At long last ... the NFL Playoffs are here! What's make this postseason so exciting is that there is no clear cut favorite. Yes, Green Bay has the home field advantage in the NFC and has come close to getting to the Super Bowl the last two years only to lose in the NFC Championship game both times. Meanwhile Tennessee defied the odds by earning the top seed in the AFC after losing Derrick Henry at the midpoint of the season. There is a very good chance that Henry plays in the divisional round. Still, with an exception to the Cardinals (who have spun out of control losing 4 of their last 5 games) and the Eagles (a very mediocre team poised for a first round exit), any of the other 4 NFC playoff teams can challenge the Packers and potentially hand them a third straight defeat in the NFC Championship game. As for the AFC playoffs, don't count out the Kansas City Chiefs given that they are the two-time defending AFC Champions and have won 8 of their last 9 games. The Buffalo Bills are still a strong unit boasting the highest ranked defense based on DVOA rating. New England is also a team to be reckoned with having defeated Tennessee 36-13 just a few weeks ago. Even Cincinnati is a team you can't sleep on given their impressive aerial attack and reliable ground game.
Predicting these NFL playoffs won't be easy and one can't just rely on statistical analysis. Success as a prognosticator is both an art and a science. There will be several things to consider such as injuries, trends, matchups, weather, and so on. A table displaying my model's output is shown below but you will see that some of my predictions will not follow those outputs as closely as I have in the past.
Without further ado, here are my predictions for NFL Wild Card weekend.
- Cincinnati 26 - Las Vegas 23
If the Bengals come from behind victory against Kansas City two weeks ago and the Raiders thrilling OT win last Sunday are any indication of how these teams will play on Saturday, then buckle up for an exhilarating ride! Both teams are fairly healthy heading into this matchup and the weather will be cold but nothing too unusual for a January afternoon in Ohio. We all know what type of team to expect from the Bengals. Joe Burrow has quickly established an identity for Cincinnati by making them one of the most exciting offenses in the NFL. The Raiders, on the other hand, are an enigma. They do most things quite well but not exceptionally well. They can pass and run with efficiency and play decent defense. Keep in mind that the Bengals beat the Raiders 32-13 during Week 11 and that game was in Las Vegas. Burrow didn't have a great game only passing for 148 yards and 1 TD but it was Joe Mixon who asserted himself in that affair. He rumbled for 123 yards on 30 carries and scored twice. Time of possession was 37 minutes and 20 seconds for Cincinnati and just 22 minutes and 40 seconds for Las Vegas. Will history repeat itself? It's hard to say but what we do know is that Kansas City laid the smack down on the Raiders twice this season and of course Cincinnati was able to take care of business against the Chiefs. There are several ways the Bengals offense can beat the Raiders but these resilient Raiders are a squad that don't lay down easily. With all of the adversity the Raiders have had to deal with this season, it is remarkable that they finished 10-7. I don't see them winning but they will keep it close while Cincinnati marches on to the next round of the playoffs.
- Buffalo 24 - New England 23
Here we are with Bills-Patriots III. The Bills were able to avenge their Monday Night Football loss to New England with an impressive 33-21 victory at Foxboro. If we dig deeper into the comparisons between these two teams, consider the fact that the Patriots had a huge win against Jacksonville beating them 50-10 while the Bills were upset by the hapless Jaguars 9-6. However, the besides for that beat down of Jacksonville, New England has lost 3 of its last 4 games. Meanwhile, the Bills have won 4 games in a row. Bill Belichick doesn't lose often in the first round of the NFL playoffs but perhaps his team is not quite ready to get back to the Super Bowl. The Bills have a disdain for the Patriots given New England's dominance of the AFC East for nearly 20 years. Bills Mafia would love nothing better than to send the Patriots back home packing while Buffalo gets one step closer to the promised land. This game will be frigid: 4 degrees F. There won't be the high winds like their first game so the passing game could be better. Still, in game temps this low, it's the team who can run the ball well and play better defense that will end up victorious. My money is on Buffalo given Josh Allen's impressive running ability and Devin Singeltary's recent resurgence with the ground game as well as the Bills top ranked defensive unit. This game will be close but with the venue being Orchard Park instead of Foxboro, it's the Bills who will move onto the next round.
- Tampa Bay 34 - Philadelphia 20
After some cold weather football on Saturday, we get some balmy conditions for the Sunday games. Still, rain and fairly high winds are in the forecast for Tampa Bay. This could bode well for the run game and one would think this can help Philadelphia. However, the Bucs' defense is very good and Leonard Fournette returns. I fully expect a big game from Fournette who looked impressive against the Colts in Week 11 and the Bills in Week 13. The Bucs won both games by scoring 30+ points each time. In fact, the Bucs have scored at least 30 points 10 times this season, more than any other NFL team. That number could have been 11 times if the Bucs didn't let the foot off the pedal when they beat Philadelphia 28-22 during Thursday Night Football in Week 6. Tampa Bay was up 28-7 late in the 3rd quarter until Jalen Hurts decided to take matters into his own hands, or shall we say feet, by scoring two rushing touchdowns. Still, Brady was very accurate with 34 for 42 passing and Fournette scoring 2 TDs on the ground. Hurts only completed 12 of his 26 pass attempts and the rest of the offense was stuck in first gear. The time of possession of nearly 40 minutes for Tampa Bay is very telling. They are a great ball control team and the return of Fournette should only help. Expect the defending champions to win by at least two TDs against a team that has no business being in the postseason (mainly due to the NFL adding an extra wildcard team).
- San Francisco 27 - Dallas 23
Boy oh boy! I am excited for this one! As a die hard 49ers fan since the late 80s and seeing the 49ers and Cowboys battle in the NFC Championship game 3 years in a row from 1992 - 1994, I am getting very nostalgic for this game which should be a war on Sunday afternoon. No other playoff game this weekend has two offenses as prolific as these two. There will be some awesome star power on display in Dallas. Jimmy Garoppolo, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, Elijah Mitchell, Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, Dalton Schultz, Tony Pollard, are just a dozen or so players who can assert themselves in this matchup. I haven't even mentioned the defense where we could see some big plays from pass rush specialist Nick Bosa and defensive rookie of the year candidate Micah Parsons. I believe this game will be very similar to the 49ers exciting win in LA last weekend. Whichever team has the ball last could very likely win.
My money is on the 49ers and not because I am a 49ers fan but because of their strength of schedule. Dallas went 6-0 in their division which is arguably the worst in the NFL after the AFC South. The 49ers played in the most competitive division with each team in the NFC West having a positive point differential. If you dig deeper, the 49ers only managed to go 2-4 in the NFC West but those two wins mattered since they were against the 12-4 Rams. That means that the 49ers went 8-3 outside of the division. Dallas was 7-5 outside of the NFC East with 4 of those 5 losses to playoff teams: Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Arizona. Let's go beneath the surface a bit more. Dallas's point differential was +172 for the season, good for 2nd most in the NFL. However, their point differential in the NFC East is +143. Simple math: +29 point differential outside of the division. The 49ers had a +73 point differential outside of the NFC West. Clearly the 49ers are a more battle tested team and I am guessing the Cowboys were not happy to learn of their first round opponent once the dust settled last Sunday afternoon. 49ers represent great value in a very wide open race to the Super Bowl.
- Kansas City 35 - Pittsburgh 14
Like the Bucs game, this one will not be close. Again, the NFL's desire to add another playoff team will sort of backfire with another lopsided result. Last year the Bears made the playoffs as an 8-8 team only to lose 21-9 to the Saints. Both teams from Pennsylvania will find themselves with quick exits out of the NFL playoffs. The Steelers are a mediocre team like their cross state rivals. Even though it's great to see Big Ben play one more game before his presumptive retirement, the Chiefs are just too good and experienced to be upset. This game will sort of feel like a passing of the torch since it was Pittsburgh dominating the AFC in the early part of Big Ben's career about 15 years ago and now it's Kansas City as king of the hill having been a strong Super Bowl contender the last three years and again this year. We can break down the matchups in several ways but here is one we should consider: the run game. Pittsburgh's run defense is awful allowing the most rushing yards per game this season out of all 32 NFL teams. Kansas City is a top 10 rushing offense based on DVOA. Sure, Pittsburgh could try to stack the box but are you really going to do that against Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce? Darell Williams and Derrick Gore will feast and help the Chiefs earn another impressive playoff victory as they try to get back to the Super Bowl for a third year in a row.
- LA Rams 27 - Arizona 21
Interesting to see a Monday Night playoff game for the first time. Personally I felt that the 49ers - Cowboys game should have been slated for that time slot but I suppose the NFL didn't want to give Dallas an extra day of rest since they played last Saturday. This game should be close given that the series is tied at one a piece. However, the Cardinals look completely out of sorts with DeAndre Hopkins and JJ Watt both on the injury shelf. Losing 4 out of their last 5 games tells me that the Cardinals are limping into the playoffs. If not for the 49ers miraculous comeback victory last Sunday, the Rams would be riding a 6 game winning streak. Clearly these are two teams going in opposite directions but like most divisional matchups, the game could still be close. I could see this one going to overtime with the Rams this time coming away with the W with a game winning TD by Cooper Kupp. What a great way to end an action packed weekend of football!
There you have it. All home teams win except Dallas. Three road teams cover. Half chalk and half not. I am following the model 50% of the time and the other 50% I am throwing the model out of the window. Sounds like a balanced approach to making some money during this entertaining NFL weekend! Good luck!