News & Analysis

NFL Wild Card Spread Picks

Dec 31, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) runs against Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers (90) during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the best efforts of the Saints (whose game we picked twice), we finished the regular season with a winning week. We’re 46-35-4 (56.8 percent) on our article’s picks the season, going 31-20-2 (60.7 percent) against the spread and 15-15-2 (50.0 percent) on over/unders.

On all picks (available to PFF Elite Subscribers) we’re 93-85-7 (52.2 percent) against the spread and 125-92-3 (57.6 percent) on over/unders. In an ugly Week 17 that had very little to choose from, we survived with a 3-4 record against the spread and a 4-4 record on totals for our PFF Elite subscribers.

The NFL playoffs provide a combination of relatively-efficient markets and/or large spreads. While we were able to find two solid picks for you, we have to go back to Atlanta against the spread and to Kansas City for an over to do it for you. We’ve had some success picking Atlanta games this year, going 7-4 when we’ve picked their games in our articles, as well as correctly picking their side and total during their only Thursday Night Football game. We’ve had less success picking over/unders in the article (15-15-2), but our overall model has done very well on the year (see above), so we trust it Saturday in Kansas City, MO (yes, Taylor, Missouri).

Each of the two feature picks below comes with a point/counterpoint analysis, including a deeper dive into our “Lock of the Week” that is heard on the PFF Preview Podcast that comes out each Friday morning. The Lock of the Week is 12-5 so far (70.6 percent), and our Thursday night graphics finished 11-2 (84.6 percent) on the season. For the remainder of our spread and over/under picks, check out PFF Elite and the PFF Elite Facebook Group.

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City (over/under 44.5)

Pick: Chiefs 28-20 (the over hits)

Point (Eric Eager): While we suffered a bad beat two weeks ago picking a Chiefs over, we’re going to go back to the well to try to exploit this market inefficiency while it exists. A relatively-balmy Arrowhead Stadium (it should be in the 30s Saturday) will play host to what is the 32nd-best defense in our metrics (the Chiefs) against a team that has played the 32nd-toughest schedule of opposing offenses (the Titans), while still finishing in the middle of the pack defensively. Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith led the league in deep passing yards (1,344) and touchdowns (12) this season, buoyed by a wide receiver in Tyreek Hill that led the league in deep receiving yards (628) and a tight end in Travis Kelce that did the same within his position group (266). The potential chunk plays on the Chiefs side are a recipe for overs, and are a complimented by the explosiveness of Tennessee running back Derrick Henry, who had eight runs of more than 15 yards on just 176 carries this season, while busting a long touchdown catch a week ago to help the Titans clinch a playoff berth.

Counterpoint (George Chahrouri): Tennessee has birthed two of America’s greatest treasures, Justin and Jack, Timberlake and Daniels. Notice I left out “Exotic Smashmouth.” While I would be intrigued to hear an “exotic” rendition of “All-Star” there is no one that is anxiously awaiting run plays on second and long. The Titans run the ball 48 percent of the time on 2nd-&-6-plus yards, most of any team in the NFL, there is certainly something “exotic” about willfully throwing away a fourth of an expected point more than any other NFL offense. (If you have a problem with expected points please send a hateful tweet my way so that I can pray for you). To add a little extra support, consider that the Titans rank 24th in yards per play on 2nd-&-6 or more. When they aren’t running, the Titans are sending out the fewest number of eligible receivers per play for the Iron Chef Masaharu Marioto who has outdone his Michelin stars only in the league-high number of interceptions he’s served up from a clean pocket (13). Mariota has the second-lowest passer rating from a clean pocket at 78.2, one of only two quarterbacks in the 70s (Kizer). Perhaps the only thing the Titans will have in common with their fellow Tennessean, JT, is the river they cause over-bettors to cry.

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams (-6)

Pick: Rams 26 – 21 (the Falcons cover)

Point (GC): First, I need to state, unequivocally, that this is a pro Sean McVay space. The only thing that could overcome my undying loyalty to one of our generation’s greatest leaders is quarterback play – Jared Goff does rank third in passer rating from a clean pocket (112.0) but he sits 18th in overall grade while Frat Ryan has been the big man on campus finishing as our second-highest graded quarterback. The box score and offensive team stats don’t reflect Matt Ryan’s play because of his league high eight “unlucky interceptions” (throws that don’t earn a turnover-worthy grade are intercepted less than one percent of the time) and the 15 drops he’s suffered on third and fourth downs (second-most). Unlike McVay’s hair, these metrics are not stable because of their small sample size and should revert to the mean. These insights are not going to be baked into the majority of public betting sentiment so the line inefficiency is ripe for the picking here. Another hidden gem that is likely overlooked: Deion Jones is tied for the best coverage grade among linebackers and is certainly more prepared to handle the NFL’s best pass-catching running back, Todd Gurley (93.6 receiving grade – first), than just about anyone the NFL has to offer. Even with PFF’s second-highest graded player, Aaron Donald, sure to find some success against the Falcons less than All-World guards, we will stick to our guns and take the better graded quarterback getting two field goals – or as they are better known “turnovers with a scoreboard participation trophy.”

Counterpoint (EE): There aren’t enough dri-fits in the world to contain the sweat that we must deal with backing the Falcons all of these weeks. Much of this frustration is because there is a ton in which to work on the Falcons’ roster, but the results never seem to fully realize on the scoreboard. Julio Jones led the NFL in yards per route run (3.08) for the third-consecutive season, but inexplicably ran only 469 pass routes (30th) the entire year. Devonta Freeman (83.6) is one of the best two-way running backs in the league, but has had the second-most fumbles (four) among runners this season. The Falcons have dropped the second-most passes (15) on third or fourth down. While Atlanta’s defense has only one starter with a PFF player grade below 70.0, they have forced the sixth-fewest turnovers in the league so far. They’ll need these things to revert back to expectation for them to cover this spread this week against a balanced and strong Rams team in Los Angeles.

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