Divisional Round Picks: Will Injuries Derail the NFL’s Best Weekend?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Denver Broncos

The first weekend of playoff football absolutely lived up to its Wildcard namesake. The results, the styles & quality of play, the postgame buzz…all over the board from game to game and all of it WILD.

Here’s the rapidfire recap of each one:

  • Kansas City 30, Houston 0 – This was your run-of-the-mill blowout. The only reason I hesitate to write “absolute domination” is because the Chiefs only put up a measly six offensive points in the first half while being gifted four Brian Hoyer turnovers. And that was really the story. Hoyer had five turnovers so it never really mattered how the rest of the Texans performed. We laughed at Bill O’Brien for flip-flopping on his starting QB so often during the season, but he knew. He knew how truly bad Hoyer could be in any given game.
  • Pittsburgh 18, Cincinnati 16 – We had a pretty boring game through 40 minutes, but insanity began when Martavis Bryant completed his somersault touchdown catch with five minutes left in the 3rd quarter. You know what happened next: Gio Bernard fumbled, Ben Roethlisberger left the game with a shoulder injury, the Bengals scored 16 unanswered points to take the lead, Landry Jones threw what looked like a game-ending interception with 1:45 left in the 4th quarter, Jeremy Hill immediately gave the ball back to Pittsburgh with an unforgivable fumble, Roethlisberger returned and the only people on earth who didn’t realize he couldn’t throw the ball were the 11 guys playing defense for Cincy, Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones did “Bengals” things, and the Steelers kicked an easy game-winning field goal. I’m tired just from writing all that.
  • Seattle 10, Minnesota 9 – This must have been one of the least fun games to play in, ever. And as much as Vikings fans who were in attendance would have said they loved the whole thing if they had won, I don’t believe it. I was at the coldest game in Gillette Stadium history and it was a boring 17-14 win over the Titans (in January 2004). Freezing & boring is a horrible combo. Anyway, everything that went down in this game propelled a few active narratives forward: Seattle, and specifically Russell Wilson, pulled some lucky shit out of their asses (no wonder why Wilson is such a hardcore god believer), Adrian Peterson fumbled at the most obvious possible time, and Viking Nation got another impossible-to-believe punch to the gut.
  • Green Bay 35, Washington 18 – It’s always weird when a game that ended with such a blowout-looking score was as close as this one was in the 3rd quarter. Washington actually led 18-17 with 4:20 left in the 3rd. The Packers scored 18 unanswered points and got a huge performance from its collection of running backs, but the Skins will always wonder how this game would have played out if they didn’t leave five haunting points on the board in the 1st half. The missed extra point on their first touchdown was a minor culprit. The DeSean Jackson no-effort play on his reception at the goal line was the MAJOR game-changer. The way DeSean plays football makes you wonder how he’s not a member of the Cincinnati Bengals.

OK, a few more notes on Wildcard Weekend:

  • It was a historic weekend because all four wildcard/road teams won. That’s never happened. Considering who the home teams were, it’s not the world’s biggest shocker
  • OK fine. Marvin Lewis doesn’t need to be fired just because he has an 0-7 playoff record or because his players are constantly out of control and do all the little things that lose games in January. But he does need to be fired because of the way his offense has performed in every one of their playoff appearances. Or I should say, the way they haven’t performed:
    • 2005: 26.3 points per game in regular season / 17 points in playoff game
    • 2009: 19.1 points per game in regular season / 14 points in playoff game
    • 2011: 21.5 points per game in regular season / 10 points in playoff game
    • 2012: 24.4 points per game in regular season / 9 points in playoff game
    • 2013: 26.9 points per game in regular season / 10 points in playoff game
    • 2014: 22.8 points per game in regular season / 10 points in playoff game
    • 2015: 26.2 points per game in regular season / 16 points in playoff game
  • Speaking of offense, Wildcard Weekend was pretty tough for all of them:
    • Three of four games easily hit the under point total that Vegas established.
    • Seven of eight quarterbacks were held under 230 yards passing. Kirk Cousins was the lone holdout. He ended up with 329 yards (and gave me my easiest prop bet win ever).
    • There were only three 100+ yard receivers across the entire weekend. Two of them were tight ends (Travis Kelce and Jordan Reed) and the other was the guy who always gets his yards, Antonio Brown.
    • No running back cracked 100 yards. Alfred Blue came damn close with 99. The next highest totals were Christine Michael (70 yards) and Spencer Ware (67 yards).
  • This is less of an observation and more of a question with no answer: Which timeslot during the Wildcard and Divisional Rounds would a fan prefer its team play in? The advantages to the first game of the weekend would be that you get it over with right away. You’re not stressing into Sunday like the fans of four other teams are. Your team also gets the most possible rest if they advance. The disadvantage with the Saturday afternoon slot is that when your team loses, the entire weekend is ruined. You aren’t enjoying any of those next three games because you’re sitting there stewing. And that’s the advantage of the Sunday late game. You get to enjoy all the other games and hold onto that excited/anticipation feeling for as long as possible. The darkhorse candidate would be the Saturday night timeslot. That way you get to enjoy one other game first while pacing around in anticipation during the day. And it’s the best time to justify getting absolutely plastered while your team plays. I think I’d choose Saturday night every time. What do you think?

Moving on to the Divisional Round, it would seem the NFL has some great football in store for us. Seven of the eight best teams in the league, according to FootballOutsiders.com, are still playing. Green Bay is the only team left that doesn’t fit into that discussion. You can find them occupying the 10th spot on that list. And there’s hope for actual points to be scored this weekend. The combination of no arctic temperatures at any of the hosting cities plus most of the remaining teams being in the top 10 in offensive efficiency should give us compelling games. Let’s keep our fingers crossed as we dive into the picks for the Divisional Round. For what it’s worth, I went 2-2 against the spread last week, which is an improvement from my Wildcard Round picks the past two years (0-4 against the spread last year and 1-3 the year before that). My best postseason ever against the spread was an 8-3 record three years ago. So I’ve gotta run the table on these final seven games to beat that. Easy enough.

One final note: Some back-of-the-napkin math tells me that in the past 8 years, only twice has the average margin of victory across the four Divisional Round games been LESS THAN 10 POINTS. But almost like clockwork, there appears to be one major blowout every year, two close games, and one game that finishes in that 7-14 point differential range. There have been many times where a single Divisional Round game has ended with the winning team outscoring the losing team by 21+ points. That seems to skew the numbers significantly. I know this isn’t really going out on a limb or anything, but you can probably bank on two extremely close games, one ridiculous blowout, and one middle-of-the-road game. Let’s see if it works out that way in my picks.

Kansas City at New England (-5)

The Pick: Kansas City

The Score: New England 23, Kansas City 20

Quarterback Offense Defense Special Teams Overall
Kansas City 16th 6th 6th 7th 5th
New England 2nd 5th 12th 5th 6th

*All numbers in these tables are the league rankings according to FootballOutsiders.com’s DVOA and DYAR metrics.

  • Easily the biggest enigma remaining in the playoffs is the New England Patriots. The injuries, the way they closed out the season after that 10-0 start, the fact that every now & then a certain kind of team comes along that they continually struggle against and the Chiefs could easily fit that mold…all of it makes backing the Patriots a risky endeavor.
  • But it’s kind of impossible not to go with the 4-time Super Bowl Champs who are hosting this game after two weeks of rest and with the benefit of getting a handful of key players back from injury.
  • Even though Dion Lewis and Nate Solder are big losses for the Patriots who aren’t coming back this year, there’s reason to think a healthy Sebastian Vollmer and Julian Edelman will do the trick for this offense. After Solder went on IR, the Patriots’ offense put up 34 points on Indy, 30 on the Jets and 36 on Miami before Edelman went down halfway through the Giants game. Even without Edelman, they put up some decent games until Vollmer went down in week 16. That’s when we saw the awful performances against the Jets and Dolphins.
  • Sure, the Chiefs are the #6 defense and have some studs going up against Brady, but the Patriots won games this year against the #5, #8 and #11 defenses, and they were handling the #1 Broncos pretty easily before a special teams disaster and a Gronk injury.
  • The fact that Vegas posted this game as a five-point spread tells you they don’t have a clue what to expect either. It’s hard to imagine the Patriots knocking the rust off so quickly that they go out and dominate from the opening kickoff.
  • And yet, the reason I’m so confident that New England pulls out the win is because they’re no longer the more injured team. Anyone who thinks Jeremy Maclin doesn’t have a significant knee injury is crazy. He’s not playing on Saturday. Spencer Ware, who had taken over as Kansas City’s lead rusher, didn’t practice Wednesday and is dealing with an ankle injury. Maybe key pass rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali will be 100% for this game, but they sure didn’t look it against the Texans last week.
  • It’s difficult enough to beat the Patriots in Foxboro with a fully operational team. It doesn’t feel like the Chiefs are getting it done this weekend.
  • In terms of style and pace of the game, the more I looked into this matchup, the more it reminded me of last year’s Patriots-Ravens divisional game. The Chiefs are a lot like Baltimore, especially on defense. That makes me think New England’s run game will be non-existent and Brady will be throwing 45 passes. If Brady plays a good game and the receivers are as healthy as we think they are, New England’s advancing to its 5th consecutive AFC Championship Game (and 10th in 15 years).
  • Oh crap. As I’m writing this section on Thursday morning, I’m seeing that Gronk missed practice today and it’s his 2nd missed practice in the past three days. Crap crap crap.

Green Bay at Arizona (-7)

The Pick: Green Bay

The Score: Arizona 26, Green Bay 21

Quarterback Offense Defense Special Teams Overall
Green Bay 17th 11th 9th 17th 10th
Arizona 1st 4th 3rd 29th 3rd
  • The people who didn’t learn their lesson after taking Seattle -6 in last week’s game against Minnesota are the same people who are lining up to back Arizona -7 this week.
  • Just like Seattle dominated Minnesota in a regular season game, the Cardinals absolutely pummeled the Packers 38-8 in week 16. So I can understand the urge to quickly pick Arizona and move on.
  • But health was a big reason the Seattle-Minnesota game last week was so much closer, and health could come into play for Green Bay-Arizona. In that blowout loss just three weeks ago, the Packers were playing with several backup offensive linemen. That won’t be the case this time. And even though Tyrann Mathieu was out for the Cardinals during these teams’ regular season game, that doesn’t mean he’s not a huge loss. Many people had him ranked high on their Defensive Player of the Year list. You probably feel a lot more comfortable against Aaron Rodgers if you had the Honey Badger roaming the defensive side of the field this coming Saturday night.
  • If playoff experience counts for anything, the Packers get a big thumbs up over Arizona.
  • Did you know that between last year’s playoffs and last weekend there have been nine games where a team is favored by six or more points and the favorite has covered the spread only three times in that scenario? It’s important to note that the favorite has won the game outright in eight of those cases, but they’re typically not covering. My pick reflects this.
  • I know we need to peg one game as a blowout, but don’t worry, we’ll get to that later on.
  • I’m torn on this game because even though I know there are plenty of factors telling me it won’t be a blowout, I also compared the Packers to the Atlanta Falcons just a week ago. It really could be as simple as the subpar Redskins’ defense made the Packers look a lot better than they are. And we should probably look at Green Bay’s body of work over the course of the entire season rather than one playoff game.
  • But while Arizona outranks Green Bay in every meaningful category besides special teams, and certainly Bruce Arians could coach circles around Mike McCarthy even if Arians took whatever crazy shit that Chandler Jones was on the other night, I expect the mysterious power of Aaron Rodgers to at least get me the backdoor cover.
  • Arizona leads by 10-13 points for most of the second half, but Rodgers gets a late score to ruin the Cardinals’ cover.

Seattle at Carolina (-3)

The Pick: Carolina

The Score: Carolina 24, Seattle 17

Quarterback Offense Defense Special Teams Overall
Seattle 3rd 2nd 4th 3rd 1st
Carolina 11th 8th 2nd 23rd 4th
  • Listen, I don’t really have any in-depth analysis for this game. It’s difficult to pick apart the Panthers since they went 15-1. You can’t do the whole “this is what happened in games they lost versus games they won” thing. And the Seahawks are the advanced stat champions of the regular season and obviously came on strong later in the year.
  • Both teams have awesome defenses, MVP-caliber quarterbacks, great running games and no-name wide receivers who get the job done. I don’t see where analysis is going to give you an edge.
  • But here’s what I do know: If you pick against a 15-1 team who’s playing at home after having two weeks of rest while their opponent was playing a bruising, freezing game a week ago, and that 15-1 team is only laying a field goal, you are certifiably insane.
  • Read my words carefully. I didn’t write “you’re going to be wrong if you bet on Seattle.” I simply said you’re a crazy person if you do. Even crazy people are right every once in a while.

Pittsburgh at Denver (-7)

The Pick: Denver

The Score: Denver 30, Pittsburgh 9

Quarterback Offense Defense Special Teams Overall
Pittsburgh 5th 3rd 11th 18th 7th
Denver 36th 25th 1st 14th 8th
  • One of my favorite things from last Sunday was people on twitter handing this Divisional Round win to both teams because of their quarterback situations. Half of twitter was saying, “Congrats on getting to the AFC Championship game, Denver. You get to play a Steelers team that might be without Roethlisberger and/or Brown.” And the other half was saying, “Congrats on getting to the AFC Championship game, Pittsburgh. You get ‘Playoff Manning’ in the Divisional Round.”
  • The craziest subplot of this game is how Peyton Manning will probably be the best quarterback on the field by a wide margin. Pittsburgh is either rolling out a significantly injured Ben Roethlisberger or a fully healthy Landry Jones.
  • If I could put a bet on Roethlisberger not playing in this game right now, I absolutely would. I think the Steelers are doing everything in their power to make Denver prepare for Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, but neither of them are going to play.
  • If that’s the case, you’d have a Steelers team without its star QB, star receiver and best option at running back in Deangelo Williams.
  • You can think what you want about “Playoff Manning” & “2015 Manning” and the ineptitude of the Denver offense all season, but if those three guys are out for Pittsburgh, the Broncos are going to demolish them.
  • The deck would have been somewhat stacked against a fully healthy Pittsburgh team because they’re going into hostile territory where the home team is 28-4 during the last four regular seasons. And they are going up against the #1 defense in the league.
  • Yes, the Steelers beat Denver in week 15, but that game was in Pittsburgh and don’t forget the Broncos led by as much as 17 points at one point.
  • As compelling as the Steelers can be when they’re full strength, the two best AFC Championship matchups are Broncos-Patriots and Broncos-Chiefs.
  • If Roethlisberger makes a miraculous recovery, I see Denver winning by 3-7 points. If he doesn’t, Pittsburgh won’t crack double digits.

It’s a shame that a lot of my bullet points across three of the four games had to do with players being healthy or unhealthy, but that’s the reality of football in January. It would have been great to see most of these teams operating at 100%, but we play the hand we’re dealt.

And now we turn to my favorite prop bets of the week.

Who will record the most Receiving Yards this weekend?

The Pick: Demaryius Thomas (4/1), Emmanuel Sanders (5/1), Michael Floyd (12/1)

Yes, if you bet the same amount on each guy, you will make a profit as long as one of them has the most yards this weekend. Floyd is a great longshot because he has surpassed 100 receiving yards in five of his last seven full games. That’s some legitimate big game consistency right there. And yes, I know Peyton Manning’s noodle arm will be the appendage responsible for getting the ball to Thomas and Sanders. But they each had a handful of 100+ yard games during the season with Manning as their QB. And they happen to be facing the worst pass defense left in the playoffs. And if this game goes the way I think it’ll go, the Broncos are going to get a lot of offensive possessions. Even if they’re playing conservatively, I like one of these guys to win this title.

Who will record the most Rushing Yards this weekend?

The Pick: David Johnson (+250)

Two reasons for this bet: 1) Johnson is facing a below average Packers run defense while the rest of the running backs will at least be facing above average defenses against the run. 2) The other options aren’t very appealing. There’s Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, but they split carries for the same team. Similarly, you could choose Ronnie Hillman or C.J. Anderson, but they share the backfield in Denver. Jonathan Stewart probably isn’t putting up a huge day on the Seattle run defense. And Eddie Lacy might not get a ton of opportunities if Arizona forces the Packers to play from behind and try to match their quick-striking offense all day. There are no other options on the board. Go with Johnson.

Tom Brady total pass attempts

The Pick: Over 41.5 (-115)

Tom Brady total completions

The Pick: Over 25 (-115)

Tom Brady total passing yards

The Pick: Over 290.5 (-115)

Get it all out there, folks. If you think the Patriots are going to win or even play a halfway decent offensive game, every one of these Brady props should hit. If you’d rather not spread your money out on all three but instead bet bigger on just one of them, I’d go with over 25 completions.

Will Tom Brady throw an interception?

The Pick: Yes (-145)

It makes sense that a guy who’s asked to throw the ball as much as he does every postseason would end up with a lot of interceptions. Brady has thrown at least one interception in four straight playoff games and eight of his last 10 postseason games going back to the 2011-12 season.

After the Divisional Round, we only have three football games remaining. If you’re trying to make money, the time is now.

Enjoy the Divisional Round.

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