we all know the 1st step in stopping this Carolina offense is containing the run.

The Panthers lone TD in their 1st matchup with New Orleans was a 3-yd Newton scramble, and while he didn’t find the endzone on the ground in the 2nd, Newton lead all Panthers rushers with 51 yards. In fact, Cam’s 754 rushing yards lead the team on the season. So, while the Saints have been respectable against RBs, it doesn’t matter much.

For one, mobile QBs have found success against the Saints all season – Newton has at least 11 rushing attempts in each of their last four games averaging just under 60 yards per game. And secondly, Jonathan Stewart has averaged just 43 rushing yards this season, and Christian McCaffrey has fewer carries than the likes of Kerwynn Williams, and Buck Allen (117 – 39th ranked RB).

That said, neither back is the worst of dfs plays this weekend.

Why?

Well, New Orleans has allowed a back to find the endzone in four of their last five games, and on the season, they’ve given up 4.1 yards per carry to the position – making the case for Stewart. And for CMC? Well, besides the fact he lead the Panthers in receptions, tied Devin Funchess for the target lead, and finished 5th at the RB position overall in receiving yards, NO allowed backs to pick up an additional 46 yards per game through the air this season.

McCaffrey dropped 14 catches, 134 yards, and a TD on the Saints during the regular season.

Speaking of Funchess, you might see that this Saints D has allowed three 100-yard receivers over their last two games and think you’ll need him in your dfs contests this weekend. Well, Funchess has just one 100-yard receiving game this season, and finished the season averaging just 4.7 targets and 2 receptions over Carolina’s last three.

Not exactly a good look.

He did, however, quietly find himself tied for 7th at the receiver position with 8 TDs on the season. Thing is, only six teams have allowed fewer TDs to the WR position than the Saints.

No, thanks.

Per usual, none of the Panthers pass-catchers are particularly trustworthy, but Greg Olsen would be the best option. For whatever that’s worth.

Now they say a leopard can’t change its spots, but Drew Brees put up his fewest pass attempts since 2009, and his 4,334 (while still impressive) represent the fewest he’s put up in his 12 years with the Saints. Like the Panthers, NO has taken a more run-heavy approach, and with the dynamic duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara toting the rock, it’s kinda hard to blame them.

New Orleans finished the season 5th in rushing yards (just 32 behind Carolina), and their 23 rushing TDs lead the NFL in 2017. Problem is, Carolina boasts one of the league’s best run defenses, and no back rushed for 100 yards against them on the year.

Well, Ingram/Kamara combined to average 119 yards on the ground against them while adding four rushing TDs. But much of that production came in the 2nd meeting of the season, and 72 of Ingram’s 85 rushing yards in that contest came on one run. Carolina was also without Charles Johnson for that one. So while it’s hard to bet against the backpack dancing kid guy and/or the rookie of the year candidate, with this Panthers D back at full strength, I’m hesitant to proclaim these Saints backs matchup proof.

Around 50 yards each on the ground, another 20-40 through the air, and maybe a TD between the two of them feels about right, but Drew Brees is still Drew Brees (thought not spotted, yet) and odds are he’ll win this one with his arm.

It’s no secret that the main weakness of this Carolina D is its secondary – a secondary which has been exposed by wide receivers all season. Michael Thomas caught a TD pass in each of the two matchups this season, and averaged a modest 79 yards per game. Look for Thomas to keep it rolling, and since he’s likely to garner a gang of attention, a big game from Ted Ginn would be far from surprising as well.

All told, it’s hard to beat the same team twice in the same season. Let alone three. However, these Saints are legit. They’re one of the few teams who owned both a Top-10 scoring offense and scoring defense over the regular season, and while the Panthers have the D to slow their offense down, their dearth of offensive weapons make them a tough sell.

Oh, and there’s also Cam’s propensity to throw the ball to the other team. His 16 interceptions this season trail only DeShone Kizer and NO has nine INTs over their last four games (their 20 during the regular season ranked 3rd).

… History repeats itself.

Panthers 20 – Saints 27

NO -6

UNDER 48.5

Ballers: Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey, Greg Olsen, Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Michael Thomas

Under the Radar: Ted Ginn

Temper Expectations: Jonathan Stewart, Devin Funchess

Bums: Brenton Bersin, Kaelin Clay, Brandon Coleman, Willie Snead, Josh Hill

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