The NFL playoffs get underway on Saturday as wild-card weekend features six games spread out between Saturday and Monday. According to the oddsmakers, three of the six games are supposed to be extremely tight with the spread currently 3 points or lower. The other three games are expected to be more one-sided, with three teams favored by at least 9.5 points. Let's look at the two sets of games and select our favorite bet from each group.
Chargers, Vikings or Cowboys?
On Saturday night, the Los Angeles Chargers head to Jacksonville where they are 2.5-point road favorites against the Jaguars. Both Trevor Lawrence and Justin Herbert are making their playoff debuts, but unfortunately for Herbert, he'll be without WR Mike Williams. On Sunday afternoon, the Minnesota Vikings host the New York Giants. Minnesota is a 3-point favorite as two of the more questionable teams in the playoffs meet. The weekend wraps up on Monday night when the Dallas Cowboys head to Tampa to visit the Buccaneers. Tom Brady is a home underdog in a playoff game for the first time in his career as Dallas enters as a 2.5-point favorite. Which short favorite is your favorite bet?
Greg: While the Chargers are printing out receipts on their doubters, I hope they kept the gift receipt for Brandon Staley. Williams has been ruled out for the foreseeable future after fracturing his back in a meaningless Week 18 game in which he shouldn’t have been on the field. Josh Palmer and DeAndre Carter aren’t bums, but they’re not close to the big play threat that Williams provides for this offense. Now top-five cornerback Tyson Campbell can match-up with Keenan Allen and the Jags' defense can focus on keeping Austin Ekeler in check. Travis Etienne goes bonkers versus a Chargers run D that’s 28th in success rate, Trevor Lawrence does Trevor Lawrence things, and Jacksonville wins this one outright while the Chargers social media team console themselves by photoshopping powder blue visors on Sean Payton.
Kirk Cousins, in the playoffs, behind a decimated offensive line versus a Giants defense that blitzes at the highest rate in the NFL? I’m all over New York in this one. Minnesota’s negative point differential isn’t a huge deal to me, but the atrociousness of their defense is. It’s time to accept that Isaiah Hodgins and Richie James are quality receivers and that Daniel Jones is about to torch this Vikings D that’s 25th in points allowed per drive. Brian Daboll takes Kevin O’Connell to #Skol before getting pummeled by the Eagles in the second round.
This Cowboys-Bucs game is the one that’s giving me trouble. Waiting on Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay offense to play at a Super Bowl-caliber level this season has been like waiting for a Southwest flight. It just feels like it’s never going to happen. They are getting healthier, though, and the defense is holding up its end of the bargain, ranking fifth in EPA per play and second in success rate. Out of all the coaches I would trust to win a playoff game, Mike McCarthy ranks near the bottom. At the very bottom, however, is Todd Bowles. One of these two is going to mess up in a major way and lose this game for his team. Dallas’ defense has been spiraling lately, but they’re third in QB pressure rate (25.2%) and can make this a very uncomfortable Monday night for Brady. Give me the Cowboys.
Pete: I've flip-flopped on the Chargers-Jaguars game 30 times this week. On one hand, it's certainly reasonable to expect that Herbert feasts on the weaker Jaguars' secondary and carves them up through the air. However, that task becomes quite a bit tougher now without the big-play ability of Williams. I think I've settled on Jacksonville now and a lot of that comes down to the coaching matchup. Doug Pederson won a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback and has done a tremendous job with Lawrence this season. On the other side, I used to be a Staley supporter, but he has become impossible to defend and it seems like he's a real liability for the Chargers.
As far as the Vikings-Giants game, who knows? We've probably already seen a good preview of this game on Christmas Eve. It should be a good, competitive, fun and close game. It'll probably come down to the wire. The Vikings kicked a last-second 61-yard field goal in their regular season meeting to get the win. I think the Vikings find a way to pull it out because young quarterbacks really do struggle in the playoffs, but I obviously can't have much conviction in that prediction with Minnesota.
That leaves us with Dallas, and they are probably my favorite short favorite. Honestly, any football breakdown of these two teams will favor the Cowboys. If you find yourself on the Buccaneers, your handicap is probably either "it's Tom Brady" or "the Cowboys will choke." There's nothing wrong with playing those angles and it's certainly paid off for a long time. I just don't think this Buccaneers team is good at all. We've been waiting all season for them to turn it on and I don't think it will ever happen. Give me Dallas as well.
Bills, 49ers or Bengals?
The playoffs get underway on Saturday afternoon with the San Francisco 49ers hosting the Seattle Seahawks. San Francisco is a 9.5-point home favorite in Brock Purdy's first career playoff start. The 49ers won both games against Seattle this season. Elsewhere, the Buffalo Bills are massive 14-point favorites over a Miami Dolphins team that will start third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson. This is the biggest spread in a playoff game since the New England Patriots were 16-point favorites over the Houston Texans in 2017. Speaking of backup quarterbacks, the Cincinnati Bengals are 9-point favorites over a Baltimore Ravens team that will be forced to start Tyler Huntley. Which big home favorite are you most interested in backing?
Greg: The city known for grunge music got punked so hard by Kyle Shanahan this year, I half-expected the AND1 announcer to run out onto the field after that Purdy double pump-fake touchdown toss to George Kittle in Week 15. San Francisco is the healthiest it's been all season, and it's gonna steamroll its way to the NFC championship game, probably even the Super Bowl. The Niners are first in defensive success rate and fourth in offensive success rate. Seattle’s leading tackler, Jordyn Brooks, is out for the season after tearing his right ACL in Week 17. That’s a disaster for a Seahawks defense that gave up the fourth-most YAC this year and now has to try to stop Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Kittle. In the words of Edward R. Murrow: good night and good luck.
Here’s another blowout. A third Tua versus Josh Allen game would have been a blast, but it wasn’t meant to be. It’s fun to think about what this matchup would look like if the Dolphins drafted Purdy late in the seventh round, instead of selecting Skylar Thompson, who I’m not sure will still be in the NFL a few years from now. What’s Miami’s ceiling for points in this game? Ten? Thirteen? Whatever it is, it’s not allowed to drive a vehicle or buy a ticket to a Tarantino flick. Allen lights up a Dolphins secondary that’s 29th in dropback EPA and Buffalo moves on without breaking a sweat.
Baltimore may have the best defense in the AFC and it's flustered Joe Burrow on more than one occasion. The right side of the Bengals’ offensive line is sidelined with injuries, and I can see that playing a significant factor in Sunday night’s game. Fortunately, Cincinnati’s defense ranks first in EPA per play and will be dodging Lamar Jackson. The Ravens are going to try to grind this game out on the ground, so I think points may be at a premium in this one. For that reason, I’m fine with taking Baltimore on the spread. Choosing between the Niners and Bills is a tough one. It’s more likely that Geno Smith covers through the backdoor than Skylar Thompson, so I’ll take the Bills.
Pete: It appears weather might be a bit of a factor on Saturday in San Francisco, though not as bad as originally anticipated. Combine the weather with the fact that this is a divisional game and the underdog has an experienced coach, I think Seattle can keep this somewhat close. Purdy is a rookie and while he's not asked to do an insane amount, you have to think that will have some kind of impact. I'm not rushing to jump in front of this San Francisco train, but if I had to pick a side, I'd lean toward Seattle getting all of those points.
The handicap is similar for the Baltimore-Cincinnati game. These teams are divisional rivals and I expect Baltimore to try to grind this game to a halt and limit Burrow's time with the ball. Will the Ravens be successful? That's another question. Cincinnati got out to a big lead last week, but the Ravens came back to get the backdoor cover late, and that was with Anthony Brown. Huntley is a bit of an upgrade. Baltimore's defense has the potential to keep this game close.
That leaves us with the Bills-Dolphins game, and this is one where I have a hard time making the case for the underdog. Like Greg said, how many points can Thompson realistically score in this one? He had to fight tooth-and-nail to get nine points on the board against the Jets last weekend, and that was with game script having no impact. If Buffalo gets out to an early lead and Miami has to play catch-up, is Thompson dropping back and moving the ball? The number might seem big, but a score like 34-10 would be far from surprising and almost kind of what I expect. Give me the Bills as well.